Toward a new social ecology


by Brian Tokar

As a rising awareness of the consequences of environmental problems comes to reshape the agendas of critical thinkers and activists around the world, it is more important than ever to fully appreciate the origins of eco-socialist thought. Perhaps foremost among those who brought a coherent left analysis to environmental issues, while first introducing ecology to many on the left, is Murray Bookchin, the founding theorist of social ecology. Bookchin was a pioneer of left ecological thought and action beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, and his voluminous and many-faceted work continues to influence theorists and activists to this day.

Marcel van der Linden (2001)of the International Institute of Social History, based in the Netherlands, has described Bookchin’s collection of 1960s-era essays, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, as ‘definitely … one of the most influential works on the international generation of 1968’. New York’s influential weekly newspaper, the Village Voice, placed Bookchin’s influential work, The Ecology of Freedom ‘at the pinnacle of the genre of utopian social criticism’. [1] Countless important concepts that became common wisdom among ecological activists in the 1960s and beyond were first articulated clearly in Bookchin’s writings, including the socially reconstructive dimension of ecological science, the potential links between sustainable technologies and political decentralisation, and the further evolution of traditional class consciousness toward a broad historical critique of the roots of social hierarchy.

Bookchin authored more than 20 books and countless articles and pamphlets, seeking to offer a coherent theoretical underpinning to the work of a generation of ecological and libertarian socialist activists and writers. [2] Bookchin also revived and updated the tradition of social anarchism, which had fallen rather dormant by the early 1960s, but he later renounced his tie to anarchism and sought to articulate a new political synthesis, which he eventually termed ‘communalism’ (Bookchin 2007, Biehl 2007) . During the 1960s–1980s, a period when much of the Marxist left remained wedded to the view that continued economic growth is fundamental to social progress, Bookchin was among the very first thinkers to explicitly link an ecological understanding of society and its relationships to non-human nature to a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism and modern technology, as well as the imperative of a radically democratic social vision.


Social Ecology

Murray Bookchin was raised in a family of socialist militants in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s, and often told of his expulsion from the Young Communist League at age 18 for openly criticising Stalin. He briefly identified with Trotskyism while working and organising in the auto foundries around Mahwah, New Jersey in the 1940s, and became involved with a group of like-minded former Trotskyists around the journal Contemporary Issues from the late 1940s through most of the 1950s. The Contemporary Issues group was critical of the increasing political accommodation and corruption of organised labour and moved toward a politics centered in the democratic renewal of communities (van der Linden, 2001). Bookchin’s first published article, ‘The problem of chemicals in food’, appeared in Contemporary Issues in 1952. During this same period,Bookchin also encountered a group of anarchist veterans of an earlier generation of labour struggles, affiliated with the Workmen’s Circle and Libertarian Book Club in New York. His subsequent identification with the social anarchist tradition continued up until the final decade of his life.

Bookchin’s theory of social ecology emerged from a time in the early 1960s when ecological thought, and even ecological science, were widely viewed as ‘subversive’. Even conventional environmental scientists were contemplating the broad political implications of an ecological world view, 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 Sears (1964) 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 …’.

Bookchin carried the discussion considerably further, proposing that ecological thought is not merely subversive, but fundamentally revolutionary and reconstructive. With the World Wars and Great Depression of the twentieth century appearing to have strengthened global capitalism, Bookchin saw the emerging ecological crisis as the 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 was cited by authorities such as the microbiologist Réne Dubos (1965) as comparable in its influence to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Our Synthetic Environment offered a detailed and accessible analysis of the social origins of pollution, urban concentration, and chemical agriculture.

Bookchin’s 1964 article, titled ‘Ecology and revolutionary thought’, represented a profound breakthrough. In that essay, originally circulated as an underground pamphlet in New York City, he stated (Bookchin 1971: 58):

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 harmonisation of man and nature without creating a human community that lives in a lasting balance with its natural environment.

Over the next 4 decades, Bookchin’s social ecology emerged as a unique synthesis of utopian social criticism, historical and anthropological investigation, dialectical philosophy, and revolutionary political thought. 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 should be understood primarily as social issues and was impatient with the narrowly instrumental approaches advanced by mainstream environmentalists to address particular problems. The holistic outlook of ecological science, he argued, demands a social ecology that examines the systemic roots of the ecological crisis, while challenging the institutions responsible for perpetuating an unsustainable status quo.

This critical outlook led to many years of research into the evolution of the 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 civilisation. 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 instead a destructive byproduct of entrenched social hierarchies.

In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin examined the anthropological literature of the period, seeking forward looking principles and practices that emerge from our understanding of non-hierarchical ‘organic’ societies. These core principles include interdependence, usufruct, unity-in-diversity, complementarity, and the irreducible minimum, i.e., the principle that communities are responsible for satisfying the their members’ most basic needs (Bookchin 1982: 43–61). Complementarity for Bookchin meant disavowing the oppressive inequality of supposed ‘equals’ within contemporary societies, instead invoking traditional communities’ efforts to compensate for differences in ability among members. Technology for Bookchin was never an end in itself, nor an autonomous principle of human evolution, but rather a reflection of an evolving ‘social matrix’ (Bookchin 1982: 240–266). His historical and anthropological investigations affirmed the belief that any truly liberatory popular movement must directly challenge hierarchy in general, not just its particular manifestations as oppression by race, gender or class.

