Social Ecology

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keywords: Social Ecology critique, Murray Bookchin

Social Ecology

Social ecology claims that the environmental crisis is a result of the hierarchical organization of power & the authoritarian mentality rooted in the structures of our society. The Western ideology of dominating the natural world arises from these social relationships.

"The domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human"

'The Ecology of Freedom', page 1. Murray Bookchin

The alternative is society based on ecological principles; an organic unity in diversity, free of hierarchy & based on mutual respect for the interrelationship of all aspects of life.

If we change human society then our relationship with the rest of nature will become transformed.

Murray Bookchin is the key thinker of social ecology movement, so I concentrate on his version of its philosophy. Bookchin has carefully worked out a coherent and broad philosophy which he strongly defends. Perhaps because of this, social ecology presents a more consistent case than either deep ecology or eco-feminism.

Key Principles

The core principle of social ecology is that ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Ecological problems cannot be understood, much less resolved, without facing social issues.

Social hierarchy and class legitimizes our domination of the environment and underpins the consumer system.

"The root causes of environmental problems are such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of "progress" with corporate self-interest."

'What Is Social Ecology?'. Murray Bookchin

The ecological damage done by our society is more than matched by the harm it inflicts on humanity. Social ecology emphasizes that the destiny of human life goes hand-in-hand with the destiny of the non-human world.

"Social ecologists believe that things like racism, sexism, third world exploitation are a product of the same mechanisms that cause rainforest devastation"

'Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology'

Ecology show that nature can provide us with ethical principles. A flourishing eco-system maximizes diversity and interaction and minimises hierarchy and domination. The good of the whole is archived through "rich individuality and complex interrelationship of the parts." John Clark, 'Renewing the Earth', page 5.

Bookchin calls for a holistic 'ecological sensibility' that would encourage play and celebrate imagination.

Social Ecology and other theories

Bookchin claims that most environmentalists focus on the symptoms of our problems rather than the causes, so mistakenly focus on technology or population growth.

Reducing population won't help: "the media that have fostered mindless consumption would be mobilized to increase the purchase of goods, irrespective of the need for them." (Bookin. Ibid.)

Unless we change society, 'soft' technologies won't make any difference either. Simple technology can still wreak environmental damage if the ideology that uses it is unchanged: The forests of England were cut down with axes that had not changed since the Bronze Age.

Today's environmentalism is mere "environmental engineering" that is more concerned with "tinkering with existing institutions...and values than changing them." Environmentalism is used to "win large constituencies, not to educate them." (Quotes from 'Open Letter to the Ecology Movement', in 'Towards an Ecological Society'. Bookchin.)

Theories that claim the ecological crisis is a cultural rather than a social problem can also confuse the issue. Hierarchical societies had begun despoiling of the planet long before the emergence of modern science, 'linear' rationality, and 'industrial society', the cultural causes most often invoked by the ecology movement.

Social ecology is highly critical of the notion of green consumerism or green investment which Bookchin calls "green capitalism". Bookchin warns:

"We live in a highly cooptative society that is only too eager to find new areas of commercial aggrandizement and to add ecological verbiage to its advertising and customer relations."

What Is Social Ecology? Bookchin

He believes that no truly 'green' entrepreneur could survive because ecologically sound practices would place them at fatal disadvantage compared with rivals who can produce at lower costs. See Social Ecology Critique

Bookchin is well known for his dismissal of Deep Ecology as mystical 'eco-la-la', and it's easy to assume social ecology is suspicious of spirituality. But social ecology was "among the earliest of contemporary ecologies to call for a sweeping change in existing spiritual values." (Bookin. Ibid.)

Social ecology aims to replace our mentality of domination with an ethics of complementarity. Such an ethics reflects our true role which is to create a fuller, richer world for all  beings.

This ethics of complementarity has a spiritual dimension that is sometimes described by social ecologists as the "respiritization of the natural world" but is clearly not a call for a deistic theology.

"The spirituality advanced by social ecology is definitively naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic or pantheistic."
What Is Social Ecology? Bookchin

Humans and Nature and Society

Bookchin emphasizes that human beings are basically just highly intelligent primates. We are a part of nature and suggestions that we are a 'special case' are superficial and potentially misanthropic.

In a comment aimed at some deep ecologists, Bookchin says that to depict human beings "as 'aliens' that have no place or pedigree in natural evolution, or to see them essentially as an infestation that parasitizes a highly anthropomorphic version of the planet (Gaia) the way fleas parasitize dogs and cats, is bad thinking, not only bad ecology." (Bookin. Ibid.)

Far from being unnatural, humans are an expression of a deep natural process. Bookchin believes that human consciousness is a result of nature striving for increasing complexity and awareness. Humans are nature that has become self-aware. We are part of biological evolution, which Bookchin calls 'first Nature', but also have a unique social awareness which he calls 'second nature'.

Our second nature, the development of technology, science, social institutions, towns and cities, all depended on human abilities that evolved from first nature.

But although humans are part of the evolutionary process, that does not mean we can ignore humanity's unique place by putting the 'intrinsic worth' human beings on equal terms with every other species.

Bookchin rejects the 'either/or' thinking behind the commonly held opposites anthropocentricity and biocentricity. Anthropocentrism places humans at the top of a species hierarchy with the premise that the world was made for us. The opposing principle, biocentricity, claims that all beings have equal intrinsic value and is bound up with the notion of a 'biocentric democracy' which Bookchin describes as "almost meaningless". See the Deep Ecology Critique section on biocentric equality

Social ecology integrates first (biotic nature) with second (human nature). Human society and non-human nature are connected in one evolutionary flow.

Humans building cities and towns to create a comfortable place to live, just like any other species. The problem is that the environmental changes we produce are far greater that those of other species. Our 'second nature' has become a problem for ourselves and non-human life. How and why this happens is the key to solving our ecological crisis.

The Origins of Social Domination

Social domination originated with human males dominating females. The infirmities of age, increasing population, natural disasters, technological changes, the growth of civil society, and the spread of warfare were contributory factors.

Bookchin claims that the notion of a natural world separate from human culture appeared with the rise of hierarchy:

"the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human and the structuring of the natural world into a hierarchical Chain of Being"
'What Is Social Ecology?'. Murray Bookchin

We can only overcome the ideology of dominating nature by creating of a society without hierarchical structures or economic classes.

Bookchin claims that industrial growth isn't the result of a change in a cultural outlook alone, nor is it due to the impact of scientific rationality. Rather it stems from the principle of the market itself, the demand to grow or die.

The Ecological Society

In place of the existing hierarchical and class system social ecology proposes an egalitarian society based on mutual aid, caring and communitarian values. People in this new society would appreciate that the interests of the collective are inseparable from those of each individual.

Property would be shared and, ideally, belong to the community as a whole. In this "commune of communes" property would not belong to private producers or to a nation-state.

This transformation is to be achieved through radical collective action and co-operative social movements. The process of eliminating all domination must begin:

"not only in the factory but also in the family, not only in the economy but also in the psyche, not only in the material conditions of life but also in the spiritual ones."

'Open Letter to the the Ecology Movement', in Towards an Ecological Society Bookchin.

Bookchin believes that oppressive hierarchies & inequality are at the root of the problem, & that only a true community can solve the environmental crisis. Social Ecology is less well known in the UK than Deep Ecology, but deserves to more widely studied.

related links: Social Ecology critique
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