Ecology Center turns 40, celebrates milestone with talk by environmental activist Van Jones
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
With scientists making doomsday predictions about carbon emissions and global warming, and global warming doubters calling those predictions a myth, it’s enough to get an environmentalist down.
But Mike Garfield, the director of the Ecology Center, a membership-based nonprofit environmental organization in Ann Arbor, isn't pessimistic.
“I now think the best hope for positive action to address climate change is going to happen at the local level,” Garfield said.
With its heart in Ann Arbor but its eyes on the state and nation, the organization born out of the country’s first Earth Day in 1970 has tried to do just that. And its ecological bender has gone on for 40 years.
The original call for action has grown into an $8 million a year non-profit parent that employs 70 people. The largest part of the Ecology Center machine is Recycle Ann Arbor, an affiliate that operates on a roughly $4 million budget, Garfield said. It has its own history, starting with a couple of activists and a truck driving from home to home to collect recyclables in 1977. The group joined forces with the Ecology Center in 1981. It has a city contract for curbside recycling.
This week, the non-profit eco-parent wants to kick up its Birkenstocks as it marks its anniversary, and raise money and awareness, too.
The Ecology Center has invited Van Jones, a giant in the green jobs arena, to come and speak on Wednesday at the Michigan League, 991 North University Ave. in Ann Arbor. The event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $75 for Ecology Center members and $100 for non-members.
Time Magazine named Van Jones, a human and environmental rights activist, one of the most 100 influential people in 2009 for his efforts toward building an environmentally friendly, sustainable economy.
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Ecology Center initiatives and affiliates are funded with a combination of local and state dollars, private donations and membership fees. Although some parts of the operation, like the ReUse Center, located at 2420 S. Industrial and run by Recycle Ann Arbor, support themselves.
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, a long-time Ecology Center supporter and environmentalist, said the group has had a hand in a number of major movements locally, and more recently, around the state and nation. Hieftje served as chairman of the Recycle Ann Arbor board of directors from 1989 to 1990.
“The Ecology Center has been involved not only on a grass-roots level, but also as researchers, as advocates and as an environmental conscience in the community for 40 years,” said Hieftje,.
In the 1990s, environmentalists in the area grew worried about what they perceived to be urban sprawl encroaching on thousands of acres of county farmland. As a result, they worked for passage of new taxes to raise money for land preservation.
“They were a real base for the campaign,” Hieftje said of the Ecology Center, which has an office at 117 N. Division St. “They worked with other environmental groups as well, and really helped to make it happen.”
In Washtenaw County 64 percent of voters signed on to pay for the Natural Areas Preservation Program in the November 2000 election, and for another decade this month. Then in 2003, voters in Ann Arbor agreed to fund the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program for more than 30 years to patch together a band of green space in townships surrounding the city.
Seven years later, the green space looks more like a mushroom than a belt, but it’s getting there, Hieftje said.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
A more recent Ecology Center project with wide national appeal is HealthyStuff.org. The product testing initiative with a user-friendly website and database has captured national attention in its efforts to find and publicize toxic chemicals found in everyday products, like toys, apparel, tools and cars.
Where is the lab Ecology Center uses to do the testing?
“It’s not a lab,” Garfield said. It’s a device the size of a DustBuster that can pick out cadmium, lead and mercury and other toxic materials from objects people use every day.
Garfield, who has headed the Ecology Center since 1993, thinks the future of environmentalism lies in the little things. A person who can’t afford fancy solar panels probably can afford a front yard vegetable garden, an idea being promoted under the group’s Ann Arbor 350 project. Local foods reduce carbon emissions from the distance food has to travel, Garfield said.
“That inspired us to start Ann Arbor 350,” Garfield said.
Scientists say 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the planet's atmosphere, and the organization seeks to inspire action that will keep the level from climbing above that.
On Oct. 10, the group partnered with gardening activism groups, Ann Arbor’s Project Grow Community Gardens and Ypsilanti’s Growing Hope to host its Garden Challenge to encourage people to start their own gardens.
In a west side front yard, two raised garden beds sit, anticipating spring, with an Ann Arbor 350 Garden Challenge sign planted nearby. So far, dozens of individuals, schools and businesses have pledged to follow suit.
For more information on the Ecology Center fundraiser, visit www.ecocenter.org or call (734) 761-3186.