Social ecology is a critical theory coined by the late philosopher and political activist Murray Bookchin in the 1960s, and is associated with the pro-technology and directly-democratic side of the green movement.
It conceives of human society and nonhuman nature needing to relate to each other in non-hierarchical and complementary ways, and can be seen as a sort of middle way beyond anti-humanist forms of green radicalism, at one extreme, and pro-capitalist forms of liberal environmentalism, at the other. The philosophy proposes that in order for the social and natural worlds to reconcile, humans must first transform their relations to each other – recreating society along egalitarian, cooperative, and democratic lines – and then transform their relations towards nature – adopting an attitude to cooperation, rather than domination, towards the planet and its nonhuman forms of life.
While starting out as a Marxist, social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin came to reject Marxism’s focus on the state, centralisation, and economic determinism, aside from admiring many of the insights of Marx himself and some of the more anti-authoritarian Marxists, such as those from the Frankfurt School tradition. By the early 1960s, he found his way to social anarchism, infusing it with an ecological and futurist dimension. He called the political-economic goal he sought “post-scarcity anarchism” – which would be based on the automation of human labour by decentralised forms of technology – and his body of analytical theories social ecology.
He chose the term social ecology to stress his hypothesis that almost all ecological problems (apart from purely natural disasters) are rooted in human social problems, with these human social problems themselves stemming from political, economic, and cultural modes of power based on hierarchy and domination. The domination of nature by humans, he claimed, arose because of the domination of humans by other humans. These sets of hierarchical social relations – classes, patriarchy, ethnic supremacy – became projected onto the natural world. In other words, the ways the powerful treated the disempowered became reflected in how they, in turn, treated nature.
It was only by reconstructing human society along non-hierarchical, decentralised, cooperative, and directly-democratic lines that he felt society would be able to mend its rift with the natural environment; as we started treating each other better, we would start treating nature better. This perspective, in many respects, anticipates what’s now called intersectionality in social justice movements, enclosed within an ecological sensibility.
He borrowed a term from the Roman philosopher Cicero in referring to the human social milieu as “second nature”, while describing natural environment as “first nature”, doing so to reorient perceptions of human beings existing within nature, rather than conceiving of the species living (hierarchically) on top of it. Second nature is like a circle within a larger circle, first nature; not like a castle upon a hill, separate from the wilderness below.
This first/second nature dichotomy was also used to raise awareness of the fact that nature as a whole should not be thought of as mere wilderness, distinct from human intervention. Because, as humans are the first species capable of consciously altering their own environments – to an to extent that they can direct the flow of nature itself somewhat – so much of what we think of as “nature” is as much a result of human design as a city or a computer: gardens, pastures, parks, and even some forests.
One of the most beautiful examples of this sentiment from animated cinema can be found in the film Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. At the film’s centrepoint, the main character, Takeo, on a visit to the countryside, looks out into the serene landscape and remarks on how glorious unspoiled nature is. She is in turn informed by her farmer companion, “No, everything you see before you is man-made”.
Humans should therefore, according to social ecology, take on an ethical responsibility as caretakers of the Earth, abandoning the idea of “dominating” or “conquering” nature in the name of progress. Instead, Bookchin emphasised ecological stewardship, stressing that progress could be achieved for both the human and nonhuman spheres of life by practicing cooperation with nature, with humans adopting the naturalist values of non-hierarchy, mutual aid, unity-in-diversity, and complementarity. This would, according to social ecology, lead to a dialectical synthesis of first nature and second nature, incorporating the best of both, which could be called “free nature”.
He also rejected the notion that there was anything inherently anti-ecological about technology, claiming that technology – or “technics”, borrowing a term from Lewis Mumford – could be used for good or ill depending on whether they were utilised for democratic/decentralist or authoritarian/hierarchical purposes. Bookchin, and other members of his Institute of Social Ecology, argued that technics such as fossil fuels and nuclear weapons are coded primarily for authoritarian purposes, while solar and wind power, as well as micro-manufacturing, are more coded for participatory purposes, enabling communities to become more self-reliant and less controllable by the the powers of the state and capital. We should therefore seek to use decentralist and ecological technics to enhance human and nonhuman well-being, especially through the use of automation (or “cybernation”) to get rid of needless toil from human labour, eventually reaching a condition of relative post-scarcity, as long as individuals agreed to live in an egalitarian and sustainable manner.
Another distinct feature of social ecology is its conception of historical progress. Seeing itself as part of the legacy of Enlightenment humanism, with a strong belief in scientific rationalism blended with an ethics of non-hierarchical cooperation, Bookchin agreed with Peter Kropotkin, and contra Marxism, that the move towards capitalism and the nation-state had in fact been a step backwards; and that “industrialisation from below” may have been possible had the municipal-confederations of the Middle Ages become the dominant political-economic model instead of the nation-state. Social ecology therefore always stresses decentralisation and democratisation over centralism and hierarchy, believing the former two are far better for both society and ecology.
Blending the dialectical thought of both GWF Hegel and Karl Marx, social ecology calls its analysis of historical forces “dialectical naturalism”, a middle way of sorts between the dialectical idealism of Hegel and the dialectical materialism of Marx. Dialectical naturalism examines history in terms of its “potentialities” – that is, capacities to realise social forms enabling non-hierarchy and free flourishing – and assesses the “rationality” versus “irrationality” of a society based on how well it actualises those potentialities in practice.
Bookchin and other social ecologists believed that the fullest actualisation of the current society’s potentialities would be a post-scarcity ecological society, founded on decentralised systems of direct democracy and the humane use of technology. This cannot, according to Bookchin, be conceived in Marxist teleological terms, as some kind of inevitable end-point of historical development, but as an ongoing process, a continuous approximation of an ideal; that ideal being a society of ecological balance, egalitarian cooperation, personal freedom, and social-ecological complementarity.
Since the 1960s and 70s, social ecology has branched off in several directions. Bookchin himself used it as the basis for a political theory he called Communalism (with a capital-c), carried on today by the Norwegian group New Compass, philosopher John P. Clark developed its dialectical methodology and liberatory political implications into a blend he calls communitarian anarchism, and Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan used it as one of the components for his ideology of “democratic confederalism”, which has shaped much of the Kurdish freedom movement in southeast Turkey (Bakur Kurdistan) and northern Syria (Rojava Kurdistan); where, following Bookchin’s advice, activists have established directly-democratic popular assemblies, worker cooperatives, and an economy of the commons which stresses ecological stewardship.
While the aesthetic-cultural solarpunk movement evolved independently of social ecology, they have so much in common that they could even be regarded as the same tradition by different names. Solarpunk’s emphasis on the liberatory and ecological use of technology sounds as if it were ripped straight from the pages of Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism in 1971.