Harbinger Vol. 3 No. 1 — Social Ecology and Social Movements: From the 1960s to the Present




Social ecologists have played an important catalytic role in many of the pivotal social and ecological movements of the past four decades. The discussion that follows will focus on events that staff, students and volunteers around the ISE in Plainfield have been most directly involved with. We hope that subsequent issues of Harbinger will include stories from many others whose involvement around a wide array of social, ecological and political issues have been strongly influenced by the ideas of social ecology.
n the 1950s and early 1960s, ecology was largely an academic and technocratic enterprise. Several corporate think tanks emerged during the fifties to address the rapid pace of resource depletion that accompanied the unprecedented postwar economic boom. There was little that was reconstructive or radical in the ecology of that period, but there were already important new stirrings. The effects of nuclear fallout from weapons testing was becoming a volatile public issue, for example, and people living close to some of the earliest nuclear power reactors, such as Indian Point just north of New York City, began questioning the safety of these facilities.

Within a few months in 1962, Murray Bookchin published his book, Our Synthetic Environment, and Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Carson’s book was serialized in the New Yorker, and eventually shocked millions of people into an awareness of the devastating effects of DDT and other toxic pesticides. Bookchin’s work extended the critique to encompass issues such as the hazards of urban concentration, chemical agriculture as a whole, and the rise of chronic, environmentally related disease. Bookchin’s perspective on these issues emerged partly from his own pioneering work during the 1950s around the hazards of pesticides and food additives, as well as his personal involvement in some of the first anti-nuclear power campaigns, at Indian Point and in opposition to a reactor proposed for Ravenswood, Queens, just across the East River from central Manhattan.

Meanwhile, academic ecologists were slowly beginning to see that their work had broad, previously unappreciated social and political implications. A 1964 article in BioScience labeled ecology “A Subversive Science” embodied a direct challenge to many accepted social and economic practices. The pace of uncontrolled economic growth that characterized the 1950s and early 1960s clearly could not continue, ecologists began to argue, without severely impacting the health of living ecosystems and the diversity of life on earth.

It was Murray Bookchin, again, who took this understanding to its fullest conclusion. In an influential article originally published in the newsletter Anarchos in 1965 (later reprinted in Post Scarcity Anarchism), he wrote:

The explosive implications of an ecological approach arise not only because ecology is intrinsically a critical science—critical on a scale that the most radical systems of political economy have failed to attain—but also because it is an integrative and reconstructive science. This integrative, reconstructive aspect of ecology, carried through to all its implications, leads directly into anarchic areas of social thought. For in the final analysis, it is impossible to achieve a harmonization of man [sic] and nature without creating a human community that lives in a lasting balance with its natural environment.1

This was the beginning of the radical synthesis that soon became social ecology. To relieve the destructive imbalances imposed by capitalist civilization on the natural world, only a stateless society based on face-to-face democracy, “humanistic” technologies, and a profound decentralization of social and economic power would suffice. Bookchin’s writings about social ecology evolved over the next several decades to encompass an uncompromising political analysis of the institutional roots of the ecological crisis, an historical critique of the myth of the domination of nature, a libertarian municipalist political strategy, and an ethical philosophy that views the potential for human freedom as an emergent property of the dialectic of natural evolution. Ideas first articulated by Bookchin, such as the distinction between technocratic environmentalism and a fundamentally radical ecology, became common wisdom among the growing ranks of ecologically-informed radicals in the late 1960s. Actions such as the occupation of the administration building at Columbia University in 1968 (initially a protest against the university’s expansion plans in West Harlem), and the creation of People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969, began to reflect some of these new understandings.

Anti-Nuclear Alliances

Social ecology achieved a much fuller expression in the popular movement against nuclear power that arose during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This movement embraced direct action and decentralized organizational models, expressed a sophisticated understanding of the complex relationship between technological and social changes, and was captivated by the utopian dimension of the emerging “appropriate technology” movement, within which the recently founded Institute for Social Ecology played a dynamic, critical and catalytic role. During the late 1970s, well over a hundred students each summer came to the ISE, then located at Cate Farm in Plainfield, to acquire hands-on experience in organic gardening and alternative technology, while studying social ecology, ecofeminism, reconstructive anthropology and other theoretical approaches with virtually all of the pioneering thinkers in the ecology movement of that period.

The ISE, as a central participant in the emerging Central Vermont activist community, sent affinity groups to Seabrook for the landmark 1977 occupation of the nuclear construction site in that coastal New Hampshire town. Over 2,000 demonstrators converged on Seabrook that spring, for what became the most significant act of mass civil disobedience since the end of the 1960s. Over 1,400 people were arrested by the New Hampshire State Police for refusing to leave the construction site; most declined bail and were incarcerated for two weeks in National Guard armories scattered throughout the Granite State. This was where the concept of the affinity group first became the underlying basis of a growing popular organization.

