Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

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.

What is Solarpunk?

What is Solarpunk?

From the perspective of the early 21st century, things look pretty grim. A deadly cocktail of crises engulf the people of planet Earth and all other forms of biotic life which share it: a geopolitical crisis, an economic crisis, and a worsening ecological crisis due to global warming, which stems from a political-economic system that requires fossil fuels to power its technostructure.

Culture, having as it does a symbiotic relationship with material conditions, reflects a lot of these crises in fiction and the arts. The 2000s and 2010s were replete with apocalyptic imagery of a future ravaged by war, totalitarianism, runaway weapons technology, killer viruses, zombies, and environmental collapse. Not that such narratives are unneeded. At best, they can serve as a wake-up call for those caught up in the myth that we had reached the “end of history” with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism on a planetary scale. But if they remain the primary vision our globalised culture has of the potential future, they can end up reproducing the pervasive cynicism and despair which makes all crises seem inescapable. 
This is why solarpunk is of value.


Solarpunk is a Revolt of Hope Against Despair

Solarpunk is a rebellion against the structural pessimism in our late visions of how the future will be. Not to say it replaces pessimism with Pollyanna-ish optimism, but with a cautious hopefulness and a daring to tease out the positive potentials in bad situations. Hope that perhaps the grounds of an apocalypse (revelation) might also contain the seeds of something better; something more ecological, liberatory, egalitarian, and vibrant than what came before, if we work hard at cultivating those seeds.

Any tour of the geeky parts of the Internet will reveal an assortment of different traditions ending in the suffix “punk”: steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, and so on. All the many different punk science-fiction movements imagine how things could turn out if society and technology took a different turn. While steampunk imagines a past that might have been, based on Victorian-age technology, solarpunk imagines a future that could be, based on current-age technology. It anticipates the type alternative history science-fiction the people of the future might write about us if things turn out horribly. But more than just a new science-fiction or fantasy subgenre, it’s also practical vision for (maybe) bringing the things it imagines into being in the real world.

You may ask what exactly is meant to be “punk” about what a cynic might see as the lovechild of hippies and futurists. After all, isn’t punk meant to denote anger and rage at the “the system”, as well as black leather and spikey hair? Punk is more of an ethos than a specific set of signifiers, implying rebellion against, and negation of, the dominant paradigm and everything repressive about it. So in that sense, in a world being torn apart by a planetary system based on avarice and power-lust and ecocide, solarpunk might be the most “punk” movement of all.


Solarpunk is Eco-Speculation, in Both Fiction and Reality

Solarpunk is a (mostly) aesthetic-cultural and (sometimes) ethical-political tendency which attempts to negate the dominant idea which grips popular consciousness: that the future must be grim, or at least grim for the mass of people and nonhuman forms of life on the planet. Looking at the millennia-old rift between human society and the natural world, it sets as its ethical foundation the necessity of mending this rift, transforming our relation to the planet by transcending those social structures which lead to systemic ecocide.
It draws a lot from the philosophy of social ecology, which also focused on mending this rift by restructuring society to function more like ecology: non-hierarchical, cooperative, diverse, and seeking balance.

Solarpunk’s vision is of an ecological society beyond war, domination, and artificial scarcity; where everything is powered by green energy and a culture of hierarchy and exclusion has been replaced by a culture founded on radical inclusiveness, unity-in-diversity, free cooperation, participatory democracy, and personal self-realisation.

This would be a world of decentralised eco-cities, 3D printing, vertical farms, solar glass windows, wild or inventive forms of dress and design, and a vibrant cosmopolitan aesthetic; where technology is no longer used to exploit the natural world, but to automate away needless human labour and to help restore the damage the Oil Age has already done. Solarpunk desires societies of polycultural ethnic diversity and gender liberation, where each person is able to actualise themselves in societal environment of free experimentation and communal caring; and driven by an overriding ethos of compassionate rationalism, where science and reason are not seen as antithetical to imagination and spirituality, but as concepts which bring out the best in each other.

It attempts to bring such values in being in the here-and-now, prefiguring the world to be created, through science-fiction and fantasy literature, arts, fashion, filmmaking, music, games, and a set of ideas which inform political, economic, and ecological activism.

