Connecting Food, Water and Waste Management with The Ecology Center’s Evan Marks
May 18, 2011
Evan Marks is the founder of The Ecology Center, an eco-educational nonprofit based in San Juan Capistrano, CA, that debuted in 2009. As a young man, Marks learned that humans have a major negative environmental impact, especially due to our agricultural processes. From there, Marks decided to study agriculture and worked on farms around the world.
The Ecology Center focuses on connecting food systems, water systems and waste management systems in a sustainable and healthy way. Among other initiatives, the Ecology Center offers garden design, baking, beer-making and other open workshops for Orange County residents to attend.
“We’re passionate about living in a healthy place with healthy people and we’re passionate about perpetuating that for future generations,” Marks explains. “To inspire that within an individual is contagious.”
TranscriptionJOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Evan Marks, the Executive Director of the Ecology Center in Southern California. Welcome to Green is Good, Evan Marks.
EVAN MARKS: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Evan, we’re on your beautiful website here, the Ecology Center’s website, theecologycenter.org. It looks like you have a gorgeous place down there, and you’re doing amazing things. What is really the Ecology Center so our listeners in the United States, California, and around the world can learn a bit more about what you’re doing? What is the Ecology Center?
EVAN MARKS: We’re an eco-educational nonprofit dedicated to providing everyday ecological solutions. It’s sort of like the color and feel of our website. It’s really just an open engagement for community, for families, to take on sustainability in a very fun and hands-on way.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: When was it started?
EVAN MARKS: I started the organization two years ago, but there’s a lot of history in this property. It’s a historic farmhouse all the way back from 1878. We work with the city of San Juan Capistrano. They work this property. It’s a working organic farm, and the historic house is the oldest wooden house in San Juan Capistrano.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: What are the products you guys farm there?
EVAN MARKS: The farm is a separate entity, and it’s called South Coast Farm. It’s a mixed veggie farm, organic strawberries, 300-person CSA, and an on-site farm stand.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: I bet your little strawberries taste good.
EVAN MARKS: Right now the sun is so bright. They get sweeter and sweeter by the day.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about the journey. You have traveled extensively around the world, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria. You’re a big environmentalist. This is a wonderful opportunity. Talk a little bit about your journey, how you came to the Ecology Center, and where you’re taking it now. Where is this going?
EVAN MARKS: I got into organic agriculture in the connection between ocean health and farming systems. I’m going to take us back even further. As a high school teen, as a surfer, I learned through the Surfrider Foundation that humans have a negative impact environment and on a large scale globally, agriculture is the number one impact. That took me right into university, and I went to UC Santa Cruz and studied agro-ecology and had the opportunity to work on all sorts of amazing organic farms. That took me international. I worked for four-and-a-half years throughout Latin America and into west Africa, as you mentioned some of those countries, doing all different types of projects, mostly as a sustainability consultant with large landowners, local farmers, educational facilities, developers, all kinds of stuff. It was really about connecting food systems, water systems, waste management systems in a sustainable and healthy way.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Now you’ve created this Ecology Center in southern California. First of all, why southern California? You are very comfortable, obviously, anywhere you go, you can make home. You’ve traveled the world extensively, much more than most people ever get to go anywhere. Why southern California?
EVAN MARKS: Working in Nigeria, I had an opportunity to take on creating a model farm for the country. It was going to be a very large project. It was a six-acre project. It was going to be an integrated sustainable agricultural system. That was on one side of the opportunity, and then the other side of the opportunity was this isn’t my community. That was kind of my call to action, was long-lasting change happens when you’re rooted somewhere for a very long time. Where I was in my life and where I am continually is my family’s here, I’m from here. I think Orange County needs change in sustainability as much as Nigeria or anywhere else on this planet, so all of those equations added up with the preface for creating this ecological hub for Orange County, the Ecology Center.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Evan, were your parents greenies or tree huggers?
EVAN MARKS: Not really. Definitely progressive people, but as a family, we’ve embraced this together. They’re part of our group here on a day-to-day basis. They’re artists and businesspeople. Sustainability is a passion that was inspired from me.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: We all need inspiration and we all need coaches. Who do you count as your inspirations in your travels and your learnings as you’ve now evolved to this position at the Ecology Center?
