Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first global Earth Day. Next week’s Pacific NW magazine will focus on local artists’ interpretations of the environmental movement and its Pacific Northwest roots.
A SIMPLE MOVING of the goal posts would have been one thing. But as the U.S. environmental movement turns 50 this month, the frightful reality of a rapidly heating planet has blown up the entire playing field.
New game. New rules. New fears.
Yet for the most part: old resolve.
On April 22, 1970, environmentalists marching on the first Earth Day shook the nation out of what had become a long, pollution-riddled slumber — the ugly byproduct of the Industrial Age.
Earth Day One, organized by Camas-reared solar advocate and Bullitt Foundation CEO Denis Hayes, has since grown into one of the largest secular observances on the planet, celebrated by an estimated 1 billion people in 192 nations.
The half-century since, of course, is less than a blip on the scale of planetary evolution — but, in human terms, it qualifies as middle age, and the new overlay of the threat of global climate change has turned the founding focus upside-down, prompting a difficult question: Given the looming threat of previously unimagined environmental peril, do five decades of recycling, emissions testing, composting, preserving wetlands and buying local now qualify as deckchair-rearranging of Titanic proportions?
Or, to be more blunt: Has it all been for naught?
Well, no. Hell, no, most environmentalists would respond, most of them likely to return fire by asking: Can you imagine where we would stand without all that effort?
Of course, saving the planet — or conversely, watching it swirl into destruction of life as we know it, while we endlessly bicker about solutions — is more complicated than that.
But many front-line workers in today’s green movement point to subsurface successes worthy of celebration: The green movement has embedded planet-friendly practices in mainstream American life — even in its economy. And the can-do ethic fostered by that movement has created a broad network of specialists who stand poised to change the way people impact their planet — if and when the public flips the switch.
Put those two things together, and you have a framework, at least, for solving problems of planetary scale that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Perhaps nowhere in the nation is that symbiosis more evident than among the broadly distributed, hip-boot-wearing collective alumni of Huxley College of the Environment — a smallish Bellingham institution with an outsized national impact on green thinking and policy.
Because it was also born 50 years ago, a product of that same Earth Day resolve, the birth and growth of Huxley College in many ways reflect the evolution of the nation’s environmental movement in general.
FOR STARTERS, NOTE that Huxley, a “cluster college” sub-unit of Western Washington University in Bellingham, was named not after “Brave New World” author Aldous, but a lesser-known relative, Thomas Edward Huxley, the 19th-century British scientist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his stern defense of the latter’s theory of evolution.
T.E. Huxley, who died in 1895, today is known for being ahead of his time — theorizing, for example, that birds were the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs more than 100 years before this was popularly understood.
The big thinkers who dreamed up Huxley College — fueled by the social-movement zeal of 1960s U.S. activism to end the Vietnam War, promote civil rights and women’s rights, and curb industrial pollution — embraced their namesake’s upstart-ism, incorporating it into their very thinking. The goals were not modest.
“Only by abatement of environmental destruction will our future as a human species be possible,” one planning document read, according to “Green Fire,” former Seattle Times reporter William Dietrich’s rich history of Huxley’s first 40 years.
The college was among the first in the nation — still one of only a handful — to approach environmentalism by combining training in the “hard” physical sciences and “soft” social sciences into a single academic box. The goal was to produce students with the technical chops to study, identify and quantify environmental problems, but also help solve them via training in the fine arts of politics, journalism, ethics and other humanities disciplines.
Has it worked? History says yes. The college opened in 1970 with 63 students. A half-century later, Huxley hums along, with 1,000 students and 80 faculty members offering some 200 courses.
“We have more students than we know what to do with,” says Steve Hollenhorst, dean since 2012 and father of a Huxley alum.
In general terms, incoming college students (now all born after 2000, meaning a lot of readers of this piece likely have wool socks in a drawer older than current freshmen) are generally much more focused than previous generations on sustainability — living with, not just on, the planet — simply because of the societal circumstances of their birth.
Huxley’s students are a full level of green-motivated beyond that. Maybe two.
The program’s first flannel-wearing, communal-living, folk-song-humming, stone-soup-slurping pioneers (all stereotypes, but mostly true, some of those people squeamishly admit) took aim at a specific enemy: industrial polluters. Today’s students combine activist zeal with pragmatism, more determined to change American institutions, both public and private, from within.