These explorations of the persistent role of social hierarchies in shaping social evolution and our relationships with non-human nature led Bookchin further toward a philosophical inquiry into the evolutionary relationship between human consciousness and natural evolution. He sought to renew the legacy of dialectical philosophy, abandoning popular oversimplifications and reinterpreting dialectics from its origins in the works of philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel. Bookchin’s ‘dialectical naturalism’ emphasises the potentialities that lie latent within the evolution of natural and social phenomena, and celebrates the uniqueness of human creativity, while emphasising its emergence from the possibilities inherent in Aristotle’s first nature. It eschews the common view of nature as merely a realm of necessity, instead viewing nature as striving to actualise its underlying potentiality for consciousness, creativity and freedom (Bookchin 1990).

For Bookchin, a dialectical outlook on human history compels us to reject what merely is and follow the logic of evolution toward an expanded view — challenging (p5)…Hume and others — of what could be, and ultimately what ought to be. While the realisation of a free, ecological society is far from inevitable – Bookchin was not the narrow teleologist his critics sometimes caricatured him as – it is the most rational outcome of 4 billion years of natural evolution. This dialectical view of natural and social evolution led to the sometimes controversial claim that nature itself can be viewed as an objective ground for a social ethics.

While continuing to develop and clarify his philosophy of nature, Bookchin also developed a distinct approach to political praxis, one aimed at realising the ecological reconstruction of society. Bookchin’s ‘libertarian municipalism’ draws on what he viewed as a fundamental underlying conflict between communities and the state as well as on historical examples of emerging direct democracies from the Athenian polis to the New England town meeting. Bookchin sought a redefinition of citizenship and a reinvigoration of the public sphere, with citizen assemblies moving to the center of public life in towns and neighborhoods, taking back control of essential political and economic decisions. Representatives in city councils and regional assemblies would become mandated delegates, deputized by their local assemblies and empowered only to carry out the wishes of the people.

Confederation is also a central aspect of libertarian municipalism, with communities joining together to sustain counter-institutions aimed at undermining the State and advancing a broad liberatory agenda. In contrast to many ecologists writing about politics, Bookchin embraced the historical role of cities as potential sites of freedom and universalism and viewed the practice of citizenship in empowered neighborhood assemblies as a means for educating community members into the values of humanism, cooperation, and public service (Bookchin 1992: 1974). The stifling anonymity of the capitalist market is to be replaced by a moral economy in which economic, as well as political relationships, can be guided by an ethic of mutualism and genuine reciprocity (Bookchin 1986).

Libertarian municipalism offers both an outline of a political strategy and the structure underlying social ecology’s long-range reconstructive vision: a vision of directly democratic communities challenging state power while evolving in harmony with all of nature. This vision draws on decades of research into political structures, sustainable technologies, revolutionary popular movements, and the best of the utopian tradition in Western thought. Bookchin spent his last decade or so intensively researching the history of revolutionary movements in the West from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century, drawing out the lessons of the diverse, often subterranean, popular currents that formed the basis for revolutionary movements in England, France, the U.S., Russia, Spain, and beyond (Bookchin 1996 et seq.).


Radical Democracy in the Anti-nuclear Movement

The influence of this body of ideas upon popular ecological movements began with the largely underground distribution of Bookchin’s essays during the 1960s. Ideas he first articulated, such as the need for a fundamentally radical ecology in contrast to technocratic environmentalism, were embraced by the growing ranks of ecologically-informed radicals. Bookchin and his colleagues, including Institute for Social Ecology co-founder Daniel Chodorkoff, also participated in some of the earliest efforts to initiate the ‘greening’ of cities and bring alternative, solar-based technologies into inner city neighborhoods.

By the late 1970s, social ecology was playing a rather visible role in the rapidly growing movement against nuclear power. Utility and state officials were identifying rural communities across the U.S. as potential sites for new nuclear power plants, and the movement that arose to counter this new colonisation of the countryside united traditional rural dwellers and those who had recently moved ‘back-to-the-land’ with seasoned urban activists and a new generation of radicals who only partially experienced the ferment of the 1960s. Following the mass arrest of over 1,400 people who sought to nonviolently occupy a nuclear construction site in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1977, decentralised anti-nuclear alliances began to appear all across the U.S. These alliances were committed to nonviolent direct action, bottom-up forms of internal organisation, and a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between technological and social changes. They were captivated by the utopian dimension of the emerging ‘appropriate technology’ movement for which Bookchin and other social ecologists provided an essential theoretical and historical grounding. Over a hundred students came to the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) in Vermont every summer to acquire hands-on experience in organic gardening and alternative technology while studying social ecology, eco-feminism, reconstructive anthropology, and other relevant political and theoretical topics.

