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BERKELEY'S NEWS • JANUARY 19, 2023

Year! Review! Read our 2022 Year in Retrospect Issue!

History of ecology from worldwide, local perspectives

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ENRIQUE LOPEZ | STAFF

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JULY 25, 2022

Anthropologists have traced human-induced animal and plant extinctions back to 50,000 BCE when only an estimated 200,000 Homo sapiens existed. While exact actions are unknown, it’s likely early humans migrated due to habitat loss. Societies evolve by utilizing traditional ecological knowledge. This is knowledge acquired by Indigenous and local people over years of direct contact with the environment. Ecological awareness first appeared on human records at least 5,000 years ago.

Stories across the world prophesied lessons of the fleeting wilderness, necessity of restraining water and our obligation to care for the natural world.

Environmental rights history

The 18th century was the dawn of modern environmental rights, and perhaps the first environmental activists. In 1730, the Bishnoi Hindus sacrificed their lives to protect sacred acacia trees from being logged for the king’s palace. Amrita Devi, a female villager, could not bear the destruction decided to literally hug the trees, prompting others to follow. In 1739, alongside others, Benjamin Franklin petitioned the contamination of public water and invented energy-conserving products, one of his most notable sayings being: “When the well is dry, we know the value of water.”

In Britain in 1781, Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism released “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,” which later became a foundation for animal rights. At the tail end of the century in 1798, Thomas Malthus released his warning of ecological destruction in his “Essay on the Principles of Population.” Darwin later drew inspiration from Malthus’ work for his theory of natural selection. 

In 1824, Jean Baptiste Fourier theorized global warming by calculating that heat may be trapped in Earth’s atmosphere like a greenhouse. In 1832, American artist George Catlin proposed the nation’s first park to protect Native American culture, North American buffalo and the greater wilderness.

Soon after, in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Nature,” an essay promoting the appreciation of the outdoors while demanding a limit on human expansion. “Nature” became the foundation of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement inspired by Immanuel Kant and Hindu philosophy, which states that reality can be understood by studying nature. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist, released his seminal work, “Walden,” a product of two years and two months when Thoreau lived simply in solitude, relying and writing on Emerson’s land. “Walden” has since inspired generations of environmentalists, promoting respect for nature and conservation.

A decade later, George Perkins Marsh released “Man and Nature.” The book challenged myths of the earth’s inexhaustibility by drawing similarities to ancient civilizations which collapsed through environmental degradation. The book was pivotal, leading to the creation of the United States Forest Service. At the close of the 19th century, German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ökologie” (from the Greek oikos, meaning home), the science we know as ecology today. 

Environmental action

In the early 20th century, Alice Hamilton campaigned against lead poisoning from leaded gasoline. Alice endured attacks from the corporation, taking 50 years for governments to implement the ban.

Ecology became a global movement following the creation of nuclear weapons. Troubled by his contribution, Albert Einstein helped draft an anti-nuclear manifesto in 1955. In 1958, the Committee for Nonviolent Action began protesting nuclear testing sites by sailing vessels into areas such as Marshall Islands’ Enewetak and Bikini atolls. 

In 1962, conservationist Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” exposing the impact of chemical pesticides on biodiversity. Her research on environmental pollution led to nationwide bans on DDT and other pesticides.

In 1968, Ecology Action, or EA, was formed by writer Cliff Humphrey and Chuck Herrick in Berkeley as an offshoot of the mainstream environmental movement. EA was grassroots, urban-oriented and demanding in its youth-led activism. Through ecology-minded action and education, EA aimed to revolutionize people’s values and mitigate consumption to promote an increased harmony with our environment. Rooted in the radical edge of the civil rights movement, it prioritized direct action through demonstrations and events, echoing its ideals in leaflets and booklets. As EA gained national recognition, many EA-type groups formed around the country.

EA’s 12-member recycling center was overwhelmed yet excited to see such high levels of recycling in 1970. The group declared in a flyer “Recycling needs your help,” calling on city officials for recycling aid. Unfortunately for EA itself, Cliff and Mary Humphrey took a liking to Modesto and decided to move the Ecology Action Educational Institute to the city to make “an example of environmental sanity.” 

After the Humphreys’ departure, Berkeley’s remaining EA alumni formed the Co-Op Recycling Center and continued operations. The co-op developed a relationship with the Berkeley Ecology Center ,which moved across the street. Both were formerly located at the intersection of Sacramento and University Drive.

While the above is a rich history of ecology — both worldwide and Berkeley-specific — there’s so much more to it. Do some research for yourself! You’ll never know what you might find. 

Contact Alexander Brown at 

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JULY 25, 2022


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