EVAN MARKS: There’s a lot. I think one of my early mentors is Steve Gleason. He’s a professor at UC Santa Cruz. He wrote the textbook on agro-ecology and he works extensively internationally. He was one of the first big mentors of mine connecting food and community. There have been other mentors. One of my current mentors is Harry Helling, and he runs a local nonprofit here in Orange County as well called the Crystal Cove Alliance. He’s a veteran in this field, and he’s the Chairman of our Board of Directors as well. There are all sorts of mentors. My parents and my brother and, of course, my girlfriend, and the people that I’ve met along the way, whether it be the indigenous people which I spent time with and learned so much from because, really, when it comes down to sustainability, especially around agriculture, we always revert back to systems that have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about what the Ecology Center is actually doing. Mike and I are on your beautiful website now. For those of us who just joined us, we’re lucky to have Evan Marks on with us today, the Executive Director of the Ecology Center. You can look up his beautiful website if you’ve got your iPad or desktop or laptop in front of me. It’s theecologycenter.org. What are some of the great programs that you’re proud of that you’re running there now?
EVAN MARKS: Backyard Skills is a program that’s really close to my heart. One of the early intentions of the center was to create an open platform for all ages. This is our adult offering. It’s a DYI workshop series. We do them a couple times a month, and it’s just really a way to get people in the door. Maybe you’ve never even heard the word sustainability and maybe you don’t think about using it anytime soon, but this really just about people coming together, building community, and being a part of the solution. The solutions can be simple, but they all go a long way. This workshop series has activities such as garden design or learning how to plant an herb garden or learning how to design and build a rain barrel or a greywater system, or even learning about sourdough baking or organic beer making. It’s kind of all over the board, but I think that by putting skills into people’s hands around us, it makes us that much more of a diverse and rich community.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You have these wonderful programs there. When you wake up every morning, what are your greatest goals for the Ecology Center? What’s measurable is manageable, so obviously you have some measurable goals. Where do you want to take this?
EVAN MARKS: We had an amazing start. We’re two years out, and we already have over 10,000 visitors to the center on a yearly basis. I think our goal is really just to expand that outreach into the community beyond just south Orange County. It goes into Orange County, and with some of our partnerships, even much beyond that. Funny enough, I was in Brooklyn, New York last weekend teaching a backyard skills workshop to over 100 people. I think that the work that we’re doing is part of a greater culture and community. It looks at the intersection of creative thinking and community building all around sustainability.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike and I are huge fans of San Diego. We both lived there before. We love where you’re situated. It’s a beautiful part of this whole planet in San Juan Capistrano. Every community is idiosyncratic, and some folks are always supporting of any new business or any new nonprofit, and some are against it. Do you have any community challenges down in that part of the woods?
EVAN MARKS: Yeah, absolutely. The challenges are so minor compared to the support, but yeah, there are challenges. Candidly, we work with the city and we’re essentially tenants of their historic building. That’s a constant relationship that needs to be managed. There’s probably a total of a few that aren’t completely supportive of our work, and there are hundreds of members. I always like to just focus on the solutions, and that’s what we always do here and the people that support us. I think that’s the most important thing.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: What have you learned? One person can change the world. Mike and I are on a journey also. This is the third year of this radio show. Mike and I get a fascinating window on the world with some of the guests that we have on and how individuals can make such a difference. What’s your experience in this journey that you’re on at the Ecology Center with how individuals can truly make a difference?
EVAN MARKS: Because of the work that we do, this culture that we’re all a part of, meaning that we’re passionate about living in a healthy place with healthy people and we’re passionate about perpetuating that for future generations. To inspire that with an individual, it’s contagious. That individual, whether it be learning how to make a terrarium or planting a garden, whether it’s the kids we work with or the adults, but we always see them with a big smile on their face and they always take it home, and of course, they’re going to spread the word if they’re inspired. That’s really the starting point. I’ve seen it over and over again, whether at the large corporations that we work with that are now totally embracing sustainability and some of the work and outreach we’ve done, or whether it be just individuals.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Evan, you brought up a good word, inspire. You’d rather inspire than frighten. Explain the difference when it comes down to environmental eco-politics of inspire versus frighten, and why you’ve chosen inspire.
EVAN MARKS: That’s all we do. We seek to inspire and involve people in all of our work and all the solutions. I think that is a little bit of a transition from a typical environmental organization would do, and I don’t really consider us one of those either, which is kind of funny. Sustainability has a whole different context, and it’s integrating people into positive solutions. I think that there are so many challenges out there, and it’s really easy to get barbed down on that. I know that I do on a daily basis. What inspires me is the solutions, the possibility of making a difference, the possibility of connecting to an individual or something positive in their environment or around their home. You can tell by the look of our website and all of our programming, there’s nothing about anything other than positivism and solutions.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking about the website, which is just a beautiful website, you said about 10,000 visitors a year now are coming to the Ecology Center. You’re very young and very sure technologically oriented as your generation typically is. How are you using the power of your website and also social media to help touch more people than those who can just make it to your great center?
