With all the debates and controversies that surrounded Murray Bookchin’s many years of active political engagement, few commentators have addressed the lasting influence he had on the social and environmental movements of the past four decades. Participants in those movements, however, will always remember his compelling presence and his inspiring words. The earliest radical ecologists of the 1960s discovered Murray’s early work in underground newsletters and often in pseudonymous pamphlets. Antinuclear campaigners in the 1970s looked to him for glimpses of what a world of decentralized, solar-powered communities might look like, and radicals engaged in Green politics on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s relied on his vast historical and theoretical contributions in their uphill struggle to counter the drift among Greens toward conventional parliamentary politics. In the 1990s, anticapitalist global justice activists sought Murray’s counsel and looked to his writings as they crafted prefigurative models of direct democracy to take to the streets of Seattle, Prague, and Quebec City.
Today, once again, people concerned about the future of life on earth are seeking an historical and philosophical, as well as a strategic underpinning for radical social and political action. The social ecology developed by Murray Bookchin in some thirty books and scores of articles, and advanced by Bookchin and his colleagues over more than forty years, offers the promise of a coherent theoretical outlook merging radical critique and analysis with a broad-ranging reconstructive social vision. In this age of imperial excesses, global injustices, and conspicuous disruptions in the earth’s climate, it appears that today’s social and ecological movements need social ecology more than ever. Murray Bookchin’s social ecology emerged from a time in the mid-1960s when ecological thought, and even ecological science, were widely viewed as “subversive.” Even relatively conventional environmental scientists were contemplating the broad political implications of an ecological worldview, confronting academic censorship, and raising challenging questions about the widely accepted capitalist dogma of perpetual economic growth. In a landmark 1964 issue of the journal Bioscience, the ecologist Paul Sears challenged the “pathological” nature of economic growth, and inquired whether ecology, “if taken seriously as an instrument for the long-run welfare of mankind [sic], would . . . endanger the assumptions and practices accepted by modern societies . . .”1
Bookchin carried the discussion to the next level, proposing that ecological thought is not merely “subversive,” but fundamentally revolutionary and reconstructive. With the world wars and Great Depression of the twentieth century having appeared to only strengthen global capitalism, Bookchin saw the emerging ecological crisis as one challenge that would fundamentally undermine the system’s inherent logic. His first book, Our Synthetic Environment, was issued (under the pseudonym, Lewis Herber) by a major New York publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and cited by authorities such as the microbiologist Réne Dubos as comparable in its influence to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.2 Our Synthetic Environment offered a detailed and accessible analysis of the origins of pollution, urban concentration, and chemical agriculture.
In 1964, in an article titled “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” Bookchin stated:
“The explosive implications of an ecological approach arise not only because ecology is intrinsically a critical science, critical on a scale that the most radical systems of political economy have failed to attain but also because it is an integrative and reconstructive science. This integrative, reconstructive aspect of ecology, carried through to all its implications, leads directly into anarchic areas of social thought. For, in the final analysis, it is impossible to achieve a harmonization of man [sic] and nature without creating a human community that lives in a lasting balance with its natural environment.”
Over the next four decades, Bookchin’s social ecology emerged as a unique synthesis of utopian social criticism, detailed historical and anthropological research, dialectical philosophy, and political strategy. It can be viewed as an unfolding of several distinct layers of understanding and insight, spanning all of these dimensions, and more.
At its most outward level, social ecology confronts the social and political roots of contemporary ecological problems. It critiques the ways of conventional environmental politics, and points activists toward radical, community-centered alternatives. Bookchin always insisted that ecological issues be understood as social issues, and was impatient with the narrowly instrumental approaches advanced by conventional environmentalists to address specific problems. The holistic outlook of ecological science, he argued, demands a social ecology that examines the systemic roots of our ecological crisis and challenges the institutions responsible for perpetuating the status quo.
This critical outlook led to many years of research into the evolving relationship between human societies and non-human nature. Both liberals and Marxists have generally viewed the “domination of nature” as a fulfillment of human destiny and human nature—or more recently as an unfortunate but necessary corollary to the advancement of civilization. Bookchin sought to turn this view on its head, describing the “domination of nature” as a myth perpetuated by social elites in some of the earliest hierarchical societies. Far from a historical necessity, efforts to dominate the natural world are a destructive byproduct of social hierarchies.