Solarpunk stories are likely to feature characters from (currently) oppressed or marginalised groups living more freely, equally, and inclusively than they are able to now; exploring an exotic world of body modification, gender and sexual discovery, new forms of technology – and dealing with conflicts from the remnants of the old world as well as the unique problems which are sure to arise in a very different social scene. Solarpunk arts are driven by mixtures of multimedia technology and more traditional handcrafts, blending such disparate things as anime, Art Nouveau, Afrofuturism, indigenous American designs, and Edwardian fashion into a stew of artistic cross-pollination. And all of the above try to take the existing aspects of our current world and repurpose them into something more liberatory, specialising in reframing, pastiche, and reimagining of existing characters, styles, and trends in a very different context. Blending the diverse aesthetic styles of several different cultures, solarpunk engenders a celebration of hybridity while still being sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation – “taking” instead of “partaking” – from subordinate cultures by dominant cultures


Solarpunk is the Positive Articulation of a Better World

Not content to accept the dictates of a tomorrow ruled by authoritarian states, rapacious corporations, and a despoiled biosphere, solarpunk is an eco-futurist movement which tries to think our way out of catastrophe by imagining a future most people would actually like to live in, instead of ones we should be trying to avoid; a future characterised by a reconciliation between humanity and nature, where technology is utilised for human-centric and eco-centric ends, and where a society driven by hierarchy and competition has given way to one organised on the basis of freedom, equality, and cooperation. It’s purpose is to serve as a compelling counter-narrative to the material and ideational conditions which keep us trapped in an authoritarian and ecocidal world where, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”.

There already exist bits and pieces of just such an alternative right now, if only their potentials were drawn out. Worker cooperatives, self-sufficient eco-communities, directly-democratic popular assemblies, voluntary federations of small polities, mutual aid networks, community land trusts; all of these could form, it utilised, a very different kind of political-economic structure than the one being pushed by neoliberal globalisation. Likewise, technologies such as solar and wind and wave energy, 3D printing, vertical farming, micro-manufacturing, free software, open-source hardware, and robotic machinery which can automate away human labour all serve to illustrate the possibilities of an ecological and decentralised technostructure where the means of production are under popular control, rather than used to enhance the profit and power of a ruling elite.

In politics, solarpunk belongs to the wider tradition of the decentralist left, associated with such thinkers and activists as Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Emma Goldman, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, E.F. Schumacher, and Murray Bookchin. It rejects the false choice between the Scylla of market capitalism and the Charybdis of state socialism, between rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, instead opting for a society which reconciles a healthy individuality with communal solidarity.

A solarpunk polity would replace centralised forms of state government with decentralised confederations of self-governing communities, each administering themselves through many forms of direct and participatory democracy, with countless kinds of horizontally-structured voluntary associations taking care of judicial, environmental, and societal issues in ways which seek to maximise both personal autonomy and social solidarity.

A solarpunk “economy of the commons” would dispense with both profiteering corporations and statist central planning in favour of worker-run cooperatives, collaborative exchange networks, common pool resources, and control of investment by local communities. The aim of the economy would be reoriented from production-for-exchange and industrial “growth” to production-for-use and increasing the bio-psycho-social well-being of people and planet. Production would be moved as close as is possible to the point of consumption, with the long term aim being a relative self-sufficiency in goods and manufacturing. Decentralist forms of eco-technology would be used to help make work more participatory and enjoyable – “artisan-ising” the productive process itself – as well as automate away dull, dirty, and dangerous forms of work wherever possible. After realising an appropriate degree of post-scarcity, local self-sufficiency, and labour automation, it may even be feasible to abolish money as an unneeded nuisance in the allocation of resources.

A solarpunk culture would strive to dissolve every form of social hierarchy and domination – whether based on class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, or species – dispersing the power some individuals or groups wield over others and thus increasing the aggregate freedom of all; empowering the disempowered and including the excluded. It is rooted in the legacy of such liberatory movements as anti-authoritarian socialism, feminism, racial justice, queer and trans liberation, disability struggles, animal liberation, and digital freedom projects.


Solarpunk is Practical Utopianism

As you can see, there have always been alternatives, conventional wisdom just dismisses them out of hand as “utopian”. But is utopianism really such a bad thing? In one way, yes. The word itself, coined by Thomas More, is a Latin pun which means both “no-place” (ou-topia) but also “good-place” (eu-topia); implying a place so good it couldn’t exist. Before and after More, there were attempts by outopian dreamers to craft perfect worlds in which no real problems existed, such projects also tended to be totalitarian and centrally planned societies with little personal freedom.