EVAN MARKS: We’re not experts at it. We’re sort of beginning the journey of how do you use these tools efficiently. Connected to all this is design, and we use design intently from day one in how we tell our story. We use design. As you can tell, visually it’s stimulating. All of our work has that visual stimulation. Our art director, David Rager, does all of that. It’s kind of this collaboration that we have in all of our projects. It’s a way to lure people in and understand that we can simplify some of these large, complex conversations, and it’s fun. That’s the way to engage people. Like I said, design is one of the strongest tools we have. Social media and all the web sort of stuff is a work in progress.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Evan, are you still a surfer?
EVAN MARKS: Absolutely.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about surfing and its nexus to the environment. Any negative impacts or anything you want to share with our listeners as to how surfers can mitigate any of the negative impacts that surfing has or interaction has with the ocean?
EVAN MARKS: Surfing is a pretty amazing culture. Our work ties hand-in-hand to Hurley, which is one of the largest surf brands, and they’re directly in our community as well. So, I do work with a lot of surfers. We tell the story that’s not only surf brands, but also their community. I think what the basic deal is that we’re all connected through what we call a watershed, meaning that everything we do at home relates to the ocean. The way that our gardens look and the way that we use our water inside the house and the products that we buy and the way that we dispose of them and the food that we eat and all that kind of stuff, everything ends up in the ocean. I guess as surfers, that’s the first piece, the education. Then there’s the engagement. How do I make a difference? That’s where’s we really come in and teach people how to transform their garden into something productive and mitigate run-off and pollution, and how to take the watershed concept back to home and ensure that all oceans will be healthy.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. So, you also, then, are engaged with Hurley and you do outreach with surfers around the United States and around the world.
EVAN MARKS: Yeah, it’s just beginning. We’re starting in our community, but as a global brand, the story is being taken further.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is awesome. The Ecology Center, where was that paradigm created? Are there 1,000 Ecology Centers across the United States and the world? Are you one of a very few? Are you a new paradigm that others are going to be following? How did you come up with this inspirational center?
EVAN MARKS: It is a movement, and I tapped in on that and I thought that there was some wisdom to continuing that lineage. I shouldn’t be quoted, but probably the first Ecology Center was started in Berkeley, California back in probably the mid to late sixties, and they’re still around. Totally different type of work that we do, but I think that 40 years ago, that was a movement. They created all these Ecology Centers throughout the country. I would think there’s probably 40-50 of them right now. I think that we’re probably the youngest kids on the block, and the greatest thing about that network, and though we’re not connected directly all the time, each Ecology Center is connected to the needs of their community. I think that’s the greatest intention. We were in New York, and there’s a Lower East Side Ecology Center. There’s one in Berkeley and there’s one in Minnesota, and they all have specific programming that relates to their work. It would be really fun to think that our programs would be scalable to some of these organizations, and vice-versa.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, they’re all community-based and they best serve the community that they’re in, even though they all have the similarity of the ecology thread that goes through all of them. Do you have an Ecology Center Association where you all meet annually and share best practices?
EVAN MARKS: No, there isn’t really any formality to it, believe it or not. I think that that’s an opportunity. As we’re all working prospectively to build community, it would be really important for us to come together.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: I agree because imagine all of you together sharing best practices. What a learning experience that would be for everybody.
EVAN MARKS: Absolutely.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re so close to the water. You, yourself, love the water, given your surf experience. Talk a little bit about your exhibition, How Good Water Works.