New England’s anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance was the first to adopt the model of the affinity group as the basis of a long-range regional organizing effort. [3] Murray Bookchin introduced the concept of grupos de afinidad – borrowed from the Spanish FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) – into the U.S. in an appendix (Bookchin 1971: 221–222) to his influential 1968 pamphlet, ‘Listen, Marxist’ (Bookchin 1971: 173–220). Bookchin initially compared the revolutionary Spanish affinity groups to the countercultural collectives that were appearing in cities across the U.S. during the late 1960s. Quaker activists in New England initially advocated the formation of affinity groups as a structure for personal support and security during large demonstrations at Seabrook. But after the mass arrests there, followed by 2 weeks of incarceration in New Hampshire’s National Guard Armories, participants began to view the affinity groups as the basis for a much more widely participatory, directly democratic form of social movement organisation than had ever been realised before.

Bookchin’s original ‘Note on affinity groups’ was distributed widely in the lead-up to the planned follow-up action at Seabrook in June of 1978, and activists in Vermont, Boston, and elsewhere in New England worked hard to make the Clamshell Alliance live up to the most profoundly democratic potential of this organisational model. Anti-nuclear alliances across the U.S. followed the Clamshell in taking their names from local species of animals and plants that were endangered by the spread of nuclear power, and adopted affinity groups and spokes-councils as their fundamental organisational and decision-making structures. [4]

The euphoria of affinity group-based internal democracy was to be short-lived in the Clamshell, however. Protracted debates over the appropriateness of various tactics within a framework of organised nonviolence led to a growing polarization within the organisation. When most of the original founders of the Clamshell Alliance acceded to a deal with New Hampshire’s Attorney General that led to the cancellation of the planned 1978 Seabrook occupation in favor of a large legal rally, activists at the ISE, in Boston, and elsewhere challenged that decision and pressed for a renewal of affinity group democracy. Bookchin’s writing during this period helped sustain the anti-nuclear movement’s powerful utopian impulses and encouraged the grassroots resistance to the betrayals of the movement’s self-appointed ‘leaders’ (Bookchin 1980: 73–83).

These events largely bypassed the often retrograde U.S. Marxist Left of the 1970s. Marxist-Leninists of the period had little use for a resolutely anti-authoritarian ecological movement; many remained wedded to the increasingly dubious myth of advanced ‘socialist’ nuclear power in the USSR. Bookchin responded by elaborating his critique of Marxism, which he had launched with the colorful polemic, ‘Listen Marxist!’ first issued in 1968. In a series of in-depth theoretical articles originally published in the journal Telos, Bookchin (1980: 193–248) advanced the view that Marxism was incompatible with a distinctly ecological approach to politics and social ethics. Even as authors such as Foster (2000) would later come to re-examine the roots of Marx’s ideas in early ecological science as well as classical philosophical materialism, Marxist-Leninist praxis during the latter part of the twentieth century remained largely oblivious to the new understandings of society and nature that were being advanced by a wide array of ecological thinkers, including Bookchin.

In his late 1970s writings, Bookchin characterised Marxism as ‘the most sophisticated ideology of advanced capitalism’, incapable of addressing the full extent of social domination, and fatally wedded to archaic myths of technological progress and economic determinism. ‘The entire theory is captive to its own reduction of ethics to law, subjectivity to objectivity, freedom to necessity’, Bookchin wrote (1980: 200). Even the Frankfurt School, which Bookchin read exhaustively, did not sufficiently question the roots of domination nor the ‘historical necessity’ of capitalist development. Later in his life, however, in response to the rising popularity of New Age mysticism and anti-organisational ‘lifestyle anarchism’, Bookchin became impatient with contemporary trends in anarchism and reaffirmed his theoretical indebtedness to the Marxist tradition, as we will see below.


Social Ecology and Green Politics

By the early 1980s, Bookchin and other social ecologists began to closely follow the emergence of a new Green political movement in West Germany and other European countries. Social ecologists became excited about the German ‘anti-party party’ that initially functioned more as an alliance of grassroots ‘citizen initiatives’ than a conventional parliamentary vehicle. In the early 1980s, many European Greens were running for office as delegates from various social movements, important decisions were made at the local level, and those elected to public offices or internal positions of responsibility were obliged to frequently rotate their positions. Greens in Germany and other countries were articulating a sweeping ecological critique in all areas of public policy, from urban design, energy use and transportation, to nuclear disarmament and support for emerging democratic movements in Eastern Europe. Translations of Bookchin’s writings played an influential role in the development of this new Green political agenda.