Bookchin examined the anthropological literature of the 1970s and ’80s, seeking principles and practices that emerge from our understanding of non-hierarchical “organic” societies: principles such as interdependence, usufruct, unity in diversity, complementarity, and the irreducible minimum: the principle that communities are responsible for meeting their members’ most basic needs.4 Complementarity for Bookchin meant disavowing the oppressive inequality of supposed “equals” within contemporary societies, instead invoking traditional communities’ ability to compensate for differences among members. Technology has never been an end in itself, or an autonomous principle of human evolution, but rather a reflection of an evolving “social matrix.”5 Bookchin’s historical and anthropological investigations affirmed his belief that any truly liberatory popular movement needs to challenge hierarchy in general, not just its particular manifestations in the form of oppression by race, gender, or class.
His explorations of the persistent role of social hierarchies in shaping social evolution and our relationships with non-human nature led Bookchin toward a philosophical inquiry into the evolutionary relationship between human consciousness and natural evolution. He sought to renew the legacy of dialectical philosophy, abandoning Marxist oversimplifications and reinterpreting dialectics from its origins in the works of philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel. Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism emphasizes the potentialities that are latent within the evolution of natural and social phenomena, and celebrates the uniqueness of human creativity, while emphasizing its emergence from the possibilities inherent in “first nature.” It eschews the common view of nature as merely a realm of necessity, instead viewing nature as striving to actualize its underlying potentiality for consciousness, creativity, and freedom.6
For Bookchin, a dialectical outlook on human history compels us to reject what merely is, and follow the logic of evolution toward an expanded view of what could be, and ultimately what ought to be. While the realization of a free, ecological society is far from inevitable — Bookchin was not the teleologist his critics sometimes caricatured him as — it is the most rational outcome of four billion years of natural evolution. This dialectical view of natural and social evolution led to the controversial claim that nature itself should be viewed as an objective ground for a social ethics.
While continuing to develop and clarify his philosophy of nature, Bookchin also developed a distinct approach to political praxis, aimed at realizing the ecological reconstruction of society. Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism draws on what he viewed as a fundamental underlying conflict between communities and the state, as well as on historical examples of emerging direct democracies, from the Athenian polis to the New England town meeting. Bookchin sought a redefinition of citizenship and a reinvigoration of the public sphere, with citizen assemblies moving to the center of public life in towns and neighborhoods, and taking control of essential political and economic decisions. Representatives in city councils and regional assemblies would become mandated delegates, deputized by their local assemblies and empowered only to carry out the wishes of the people.
Confederation is also a central aspect of libertarian municipalism, with communities joining together to sustain counterinstitutions aimed at undermining the state and advancing a broad liberatory agenda. Unlike many ecologists writing about politics, Bookchin embraced the historical role of cities as potential sites of freedom and universalism, and viewed the practice of citizenship in empowered neighborhood assemblies as a means for educating community members into the values of humanism, cooperation, and public service.7 The stifling anonymity of the capitalist market is to be replaced by a moral economy, in which economic, as well as political relationships, would be guided by an ethics of mutualism and genuine reciprocity.8
Libertarian municipalism offers both an outline of a political strategy and the structure underlying social ecology’s long-range reconstructive vision: a vision of directly democratic communities challenging state power while evolving in harmony with all of nature. This vision draws on decades of research into political structures, sustainable technologies, revolutionary popular movements, and the best of the utopian tradition in Western thought. Bookchin spent his last years intensively researching the history of revolutionary movements in the West, from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century, drawing out the lessons of the diverse, often subterranean, popular currents that formed the basis for revolutionary movements in England, France, the United States, Russia, Spain, and beyond.9
Social Ecology and Social Movements
The influence of this body of ideas upon popular ecological movements began with the underground distribution of Bookchin’s earlier essays during the 1960s. Ideas he first articulated, such as the need for a fundamentally radical ecology in contrast to technocratic environmentalism, became common wisdom among the growing ranks of ecologically informed radicals. Actions such as the creation of People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969, and the occupation of the administration building at Columbia University in 1968 (initially a protest against the university’s expansion plans in West Harlem), occurred at a time when the outlook of social ecology was beginning to inform and inspire radical thinkers and activists. Bookchin and his colleagues, including Institute for Social Ecology co-founder Dan Chodorkoff, participated in some of the earliest efforts to plan for the “greening” of cities and bring alternative solar-based technologies into inner-city neighborhoods.
