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Social ecology, Murray Bookchin

Social Ecology Critique

Social ecology is less diverse than other ecological movements, but that gives it certain strength in coherence.

Social ecology rests on several related premises:

  1. Humans are part of part of nature, but have a unique social awareness.
  2. The environmental crisis is a result of the hierarchical power structures at the heart of our society.
  3. These power structures damage humans at least as much as they do the environment.
  4. By basing society on ecological principles our relationship with nature will be transformed.
  5. These ecological principles are egalitarian and based on mutual aid, caring and communitarian values.
  6. This transformation is to be achieved through radical collective action and co-operative social movements.

Though social ecology leaves me with many open questions, there is little that I think is unsound. My challenges to social ecology are few and seem weaker than those in some other sections.


Does social hierarchy always lead to environmental destruction?

Has there ever been a society that lived in harmony with the environment and had a hierarchical social structure? To take the other tack, are there examples of nonhierarchical societies that lacked ecological awareness? Both possibilities are quite easy to imagine, but without anthropological or historical research I cannot offer concrete examples of either.

However social ecology doesn't seem to provide an entirely convincing case that there is a necessary causal relation between social hierarchy and environmental destruction.

How green is social ecology?

Bookchin advocates hunting (as do some deep ecologists) and animal farming. In his ideal society farms with feed pens dominate the natural landscape, which "wherever possible" support wildlife "at the fringes" (Bookchin. The Ecology of Freedom').

The principle of humans as stewards of the natural world is very apparent in Bookchin, though not all social ecologists. John Clark has a less interventionist philosophy.

Are ecological principles egalitarian?

Social ecology claims to base it's egalitarian ethics on principles learnt from ecology. Can we derive such an ethics from ecology? Does nature exhibit mutual aid, caring and communitarian values?

I'd suggest it's a matter of interpretation: If you are looking for those qualities, you'll find them, but a socio-biologist will more likely discover selfish genes and the survival of the fittest.

Does social ecology offer realistic practical solutions?

Social ecology proposes quite radical solutions to the environmental crisis and is dismissive of less wholesale, but more practical options.

In place of the existing hierarchical and class system social ecology proposes an egalitarian society based on mutual aid, caring and communitarian values.

Can our consumerist culture embrace the concept of communally shared property?

Social ecology proposes that this revolution is to be achieved through collective action and co-operative social movements. Given the power and tenacity of the status-quo, is this a practical proposal?

Is a 'green corporation' really such impossibility?

Bookchin claims that no truly 'green' entrepreneur could survive in the marketplace, because ecologically sound practices would place them at fatal disadvantage compared with a rivals who can produce at lower costs.

However, there can be economic benefits to the environmentally aware company beyond just marketing 'greenwash'. Reducing energy consumption and waste makes good economic as well as environmental sense.

Bookchin may well be right about "green capitalism", but arguably not for this reason.

related links: Social Ecology
The Institute for Social Ecology
The Social Ecology Project
Harbinger, A Journal of Social Ecology


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