Staff members from the Institute for Social Ecology played a central role in organising the first gathering, in 1984, aimed at constituting a Green political formation in the U.S. One significant bloc of participants at that meeting were pushing for a national organisation through which self-appointed representatives of various issue-oriented constituencies would form a national organisation, relate to other NGOs on the national level, and perhaps create a U.S. Green Party within the year. The model that prevailed, however, was that of a more decentralised, grassroots based movement, rooted in Green locals empowering regional delegates to make confederal decisions following locally debated mandates. Social ecologists in New England had already begun to form a confederation of Green locals on that model, and the idea once again spread across the country. By the first national conference of the U.S. Greens in July of 1987, there were already over a hundred grassroots Green locals spread across the country. Ideas from social ecology and activists based at the ISE played key roles in the development of the first national Green Program between 1988 and 1990 (Tokar 2006a).

The early 1990s saw a growing tension between Greens committed to grassroots democracy and a municipalist politics, and those advocating for a U.S. Green Party that would field candidates for national office. Bookchin and other social ecologists in New England circulated a call for a Left Green Network in 1988, and similarly minded activists in the San Francisco Bay Area developed a Radical Green caucus. As Greens across the U.S. collaborated on the development of a national program, policy positions advocated by the Left Greens were adopted by three consecutive national gatherings, much to the chagrin of those promoting a more mainstream agenda. Ironically, many Left Greens and other grassroots activists began losing interest in the Greens at this point. Green moderates went on to form a separate national organisation, based exclusively on state-certified Green Parties, while the Left Green Network continued holding educational conferences and publishing educational materials largely independent of any other Green entity.

During the same period, a group of recent ISE students formed a youth caucus in the Greens, which eventually became an independent organisation known as the Youth Greens. The Youth Greens attracted a significant base of young radicals largely from outside the Greens and joined with the Left Greens to initiate a major direct action to coincide with the April 1990 twentieth anniversary of the original Earth Day. On the day following the official commemorations – a Sunday filled with polite, heavily corporate-sponsored events – several hundred Left Greens, Youth Greens, eco-feminists, environmental justice activists, Earth Firsters and urban squatters converged on Wall Street seeking to obstruct the opening of stock trading on that day. Activists based around the ISE in Vermont had prepared a comprehensive action handbook, featuring a variety of social ecology writings and helped create a broad, empowering coalition effort. The next day, columnist Juan Gonzalez (1990) wrote in the New York Daily News,

Certainly, those who sought to co-opt Earth Day into a media and marketing extravaganza, to make the public feel good while obscuring the corporate root of the Earth’s pollution almost succeeded. It took angry Americans from places like Maine and Vermont to come to Wall Street on a workday and point the blame where it belongs.

Meanwhile, in Burlington, Vermont, Bookchin and other social ecologists formed the Burlington Greens to develop positions on urban issues and run candidates for local office. They opposed the commercial development of the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront and argued that the neighborhood assemblies established by a Progressive city administration for planning and administrative purposes should become the basis for a more empowered model of democratic neighborhood governance. The Burlington Greens gained national headlines in 1989 when the Greens contested several City Council seats and a Green candidate challenged the city’s Progressive mayor in a city-wide election.


Movement Debates and Directions

While the debates continued among the U.S. Greens, Bookchin found himself at the center of a far more explosive public controversy, rooted in his pointed critique of the emerging philosophy of ‘deep ecology’. Deep ecology, which originated in Norway but gained many adherents in the English-speaking world, is a philosophical outlook rooted in principles of ‘self-realisation’ (i.e., deepening one’s personal identification with all life on earth) and ‘biospheric equality’, the assertion that humans are coequal with other forms of life (Devall 1995; Devall and Sessions 1985). Deep ecology has inspired an extensive literature in environmental ethics, eco-psychology, conservation biology, and other fields, and in the 1980s formed the underlying world view of most of the founders of the Earth First direct action movement.

While Earth First’s often-dramatic action campaigns in defense of endangered forests helped redefine radical environmentalism in the 1980s and beyond, several of that movement’s founders began to articulate shockingly regressive views on a variety of crucial issues, rooted in a grim and avowedly misanthropic view of human nature. In their attempts to overturn what they viewed as an inherently destructive ‘anthropocentrism’, even among dedicated environmentalists, prominent authors in the Earth First! journal railed against Native American hunting practices and primitive agriculturalists, touted AIDS and famine as ‘natural’ cures for human overpopulation, and blamed refugees from Mexico for despoiling the deserts of the American Southwest. [5] Journal editor Foreman (1987) insisted that his focus on population control should be ‘an absolute litmus test’ for whether one ‘belongs’ in Earth First.

In a scathing polemic, first presented at the first national conference of the U. S. Greens in 1987, Bookchin (1987) attacked deep ecology as ‘vague, formless, [and] often self-contradictory’, a ‘black hole of half-digested, ill-formed and half-baked ideas’, and an ‘ideological toxic dump’. He condemned deep ecologists for ignoring the social and historical basis of the ecological crisis, upholding a distorted biological determinism with quasi-fascist implications, and compromising the moral and ethical basis for a viable eco-philosophy. The ensuing debate between Bookchin and various proponents of deep ecology was carried into the pages of several prominent publications of the period and greatly heightened Bookchin’s public notoriety. Ultimately, more left-leaning voices within Earth First, such as the feminist labour activist Bari (1994: 57), disavowed their founders’ misanthropic leanings and insisted that ‘Earth First! is not just a conservation movement, it is also a social change movement’. Today, Earth First underscores its opposition to all forms of oppression, and advocates for global justice, indigenous rights and radical urbanism, along with the defense of wild forests.

