Theses on Social Ecology in a Period of Reaction




Social ecology developed out of important social and theoretical problems that faced the Left in the post-World War II period. The historical realities of the 1940s and the 1950s completely invalidated the perspectives of a proletarian revolution, of a “chronic economic crisis” that would bring capitalism to its knees, and of commitment to a centralistic workers’ party that would seize state power and, by dictatorial means, initiate a transition to socialism and communism. It became painfully evident in time that no such generalized crisis was in the offing; indeed, that the proletariat and any party–or labor confederation–that spoke in the name of the working class could not be regarded as a hegemonic force in social transformation.

Quite the the contrary: capitalism emerged from the war stronger and more stable than it had been at any time in its history. A generalized crisis could be managed to one degree or another within a strictly bourgeois framework, let alone the many limited and cyclical crises normal to capitalism. The proletariat, in turn, ceased to play the hegemonic role that the Left had assigned to it for more than a century, and Leninist forms of organization were evidently vulnerable to bureaucratic degeneration.

Moreover, capitalism, following the logic of its own nature as a competitive market economy, was creating social and cultural issues that had not been adequately encompassed by the traditional Left of the interwar era (1917-1939). To be sure, the traditional Left’s theoretical cornerstone, notably, the class struggle between wage labor and capital, had not disappeared; nor had economic exploitation ceased to exist. But the issues that had defined the traditional Left–more precisely, “proletarian socialism” in all its forms–had broadened immensely, expanding both the nature of oppression and the meaning of freedom. Hierarchy, while not supplanting the issue of class struggle, began to move to the foreground of at least Euro-American radical concerns, in the widespread challenges raised by the sixties “New Left” and youth culture to authority as such, not only to the State. Domination, while not supplanting exploitation, became the target of radical critique and practice, in the early civil rights movement in the United States, in attempts to remove conventional constraints on sexual behavior, dress, lifestyle, and values, and later, in the rise of feminist movements, ecological movements that challenged the myth of “dominating” the natural world, and movements for gay and lesbian liberation.

It is unlikely that any of these movements would have emerged had capitalism at midcentury not created all the indispensable technological preconditions for a libertarian communist society–prospects that are consistent with Enlightenment ideals and the progressive dimensions of modernity. One must return to the great debates that began in the late 1950s over the prospects for free time and material abundance to understand the ideological atmosphere that new technologies such as automation created and the extent to which they were absorbed by the “New Left” of the 1960s. The prospect of a post-scarcity society, free of material want and demanding toil, opened a new horizon of potentiality and hope–ironically, reiterating the prescient demands of the Berlin Dadaists of 1919 for “universal unemployment,” which stood in marked contrast to the traditional Left’s demand for “full employment.”


Social ecology, as developed in the United States in the early sixties (long after the expression had fallen into disuse as a variant of “human ecology”), tried to advance a coherent, developmental, and socially practical outlook to deal with the changes in radicalism and capitalism that were in the offing. Indeed, in great part, it actually anticipated them. Long before an ecology movement emerged, social ecology delineated the scope of the ecological crisis that capitalism must necessarily produce, tracing its roots back to hierarchical domination, and emphasizing that a competitive capitalist economy must unavoidably give rise to unprecedented contradictions with the nonhuman natural world. None of these perspectives, it should be noted, were in the air in the early 1960s–Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring with its emphasis on pesticides notwithstanding. Indeed, as early as 1962, social ecology projected the alternative of solar energy, wind power, and water power, among other new ecotechnologies, and alternatives to existing productive facilities that were to become axiomatic to a later generation of ecologists. It also advanced the vision of new ecocommunities based on direct democracy and nonhierarchical forms of human relations. These facts should be emphasized in view of deep ecology’s attempt to rewrite the history of the ecology movement in terms of its own quasi-religious and scarcity-oriented outlook. Nor should we overlook the fact that social ecology’s antihierarchical analyses laid the theoretical basis for early feminism, various community movements, the antinuclear movement, and in varying degrees, Green movements, before they turned from “nonparty parties” into conventional electoral machines.

