Social ecology is an academic discipline that favors a democratic and communal approach to social, political and environmental problems.
Vermont has played a seminal role in the development of this somewhat obscure social science, thanks to the Institute for Social Ecology founded in Plainfield in 1974.
The institute started at Goddard College and operated out of Goddard's 90-acre Cate Farm, which had a brick farmhouse and a huge dairy barn that served as the institute’s lecture hall and fabrication workshop.
The institute’s far flung alumnae recently gathered in Marshfield for a reunion. Co-founder Dan Chodorkoff served as its director when it began in 1974.
“People thought we were kind of crazy back then but the ideas have percolated into the larger society and I think that’s particularly true in Vermont: ideas around de-centralization and ecological forms of food production,” he said.
Alternative energy was also an early focus of the institute.
“They had windmills and solar collectors and organic gardening way before many, many other people did,” recalled Paul McIssac, who taught in Goddard’s community media program back in the late 1970’s.
“The farm gave young people hands on experience with building some of these technologies, then they went off to teach or start companies and so forth,” McIssac said. “It was a very important, seminal institution at that time.”
Many of the institute’s students went on to teach there. Joseph Kiefer earned a masters in social ecology in 1980 and later founded a Vermont non-profit called Foodworks active in gardening and nutrition. When he started his masters in the summer of 1977, there were 120 student in the social ecology program
“At times you had to hold on because it was going really fast. You came there with a certain belief system. You left with a whole new way of thinking,” he said.
That new way of thinking was very much influenced by the institute’s social ecology guru Murray Bookchin, a charismatic political theorist and by all accounts, a brilliant intellectual.
Bookchin passed away in 2006. In an documentary in progress by his son Joseph, Bookchin recalled his early influence on the environmental movement.
“I was one of the earliest advocates of the need for solar energy, of the need for wind power and the like. These views had not yet been advanced that I know of in the ecology movement,” he said in an interview. “There was, in fact, no ecology movement to speak of at that point. An environmental movement, yes, but people didn’t even know what the word ecology meant.”
Bookchin was so far ahead of his time that in 1964 he warned of global warming. In 1962, his book “Our Synthetic Environment” was published six months before Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental classic “Silent Spring.”
Grace Gershuny worked for the Northeast Organic Farming Association and helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture establish standards for organic food. In the mid-1980s she taught bio-regional agriculture at the Institute for Social Ecology. Gershuny now teaches in the sustainable food systems program for Green Mountain College.
“It blows my mind that in 1962 Bookchin was writing this stuff. I now assign a chapter from “Our Synthetic Environment” for my students to learn about the history of sustainable agriculture theory,” she said.
And just as Murray Bookchin was ahead of his time on an array of environmental and political issues, so, too, has the institute been prescient in some areas of public policy.
Nine years before Vermont passed legislation requiring labeling of genetically modified foods, students and faculty at the Institute for Social Ecology were agitating against GMO foods.
Among the 50 people who gathered in Marshfield for the reunion was Chaia Heller, who joined the institute’s faculty in 1985 and taught a course on feminism and ecology. Heller has also taught anthropology at Mt. Holyoke College.
Her doctoral dissertation focused on a French union that created a moratorium on genetically modified foods in France. She says the social ecology community is like a family to her and she particularly cherishes what she calls the institute’s “revolutionary utopian” vision.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done in the academy without social ecology because I was able to kind of position myself and not get de-politicized like a lot of people do,” she said.
No one will accuse the Institute for Social Ecology of being apolitical. From its involvement in the anti-nuclear movement in the mid-1970s to more recent affiliations with the anti-globalization, Occupy Wall Street and climate justice movements of the 21st Century, the institute has embraced activism as part of its mission.
“I think we’ve always seen our role as one of educating other educators and activists,” said co-founder Dan Chordokoff. “And as a place which was involved in praxis, really trying to take the ideas and see how they can be applied in the world. And invariably, inevitably that’s led to involvement in a number of ecologically oriented social movements over the years.”