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A Social Ecology

by John Clark

The Ecological Self

A social ecology applies its holistic and dialectical approach of the question of the nature of the self. While it emphasizes wholeness, it does not accept the illusory and indeed repressive ideal of a completely harmonious, fully-integrated selfhood. Rather it sees the self as a developing whole, a relative unity-in-diversity, a whole in constant process of self-transformation and self-transcendence. The very multiplicity of the self, "the chaos within one," is highly valued, since it attests to the expansiveness of selfhood and to our continuity with the larger context of being, of life, of consciousness, of mind. Such a view of selfhood shows a respect for the uniqueness of each person, and for the striving of each toward a highly particularized (in some ways incomparable) good that flows from his or her own nature. But it also recognizes that personal self-realization is incomprehensible apart from one's dialectical interaction with other persons, with the community, and with the larger natural world. The development of authentic selfhood means the simultaneous unfolding of both individuality and social being. The replacement of the voracious yet fragile and underdeveloped ego of consumer society with such a richly-developed selfhood is one of the preeminent goals of social ecology.

Within this general orientation, there remain many areas for development of the social-ecological conception of the self. As Kovel points out, the realm of signification creates an imaginary sphere in which there is a necessary degree of separation from nature, and even from oneself as nature. He explains that

"we are at one time part of nature, fully participating in natural processes; and at the same time we are radically different from nature, ontologically destined by a dialectic between attachment and separation to define ourselves in a signified field which by its very 'nature' negates nature. " [34]

Because of this "basic negativity" in the human standpoint toward the world,

"the relationship between the self and nature cannot be comprehended though any simple extrapolation of an ecological model grounded in unity in diversity." [35]

Moreover, the "thinglike" aspects of the self--the realm of the preconceptual and of the most primordial layers of desire--can never be fully transcended in either thought or experience. Part of the social ecological project of comprehending "unity-in-diversity" is to theorize adequately this duality and the necessary experiential and ontological moments of alienation, separation, and distance within a general non-dualistic, holistic framework (rather than merely to explain these moments away).

In doing so, social ecology will delve more deeply into those inseparable dimensions of body and mind that dualism has so fatefully divided. As we explore such realities as thought, idea, image, sign, symbol, signifier, language, on the one hand, and feeling, emotion, disposition, instinct, passion, and desire on the other, the interconnection between the two "realms" will become increasingly apparent. The abstract "naturalism" of Bookchin's social ecology will be transformed into a richer, more dialectical, and many-sided naturalization. As Abram notes,

"[w]e can experience things--can touch, hear, and taste things--only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive ! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us." [36]

Such a holistic concept of human-nature interaction is a necessary complement to the conception of humanity as "nature becoming self-conscious" or "nature knowing itself," which might otherwise be taken in a one-sidedly intellectual, objectifying, and ultimately idealist sense.

A Social Ecology of Value

For a social ecology, our ecological responsibility as members of the earth community arises from both our relationship to the interrelated web of life on earth and also from our place as a unique form of nature's and the earth's self-expression. As we accept the responsibilities implied by our role in "nature becoming self-conscious," we can begin to reverse our presently anti-evolutionary and ecocidal direction, and begin to contribute to the continuation of planetary natural and social evolution. We can also cooperate with natural evolution through our own self-development. The overriding ethical challenge to humanity is to determine how we can follow our own path of self-realization as a human community while at the same time allowing the entire earth community to continue its processes of self-manifestation and evolutionary unfolding. [37] A crucial link between these two goals is the understanding of how the flourishing of life on earth is constitutive of the human good, as we dialectically develop in relation to the planetary whole. As Thomas Berry has noted, a central aspect of the human good is to enjoy and indeed celebrate the goodness of the universe, a goodness that is most meaningfully manifested for us in the beauty, richness, diversity and complexity of life on earth (the social and ecological unity-in-diversity).