Nonetheless, social ecology makes no claim that it emerged ab novo. It was–and it remains–deeply rooted in Enlightenment ideals and the revolutionary tradition of the past two centuries. Its analyses and goals have never been detached from the understandably less developed theoretical analyses of Karl Marx and the classical anarchists (particularly Peter Kropotkin), or from the great revolutions that culminated in the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1937. It eschews any attempt to defame the historic traditions of the Left in favor a neoliberal patchwork of ideas or a queasy political centrism that parades as “postmodernism” and “post-industrialism,” not to speak of the “postmaterialist” spiritualism fostered by ecofeminists, lifestyle anarchists, deep ecologists, and so-called “social deep ecologists” or “deep social ecologists.”

Quite to the contrary: social ecology seeks to countervail attempts to denature the Enlightenment and revolutionary project by emphasizing the need for theoretical coherence, no less today than it did in the 1960s, when the “New Left” drifted from a healthy libertarian populism into a quagmire of Leninist, Maoist, and Trotskyist tendencies. Social ecology retains its filiations with the Enlightenment and the revolutionary tradition all the more emphatically in opposition to the quasi-mystical and expressly mystical trends that are thoroughly sweeping up the privileged petty bourgeoisie of North America and Europe, with their goulash of antirational, spiritualistic, and atavistic ideologies. Social ecology is only too mindful that capitalism today has a nearly infinite capacity to coopt, indeed commodify, self-styled “oppositional trends” that remain as the detritus of the “New Left” and the old counterculture. Even anarchism, once a formidable tradition, has been repackaged by Hakim Bey, Bob Black, David Watson, and Jason McQuinn into a merchandisable boutique ideology that panders to petty-bourgeois tastes for naughtiness and eccentricity.

Ecology, too, has been packaged and repackaged into a variety of “deep ecologies” that generally emphasize an animalistic reductionism, a neo-Malthusian “hunger politics,” antihumanism, and bio- or “eco-“centrism–in short, a pastiche that renders it equally palatable to members of the British royal family at the summit of the social hierarchy and to lumpenized anarchoids at its base. Feminism, initially a universalized challenge to hierarchy as such, has devolved into parochial, often self-serving, and even materially rewarding species of ecofeminism and express theisms that pander to a myth of gender superiority (no less ugly when it concerns women than when it concerns men) in one form or another–not to speak of the outright wealth-oriented “feminism” promoted by Naomi Wolf et al.

Capitalism, in effect, has not only rendered the human condition more and more irrational, but it has absorbed into its orbit, to one degree or another, the very consciousness that once professed to oppose it. If Fourier insightfully declared that the way a society treats its women can be regarded as a measure of its status as a civilization, so today we can add that the extent to which a society devolves into mysticism and eclecticism can be regarded as measure of its cultural decline. By these standards, no society has more thoroughly denatured its once-radical opponents than capitalism in the closing years of the twentieth century.


This devolution of consciousness is by no means solely the product of our century’s new global media, as even radical theorists of popular culture tend to believe. Absolutism and medievalism, no less than capitalism, had their own “media,” the Church, that reached as ubiquitously into every village as television reaches into the modern living room. The roots of modern cultural devolution are as deep-seated as the ecological crisis itself. Capitalism, today, is openly flaunted not only as a system of social relationships but as the “end of history,” indeed, as a natural society that expresses the most intrinsic qualities of “human nature”–its ostensible “drive” to compete, win, and grow. This transmutation of means into ends, vicious as the means may be, is not merely “the American way”; it is the bourgeois way.

