The Ecology Center celebrates forty

The beginning years were rocky, the middle like the craters of the moon, but forty years after its founding and receiving nonprofit status, Berkeley’s Ecology Center, the first such in the nation, is as dynamic as ever. During tumultuous times and lean pickings, the Ecology Center always stuck to its mission of giving people the ability to affect their own environments: through recycling, eating healthy local foods, providing a one-stop shop for tools, books, and information, offering a center where one could network with activists of many interests or even find an umbrella to shelter one’s own nonprofit venture.

Nobody would be more surprised by this feat of survival and service than Rob Martin and George Kohl,
cofounders of a short-lived ‘70s St. Louis experiment called Environmental Response. After their own organization broke apart on the shoals of burnout and identity crisis, the two men conducted a survey of these new-fangled local service organizations meant to help heal the earth. During
the months surrounding the first Earth Day in 1970, eighteen environmental centers emerged, and Martin and Kohl examined eight of these, including Berkeley’s, founded in May 1969. The survey they issued in April 1973 is called “The Goddamned Report,” and it’s interesting reading nearly forty years later, not least because some of the challenges they identify remain true today.

The idea behind ecology centers (during the ‘70s and ‘80s, 44 centers would be founded across the nation) was to offer information and education rather than partisan politics. The centers would provide meeting space and networking to specific-issue action groups and to the public at large, serving as a community resource and library combined. A switchboard would answer informational
calls, like-minded people could meet each other in a comfortable environment, and activists could research answers to burning questions that would provoke cries for environmental reform. As Martin and Kohl wrote, “the Ecology Center concept was clearly a product of movement-oriented thinking,” with committed, passionate people kindling concern for the environment in communities that welcomed the center’s presence, responding with money and volunteers.

Yet exhausted staffers, lack of direction and concrete goals, and disappointment over lack of support characterized many centers in the early years. Only three years after the first Earth Day, “The Goddamned Report” pronounced the ecology movement dead, the concept of coordinating organizations obsolete, and criticized an attempt at a multi-service approach. Of their own experience in St. Louis, Martin and Kohl wrote: “A few remained, continued the fight (for that is what it was) but the two of us left. Gradually. At first it was our spirit that turned on us, and then our minds. We stepped back, as if out of a furious athletic contest, and climbed into the bleachers from where we began to see, so plainly, the errors we had been making all this time.” The authors advocated dropping the name “ecology center,” closing down the centers, and regrouping to adopt a couple of carefully chosen goals to fight entrenched industry and government interests. This, they said, would be the second phase of environmentalism.

Like Time magazine’s “God Is Dead” cover, the movement’s obit proved premature. Sometimes you just have to wait for others to catch up. What Martin and Kohl labeled unattainable is what Berkeley’s Ecology Center has accomplished over its decades of service: “Notions of broad-spectrum organizing, “ wrote Martin and Kohl of the center concept, “of involvement on all levels of community power structure; of financial support from a committed citizenry; of a wide variety of
activities and services; of trouble-shooting and educating and organizing and researching and publishing all done simultaneously. They are dreams now, not realities.”

Debates about the efficacy of spectrum-based vs. issue-specific focuses persist, as do questions of how to assign priorities and fund vital programs. Yet today the Ecology Center continues to fulfill its original mission of providing the public with reliable information, hands-on training, and models for sustainable living. Programs include Berkeley’s residential curbside recycling, the Berkeley farmers’ markets, the Farm Fresh Choice food justice program, the EcoHouse demonstration home and garden, the Ecology Center store, a library and information center, classes and climate change action groups, and this magazine. The Ecology Center also sponsors nine other nonprofits, such as the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and the Indigenous Permaculture Project, and puts on an annual summit to showcase Berkeley sustainability programs and initiatives.

Which goes to show that it takes dreamers as well as pragmatists to change the world.

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