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A Social Ecology

by John Clark

Social Eco-nomics

In view of the dominance of the economic in contemporary society and the importance of the economic in any society, a social ecology must devote considerable attention to the means of creating a socially and ecologically responsible system of production and consumption. Bookchin has stressed the contribution that can be made by such alternatives as community credit unions, community supported agriculture, community gardens, " civic banks to fund municipal enterprises and land purchases" and community-owned enterprises. [51] In a discussion of how a municipalist movement might be initiated practically, he presents proposals that emphasize cooperatives and small individually-owned businesses. He suggests that the process could begin with the public purchase of unprofitable enterprises (which would then be managed by the workers), the establishment of land trusts, and the support for small-scale productive enterprises. He concludes that in such a system "cooperatives, farms, and small retail outlets would be fostered with municipal funds and placed under growing public control." [52] Taken together, such suggestions describe the beginnings of a "Green economics" that could have a major transformative effect on society. [53]

One of the most compelling aspects of Bookchin's political thought is the centrality of his ethical critique of the dominant economistic society, and his call for the creation of a "moral economy" as a precondition for a just ecological society. He asserts that such a "moral economy" implies the emergence of "a productive community" to replace the amoral "mere marketplace," that currently prevails. It requires further that producers "explicitly agree to exchange their products and services on terms that are not merely 'equitable' or 'fair' but supportive of each other." [54] Such an analysis assumes that if the prevailing system of economic exploitation and the dominant economistic culture based on it are to be eliminated, a sphere must be created in which people find new forms of exchange to replace the capitalist market, and this sphere must be capable of continued growth. Bookchin sees this realm as that of the municipalized economy, in which property becomes "part of a larger whole that is controlled by the citizen body in assembly as citizens." [55]

However, for the present at least, it is not clear why the municipalized economic sector should be looked upon as the primary realm, rather than as one area among many in which significant economic transformation might begin. It is possible to imagine a broad spectrum of self-managed enterprises, individual producers and small partnerships that would enter into a growing cooperative economic sector that would incorporate social ecological values. The extent to which the strong communitarian principle of distribution according to need could be achieved would be proportional to the degree to which cooperative and communitarian values had evolved--a condition that would depend on complex historical factors that cannot be predicted beforehand.

Bookchin suggests that in a transitional phase the "rights" of the small businesses will not be infringed upon, [56] though his goal is a fully-developed municipalist system in which these businesses will not be allowed to exist. It is far from obvious, however, why these enterprises should not continue to exist in the long term, alongside more cooperative forms of production, as long as the members of the community choose to support them. There is no conclusive evidence that such small enterprises are necessarily exploitative or that they cannot be operated in an ecologically sound manner. Particularly if the larger enterprises in a regional economy are democratically operated, the persistence of such small individual enterprises does not seem incompatible with social ecological values. This possibility is even more plausible to the degree that the community democratically establishes just and effective parameters of social and ecological responsibility. The dogmatic assertion that in an ecological society only one form of economic organization can exist (whether municipalized enterprises or any other form) is incompatible with the affirmation of historical openness and social creativity and imagination that is basic to a social ecology.

The New Leviathan

If a social ecology cannot be dogmatic in its economic prescriptions for the future, it must be entirely forthright in its judgment concerning the dominant role of global corporate capital in today's intensifying social and ecological crisis. While some social ecologists have repeated vague cliches about the market and capitalism (sometimes confusedly conflating the two), social ecological analysis consistently results in the inescapable conclusion that the growing global dominance of corporate power is the major institutional factor in the crisis. Whatever good intentions individual employees, managers, executives and stockholders may have, large corporations operate according to the constraints built into their organizational structures and according to the requirements of global economic competition. To the degree that the prevailing conception of global "free trade" is realized in practice, a corporation that operates according to ecologically optimal decision-making processes will be devoured by its more ruthlessly rational competitors. While there are in some cases strong incentives for transnational corporations to appear socially and ecologically responsible, there are stronger pragmatic requirements of rational self-interest that they act in socially and ecologically irresponsible ways. A social ecology must therefore concern itself with the various means by which more responsible decision-making might be achieved. This might include regulation by local, regional and national governmental bodies, organization of consumers, organization of workers, transformation of organizational structures of existing enterprises, creation of new and more responsible forms of economic organization, and various forms of citizens' direct action. The effectiveness of any of these approaches can only be determined through experience and experimentation. There has been no convincing demonstration that change in personal and cultural values, changes in individual behavior, regulatory legislation, structural political and economic reform, citizens' direct action, voluntary association, and large-scale resistance movements do not each have roles to play in social ecological transformation under various historical conditions.