Hollenhorst, a native Midwesterner whose research is in land-use policy, has lived through both eras. The original Huxley produced what now would be considered generalists — ecologists, for example. The new Huxley produces marine ecologists and estuarine ecologists and nearshore riparian ecologists and … “It’s become Balkanized into very specific areas,” he says.
At Huxley’s beginning, a large number of graduates moved on to planning, research, and other technical and administrative jobs in government. Today, three of the leading employers of Huxley grads are Microsoft, Boeing and Costco.
“Today a student will come to Huxley, look me in the eye and say, ‘I want to go to work on greening Costco’s supply chain!’ ” Hollenhorst says. The curriculum has changed accordingly, to the point of forming joint programs with WWU’s business school.
“In my generation, we never would have thought of working for corporate America,” Hollenhorst says. “That’s not what an environmentalist did. And now they know that’s part of the solution.”
Only time will tell, of course, whether the solution extends to the scope of the current problem, which seems to get larger and more desperate by the month.
THE BUILDING HOUSING this evolution in teaching is … well, distinctive, in a butt-ugly or bold way, depending on one’s taste for Brutalist architecture. The six-story, concrete Environmental Studies Building reeks of institutional formidability — a feature that its inhabitants find both intentional and amusingly ironic.
Inside, its physical entrails are mostly exposed; brightly painted heating pipes, electrical wiring and other structural features run in dizzying fashion between floors, and up and down walls. With a gaping, open center, the building looks sort of like a Marriott Courtyard hotel designed by members of the Borg Collective.
One recently added bit of décor hangs nearly from top to bottom in the cavernous space at the building’s center: a fabric banner, imprinted with what looks from afar like a refreshingly simple image of a life-size, half-century-old western red cedar tree.
Look more closely, and the branches reveal a secret: printed names, 7,800 strong, of every graduate of Huxley College and its forerunner physical science classes. It’s a 40-foot-tall roster of what became a diaspora of green-motivated upstarts steeped in the Huxley way.
Today, they work the field from near and far, in pursuits that range from the high-profile to the comparatively mundane. A tiny core sample:
— One of the forerunners, Eric Dinerstein (1975), alerted the world to the demise of tigers and other megafauna on his way to becoming chief ecologist for the World Wildlife Fund.
— Another, Carlos Buhler (1978), opened the world’s eyes to alpine zones by climbing the planet’s major peaks.
— Dan Pike (1994) parlayed his Huxley-inculcated understandings of “systems thinking — how everything connects” — into politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He served a term as mayor of Bellingham and now works as a transportation planner for Tacoma.
— Another Huxley/Kennedy School graduate, Mark Reis (1975), runs Sea-Tac International Airport.
— Dave Bennink (1994) started a building-materials reuse depot — a storefront for his passion project, Re-Use Consulting, which aims to make the ultimate re-use of materials part of the plan for every new structure.
— Jennifer Hahn (1984) wrote a book about her 750-mile solo kayak trip through the Inside Passage, then another about foraging for wild foods, and uses her work as a top kayak guide to teach paddlers about marine ecosystems. She’s now in the midst of a graduate study of toxicity found in Salish seaweeds. A longtime Bellingham resident, Hahn chuckles at how different Huxley feels today compared to her years as an undergrad more than three decades ago. But she believes the core vision remains.
Short-term results of that first-wave green activism — community recycling, reforms in land-use regulations, and the launch of federal ground and water cleanup laws and enforcement agencies — changed American society.
“We could see it all happening,” Hahn says. “We did feel like we were going to change the world. And we really did.”
But none of her peers saw the looming tidal wave of climate change — at least directly.
“We were focused on pollutants,” she says. “I don’t remember anyone talking about climate change.”
THE THREAT FROM a warming planet, and the changes in public life it portends, “conditions everything we do now,” says Hollenhorst, the dean. “It is the global lens that we have to look through.”
Impacts of the warming crisis weigh so heavily on incoming students that “climate despair” has become a legitimate mental-health issue. Environmental education provides a way to vent some of that angst by confronting the actual problems, hands-on.
“I think it’s really all about, ‘OK; here’s how we can work on this,’ ” Hollenhorst says. “Climate — it’s really just math. We know what we need to do.”
One obvious solution is alternative energy, which Hollenhorst calls “the keystone” to solving climate problems.
