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Social Ecology: Resistance and Reconstruction

Assessing Bookchin's social ecology and its contributions to social movements
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 R?ne 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.

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