Feature Article | Vol. 2, No. 1
Interview with Murray Bookchin
By David Vanek
Murray Bookchin, born in 1921, has been involved in leftist politics for
seven decades and has written almost two dozen books on a great variety
of subjects, encompassing ecology, nature philosophy, history, urban
studies, and the Left, particularly Marxism and anarchism. In the 1950s,
with his long 1952 essay “The Problem of Chemicals in Food,” he warned
against the chemicalization of agriculture and the environment, and with
this and other writings, he helped lay foundations of the modern radical
ecology movement. He helped popularize organic gardening, diversified
agriculture, and other alternatives to chemicalized agriculture. His
comprehensive survey of environmental ills, /Our Synthetic Environment,/
was published in 1962, a few months before Rachel Carson’s /Silent
Spring./ His manifesto of radical political ecology (“Ecology and
Revolutionary Thought”), written in 1964, was the first in any language.
As an author and speaker, he influenced the antinuclear movement and the
formation of the early Green political movement, both in the United
States and Germany. He is the cofounder of the Institute for Social
where he lectures each summer, and professor emeritus at Ramapo College
of New Jersey. He is currently finishing the third volume of a trilogy,
/The Third Revolution,/ which is a history of the great European and
*David Vanek:* In your books, you draw on your experiences of the 1960s
and 1970s, as many environmentalists do, but you also draw on your
experiences of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
*Murray Bookchin:* I came out of the traditional Left, at a time when
the Russian Revolution was still the most important event in recent
history. In fact, when I was born ? in January 1921, in the Bronx in New
York City ? the Russian Revolution and civil war were still going on. My
family was made up of Russian revolutionaries. The first language I knew
was Russian, and I spoke it up to the age of two or three, but then my
parents stopped talking to me in that language, so that I wouldn’t
develop an accent. I learned English in the streets. You had to know two
languages in New York at that time, because almost half the population
was born in Europe.
I entered the American Communist movement when I was a child. As a
Czech, you would know about the Young Pioneers ? well, I was a Young
Pioneer in the early 1930s. In 1934, when I was thirteen, I went into
the Young Communist League (Komsomol). Soon afterward, when I was
fourteen or fifteen, I broke with the Communists, because of their
Popular Front line ? I was on the extreme left, and I opposed what I
considered to be class collaboration with the bourgeoisie.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, I went back to the
Communists, because they seemed to be the only ones who were fighting
Franco. I wanted to fight in Spain, but I was too young. Soon after
rejoining the Communists, I left them again, this time permanently.
After high school, I did not go to college ? I went to work in a foundry
near New York. I hoped that the Second World War would end in
revolutions, as the first war had, and became a Trotskyist. When the war
ended without a revolution, I became disillusioned with orthodox Marxism
and realized I had to rethink everything. I came out of the army and
went to work in the automobile industry, where the workers, formerly
militant, were becoming ever more middle class in their mentality. So in
the 1950 I went to the RCA Institute, where I studied electronic
engineering. I saw that many machines could ultimately replace most
human toil. Being a socialist, I wanted to reduce the amount of labor
that people have to give to society, whether under capitalism or
socialism, so that they could be free to become creative human beings,
follow their own interests, and fulfill their own talents.
I decided to go beyond Marxism and became a libertarian socialist.
Already in 1952 I was writing about the chemicalization of food. I
developed a critique of hierarchy and related the struggle against
hierarchy and domination to the struggle for the integrity of the
natural world. I tried to show that modern economics is an interaction
not only between wage labor and capital, but also between human labor
and the natural world. My philosophical conceptions were and are
dialectical, based on Hegel, but without Hegel’s teleological approach.
I’m not a teleologist, I don’t believe that any development is
inevitable; but at the same time, I believe, some developments, like
socialism, cannot be achieved without adequate material developments. I
called my approach dialectical naturalism. I framed my ecological
thinking around the problem of urbanization, particularly the
dislocations between town and country. I wrote about alternative
technology, arguing that technology should be as humanly scaled as
possible. Later I brought in, above all, the idea of face-to-face
democracy, under the name libertarian municipalism or communalism. As my
ideas developed, I retained aspects of Marx ? not Marxism but Marx’s own
ideas ? combining them with the general anarchist ideas of
confederalism. But please let me stress that I believe we have to go
beyond all radical tendencies from the past ? incorporating their best
elements ? to something new: an outlook I call communalism.
In the early 1960s I became involved with the nascent counterculture.