Yet there have also been attempts to craft future societies which weren’t flawless “end of history” scenarios, but that tried to eliminate the structural conditions which limited personal autonomy and enforced inequality upon people. Such eutopian visionaries mixed a spirit of hopefulness with an attitude of practicality, with one tempering the other. It is this latter tradition that solarpunk tries to take its cues from. So it is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place).

So solarpunk is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place). It sees utopia as a constant process of approximating an ideal, not reaching a light at the end of a tunnel. Solarpunk acknowledges that our utopia of social liberation and ecological stewardship may never be achieved 100%, but if we at least keep that vision in mind, throwing our efforts into making the world a bit better wherever we can, then at least every step we take towards achieving that utopia will be a step in the right direction. It will be progress, and, for those it positively impacts, liberation.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

Eco-Anime: Six Movies with Ecological Themes, Tropes, and Messages

  

When Ronald Regan saw the famous TV movie The Day After, which is about people surviving nuclear war on the United States, it was said to have had such a profound impact on him that it lessened somewhat his macho posturing about military action towards the Soviet Union. It’s rare that movies can be said to have had such a direct effect upon the course of socio-political policy. Usually the effects are more indirect as a certain structure of feeling finds its way into cultural consciousness, which is then reflected in the kinds of subjects writers and directors choose to cover and subsequently make films about. 

A decade and a half into the 21st century, the new topic of global concern is not so much nuclear war as ecological collapse due to anthropogenic climate change, brought about through the use of fossil fuels for energy; and the potential resource wars over water, petroleum, and even living space should it get so severe. It can’t be a coincidence that we’ve been seeing a lot of movies and media as of late with post-apocalyptic themes about survival in societies that have been built back up after some kind of civilisational collapse. Though in most cases ecology is an issue that’s only alluded to than directly referenced – from Interstellar, to the Hunger Games, to The Maze Runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Book of Eli; not to mention the copious amount of post-civilisation television and video games, from The Walking Dead to the Fallout franchise.

Not so in the long history of anime (Japanese animation), in which ecological themes and tropes have been a salient feature for several decades. Perhaps due to seeing the ecocidal/genocidal effects of nuclear weaponry, perhaps due to coming from a culture which blends the ancient withthe modern and the natural with the technological, along with many other factors, green concerns have been a recurring concern in Japanese animated filmmaking from its beginnings under the legendary Osamu Tezuka to the maverick works of Hayao Miyazaki.

While the track record of American animated features dealing with the environment is somewhat sketchy – from the preachy Ferngully, to the intelligent and nuanced Wall E, to the abominable Lorax – anime tends to consistently deliver green narratives which instil an environmental awareness in the audience without beating them over the head with it. It’s strengths also lie in viewing the roots of anti-ecological consequences in systemic structures (states, militaries, corporations) rather than individual consumer behaviours, which seems to be the main focus of green animated movies in the west; emphasising personal guilt over the need for structural changes.

From the birth of the modern ecology movement in the 1960s to the present, there has grown a division into two rough poles with, on one hand, primitivists – who believe we ought to abandon all technology and return to a hunter-gatherer way of life – and, on the other hand, futurists – who believe we can use technology in an environmentally responsible way to liberate both ourselves and the natural world from hardship, with most greens being somewhere in the middle.

The relative scope of eco-anime films which tackle environmental issues and themes could also be broken down roughly into two camps: eco-fantasy and eco-futurism. The former tends to be more lighthearted, and deals with humanity’s relationship to nature in a whimsical and imaginative way. The latter tends to be more dark and grim, depicting the negative consequences of human folly in our effect on the natural world.

While the parallels between primitivism/eco-fantasy and futurism/eco-futurism don’t perfectly align, they share enough in common that thematic resonances exist between them when it comes to viewing the expression of ecological consciousness in feature films. 

I want to start with optimistic visions from the 1980s and 1990s – which emphasise small-scale and general concern for the environment rather than systemic change – followed by movies that depict ecological catastrophe and the “revenge of nature” upon humanity, and conclude with a film which mixes apocalyptic imagery with a more optimistic outlook on the potential for humans to live in harmony with nature instead of dominating it.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Even without the relevant connection to ecology and other themes, Hayao Miyzaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a delightful children’s adventure story, blending the works of Jonathan Swift with high adventure fiction from the early twentieth century and swashbuckling action movies from the 1930s – it’s also noteworthy for being one of the first cinematic examples of the genre now called steampunk.

