Harbinger Vol. 3 No. 1 — Education & Community Action: A History of the Institute for Social Ecology’s Programs




by Michael Caplan

Emerging from the proletarian socialist movements of the Old Left, infusing a distinctly libertarian ecological outlook in the rise of the New Left, social theorist and activist Murray Bookchin started to lay the foundations of a remarkable revolutionary body of work which he soon called social ecology. His pioneering book, Our Synthetic Environment, which predated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring by five months, offered a comprehensive overview of ecological degradation and elaborated upon the need for a revolutionary decentralization of society in order to address these grave issues. By the early seventies, Bookchin’s writings were fairly well known in the US and abroad. He had published several influential books and articles including “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” (1964) “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” (1965) “Forms of Freedom,” (1968) the essay “Post-Scarcity Anarchism,” (1969) and “Listen, Marxist!,” (1969) all of which were then compiled into the New Left classic Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971). Bookchin’s written work and activist engagements brought him many opportunities to address large audiences over North America and Europe.

It was when Daniel Chodorkoff, who at the time was a graduate student and teaching intern at the Vermont based progressive school, Goddard College, approached Bookchin in 1972 about filling a course at the College on technology that the history of the Institute for Social Ecology began. This newfound relationship between Bookchin and Chodorkoff had them soon planning what would be the founding conference of the ISE.

This pioneering conference set out to examine solutions to ecological problems by integrating alternative technologies with a strong social critique of anti-ecological trends and visions for a new society based on social ecology. Noted participants included John Todd, aquatic biologist and founder of the New Alchemy Institute; Karl Hess, social theorist, author and activist; Wilson Clark, energy adviser to the governor of California; Day Charoudi, a pioneer in solar architecture; Eugene Eccli, engineer and pioneer in the alternative energy network; Sam Love, noted environmental activist; and Milton Kolter, urbanologist. This highly successful conference served to assess the viability of setting up the envisioned Institute for Social Ecology. As with the conference, the ISE would act as an important laboratory for teaching and learning about the ideals that Bookchin advanced in his work.

With its nascent program in the summer of 1974, more than 100 students attended the first twelve-week program of the ISE on Goddard’s campus. The success of this program was in part due to a donated full-page ad by John Shuttleworth in the then highly influential alternative technology magazine The Mother Earth News. This foundational program combined theoretical classroom work with practical, hands-on experience, and focused on interrelated areas to provide educational and research opportunities. It was this first summer program that paved the way for more than 29 years of educational programs designed to further the mission of the ISE while providing an educational experience for people interested in radical social change.

The Cate Farm Era

In 1975, the Institute moved onto a 40-acre farm at Goddard College. This farm served as a demonstration site for experimentation, teaching, research, and community outreach. The first solar building in Vermont was built there, as well as many other innovative technological systems. During the years spent at Cate Farm, the ISE researched and tested organic agriculture and aquaculture techniques, and published wind power designs. Bookchin recalls:

During the summer days, classes were conducted in nearly every dormitory and open area on Goddard’s campus. A visitor to the campus would have seen students sitting round in small circles discussing the history of hierarchy, various radical social ideas, the emergence and development of the state, radical anthropology, the changing status of women and other underprivileged strata, ecological economics—as well technological innovations in energy, diversified applications of machinery, the construction and multifaceted use of fish tanks, window heat-retainers, and so on. Students used the open fields in Cate Farm to study organic agriculture and experiment with different kinds of fertilizers. Others could study and actually make new composting toilets that allowed for the recycling of human wastes into agriculturally fertile compost, while more theoretically inclined students could explore ideologies such as socialism in its various forms, the history of radical movements, and utopian ideas… Free evenings were filled with study circles to follow up on the courses that had been given during the day.2

The Institute remained at Cate Farm for five years, offering a variety of programs in addition to its popular summer sessions. By 1976, the ISE’s summer program grew to accommodate approximately 180 students. The following year also saw the creation of a Masters of Arts in Social Ecology in collaboration with Goddard College, combining intensive on-campus course work with off-campus practicums.

The 80s

The eighties saw a major change in the ISE’s activities. Due to financial circumstances, Goddard College sold Cate Farm in 1981, forcing the ISE to reconsider how to host its summer programs. Without a home, the ISE started renting various campuses for a month each summer in 1983. In 1986, Chodorkoff, who had earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, resumed teaching at Goddard, giving the ISE’s programs a stable home for the next decade.

Other major changes took place as well. The ISE took the first step towards becoming a fully autonomous organization in 1981 when it was incorporated as an independent non-profit educational organization. In addition, Chodorkoff took over the directorship of the organization in 1978, as Bookchin stepped down for reasons of age and health. While Bookchin, then honored with the title “Director Emeritus,” maintained his involvement with the ISE as a teacher, it was under the leadership of Chodorkoff that the ISE grew—to this very day.