Anarchism seemed nearly defunct both as an ideology and a movement. At
the same time, it was very fluid: as an anarchist, you could be a
syndicalist; you could be an egotist; you could be anything you wanted
to ? it was as fluid, and often as formless, as water. So I first
advanced my new views under the rubric of anarchism, and they later were
called “eco-anarchism.” I think it is fair to say that my writings on
ecology and anarchism were the first radical political writings on
ecology. They became rather popular with the New Left. People don’t
remember the origins of radical ecology ? they think Ralph Nader or
maybe Barry Commoner produced it and influenced the New Left. This is
quite erroneous; in fact, the true history of radical ecology has yet to
In my twilight years ? I’m now 80 years old ? I’ve been trying to
evaluate what I’ve seen and done in my life. I ask myself: What happened
in the 20th century? What’s going to affect the 21st? I’ve come to some
very definite ideas about that. If we are going to change the direction
of society in a libertarian way, we will need to build a systematic and
coherent project. Coherence is very important, not only in politics and
organization but in economics, in history, and in philosophy as well.
*DV:* The summarizing phrase that is commonly associated with your work
is “We cannot solve the environmental crisis without solving social
problems.” To whom specifically were these words addressed when you
wrote them for the first time? To the environmental movement of the time?
*MB:* No, it was 1952, and there was no environmental movement at that
time ? just a few books on conservation and overpopulation, most of
which were very reactionary. There was no organic gardening movement
except for experiments among a few people who had come over here from
Europe and especially England. I strongly believed, however, that making
a few small changes would not solve the ecological problem ? on the
contrary, a transformation into a rational, egalitarian, and libertarian
society was necessary. When I talked about solar and wind energy, I
didn’t just propose them as alternative technologies; I proposed them as
part of the technological apparatus of a new communal society.
*DV:* What do you consider to be the necessary prerequisites for such a
*MB:* I think the most important thing we are faced with today is to
raise consciousness. America can be a good example. Americans by
disposition and cultural heritage are activists. They don’t think very
much in advance, they act, and then they look for the reason why they
acted. They don’t think much of the past or the future, they think of
the here and now. They’re engineers, they don’t generalize, they don’t
look for the connections. In America it’s our job to bring out these
faults Our people have to know what happened in history, what philosophy
is, so they can educate. They have to have a point of view. They can’t
just be against something, they have to offer an alternative. And they
have to learn tactics, they have to have a methodology.
*DV:* In terms of this methodology, what do you think of the
often-stated contradiction between direct action and political methods
like lobbying, legislative reform, and the like? Do you prefer lobbying
to, for example, community work?
*MB:* I have a long and painful experience with lobbying. Many years ago
I was active in the antinuclear movement, which not only occupied plants
in direct actions but also circulated petitions and then brought them to
local congresspeople. The results were usually not very good. In the
United States today, there’s the Democratic Party, and there’s the
Republican Party. You go to them, and they will promise you anything to
get elected. They won’t give you much of anything if it doesn’t help the
ruling class. Sometimes they make small concessions ? they’ll give you
ten acres of “wilderness” ? but then they’ll cut down the rest of the
forest. That’s what lobbying usually achieves.
*DV:* You have called your approach anarchism. What do you mean by that
*MB:* Today I prefer the word communalism, by which I mean a libertarian
ideology that, as I said, includes the best of the anarchist tradition
as well as the best in Marx. I think neither Marxism nor anarchism alone
is adequate for our times: a great deal in both no longer applies to
today’s world. We have to go beyond the economism of Marx and beyond the
individualism that is sometimes latent, sometimes explicit in anarchism.
Marx’s, Proudhon’s, and Bakunin’s ideas were formed in the nineteenth
century. We need a left libertarian ideology for our own time, not for
the days of the Russian and Spanish Revolutions.
The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that
people gain /power/. The best arena to do that is the municipality ? the
city, town, and village ? where we have an opportunity to create a
face-to-face democracy. We can transform local government into popular
assemblies where people can discuss and make decisions about the economy
and society in which they live. When we get power at the neighborhood
level in a town or city, we can confederate all the assemblies and then
confederate those towns and cities into a popular government ? not a
state (which is an instrument of class rule and exploitation), but a
government, where the people have the power. This is what I call
communalism in a practical sense. It should not be confused with
communitarianism, which refers to small initiatory projects like a
“people’s” food cooperative, garage, printing press ? projects that
often become capitalistic when they don’t fall apart or succumb to
competition by other enterprises.