By the late 1970s, social ecology was playing a much more visible role in the rapidly growing movement against nuclear power. Utility and state officials were identifying rural communities across the U.S. as potential sites for new nuclear power plants, and the movement that arose to counter this new colonization of the countryside united rural back-to-the-landers, seasoned urban activists, and a new generation of radicals who only partially experienced the ferment of the 1960s. Following the mass arrest of over 1,400 people who sought to nonviolently occupy a nuclear construction site in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1977, decentralized antinuclear alliances began to appear all across the U.S. These alliances were committed to nonviolent direct action, bottom-up forms of internal organization, and a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. They were captivated by the utopian dimension of the emerging “appropriate technology” movement, for which Bookchin and other social ecologists provided an essential theoretical and historical grounding. Over a hundred students came to the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) in Vermont every summer, to acquire hands-on experience in organic gardening and alternative technology, while studying social ecology, ecofeminism, reconstructive anthropology and other political and theoretical topics.
New England’s antinuclear Clamshell Alliance was the first to adopt the model of the affinity group as the basis of a long-range regional organizing effort.10 Murray Bookchin introduced the concept of grupos de afinidad—borrowed from the Spanish FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation)—into the U.S. in an appendix to his influential 1968 pamphlet, “Listen, Marxist!”11 Bookchin initially compared the revolutionary Spanish affinity groups to the countercultural collectives that were appearing in cities across the U.S. during the late 1960s. Quaker activists initially advocated the formation of affinity groups as a structure for personal support and security at large demonstrations at Seabrook. But after the mass arrests and two weeks of incarceration in New Hampshire’s National Guard Armories, participants began to view the affinity groups as the basis for a much more widely participatory, directly democratic form of social movement organization than had ever been realized before.
Bookchin’s original “Note on Affinity Groups” was distributed widely during the planning of the follow-up action at Seabrook in June of 1978, and activists in Vermont, Boston, and elsewhere in New England worked hard to make the Clamshell Alliance live up to the most profoundly democratic potential of this organizational model. Antinuclear alliances across the US followed the Clamshell in taking their names from local species of animals and plants that were endangered by the spread of nuclear power, and adopted affinity groups and spokescouncils as their fundamental organizational and decision-making structures.12
The euphoria of affinity group-based internal democracy was to be short-lived in the Clamshell, however. Protracted debates over the appropriateness of various tactics within a framework of organized nonviolence led to a growing polarization throughout the organization. When most of the original founders of the Clamshell Alliance acceded to a deal with New Hampshire’s Attorney General that led to the cancellation of the 1978 Seabrook occupation in favor a large legal rally, activists at the ISE, in Boston, and elsewhere helped expose the antidemocratic nature of that decision and pressed for a renewal of affinity group democracy. The Boston-area chapter was completely reorganized around affinity groups and neighborhood-based organizing collectives, and a new organization, the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook, picked up where the Clamshell left off. Bookchin’s writings on this period helped sustain the antinuclear movement’s powerful utopian impulses, and encouraged grassroots resistance to the betrayals of the movement’s self-appointed “leaders.”
Green Politics and Beyond
By the early 1980s, Bookchin and other social ecologists began to closely follow the emergence of a new Green political movement in West Germany and other European countries. Social ecologists became excited about this new “anti-party party” that initially functioned more as an alliance of grassroots “citizen initiatives” than a conventional parliamentary vehicle. In the early 1980s, European Greens were running for office as delegates from various social movements, decisions were made primarily at the local level, and those elected to public offices or internal positions of responsibility were obliged to rotate their positions every two years. Greens in Germany and other countries were articulating a sweeping ecological critique in all areas of public policy—from urban design, energy use and transportation, to nuclear disarmament and support for emerging democratic movements in Eastern Europe. Translations of Bookchin’s writings played an influential role in the development of this new Green political agenda.
