Toward an Ecological Society

Written by Brian Morris as a chapter in his Pioneers of Ecological Humanism: Mumford, Dubos and Bookchin (Black Rose Books, 2017).

If we are to survive an ecological catastrophe, Bookchin fervently writes, ‘We must decentralize, restore bioregional forms of production and food cultivation, diversify our technologies, scale them to human dimensions, and establish face-to-face forms of democracy’ (1980: 27). Bookchin never seems to have deviated from these essential premises. A committed environmental activist, particularly in his early years, he drafted in 1969 a manifesto for the radical collective Ecology Action East. It is of interest that this manifesto was published in a path-breaking anthology on environmental ethics, along with several other seminal essays, including Lynn White Jr on The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis (1967) and Rene´ Dubos’ A Theology of the Earth (see Barbour 1973: 243–252).

The manifesto, entitled The Power to Destroy, the Power to Create (see Bookchin 1980: 35–54) begins with a succinct outline of the ecological crisis, Bookchin summarizing the main themes of Our Synthetic Environment. In almost every region, Bookchin writes, ‘air is being befouled, waterways polluted, soil washed away, the land desiccated, and wildlife destroyed. Coastal areas and even the depths of the sea are not immune to widespread pollution’ (1980: 35). More crucial, the basic biological cycles, relating to carbon and nitrogen, are being seriously disturbed, threatening the integrity of life on earth. Equally significant, given his later and important writings on the reclamation of the city, Bookchin, following Mumford and Dubos, catalogues the adverse effects of expanding urbanization. These include: the increasing impact of background noise; the congestion of highways and city streets by motor traffic; the psychological anomie and stress created by dense concentrations of the human population; and the immense accumulations of garbage, refuge, sewage and industrial wastes. Finally, there is the scarring of the earth ‘by real estate speculators, mining and lumber barons, and highway construction bureaucrats’. Bookchin reiterates that contemporary capitalist society is ‘literally undoing the work of organic evolution’ (1980: 35–36).

The manifesto then examines the ‘roots’ of the ecological crisis. Technology has always been seen as the main culprit with regard to this. But Bookchin suggests that not only has technology been used to subvert the environment but also to improve it, and that the Neolithic revolution, a period of harmony between humanity and nature, was above all a technological one. It was a period that brought humanity such useful arts as weaving, metallurgy, pottery, agriculture, the domestication of animals, the discovery of the wheel, and many other key elements of civilized life. Our future responsibilities, Bookchin concludes, do not imply the wholesale rejection of technology, rather the need ‘to separate the promise of technology – its creative potential – from the capacity of technology to destroy’ (1980: 36–37).

Bookchin is equally critical of the thesis that the ecological crisis has its roots in population growth, a thesis that was then widely acclaimed in the United States. It was a theory particularly associated with Paul Ehrlich, whose best-selling book The Population Bomb (1968) ran through thirteen printings in only two years. This neo-Malthusian tract, Bookchin notes, had a ‘staggering popularity’ and gave rise to many imitators (1994a: 45). It was later embraced with enthusiasm by several deep ecologists (see below). Bookchin acknowledged, given the present economic, political and social conditions, that in time humanity would come to overpopulate the earth. Yet there is something obscure, he reflects, about the fact that ‘population growth’ is given such primacy and urgency in a nation ‘which has little more than seven per cent of the world’s population, wastefully devours more than fifty per cent of the world’s resources, and is currently engaged in the depopulation of an oriental people who have lived for centuries in sensitive balance with its environment’ (1980: 37) – Bookchin alluding to the American war in Vietnam. What the peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific need, Bookchin asserts, is not advice on contraceptive devices nor Professor Ehrlich’s recommendations on population control, but rather a ‘fair return’ on the immense resources that are being plundered from their lands by the peoples of North America and Europe (1980: 37). In Chapter 23 I shall discuss Bookchin’s critical thoughts on the neo- Malthusian doctrines of the deep ecologists.

