Environmentalism at Wesleyan in the 1970's

by Roger Smith

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Conclusion

2.  The Rise of General Purpose Environmentalism


            The next significant event in environmentalism at Wesleyan occurred when Steve Mark Zenke, a graduate student in biology, formed the Committee for Environmental Awareness (CEA) in 1973.  The CEA was a general interest environmental groups and lasted almost until the end of the decade.  The CEA was a loose coalition which addressed a multitude of issues and the organization's structure reflected the beliefs and interests of its members.  Jody Segal had become acutely aware of environmental issues from living in Washington D.C., as Earth Day, while hyped out of proportion to any changes it actually made, did bring the environment into politics.  Then, in the summer of 1972, she lived on a farm in France, which was a first-hand experience of production and consumption, cutting through the abstractions of modern life.  Segal was probably the most prolific letter writer to the Argus in 1973/4, writing about the effects of Wesleyan students on the environment, from Wesleyan's red smokestack by North College, which burned the least refined oil available (it was torn down the following year), to recycling, to problems of population growth and overconsumption.[1]  Another main member, Jack Gray '77 also had broad-ranging interests in environmental issues.  Gray had been involved in environmental projects as a high school student in Oregon, and came to Wesleyan interested in the science program.  His interests were in solving some of the many environmental problems on campus and in making logical connections between different issues that affected the environment and presented them as a unified whole.[2]  The interests and philosophy of these students often stood in contrast with their academic work in science at Wesleyan. 

The Earth and Environmental Sciences (E&ES) department was also created in 1973 to broaden the scope of earth sciences at Wesleyan beyond the existing Geology department.  In a time of general financial trouble, the Geology department, which only had three or four majors at any time, was vulnerable to budget cuts.  For these reasons, along with the recent completion of the Science Center, professors like Gregory Horne decided to create E&ES to (in his words) "tie together several disciplines which are now diffused and scattered at Wesleyan," and to "point to an interaction between environmental science and social science."[3]  These changes made science at Wesleyan attractive to student environmentalists.  However, even as the department was being proposed in the spring of 1973, the professors explicitly distanced E&ES from political environmentalism, emphasizing the lack of relation between their proposal and current events, and defending their new department as being outside of trends and fads.[4]  Ultimately, this separation between what science majors learned in the class room, and what they felt they need to know to be effective in improving the state of the environment after college led them to join extracurricular environmental organizations like the CEA.[5]  With few exceptions, science professors were uninvolved with local and campus environmental issues, except when paid to do research,[6] as they were interested in academia and not advocacy.[7]

            The CEA applied for its first budget in the fall of 1973, and planned activities dealing with an eclectic mix of issues ranging from wilderness protection to the energy crisis, to controversy over nuclear energy.[8]  As the CEA only had 10 or 15 active members, education on these topics was limited to an occasional letter in the Argus, films, and panels on one of the issues.  The CEA's main project soon became the publicizing the recycling program in Middletown and tentatively working towards a recycling program at Wesleyan.  As a key member, Jody Segal '77 remembered, she and Zenke were appalled by the volume of garbage that was thrown away that could be recycled, and the waste of energy and resources this represented.  Middletown had just created a recycling center where residents could drop off recyclable goods.[9]  The CEA helped publicize this in Middletown, distributing information door to door to an estimated 3000 homes, and as accomplishing this took a considerable amount of time, they had few other projects their first year.[10] 

An atypical environmental campaign occurred in the fall of 1973, when the Argus broke the story that Wesleyan was logging Great Hollow, a property donated to the university in 1969.  Walter Gordon Meritt had willed 24 square miles of forest to the university as a wildlife preserve, to be used "for scientific and educational purposes."[11]  Campus planner Nils Frederikson had hired a forest consultant who, in the tradition of multiple-use conservationism, had suggested selective logging to let in more rain and light and encourage the health of the forest.  This was the alternative to leaving the forest intact, as "the natural processes take longer and the end result is not as satisfactory."[12] 

            Interestingly, the loudest opponents of this practice were the usually apolitical Outing Club (which had a cabin in New Hampshire and did not use the Meritt Land), and Professor of Biology Vincent Cochrane.  Cochrane criticized the management plan for isolating and cutting down much of the old growth (over 100 years old at that point) wood,[13] and rejected a compromise to keep 168 acres of the area unlogged, calling much of the set aside forest "scrub" that was too narrow and cut by trails to be healthy.[14]  Campus sentiment definitely opposed the logging.  In an Argus article, J. Steven Hollander connected the ongoing energy crisis with the logging in an invented interview with President Colin Campbell:

Hollander: You know, sir, I've noticed that here in your house it feels like the heat is turned up past 80°.  Aren't you a bit warm in your necktie and cardigan sweater?