During the 1980s and 1990s, social ecologists also played a central role in the development and elaboration of eco-feminist ideas. Ynestra King’s eco-feminism classes at the ISE during the late 1970s were among the first to be offered anywhere, and annual eco-feminist colloquia were organised by Chaia Heller and other social ecologists during the early 1990s. Eco-feminist activists played a central role in initiating two Women’s Pentagon Actions and a women’s peace camp alongside the Seneca Army Depot in New York State, and also played a central role in the evolution of Green politics in the U.S. (Gaard 1998). Eco-feminism evolved through the 1990s, however, as a predominantly cultural and spiritual movement that social ecologists became increasingly critical of as the decade progressed (Heller 1999; Biehl 1991).

In the later 1990s, activists connected to the Institute for Social Ecology became involved in the rapidly growing movement to promote global justice and challenge the institutions of capitalist globalism. Social ecologists raised discussions around the broad potential for direct democracy as a counter-power to centralised economic and political institutions and helped further the evolution toward a longer range reconstructive vision within the movement that came of age on the streets of Seattle. A few ISE students were centrally involved in the organising to shut down the WTO in Seattle, and several others formed an affinity group to participate in and document those actions. After Seattle, the ISE booklet Bringing Democracy Home highlighted the writings of various social ecologists on potential future directions for the movement. Global justice activists from across the U.S. attended programs at the ISE in Vermont to further their political analysis and join Bookchin and other faculty members in wide-ranging discussions of where the movement might be heading.

The rising popularity of anarchist ideas and anti-authoritarian organizational forms in the aftermath of Seattle was not sufficient, however, to assuage Bookchin’s rising concern about the limits of anarchist theory. The popular anarchist press had not taken kindly to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, especially his advocacy of municipal electoral engagement and the development of revolutionary counterinstitutions.

Anarchist writing and youth culture in the 1990s was increasingly centered in punk inspired disdain for organisation and ‘green anarchist’ fantasies of an impending ‘end of civilisation’ (Zerzan 1994). In response, Bookchin rose in defense of such unpopular notions as reason, civilisation, historical continuity, and the philosophical legacy of the European Enlightenment. Facing an increasingly hostile audience in the anarchist-inspired youth scene, Bookchin cast aside his once-ringing defenses of the libertarian communist tradition of Kropotkin and the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. Encouraged by international colleagues, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, he articulated a new framework, which he called ‘communalism’, and redoubled his focus on the need for sustained political engagement and revolutionary organisation (Biehl  2007).

Bookchin in his later years was also more forthcoming about his theoretical debt to Marxism, describing it as ‘the most comprehensive and coherent effort to produce a systematic form of socialism’ (Bookchin 2007: 88). Marxism, however, remained imbedded in the world view of early industrial capitalism, much as classical anarchism could be seen as a product of an even earlier ‘peasant and craft world’. The anarchist tradition, according to the later Bookchin, was fatally rooted ‘in a strong commitment to personal liberty rather than to social freedom’ [emphasis in original], and hence stagnated within an essentially liberal ideological framework. Communalism, he argued, required a ‘new and comprehensive revolutionary outlook’ drawing on the best of Marxism and the libertarian socialist tradition and rooted in an expansive view of a confederal, municipally-centered democracy developing non-statist counter-institutions capable of contesting political power on a broadly revolutionary scale. Speaking of his new communalist synthesis, Bookchin wrote (2007: 98):

From Marxism, it draws the basic project of formulating a rationally systematic and coherent socialism that integrates philosophy, history, economics, and politics. Avowedly dialectical, it attempts to infuse theory with practice … From anarchism, it draws its commitment to anti-statism and confederalism, as well as its recognition that hierarchy is a basic problem that can be overcome only by a libertarian socialist society. [6]

During the same period, the ISE’s Biotechnology Project pioneered the use of New England’s traditional annual Town Meetings as a primary organising vehicle to express opposition to the genetic engineering of food. In March of 2002, residents in 28 Vermont towns voted for labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods and a moratorium on GE crops, the first popularly sanctioned debates on genetic engineering in the United States. [7]. Eight towns took the further step of declaring a moratorium or otherwise discouraging the planting of GE crops within their town. By 2007, 85 Vermont towns and 120 across New England had passed similar resolutions.

At a time when efforts to adequately regulate biotechnology products at the national level had become hopelessly deadlocked, this campaign invigorated public discussion of genetic engineering in the region and across the U.S., gained international attention, and helped illuminate a broader analysis of the social and ecological implications of genetic engineering and the commodification of life. The campaign also inspired efforts in other parts of the U.S., including one that led to permanent bans on genetically engineered crops and livestock in four California counties. It also exposed some of the limits of local organising absent a broader municipalist consciousness. A majority of those in Vermont who worked to bring the issue to their towns were content to view their resolutions primarily as a means to lobby state legislators and other public officials rather than as part of a broader strategy to reclaim municipal political power, a problem that continues to be debated and theorised by social ecologists today (Grosscup 2007).