The commodity has now colonized every aspect of life, rendering what was once a capitalist economy into a capitalist culture. It has produced literally a “marketplace of ideas,” in which the coin for exchanging inchoate notions and intuitions is validated by the academy, the corrupter par excellence of the “best and brightest” in modern society and the eviscerator of all that is coherent and clearly delineable. Indeed, never has “high culture,” once guarded by academic mandarins, been so scandalously debased by academic presses that have become the pornographers of ideology.

Bourgeois society qua culture, especially its academic purveyors, abhors a principled stand, particularly a combative one that is prepared to clearly articulate a body of coherent principles and thrust it into opposition against the capitalist system as a whole. Theoretically and practically, serious opposition takes its point of departure from the need to understand the logic of an ideology, not its euphemistic metaphors and drifting inconsistencies. Capitalism has nothing to fear from an ecological, feminist, anarchist, or socialist hash of hazy ideas (often fatuously justified as “pluralistic” or “relativistic”) that leaves its social premises untouched. It is all the better for the prevailing order that reason be denounced as “logocentrism,” that bourgeois social relations be concealed under the rubric of “industrial society,” that the social need for an oppositional movement be brushed aside in favor of a personal need for spiritual redemption, that the political be reduced to the personal, that the project of social revolution be erased by hopeless communitarian endeavors to create “alternative” enterprises.

Except where its profits and “growth opportunities” are concerned, capitalism now delights in avowals of the need to “compromise,” to seek a “common ground”–the language of its professoriat no less than its political establishment–which invariably turns out to be its own terrain in a mystified form. Hence the popularity of “market socialism” in self-styled “leftist” periodicals; or possibly “social deep ecology” in deep ecology periodicals like The Trumpeter; or more brazenly, accolades to Gramsci by the Nouvelle Droite in France, or to a “Green Adolf” in Germany. A Robyn Eckersley has no difficulty juggling the ideas of the Frankfurt School with deep ecology while comparing in truly biocentric fashion the “navigational skills” of birds with the workings of the human mind. The wisdom of making friends with everyone that underpins this academic “discourse” can only lead to a blurring of latent and serious differences–and ultimately to the compromise of all principles and the loss of political direction.

The social and cultural decomposition produced by capitalism can be resisted only by taking the most principled stand against the corrosion of nearly all self-professed oppositional ideas. More than at any time in the past, social ecologists should abandon the illusion that a shared use of the word “social” renders all of us into socialists; or “anarchy,” into anarchists; or “ecology,” into radical ecologists. The measure of social ecology’s relevance and theoretical integrity consists of its ability to be rational, ethical, coherent, and true to the ideal of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary tradition–not of any ability to earn plaudits from the Prince of Wales, Al Gore, or Gary Snyder, still less from academics, spiritualists, and mystics. In this darkening age when capitalism–the mystified social order par excellence–threatens to globalize the world with capital, commodities, and a facile spirit of “negotiation” and “compromise,” it is necessary to keep alive the very idea of uncompromising critique.

It is not dogmatic to insist on consistency, to infer and contest the logic of a given body of premises, to demand clarity in a time of cultural twilight. Indeed, quite to the contrary, eclecticism and theoretical chaos, not to speak of practices that are more theatrical than threatening and that consist more of posturing than convincing, will only dim the light of truth and critique. Until social forces emerge that can provide a voice for basic social change rather than spiritual redemption, social ecology must take upon itself the task of preserving and extending the great traditions from which it has emerged. Should the darkness of capitalist barbarism thicken to the point where this enterprise is no longer possible, history as the rational development of humanity’s potentialities for freedom and consciousness will indeed reach its definitive end.

—August 9, 1995

Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology
by Janet Biehl

Ever since the debate between social ecology and deep ecology broke out in the summer of 1987, various individuals have taken it upon themselves to attempt to reconcile the two approaches and produce what they feel is a higher synthesis. Social ecology and deep ecology, however, are incommensurable, for several basic reasons. Deep ecologists differ among themselves as to the content of their approach, which often renders deep ecology itself self-contradictory and amorphous. Nevertheless, based on the writings of its major theorists, its basic areas of disagreement with social ecology may be identified.