The focus of the ISE’s educational programs greatly expanded throughout the eighties. In 1984, the ISE sponsored an Urban Permaculture Design Course—a three-week intensive course created to educate people with a basic background in design, farming, gardening, community development or education, about the possibilities of urban permaculture. Taking place in New York City, students designed and created a permaculture program in conjunction with a community building. Completion in the course qualified the graduates as Apprentice Permaculture Designers in the International Association of Permaculture Design. The ISE also hosted study tours including a 15-day study tour of Mexico in 1986. This study tour was initiated to allow a dozen college students a unique look at a “developing” country, investigating the social roots of development patterns, the impact of both western style development and alternative ecological approaches.

The 1986 summer program, held at the Green Mountain Valley School, introduced two new curricula, Planning and Design for Sustainable Communities and Advanced Seminars in Social Ecology. In 1987, two more programs were started for the summer semester, Ecology and Community, and Sense of Self/Sense of Place-A Wilderness Experience.

The 90s

Throughout the nineties, in addition to its regular summer programs, the ISE continued to sponsor conferences and colloquia, both national and international, on topics ranging from alternative education and libertarian municipalism, to ecological activism and biotechnology.

The mid-nineties saw major changes to the ISE’s campus. In 1996, the ISE summer programs moved from Goddard College to the Maple Hill community in Plainfield, Vermont. The following year saw the purchase of a new campus on Maple Hill—the home of a defunct alternative school for children that featured a large land base, pond, farmhouse and schoolhouse. This new site became the focus for the ISE’s continued experimentation and education around issues of alternative technology and ecological land use. That same year, the ISE started offering a B.A. Degree in Social Ecology in cooperation with Goddard College.

During the first program on its new campus, students, faculty, and staff began planning and drafting designs of what the new campus would look like. In 1998, students constructed a solar washhouse and eco-campground, began a permaculture orchard and gardens, and created a master plan for the campus on Maple Hill as part of their work in the Planning, Design and Construction for Sustainable Communities program.

The Institute for Social Ecology celebrated its 25th Anniversary in the summer of 1999, commemorating a quarter century of activism and education for radical social change. In 2000, after the ISE began to pulled out of all relations with Goddard College, the ISE and Burlington College formed a relationship to accredit the ISE’s year round programs and a B.A. Degree in Social Ecology with both on- and off-site campus options. While the ISE gained a new B.A. program, the joint M.A. in Social Ecology with Goddard College was lost.

The ISE continues to offer its summer programs, workshops, forums, conferences, and degree program at the Maple Hill campus, including new programs such as Arts, Media, Activism, and Social Change and a year-round on-site degree program with tracks in Ecological Building, Ecological Land Use, and Social Theory and Action.

The social and ecological issues as explored by Bookchin and his colleagues over the span of his lifetime and the ISE’s are still as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. With the rejuvenated political awareness found within the Global Justice Movement, the ISE’s educational work has drawn the attention of a new generation of activists. As the anti-ecological trends of the 20th century become further entrenched within the 21st, this educational work serves multiple purposes. Now in his 82nd year, Bookchin reflects on the importance for such education:

But one proviso must be voiced: ideas are only true when they are rational. Today, when rationality and consistency are deprecated in the name of postmodernist chic, we carry a double burden of trying to sustain, often by education alone, reason against irrationalism, and to know when to act as well as how to do so. In such cases, let me note that education, too, is a form of activism and must always be cultivated as such.3

Other Activities

In accompaniment with its core educational programs, such as the internationally acclaimed summer program Ecology & Community, the ISE has pioneered many innovative community initiatives, as well as researched and published theories on technology, social theory and social policy since its inception. The ISE was also instrumental in bringing together individuals and organizations through educational programs and conferences to continue to develop the field of social ecology. A brief overview of such activities follows.

New York City: During the 1970s and 1980s, the ISE cultivated a strong relationship with various organizations and communities in New York City, particularly within the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican community. The ISE not only sponsored educational events in NYC, such as Urban Alternatives: Towards an Ecological City (1975) and a follow up conference in 1982, but also worked collaboratively with a variety of organizations. The ISE provided technical and planning assistance in alternative technology to CHARAS, CUANDO, the 11th Street Movement, and other community organizations involved in the urban homesteading movement in NYC’s Lower East Side. An educational exchange was also established with these community groups, bringing NYC residents to the ISE’s Vermont based summer programs, and sending interns from the summer programs to work on projects with these organizations.