Social Ecology and the Future

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the traditional environmental movement in the U.S. was rocked by an internal crisis of confidence, one that came into popular view in 2004 with the wide distribution of an extended essay provocatively titled ‘The death of environmentalism’ (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2004). Responding to the dramatic rollback of environmental regulation under two Bush administrations and the failure of policy advocates in the U.S. to adequately address the impacts of global climate disruptions, the essay echoed some radical critiques of environmental praxis, while seeking to unite big business and organised labour in a ‘New Apollo Project’ for the development of renewable energy technologies. In 2005, a group of prominent environmental justice advocates circulated a response titled ‘The soul of environmentalism’ (Gelobter et al. 2005), which sought to reclaim the social movement roots of environmentalism in early civil rights struggles and urge more attention to ‘big issues’, community building, and ‘deep change’. This response effectively challenged the narrow assumptions of ‘The death of environmentalism’ and reaffirmed movement roots of environmentalism in early civil rights struggles and urge more attention to ‘big issues’, community building, and ‘deep change’. This response effectively challenged the narrow assumptions of ‘The death of environmentalism’ and reaffirmed vital historical and practical links to other social movements but was relatively sparse in its specific proposals for moving forward.

Meanwhile, a flowering of popular movements for land rights, for community survival, and against neo-liberal privatisations of public services has arisen in recent decades throughout the global South. From the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico to ‘water wars’ in Bolivia and India, land seizures by displaced farming communities in Brazil, and the activities of radical farmers in South Korea, among others, these movements increasingly captured the imagination of global justice advocates, even those who may have initially taken ecological matters for granted. These movements offer a profound challenge to environmental politics, as it is commonly practiced in the North, and have also helped provoke a broad critique of traditional Northern approaches to land conservation as practiced by transnational NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. While some authors (e.g., Lohmann 1995) have appropriately cautioned against the automatic labeling of indigenous, land-based movements as ecological, the resurgence of interest in these movements has furthered the evolution of global justice activists’ outlook on ecological matters. It has also encouraged thoughtful urban youth to broadly identify with the world views of those whose livelihoods are still derived from the land.

Today, with a growing awareness of global climate disruptions and the profound economic and ecological upheavals that are already upon us, environmental politics once again appears ascendant. But most often it is the same narrowly instrumental environmentalism that Bookchin critiqued in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Green consumerism’, which first emerged as a widespread phenomenon around the 1990 Earth Day anniversary, has returned with a vengeance, incessantly promoted in the U.S. and elsewhere as the key to reducing our personal impact on the climate (Tokar 2006b). Market-based trading of carbon dioxide emissions, a transparently false solution first proposed in the late 1980s, has been advanced as the most politically acceptable policy option for reducing greenhouse gases (Tokar 1997; Lohmann 2006). Debates in the U.S. range from fruitless controversies over whether or not human-induced climate change is real, to narrow prescriptions for establishing a market price for carbon dioxide that might perhaps induce corporations to reduce their emissions. Even well-known radicals, such as the popular British columnist George Monbiot (2007), often focus on demonstrating the feasibility of a ‘least painful’ lower-energy scenario, rather than posing a fundamental ecological challenge to the further destructive development of global capitalism. Meanwhile, the recent global economic downturn threatens to seriously limit the availability of public funds to address the climate crisis.

In this disturbingly constrained political and intellectual environment, what is the potential for a more comprehensive red-green synthesis? Will capitalism finally come to terms with the environmental crisis? Or does the imperative of responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change still present a fundamental political challenge and a hope for a radically transformed future? To address these questions it is useful to consider some of the particular ways that social ecology may continue to inform and enlighten today’s emerging social and environmental movements.

First, social ecology offers an uncompromising ecological outlook that challenges the supremacy of capitalism and the state. A movement that fails to confront the underlying causes of environmental destruction and climate disruption can, at best, only superficially address those problems. At worst, capitalism offers false solutions – such as carbon trading and the worldwide production of so-called biofuels to replace gasoline and diesel fuel – that only aggravate problems in the longer term (Tokar 2007; Jonasse 2009). Ultimately, to fully address the causes of climate change and other compelling environmental problems requires us to raise visionary demands that the dominant economic and political systems will likely prove unable to accommodate.

Second, social ecology’s 40-year evolution offers a vehicle to better comprehend the origins and the historical emergence of ecological radicalism, from the nascent movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s to the eco-saturated present. Over 4 decades, the writings of Murray Bookchin and his colleagues reflected upon the most important on-the-ground debates within ecological and social movements with passion and polemic, as well as with humor and long-range vision.

Third, social ecology offers the most comprehensive theoretical treatment of the origins of human social domination and its historical relationship to abuses of the earth’s living ecosystems. Social ecology has consistently pointed to the origins of ecological destruction in social relations of domination, in contrast to conventional views that an impulse to dominate non-human nature is a product of mere historical necessity.

