Our mission with Thinkvine is to inform and discuss with others the importance of combining the realms of environmental, social and political thought. We believe this is the best way to create cohesive, effective solutions to the biggest problems facing our generation.
Social ecology is a critical social theory that exemplifies this, and understanding it may take us one step closer to generating meaningful change by questioning the way people view the environment and themselves. It is therefore essential reading for any environmentalist, so here’s our summary of social ecology, and how it can help us face the obstacles of the future.
Murray Bookchin first proposed his theory of social ecology in the 50’s to integrate environmentalist ideas into the politics of the Left. What defines social ecology as ‘social’ is its recognition of the fact (often overlooked) that almost all of our current environmental problems are the result of deep-seated social issues.
“The domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.”
In practice, this means that we cannot solve the environmental crisis without first resolving problems within society, specifically the ethnic, cultural, class and gender conflicts (amongst others) that lie at the core of ecological disturbance around the world. Consumerism, industrial expansion and competitive markets (to name a few) are some of the processes of environmental destruction. Environmentalists, particularly scientists, unfortunately see the environmental crisis as a result of physical phenomena (like species loss; population growth; global warming; and habitat destruction). Though these physical phenomena are definitely part of the process, focusing on them blinds us to the systems which allow them to occur; it’s all a little too ‘sociological’ for many environmentalists.
“The root causes of environmental problems are such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of “progress” with corporate self-interest.”
Bookchin emphasises a ‘two natures’ approach to understanding the relationship between humans and the environment. Our ‘first nature’ arises from our evolutionary history; we exist as a natural product of millions of years of evolution and as such are a part of nature. Essentially we are intelligent primates. Our ‘second nature’ consists of the subsequent development of human society, culture, economy, technology and social institutions. Far from being unnatural, this ‘second nature’ eminently arises as a result of our ‘first nature’, the organic evolution of our species.
This idea is not to ignore humanity’s unique place in the world, but rather to reject the ‘either/or’ thinking behind commonly held concepts regarding humanity’s relationship with our environment. Anthropocentrism (placing humans at the top of a natural hierarchy) and biocentrism (placing humans in an equal, indistinctive position within nature) are useless concepts within social ecology. The emphasis is that our first and second natures are intertwined and connected. Humans build, develop and exploit resources like any other animal to make its environment liveable. The issue is that the environmental change we generate is far greater than that of any other species. In this way our second nature has become a problem. Understanding this, and working to reintegrate nature and social thought is crucial if we are to solve the environmental problems we face.
So how do ideas about social ecology apply to reality? In a world where the ruling paradigm of market forces, impervious to moral or ethical persuasion, drive social change and therefore society’s relationship with the environment, the only solution is to create an ecologically conscious alternative. This, according to social ecology, requires the replacement of hierarchical and class-based systems with a society built on human equality – based on mutual aid and communal values. This transformation can be achieved. Through radical collective action and co-operative social movements, the process of eliminating domination can begin.
“Not only in the factory, but also the family. Not only in the economy, but also in the psyche. Not only in the material conditions of life, but also in the spiritual ones.”
Social ecology represents a radically alternative worldview that, if applied to ecological problem-solving, both scientific and social, could become an integral part of the dramatic changes we need to make as a species to ensure a brighter, more equal and sustainable future for ourselves.
Written by Ryan Plumridge – Conservation Biology and Ecology Student – University of Exeter