Social ecology argues that the idea of dominating nature resulted from the domination of human by human, rather than the reverse. That is, the causes of the ecological crisis are ultimately and fundamentally social in nature. The historical emergence of hierarchies, classes, states, and finally the market economy and capitalism itself are the social forces that have, both ideologically and materially, produced the present despoliation of the biosphere.

Deep ecology, by contrast, locates the origin of the ecological crisis in belief-systems, be they religions or philosophies. Most particularly, deep ecologists identify ancient near eastern religions, including those of Mesopotamia and Judea; Christianity; and the scientific worldview as fostering a mindset that seeks to “dominate nature.” It is by “asking deeper questions,” as Arne Naess puts it, that these origins are identified, so that the social causes of the ecological crisis are somehow relegated to the category “shallow.”


Social ecology views the natural world as a process–and not just any process, but a development toward increasing complexity and subjectivity. This development was not predetermined from the outset and need not have occurred, but retrospectively the increasing complexity of natural evolution and the development of increasing subjectivity are impossible to miss. With the emergence of human beings, biological evolutionary processes (first nature) have continued in and been sublated by social and cultural evolutionary processes (second nature). Unlike sociobiology, which reduces the social to the biological, social ecology emphasizes the gradations between first and second nature: second nature emerged out of first nature. Yet the boundary between human and nonhuman nature is real and articulated.

Deep ecology, by contrast, views first nature, in the abstract, as a “cosmic oneness,” which bears striking similarities to otherworldly concepts common to Asian religions. In concrete terms, it views first nature as “wilderness,” a concept that by definition means nature essentially separated from human beings and hence “wild.” Both notions are notable for their static and anticivilizational character. (Deep ecologists sometimes highlight the evolution of large animals strategically, as a rationale for expanding wilderness areas.) Deep ecologists emphasize an ungraded, nonevolutionary continuity between human and nonhuman nature, to the point of outright denial of a boundary between adaptive animality and innovative humanity.


Social ecology aims to reintegrate human social development with biological development, and human communities with ecocommunities, producing a rational and ecological society. The mere biological presence of humans in large numbers does not determine the type of society they will form. Even large numbers of human beings are capable of organizing society along lines that are not only not destructive of first nature but even enhance it. A sensitive combination of ecotechnics and existing technologies prudently applied constitutes the technological basis for post-scarcity, affording humans the free time to manage their social, political, and economic affairs along rational lines and fostering and restoring the ecological complexity of first nature.

Deep ecology, by contrast, does not aim to integrate humans with first nature. It regards the mere biological presence of human beings in any large numbers as intrinsically harmful to first nature, and sometimes even the basic means of human sustenance as damaging. Instead, deep ecology seeks to preserve and expand wilderness areas, excluding human beings from ever-larger tracts of land and forest. “Subsistence agriculture,” writes George Sessions, “which destroys tropical forests, cannot be considered long-term economic progress for the poor. The severe overpopulation in Third World countries requires that most of the poor will live in urban areas in the near future.” Of paramount importance to deep ecology is a radical and potentially ruthless scaling-down of the human population–indeed, population reduction as an issue has been named the “litmus test” of deep ecology. Maximizing wilderness and minimizing human population, some deep ecologists look upon even farming as such with disfavor, views that have rightfully given rise to charges that deep ecology is misanthropic.


Social ecology openly asserts that human beings are potentially the most advanced life-form that natural evolution has produced, in crucial respects of intelligence, moral capacity, and dexterity–which in no way provides a license for humans to wantonly destroy first nature. Indeed, in a rational society, human beings could be nature rendered self-conscious. Clearly it is part of their evolutionary makeup to intervene in the natural world; what is not determined is whether that intervention will be ecologically benign or malign, a problem that is resolved by what kind of society they create.