The affinity group concept, of course, originated with the Spanish anarchists of the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). In an appendix to his influential pamphlet, “Listen, Marxist!” Murray Bookchin compared the Spanish grupos de afinidad to the countercultural collectives that had appeared by then in numerous U.S. cities. The concept was adapted by organizers of a huge antiwar action in Washington, D.C. in 1971, where people were encouraged to form small collectives to offer mutual support and security in the face of an overwhelming police presence. In the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance, affinity groups were initially formed at nonviolence training sessions for similar purposes, but the experience of incarceration in New Hampshire’s armories raised the expectation that these collectives were not only useful as support groups during an action, but could form the basis for a much more widely participatory, directly democratic form of movement organization than had ever been realized before. In the preparations for a planned follow-up action at Seabrook in June of 1978, the wider meaning of affinity groups was actively promoted, Bookchin’s “Note on Affinity Groups” was distributed widely, and activists in Vermont, Boston and elsewhere in New England worked hard to make the Clamshell Alliance live up to the most profoundly democratic potential of the organizational model it had pioneered. Antinuclear alliances organized along similar lines sprouted up all across the country; many, like the Clamshell, took their names from local species of animals and plants that were endangered by the spread of nuclear power, and adopted affinity groups and spokescouncils as their basic decision-making structures.

The euphoria of affinity group-based democracy was to be short-lived in the Clamshell, however. Protracted debates over the appropriateness of various tactics within a context of organized nonviolence led to a growing polarization. When most of the original founders of the Clamshell Alliance acceded to a deal with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office that led to the cancellation of the 1978 Seabrook occupation —a large legal rally was held at Seabrook instead—activists at the ISE and elsewhere helped expose the antidemocratic nature of that decision and pressed for a renewal of affinity group democracy. The Boston area chapter was completely reorganized around affinity groups and neighborhood-based organizing collectives, and a new organization, the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook, picked up where the now-faltering Clamshell left off. ISE-based activists in Vermont played a central role in setting an appropriately open and participatory tone for that new organization, which staged significantly more militant-styled actions at Seabrook in 1979 and 1980.

Ecofeminist activism also arose during the years immediately following the first Seabrook occupation, and the ISE played a catalytic role here as well. Ynestra King taught the first-ever courses on ecofeminism at the ISE in the late 1970s, and the ISE sponsored the historic Women and Life on Earth conference in western Massachusetts in 1980. This led directly to the planning of the first Women’s Pentagon Action later that year, which planted the seed for feminist peace camps throughout Europe, and in the U.S. as well.

ISE students and staff during the 1970s and 1980s also took numerous initiatives to support Native American struggles. They worked closely with the traditionalist Mohawks of Akwesasne—ISE students camped out overnight in the lobby of the New York state capitol in 1980 to protest a state of siege against the Akwesasne Mohawks. Social ecologists traveled to the lakes of northern Wisconsin in support of traditional Chippewa spear-fishing, looked after Navajo families’ sheep in the contested Big Mountain region of Arizona, and caravaned to Montreal for a rally at the headquarters of the Hydro-Quebec utility in solidarity with the James Bay Cree of northern Quebec.

Green Politics

By the early 1980s, another important political development attracted the attention of social ecologists in Vermont and elsewhere: the origins of a Green political movement in West Germany and other European countries. Long before Greens began to be elected to state and national Parliaments in Europe, social ecologists became excited about this “anti-party party” that initially functioned more as an alliance of grassroots “citizen initiatives” than a conventional parliamentary party. In the early 1980s, European Greens were running for office as delegates from various social movements, decisions were made primarily at the local level, and candidates for both public office and positions of responsibility within the Greens were obliged to rotate their positions every two years. Greens in Germany and other countries were articulating a sweeping ecological critique in all areas of public policy, from urban design, energy use and transportation, to nuclear disarmament and the need to support emerging dissident movements in Eastern Europe. Translations of Murray Bookchin’s writings played an influential role in the development of this new Green political agenda.

