Berkeley has a long history of environmental activism. The city’s environmentalists have not only taken important local action, but have also made significant contributions to the development of the national and international environmental movement. This remarkably productive history is the subject of the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum’s next exhibit, “Eco-Berkeley: A Legacy of Environmental Activism,” opening Saturday, October 22, with a preview on October 21 from 4 to 6 pm.
The exhibit provides a timeline stretching back to even before Berkeley residents worked with John Muir to form the Sierra Club in 1892. The timeline also covers examples of early twentieth-century activism, including the establishment of the East Bay Regional Park District in 1934.
But the exhibit focuses on the evolution of the modern environmental movement since the 1950s. David Brower, a lifetime Berkeley resident, was a crucial figure in that story. As leader of the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute, he played a major role in the transformation of the often elitist and occasionally racist old conservation movement into a powerful progressive force in modern life.
Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick, three formidable Berkeley women, were also important participants in the story, creating the Save the Bay movement in 1961. It was one of the most successful environmental campaigns in American history, dramatically changing the relationship between San Francisco Bay and its surrounding human communities. Save the Bay was also one of the first examples of an environmental organization that concentrated on the complex ecology of densely populated metropolitan regions, rather than the traditional emphasis on rural lands and wild places.
Berkeley residents Richard Register and Carl Anthony were two other important change agents. Register was an early urban ecologist, starting the Berkeley-based Ecocity movement that advocated rebuilding cities on an environmentally sustainable basis. Anthony was one of the most prominent pioneers of the environmental justice movement, combining environmental activism with a commitment to social justice in organizations like Urban Habitat, also founded in Berkeley.
For a half century, the Berkeley Ecology Center has been a hub of environmental activity. It has successfully advocated for important city initiatives, including the establishment of community-wide recycling. Berkeley was the first city in the nation to outlaw styrofoam containers in restaurants and natural gas appliances in new homes. In recent years, the city has embarked on ambitious efforts to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions as part of the campaign to combat the existential threat of climate change.
The exhibit will also touch on the ideas of author and publisher Malcolm Margolin and architect Sim Van Der Ryn and his colleagues at Integral House, as well as the careers of Nancy Skinner and Helen Burke, environmentalists who were elected to public office.
The subject of Berkeley environmental activism is so vast that the exhibit can only skim the surface. But even in that form it is a story very much worth telling, one that combines past, present, and future in ways that affect all our lives.
The exhibit will be open, admission free, Thursday through Saturday 1 to 4 pm, from October 22, 2022 through April 8, 2023.