Revisiting social and deep ecology in the light of global warming.

Author:Krovel, Roy


Because of its relative 'newness', global warming is different from most other phenomena that we normally relate to 'globalisation'. For instance, in reading the 'classics' of left libertarianism and social ecology, the near absence of analyses of global warming and climate change is striking. The work of Murray Bookchin is an exception: he began to deal with the topic in the 1960s (Bookchin, 1987,1990,1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Marshall, 1994). Nonetheless, anarchist perspectives on nature have had a considerable influence on the development of the environmental movements over the last decades and they are still felt in environmental movements today. It is therefore pertinent to reconsider the historical background and particular experiences that produced those influences. This is particularly important in the light of the conflict between deep and social ecology in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At one point this conflict was seen by many as threatening to 'split the whole environmental movement' (Carter, 1995, p. 328).

Thinking about the challenge posed by global warming has the potential to be a very fruitful exercise. It forces us to re-examine critically the ways in which we think about the big questions on a global scale while, at the same time, making us focus on the deep and narrow, on how we hermeneutically and collectively make sense of, and understand, the nature of which we are a part. It also presents a challenge to left libertarians and anarchists to rethink and develop theoretical perspectives in the light of new information about, and knowledge of, phenomena. It is not enough for anarchists and left libertarians to limit themselves merely to subsuming global warming and climate change within existing theoretical perspectives.

I will not attempt here to capture the full meaning of phenomena as multi-faceted as 'anarchist' or 'left libertarian' (Evren, 2011; Franks, 2011). However, if terms such as 'anarchism' or 'left libertarianism' are to be useful tools for analysis, a minimal understanding of what characterises them in relation to, and in contrast to, other terms or 'isms', is necessary. In that spirit I briefly outline below some of the key elements necessary (but not sufficient) for 'offering a vision of a potential new society' (McKay, Elkin, Neal, and Boraas, 2010).

  1. Decentralised forms of organisation. This has a number of components. Murray Bookchin, for example, builds on E.E. Schumacher to make an argument about scale. However, smallness should not be seen as a sufficient condition for non-violence and non-repression (Laferriere and Stoett, 1999, p. 59). According to Malatesta, 'the new society should be organised with the direct participation of all concerned, from the periphery to the centre ...' (Malatesta quoted in McKay, et al., 2010). Decentralised forms of organisation go hand in hand with an emphasis on, and valuing of, spontaneity and creativity (Bookchin, 1975; McKay, et al., 2010).

  2. Praxis and experience over theory. 'Experience through freedom is the only means to arrive at the truth and the best solutions; and there is no freedom if there is not the freedom to be wrong' (Malatesta quoted in McKay, et al., 2010). However, prioritising praxis and experience over theory has sometimes led left libertarians to disregard theoretical reflection on structure at different levels in theoretical analysis (Pritchard, 2010). From a critical realist perspective, structures 'may consist of internally related objects so that their generative mechanisms or powers emerge from this combination and cannot be reduced to its individual components' (Sayer, 2000, p. 14). Deepening our understanding of natural and social structures matters to those concerned with human emancipation.

In this paper I will argue that Murray Bookchin and social ecology offers the best starting point to think about global warming from a non-anthropocentric left libertarian perspective. Brian Morris accurately explains Bookchin's underlying philosophy: '... Murray Bookchin sensed that the social and the natural must be grasped in a new unity and that the time had come to integrate an ecological, natural philosophy (social ecology) with social philosophy based on freedom and mutual aid (anarchism or libertarian socialism)' (Morris, 2009). To avoid ecological disaster we must, inter alia, reach a 'new sensibility toward the biosphere'. I will, however, argue that the polemic with deep ecology in the late 1980s was a missed opportunity for left libertarian ecology to deepen the understanding of the natural environment, and I therefore propose to proceed by revisiting the debate between Arne Naess and Bookchin.