Fourth, social ecology presents a framework for comprehending the origins of human consciousness and the emergence of human reason from its natural context. Dialectical naturalism reaches far beyond popular, often solipsistic notions of an ‘ecological self’, grounding the embeddedness of consciousness in nature in a coherent theoretical framework with roots in classical nature philosophies. It offers a philosophical challenge to overturn popular acceptance of the world as it is, and to persistently inquire as to how things ought to be.

Fifth, social ecology offers activists an historical and strategic grounding for political and organisational debates about the potential for direct democracy. Social ecologists have worked to bring the praxis of direct democracy into social movements since the 1970s, and Bookchin’s work offers a vital historical and theoretical context for this continuing conversation.

Sixth, at a time when the remaining land-based peoples around the world are facing unprecedented assaults on their communities and livelihoods, social ecology reminds us of the roots of Western radicalism in the social milieu of peoples recently displaced from rural, agrarian roots. Bookchin’s (1996 et seq.) four-volume opus, The Third Revolution, describes in detail how revolutionary movements in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Spanish Civil War often had cultural roots in pre-industrial social relations, an understanding which can serve to historicise and deromanticise our approach to contemporary land-based struggles. Rather than an exotic other, vaguely reminiscent of a distant and idealised past, current peasant and indigenous movements offer much insight and practical guidance toward reclaiming both our past and our future.

Seventh, social ecology offers a coherent and articulate political alternative to economic reductionism, identity politics, and many other trends that often dominate today’s progressive Left. Bookchin polemicised relentlessly against these and other disturbing tendencies, insisting that our era’s ecological crises compel a focus on the general interest, with humanity itself as the most viable revolutionary subject. Social ecology has helped connect contemporary revolutionaries with the legacies of the past and offered a theoretical context for sustaining a coherent and emancipatory revolutionary social vision.

Finally, Bookchin insisted for 4 decades on the inseparability of oppositional political activity from a reconstructive vision of an ecological future. He viewed most popular leftist writing of our era as only half complete, focusing on critique and analysis to the exclusion of a coherent way forward. At the same time, social ecologists have often spoken out against the increasing accommodation of so-called ‘alternative’ institutions – including numerous once-radical cooperatives and collectives – to a stifling capitalist status quo. Opposition without a reconstructive vision leads to exhaustion and burnout. ‘Alternative’ institutions without a link to vital, counter-systemic social movements are cajoled and coerced by ‘market forces’ into the ranks of non-threatening ‘green’ businesses, merely serving an elite clientele with ‘socially responsible’ products. A genuine convergence of the oppositional and reconstructive strands of activity is a first step toward a political movement that can ultimately begin to contest and reclaim political power.

Defenders of the status quo would have us believe that ‘green’ capitalism and the ‘information economy’ will usher in a transition to a more ecological future. But, like all the capitalisms of the past, this latest incarnation relies ultimately on the continued and perpetual expansion of its reach, at the expense of people and ecosystems worldwide. From urban centers to remote rural villages, we are all being sold on a way of life that will only continue to devour the earth and its peoples. Today’s high-tech consumer lifestyles, whether played out in New York, Beijing, Bangalore, or the remotest reaches of our human civilisation, aim to defy all meaningful limits, ultimately raising global inequality and economic oppression to previously unimaginable proportions while profoundly destabilising the earth’s ability to sustain complex life.


The corrosive simplification of living ecosystems and the retreat into an increasingly unstable and synthetic world that Murray Bookchin predicted in the 1960s has evolved from a disturbing future projection to a global reality. Our survival now depends on our ability to challenge this system at its core and evolve a broad, counter-hegemonic social movement that refuses to compromise its values and settle for partial measures. Hopefully such a movement will embrace and continue to expand and elaborate the revolutionary and reconstructive social and political vision of social ecology.

End Notes

1. Quoted at

2. A partial bibliography is available at

3. At least one earlier mass action, aimed at shutting down Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam War in the spring of 1971, was organised on the affinity group model, but Clamshell activists were the first in the U.S. to make this the underlying structure of their organisation.

4. A sympathetic, but factually flawed description of the libertarian and feminist roots of this movement, on both the east and west coasts, is available in Epstein (1991).

5. Among the most controversial articles were those by George Wuerthner, Daniel Conner, and Christopher Manes (writing as ‘Miss Ann Thropy’) in the Earth First! journal, September 1986, May 1987, August 1987, and December 1987.

6. For a response to Bookchin’s critique of contemporary trends in anarchism, see Clark (2009). 

7. On the evolution of resistance to genetic engineering in the U.S., see Tokar (2001a). For a more theoretical treatment, see Tokar (2001b). On the Vermont and New England town meeting campaigns against GMOs, see the pamphlet ‘Vermont towns vs. genetic engineering: A guide to reclaiming our democracy’, available at:


Bari, J. (1994). “Breaking up is hard to do”. In Timber wars (pp. 55–59). Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

Biehl, J. (1991). Rethinking eco-feminist politics. Boston: South End Press.