Staff members of the ISE played a central role in organizing the first gathering—in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1984—aimed at constituting a Green political formation in the U.S. One significant bloc of participants at that meeting were pushing for a national organization, through which self-appointed representatives of various issue-oriented constituencies would form a national organization, relate to other NGOs on the national level, and perhaps create a national Green Party within the year. The model that prevailed, however, was that of a more decentralized, grassroots-based movement, rooted in Green locals empowering regional delegates to make confederal decisions following locally debated mandates. Social ecologists in New England had already begun to form a confederation of Green locals on that model, and the idea once again spread across the country. By the first national conference of the US Greens, in Amherst, Massachusetts in July of 1987, there were already over a hundred grassroots Green locals spread across the country. Ideas from social ecology, and activists based at the ISE, played key roles in the development of the first national Green Program between 1988 and 1990.
The early 1990s saw a growing tension between Greens committed to grassroots democracy and a municipalist politics, and those advocating for a U.S. Green Party that would field candidates for national office. Social ecologists in New England circulated a call for a Left Green Network in 1988, and similarly minded activists in the San Francisco Bay Area developed a Radical Green caucus. As Greens across the U.S. collaborated on the development of a national program, policy positions advocated by the Left Greens were adopted by three consecutive national gatherings, much to the chagrin of those promoting a more mainstream agenda. Ironically, many Left Greens and other grassroots activists began losing interest in the Greens at this point. Green moderates went on to form a separate national organization, based exclusively on state-certified Green Parties, while the Left Green Network continued holding educational conferences and publishing educational materials largely independent of any other Green entity.
During the same period, a group of recent ISE students formed a youth caucus in the Greens, which eventually became an independent organization known as the Youth Greens. The Youth Greens attracted a significant base of young radicals largely from outside the Greens, and joined with the Left Greens to initiate a major direct action to coincide with the April 1990 twentieth anniversary of the original Earth Day. On the day following the official commemorations—a Sunday filled with polite, heavily corporate sponsored events—several hundred Left Greens, Youth Greens, ecofeminists, environmental justice activists, Earth Firsters! and urban squatters converged on Wall Street seeking to obstruct the opening of stock trading on that day. Activists based around the ISE in Vermont had prepared a comprehensive action handbook, featuring a variety of social ecology writings, and helped create a broad, empowering coalition effort. The next day, columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote in the New York Daily News:
Certainly, those who sought to co-opt Earth Day into a media and marketing extravaganza, to make the public feel good while obscuring the corporate root of the Earth’s pollution almost succeeded. It took angry Americans from places like Maine and Vermont to come to Wall Street on a workday and point the blame where it belongs.13
Meanwhile, in Burlington, Vermont, Bookchin and other social ecologists formed the Burlington Greens to develop positions on urban issues and run candidates for local office. The Greens opposed the commercial development of the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront, and argued that the neighborhood assemblies established by the Progressive city administration for planning and administrative purposes should become the basis for a more empowered model of democratic neighborhood governance. The Burlington Greens gained national headlines in 1989 when the Greens contested several City Council seats and a Green candidate challenged the city’s Progressive mayor in a citywide election.
During the 1980s and ’90s, social ecologists also played a central role in the development and elaboration of ecofeminist ideas. Ynestra King’s ecofeminism classes at the ISE during the late 1970s were probably the first to be offered anywhere and annual ecofeminist colloquia were organized by Chaia Heller and other social ecologists during the early 1990s. Ecofeminist activists played a central role in initiating two Women’s Pentagon Actions and a women’s peace camp alongside the Seneca Army Depot in New York State, however ecofeminism evolved through the 1990s as a predominantly cultural and spiritual movement that social ecologists became increasingly skeptical about.14 Self-identified ecofeminists with a rather eclectic mix of political outlooks also played a central role in the evolution of Green politics in the U.S.15
In the later 1990s, activists connected to the Institute for Social Ecology played a central role in the rapidly growing movement to promote global justice and challenge the institutions of capitalist globalism. Social ecologists raised discussions around the broad potential for direct democracy as a counter-power to centralized economic and political institutions, and helped further the evolution toward a long-range reconstructive vision within the movement that came of age on the streets of Seattle. A few ISE students were centrally involved in the organizing for the WTO shutdown in Seattle, and several others formed an affinity group to participate in and document the actions. After Seattle, the ISE booklet Bringing Democracy Home highlighted the writings of various social ecologists on potential future directions for the movement. Global justice activists from across the U.S. attended programs at the ISE in Vermont during the early years of this decade to further their political analysis and join Bookchin and other faculty members in wide-ranging discussions of where the movement might be heading.