The Learning Alliance, a NYC based organization for community education, was founded with assistance from the ISE in 1985. A large number of courses, seminars, workshops, and lectures were held on a wide range of topics in urban affairs and the social ecology of the city. The program then spun off to become an independent project which served as a center for popular education, and a NYC landmark for the next ten years.

Low-Income Training: Continuing its important focus on the creation and dissemination of ecological technology, the ISE hosted a conference in 1976, which resulted in the creation of NCAT, The National Center for Appropriate Technology, which provides technical assistance to low-income communities to this day. In 1977, the ISE’s Aquaculture Outreach Program began, providing technical assistance to low-income Vermonters interested in fish farming. The project made use of local resources to provide jobs and food for local residents. Some of the fish and crayfish programs are still in active production for home consumption and as small businesses. The ISE also began a collaborative project with the Central Vermont Community Action Council (CVCAC) to teach low-income Vermonters about energy conservation and solar technologies.

Publishing: The ISE’s education and research activities naturally resulted in several publishing projects. In 1982, Harbinger, the Journal of Social Ecology was created as a special project of the ISE to promote the study of social ecology. While only three issues were created during its short-lived existence in the 80s, the newly revamped Harbinger holds the same goals. Next to Harbinger, the ISE has also supported various other print publishing projects, such as Society & Nature, the International Journal of Political Ecology (1992).

In 1983, a video collective associated with the ISE produced a film focused on an American community living in Nicaragua—clergy, engineers, doctors, nurses, agronomists and cultural workers—who dedicated their skills to building a democratic and ecologically sound society in Nicaragua. The film explores the conflict between social ecology principles and the pressing needs for material development experienced by the majority of the world’s population.

Ecofeminism: In 1978, the ISE invited Ynestra King to develop what would become the first curriculum in ecofeminism. The same year, an ISE sponsored conference, Women and Life on Earth, held at the University of Massachusetts, resulted in The Women’s Pentagon Action, a mass civil disobedience action that served as a model for the international women’s peace movement.

The ISE hosted a conference called Spring Fever in 1982, a two day women’s gathering organized by the Women’s Affinity Group of the ISE that included workshops, readings, and demonstrations exploring the relationship between women, nature and community. In the late 80s, in collaboration with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, a planning session and workshop on women and community development was attended by low-income women and organizations from across the continent. During the early 90s, the ISE hosted annual conferences on ecofeminism. To this day, the ISE continues to pursue the ever important subject of feminism and ecology.

Vermont: Located within Vermont for a majority of its existence, the ISE has always been committed to working within the community in both an activist and educational capacity. In 1982, the ISE participated in a community organizing campaign in cooperation with the Burlington Environmental Alliance. Together they hosted a one-day seminar for residents who were concerned with the development of the Burlington waterfront. This group went on to helped defeat a plan for a municipal waste incinerator on the Intervale.

A pilot program in Montpelier called Gardens for Children (1984), was also sponsored by the ISE. This program initiated learning projects in the classrooms of several schools that instructed children on gardening techniques through the creation of gardens on school grounds. Linking into issues of local and world hunger, the garden projects donated the produce to the local Emergency Food Shelf. Food Works, a nationally known, independent, not-for-profit organization, was a result of this project.

Conferences: Next to all the above mentioned conferences, the ISE has sponsored several other worthy of note. In 1990, the ISE co-sponsored the third annual Pitkin Conference on Higher Education. Attended by educators from all over North America, the conference explored the converging themes of social ecology, higher education and community action. The same year, the Annual Continental Conference on Social Ecology was initiated, and continues today, with conferences held in many cities over North America, including New York City, Minneapolis, Montréal, and Los Angeles.

In 1995, an International Social Ecology Network Gathering was held in Dunoon, Scotland with the aid of the ISE—the theme was democracy and ecology. That same year, the ISE hosted an international conference, New Currents in Ecological Activism, which brought together activists and theorists from a wide range of movements and organizations to share experiences and evaluate future directions. A follow-up conference was held in 1996, along with a weekend conference on globalization.

More recently, the ISE helped organized the International Conference on the Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. The first conference (1998), held in Lisbon, Portugal, brought together a wide range of international activists and political theorists to study libertarian municipalism. The follow-up conference (1999), hosted at the ISE’s new campus, again drew a wide range of people to continue debating issues raised at the proceeding conference.


  1. While this final piece is the work of Michael Caplan, the work herein is drawn from the invaluable assistance and contribution of Dan Chodorkoff, Brian Tokar, Erin Royster, Chaia Heller, and Murray Bookchin.
  2. Quoted from a personal letter from Bookchin to Caplan, February 28, 2003.
  3. Ibid.