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CLARK, John. A Social Ecology. 01. The Social and the Ecological
Article published on 31 May 2004
last modification on 25 April 2015

by r-c.
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The Social and the Ecological

A social ecology is first of all, an ecology. There are strong communitarian implications in the very term ecology. Literally, it means the logos, the reflection on or study of, the oikos, or household. Ecology thus calls upon us to begin to think of the entire planet as a kind of community of which we are members. It tells us that all of our policies and problems are in a sense «domestic» ones. While a social ecology sometimes loses its bearings as it focuses on specific social concerns, when it is consistent it always situates those concerns within the context of the earth household, whatever else it may study within that community. The dialectical approach of a social ecology requires social ecologists to consider the ecological dimensions of all «social» phenomena. There are no «non-ecological» social phenomena to consider apart from the ecological ones.

In some ways, the term «social» in «social ecology» is the more problematical one. There is a seeming paradox in the use of the term «social» for what is actually a strongly communitarian tradition. Traditionally, the «social» realm has been counterposed to the «communal» one, as in Tönnies’ famous distinction between society and community, Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. Yet this apparent self-contradiction may be a path to a deeper truth. A social ecology is a project of reclaiming the communitarian dimensions of the social, and it is therefore appropriate that it seek to recover the communal linguistic heritage of the very term itself. «Social» is derived from «socius,» or «companion.» A «society» is thus a relationship between companions—in a sense, it is itself a household within the earth household.

An Evolving Theory

Over the past quarter-century, a broad social and ecological philosophy has emerged under the name «social ecology.» While this philosophy has recently been most closely associated with the thought of social theorist Murray Bookchin, it continues a long tradition of ecological communitarian thought going back well into the nineteenth century. The lineage of social ecology is often thought to originate in the mutualistic, communitarian ideas of the anarchist geographer Kropotkin (1842-1921). One can certainly not deny that despite Kropotkin’s positivistic tendencies and his problematical conception of nature, he has an important relationship to social ecology. His ideas concerning mutual aid, political and economic decentralization, human-scaled production, communitarian values, and the history of democracy have all made important contributions to the tradition. [1] However, it is rooted much more deeply in the thought of another great anarchist thinker, the French geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905). During the latter half of the last century, and into the beginning of the present one, Reclus developed a far-ranging «social geography» that laid the foundations of a social ecology, as it explored the history of the interaction between human society and the natural world, starting with the emergence of homo sapiens and extending to Reclus’ own era of urbanization, technological development, political and economic globalization, and embryonic international cooperation.

Reclus envisioned humanity achieving a free, communitarian society in harmony with the natural world. His extensive historical studies trace the long record of experiments in cooperation, direct democracy and human freedom, from the ancient Greek polis, through Icelandic democracy, medieval free cities and independent Swiss cantons, to modern movements for social transformation and human emancipation. At the same time, he depicts the rise and development of the modern centralized state, concentrated capital and authoritarian ideologies. His sweeping historical account includes an extensive critique of both capitalism and authoritarian socialism from an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian perspective, and an analysis of the destructive ecological effects of modern technology and industry allied with the power of capital and the state. It is notable that a century ago Reclus’ social theory attempted to reconcile a concern for justice in human society with compassionate treatment of other species and respect for the whole of life on earth—a philosophical problematic that has only recently reemerged in ecophilosophy and environmental ethics. [2]

Many of the themes in Reclus’ work were developed further by the Scottish botanist and social thinker Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who described his work as «biosophy,» the philosophical study of the biosphere. Geddes focuses on the need to create decentralized communities in harmony with surrounding cultural and ecological regions and proposes the development of new technologies (neotechnics) that would foster humane, ecologically-balanced communities. He envisions an organicically developing cooperative society, based on the practice of mutual aid at the most basic social levels and spreading throughout society as these small communities voluntarily federate into larger associations. Geddes orients his work around the concepts of «Place, Work, and Folk,» envisioning a process of incorporating the particularities of the natural region, humane, skillful and creative modes of production, and organically developing local culture into his «Eutopia» or good community. Geddes calls his approach a «sociography,» or synthesis of sociological and geographical studies. He applies this approach in his idea of the detailed regional survey as a means of achieving community planning that is rooted in natural and cultural realities and grows out of them organically. He thus makes an important contribution to developing the empirical and bioregional side of the social ecological tradition. [3]