Biehl, J. (2007). “Bookchin breaks with anarchism”. Communalism, 12. Retrieved from

Bookchin, M. (1971). Post-scarcity anarchism. Berkeley: Ramparts Press (Reprinted 1986, Montreal: Black Rose Books, and 2004, San Francisco: AK Press).

Bookchin, M. (1974). Limits of the city. New York: Harper & Row.

Bookchin, M. (1980). Toward an ecological society. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Bookchin, M. (1982). The ecology of freedom. Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books (Reprinted 1991, Montreal: Black Rose Books, and 2005, San Francisco: AK Press).

Bookchin, M. (1986). “Market economy or moral economy”. In The modern crisis (pp. 77–97). Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Bookchin, M. (1987). “Social ecology vs. deep ecology”. In Green Perspectives, 4–5. Retrieved from

Bookchin, M. (1990). The philosophy of social ecology: Essays on dialectical naturalism. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Bookchin, M. (1995). “The new municipal agenda”. In From urbanization to cities. London: Cassell.

Bookchin, M. (1996). The third revolution: Popular movements in the revolutionary era, Vol. 1. London: Cassell; Vol. 2 (1998). London: Cassell; Vol. 3 (2004). New York: Continuum; Vol. 4 (2006). New York: Continuum.

Bookchin, M. (1999). Anarchism, Marxism and the future of the left. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Bookchin, M. (2007). “The communalist project”. In Social ecology and communalism (pp. 77–116). Oakland, CA: AK Press. Also available at

Clark, J. (2009). “Bridging the unbridgeable chasm: On Bookchin’s critique of the anarchist tradition”. In Perspectives in Anarchist Theory. Retrieved from

Devall, B. (1995). “The ecological self”. In A. Drengson & Y. Inoue (Eds.), The deep ecology movement (pp. 101–123). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Devall, B., & Sessions, G. (1985). Deep ecology: Living as if nature mattered. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith.

Dubos, R. (1965). Man adapting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Epstein, B. (1991). Political protest and cultural revolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foreman, D. (1987). “Whither Earth First!?” Earth First! Journal 8(1)November, 20–21.

Foster, J. B. (2000). Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Gaard, G. (1998). Ecological politics: Ecofeminists and the Greens. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Gelobter, M., et al. (1995). The soul of environmentalism: Rediscovering transformational politics in the 21st century. Oakland, CA: Redefining Progress. Retrieved from

Gonzalez, J. (1990). “Getting serious about ecology.” New York Daily News, April 24.

Grosscup, B. (2007). Town meeting advocacy in New England: Potentials and pitfalls. Paper presented at the 2007 Colloquium of the Institute for Social Ecology, Marshfield, VT.

Heller, C. (1999). Ecology of everyday life. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Jonasse, R. (Ed.) (2009). Agrofuels in the Americas. Oakland, CA: Food First Books. Also available at

Lohmann, L. (1995). “Visitors to the commons”. In B. Taylor (Ed.), Ecological resistance movements (pp. 109–126). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Lohmann, L. (2006). Carbon trading: A critical conversation on climate change, privatization and power. Development Dialogue, 48. Uppsala: Dag Hammerskjold Center.

Monbiot, G. (2007). Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. Boston: South End Press.

Sears, P. B. (1964). “Ecology: A subversive subject”. BioScience, 14(7), 11–13.

Shellenberger, M., & Nordhaus, T. (2004). The death of environmentalism: Global warming politics in a post-environmental world. Retrieved from

Tokar, B. (1997). Earth for sale. Boston: South End Press.

Tokar, B. (2001a). “Resisting the engineering of life”. In Redesigning life? The worldwide challenge to genetic engineering. London: Zed Books.

Tokar, B. (2001b). “Biotechnology: Enlarging the debate”. In Z Magazine, June 2001, 48–54.

Tokar, B. (2006a). “The Greens as a social movement: Values and conflicts”. In F. Zelko & C. Brinkmann (Eds.), Green parties: Reflections on the first three decades (pp. 97–107). Washington, DC: Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.

Tokar, B. (2006b). “Can we buy our way to an ethical society?” In Verdensmagasinet X (World Magazine X, Oslo), 6.

Tokar, B. (2007). “The real scoop on biofuels”. Available at van der Linden, M. (2001). “The prehistory of post-scarcity anarchism: Josef Weber and the movement for a democracy of content (1947–1964)”. Anarchist Studies, 9, 127–145.

Zerzan, J. (1994). “Future primitive”. In Future primitive and other essays. New York: Autonomedia. Retrieved from


[Thank you indeed Brian for this contribution]

This article first appeared as “Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Its Contributions to the Red-Green Movement” in Ecosocialism as Politics, (Qingzhi Huan, ed.) Heidelberg: Springer Science and Business Media, 2010

The writer is an activist and director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology, and a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont (USA).  He is the author of The Green AlternativeEarth for Sale, and Toward Climate Justice.