To date, the best general assessment of economic globalization and corporate power from a social ecological perspective is Athanasiou's Divided Planet : The Ecology of Rich and Poor. [57] Athanasiou points out how the link between systemic social issues and ecological crisis is increasingly becoming evident. He notes, for example, that while until recently "only a few isolated radicals saw the Third World's crushing international debt as a green issue, it is well known as a key link in the fiscal chains strangling the world's ecosystems." [58] Athanasiou presents a model of social ecological analysis that goes far beyond generalizations about a human "quest for domination" or a "grow or die" economy. For example, he explains how in return for loans, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impose on poor countries "Structural Adjustment Programs" (SAPs) that are socially and ecologically disastrous, as rational they may seem from a narrow economistic perspective. SAPs demand drastic reductions in public spending for education, health, housing and other social goods, eliminate subsidies for agriculture, food and social services, encourage production for export, eliminate trade barriers, raise interest rates and lower wages. The result is a more rationalized and superficially stable economy in which poverty increases, the quality of life declines for most people, and environmental destruction accelerates to fuel export-based production.

The phenomenon of globalization shows with increasing clarity the link between transnational capital, the state, the technological system, and the growing and intimately interrelated social and ecological crises. There is no better example of the power of broad social ecological analysis.

The Future of Social Ecology

Future research in social ecology will consist of much more detailed study of these issues and many other questions related to the development of the global economic, political and technological systems and the resulting social and ecological consequences. The critical theoretical framework of social ecology will become richer and more highly articulated as it incorporates these empirically-based studies. At the same time, its theoretical vision of a communitarian regionalism will be enriched and rendered more determinate by the proliferation of empirical, experiential projects in the tradition of Geddes' regional survey, and its political and economic theory will be transformed as evidence is assimilated from continuing experiments in ecological and communitarian organization and social practice.

Social ecology is at the present moment in a stage of rapid transformation, self-reflection, and expansion of its theoretical horizons. It is in the process of escaping from the dogmatic tendencies that have threatened its theoretical vitality and practical relevance, and the sectarian narrowness that has reactively defined it in opposition to other ecophilosophies. It is ready to withdraw from the "contest of ecologies" and move forward in its theoretical development, in creative dialogue with other philosophies. [59] It is now in a position to realize its potential as a holistic and dialectical philosophy that seeks greater openness and opportunity for growth, works toward a more adequate synthesis of theoretical reflection and empirical inquiry, attains an increasingly comprehensive theoretical scope, and strives for a truly dialectical relation to creative social practice--offering the guidance of reflection and remaining open to guidance by the truth of experience.

The project of a social ecology will certainly gain impetus through the growing awareness of global ecological crisis and deterioration of the ties of human community. Yet it will be moved and inspired most by its affirmative ecological faith--by its love of humanity in all its magnificent expressions, its wonder at the diverse manifestations of life on earth, and its awe at the mystery of being. It will also learn to accept human limitations and the tragic dimension of history, and put aside the illusions of shallow progressivism, revolutionary fantasy, and Promethean heroism. It will find hope rather in a vision of the human community--freed from its quest for domination of self, of others, of objects, of nature--realizing its own good through participating in and contributing to the good of the larger community of life. In pursuing this vision, social ecology realizes its deepest meaning as a reflection on the earth household, a reflection that reveals our place as companions in our common journey.


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