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The modern environmental movement has roots in A2 where the Ecology Center celebrates its 51st year

Ecology Center
The Ecology Center

Founded in 1970 after the very first Earth Day, Ann Arbor's Ecology Center has focused on making many improvements to the environment.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with the Ecology Center's executive director, Michael Garfield, about the many environmental improvements that have been made during that time period and the many others they are still working to address.


Lisa Barry: Concerns about climate change and the environment are very important to many people, especially in Washtenaw County. This is Lisa Barry, and thanks to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, there's been much movement to combat and, in many cases, improve those troubling environmental concerns. And we're joined now by the executive director of the Ecology Center, Michael Garfield, to talk more about that. Hi, Michael, thanks for talking to us.

Michael Garfield
Credit Michael Garfield / The Ecology Center
The Ecology Center
Michael Garfield, executive director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

Michael Garfield: Hi, Lisa. Thanks for having me. 

Lisa Barry: The Ecology Center is celebrating its 51st anniversary this year, sometimes seen as the beginnings of the modern environmental movement. Tell us a bit about your history. 

Michael Garfield: Well, Lisa, the Ecology Center was founded in 1970 after the very first Earth Day. At that time, people were responding in the United States to all sorts of very visible problems. Rivers were catching on fire, most notably the Cuyahoga in Cleveland. But the Rouge River caught fire in Detroit. Other rivers caught fire across the United States. Smog was choking cities. Social movements were addressing all sorts of issues in the day, and, likewise, people rose up to address environmental problems back then. And in 1970, the first Earth Day was organized all around the country to protest these problems. And in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the organizers decided they were going to hold their teach-in early. They held it in March of 1970, a month before everything else was happening around the country, and it turned out to be the forerunner of all of the Earth Days that happened since and became a huge national event with some of the biggest names speakers around at the time. And when the organizers were done, they decided they wanted to keep the spirit of the moment alive, and they founded an organization that's come to be known as the Ecology Center. 

Lisa Barry: And that's been five decades. Do you feel like you've had an impact and you're seeing improvements with the environment, despite all these challenges these past several decades? 

Michael Garfield: I think that, around the world, in the United States and around the world, many of the most visible environmental problems have been addressed pretty well. Those issues of our rivers catching on fire and smog choking cities in the United States and Europe, some other parts of the world, we have addressed those problems really well. Here in Washtenaw County and in Michigan, the Ecology Center's work has created the first recycling program in the country, created protections for workers and communities from toxic chemicals. We've shut down incinerators and made a whole lot of changes that are better for the environment. But what's changed and not for the better, is that we're now more aware than ever that so many problems that are not visible problems of toxic chemicals, the problem of the climate crisis, and many other things that are extremely damaging to human health and to our existence as a civilization, they have not been addressed at all. And there's a whole lot of work left to do. 

Lisa Barry: That said, however, you said the word "problem" several times, but is there is a reason for hope in all of this, in your view? 

Michael Garfield: Well, I look at these problems at times and think, "Are we acting fast enough? Can we really address what we're looking at?" And I think the problems are daunting, but the possibility is there. And they only get solved--any problem, not just environmental problems--but problems of social justice, racial justice, economic justice, development, they only get solved when people come together and demand action. They only get solved when people speak truth to power. I mean, that's what happened back in the 60s and 70s, when I was talking about people trying to address the environmental problems of the time after that very first Earth Day. All of the great environmental laws in the United States got passed: the Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, all of the major laws that have made substantial progress at cleaning the air and the water in this country. They were passed back then because people rose up and took collective action. That's what gives me hope right now that people will come together and demand action, and we're seeing it all around. I mean, before the pandemic, we saw young people all over the world who were rising up to demand action from us, older folks and people in charge to address the climate crisis with real, meaningful policy and action. And that movement hasn't gone away. It's a little less visible because of COVID, but it's still out there, and there are people mobilizing as we speak. And the Ecology Center as part of that mobilization. People are mobilizing to take action and to give us all a livable future. 

Lisa Barry: You mentioned the pandemic, which is still ongoing, and we have learned a lot about humanity and our health and lots of different areas from that. But I also think it pointed out the disproportionality between people who got the virus or didn't get the virus or had opportunities to avoid the virus. And I'm wondering if that's a same perspective you can apply to the environment as well. 

Michael Garfield: I'm really glad that you brought that up. We did learn through the pandemic that the virus affects people of color and people in low income communities far worse than it affects people in affluent communities that the communities with compromised, with poor air quality and people already suffering the impacts of air pollution, poor water, poor water systems, they suffer worse from the virus. That's so true of environmental problems. And, interestingly, some of the early research on the connection between environmental problems and disproportionate burden on people of color was done right here in Washtenaw County. Research at the University of Michigan, done by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, was some of the first to document how toxic waste sites around Michigan and around the country disproportionately burdened communities of color. And we know today through so many examples of pollution and burden that environmental problems affect people of color and low income communities first and worst. You see that in the levels of air pollution in Detroit, you see that in the Flint water crisis, you see that in the way toxic pollution is exported to Asia and Africa and to the global south. You see how the climate the climate crisis affects the global south far more than it's affecting the United States and Europe. And you can see it within the United States how the floods and climate disasters that we're experiencing in this country are affecting African-American communities, other communities of color throughout the United States and right here in Michigan. Yes, it's true. Environmental problems are also a problem, an issue of justice. And we've got to keep that in mind as we're trying to find solutions. 

Lisa Barry: Something that doesn't get discussed a lot, would you say? 

Michael Garfield: It doesn't get discussed enough, and it doesn't get discussed enough in policy circles where we're developing solutions, but I think that's changing. And I hope it changes for the better. There is all sorts of research that has happened in that particular space, which is helping develop policy solutions that address environmental justice problems in Michigan and around the United States. The state of Michigan has established a climate justice brain trust to advise the administration's climate plans. The Biden administration has created climate justice initiatives within the Department of Energy and within the White House, which are trying to elevate these issues in important ways. And there are activists around the United States and around the world that are also making efforts, taking pains to address environmental injustice and climate injustice in effective ways. 

Lisa Barry: I hesitate to go from such a serious, important subject to a little something a little more lighthearted. Happy fifty-first anniversary to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, 51st. You're celebrating this year? 

Michael Garfield: Well, we tried to celebrate last year, but you know, once the pandemic got started, we thought there are more important things to focus on. But we're taking a moment. We're taking a moment this year to reflect and observe our anniversary and to think about all the accomplishments of our organization and of the modern environmental movement over the years, and also to get ready for the work ahead. So yes, we're celebrating. We're celebrating this year, the 51st anniversary of the Ecology Center and of the modern environmental movement. 

Lisa Barry: And because of the continuing pandemic, you're doing it online, but people can log in and participate? 

Michael Garfield: Yes, they can. There's information at Eco Center Dot O-R-G, and our event is on Thursday, October 28th at Six O'Clock. 

Lisa Barry: Michael Garfield, executive director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. Happy anniversary, and thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us here in 89-1 WEMU. 

Michael Garfield: Thank you so much, Lisa, for taking the time to talk with me.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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