The story concerns two teenagers, Sheeta and Pazu, in an alternate-history version of Europe, where steam-power has given birth to airships instead of sea-ships, as they search for the legendary city of Laputa, said to contain the ruins of a lost civilisation. They are pursued by the villainous (aesthetically fascist) Muska and the military, who wish to conquer the lost city for its treasures and weaponry.

While its plot is a little on the simpler side relative to Miyazaki’s other works, with Muska in particular being a somewhat cartoonishly evil villain in comparison to his more nuanced antagonists, it doesn’t try to be anything other than a fun family adventure film with implied messages about militarism and the necessity about having a connection to the natural world.

The film opens in the lush valleys of what seems to be alternate-history Wales, where people are visibly poor materially but still full of vitality, then transitions to the high-tech surroundings of the military of this world, which contains unpleasantly rustic browns, greys, and an aura of aggressive uniformity. These two aesthetics are smashed together when our characters, good and evil, arrive in Laputa, a former technological hegemon which has been taken over by flora and fauna. This is something Muska finds “filthy” and disgusting as he rips through vines to acquire control of the city’s weapons of mass destruction.

Sheeta’s ancestral connection to the city comes into play towards the end as it becomes apparent to Muska that he cannot become this world’s ruler without her. Threatening her at gunpoint, Laputa’s decaying technological might comes into play as it becomes apparent that it was once the head of a great empire which collapsed due to its disconnection from the Earth, in both a figurative and literal sense.

Ultimately, while the film’s ecological message is covert, rather than overt, it is coded to the audience in a remarkably mature fashion for a nominally child-centric movie, making links between statism, war, militarism, and inevitable ecocide.

Pom Poko

Written and directed by Miyazaki’s colleague Isao Takahata, the filmmaker behind one of anime’s most renowned cinematic gems, the World War II tragedy Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko focuses on a group of anthropomorphic Tanuki (raccoon-dogs indigenous to Japan) as they wage a guerrilla war against humans developing on their habitat.

The film has a lot of colourful and creative imagery depicted through the magical Tanuki’s ability to transform into humans and monsters to scare the humans off, and also a lot of black comedy which will probably fly over children’s heads.

Story wise, the film takes place over the course of a couple of seasons as the Tanuki try various campaigns and strategies to keep the humans away from their land and stop them destroying their homes. Part of the charm of the film is watching the anthropomorphised animals mimic human habits yet acting very much like one would expect real animals to act if they could speak. That is, in a not so rational and enlightened way.

The more militaristic section of the Tanuki has similarities to radical environmental groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, performing acts of strategic sabotage and property damage in their fight against human encroachment. And, interestingly for a family film, not only has the Tanuki commit actual murder at points, but laugh hysterically about it afterwards.

Unusually for an animated family film that deals with green issues – which was released at around the same time as the similarly themed Ferngully: The Last Rainforest – the film actually grows more somber and bleak as it goes on, as the Tanuki gradually run out of options and are slowly faced with death due to starvation. It confronts the characters with tough choices to which there are no easy answers, even from the audience’s perspective. Do they go out blazing in an anti-human rampage rather than accept slow death from starvation? Attempt to find another less habitable home? Should the few Tanuki who can magically transform try to assimilate into the human world leaving their weaker comrades to an uncertain fate?

The film is overall a bit too heavy handed in its depiction of human-nature conflict. It even ends with one of the Tanuki characters speaking directly to the children watching the film about treating the environment responsibly. But in other ways it makes for a surprisingly mature story about how there isn’t always an easy answer to the question of human versus ecological survival.

Princess Mononoke

In another Miyazaki entry, this time of a far darker and more adult nature, Ashitaka, a young man infected with a curse given to him by a forrest god, must abandon his tribe and search the lands of medieval Japan in search of some kind of cure. The god was driven mad by some kind of spiritual infection said to be caused by the progressive human ravaging of the forrest, as many bands of humans are determined to conquer nature and her spirits so that industrialisation and the march of progress may continue.

Along the way, in this 2 ½ hour epic, Ashitaka encounters forrest spirits, corrupt monks, soldiers who want to cut his head off, a town lead by an ambitious woman of mixed morals, and a girl raised by wolf gods after having been abandoned by her human parents, who has turned against her own species to become a warrior for the forests: Princess Mononoke, who gives the film its title.

This movie is generally considered Miyazaki’s magnum opus in a career chock full of masterpieces. It’s not difficult to see why, as almost every character is fascinating, complex, and well-developed; the animation and direction is nothing short of breathtaking, even by today’s standards; and its plot of a war between humanity and (anthropomorphised) nature itself manages to be multi-faceted and avoids painting either side as fully right or wrong in their dispute.

