“Food-Space-Energy Problems”: The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Emergence of Ecological Design in the 1970s

by Emma Schroeder

Jun 3, 2021

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) initiated its Environmental Program out of long-standing work in conservation and population in 1974. Driven by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, famines, and the emergence of scientific research into the limits of the earth's resources, the RBF funded organizations that looked for ways to help humans live less destructively on a threatened planet. Its support helped usher in the rise of ecological design through its grant program, funding organizations focused on environmental lifestyles, agricultural practices, and renewable energy technologies. This research report explores the relationship between one such organization, the New Alchemy Institute, and the RBF during that decade. It suggests that the RBF played a critical role in providing networking opportunities and encouraging groups to strengthen their scientific investigations. While RBF support remained strong for nearly ten years, by the end of the 1970s, the Fund began looking towards "middleground" solutions to agricultural and ecological problems. It founded the American Farmland Trust in 1980 and turned most of its agricultural funding towards that institution. The RBF also increasingly sought to support international eco-development. Such changes in granting objectives pushed ecological design groups to shift away from their social critiques and towards international work and an embrace of ecological economics. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, therefore, facilitated both the success of an alternative technology movement and aided its transition into the mainstream.

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