Finally, Bookchin denies that the roots of the ecological crisis can be simply put down to the growing ‘affluence’ of American people, or, for that matter, of European peoples generally. He responds to this suggestion with fervour:

Can we blame working people for using cars when the logistics of American society were deliberately structured by General Motors and the energy industry around highways? . . . can we blame blacks, Hispanic peoples and other minority groups for reaching out to own television sets, appliances and clothing when all the basic material means of life were denied to them for generations? (1980: 39)

The manifesto makes it clear that the roots of the contemporary ecological crisis are social and have a long history, relating to the emergence of hierarchy and systems of domination within human society, and specifically to ‘our profit-oriented bourgeois society’ (1980: 41). The only viable response to this crisis is therefore the development of new social forms – the creation of a libertarian, ecologically-oriented society that establishes a new balance with nature, one based on a reverence for life (1980: 39). Given the enormous productivity of modern technology, such a society, Bookchin argues, could offer the possibility of material abundance and herald an era of free time with minimal toil. But for Bookchin ‘material abundance’ did not imply wasteful, mindless ‘affluence’ based on false needs, but rather a ‘sufficiency in food, clothing, shelter and the basic comforts of life with a minimum of toil that will permit everyone in society – not a specialized elite – to directly manage social affairs’ (1980: 41). This would entail, for Bookchin, a social revolution, and the elimination of all forms of domination and class exploitation – a revolution that would not only encompass political institutions and economic relations, but ‘consciousness, life style, erotic desires and our interpretation of the meaning of life’ (1980: 43). Thus, only by eradicating all forms of hierarchy would the ‘root causes’ of the ecological crisis be eliminated. Isolated reforms, focusing specifically on environmental problems, would in themselves be insufficient; they only serve, Bookchin suggests, as a ‘safety valve’ for the existing system of natural and human exploitation (1980: 43).

This leads Bookchin to make an important distinction between ‘environmentalism’ and social ecology. This distinction was introduced some three years before Arne Naess (1973) made his well-known (and similar) distinction between shallow and deep ecology – although deep ecology lacks any substantive social theory, and is essentially, as Warwick Fox (1990) describes it, a form of transpersonal ecology. In contrast, social ecology seeks to resolve the ecological crisis, and the human exploitation of nature, by eliminating all forms of human domination (capitalist exploitation, state power, hierarchical structures). ‘Environmentalism’ merely involved ‘tinkering’ with existing institutions, social relations, technologies and current ideological values. It reflects an instrumental or technocratic sensibility (not an ecological sensibility) and treats the natural world as essentially ‘passive’and as an inventory of resources for human use (1980: 77). Environmentalism, for Bookchin, is thus a synonym for ‘environmental engineering’ and is satisfied with the goal of using natural resources efficiently and  prudently, with minimum harm to human health and with due regard to the conservation of raw materials for future use (1980: 107). Environmentalism thus implies a mechanistic, instrumental outlook, and reformist politics. The manifesto thus recommends that all ecology groups will eschew all appeals to international and nation-state institutions – the ‘very criminals and political bodies that have materially contributed to the ecological crisis of our time’ (1980: 46). It advocates, instead, direct action, direct democracy and the organization of affinity groups, not parliamentary politics (1980: 81).

Bookchin emphasizes the importance of social action and revolutionary politics. This does not imply, however, a disregard for environmental issues – even though Bookchin was falsely accused by Arne Naess and his deep ecology acolytes of being disinterested in immediate environmental problems. But as the manifesto declares:

Ecology Action East supports every effort to conserve the environment: to eliminate nuclear power plants and weapons, to preserve clean air and water, to limit the use of pesticides and food additives, to reduce vehicular traffic in streets and on highways, to make cities more wholesome physically, to prevent radioactive wastes from seeping into the environment, to guard and expand wilderness areas and domains for wildlife, to defend animal species from human depredation. (1980: 43-44)

Thus Bookchin called for action on every kind of environmental problem that people in the United States confronted, including the need to protect and expand wilderness areas and wildlife habitats, and to oppose cruelty to animals. Bookchin was not opposed to the conservation of the ‘wilderness’, only critical of deep ecologists’ complete disregard of humanized landscapes, and their tendency to overemphasize the wilderness, identifying it with nature. But the manifesto also issued a timely warning, namely, that such ‘delaying tactics’ do not constitute a definite solution to the conflict that exists between the present social order – capitalism – and the natural world. ‘Nor can such delaying tactics arrest the overwhelming momentum of existing society for destruction’; what was needed was a radical transformation of this society, and our way of looking at the world – a new ecological consciousness (1980: 44, 1994a: 16).