A dialectical and holistic theory of value attempts to transcend atomistic theories, without dissolving particular beings (including human beings) into the whole, whether the whole of nature or of the biosphere. Holmes Rolston's holistic analysis, and especially his critique of the conventional division of value into intrinsic and instrumental varieties, can contribute much to the development of a social ecology of value. When value is generated in a system (or, as a social ecology would state it, within a whole that is not reducible to a mere sum of parts), we find that it is not generated in an "instrumental" form, for there is no specific entity or entities for the good of which the value is generated as a means. Nor do we find "intrinsic" value in the sense that it there is a single coherent, definable good or telos for the system. Therefore, we must posit something like what Rolston calls "systemic value." According to this conception, the value that exists within the system "is not just the sum of the part-values. No part values increase of kinds, but the system promotes such increase. Systemic value is the productive process; its products are intrinsic values woven into instrumental relationships." [38]

Such a holistic analysis helps us to reach an authentically ecological understanding of value within ecosystems or eco-communities. For Rolston, the "species-environment complex ought to be preserved because it is the generative context of value." [39] The ecosystem--that is, the eco-community which has shaped the species, is internally related to it, and is embodied in its very mode of being--is a value-generating whole. Ultimately, the earth must be comprehended as, for us, the most morally-significant value-generating whole. We must fully grasp the conception of a planetary good realizing itself through the greatest mutual attainment of good by all the beings that constitute that whole--in terms of both their own goods and their contribution to shared systemic goods of the various wholes in which they participate.

An Ecology of the Imagination

If a social ecology is to contribute to radical ecological social transformation, it must address theoretically all the significant institutional dimensions of society. It must take into account the fact that every social institution contains organizational, ideological, and imaginary aspects (moments that can only be separated from one another for purposes of theoretical analysis). An economic institution, for example, includes a mode of organizing persons and groups, their activities and practices, and of utilizing material means for economic ends. It also includes a mode of discourse, and a system of ideas by which it understands itself and seeks to legitimate its ends and activities. Finally, it includes a mode of self-representation and self-expression by which it symbolizes itself and imagines itself. The social imaginary is part of this third sphere, and consists of the system of socially-shared images by which the society represents itself to itself.

One essential task of a social ecology is to contribute to the creation of an ecological imaginary, an endeavor that presupposes an awareness of our own standpoint within the dialectical movement of the social world. A social ecology of the imagination therefore undertakes the most concrete and experiential investigation of the existing imaginary. To the extent that this has been done, it has been found that we live in an epoch that is defined above all by the dominant economistic institutions. This dominance is exercised through all the major institutional spheres : economistic forms of social organization, economistic ideology, and an economistic imaginary. But the dominant economism is far from simple and monolithic. Most significantly, it is divided into two essential moments which interact in complex and socially efficacious ways.

These two essential moments, productionism and consumptionism, are inseparable and mutually interdependent. As Marx pointed out long ago in the classical dialectical inquiry on this subject, "production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity." [40] While Marx's analysis was profoundly shaped by the productionist era in which he lived, all subsequent inquiry is a continuation of the dialectical project that he suggests in this passage. A social ecology ignores none of the moments Marx identifies, but rather looks at distribution and exchange as mediating terms between production and consumption.

But it will focus on the contemporary world as the scene of a strange dialectic between abstract, systemic rationality and social and ecological irrationality. The economistic society drives relentlessly toward absolute rationality in the exploitation of natural and human resources, in the pursuit of efficiency of production, in the development of technics, in the control of markets through research, and in the manipulation of behavior through marketing. At the same time, it rushes toward complete irrationality in the generation of infinite desire, in the colonization of the psyche with commodified images, in the transformation of the human and natural world into a system of objects of consumption, and most ultimately and materially, in undermining the ecological basis for its own existence. Whatever the shortcomings of Marx as economist and political theorist, he is unsurpassed as a prophet insofar as he revealed that the fundamental irrationality of economistic society is in its spirituality--the fetishism of commodities.

An Ecological Imaginary

One result of the careful study of the social imaginary is the realization that a decisive moment in social transformation is the development of a counter-imaginary. Success in the quest for an ecological society will depend in part on the generation of a powerful ecological imaginary to challenge the dominant economistic one. While this process is perhaps in an embryonic stage, we have in fact already developed certain important elements of an emerging ecological imaginary.

