EARTH CLUB: SUSTAINABILITY IN THE VALLEY

Photos by Chrissy Skutnik

Long before James Madison University carved its green niche with environmental stewardship and integrated science and technology, students created their own ways to spread awareness and get involved through EARTH Club

The student group is best known for its annual celebration of Earth Week, which took place this year on February 6-10. Both weeks were filled with free activities including a community bike ride, yoga, deep ecology workshops and other events that were open to all students and the community, promoting sustainability and environmental awareness. Although Earth Week takes place once a year, the members of E.A.R.T.H. Club sustain momentum for green-conscious causes year-round. “Before I joined E.A.R.T.H. Club, I didn’t even consider being a farmer,” Chelsea Biagioli, a sophomore social work major, said. “E.A.R.T.H. Club has changed my perspective on how to have a more environmentally conscious way of life.”

Cycle Share

Cycle Share is a separate JMU club that was developed in EARTH Club. With Cycle Share, JMU students only need their JACard to rent a bike and helmet for two weeks. Tube & Lube complimentary bike adjustments are also provided by Shenandoah Bike Co. at the Cycle Share rentals. Planning for Cycle Share unofficially began in 2007, and was first seriously talked about 3 years ago. Cycle Share opened during the 2010 fall semester. EARTH Club and Cycle Share member Emily Wyman says that it’s a “really exciting process to see [Cycle Share] grow so much in just a year.” Their bike library currently has 19 trek hybrid bikes in 4 different sizes, and there’s a growing popularity and demand; all of the bikes get rented out and members renew every week. Wyman says that “most students are in disbelief that it’s free” to rent a bike. Wyman is excited to have growing membership outside of EARTH Club as well as constant support from EARTH Club. She hopes that some day the university may take Cycle Share over and make renting bikes an option for all students.

Since the national Student Environmental Action Coalition conference formed E.A.R.T.H. Club in 1989, the environmental group at James Madison University focuses on promoting sustainability and community. E.A.R.T.H. (Environmental Awareness and Restoration Through our Help) Club members educate themselves and raise awareness about a variety of environmental issues. The Club itself serves as a space where students can delve into environmental activism through involvement with national campaigns and a catalyst for the creation of on-campus campaigns and related organizations.

Ryan Bowen, a senior philosophy major, first became involved with E.A.R.T.H. Club because he wanted to work with people who are “similarly environmentally conscious.” He plans to pursue a career in environmental advocacy post-graduation, but since fall 2011 he’s been working with E.A.R.T.H. Club to develop a proposal for a Green Fund to submit to JMU’s business administration. The current proposal would add $5 to the cost of tuition and develop a sum of money used specifically for environmental issues.

By April 13 Bowen had collected 616 signatures from students supporting the proposal. The administration’s response will determine how long it could take to implement a Green Fund at JMU. A previous Green Fund proposal was ultimately vetoed for the 2007/2008 school year, despite the Student Government Association passing a bill of opinion and referendum.

Money from a Green Fund can be used in several different ways. The Green Fund in place at William and Mary has provided bottle refill stations and a community garden, and Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia are attempting to establish their own Green Funds. Proposed uses include weatherizing buildings to increase energy efficiency, providing on-site renewable energy with wind turbines or solar panels, and for educational purposes and campaigns.

