Local Pioneers for a National Environmental Movement
Since 1970, CEC has led the Santa Barbara region — and at times California and the nation — in creative solutions to some of the toughest environmental problems. We are often referred to as a “think-and-do tank” — deeply analyzing a problem and then applying creative, real-world solutions to it.
CEC’s historic process for creating social change is to:
- Identify a critical community need,
- Raise awareness about that need (often by setting a challenge goal for the community),
- Push state and local government to change laws and regulations that affect the issue,
- Take direct action ourselves toward that need, and
- Spur the community to adopt new behaviors.
Ultimately, when we are successful, resolving a problem that once seemed intractable becomes part of our community’s ethic and day-to-day lives.
A good example of how CEC has put this leadership model to work in the past is recycling: we saw that Santa Barbara’s coastal landfill would be at capacity within a few decades; we challenged the community to rethink the need for landfills by recycling and composting its waste; we built and operated two recycling centers that for nearly 15 years served as the only collection points for community members who wanted to recycle; we worked with the State to pass a mandatory recycling law and with the County to institute curbside pickup; and we educated and inspired residents to use those services.
Ultimately, recycling became so much a part of our community fabric that it was hard to imagine that there was ever a time when people didn’t recycle. At that point, we sold our recycling centers to MarBorg and moved on to our current focus: moving the Santa Barbara region away from fossil fuels in one generation.
1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill Triggers Activism
Those who lived in the Santa Barbara community in 1969 will forever remember January 28 of that year: the day an off-shore oil platform sprung a leak and covered the beach and wildlife in oil. It was the worst oil spill the nation had known at that time, and an event that rippled through the psyche of America.
It is often said that from crisis comes change. For a quiet beach community that is deeply connected to the ocean, this catastrophic spill charged its residents into action. Reflecting a nationwide trend toward greater environmental concern, more than a thousand people attended a commemoration of the oil spill exactly one year later at Santa Barbara City College — with speakers such as Paul Ehrlich, David Brower and Earth Day founder Denis Hayes.
A number of local community activists were so invigorated by the success of the event that they decided to create a non-profit organization to further the ideas being discussed at the time. This group — which included Jim Billig, Elaine Burnell, Phil Marking, Marc McGinnes, John Meengs, Maryanne Mott, Judy Patrick, Paul Relis and Selma Rubin — rented a storefront on Anapamu Street that became part environmental bookstore and part CEC office space. Four days after receiving CEC’s incorporation papers on April 18, 1970, the group held its first major activity — closing off the street in front of the new office for the nation’s first Earth Day celebration.
CEC’s Early Years: 1970s, 1980s and 1990s
During this time, few organizations were dedicated to addressing the practical challenges of putting appropriate conservation measures into practice; CEC’s founders made it their goal to fill that void. While other organizations forming in the early 1970s focused on direct and sometimes legal action, CEC focused more on education, bridge building, and pioneering new ideas — often creating pilot projects and practicing with our own community. Many of these pioneer programs have found new homes and continue to benefit Santa Barbara’s residents.
One such experiment was to create several garden projects. In May of 1970, CEC broke ground on a small community garden at the corner of Figueroa and Chapala Streets. In 1971, we expanded to a four-acre project downtown, experimenting with intensive organic horticulture, solar energy, municipal-scale composting, and bio-gas use. This site was later sold by its owner, the Museum of Art, and became the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. In the following years, CEC went on to create the existing Yanonali, Rancheria and Pilgrim Terrace community gardens.
Also during our early years, CEC led the community in addressing concerns about land use — galvanizing an effort to prevent massive commercialization of the Santa Barbara waterfront. The resulting “Plan for East Beach” influenced the scale of the then-proposed Red Lion Inn, and led the City to secure the area now designated as Chase Palm Park.
In 1984 — after acquiring land on the Mesa — the building that was to serve as our headquarters for many years was completed. The building had one of the first grid-tied photovoltaic systems installed in California, as well as many other innovative green features. Here we experimented with other garden projects, including a Neighborhood Supported Agriculture program, and a children’s summer camp.
In 1993, CEC added the first South Coast facility for collecting common household hazardous waste materials such as cleaning products, pesticides, paints, oil and more, as a way to safely dispose of these toxic substances. In doing so we saw first-hand the pesticides and household cleaners that were most problematic, and subsequently launched programs to reduce the use of these chemicals.
In 1994, a small volunteer effort known as Art From Scrap came under CEC’s umbrella providing the community with a green schools environmental education program, an arts center, and a reuse retail store.
In the summer of 2001, we opened the Watershed Resource Center, to educate the public about our creeks and ocean and to ensure that the South Coast’s waters are safe for people and wildlife.
To address the issue of healthy waterways — we created a Watershed Restoration program in 1999. The program addressed the health of our area creeks and watersheds, and was successful in clearing barriers that previously blocked the migration of steelhead trout. The annual Steelhead Festival was a fun and educational component of this program.
The Next Phase of CEC
In 2004, CEC once again tapped into its problem-solving spirit by addressing one of the biggest issues facing our world today: energy. At that time virtually no community leaders were discussing the nearly perfect storm of energy-related issues that CEC foresaw headed our way, including rapidly diminishing oil supplies (“peak oil”), dependence on foreign oil, volatile fuel prices, and global warming. CEC believes that these issues — while global in scope – are the responsibility of every community to resolve and that with CEC’s leadership, California and Santa Barbara can serve as models for other communities.
Deeply committed to this vision, over the next few years, CEC made strategic changes to its mission and business model — divesting from old programs, focusing resources on one core program and one office.
In 2004, we sold our recycling operations to MarBorg Industries, where Santa Barbara’s recycling needs continue to be met. During this transition, we transferred the management of the three community gardens to the City Parks and Recreation. In 2005 we sold our Mesa headquarters to Visiting Nurses & Hospice, and moved to our current location in downtown Santa Barbara. In that year we also transferred the hazardous waste collection center to County management where the site continues to function as a hazardous materials collection site for Santa Barbara residents.
In 2006, the Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach became primarily an educational extension of Art From Scrap, where area school children continue to learn the importance of protecting our watersheds, creeks and ocean. The site is also used by water based organizations for meetings, public forums and events. The Watershed Restoration program now operates under its own non-profit, South Coast Habitat Restoration.
CEC’s mission continues to be to identify, advocate, raise awareness, and develop effective programs to solve the most pressing environmental issues that affect the Santa Barbara region. We are a solutions-based organization, currently focused on moving the Santa Barbara region away from fossil fuels and energy-intensive products–in a way that creates jobs, saves money, and strengthens the economy.
Today, CEC is putting even more time and energy into empowering individuals to create a clean energy movement. We are providing inspiration and tools for those who want to help lead the way by making energy wise choices in regards to their homes, offices, cars, products, and lifestyles.