Social Ecology

social ecology IS an ecological vision for the future developed by the anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. This theory is part of a left-wing tradition that rejects notions of hierarchy, domination, power, and place to advocate political reformism, or restructuring that will resolve basic issues of societal, gender, and environmental imbalance. Social ecology is based on the understanding that all our present ecological problems are a result of deep-seated social problems. As Bookchin states, "economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today." Specifically, social ecologists argue that the chief source of ecological destruction is the capitalist system and its products, such as overconsumption, consumerism, and concomitant economic growth.

Trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the association of progress with corporate self-interest are among others. Bookchin argues, therefore, that to separate ecological from social problems underplays not only the sources of the environmental crisis but also the interplay among all of these factors. Human beings must not downplay the importance of how they deal with each other as social beings. This, social ecologists argue, is the key to addressing the environmental crisis. The social ecological vision is to see a society that is based along social ecological lines. In this context, there are a number of principles that characterize social ecology.

First, a society based on social ecology would be one in which ecological regeneration would be insep arable from social regeneration. For example, social regenerative strategies might include the formation of ecocommunities and the adoption of ecotechnol-ogies that establish a creative intersection between humanity and human nature. Spirituality, or what Bookchin calls regeneration of the spirit, is another principle, signifying the growth and development of a whole society. Such a society would be diverse and holistic in nature. Spirituality is defined as a natural phenomenon—one that focuses on the ability of humans to act as moral agents and actively promote the end to needless suffering, undertake ecological restoration, and foster aesthetic appreciation of all living things. Building on this spirituality will ensure the presence of liberty (in the sense of encouraging and nurturing individual and collective creativity, imagination, and personality) as a "continuum of natural evolution," resulting in a healthy society.

social ecology and the environment

Social ecology goes further, however, addressing the deep structural failures within society, and seeks to redress the ecological effects humans are having on the environment. Social ecology here seeks to change the definition of the very idea of a society based on hierarchy, class, and domination to one based on equity and the ethics of complementarity. In this case, social ecol-ogists argue that humans must play a supportive role in maintaining the integrity of the planet. As such, they promote the establishment of community institutions that can embrace community-based ethical systems that in turn encourage the qualities of wholeness so integral to the social ecology vision. Societal structures that are supported by social ecology include confederal municipalism, in which municipalities conjointly gain rights to self-governance through the networks of confederal councils; empowerment of people; eco-communities that are linked into the confederations of economy, fostering a healthy interdependence; and shared property.

Bookchin notes that "Social ecology calls upon us to see that nature and society are interlinked by evolution into one nature that consists of two differentiations: first or biotic nature, and second or human nature." By first nature, social ecologists refer to the way in which human beings are ultimately connected to their biological and evolutionary history. Second nature refers to the way in which humans produce or have a distinct social nature, as opposed to animals. As reflexive reflective beings, humans have the responsibility of being the voice of first nature. To understand and work within society, social ecologists argue we must understand and embrace both natures. Consistent with anarchist theory, social ecologists see social hierarchy to be the enemy of natural order.

In his early work, The Ecology of Freedom (1971), Bookchin in fact highlights a model of evolutionary human social development that suggests that social hierarchy first emerged in the Neolithic period with simple forms of governance within and between different social groups. As such, social ecologists perceive that humans are always rooted within their own biological evolutionary history. The separation of the current society of the human from the biological is a failure to think organically and to recognize wholeness. In this context, social ecologists argue that the human and the nonhuman must be seen as being part of an evolutionary continuum and, as such, we are in a state of continual becoming. Unlike deep ecology, which is underpinned by the belief that all organisms have intrinsic rights, proponents of social ecology argue that the environment has rights when and if they are conferred by humans.

Social ecologists also believe, however, that human beings have, by virtue of their innate creativity and powers of reason, intrinsic value. As such, Bookchin maintains that the most ethical standpoint is for humans to understand different forms of hierarchy in nature, that is, different ecosystems, patterns, and orders, without implying that humans thus have the right to dominate those hierarchies. Social ecology attacks capitalism at a fundamental level, believing that modern capitalism is "structurally amoral and hence impervious to any moral appeals." It believes that the driver for capitalism is to grow or die, and as such, that the system is inherently ecologically destructive. They advocate instead a society based on complementarity and mutual aid. In this way, social ecologists advance the need to redress the ecological effect humans have had on society by calling for social reconstruction based along ecological lines. The ethics of complementarity are based on a system in which human beings play a supporting role in upholding the integrity of the biosphere and the planet. Social ecologists argue we have a moral responsibility to do this, as well as to enshrine the ethics of complementarity within social institutions in ways that will enable active participation of all in the process of reconstruction. In such a society, property would be shared, which would ultimately give rise to individuals for whom there is no separation between the individual and collective interest, the private and the personal, the political interest and the social.

Social ecologists stress the social causes and consequences of the degradation of the environment above all else. In this context, social ecologists seek answers to societal problems that are organic. They argue that as human forms of hierarchy have evolved, so has the human capacity to impose forms of domination on nature. Hence, it is the responsibility of the human race to redress the inequalities and problems attendant on the imposition of our own social order on nature. If social change in line with the organic elements ascribed to does not occur, social ecologists believe that the biosphere as we know it is heading toward complete destruction.

Overall, the position of social ecologists has attracted critique from those who argue that their position is going too far in its interrogation of the link between society and the environment. Nonetheless, Bookchin's analysis of the relationship between society and the environment, and how this relationship constitutes and causes forms of domi-nation—and hence ecological destruction—has played an important role in highlighting the nexus between social and natural dimensions of environmental decision making.

SEE ALSO: Climate Change, Effects; Ecological Footprint.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Cheshire Books, l982); Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Ramparts Press, 1972); Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (Sierra Club Books, 1987); Erica Cudworth, Environment and Society A Reader (Routledge, 2003).

Melissa Nursey-Bray Australian Maritime College Rob Palmer Research Strategy Training

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