It would normally be expected in a pro-ecology film for nature to be depicted as virtuous and humanity as villainous. Though the picture Miyazaki paints is more complicated than that.

Nature is shown to be a world of balance and harmony, unjustly being destroyed by human action; but also rigid and stubborn in its inability to compromise or accept necessary change. Humanity – as represented in the industrial dwelling of Iron Town, led by the ambiguous Lady Eboshi – is shown to be violent and reckless; but also a force of creativity and vitality. And Lady Eboshi herself, who in any other film would probably be the designated villain, is shown to be at once ecocidal and myopic, but also a woman who built a thriving community of social outcasts – prostitutes, runaway soldiers, lepers – when the rest of society denied them even basic humanity. 

So in a sense, the film plays out as a battle between the best of a flawed humanity versus the worst of a benevolent nature over the contested territory of living space, with Ashitaka being caught between both worlds, who (as a member of an indigenous tribe excluded from Japanese society) having localities to neither, ends up getting caught in the middle; attacking and defending both sides at various points depending on the situation.

In the end, as expected, balance between forrest and town is achieved through the cooperation of Ashitaka and Mononoke, with each being children caught between worlds, and therefore the best bridges between them. As a dark but ultimately hopeful example of eco-fantasy, it gives its viewers interesting points to contemplate around the subject of human dealings with nature in the name of “progress”, and whether a progress that involves increasing the vitality of humans by decreasing the vitality of nature is really a progress worth having.

Now to turn attention away from the positive imaginings of eco-fantasy to the dark visions of eco-futurism.

Blue Submarine No. 6

The story of this mini-series, recut into a two-hour movie, concerns a once-respected scientist called Zorndyke who became convinced that humanity was a blight upon the Earth. He subsequently genetically-engineered several species of sapient post-human marine species intended to wipe out the human population. Submarine pilot Hayami and assistant Mayumi team up to defend the existing humans and defeat Zorndyke.
 

Aside from the dark and increasingly relevant eco subject matter, Blue Submarine No. 6 was one of the first anime features to extensively blend 2D cell animation with 3D computer animation, and while not that sophisticated by today’s standards, marks a turning point in technical terms for anime as a medium. It came out the same year as Gary Goldman and Don Bluth’s Titan A. E., an underrated science-fiction animated film which also blended traditional 2D characters with mobile 3D backgrounds.

This is a rare film where eco-collapse has been brought about through conscious effort rather than as an unintentional side effect. While Zorndyke is only alluded to early on in the film, made out by most characters to be some kind of demented sociopath, he is eventually depicted onscreen as a soft-spoken, cerebral, and almost gentle character. While his literally genocidal project is depicted as a step too far, Zorndyke still comes across as a villain with a point. Less Doctor Moreau – which, with his creation of humanoid animals, may seem like the best comparison – and more Doctor Frankenstein in the original novel by Marry Shelly.

A major plot-point is Mayumi seeking revenge upon Zorndyke for the deaths of her parents, with the film building up to a final confrontation between the two. Yet, when she finally meets him face-to-face and is presented with the opportunity of killing him, she cannot take it. Upon hearing the explanation for his actions, she finds herself simultaneously unable to agree with his anti-human philosophy, yet also unable to see him as nothing but a brutal villain worthy of death.

Throughout, Hayami has several encounters with one of Zorndyke’s marine soldiers, forming a sort of non-verbal bond as they save each other’s lives once each, coming to recognise a mutual “humanity” in one another. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Hayami briefly reflects on what the world might be like post-humanity, “for us death, but for you, a utopia”.

The final scene of Zorndyke’s funeral is ambivalent. Whether humanity can live in peace with the Earth’s new nonhuman inhabitants is left up in the air. It is something to mournfully contemplate as we ask, if Zorndyke was correct in his assessment of the human species’s capacity for destruction, what alternative can there be for both people and the planet?

Origin: Spirits of the Past

Personally, while I can see where this anti-humanist sentiment is coming from, and can appreciate it for asking interesting questions in the context of some films, I’m not at all sympathetic too it. Mainly because it treats “humanity” as a homogenous entity instead of the diverse multitude it is, stratified along state and class lines. To imply that humanity as a whole bears collective responsibility for environmental devastation is to effectively say a poor child in the slums of Lagos is as responsible for ecocide as the CEO of Exxon Mobil, simply because both are members of the homo sapiens species.

