Preventing Ecological Catastrophe Means Abolishing Hierarchy and Domination

Written by Yavor Tarinski / Image source:


The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man[1]

Murray Bookchin


Nowadays the need to act against the ongoing environmental degradation seems more than evident. From marginal activist groups to governments of the strongest countries on the planet, all appear to be concerned with how the future of our shared world will look like. What however doesn’t seem so obvious is HOW we are going to deal with the deepening ecological crisis.

The mainstream environmentalist opinion, strongly propagated by governments and big business, strives at identifying the primary ecological challenge as being the preservation of wildlife or wilderness, while blaming overpopulation, technological development or individual behavior. This view, however, seems highly unsatisfactory. If we begin examining the roots of various sources of environmental degradation we will see the systemic nature of the problem. Behind massive oil spills in oceans, extensive deforestation of rainforests, pollution of air etc. is the capital-nation-state complex and its crusade for more power and domination. For this reason Murray Bookchin has concluded that the real battleground on which the ecological future of the planet will be decided is clearly a social one.[2]

On hierarchy and domination

The ongoing environmental crisis is rooted in the social relations of hierarchy and domination. It can be argued that the human feeling of superiority over nature has been developing hand-in-hand with the idea of superiority of one man over another. Thus the domination over nature precedes capitalism, unlike some trends of eco-socialists would like to believe.

Thinkers like social ecologist Dimitrios Roussopoulos and the Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan have been arguing that the phenomenon of elites attempting to dominate over nature and other people can be traced back to the rise of patriarchy and gerontocracy. The gradual enslavement of the young by the old and of the woman by the man led to major shift in social imaginary: there was a replacement of feminine conceptions of symbiosis within society and with nature by masculine conceptions of strong authority and exploitation.

With the emergence of statecraft, domination and hierarchy were further internalized by society through the bureaucratization of everyday life, imposed by the State. Bureaucratic management dehumanized people by turning them into taxpayers and vote casters, while destroying the traditional organic relation communities had with the land and the commons.

Environmental degradation was much worsened when older forms of domination and hierarchy were compounded with capitalism. The capitalist trend towards unlimited economic growth and utilitarisation of everything increased exponentially the destruction of ecosystems. This was so because the synthesis of the State with capitalism established a system of domination with global dimensions which views life as insignificant and in narrow utilitarian manner. Business elites and ruling politicians formed global stratum, whose power expands over the entire planet and those on it, creating preconditions for unseen exploitation, both of nature and human beings.

Democracy and Ecology

The way our societies view and treat nature is reflecting the way they are being socially structured. Thus in the current reality of social stratification, where there is certain stratum managing and exploiting the vast majority of the population, dominates the idea of humanity exercising mastery over the vast world of complex ecosystems that covers the planet. But it also means that our social relations can be radically restructured so as to reflect the complexity of the natural world.

The primitive people of ancient times lived in what Bookchin called “organic societies”, i.e. communities whose members had non-hierarchical and highly egalitarian relations with each other and with the surrounding environment. They were not patriarchal, but “metricentric”, which does not mean that they were run by women, but that they had internalized feminine values like care and mutual aid.

Later on societies became more centralized and authorities emerged that regarded those they ruled, and the land they ruled over, as inferior. Ancient Athens was an important exception to this trend, because of a political project that emerged among its people – direct democracy. Athenian democratic politics created space of equality between men and respect for nature.

Athenians created a system through which citizens directly managed the public affairs of their city and chose their magistrates by lot. And while they did not allowed women to participate in political deliberation, and neither abolished slavery, something that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, it is important to note that in most places of the ancient world exclusion of women and slaves from public life was very common. What was exceptional for its time was the notion of democracy: the idea that ordinary people, without titles or professional skills, can participate consciously and equally in the management of their society. On this last point Bookchin noted that the Athenian experience represented an advance over the primitive organic societies[3].

Athenians were conscious of the consequences their acts could have on nature, thus adopting an attitude of stewardship. They viewed themselves as stewards, i.e. not masters or exploiters, but beings that depend on the natural environment, hence responsible for its protection and sustenance. This was an attitude that highly resembled direct democracy. People like Theophrasus, who came to Athens at an early age, regarded the interaction of society with nature as relationship between two autonomous equal entities.[4]

Nowadays there is another such democratic and ecological exception, located at the heart of the war-torn Middle East – these are the communities of Northern Syria or Rojava. The emancipatory project that these societies are building is called Democratic Confederalism and it is based on three pillars: autonomous society, ecological sustainability and gender equality[5]. Out of the rubbles of war-torn cities, the people of Rojava launched an ecological campaign to “Make Rojava Green Again”[6]. Through it they aim at addressing and dealing with issues related to cultivation of food beyond monocultures and chemical fertilizers, reforesting large swaths of land, providing alternative forms of sustainable electricity, limiting fossil fuel usage, preserving water supplies, and even developing waste management solutions.

Fighting environmental degradation

To successfully tackle the ongoing environmental crisis, we need to go beyond green reforms, whose aim is to only maintain the status quo. The current dominant imperatives of grow-or-die economism and exploitation, even in greener forms, will always be degradive to our common world. We need to focus on the root-cause of the problem.

All forms of domination, not just capitalism or statecraft, must be confronted by collective action and by major social movements that challenge the social (and thus political) sources of the ecological crisis, not simply by individualistic forms of greener consumption or New Age spiritualism, but by the creation of spaces of popular participation and sustainability. An important strategy in this direction can be the concept of Libertarian Municipalism, introduced by Bookchin in the 1980s, according to which people should liberate their neighborhoods and cities by managing them collectively through popular decision-making bodies, simultaneously connecting them in democratic confederations.

Such an approach does not require a Grand Revolution for it to take place, but can begin taking shape here and now. Every workplace, educational institution, neighborhood square or condominium can become a political arena in which domination and hierarchy to be challenged. The seeds of one democratic and ecological future are already being planted by social movements and communities around the world and it is up to each one of us to help them flourish.

Janet Biehl has posed the dilemma of our time to be “Ecology or Catastrophe”. If it is to avoid the latter and embrace the former, we need to democratize our societies to such a degree, so there will be not even the slightest trace of domination and hierarchy. Nothing more, nothing less.


[1] Murray Bookchin: Towards an Ecological Society



[4] J. Donald Hughes Ecology in ancient Greece



September 25, 2018

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