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A Social Ecology

by John Clark

The article can be used if you note that it is forthcoming in M. Zimmerman et al., Environmental Philosophy, second edition (Prentice Hall, 1997)]

"Humanity is Nature achieving self-consciousness." --Elisée Reclus [1]

In its deepest and most authentic sense, a social ecology is the awakening earth community reflecting on itself, uncovering its history, exploring its present predicament, and contemplating its future. [2] One aspect of this awakening is a process of philosophical reflection. As a philosophical approach, a social ecology investigates the ontological, epistemological, ethical and political dimensions of the relationship between the social and the ecological, and seeks the practical wisdom that results from such reflection. It seeks to give us, as beings situated in the course of real human and natural history, guidance in facing specific challenges and opportunities. In doing so, it develops an analysis that is both holistic and dialectical, and a social practice that might best be described as an eco-communitarianism.

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. [3] 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. [4]

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. [5]

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 . . . ." [6] Most of the fundamental concepts to which Bookchin later attached to the term "social ecology" were borrowed from Mumford's much earlier ecological regionalism. [7] 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. [8] 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." [9]

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. " [10] 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." [11] 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." [12] 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. [13]

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. [14] 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. [15] 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. [16] 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.

A Dialectical Holism

A social ecology, as a holistic vision, seeks to relate all phenomena to the larger direction of evolution and emergence in the universe as a whole. Within this context, it also examines the course of planetary evolution as a movement toward increasing complexity and diversity and the progressive emergence of value. According to Mumford, an examination of the " creative process" of "cosmic evolution" reveals it to be "neither random nor predetermined" and shows that a "basic tendency toward self-organization, unrecognizable until billions of years had passed, increasingly gave direction to the process." [17]

This outlook is related to the long teleological tradition extending " from ancient Greek thought to the most recent organicist and process philosophies. It is in accord with Hegel's insight that "substance is subject," if this is interpreted in an evolutionary sense. There is no complete and "given" form of either subject or substance, but rather a universal process of substance-becoming-subject. Substance tends toward self-organization, life, consciousness, self-consciousness, and, finally, transpersonal consciousness (though the development takes place at all levels of being and not merely in consciousness). Social ecology is thus linked to theories of evolutionary emergence. Such a position remains implicit in Hegel's dialectical idealism, [18] receives a more explicit expression in Samuel Alexander's cosmic evolutionism, [19] underlies the metaphysics of Whitehead and contemporary process philosophy, [20] is given a rather technocentric and anti-naturalist turn in Teilhard de Chardin, [21] is synthesized with Eastern traditions in Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo, [22] and finds its most developed expression in Ken Wilber's recent effort at grand evolutionary synthesis. [23]

A social ecology interprets planetary evolution and the realization of social and ecological possibilities as a holistic process, rather than merely as a mechanism of adaptation. This evolution can only be understood adequately by examining the interaction and mutual determination between species and species, between species and ecosystem, and between species, ecosystem and the earth as a whole, and by studying particular communities and ecosystems as complex, developing wholes. Such an examination reveals that the progressive unfolding of the potentiality for freedom (as self-organization, self-determination, and self-realization) depends on the existence of symbiotic cooperation at all levels--as Kropotkin pointed out almost a century ago. We can therefore see a striking degree of continuity in nature, so that the cooperative ecological society that is the goal of a social ecology is found to be rooted in the most basic levels of being.

Some critics of social ecology have claimed that its emphasis on the place of human beings in the evolutionary process betrays a non-ecological anthropocentrism. While this may be true of some aspects of Bookchin's thought, it does not describe what is essential to a social ecology. Although we must understand the special place that humanity has within universe and earth history, the consequences of such understanding are far from being hierarchical, dualistic, or anthropocentric. A dialectical analysis rejects all "centrisms," for all beings are at once centers (of structuration, self-organization, perceiving, feeling, sensing, knowing, etc.) and also expressions of that which exists at a distance, since from a dialectical perspective, determination is negation, the other is immanent in a being, and the whole is immanent in the part. There exists not only unity-in-diversity, and unity-in-difference but also unity-in-distance. We must interpret our place in nature in accord with such an analysis, comprehending the ways in which our being is internally related, we might say "vertically," to more encompassing realms of being, and, we might say "horizontally," to wider realms of being. By exploring our many modes of relatedness we discover our social and ecological responsibility--our capacity to respond to the needs of the human and natural communities in which we participate. [24]

The use of metaphors such as community and organism in a dialectical and holistic account of diverse phenomena is certainly not unproblematical. There has rightly been much debate in ecophilosophy concerning the status of such images, and their function and limitations must be a subject of continuing reflection. [25] A dialectical approach assumes their provisional nature, the importance of avoiding their use in a rigid, objectifying way, and the necessity of allowing all theoretical concepts to develop in the course of inquiry. Thus, there are certainly senses in which the earth or the biosphere cannot be described as a community. One might define community as a relationship existing between beings who can act reciprocally in certain ways, taking the criterion for reciprocity to be showing respect, carrying out obligations, or some other capacity. If one adopts such a "model" of a community, the earth is certainly not one, any more than it is an organic whole, if that term is taken to mean having the qualities of a biological organism. Yet the term "community" has in fact much more expansive connotations than those just mentioned. A community is sometimes thought to include not only competent adult human beings (moral agents), but infants and children, the mentally incompetent, past generations, future generations, domesticated animals, artifacts, architecture, public works, values and ideals, principles, goals, symbols, imaginary significations, language, history, customs and traditions, territory, biota, ecosystems and other constituents that are thought essential to its peculiar identity. To be a member of a community is often thought to imply responsibilities of many kinds in relation to some or all of the categories listed.