People will never achieve this kind of face-to-face democratic society
spontaneously. A serious, committed movement is necessary to fight for
it. And to build that movement, radical leftists need to develop an
organization ? one that is controlled from the base, so that we don’t
produce another Bolshevik Party. It has to be formed slowly on a local
basis, it has to be confederally organized, and together with popular
assemblies, it will build up an opposition to the existing power, the
state and class rule. I call this approach libertarian municipalism.
*DV:* Some critics have said that you are mostly interested in what’s
going on the lower level, within municipalities, and that you don’t say
much about how to connect different municipalities into a higher
structure, say confederation.
*MB:* That’s absolutely untrue ? the aim of confederating the popular
assemblies is basic to libertarian municipalism. My writings on the
subject always include a call for confederation. From the local
confederations should come regional confederations, and then national or
continental confederations. But the power must always reside in the
popular assemblies, and the final decisions must always come from below,
that is, from assemblies of the people. (I should add that anyone who
does not attend an assembly is simply saying, “I am not a citizen, I
don’t care.” So if they don’t care to attend, let them live with the
decisions of assemblies.)
Municipalities form the locus, the arena of a truly political life, but
no municipality can be “autonomous.” Autonomy is a myth ? you can’t
achieve it, because each person depends on everyone else, and each
municipality depends on all the others. We all depend on each other,
just as our individual egos are formed to a vast degree by culture, not
born all of a sudden or self-formed somehow, the way Max Stirner
suggested. I also reject the vicious totalitarian notion of total
dependence upon the state. I am for /interdependence/ among
self-governing people in assemblies.
Democracy is something that anarchism often seems to have problems with.
This is one area in which I differ with authentic anarchists, who
emphasize an individual ego and the fulfillment of its desires as the
overriding consideration. Many anarchists reject democracy as the
“tyranny” of the majority over the minority. They think that when a
community makes decisions by majority vote, it violates the “autonomy”
of the egos of the individuals who voted in the minority. They seem to
think that somehow those who voted against a decision, because they are
“autonomous,” shouldn’t have to follow it.
I think that that idea is naive at best and a prescription for chaos at
worst. Decisions, once made, have to be binding. Of course minorities
should always have the right to object to majority decisions and to
freely voice their own views. Majorities have no right to try to prevent
a minority from voicing its views and trying to win majority support for
The question is, what is the fairest way to make communitywide
decisions? I think majority voting is not only the fairest but the only
viable way for a face-to-face democratic society to function, and that
decisions made by majority vote should be binding on all the members of
the community, whether they voted in favor of a measure or against it.
And unlike many anarchists, I don’t think a particular individual or
municipality should be able to do whatever it wants to do at all times.
Lack of structure and institutions leads to chaos and even arbitrary
tyranny. I believe in law, and the future society I envision would also
have a constitution. Of course, the constitution would have to be the
product of careful consideration, by the empowered people. It would be
democratically discussed and voted upon. But once the people have
ratified it, it would be binding on everyone. It is not accidental that
historically, oppressed people who were victims of the arbitrary
behavior of the ruling classes ? “barons,” as Hesiod called them in
seventh-century B.C. Greece ? demanded constitutions and just laws as a
*DV:* What dangers do you find in the idea of autonomy or self-sufficiency?
*MB:* The main danger is parochialism: some people might decide that
they want to exclude people of a certain race or ethnicity or sexual
preference or the like. The American South, for example, long wanted to
allow blacks to live in its midst as slaves or else as menial servants.
Today people in many European countries want to exclude immigrants
arriving from outside Europe. Our movement would have to counter such
parochialism with cosmopolitanism, an outlook that affirms and even
celebrates the interdependence of all people.
I think that a workable confederation must ultimately be very broad,
reflecting the interdependence of municipalities. Some of the
nineteenth-century anarchists who wrote about confederation left open a
large loophole. Proudhon and Bakunin, in their writings, allowed for the
possibility that a single community could opt out of the confederation
if it so desired. The community could say to the rest of the
confederation,” I don’t like what you’re doing, I’m leaving.” But I
don’t agree that this should be permitted. Every municipality has a
deep, fundamental responsibility to every other municipality in a
confederation. When a community joins a confederation, it’s bound by a
compact, a constitution. It shouldn’t be able to leave unilaterally,
just because it doesn’t want to do something that the majority of the
confederation has agreed to do. A community shouldn’t be able to say,
for example, “We want to exclude black people, but you in the
confederation would force them on us, so we are going to defy you and
leave the confederation.” Participation is binding, because our
interdependence is indissoluble. The only way a community could leave a
confederation, in my opinion, would be when the majority in the
confederation, acting as though it were one huge assembly, says, “All
right, okay, leave if you choose, but don’t expect us to help you when
you need aid.”
