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Social Ecology

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:59 AM

Here is a brief overview of a contemporary ecosocial perspective that has roots in anarchism. It is published in the book Spirit and Sustainability, edited by Willis Jenkins (Great Barrington MA: Berkshire, 2009, pages 132-135).

The term social ecology is sometimes used for the general social scientific study of human-environment relationships (see Guha). In this entry, however, the term refers more narrowly to a school of radical ecophilosophy initiated by Murray Bookchin in the 1960s. The most fundamental insight of this approach is that environmental issues are inseparable from social ones. Social structures and ideologies cause environmental degradation, and environmental ruination harms people and affects different social groups unequally. Any serious examination of environmental issues or sustainability must consider social causes and effects.

Social ecology focuses on the millennia-long tradition of human domination as the principal cause of environmental exploitation as well as social inequities. Domination is found particularly in authoritarian, centralized governments (including ones that claim they are democratic and egalitarian); in a hierarchical society (with distinctions rooted in race, class, gender, or other variables); and in capitalism (which enables certain people to achieve wealth and power at the expense of others and the Earth).

The contrary ideal, then, is a libertarian, egalitarian, decentralized society that recognizes its intimate and dependent relationship with the natural world. Only this type of society, social ecology would claim, can achieve anything approaching full sustainability.

The most important and distinctive influence in the development of social ecology is communitarian anarchism, particularly as exemplified by Peter Kropotkin. Social ecology aims for a society of free and responsible individuals who recognize that their individual identity is deeply related to the local social group they belong to. Such an ideal can only occur in small social and political units, where a radical, direct democracy or consensus decision-making can take place. Broader issues, from regional to global, would be addressed through a confederalism in which the different communities retain their autonomy while cooperating in dealing with larger scale problems. How such bottom-up confederations can function effectively without ceding authority to a higher political organization is one of the challenges social ecology faces.

Social ecology’s focus on decentralism and its goal of harmony with the natural world gives it strong similarities with bioregionalism. Both would say that sustainability can only be attained by small-scale societies closely tied to nature. Both emphasize (contrary to some preservationists and deep ecologists) the need for humans to use nature, while insisting any such use must conform to nature’s processes and limits.

But social ecology’s relationship with sustainability depends on how that term is used. Sustainability can mean a long-lasting system of exploitation of nature seen simply as a source of material wealth, something social ecology would oppose. The goal of sustainability could be (and too often is) that of making more tolerable and enduring an essentially destructive and unjust system, such as capitalism wedded to the nation-state or globalization. On the other hand, a strictly biocentric view of environmental sustainability would be criticized if it did not adequately consider the well-being of all humans. Social ecology insists on a “triple bottom line” approach that includes social justice and economic security for all as well as ecological sustainability. Indeed, the focus on both the social and the ecological makes this approach particularly congruent with the goal of sustainable development.

Social ecology’s support for such an inclusive sustainability may or may not be religiously-based. Bookchin, influenced by the tradition of Enlightenment rationalism, became a strident opponent of what he considered “irrationalism.” In particular, he rejected the Asian and earth-centered spiritualities common in deep ecology. However, other social ecologists, such as John Clark, have recognized that spirituality, including traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism, can enrich social ecology and the type of comprehensive sustainability it champions. In fact, some spiritually-based thinkers identified with deep ecology, such as Gary Snyder, display many of the essential values of social ecology. One of the most hopeful developments in social ecology is a spiritually informed progressive politics that is open to dialogue with other approaches such as deep ecology, ecofeminism, and stewardship.


Further reading

  • Barnhill, David Landis. “Gary Snyder’s Social Ecology.” International Journal of Ecocriticism 1.1 (August 2008), forthcoming.
  • Bookchin, Murray. The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Palo Alto, Calif.: Cheshire Books, 1982.
  • Bookchin, Murray. Social Ecology and Communalism. Oakland : AK Press, 2007.
  • Clark, John P. “How Wide Is Deep Ecology?” Inquiry 39 (June 1996): 189-201.
  • ---. “Social Ecology.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Ed. Bron Taylor. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. 1569-71.
  • ---. “A Social Ecology.” Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. 2 nd edition. Ed. Michael Zimmerman. Prentice-Hall, 1998. 416-440.
  • Guha, Ramachandra. Social Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Light, Andrew, ed. Social Ecology after Bookchin. New York: Guilford Press, 1998.
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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:59 AM