Questions are also raised about the totalizing implications of holism. Critics of holism sometimes identify it with an extreme organicism that denies the significance, reality, or the value of the parts. [26] It is important therefore to understand that "holism" does not refer exclusively to a view in which the whole is ontologically prior to the part, more metaphysically real than the part, or deserving of more moral consideration than the part. In fact, a dialectical holism rejects the idea that the being, reality or value of the parts can be distinguished from that of the whole in the manner presupposed by such a critique.

This is sometimes misunderstood when critics overlook an important distinction within a dialectical holism. In its comprehensively holistic analysis, the parts of a whole are not mere parts but rather holons, which are themselves relative wholes in relation to their own parts. [27] The good of the part can therefore not be reduced to a function of its contribution to the good of the whole. Its good can be also be considered in relation to its participation in the attainment of the good of a whole which it helps constitute. But beyond this, to mention what is most relevant to the critiques of holism, its attainment of its own good as a unique expression of wholeness must also be considered. There is a striking irony here. An authentic holism is capable of appreciating the value of kinds of wholeness (realized form, self-organization, attainment of good) that are often ignored by "individualisms" that defend one level of wholeness against its possible dissolution in some larger whole. Holism does not mean the fetishization of some particular kind of whole, which would constitute a version of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, but rather an exploration of the meaning of many kinds of wholeness that appear in many ways and on many levels within developing unity-in-diversity.

No Nature [28]

So much for the truth of the whole. However, a dialectical holism refuses to objectify, reify or absolutize any whole, including the whole of nature. Just as our experience of objects or things points to the reality of that which escapes objectification and reification, our experience of the whole of nature points to the reality of that which which cannot be reduced to nature.

Since the beginnings of philosophical reflection, dialectical thinkers of both East and West have proposed that beneath all knowing and objects of knowledge there is a primordial continuum, the eternal one-becoming-many, the ground of being. It is what Lao Tzu described in the Tao Te Ching as the reality that precedes all conceptualization, or "naming," and all determination, or "carving of the block" :

"The Tao (Way) that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth . . . . " [29]

This reality is ontologically prior to ecological differentiation, and indeed, to "nature" itself--which is one reason that a mere "naturalism" can never be adequately dialectical. It is an apprehension of the conditional reality of all phenomena that drives dialectical thought to an affirmation of both the being and non-being of all objects, categories, and concepts. This ground is what social ecological theorist Joel Kovel refers to as the "plasma of being." It is also what mystical philosophers like Böhme have, quite dialectically, called "the groundless Ground," attempting to express the idea that it is a non-objectifiable grounding of being, rather than an objectified ground, or substance, on which anything can be thought to stand, or which "underlies" other realities. If we wish to attach any concept to this ultimate, it should perhaps be (following Whitehead) "creativity."

Kovel points out, contemporary science has shown that such a continuum underlies the diversity of beings.

"In the universe as a whole, there is no real separation between things; there are only, so far as the most advanced science can tell us, plasmatic quantum fields; one single, endlessly perturbed, endlessly becoming body. " [30]

Kovel's account of the our relation to this primordial ground is both phenomenological and psychoanalytic. It reveals the ways in which we are ecological beings, and indeed spiritual beings, because our being extends beyond the limits of the ego or socially constructed selfhood. Much of our experience reveals to us that this self is not sufficient, or primary,

"but is rather that ensemble of social relations which precipitates out of a primordium which comes before social causation--a core which, crucially, remains active throughout life. Before the self, there is being; and before being is the unconscious primordium. Society intersects with the individual through a set of cultural representations. It is a naming, a designation, an affixing from without. Without this naming, the stuff of a person would never take form. But the unconscious, in its core, is prerepresentational. " [31]

Thus, there are fundamental aspects of being that connect us, physically, psychologically and ontologically, with greater (or deeper) realities--with other living beings, with our species, with the earth, with the primordial ground of being.

This idea of connectedness leads us to the question of the place of the concept of spirit in a dialectical holism. The most radical "critical" and dialectical views after Hegel, beginning with the Young Hegelians -- Feuerbach, Stirner, Marx and their peers--were intent on banishing Hegel's central category from the philosophical realm. The post-Hegelian dialectical tradition has been dominated by a reductive materialism that has dogmatically rejected the possibility of dialectical inquiry into the most fundamental ontological questions. Some versions of social ecology have inherited this anti-spiritual tendency of Western materialism. Thus, while Bookchin has sometimes invoked the concept of "ecological spirituality" in his writings, it has usually been in the weak sense of a vague ecological or even ethical sensibility and he has increasingly sought to banish any strong conception of "spirit" from his social ecological orthodoxy.

It is becoming evident, however, that the most radically dialectical and holistic thinking restores the ontological and political significance of the concept of spirit. Without implying any of the dogmatic and one-sided idealist aspects of Hegel's conception of spirit, a social ecology can find in the concept an important means of expressing our relationship to the evolving, developing, unfolding whole and its deeper ontological matrix. Kovel begins his discussion of spirit with the statement that it concerns "what happens to us as the boundaries of the self give way." [32] The negation of ego identity that he intends by this concept takes place when we discover our relationship to the primordial continuum and to its expressions in the processes of life, growth, development, and the striving toward wholeness. A social ecology can give meaning to an ecological spirituality that will embody the truth of the religious consciousness, [33] which is a liberatory truth, however mystified and distorted it may have been for purposes of domination and social conformism. Such a spirituality is the synthesis and realization of the religion of nature and the religion of history. It consists of a response to the sacredness of the phenomena, of the multiplicity of creative expressions of being, and of the whole that encompasses all beings. It is also an expression of wonder and awe at the mystery of becoming, the unfolding of the universe's potentiality for realized being, goodness, truth and beauty.


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