In a keynote speech at the National Green gathering at Amherst, Massachusetts in 1987, Murray Bookchin challenged the political perspective of deep ecology as 'guilty of a deeply flawed and potentially dangerous ecological perspective' (Chase, 1991, p. 8). This rather harsh criticism led to a long and often nasty debate between proponents of deep and social ecology. The term 'deep ecology' was first coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (A. Naess, 1973) to describe a 'deeper' form of environmental engagement suitable for a new type of environmental movement. Re-reading the deep ecology manifesto today, one notes that the many similarities with social ecology overshadow the differences by far. By the 1980s, however, the term 'deep ecology' had, in the US, increasingly come to be identified with an eclectic body of ideas, including ideas from militant wilderness activists such as Ed Abbey, Christopher Manes and Dave Foreman. It was presumably against some of these American militant wilderness activists that Bookchin intended to direct his fiercest criticism. According to Bookchin, deep ecology was now potentially and explicitly anti-social and anti-human (Chase, 1991, p. 10). He characterised some of the deep ecologists as 'barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones, and outright social reactionaries' (Chase, 1991, p. 11). Dave Foreman was 'guilty of' a form of 'crude eco-brutalism' which made Bookchin compare the deep ecology movement to Hitler and the third Reich (Bookchin, 1987).

According to Bookchin, we need instead 'a resolute attempt to fully anchor ecological dislocations in social dislocations; to challenge the vested corporate and political interests we should properly call capitalism; to analyse, explore, and attack hierarchy as a reality ...' (Bookchin, 1991a, p. 61). For Bookchin, social hierarchies should be seen as the root cause of environmental degradation.

In the debate Bookchin provoked in the environmental movement in Norway, I sided with Bookchin. There were several reasons. The first was because he directed a necessary critique against reactionary policy proposals made by a few North American ecologists often associated with the deep ecology movement. Dave Foreman, for instance, claimed at the height of the 1983-85 famine, that 'the worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid--the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve' (cited in Bookchin, 1991c, p. 124). Others welcomed the AIDS epidemic as 'a necessary solution' to population control (cited in Bookchin, 1991b, p. 123). Ed Abbey described the United States as a product of Northern European civilisation and warned against allowing 'our' country to be 'Latinised' (cited in Bookchin, 1991b, p. 123). My second reason was that I felt that the resolution of many of the mainly local issues of the 1980s and 1990s depended on the adoption of a social ecologist perspective on social hierarchies, domination and capitalist exploitation. I did not see how 'deep' ecology could help find 'deeper' or better answers to those problems. I now believe, in fact, that at the time deep ecology in the US had already degenerated into a fragmented and often reactionary body of thinking, far removed from the vision presented by Naess and others only a few years earlier.

The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas further convinced me of the necessity of searching for social roots to environmental degradation (Krovel, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d). In Chiapas, the establishment of a nature reserve in Montes Azules by the Mexican government, based on a romantic and false vision of a special relationship between one indigenous group, 'the Lacandon', and the rainforest, excluding other indigenous groups deemed 'less worthy', provoked a war which rendered it virtually impossible to find sustainable solutions to the environmental degradation (de Vos, 2002, 2003). Without social justice, there was no hope of resolving very real and serious ecological problems of the Lacandon. There were strong similarities between the Zapatista message and social ecology: non-hierarchical forms of organisation, anti-capitalism, participation, dialogue and consensus must be key in the struggle for human emancipation and environmental justice.

Yet Naess also raised some concerns about Bookchin's critique and, in particular, the issue of mono-causality: is there one cause of the problem? Bookchin did not believe that environmental degradation had only one cause, of course, but he repeatedly singled out social hierarchies as the root cause. As Naess argued, in the real world, in open systems, there will always be many generative mechanisms causing the phenomena we are trying to observe and understand (Bhaskar, 2008; Ugarriza, et al., 2009). It was difficult, moreover, to know that something is a root cause. How can we know that environmental degradation will end if we remove social hierarchies? Understanding Naess's concerns and the approach to knowledge that informs them, offers a different perspective on Bookchin's critique and opens up a space for a synthesis of social and deep ecology.


Murray Bookchin was not...

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