For that reason and others, I find myself more drawn to the worldview of films like Origin: Spirits of the Past.

The story kicks off through a musical montage which depicts global civilisational collapse due to an attempt at geoengineering gone wrong, which covers the world in sentient trees. Flash forward 300 years and the citizens of an area called Neutral City are caught in a conflict between a militaristic nation-state on one side, and the sentient forrest – which they have learned to live in balance with – on the other.

The finger is pointed more at militarism and statism as being responsible for environmental devastation more than some kind innate species-wide propensity towards wrecking the Earth.

As a film in-itself, Origin is aesthetically beautiful but somewhat lacking in the story and character department. At only 90 minutes, the striking world of the film makes it feel like it ought to be a lot longer, perhaps even a television series or a series of films than a self-contained feature. And in terms of the delivery of its message, it comes across as excessively preachy and unsubtle. Though as for that message’s actual content, Origin succeeds in coming close to what’s called the social ecology school of environmental thought, emphasising human-nature cooperation and balance between the two as a solution to conflict, rather than one dominating or destroying the other.

Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind

In Hayao Miyazaki’s first big film, released in the early 1980s (and boasting an egregiously dated synthesiser soundtrack), a small community of ecologically responsible people have managed to carve out a comfortable existence through renewable technology and living in peace with the Ohmu, giant insectoid creatures which roam the toxic wastelands the rest of the planet has become.

The collapse here is implied to be the result of nuclear war rather than ecological collapse – more of a Cold War theme from the 1980s – though it still has much of the same resonance today as the issues of human institutional folly causing catastrophe are similar enough to be comparable. The film could just as well be made today with implied nuclear war being replaced with implied human-cased eco-collapse without a noticeable difference.

Our plot concerns a young “princess” called Nausicca (after an ancient Phoenician goddess) as she roams the wasteland in search of materials to help her people and act as an intermediary between the various waring states which dot the still-habitable zones of the Earth. While one state in particular is determined to use ancient weapons from the “old world” (implied to be some form of atomic city-destroyer) in order to scrape the wastelands clean of the Ohmu, Nausicca is determined to find a peaceful solution.

The film is most similar overall to Miyazaki’s later epic Princess Mononoke, with Nausicaa and Ashitaka both being thrust into the role of intermediary between humanity and nature. But while Ashitaka fights against both sides in the conflict, trying to get both to see sense, Nausicaa tries to bring both sides together without recourse to violence. On that level it’s the most anti-militarist, even pacifist, of the films covered here. 

In the end, as Nausicca manages to put her own life on the line to play peacemaker between the militaristic human rulers and nuclear fauna, the audience is shown in the post-credits montage that it is indeed possible for humanity and nature to exist in harmony with one another. 

This film, though the earliest chronologically of these six, embodies all the best traits of the anime films that came after it: ecological awareness, links between ecocide and the militaristic desire to dominate nature, and the aspiration to adopt a cooperative relationship to the natural world instead of one based on hierarchy and destruction. 

Conclusion

As shown above, while western animated features continue to be hit and miss with regard to addressing issues of people and planet, anime contains a wealth of movies grabbing with green themes and leading audiences to think about their relationship as humans towards the Earth, and where possible solutions to the nature/culture divide may lie. 

With regard to both cinematic analysis and social analysis, of the most promising environmental philosophies to look into in the technological age (alluded to above) is the critical theory of social ecology.

Social ecology posits that almost all environmental problems (bar purely natural disasters) are ultimately rooted in human social problems; and those human social problems in turn stem from structuring our institutions and relations upon lines of centralised power, hierarchy, and domination. In the words of social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin “The domination of nature by man is rooted in the domination of man by man”. In other words, the ways we treat each other, through exploitation and violence, become projected onto the ways we treat nonhuman animals, flora, landscapes, and other forms of biotic life.

Perhaps the best course of action filmmakers could take would be to drop the scary visions of possible apocalypse and show bright hopeful futures in which technology has been utilised to restore balance between first nature (the organic world) and second nature (the human-crafted world). A “social ecological cinema”. And as the movies in this festival show, there’s already a lot to draw from in anime. Right now such visions are only really present in films like Origin and Nausicca, which show ecotopias within the context of post-collapse worlds. Perhaps it might be a good idea to show that such societies could be achieved while averting such a collapse in the first place.