By Madronna Holden
Note: this essay appears in Green Politics, An A to Z Guide, ed. Dustin R. Mulvaney ed. (Sage Publications) and is copyright by Madronna Holden and Sage Publications.
Social ecology stresses the link between the domination of humans and the domination of nature, envisioning the creation of a non-hierarchical society as the solution to both contemporary ecological and social crises. Social ecology’s ideal society mirrors the integrative and communitarian order of natural ecology–characterized by dynamic unity in diversity. For social ecology, theory and activism are inevitably linked, as expressed in the programs of the Social Ecology Institute.
Social Domination and the Domination of Nature
Social ecology, as developed by Murray Bookchin, has as its central premise the idea that the domination of other humans occurs in concert with the human domination of natural systems. Both stem from hierarchical social arrangements that set men over women, rich over poor, race over race, humans over nature, and mind over matter. In such stratified societies, ideologies of objectification and instrumentalization develop in concert with a market system that prices everything– including human and natural life. Domination alienates humans from their true nature and potential for life in community, as well as from their essential freedom.
Technology flowing from capitalism (the supreme example of a dominating system) produces the toxic results laid out in Our Synthetic Environment, which Bookchin published a few months before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In 1964 Bookchin predicted the greenhouse effect in his analysis of capitalism’s “grow or die” imperative that turns water and airways into “sewers”.
Social Ecology’s Theoretical Stance
Social ecology’s method is that of an “integrative science”, consciously bridging ideas rather than ranking and separating them in the manner of a hierarchical paradigm. Thus Bookchin conceives of social ecology as a science in dynamic interaction with imagination, a rational search for truth in dynamic interaction with concrete history, and an evolving theory in dynamic interaction with activism.
The aspect of dynamism here is a key one. Both ecologically sound social systems and the systems of thought that nurture them must continually evolve through dialogue and criticism, reflecting the dynamism of living systems rather than the stasis of final answers and stagnant institutions produced under paradigms of domination and control.
Social ecology’s central integration is its joining of social critique with an ecological model, thus giving ecology a “revolutionary edge”, and socialism a focus on the major contradiction of our time: that between capitalism and natural systems. In combining socialist with ecological perspectives, it also differs from each of these. Though social ecology concurs with Marx’s standard, “from each according to their ability, and to each according to their need”, it broadens the socialist focus on class oppression to encompass the oppression flowing from all hierarchical arrangements. It specifically rejects the instrumentalization of nature expressed in the socialist analysis of human labor as adding primary value to natural resources. It emphasizes not only the ways that humans work on nature, but the ways that nature works on humans.
Further, Bookchin stresses the distinction between social ecology and any environmentalism caught up in emotion and lacking rigorous assessment of the historical roots of ecological crises.
Social Ecology’s Utopian Alternative
According to social ecology, the only way to counter the intertwined social and ecological crises of our day is to abolish all hierarchy. This is both necessary and intentionally utopian. As Bookchin puts it, those who cannot imagine the impossible will have to live with the unthinkable.
But social ecology also insists that its vision is realistic—since it is grounded in both nature and history. In nature, the ecological order expresses mutualism and reciprocity, as illustrated by the circulation of food through ecological systems. Here no species can properly be considered higher or lower in that they all feed and are fed by others. In parallel fashion, natural evolution creates both increasing systemic complexity and potential freedom though its proliferation of particulars in the ordering of unity in diversity. Thus nature “on its own terms” (rather than a transcendent being or principle) provides the model of communitarian ethics necessary to an ecologically sound and just society.
In turn, Bookchin notes humans lived in a state of harmony with nature in the Neolithic period, in non-stratified “organic societies”. According to his analysis, however, equality and freedom were so naturally embedded in these societies that their members never consciously chose them. Here Bookchin locates the justification for historical evolution away from such organic societies to the state societies of today. He stipulates that human freedom and equality had to be lost in order to be understood as concepts to value and protect. Thus the “dialectic of freedom” is historically intertwined with the “dialectic of domination”—leading to the possibility of consciously choosing freedom and justice today. If humans fail to choose these, however, hierarchical capitalism will continue to move toward both totalitarianism and the destruction of ecological systems.
Though it is grounded in natural and historical example, social ecology’s ideal society must be consciously designed, not merely inherited from peeling away the destructive detritus of social institutions, as the anarchists Bookchin broke with later in his life believed. Rationality must guide the choice of how and when to act in creating such a society. In this context, critical thinking and education are essential forms of activism.
Modern science has an essential part to play in social ecology’s goals. Though capitalism currently misuses technology, the scientific knowledge that produces it has brought humans to a place in history where “almost anything is possible”. Appropriate technology can release human imagination as it alleviates the need for physical drudgery and moves societies beyond the scarcity that creates competition. Thus social ecology’s sustainable society is not one of depravation—but one rich in quality of life and occasions for expressing creativity. In making choices that actualize human potential by implementing such a society, Bookchin posits that human nature (“second nature”) expands the potential of the “first (ecological) nature” in which it is inevitably embedded.
Social ecology also avoids the “indulgent individualism” of both anarchy and modern consumerism. By contrast, it proposes a communitarian model of interdependent individuals living in small scale communities, confederated into a network of participatory democracies in which all those affected by decisions help make them. In this scenario, leadership and responsibility voluntarily circulate among different individuals.
This network of direct democracies is grounded in “ethical economics” geared to the well-being and sustainability of ecological systems and human life rather than amassing wealth for a few.
The Social Ecology Institute
Social ecology’s integration of theory and action is expressed in the Social Ecology Institute Bookchin co-founded in 1974. The SEI, affiliated with various colleges during its career, has sponsored degrees, conferences and projects focusing on direct democracy, ethical economics, resistance to biotechnology and nuclear technologies and the development of alternative technologies, permaculture, the shaping of the US Greens, ecofeminism, and support for Native American self-determination.
By Madronna Holden
For further reading:
Bookchin, Murray. The Ecology of Freedom. Palo Alto, California, Cheshire Books, 1982.
Bookchin, Murray. Post Scarcity Anarchism. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986.
Bookchin, Murray, “Reflections, An Overview of the Roots of Social Ecology”, Harbinger 3:1
Bookchin, Murray, “The Communalist Project”, Harbinger 3:1. (2003)
Staudenmeier, Peter. “Economics in Social-Ecological Society”, Harbinger 3: 1. (2003)
Tokar, Brian. “Social Ecology and Social Movements”, Harbinger 3:1 (2003).