Campbell:  Yes. I wish I didn't have to always wear this tie and cardigan sweater.  Actually, Steve, the furnace is turned way down.  What's making my house so hot are the fires in the fireplace.  I've got tons of logs to get rid of.[15]

After another two weeks of negotiations, Frederickson decided to listen to the "campus consensus about what to do" and agreed to end all logging on the property.[16]

Over the next few years, environmentalism at Wesleyan began to expand from its initial role as a general educator about humanity's effect on the natural world and became a leader in creating alternative models for both interaction with other people and with the environment.  This worldview borrowed heavily from the philosophy of social ecology, which explored how the structures of society reflect humanity's view of the natural world, and connected man's treatment of his fellow man with his treatment of the environment.[17]  The CEA expanded the campus recycling program, worked on the relation between food an the environment, and in 1976, brought all of these aspects of environmental though under one roof (literally) with the creation of Ecology House. 

            Recycling is one of the simplest was for humans to reduce their impact on the environment.  Ideally, recycling materials reduces the amount of raw materials consumed, saves energy used for refining such materials, and reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators.  However, none of these benefits of recycling are readily apparent to the potential recycler, and result in little to no direct benefit for this person.  Consequently, promoters of recycling have had to appeal to the goodwill and sense of responsibility of the general population.  Wesleyan students (and students in general) are receptive to environmental issues, with recycling being particularly noncontroversial.  In this way, recycling, while really only mitigating the effects of consumer society, served as a gateway into environmental thought and its ultimate goal of sustainability. 

At the outset, the environmentalists were treated with indifference by the university's Physical Plant.  The Physical Plant had a mandate to maintain the campus and facilities in a a cost-effective manner, and treated environmental concerns as distractions.  Physical Plant did make the campus more environmentally friendly, at least in terms of energy use, as it worked towards better insulation and increased energy conservation during the energy crisis, and built the more efficient William Street oil-burning power plant at roughly the same time (it was completed in 1974).  Of course, these changes brought the university into compliance with the Clean Air Act, and also saved the school about $150,000 by 1975.[18]  Recycling did not offer these immediate benefits, and Physical Plant felt no compulsion to promote it.

The CEA began Wesleyan's recycling program by getting permission to place bins for glass, cans and newspaper outside of living areas around campus.[19]  It was then the responsibility of the CEA to transport these goods to the Middletown Recycling Center.  By 1976, the CEA had begun to expand the program and created recycling drop-off points within residence halls.  Unfortunately, this nearly led to the complete cancellation of the program in 1977.  The administration, custodians, and the fire department criticized the program for creating an unsafe situation within the residence halls.  The CEA was fairly successful in getting students to set aside their recyclable goods to the point where the uncollected goods became a safety hazard.  As reported in the Argus in the fall of 1977, "Due to mishaps within the C.E.A. organization and thoughtless behavior on the parts of some students, hallways often became overrun with trash, thus causing both health and fire hazards."[20]  While recycling was a cornerstone of campus environmentalists' efforts to connect the action of students with effects on the environment, waste management and removal simply proved to be too large a responsibility to be efficiently managed by full-time students.  Eventually, Physical Plant would take over responsibility for collecting recycled goods, but to this day the program remains underutilized and disappointing to Wesleyan's environmental group.

The CEA's other main issue related to food and agriculture.  Food was an environmental issue because the large monoculture plots favored by agricultural corporations required large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to remain productive, and both of these products caused pollution.  Additionally, many of the crops grown in this manner were for consumption by livestock, so "eating lower on the food chain" and avoiding meat could result in worldwide surpluses of food and possibly prevent famine.[21]  Many members of the CEA helped run the Good Harvest food cooperative in Middletown, which offered high-quality vegetarian food for both Middletown and Wesleyan residents.[22]  As many students frequented Good Harvest, food issues provide yet another gateway into the environmental community at Wesleyan.

