A New Alchemy on the Land: Scientists, Hippies, and an Ecological Society

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“To protect the seas, restore earth, and inform the earth’s stewards.” With this motto a small group of countercultural scientists and technophile environmentalists launched the New Alchemy Institute in 1970. In its quest for an eco-technical utopia the New Alchemists worked closely with E.F. Schumacher, Buckminster Fuller, and Stewart Brand. Their work also prefigured the emergence of bioregionalism and helped to found the green architecture movement.[1] From the Institute’s Cape Cod base, its short-lived center on Prince Edward Island, and through a sister organization in Costa Rica the New Alchemists played an influential role within the Canadian and American environmental movements throughout the 1970s.

My research focuses on this group Hip Scientists’ because their work demonstrates the important role science, technology, and counterculture played in 1970s Environmentalism. Building on the work of Andrew Kirk and Peder Anker my research argues that environmental groups often held neither the anti-modern or the anti-technology stance commonly attributed to environmentalists and, in fact, downplayed wilderness preservation to offer progressive visions in which correctly science and technology would solved environmental problems.[2] By focusing on alternative environmental visions I hope to illustrate the diverse heritage of post-Rachel Carson environmentalism. From my point of view environmentalism has always been about much more than wilderness and declensionist narratives, the New Alchemists’ ecological-technological environmental vision being a prime example.

The New Alchemists’ environmental vision was comprised of three elements: Ecology, Progress, and Counterculture. Ecological Science played a central role in the New Alchemists thought. It defined both their understanding of nature and their vision of how society should be organized. Throughout the New Alchemist’s writings, particularly those of their leader John Todd, the work of ecologists such as Eugene and Howard Odum had prominent place.[3]

Drawing on the mechanistic and cybernetic work of the Odum brothers the New Alchemists argued that North American society was ecologically unsustainable, but ecological science could be used applied to both the environment and human society to correct any problems. To the New Alchemists a correctly managed society could gradually progress towards a sustainable and non-oppressive form if important factors such as social and ecological diversity were continually enhanced. In this way ecology helped the New Alchemists construct a progressive vision for the future, a plan to realize a something close to Ecotopia.[4]

With this progressive vision The New Alchemist broke with the Declensionist narrative common within environmental thought. To the New Alchemists human intervention could cause environmental problems, but if properly managed it could also be socially and environmentally beneficial. For instance, the New Alchemists argued that ecology could be used to bring the environment into the urban areas creating liveable cities, sustaining ecological diversity, and using natural systems to mitigate environmental damage.

PEI Ark S Soucoup Harrowsmith vol1 no2 july 1976
PEI Ark S Soucoup Harrowsmith vol1 no2 july 1976

The New Alchemists merged this emphasis on ecology and progress with Countercultural Values. For instance, they drew upon the counterculture and the back-to-the-land movement for inspiration, organizing the institute along the lines of a libertarian commune. In their work they rejected the hierarchical structures which had pervaded the academic institutions where many of them had been employed. Instead they adopted an egalitarian organizational structure based on the participatory models of the New Left. Further, drawing upon then common countercultural beliefs the New Alchemists argued only decentralized communities employing small and simple technologies could be truly democratic and avoid the creeping authoritarianism of “technocratic society.”[5] Thus alongside ecology, small is beautiful thinking became a second foundation of their ecological society.

With the New Alchemists in mind, I think it is important to emphasize that science, technology, the counterculture, and environmentalism worked together surprisingly well. The New Alchemists use of ecology and counterculture to construct an optimistic vision which balanced human and environmental needs through the application of science played a central role in their success. This suggests the possibility of moving past the wilderness ethic in our emanations of environmentalism to focus on the constructive solutions to environmental problems environmentalists envisioned during the 1970s.

[1]Peder Anker, From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: a History of Ecological Design (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Nancy Jack Todd, A Safe and Sustainable World: the Promise of Ecological Design, (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005); Peter List, Radical Environmentalism: Philosophy and Tactics (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1993).
[2]Peder Anker, From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: a History of Ecological Design (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Andrew Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
[3]Eugene Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1971); Howard Odum, Environment, Power, and Society (New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1970).
[4]Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: the Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (Berkeley: Banyan Tree Books, 1975).
[5]Jordan Kleiman, “The Appropriate Technology Movement in American Political Culture” (PhD diss., University of Rochester, 2000); Timothey Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999).


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Henry Trim

Hank Trim is an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada. He welcomes questions from readers at henry.trim@canada.ca.


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