EVAN MARKS: That’s a collaboration with Hurley, and we’ve brought in another team player from New York called Zago. It’s the three of us that started this conversation about a year-and-a-half ago. We just started from the top, and we said, “OK, so how do we make a difference in our community around water? Goal number one. How do we achieve that? What are the water issues here?” One of the first pieces that we came to is that though the water is visible, like in the ocean, water is everywhere around us that we don’t see. So, everything we do takes water at the same time, so there’s two pieces of that. How do we make water visible? That was a greater visual that we continued to run with, so we’ve got these very obsessive blue lines everywhere that are just trying to navigate us through the water infrastructure, that water is everywhere. We’re connected to it, and we take it for granted, so let’s make it visible. The second piece, like I mentioned, is that everything we do takes water. That’s called water footprinting. It’s a whole new conversation beyond the typical water conservation concept, and it’s really that literally the food we eat, the products we buy, the cars we drive, the energy we switch from the wall, that all has a water footprint and a water story, which connects to our conversation earlier. We only talk about solutions. So, there’s 10 ways to make a difference, is what we paired it down to. It’s in our everyday lives. It’s turning off the lights and switching out your bulbs to efficient bulbs. That saves water. That saves 5 gallons a day. A pound of beef is 1,200 gallons, so to think that you could switch out a meat-based diet to a veggie-based diet, even just once a week, that’s 1,000 gallons saved. There’s some simple stuff around the house, whether it be just turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth or installing a drip irrigation system or native plants or going to the farmers’ market. All these things have some massive water savings opportunities. That’s kind of the whole piece. We started with, “Geez, that’s a lot of water.” We realized the average southern Californian consumes 1,800 gallons a day, so it’s incredible. At the same time, one in six globally don’t have access to even 5 gallons. What we created was this big monster that represented that 1,800 gallons. It’s named the Juggernaut, or Juggie. There’s a big robot made out of 365 sparklers bottles, the 5-gallon bottles, and there’s a huge monster in the front of our center. So, the whole exhibition within the historic farmhouse at the Ecology Center was how good water works and was all about feeding Juggie. We’re open Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 5.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s so interesting. You were just talking about water. Mike and I were so honored to have Allen Hershkowitz on with us the other day from the NRDC, and he’s another brilliant thought leader, truly really one of the real brilliant thought leaders of our times. He was sharing with us, as we were signing off, as you just pointed out, Evan, that at least half-a-billion people on this planet don’t have access to potable water. It’s something that we all take for granted. Thinking more about water, like you just said, the opportunity to save water is so important. It’s so great that that’s part of the messaging that you’re doing at the Ecology Center. That’s wonderful. We’re down to the last three or four minutes here. We’re online here, and we’re looking at all the great resources you have. Talk a little bit about the backyard skills book. Explain to our listeners about that a little bit.
EVAN MARKS: Like I talked about earlier, that book was inspired by the workshop series that we have actively that’s been going on for the last year-and-a-half. It was our first big project that said, “How do we take our work offsite?” Like I said, we’ve designed actively to tell our story. We teamed up with David Rager and we built this really great handbook. We’re really proud of it. We self-published it. It’s been out about three months out, and we’ve been selling quite a few copies of it. It’s a super accessible book. There are 19 DYI activities that you can do with your four-year-old kid or you can do with you and your wife at any age group. The teens love it, for sure. There’s fun stuff. All the examples I talked about earlier are in that book, plus a whole bunch of different sustainability information and primer.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Give a little plug. Where can they buy that book?
EVAN MARKS: They can buy that book on our website.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. We’ll give a shout-out to that great theecologycenter.org before we sign off. We’re down to the last minute-and-a-half. Evan, what we get a lot from young people around the world, we get e-mails, Mike and I, on how can they be the next Evan Marks. Why don’t you share some of the pearls of wisdom of your journey and how the generation following you can grab the mantle with you and continue this transformational journey here with regards to sustainability?
EVAN MARKS: I think it starts with a passion. If you can find something that you’re passionate about and then become an expert in that, just one thing. And then from that one thing becomes many things, one at a time. Then you’ve got this very diverse skillset that, then, will empower an entire community. Wholeheartedly, that’s where I started, with one thing I wanted to be an expert on, organic gardening and farming. From that avenue, I learned about how community systems work. Farming and food were key parts, but so was water and waste management, architecture. I started putting all the pieces together, and at the end of the day, I realized that it does take a whole group of people to be experts in all these things. It’s nice to have a bit of information on all different types of subject matter, to be a generalist in many regards on all aspects of sustainability. And then, of course, the second piece is figuring out where the network starts, and then just continuing that on and building the community from there.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Evan, Mike and I are so thankful for your time today. You’re doing wonderful work. We’re honored to have you on, and you’re always welcome to come back. For our listeners out there, please go to Evan’s great website, theecologycenter.org. Buy the book, Backyard Skills. You won’t be disappointed. Evan Marks, you are both an eco-visionary and a transformation agent, and truly living proof that green is good.