The foundation of Ecology House in the fall of 1975 gave the most dedicated environmentalists a place to live in accordance with their ideals.  Jack Gray, who had been instrumental in keeping issues like recycling, food, and energy united under the CEA, and who also helped maintain the CEA's connection to Middletown, took the initiative to form the Ecology special interest house with other members of the CEA.  Ecology House would become one of the first of these program houses on campus.[23]  A two year resident of the house, and College of Science in Society (CSiS) major, Amanda Hardy '80, described it as an "intentional community" interested in creating an alternative social lifestyle.  It was infused with the principles of social ecology, and also by egalitarian values of the rising feminist movement.[24]  The Ecology House, as described in its budget request, was a placed "where the day-to-day details of an environmentally concerned lifestyle can be worked out" as well as a place to support "a philosophy of community and human values as opposed to one based on concern for material goods."[25]  Ecology House provided a space to connect political action with the culture and philosophy of environmentalism.

The students living in Ecology House toiled to remain at the cutting edge of environmentally conscious lifestyles so as to be models for the community.  Amanda Hardy remembered some of the little things house members did to reduce their impact.  House members built a Solar Greenhouse[26] to grow vegetables year-round and complement their large, but seasonal, outdoor garden.  Each week members trekked from their house at 69 High street to the Good Harvest Co-op on Main Street by foot or bike, so as not to waste energy on transportation, and filled up reusable containers with food.[27]  In 1977, they began to work on reducing the energy use of Ecology House, installing special insulating shades for all the windows.[28]  The Ecology House's first and best known project, the Clivus Multrum composting toilet, still elicits giggles when mentioned to Wesleyan students.  The toilet represented the ultimate in recycling, turning waste into a usable product, and proved to be one of the house's biggest attractions.  School groups and neighbors went through Ecology House on tours.  Unfortunately, the toilet did not function as well as the planners hoped, as they had spend a considerable amount of time excavating the basement with pick-axes in order to install it.  It often needed maintenance and tended to attract fruit flies.[29]  The toilet would not outlive Ecology House.

As the CEA began to wilt in the shadow of the growing anti-nuclear power movement in 1976 and 77, the Ecology House became the center for environmentalism at Wesleyan.  Groups like the CEA, the Nuclear Resistance Group (formed in fall of 1977), and Good Harvest met in the Ecology House, and students from CSiS courses used materials from the Eco House's mini-library.[30]  The amount of time required to live on the cutting-edge of sustainability, and the fact that many of the CEA's members were also members of the Ecology House probably detracted from the CEA's strength as an organization.  By 1978/9, ConnPIRG, led by Eco House member Amanda Hardy, replaced the CEA as a general purpose environmental organization, but suffered from the same problems and insufficient funding, and died after two years.

One of the last big events to take place on campus concerning non-nuclear environmental action occurred on April 2, 1977.  Ecology House and CEA members, including Gary Friedmann '77 and Jack Gray, worked with the anti-nuclear activists Laura Gibbons, Arnie Alpert, as well as CSiS, the Wesleyan Food Project, and other organizations to plan a fair called ECOS: Strategies for Social Ecology.  The theme of the day long fair was simply to demonstrate "Alternatives to present living styles, technologies, and social relationships."[31]  As the planners of the next ECOS Fair in 1981 remembered, "Mark Roseland, then a junior in the College of Science in Society, planned and executed the first ECOS Fair, as an outgrowth of his thesis entitled Social Ecology… to explore the social roots of our ecological crisis.  This crisis can not be resolved simply by not littering, or by inventing new technologies to try to solve the problem.  Instead, the roots, social and historic, need to be examined and critiqued."[32]  The fair brought together students for lectures and workshops on nonviolence, food distribution, population, alternative energy, and nonviolent action.  Murray Bookchin, a well-known socialist and founder of the philosophy of Social Ecology, gave a keynote speech at MoConaughy Hall.[33]  The fair also prompted the Hermes to devote an entire issue to Social Ecology, and it featured articles like Roseland's "Whatever Happened to Earth Day" which critiqued the current state of the environmental movement, calling for a more holistic approach to social change.[34]  Laura Gibbons '78, active on feminist, anti-nuclear, and alternative energy issues, remembered ECOS as highlighting the connections between environmentalism, anti-war activism, and feminist issues.[35]  While ECOS was a memorable event for those already in the environmental community, it was the nuclear protests of late April that would capture the attention of the entire community.