The manifesto concludes with the call to challenge all forms of hierarchy and domination, specifically corporate capitalism and the bureaucratic state, and to develop through direct action and educational activities a libertarian movement. This implies a commitment to a decentralized society and bioregionalism (1980: 52–53). In his discussion of affinity groups and direct action, Bookchin emphasizes the need to recover a new sense of personality or selfhood, and writes: ‘A truly free society does not deny selfhood but rather supports it, liberates it, and actualizes it in the belief that everyone is competent to manage society, not merely an ‘elect’ of experts and self-styled men of genius’ (1980: 48). Self-activity and self-management are thus seen as intrinsic aspects of a libertarian, decentralized society.

With the development of an ecological society Bookchin felt that the great ‘splits’ opened up by hierarchical society during the last four centuries could now be healed and overcome. The antagonistic divisions, for example, between humanity and nature, town and country, intellectual and physical activity, individual and society, reason and emotion, could, he suggests, all be transcended (1980: 46).

The revolution that Bookchin and Ecology Action East envisaged not only encompasses an end to economic exploitation, but of all forms of hierarchy and domination. It thus sought the liberation of women, of gay people, of children, of African-American and colonial peoples, and of working people in all occupations – as part of a growing struggle against industrial capitalism, the bureaucratic state and all institutions of social domination. It would also entail a ‘lifestyle revolution’, the development of new forms of consciousness and experience, particularly a new ecological sensibility (1980: 44).

Writing during the 1970s and sensing that the workers’ movement, or what he describes as ‘proletarian socialism’, had lost its revolutionary impetus, Bookchin was particularly heartened by the emergence during this period of three radical social movements: ecology, feminism and community control. All three went beyond the primary concerns of the socialist movement, which essentially focused on economic issues, and on the abolition of wage labour and capital, and thus on class struggle and material exploitation – although it is crucial to note that Bookchin never doubted the importance of class struggles, class analysis and the need to eradicate economic exploitation (Biehl 1998a: 61). But these three movements, he felt, had shattered the silence left by socialism, and he describes them as ‘vital, rebellious and richly promising’ (1980: 14). Bookchin’s primary focus is on the ecology movement, which he creatively sought to link with social anarchism, and he thus devotes little discussion to the feminist movement. Though supporting this movement, he felt that the best critiques and the most reconstructive notions on feminism had come already from women, as well as some of the best scholarship in anthropology and social theory (1980: 22).

What particularly concerned Bookchin was that he recognized that within the ecology, feminist and community movements there were deep internal conflicts, and what he sought to recover and develop was the libertarian potential of each of these movements. For the issues these movements raised had far-reaching social implications – the need to achieve a totally new, non-hierarchical society in which ‘the domination of nature by man, of women by man, and of society by the state is completely abolished’ (1980: 14).

With respect to the ecology movement there were, Bookchin argues, two major obstacles inhibiting its development in a truly libertarian direction. These were neo-Marxism, which sought to reduce the concept of freedom to economistic categories, and the ‘managerial radicals’ who sought to compromise the movement, linking it to reformist politics.

Neo-Marxism, particularly as expressed in the writings of Andre´ Gorz, is viewed by Bookchin as little more than fashionable ‘electicism’ that reduced Herbert Marcuse’s more theoretical insights to ‘pop culture’. Gorz’s wellknown Ecology as Politics (1980) Bookchin dismisses rather harshly as ‘ecological verbiage’ and ‘politically incoherent’, for it combines an advocacy of decentralized politics with social democratic concepts of mass political parties and state institutions (1980: 17). In Farewell to the Working Class (1982), Gorz even advocates a ‘dual society’ consisting of local autonomy and human-scale technology as ‘convivial tools’ (Illich 1973), alongside the equal advocacy of high technology and state planning! In the epilogue to Ecology as Politics, Gorz seems to acclaim Jerry Brown, then governor of California, along with Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Fritz Schumacher and the Buddha as ‘neo-anarchists’ in the American ecology movement. Bizarre! Bookchin’s suggestion that Gorz’s neo-Marxism is little more than crude eclecticism and ‘ideological dilettantism’ is close to the mark. Equating socialism with Marxism, Bookchin goes on to make a radical contrast between social ecology – ‘with its naturalism, its anarchistic logic of decentralization, its emphasis on humanly scaled alternative technologies and its non-hierarchical institutions’ and socialism (that is Marxist socialism) – ‘with its typically anti-naturalism, its political logic of centralization, its emphasis on high technology, and its bureaucratic institutions’. Gorz, in his ‘confusion’, Bookchin concludes, seems to advocate both alternatives (1980: 18).