Many of Geddes’ insights were later integrated into the expansive vision of society, nature, and technology of his student, the American historian and social theorist Lewis Mumford (1895-1992), who is one of the most pivotal figures in the development of the social ecological tradition. Ramachandra Guha is certainly right when he states that «[t]he range and richness of Mumford’s thought mark him as the pioneer American social ecologist . . . .» [4] Most of the fundamental concepts to which Bookchin later attached to the term «social ecology» were borrowed from Mumford’s much earlier ecological regionalism. [5] The philosophical basis for Mumford’s social analysis is what he calls an «organic» view of reality, a holistic and developmental approach he explicitly identifies as an «ecological» one. [6] In accord with this outlook, he sees the evolution of human society as a continuation of a cosmic process of organic growth, emergence, and development. Yet he also sees human history as the scene of a counter-movement within society and nature, a growing process of mechanization.
Much like Reclus before him, Mumford depicts history as a great struggle between freedom and oppression. In Mumford’s interpretation of this drama, we find on one side the forces of mechanization, power, domination, and division, and on the other, the impulse toward organism, creativity, love, and unification. The tragedy of history is the increasing ascendancy of mechanism, and the progressive destruction of our organic ties to nature and to one another. The dominant moment of history, he says, has been «one long retreat from the vitalities and creativities of a self-sustaining environment and a stimulating and balanced communal life.» [7]

Mumford describes the first decisive step in this process as the creation in the ancient world of the Megamachine, in the form of regimented, mechanized massing of human labor-power under hierarchical control to build the pyramids as an expression of despotic power. While the Megamachine in this primal barbaric form has persisted and evolved over history, it reemerges in the modern world in a much more complex, technological manifestation, with vastly increased power, diverse political, economic and cultural expressions, and apparent imperviousness to human control or even comprehension. Mumford sees the results of this historical movement as the emergence of a new totalitarian order founded on technological domination, economic rationality and profit, and fueled by a culture of obsessive consumption. The results are a loss of authentic selfhood, a dissolution of organic community, and a disordered, destructive relationship to the natural world.

Mumford’s vision of the process of reversing these historical tendencies is a social ecological one. He foresees a process of social decentralization in which democratic institutions are recreated at local and regional levels as part of organic but diverse communities. «Real human communities,» he contends, are those that combine unity with diversity and «preserve social as well as visual variety. » [8]

Following Geddes and prefiguring bioregionalism, Mumford believes that the local community must be rooted in the natural and cultural realities of the region. «Strong regional centers of culture» are the basis for «an active and securely grounded local life.» [9] Regionalism is not only an ecological concept, but also a political and cultural one, and is the crucial link between the most particular and local dimensions and the most universal and global ones. «The rebuilding of regional cultures» Mumford says, «will give depth and maturity to the world culture that has likewise long been in the process of formation.» [10] Mumford contends that an epochal process of personal and social transformation is necessary if the course of history is to be redirected toward a humane, ecological, life-affirming future. Much in the spirit of communitarian philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), he foresees a humanized, cooperative world culture emerging out of regenerated regional cultures that arise in turn out of a regenerated human spirit. [11]

While he begins with a general perspective on society and nature that is close to Mumford’s, Bookchin makes a number of crucial contributions to the further development of a social ecology. [12] Most significantly, he broadens the theoretical basis of the communitarian, organicist, and regionalist tradition developed by Reclus, Geddes and Mumford by making dialectical analysis a central focus. He thereby opens the way for more critical and theoretically sophisticated discussions of concepts like holism, unity-in-diversity, development, and relatedness. He also develops Mumford’s defense of an organic world view into a more explicitly ecological theoretical perspective. Mumford’s analysis of the historical transformation of organic society into the Megamachine is expanded in Bookchin’s somewhat broader account of the emergence of diverse forms of domination and of the rise of hierarchical society. He devotes more detailed attention to the interaction of the state, economic classes, patriarchy, gerontocracy, and other factors in the evolution of domination. Of particular importance is Bookchin’s emphasis on the central role of the developing global capitalist economy in ecological crisis, which corrects Mumford’s tendency to overemphasize the technical at the expense of the economic. [13] He also adds some additional chapters to the «history of freedom,» especially in his discussions of the mutualistic, liberatory and ecological dimensions of tribal societies, millenarian religious movements and utopian experiments. Finally, while his predecessors presented a rather general vision of a politics that was anti-authoritarian, democratic, decentralist and ecological, Bookchin gives a concrete political direction to the discussion of such a politics in his proposals for libertarian municipalism and confederalism.