Part 3: The Nuclear Juggernaut


[1] Jody Segal, interview.

[2] Jack Gray, telephone interview by author, 4 December, 1999.

[3] "Environmental Science Dept. Urged in Horne Proposal to Senate," Wesleyan Argus, 16 Mar, 1973.

[4] Alphonsus J. Mitchell, "A Change in Environment," Wesleyan University Alumnus, May 1977, 14,15.

[5] Caroline Norden, telephone interview by author, December 1999.

[6] Northeast Utilities (NU) did fund research by Wesleyan professors on Connecticut Yankee's (a nearby nuclear plant) impacts on the Connecticut River (Mitchell 15) and Horne was paid by the CT DEP to research the viability of building a  landfill within 900 feet of the river in Glastonbury.  Horne publicly criticized the landfill proposal.  "E&ES Professors Work to Prevent Glastonbury landfill," Wesleyan Argus, 27 Feb, 1976.

[7] David Boeri, telephone interview by author, 16 November 1999.

[8] "Request for Funding by the Committee for Environmental Awareness 1983," in Anti-Nuclear Protests at Wesleyan Collection, 1970-1980, Wesleyan University Archives.

[9] Jody Segal, telephone interview by author, 2 December 1999.

[10] Jody Segal, "Recycling at Wesleyan," Letter to the Editor, Wesleyan Argus, 13 Nov 1973, 2.

[11] "Wesleyan Secretly Logs Wildlife Preserve," Wesleyan Argus 9 November 1973, 1.

[12] Quoted from a letter by the consultant to the University.  "Compromise Offered on Logging; Will Set Aside a Natural Area," Wesleyan Argus, 16 November 1973, 1.

[13] "Wesleyan Secretly Logs Wildlife Preserve," Wesleyan Argus 9 November 1973, 1.

[14] "Compromise Offered on Logging; Will Set Aside a Natural Area," Wesleyan Argus, 16 November 1973, 1.

[15] J. Steven Hollander, "Energy Crisis at Wesleyan," Wesleyan Argus, 30 November 1973, 8.

[16] Chris Mahoney, ”All Logging will be Halted as Cochrane Plan Accepted," Wesleyan Argus, 4 December 1973, 1.

[17] Janet Biehl, "Overview of Social Ecology," available from http://homepages.together.net/~jbiehl/overview.htm

[18] "Electricity and Fuel Oil Cut; 150G Saved," Wesleyan Argus, 18 April 1975, 2.

[19] CEA, "Blurb," 7 February 1975, Vol. 2, no.1.

[20] Jan Luxenberg, "Recycling Efforts Underway," Wesleyan Argus, 14 October 1977, 7.

[21] Jody Segal, telephone interview by author, 2 December 1999.

[22] Jack Gray, telephone interview by author, 4 December 1999.

[23] Paul Gionfriddo, telephone interview by author, 3 December 1999.

[24] Amanda Hardy, telephone interview by author, 18 December 1999.

[25] "Request for Funding by the Ecology House" 1977/78, Wesleyan University Archives, 1.

[26] The solar greenhouse would never be completely finished but functioned well enough to grow some vegetables.

[28] "Request for Funding by the Ecology House", WSA files 1977/78.

[29] Amanda Hardy, telephone interview by author, 18 December 1999.

[30] "Request for Funding by the Ecology House", WSA files 1977/78.

[31] "An Invitation to ECOS" in the ECOS Fair Budget Folder, WSA files 1977.

[32] Daniel Block and Seth Mirsky, "Second Quadrennial Ecos Fair: Strategies for Social Ecology" Budget Request, 1980/81.

[32] Daniel Block and Seth Mirsky, "Second Quadrennial Ecos Fair: Strategies for Social Ecology" Budget Request, 1980/81.

[33] "An Invitation to ECOS" in the ECOS Fair Budget Folder, WSA files 1977.

[34] Mark Roseland, "Whatever Happened to Earth Day, The Hermes, 31 March 1997, 1.

[35] Laura Gibbons, telephone interview by author, December 1999.