I’ve been active in social ecology circles and affiliated with the ISE since the late 1980s. At the moment I live in Missoula, Montana, where I teach history at the University of Montana and spend a lot of time in the mountains. [Editor’s note: Congratulations are in order! Peter recently accepted a tenure- track position at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he grew up, as professor of modern German history.] I previously lived in Ithaca, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, and Germany. My work as a historian focuses among other things on Nazism and Fascism, the history of racial thought, and the political history of environmentalism.
How did you become introduced to the ideas of social ecology? How do you define social ecology when asked about it?
In the 1980s I was involved in the anarchist movement and the Left Green movement in Germany and the United States and met a variety of social ecologists in those contexts. I first met Murray Bookchin at a political gathering in 1987 and worked with him and others at the ISE in the 1990s. When people ask me about social ecology I generally emphasize the diversity of viewpoints represented among social ecologists and explain that the basic perspective is built around the insight that ecological crises and challenges stem from social crises and challenges, and that a sustainable and comprehensive alternative to the present state of ongoing ecological devastation requires fundamental changes in social institutions, not merely modifications to the existing social order.
How does social ecology and/or your experience with the Institute for Social Ecology influence your current work?
Both my activism and my philosophical and political outlook are strongly shaped by my work at the ISE, in part through the inspiring example of others I’ve met there and in part through the provocative and critical discussions that are a central feature of the ISE’s culture. Despite the trying times, I remain a social ecologist fully committed to a thoroughgoing transformation of society and of human relations with the natural world.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for achieving a sustainable relationship between humanity and the wider world?
I think that there are several crucial social structures standing in the way of an ecologically and socially sustainable world, most prominently capitalism, the state, and racial hierarchy. Each of these phenomena is exceedingly complex and flexible, and they relate to one another in contradictory and constantly shifting ways, which makes potential challenges to their predominance all the more difficult, quite apart from the fact that many people in the so-called first world assume that capitalism, the state, and racial hierarchy are simply natural components of reality rather than contingent social structures with specific histories and concrete conditions of existence. At the same time, many other people continually resist the current social and ecological order in an enormous variety of creative ways, reaching toward a better world through ideas as well as actions. Even when the institutional cards are stacked against any radical change, history is always rife with unexpected possibilities and the potential for concerted collective efforts to make a significant and lasting impact.
Any great stories about being around the ISE?
Too many to recount! My favorite ISE experiences have involved learning about the activities and reflections of social ecologists from around the world and debating the ideas and practices that can help us move toward an entirely different society and an entirely different relationship with the earth. The people who have created and sustained the ISE over the years have made important steps in that direction, and I hope to continue being part of this movement for a socially and ecologically new world.