The image of the region poses a powerful challenge to the economistic, statist and technological imaginaries. Regions are a powerful presence, yet have no clearly definable boundaries. This is the case whether these regions be ecoregions, georegions, bioregions, ethnoregions, mythoregions, psychoregions, or any other kind. Regionalism evokes a dialectical imagination that grasps the mutual determination between diverse realms of being, between culture and nature, unity and multiplicity, between form and formlessness, between being and nothingness. The concept of regionality implies an interplay between the overlapping, evolving boundaries of natural spaces and the flowing, redefining boundaries of imaginary spaces. [41]

The region is intimately connected to another powerful ecological image--that of the wild. The wild is present in the spontaneous aspects of culture and nature. We find it in forms of wild culture, wild nature, and wild mind : in the poetic, in the carnavalesque, in dreams, in the unconscious, in wilderness. We find it in the living earth, and in the processes of growth and unfolding on the personal, communal, planetary and cosmic levels. The point is not to find the wild in any "pristine" state; it is always intermixed with civilization, domestication, and even domination. The discovery of the wild within a being or any realm of being means the uncovering of its self-manifestation, its creative aspects, its relative autonomy. It is the basis for respect for beings, but even more, for wonder, awe, and a sense of the sacred in all things. The revolts and individualisms of the dominant culture appear quite tame when civilization is subjected to the critique of the wild. [42]

The image of the earth as "Home," or planetary household, and humans as members of the earth community has great imaginary power. As we develop greater knowledge of ecological complexity, and as we rediscover the marvelous richness of place, the earth image begins to incorporate within itself a rich regional and local specificity, and become a holistic representation of planetary unity-in-diversity. As the horror of economistic-technocratic globalism becomes increasingly apparent, and as the world is remade in the image of the factory, the prison and the shopping mall, the rich, dialectical counter-image of the earth will necessarily gain increasing imaginary force.

The ecological imaginary can be expanded further to cosmic or universal dimensions. All cultures have felt the need to imagine the macrocosm and orient themselves in relation to the whole. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry contend that the universe story, taken from contemporary cosmology and transformed into a culturally-orienting narrative "is the only way of providing, in our times, what the mythic stories of the universe provided for tribal peoples and for the earlier classical civilizations in their times." [43] Through the universe and earth story, people see themselves as part of larger processes of development and "unfolding of the cosmos." They thus achieve "a sense of relatedness to the various living and nonliving components of the earth community." [44] These powerful, indeed sublime narratives relativize cultural absolutes and shake the dominant imaginary, just as they give new imaginary meaning to human existence, consciousness and creativity.

Freedom and Domination

The larger processes of self-realization and unfolding of potentialities have often (since Hegel) been described as the emegence of freedom in the history of humanity, the earth, and the universe. A social ecology carries on this tradition and seeks to give an ecological meaning to such a conception of freedom. It rejects both the "negative freedom" of mere non-coercion or "being left alone" of the liberal individualist tradition, and also the "positive freedom" of the "recognition of necessity" found in many strongly organicist forms of holism. A social ecological conception of freedom focuses on the realization of a being's potentialities for identity, individuality, awareness, complexity, self-determination, relatedness, and wholeness. In this sense, freedom is found to some degree at all levels of being : from the self-organizing and self-stabilizing tendencies of the atom to the level of the entire universe evolving to higher levels of complexity and generating new levels of being. In our own planetary history, embryonic freedom can be found in the directiveness of all life, and takes on increasingly complex forms, including, ultimately, the possibility of humans as complex social beings attaining their good through a highly-developed and respectful relationship to other humans and the natural world. The realization of such freedom requires that humanity attain consciousness of its place in the history of the earth and of the universe, that it develop the ethical responsibility to assume its role in larger processes of self-realization, and that human social institutions be reshaped to embody the conditions that would make this knowledge and ethical commitment into practical historical forces. Bookchin's conception of "free nature" focuses on the way in which human self-realization, culminating in creation of an ecological society, establishes a growing planetary realm of freedom. This occurs as humanity "add[s] the dimension of freedom, reason, and ethics to first [i.e., non-human] nature and raise[s] evolution to a level of self-reflexivity . . . ." [45] The activity of humanity and human self-realization are thus seen as central to the achievement of freedom in nature.