“We’ve created a ton of energy courses; climate is the rationale for every one of those classes. There’s hope embedded in that.”
At the same time, the program — and the U.S. environmental movement, writ large — has struggled to meet another evolutionary challenge: a chronic lack of diversity, both in the student body and faculty. Since its inception, our green movement has been inordinately white.
Huxley in 2015 took a hard look in the diversity mirror and saw a troubling reflection: Numbers of ethnic minorities were significantly lower than comparable populations in the state, in Bellingham and even among WWU’s broader student population.
The college has enacted a broad range of strategies to turn the tide, among its student and faculty ranks, and these have shown some initial success, mirroring similar efforts at the broader university. But turning around deeply ingrained tradition remains a significant challenge — one that Huxley oversight members, such as Pike, say the college, and the movement, must address, especially in an era of passing along what likely are to be steep prices for climate-change problems.
“We should reflect the entire community of Washington state,” Pike says, both for obvious reasons of equity, and the fact that many of the region’s booming tech employers have adopted diversity as a core value.
IN ONE LITTLE-SEEN way, Huxley already has enhanced the economic, geographic, age and class diversity of its graduates through a branch degree program offered to students in Everett, Poulsbo and Port Angeles — the Huxley College on the Peninsulas program, celebrating its own 25th anniversary this year.
Many of the 50 or so students in that program are older, returning, single-parent students. Some of them are now doing what they call dreamwork, made more meaningful because it’s in their home communities.
LaTrisha Suggs, 50, of Port Angeles, is a 2002 graduate who was working two jobs to support a young son when she heard about the program launching at Peninsula College. She jumped at the chance, attending evening and weekend extension courses while working 55 hours per week, earning her degree in two years.
“I got lucky,” she says.
Suggs served an internship with Clallam County, researching septic systems along the flood-prone Dungeness River. A member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, she then served 16 years as assistant director of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal team on the historic project to remove two derelict dams on the Elwha River. She now works as the Jamestown S’Klallam’s Habitat Restoration Planner, negotiating the purchase of private lands in flood-plain areas of the majestic Dungeness, where her work began.
“It’s full circle,” she says. And hers keeps expanding.
Suggs recently was appointed to fill a two-year vacancy left by the death of a Port Angeles City Council member. City officials believe she is the first Native American — and possibly the first nonwhite person — to serve on the council in the city’s 130-year history.
Amy Lucas, 42, a 2012 graduate of the Everett CC Huxley program and now a senior planner for Snohomish County Parks and Recreation, “did a big 180” from an established pharmacy career to pursue her passion: promoting, preserving and managing open spaces in the lands she grew up in. Climate change is literally at her boot tops, evident in rapidly changing stream flows, forest canopies and other natural features.
Beyond their office jobs, Lucas and others schooled in the Huxley way like to think they make a big difference in their communities simply by emphasizing the personal nature of curing what ails the planet.
“This is a crisis, yes,” Lucas says. “But there are things we can do, in moderation, right now to help mitigate all the impacts. A lot of people think they need to do a complete 180 in their lifestyle, and that all solutions will be really expensive. But really it’s about small victories — baby steps. My soap box is moderation. Small changes can make big impacts — if we all make them together.”
A recent bright spot in the climate-change struggle is the hint of growing public acceptance of the problem. While left-leaning people rank combating climate change much higher on the public-policy priority list than those on the right, concern over the issue is rising, steadily, among both groups.
It’s a welcome sign to people trained in environmental education programs — now functioning as a network of experts poised to harness that growing concern by at least asking the right policy questions.
This, people in the Huxley orbit note, is perhaps the most significant lasting impact of a half-century of environmental education. But in a larger, and equally important way, basic values of the program instilled in graduates are passed on, daily, to the rest of us.
Aside from her sheer love of the place, Hahn, 60, says what keeps her kayak-guiding on the Salish Sea are those magical moments of spark that come when a person is reconnected to the natural world — or plugged in for the first time.
It might be a first brush with a marine mammal, a bobbing view of a stunning sunset or a new understanding of how microscopic life below the surface makes all of that wonder possible. That, she says, is the personal change that leads to societal revolution — and the light pointing to the way forward.
And a reminder that a key source of power in the fight for the future is tapping into what we already have: “There are miracles all over the place.”