Deep ecology, by contrast, regards human-centeredness or anthropocentrism as the fatal feature common to belief-systems generative of the ecological crisis. It advances instead a concept of biocentrism or “ecocentrism,” which attributes equal intrinsic moral worth to human and nonhuman life-forms and even to ecosystems. It regards various striking capacities of particular creatures as “skills” of equal value to human capacities. In making decisions about whether humans should engage in a potentially ecologically damaging project, deep ecology upholds the “vital needs” of life-forms against the “nonvital needs” of humans. Which needs are vital, however, remains undefined. Invoking the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, deep ecology is biased against human intervention in first nature and often appears to regard human intervention as inherently destructive. Yet insofar as deep ecology calls upon human beings to alter their behavior in the light of the ecological crisis, it tacitly acknowledges that the behavior of human beings is decisive. Thus deep ecology is inherently self-contradictory.


Social ecology, while strongly emphasizing the need for an ecological sensibility, indeed an ethic of complementarity, contends that addressing the ecological crisis requires engaging in social and political activity to confront and ultimately eliminate its objective social causes: capitalism, social hierarchy, and the nation-state. Social ecology’s political dimension, libertarian municipalism, is a program for establishing direct, face-to-face democracies and confederating them into a dual power to confront these forces. Social ecology thus places itself in the Enlightenment and revolutionary tradition.

Deep ecology, by contrast, overwhelmingly emphasizes subjective factors. Drawing on subjectivists like Lynn White, Jr., it calls upon people to develop a quasi-mystical “ecological consciousness” by which they will feel themselves part of the natural world, as a “self-in-Self.” Deep ecologists approach this consciousness through highly personalistic philosophies or “ecosophies” that draw on an eclectic mix of alternative worldviews: native American, Buddhist, Taoist, pagan, and “Pleistocene.” Regardless of whether such views are accurately understood or, in some cases, are even knowable to people today, they share the common feature of instilling submersion to a larger “one” that, as a whole, has more value than the individual human. Deep ecology in practice is quietistic, emphasizing contemplation rather than intervention, to attain a state of awareness of the alleged absence of boundaries between human consciousness and the “cosmic oneness.” Some deep ecologists explicitly eliminate moral imperatives from this “ecological consciousness.” Although one deep ecologist makes the claim that attaining “ecological consciousness” will foster political activity, deep ecology often expresses an aversion to most political activity as such as anthropocentric, apart from basic conservationism and trite liberal attempts to curtail wilderness destruction. Participation in political movements is of value, however, insofar as it may contribute to personal transformation. Most often, deep ecology urges that people make lifestyle changes that reduce their consumption.


Social ecology argues that one of humans’ distinctive features, their capacity to reason at a high level of generality, gives them the ability to potentially understand natural processes and potentially organize society along ecological and rational lines. Even as it criticizes the ubiquitous claims of a “means-ends” rationalism that has historically instrumentalized human and nonhuman phenomena, it advances a dialectical reasoning that is appropriate for comprehending human social and natural evolutionary processes. In itself, it embodies this commitment to rationality by upholding and demonstrating coherence in social thought.

Deep ecology, by contrast, disparages and often even demonizes reason as endemic to the anthropocentric worldviews that have produced the ecological crisis. Alternatively, deep ecology advances intuition as an equal or even superior form of cognition. Through intuition, deep ecologists argue, the continuity between the human self and the “cosmic one” may be apprehended and appreciated. As an intuitional approach, however, deep ecology is subject to the dangers represented by earlier antirational and intuitionist worldviews that, carried over into the political realm, have produced antihumanistic and even genocidal movements. Deep ecology, by its very amorphousness, makes itself amenable to use by any parts of the modern social hierarchy, depending on how needs are defined. Indeed, it is not accidental that some deep ecology theorists are devotees of the “late” work of Heidegger, whose basic premises are socially and intellectually reactionary.