Around the same time, the ISE’s Biotechnology Project pioneered the use of New England’s town meetings as a primary organizing vehicle to express opposition to the genetic engineering of food. In March of 2002, residents in twenty-eight Vermont towns voted for labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods and a moratorium on GE crops. Eight towns took the further step of discouraging or declaring a moratorium on the planting of GE crops within their town. By 2007, eighty-five Vermont towns and 120 across New England had passed similar resolutions. At a time when efforts to adequately regulate GE products at the national level had become hopelessly deadlocked, this campaign reinvigorated public discussion of GE issues in the region and across the U.S., gained international attention, and articulated a broader analysis of the social and ecological implications of genetic engineering and the commodification of life. It also revealed the limits of town meeting organizing absent a broader municipalist consciousness. A majority of those who worked to bring the issue to their towns were content to view their resolutions merely as a means to lobby legislators and other state and federal officials, rather than as part of a broader strategy to reclaim municipal political power, a problem that continues to be debated and theorized by social ecologists today.16
Social Ecology, Eco-Marxism and “Political Ecology”
Over the past decade, as a new generation of activists came to take for granted both the ecological crisis, and capitalism’s increasing adaptation to it, a host of new “radical ecologies” have emerged from circles of academic Marxists, international development scholars, and progressive geographers. Each of these schools of thought has sought to substantially reinvent the history of ecological radicalism, often denying the central role of social ecology and overlooking many of the profound debates that have influenced ecological activists and scholars since the 1960s. Among these are James O’Connor’s socialist ecology, John Bellamy Foster’s ecological Marxism, and at least two schools of what has come to be called “political ecology.”
O’Connor, a prominent Marxist economic crisis theorist, founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (CNS) in 1988, and grew it into a respected international journal of critical ecological research and social theory. He framed contemporary social and ecological problems as manifestations of a “second contradiction of capitalism,” in which the economy is plagued not only by a declining rate of profit (Marx’s crisis of overproduction), but an inherent inability to pay for the problems it creates (a crisis of underproduction).17 O’Connor, somewhat unique among Marxists, acknowledged an inherent limit to capitalist expansion, which he viewed as an imperative for increased cooperation, social regulation and planning. His attempts to reconcile ecology and Marxism, however, were perhaps fatally undermined by a persistent underlying economic reductionism. In the early 1990s, the CNS journal published John Clark’s rather bizarre essay, “A Social Ecology,” which framed the history of radical ecological thought in a highly revisionist fashion, casting Bookchin as a significant, but ultimately marginal figure in the development of social ecology.
John Bellamy Foster, a current editor of the independent Marxist journal Monthly Review, has written extensively about ecology since the 1990s, and offers a somewhat more accessible ecological Marxism. His main theoretical work, Marx’s Ecology, offers a fascinating, in-depth examination of the roots of Marx’s ideas in classical philosophical materialism and early ecological science.18 However his more popular ecological writing is quite problematic, especially his approach to the development of left ecological ideas. He repeatedly responds to social ecology without ever discussing it, and references Bookchin's work in only the most cursory possible ways. Foster’s 2002 book Ecology Against Capitalism attacks a generic, straw-man “green theory,” while continually borrowing phrases from Bookchin: “Ecology and human freedom,” a book chapter steeped in narrow economic reductionism; “Crisis of Socio-Ecology”; and even “Dialectical Naturalism,” attributed, of course, to Frederick Engels. 19 Joel Kovel, the current editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, has offered a perspective more sympathetic to social ecology, but his most comprehensive and forward-looking work, The Enemy of Nature, is rather dismissive of Bookchin’s contributions and instead seeks solutions to the inherent conflict between ecology and capitalism in an eclectic mix of Christian socialism, affinity groups, organic farms, and community credit unions.20
Meanwhile, more traditional academics have tried to carry the discussion of ecology and politics in a number of interesting but ultimately limited directions. The current literature of “political ecology” is reviewed in two comprehensive and detailed texts, both published in the last several years. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, by Paul Robbins of Ohio State University, has its roots in cultural geography and development studies.21 It reviews a broad scope of critical studies of environmental issues in the global South, but fundamentally dehistoricizes the evolution of ecological thought. There is almost no acknowledgement of any of the thinkers or ideas that have guided ecological debates over the past several decades. Robbins does cite Kropotkin, his French counterpart Elisée Reclus, and nineteenth-century Vermont naturalist George Perkins Marsh as important progenitors of the field, but the remaining history of ecological thought is essentially replaced by the works of contemporary academic geographers whose researches are little known outside of their academic discipline.