But Bookchin is equally critical of the degree to which the ecology movement was being appropriated by technocrats, especially by what Andrew Kopkind had described as ‘managerial radicals’ – political opportunists who emphasize techniques rather than principles, spectacles rather than committed action, and who tend to operate within the political system rather than opposing it (1980: 80). In 1980, Bookchin drafted an open letter to the ecology movement expressing how profoundly disturbed he was by ‘a widespread technocratic mentality and political opportunism that threatens to replace social ecology by a new form of social engineering’ (1980: 79). His concerns have been justified, for in recent decades the ecology movement has been more or less commandeered by the development of a transnational class of environmental technocrats or ‘ecocrats’ – as Wolfgang Sachs describes them. Seeing themselves as indispensable in the present ecological crisis, and embracing the renewable trinity of ‘modernity’ – capital, bureaucracy and science – such ecocrats have assumed the role as ecomanagers of the planet Earth (Sachs 1999: 67–68). Although acknowledging the need to build ecological societies ‘with less government and less professional dominancy’, Sachs, compared with Bookchin, is bereft of any radical vision, other than to advocate cosmopolitan localism, social regeneration, unilateral self-restraint and dialogue between cultures (1999: 107).

Always critical of ‘environmentalism’, with its technocratic thrust, electoral politics, and social and environmental engineering, Bookchin also continually affirms that the only adequate response to the ecological crisis – as well as to the social crisis under capitalism – is the development of a new ecological society, based on mutual aid, a people’s technology adapted to human scale, decentralized communities and libertarian non-hierarchical relations that would not only yield a new harmony between humans but also between humanity and nature (1980: 75). Such an ecological future would imply the development of libertarian practices based on affinity groups, direct democracy and direct action, not on electoral politics or the formation of political parties. Always affirming his commitment to the anarchist tradition, which he felt had prevented him from sliding into academicism, neo- Marxism and ultimately reformism, Bookchin saw his early writings as providing an ethical holism, rooted in objective values that emerge from a creative synthesis of ecology and anarchism (1980: 31).

Bookchin’s social anarchism and his advocacy of a decentralized ecological society, has been the subject of numerous critiques, by deep ecologists (e.g. Eckersley 1992), by eco-communitarian liberals (e.g. Clark 1998) and by neo-Marxists (Kovel 2002). For Kovel going ‘beyond Bookchin’ entails an unholy alliance between Marxism and mysticism (spiritualism), and his advocacy of an ‘eco-socialist transformation’ involves electoral politics, the ‘seizure of state power’ by some ‘green’ political party, and some form of market economy. His colleague John Clark has a similar vision of an ecocommunitarian realpolitik; namely some form of representative government with a coercive legal system, administrative bodies that dictate social policy, and a market economy. Robyn Eckersley likewise, as with other deep ecologists, has little to offer other than conventional politics – the liberal democratic state and a market economy (capitalism), which for Bookchin, of course, is at the root of the ecological crisis! Repudiating Marxism, mysticism, electoral politics and the market economy, it is small wonder that Bookchin dismissed his many critics as backsliding into political reformism. In turn they dismiss Bookchin’s social anarchism as ‘utopian’, and suggest some accommodation – as with the above critics – with the ‘real’ world of state politics and capitalism. (See Bookchin 1997 and Graham 2000 on Clark’s repudiation of social anarchism and his embrace of reformist politics. Graham also offers a salutary critique of Bookchin and his critics, with regard to the tone of their intellectual debates which tends to be acrimonious, contemptuous and hostile.)

June 25, 2023

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