But there is another, larger ecological dimension to freedom. The realization of planetary freedom requires not only the human self-realization that is emphasized in Bookchin's "free nature," but also the human recognition of limits and the human forbearance that is expressed in Arne Naess's usage of that same term. [46] In this sense, "free nature" is the spontaneous, creative nature that has given rise to the entire rich, diverse system of self-realizing life on this planet. It has also given rise to humanity itself, and dialectically shaped humanity through our interaction with the all the other expressions of this free activity, and made us the complex beings that we are. As necessary as it is for humanity to rectify its disastrous disruptions of natural processes, and although a restorative ecological practice is undoubtedly required, a social ecology must also help humanity regain its capacity for creative non-action, for the Taoist wu wei, for "letting-be." The social ecological conception of freedom as spontaneous creative order points to the need for a larger sphere of wild nature so that biodiversity can be maintained and evolutionary processes can continue their self-expression, not only in human culture and humanized nature, but in the natural world substantially free of human influence and control. A social ecology therefore implies the necessity not only for wilderness preservation but for an extensive expansion of wilderness (and relative wilderness) areas where they have been largely destroyed.

A social ecology's vision human freedom and "free nature" is closely related to its fundamental project of critique of the forms of domination that have stood in the way of human and planetary self-realization. However, there have been some widespread misconceptions about the social ecological analysis of domination. These result in part from Bookchin's definition of social ecology as the view that "ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems," [47] and his claims that the "quest to dominate nature" results from actual domination within human society. In a sense, contemporary ecophilosophies in general assert that ecological problems stem from social ones. For example, deep ecology holds that ecological problems result from the social problem of anthropocentrism, and ecofeminism holds that ecological problems result from the social problem of patriarchal ideologies and social structures. But there remains a fundamental dispute between those who, like Bookchin, give causal priority in the creation of ecological crisis to social institutions (like capitalism or the state) and others who stress the causal priority of social ideologies (like dualism, anthropocentrism, or patriarchal values).

But both sides in this dispute have often seemed less than dialectical in their approach. The roots of ecological crisis are at once institutional and ideological, psychological and cultural. A critical approach to the issue will avoid both one-sided materialist explanations (identifying economic exploitation or other "material conditions" as "the problem") and one-sided idealism (identifying a system of ideas like anthropocentrism as "the problem.") It is indeed tempting to see the emergence of certain hierarchical institutions as the precondition for human destructiveness toward the natural world. Yet these very institutions could only emerge because of the potential for domination, hierarchical values, objectification, and power-seeking that have roots in the human psyche and which are actualized under certain historical conditions. Furthermore, as a system of domination develops it does so through its dialectically interacting institutional, ideological and imaginary spheres, all of which are related to a "transhistorical" human nature developed over a long history of species evolution. Any account of the origins of hierarchy and domination and of their possible "dissolution" must therefore address at once the material, institutional, psychological and even ontological moments of both the development of these phenomena and the process of reversing it.

Eco-Communitarian Politics

A social ecology seeks to restore certain elements of an ancient conception of the political, and to expand the limits of the concept. According to a classic account, if ethics is the pursuit of the good life or self-realization, then politics is the pursuit of the good life in common and self-realization for the whole community. A social ecology affirms the political in this sense, but reinterprets it in ecological terms. It seeks recover our long-obscured nature as zoon politikon and to explore new dimensions of that nature. By this term is meant not simply the "political animal" who participates in civic decision-making processes, but the social and communal being whose selfhood is developed and expressed through active engagement in many dimensions of the life of the community.