Bowen’s additional focus is on the structural and organizational development within the club. He wants to make sure that the way that E.A.R.T.H. does things is sustainable and effective, and that people are empowered in their experience. “Through my work with E.A.R.T.H. Club, I’ve learned to be patient with the process of social change and with individual people realizing such,” Bowen said. “In order to create change, it requires patience.” Other grassroots organizations that E.A.R.T.H. Club has supported include Mountain Justice, dedicated to abolishing mountaintop removal and focused specifically in the Appalachia coalfields. Members of E.A.R.T.H. Clurcb have annually attended Mountain Justice Spring Break and Mountain Justice Summer, which are week-long training camps in West Virginia that further educate about the detrimental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Power Shift is an annual national conference that E.A.R.T.H. Club has attended in Washington, D.C., lobbying for cleaner energy and turning away from reliance on fossil fuels. Speakers at past Power Shifts include Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. On campus, E.A.R.T.H. Club has sponsored environmental documentary screenings and hosted speakers like the Beehive Design Collective. E.A.R.T.H. held the sixth Festival Fest, an all-day free music and sustainability awareness festival, on JMU’s Festival Lawn on April 21. E.A.R.T.H. Club also organizes an annual “Alley Cat” themed scavenger hunt bike race to promote the use of alternative transportation. For similar reasons, E.A.R.T.H. also started “No Drive Day,” a day when students are encouraged to walk, bike, or skateboard to class rather than drive to campus. In 2006, E.A.R.T.H. Club members joined with other clubs in favor of clean energy to form the Clean Energy Coalition. The Clean Energy Coalition’s main goal was for JMU to move toward clean energy and reduce its carbon footprint. In 2008, that goal was officially realized when President Linwood H. Rose signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. A direct on-campus result of that commitment was the formation of the JMU Institute for Stewardship of the Natural World, which proposes steps the university can take to become more sustainable.

Also in 2008, E.A.R.T.H. Club becoming one of 10 JMU organizations deemed so significant to the university that they must be budgeted front end. JMU class of 2009 anthropology alumni Marley Green stresses that it is important for everyone to recognize the power of students, and said there should be more students in decision-making roles at JMU. Green says that students organized and built a movement to say “this is important to us,” and they raised awareness and achieved their goals.

The Clean Energy Coalition started and ran the Village Green Wars in 2009, promoting energy conservation through a rivalry among the residents in the village dorms of JMU. After tallying weekly energy and water use, the dorm that used the least won a prize. The Clean Energy Coalition also co-organized JMU’s RecycleMania, a national waste reduction competition between universities striving to be the least wasteful. The Clean Energy Coalition also won a $1,000 eco-grant from MTV’s 2006 national Break the Addiction Challenge for their promotion of clean energy.

E.A.R.T.H. Club has a unique dynamic that provides support for environmental students to further delve into their specific passions concerning sustainability. JMU 2011 alumni Alex Davenport hopes to pursue a master’s degree in environmental advocacy and strives to bridge the gap between social and environmental justice. “E.A.R.T.H. Club introduced me to a world that I’d read about in my [Justice Studies] major, and knew the principles of, but hadn’t yet seen and experienced,” Davenport said. As a member of E.A.R.T.H. Club, he met people who he never would have otherwise, and made the most of opportunities. He worked closely with West Virginia environmental activist Judy Bonds, who earned the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003 for her work to end mountaintop removal, and is featured in the 2007 documentary “Mountaintop Removal.” Through his involvement with EARTH Club he invited her to speak at JMU several times.

Davenport says that one of the great things about E.A.R.T.H. Club is that there is a “steady evolution to it because it is consensus based and non-hierarchal,” because there are no official leadership positions but everyone is encouraged to participate on all levels. As new members join and others graduate, the specific environmental focus changes to reflect new interests.

Olivia Merrion, a junior media arts and design major, recently co-directed a documentary with fellow E.A.R.T.H. Club member John Picklap, who is also a junior media arts and design major. Their documentary, The Farm Course, followed students enrolled in the JMU farm internship program and supplemented information about small scale local farms. The Farm Course discusses the American food system, and on a more local level, the impact of various cultivation styles found near Harrisonburg.

“Whatever I end up doing in the future, I hope that I keep an environmental focus,” Merrion said. Merrion describes herself as passionate about environmental justice in general, and wants to “weave [her] passion for environment and social justice into the documentary framework to expose social injustice.” Merrion said that E.A.R.T.H. Club provides a real atmosphere of family and community with.

“[We’re] marginalized as hippie radicals, but that’s really not the case,” Merrion said. “We definitely fill the spectrum of types of people because of [E.A.R.T.H.] non-hierarchal structure. There’s a very accepting feel, and very minimal judgment.”