A staff member of the Institute for Social Ecology attended the first public discussion of strategies for developing a Green movement in the U.S. This occurred at the first North American Bioregional Congress, in the Ozark foothills of Missouri in 1984. Within a few short weeks after that meeting was written up in the pages of The Nation, nearly 2,000 letters appeared at the post office box in Marshfield, Vermont that had been set up for Green correspondence. A Green “Committees of Correspondence” organization was formally established at a gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota later that year; the ISE helped organize that event, and several prominent social ecologists were invited, including ISE director Dan Chodorkoff, community media guru Paul McIsaac and Chino Garcia of the CHARAS community center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

At the St. Paul meeting, several nationally known writers and activists were pushing for a national organization, through which self-named representatives of various Green constituencies would form a national organization, relate to other NGOs on the national level, and perhaps create a national Green Party within the year. The model that prevailed, however, was that of a more decentralized, grassroots-based movement, rooted in Green locals empowering regional delegates to make confederal decisions following locally-debated mandates. Social ecologists in New England had already begun creating a confederation of Green locals on that model, and the idea once again spread across the country. By the first public national conference of the Greens, in Amherst, Massachusetts in July of 1987, there were already over a hundred grassroots Green locals spread across the U.S., along with numerous other affiliated groups. Ideas from social ecology, and activists based at the Institute, played an important role in the development of the first national Green Program between 1988 and 1990.

Left Greens and Youth Greens

During that grassroots program-building process, an increasing tension emerged between Greens committed to grassroots democracy and municipalist politics, and those aiming toward a Green Party that could field candidates for national office. Social ecologists in New England circulated a call for a Left Green Network in 1988, and like-minded activists in the San Francisco Bay Area developed a Radical Green caucus. The Left Greens held their first national caucus meetings during the Greens’ national conference in Eugene, Oregon in June of 1989, with a very large proportion of conference attendees participating.

While some in the Greens viewed the Left Greens in grimly conspiratorial terms, it turned out that Left Green positions were widely popular with grassroots Greens all across the country, and significantly influenced the shaping of the Green Program. The following year’s Greens gathering was held in an elite resort town in the Rocky Mountains, and there were far too few Left Greens in attendance to even hold caucus meetings. Still, most of the platform positions argued for by the Left Greens became incorporated in the final program document. This, apparently, was the occasion when several influential moderate Greens decided that they would have to eventually secede from the existing Green organization to create a more traditional national party. Ironically, many Left Greens and other grassroots activists also began losing interest in the Greens at this point. Green moderates went on to form a separate national organization, based exclusively on state-certified Green Parties, while the Left Green Network continued holding educational conferences and publishing materials largely independent of any other Green entity.

During the same period, a group of recent ISE students formed a youth caucus in the Greens, which eventually became an independent organization known as the Youth Greens. The Youth Greens debated positions on a wide array of issues, refined their positions on both external and internal matters, and attracted a significant base of young radicals largely from outside the Greens. However it was at the Eugene Greens gathering that Youth Greens and Left Greens united around the idea of a major direct action to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the original Earth Day during April of 1990. While mainstream Earth Day celebrations were taking on an increasingly compromised character—essentially casting the search for environmental solutions as an expression of individual lifestyles and consumer choices—the Youth Greens, Left Greens, and a wide array of grassroots supporters, chose to focus on the symbolic home of capitalist ecocide: Wall Street.

April 22, 1990—Earth Day Sunday—was a day of polite, feel-good commemorations with strikingly little social or political content; many big city events were almost wholly sponsored by major corporations. But early Monday morning, several hundred Left Greens, Youth Greens, ecofeminists, environmental justice activists, Earth First!ers and urban squatters converged on the nerve center of U.S. capitalism seeking to obstruct the opening of trading on that day. Activists based around the ISE in Vermont had prepared a comprehensive action handbook, featuring a wide range of social ecological writings, and helped create a broad, empowering coalition effort. The next day, columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote in the New York Daily News:

Certainly, those who sought to co-opt Earth Day into a media and marketing extravaganza, to make the public feel good while obscuring the corporate root of the Earth’s pollution almost succeeded. It took angry Americans from places like Maine and Vermont to come to Wall Street on a workday and point the blame where it belongs.

Meanwhile, in Burlington, Vermont, social ecologists formed the Burlington Greens to develop positions on urban issues and run candidates for local office. The Greens opposed the commercial development of the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront, and argued that the neighborhood assemblies established by the Progressive city administration for planning and administrative purposes should become the basis for a more empowered model of democratic neighborhood governance. The Burlington Greens gained national headlines in 1989 when the Greens contested several City Council seats and a Green candidate challenged the city’s Progressive mayor in a citywide election.