A social ecology investigates the ways in which we can encourage the emergence of humane, mutualistic, ecologically-responsible institutions in all areas of social life. It sees not only "politics," but all areas of social interaction, including production and consumption, personal relationships, family life, child-care, education, the arts, modes of communication, spiritual life, ritual and celebration, recreation and play, and informal modes of cooperation to be political realms in the most profound sense. Each is an essential sphere in which we can develop our social being and communal individuality, and in which a larger communitarian reality can find much of its basis. Such a conception of the political requires that practices and institutions be humane in spirit and scale, life-affirming, creative, decentralized, non-hierarchical, rooted in the particularity of people and place, and based on grassroots, participatory democracy to the greatest degree practically possible.

The social ecological tradition has long emphasized the importance of local democracy. Reclus and Kropotkin both wrote extensively about its history, and Mumford argues that

"the neighborhood . . . must be built again into an active political unit, if our democracy is to become active and invigorated once more, as it was two centuries ago in the New England village, for that was a superior political unit. The same principles apply again to the city and the interrelationship of cities in a unified urban and regional network or grid." [48]

This conception of regional democracy based in local democracy is a corollary of the general social ecological conception (expressed by Geddes) of regional and larger communities growing out of household, neighborhood, and local communities.

Bookchin has carried on this tradition in arguing for the liberatory potential of the town or neighborhood assembly, and has given his libertarian predecessors' ideas of social and political decentralization a more specific and concrete expression. He and other social ecologists point out the ways in which such an assembly offers the community an arena in which its needs and aspirations can be formulated publicly in an active and creative manner, and in which a strong and vital citizenship can be developed and exercised in practice. The community assembly offers a means through which a highly-valued multiplicity and diversity can be unified and coordinated, as the citizens engage practically in the pursuit of the good of the whole community. It is also on a scale at which the community's many-sided relationship to its specific ecological and bioregional milieu can be vividly grasped and achieve political expression.

What is debated vigorously among social ecologists is the validity of a "libertarian municipalism" that would make a program of creating local assembly government and federations of libertarian municipalities into a privileged politics of social ecology. In this ideology, the citizens (as Bookchin defines them) and the municipalist movement assume much of the historical role of the working class and the party in classical Marxist theory, and are endowed with a similar mystique. Yet, it seems clear that the municipalist program and Bookchin's new "revolutionary subject" cannot be uniquely deduced from the general premises of social ecological analysis, nor can they be shown to be the only plausible basis for an ecological politics. It is therefore not surprising that most activists influenced by social ecology do not direct most of their efforts into municipalism, but rather work in many political, economic and cultural realms. [49]

A social ecology recognizes that political forms, as important as they may be, are given meaning and realize whatever liberatory and communitarian potential they may have within a larger political culture. The political culture is thus both historically and theoretically more fundamental. Consequently, when contemplating a promising political form, a social ecology will consider the ways in which the political culture may limit or liberate the potentials in that form. The institution of the assembly, for example, possesses not only the potential to foster freedom, authentic democracy, solidarity and civic virtue, but also a considerable potential for the generation of elitism, egotism, domineering personality traits, and power-seeking behavior. Such dangers are avoided not only through procedures within assemblies themselves, but above all by the creation of a communitarian, democratic culture that will express itself in decision-making bodies and in all other institutions. For assemblies and other organs of direct democracy to contribute effectively to an ecological community, they must be purged of the competitive, agonistic, masculinist aspects that have often corrupted them. They can only fulfill their democratic promise if they are an integral expression of a cooperative community that embodies in its institutions the love of humanity and nature.

Barber makes exactly this point when he states that "strong" democracy "attempts to balance adversary politics by nourishing the mutualistic art of listening," and going beyond mere toleration, seeks "common rhetoric evocative of a common democratic discourse" that should "encompass the affective as well as the cognitive mode." [50] Such concerns echo recent contributions in feminist ethics, which have pointed out that the dominant moral and political discourse have exhibited a one-sided emphasis on ideas and principles, and neglected the realm of feeling and sensibility. In this spirit, a social ecology will explore the ways in which the transition from formal to substantive democracy depends not only on the establishment of more radically democratic forms, but on the establishment of cultural practices that foster a democratic sensibility.


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