Another school of “political ecology,” which initially emerged out of Oxford in the 1970s, is featured in the text, Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science,22 by Tim Forsyth of the London School of Economics. This work offers a critical, politically astute outlook on key issues in environmental science and management, informed by the ideas of prominent thinkers in critical theory and science studies. Forsyth’s approach is self-consciously data-driven, and seeks to challenge traditional environmental “orthodoxies” in various fields of activity, while carefully disavowing the reactionary views of environmental “contrarians” such as the Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg. Forsyth invokes the language of democracy in two central chapters, but this is democracy as the demystification of scientific research, not as the foundation of a broader reconstruction of society.
Meanwhile, a flowering of popular ecological movements for land rights and community survival, and against the privatization of public services has arisen throughout the global South. From the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico to “water wars” in Bolivia and India, widespread land seizures by displaced farming communities in Brazil, and the activities of radical farmers in South Korea, among others, these movements have increasingly captured the imagination of global justice advocates, even those who initially seemed to take ecological matters for granted. These movements offer a profound challenge to environmental politics, as it is commonly practiced in the North, and have also helped provoked a broad critique of the North’s traditional approaches to land conservation, as practiced by transnational NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. While some authors have appropriately cautioned against the automatic labeling of indigenous, land-based movements as ecological,23 the resurgence of interest in these movements has helped sustain the interest of global justice activists in ecological matters. It has also encouraged thoughtful urban youth to once again broadly identify with the worldviews of those whose livelihoods are still derived from the land.
During the first half of this decade, the traditional environmental movement in the U.S. was rocked by an internal crisis of confidence, one that came into popular view in 2004 with the wide distribution of an extended essay provocatively titled “The Death of Environmentalism.”24 Responding to the dramatic rollback of environmental regulation under two Bush administrations, and the failure of policy advocates in the U.S. to adequately address the impacts of global climate disruption, the essay (authored by two public relations consultants with close ties to the foundation world) echoed radical critiques of environmental praxis, while mainly seeking to unite big business and organized labor in a “New Apollo Project” for the development of renewable-energy technologies. In 2005, a group of prominent environmental justice advocates circulated a response titled “The Soul of Environmentalism,” which sought to reclaim the social movement roots of environmentalism in early civil rights struggles, and urge more attention to “big issues,” community building, and “deep change.” 25 This response effectively critiqued the narrow assumptions of “The Death of Environmentalism,” and reaffirmed vital historical and practical links to other social movements, but was relatively sparse in its specific proposals for moving forward.
Today, with a growing awareness of climate disruptions and the profound ecological upheavals that may likely be upon us, environmental politics once again appears ascendant. But most often it is the same narrowly instrumental environmentalism that Bookchin critiqued in the 1960s and ’70s. “Green consumerism,” which first emerged as a national phenomenon around the 1990 Earth Day anniversary, has returned with a vengeance, incessantly promoted as the key to reducing our personal impact on the climate. Carbon dioxide trading, a transparently false solution first proposed in the late 1980s, has been advanced as the most politically acceptable policy option.26 Public debates range from fruitless controversies over whether or not human-induced climate change is real, to narrow prescriptions for establishing a market price for carbon dioxide that might induce corporations to reduce their emissions. Even well-known radicals, such as the popular British columnist George Monbiot, focus on demonstrating the feasibility of a “least painful” lower-energy scenario, rather than posing a fundamental ecological challenge to the further destructive development of global capitalism.27
Social Ecology and the Future
In this disturbingly constrained political and intellectual environment, what is the future for ecologically minded radicals? Will capitalism finally come to terms with the environmental crisis? Or does the imperative of responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change still present a fundamental political challenge and a hope for a genuinely better future? To address these questions it is useful to consider some of the particular ways that social ecology may continue to inform and enlighten today’s emerging social and environmental movements.