Some of these contributions have come at a considerable cost. Although Bookchin develops and expands the tradition of social ecology in important ways, he has at the same time also narrowed it through dogmatic and non-dialectical attempts at philosophical system-building, through an increasingly sectarian politics, and through intemperate and divisive attacks on «competing» ecophilosophies and on diverse expressions of his own tradition. Unfortunately, he lapses into the undialectical «fallacy that technology is a neutral tool to be used or abused by the one who wields it,» as David Watson notes in Beyond Bookchin : Preface for a Future Social Ecology [14] To the extent that social ecology has been identified with Bookchinist sectarianism, its potential as an ecophilosophy has not been widely appreciated.

Fortunately, the fundamental issues posed by a social ecology will not fade away in the smoke of ephemeral (and eminently forgettable) partisan skirmishes. Inevitably, a broad, vibrant, and inherently self-critical tradition like social ecology will resist attempts to restrict it in a manner that contradicts its most fundamental values of holism, unity-in-diversity, organic growth and dialectical self-transcendence. Thus, despite its temporary setbacks, the project of a social ecology continues to develop as a general theoretical orientation, as an approach to the analysis of specific problems, and as a guide to practical efforts at social and ecological regeneration.

Continued:

A Dialectical Holism

No Nature

The Ecological Self

A Social Ecology of Value

An Ecology of the Imagination

An Ecological Imaginary

Freedom and Domination

Eco-Communitarian Politics

Social Eco-nomics

The New Leviathan

The Future of Social Ecology

Notes :

[1See especially Fields, Factories and Workshops (New York : Benjamin Blom, 1968) and Mutual Aid : A Factor in Evolution (Boston : Extending Horizons, 1955) for important discussions of many of these topics, and his pamphlet, The State : Its Historic Role (London : Freedom Press, 1970) on communitarian and democratic traditions.

[2For the first English translation of some of Reclus’ most important texts, and an extensive commentary on his thought, see John Clark and Camille Martin, Liberty, Equality, Geography : The Social Thought of Elisée Reclus (Littleton, CO : Aigis Publications, 1996). For a concise discussion of Reclus’ relevance to contemporary ecological thought, see John Clark, «The Dialectical Social Geography of Elisée Reclus» in Philosophy and Geography

[3For discussions of Geddes’ guiding values of «Sympathy, Synthesis and Synergy,» and his regional concepts of «Place, Work, and Folk,» see Murdo Macdonald, «Patrick Geddes in Context» in The Irish Review (Autumn/Winter 1994) and «Art and the Context in Patrick Geddes’ Work» in Spazio e Società/Space and Society (Oct.-Dec. 1994) : 28-39.

[4Ramachandra Guha, «Lewis Mumford, the Forgotten American Environmentalist : An Essay in Rehabilitation,» in David Macauley, ed. Minding Nature : The Philosophers of Ecology (New York : Guilford Press, 1996), p. 210.

[5Mumford did not choose to coin any convenient term to epitomize his social theory. I take the term «ecological regionalism» from Mark Luccarelli’s very helpful study, Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region (New York : Guilford Press, 1995).

[6The Pentagon of Power (New York : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970), p. 386.

[7«The Human Prospect» in Interpretations and Forecasts : 1922-1972 (New York : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), p. 465.

[8Ibid., p. 471

[9The Condition of Man (New York : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1944), p. 403.

[10Ibid., p. 404.

[11An adequate account of the eco-communitarian tradition would explore Buber’s enormous contribution. See his major political work, Paths in Utopia (Boston : Beacon Press, 1958), including his chapters on his predecessors Kropotkin and Landauer, and, especially, his essay, «In the Midst of Crisis.» Significantly, Buber defines the «social» in terms of the degree to which the «center» extends outward, and is «earthly,» «creaturely,» and «attached.» (p. 135).

[12Bookchin’s best presentation of his version of social ecology is found in The Ecology of Freedom : The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto, CA : Cheshire Books, 1982).

[13Unfortunately, he lapses into the undialectical «fallacy that technology is a neutral tool to be used or abused by the one who wields it,» as David Watson notes in Beyond Bookchin : Preface for a Future Social Ecology (Brooklyn, NY and Detroit, MI : Autonomedia and Black & Red, 1996), p. 119. See the entire chapter, «The social ecologist as technocrat» (pp. 119-167) for a careful dissection of Bookchin’s technological optimism from a social ecological perspective.

[14(Brooklyn, NY and Detroit, MI : Autonomedia and Black & Red, 1996), p. 119. See the entire chapter, «The social ecologist as technocrat» (pp. 119-167) for a careful dissection of Bookchin’s technological optimism from a social ecological perspective.

All done in the name of such values as «mutuality» and «cooperation,» and on behalf of an «ethics of complementarity»!


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