Confronting Biotechnology

The ISE also became actively involved in issues around biotechnology during the late 1980s, as farmers and environmentalists in Vermont and elsewhere were becoming concerned that the impending release of a genetically engineered growth hormone for dairy cows would have a devastating impact on Vermont’s small farm economy. A Vermont Biotechnology Working Group, including activists from the ISE, Rural Vermont, the Progressive Party and the Burlington Greens, helped raise public awareness about recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and published the first widely accessible activist handbook on biotechnology. The Vermont effort played a significant role in delaying the approval for the commercial use of Monsanto’s rBGH by several years. Social ecologists were also involved in protesting a planned new biotechnology building at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and supporting activists in New York City who were opposing a planned biotechnology complex on the site of the Audubon Ballroom, the famous Harlem cultural center where Malcolm X was assassinated following a speech in 1965.

By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the impending release of a wide variety of genetically engineered food products was going to have profound implications for public health, the environment, and society at large. Sonja Schmitz had recently come to study at the ISE after leaving a position at DuPont’s biotechnology laboratories, faculty member Chaia Heller became involved in the early ecofeminist opposition to biotechnology, and Brian Tokar was advising M.A. student Zoë Erwin on a biotechnology-centered Masters study, while considering appropriate next steps following the Vermont rBGH campaign. The four began doing presentations together at the ISE, as well as at venues in New York, Montreal and other cities. They participated in the First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation in St. Louis in 1998, launched a regional activist network, NorthEast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (NERAGE) and began developing plans for a comprehensive published collection on biotechnology issues, which eventually appeared as Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering (Zed Books, 2001).

In the spring of 2000, the ISE Biotechnology Project was the initiator and the main organizational sponsor of Biodevastation 2000, which became the largest public gathering in opposition to biotechnology in North America to date. Some 4,000 people converged in Boston’s Copley Square, and marched on the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO); this protest followed a three-day public teach-in that highlighted a wide array of issues related to both the genetic engineering of food, and the implications of biotechnology for health care, medical research, globalization, and the survival of indigenous cultures around the world. Since 2000, the Biotechnology Project has provided significant support for Biodevastation and Biojustice events in San Diego and Toronto, and is helping develop plans for major events in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. during 2003.

In March of 2002, residents in 28 Vermont towns voted for labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods and a moratorium on GE crops at their annual Town Meetings. Eight towns took the further step of discouraging or declaring a moratorium on the planting of GE crops in their town. This was the first round of the Town-to-Town campaign, in which the ISE’s Biotechnology Project has played a central educational and organizational role, in collaboration with the farm advocacy group Rural Vermont and the Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network. In a followup effort in March of 2003, an additional 37 towns voted against GE food and crops. Vermont now has the distinction of having 70 municipalities that have voted against GE food and crops out of more than 85 in the entire U.S. Our coalition partners are now focusing on passing anti-GE legislation in Vermont, while we are working to sustain the grassroots focus of a growing GE-Free Vermont campaign.

The work of the ISE Biotechnology Project today reflects a distinct political outlook on grassroots organizing, an approach that is firmly grounded in the principles of decentralism, community control, and face-to-face democracy. This work has encouraged biotechnology activists to consider the widest social and political implications of these issues, and helped those confronting the institutions of global capitalism to understand how globalization directly impacts our food and our health. The Biotechnology Project seeks to address the widest possible implications of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies and solidify links between biotech activists and those working primarily on global justice issues. Similarly, ongoing workshops and courses on biotechnology issues at the ISE reflect social ecology’s holistic and dialectical understandings of society, nature, politics and technology. (For details, see, “Biotechnology: Radicalizing the Debate,” in Harbinger, Vol. 2, No. 1).

Movement for Global Justice

Finally, the ISE has played a central educational role in the current movement for global justice and to counter the institutions of capitalist globalism. Social ecologists have raised discussions around the potential for direct democracy as an alternative to increasingly centralized economic and political institutions, and helped further the evolution of what began as largely a protest movement to one that is unusually conscious of the need for a long-range reconstructive vision. During the summer of 1999, ISE students intervened in an official hearing in Burlington, Vermont that addressed US agricultural policy in anticipation of the Seattle WTO meetings. Three ISE students were centrally involved in the organizing for the WTO shutdown in Seattle, and several others formed an affinity group to participate in and document the actions. After Seattle, the ISE pamphlet Bringing Democracy Home highlighted the writings of social ecologists on potential future directions for the movement, and various faculty members have highlighted these themes in their speaking tours. Many antiglobalization activists from across the country have come to the ISE in Vermont during the past few summers to further their own political analysis and participate in discussions of where the movement might be heading. We look forward to ongoing exchanges of ideas, theories and inspirations as this dynamic new movement continues to evolve over the coming years.


  1. Murray Bookchin, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” in Post Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), p. 80