First, social ecology offers an uncompromising ecological outlook that challenges the supremacy of capitalism and the state. A movement that fails to confront the underlying causes of environmental destruction and climate disruption can, at best, only superficially address those problems. At worst, capitalism offers false solutions—such as the worldwide production of so-called biofuels to replace gasoline and diesel fuel—that only aggravate problems in the longer term.28 Ultimately, to fully address the causes of climate change and other compelling environmental problems requires us to raise visionary demands that the dominant economic and political systems will likely prove unable to accommodate.
Social ecology’s forty-year evolution also offers a vehicle to better comprehend the origins and the historical emergence of ecological radicalism—from the nascent movements of the late 1950s and early sixties, to the eco-saturated present. Over four decades, the writings of Murray Bookchin and his colleagues reflected upon the most important on-the-ground debates within ecological and social movements with passion and polemic, as well as with humor and long-range vision.
Thirdly, social ecology offers the most comprehensive theoretical treatment of the origins of human social domination and its historical relationship to abuses of the earth’s living ecosystems. Social ecology has consistently pointed to the origins of ecological destruction in social relations of domination, in contrast to both liberal and Marxist views that an impulse to dominate non-human nature is a product of a lasting historical necessity.
Fourth, social ecology presents a framework for comprehending the origins of human consciousness and the emergence of human reason from its natural context. Dialectical naturalism reaches far beyond popular, often solipsistic notions of an “ecological self,” grounding the ‘embeddedness’ of consciousness in nature in a coherent theoretical framework with roots in classical nature philosophies. It offers a philosophical challenge to overturn popular acceptance of the world as it is, and to persistently inquire as to how things ought to be.
Fifth, social ecology offers activists an historical and strategic grounding for political and organizational debates about the potential for direct democracy. Social ecologists have worked to bring the praxis of direct democracy into social movements since the 1970s, and Bookchin’s work offers a vital historical and theoretical context for this continuing conversation.
Sixth, at a time when the remaining land-based peoples around the world are facing unprecedented assaults on their communities and livelihoods, social ecology reminds us of the roots of Western radicalism in land-based movements and communities, in stark contrast to the mythologized industrial proletariat of orthodox Marxism. Bookchin’s The Third Revolution describes in detail how revolutionary movements in Europe, from the Middle Ages to the Spanish Civil War, have cultural roots in pre-industrial social relations, an understanding which can serve to historicize and deromanticize our approach to contemporary peasant-centered movements. Rather than an exotic other, vaguely reminiscent of a distant and idealized past, current peasant movements offer much insight and practical guidance toward reclaiming both our past and our future.
Seventh, social ecology offers a coherent and articulate political alternative to economic reductionism, identity politics, and many other trends that often dominate today’s progressive left. Bookchin polemicized relentlessly against these and other disturbing tendencies, insisting that our era’s ecological crises compel a focus on the general interest, with humanity itself as the only viable “revolutionary subject.” Social ecology has helped connect contemporary revolutionaries with the legacies of the past, and offered a theoretical context for sustaining a coherent, emancipatory, revolutionary social vision.
Finally, Bookchin insisted for four decades on the inseparability of oppositional political activity from a reconstructive vision of an ecological future. He viewed most popular leftist writing of our era as only half complete, focusing on critique and analysis to the exclusion of a coherent way forward. At the same time, social ecologists have often spoken out against the increasing accommodation of so-called “alternative” institutions—including numerous once-radical co-ops and collectives—to a stifling capitalist status quo. Opposition without a way forward leads to exhaustion and burnout. “Alternative” institutions without a link to vital, counter-systemic social movements are cajoled and coerced by “market forces” into the ranks of non-threatening “green” businesses. They serve an elite clientele with “socially responsible” products, while everyone else is left to settle for toxic food, endless plastic, and a staggering volume of utterly disposable consumer goods.
Defenders of the status quo would have us believe that “green” capitalism and the “information economy” will usher in a transition to a more ecological future. But, like all the capitalisms of the past, this latest incarnation relies ultimately on the perpetual expansion of its reach.
All of humanity, from imperial urban centers to remote rural villages, is being sold on a way of life that can only continue to devour the earth and its peoples. Today’s hi-tech consumer lifestyles, whether played out in New York, Beijing, or the hinterlands, defies all limits, raising global inequality and economic oppression to heretofore unimaginable proportions while thoroughly destabilizing the earth’s ability to sustain complex life.
The corrosive simplification of living ecosystems, and the retreat into an increasingly unstable and synthetic world that Murray Bookchin predicted in the 1960s, has evolved from a disturbing future projection to a global reality. Our survival now depends on our ability to challenge this system at its core, and evolve a broad, counterhegemonic social movement that refuses to compromise on partial measures. Hopefully such a movement will embrace and continue to expand and elaborate the revolutionary and reconstructive social vision of social ecology.
Brian Tokar is a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology and director of the Institute’s Biotechnology Project. His books include Earth for Sale (South End Press), Redesigning Life? (Zed Books), and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom).
1 Paul B. Sears, “Ecology: A Subversive Subject,” BioScience, Vol. 14, No. 7, July 1964.
2 René Dubos, Man Adapting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, p. 196.
3 Murray Bookchin, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1971, p. 58. Post-Scarcity Anarchism was reprinted by Black Rose Books (Montreal) in 1986 and by AK Press (San Francisco) in 2004.
4 Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, (Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982), esp. Chapters 2 and 3. The Ecology of Freedom has also been reissued by both Black Rose (1991) and AK Press (2005).
5 ibid., Chapters 9, 10.
6 The fullest elaboration of these ideas appears in Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990 (Revised 1995).
7 Bookchin, “A New Municipal Agenda,” in Urbanization Without Cities, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992 (republished by Cassell in London, UK in 1995). Also see his earlier Limits of the City, originally published by Harper & Row in 1974 and in an expanded edition by Black Rose Books.
8 Bookchin, “Market Economy or Moral Economy,” in The Modern Crisis, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986.
9 Bookchin’s The Third Revolution appeared in four volumes, issued between 1996 and 2005 by Cassell in London and New York.
10 At least one earlier mass action, aimed at shutting down Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War in the spring of 1971, was organized on the affinity group model, but Clamshell activists were the first in the U.S. to make this the underlying structure of their organization.
11 Reprinted in Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, op. cit. ref. 3.
12 A sympathetic, but factually flawed description of the libertarian and feminist roots of this movement, on both the east and west coasts, is available in Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
13 Juan Gonzalez, “Getting Serious about Ecology,” New York Daily News, April 24, 1990.
14 See Chaia Heller, Ecology of Everyday Life, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999; also Janet Biehl, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics, Boston: South End Press, 1991.
15 See Greta Gaard, Ecological Politics: Ecofeminists and the Greens, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
16 The most comprehensive paper on this topic is Ben Grosscup, “Town Meeting Advocacy in New England: Potentials and Pitfalls,” presented at the 2007 Social Ecology Colloquium (Marshfield, Vermont).
17 James O’Connor, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” in John S. Dryzek and David Schlosberg, eds., Debating the Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, Oxford University Press, 1998.
18 John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
19 John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002.
20 Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, London: Zed Books. 2002.
21 Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, Malden, MA. and Oxford, UK: Blackwell 2004.
22 Tim Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology: The politics of environmental science, London & New York: Routledge, 2003.
23 Larry Lohmann, “Visitors to the Commons,” in Bron Taylor, ed., Ecological Resistance Movements, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.68 24 Available at www.thebreakthrough.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf.
25 Available at www.rprogress.org/soul/soul.pdf.
26 For an historical overview, see Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale, Boston: South End Press, 1997, Chapter 2; for a detailed examination of the consequences of present carbon trading policies, see Larry Lohmann, “Carbon Trading: A critical conversation on climate change, privatization and power,” in Development Dialogue No. 48, September 2006 (Uppsala: Dag Hammerskjold Center).
27 George Monbiot, Heat: How to stop the planet from burning, Boston: South End Press, 2007. For a comprehensive review of more radical solutions to the climate crisis, see the “Less Energy” series in the Green politics journal Synthesis/Regeneration (St. Louis: WD Press), beginning with the Winter 2007 issue (No. 42).
28 See Brian Tokar, “The Real Scoop on Biofuels,” at http://ww4report.com/node/2864; also Eric Holt-Gimenez, “The Great Biofuel Hoax,” at www.alternet.org/environment/54218/; and the July 2007 special issue of Seedling, published by GRAIN in Barcelona.