*DV:* So, decentralization is not the whole story.
*MB:* I definitely disagree with the fetishization of decentralization,
the notion that decentralization per se has some kind of mystical
qualities. Big things are not necessarily bad, and small things are not
necessarily good. Small is not always beautiful ? small units can
sometimes be destructive and reactionary. The world of feudal Europe was
mostly decentralized ? but it was poisoned by a good deal of tyranny.
Size is a purely physical measurement. Decentralization must involve
economics, technology, political structure, confederalism, and so on. It
has to be placed in a communalistic construct. The advantage of
decentralization is that it lodges the civic arena and its components in
a human and familiar scale.
*DV:* In your books, you developed a historical genealogy of hierarchy.
Like many anthropologists, you place an egalitarian society ? something
like Marx’s class-free society ? at its beginning. Is this a sort of
Bookchinian Golden Age?
*MB:* Absolutely not! I don’t want to go back to the past. I am not a
primitivist. It’s been a source of great concern to me that many
anarchists in the United States are primitivists. They believe that
technology is the main cause of our problems. One has the impression
sometimes that they want to return to flint tools and a foraging economy.
I think that the main causes of our problems lie in social relations ?
in capitalism, the nation-state ? and in the commodification of all
things and relations. If we organized social life along cooperative and
humanistic lines, technology could be one of the major /solutions/ to
our problems. Primitivists believe we have too much civilization. I
believe we’re not civilized enough. Some primitivists are even against
“society,” but I think that without society you are not a human being.
They believe in personal autonomy, I believe in social freedom. They
seem to believe that there is a “natural man,” an “uncorrupted ego,”
which civilization has poisoned. I believe that competition and other
class and hierarchical relations have corrupted society, and that we
need instead a cooperative civilization.
*DV:* So you adopt Marx’s – or, more precisely, Hegel’s – perspective
that history is something essentially indispensable and positive, as a
process of perfection and “cultural learning,” not that of decline and
*MB:* Again, yes and no. Let’s put aside the word /perfection/, since
only deities are perfect. In fact, really monstrous things have happened
in the past and are happening today. It was necessary to break away from
crude animality ? and this has still not been fully achieved. As I wrote
in /Reenchanting Humanity/, animality is basically the realm of
adaptation to what exists, and animal life is marked by a good deal of
suffering even without the efforts of human beings. People can and
should go beyond animality into the realm of culture. Human beings can
/innovate/ ? they can create and develop. Marx’s theory of labor is very
useful on this score, because it conceives of labor not only as a source
of value but above all as a process of self-formation and social
formation. It is through labor, said Marx, that human beings go beyond
mere animality. People take the conditions of the world and, potentially
at least, can form them more and more to meet human needs.
But defining human needs has always been very problematical. They are
obviously historically conditioned. In earlier societies in most of the
world, where resources were scarce, people were very poor indeed, and
their basic needs could be satisfied only by very hard work. In earlier
times, for example, even in northern climates, central heating would
have been inconceivable or, later, considered an extravagant luxury.
People often had a fireplace in only one room of their home. But today
central heating is considered a basic need. Still, in our commodity
society, other things that are considered “needs” are actually
ridiculous trivialities. I’m concerned with a potentially post-scarcity
society that produces enough to meet all the basic needs of life. And if
society were rational, it could redistribute our abundant resources so
that people could live comfortably without too much work and very little
toil. We could have a true paradise and minimalize suffering in the
social and even the natural world.
I don’t know what the ideal society is, but it should finally resolve
the social question: the domination of human beings and the exploitation
of human labor. To achieve a society free of domination and
exploitation, we need a certain level of economic development – I agree
with Marx on that score. A free and rational society will have economic
and technological preconditions: I don’t think that people could have a
good society in the wastes of the Sahara Desert with nothing more than
some camels. On the other hand, I don’t think the good life requires us
to have magnificent estates, ten swimming pools, and fifty television
sets. Some libertarians might object: “Well, if somebody wants ten
swimming pools, they should be allowed to have them. You shouldn’t try
to stop them. They are autonomous.” I would reply that acceptable needs
should be determined by the community as a whole ? the municipality. An
assembly there can say: “Two pairs of shoes is enough. You don’t need
ten.” They can say that a certain limit is enough, that we don’t need
Has there been progress in human society? Yes and no, but without the
rise of civilization and its history, even with all its horrors, human
life would have constituted little more than animality. Forgive me, but
I don’t want to live in a world that is stagnant and vacuous.
*DV:* What do you think of the notion of voluntary simplicity?
*MB:* We shouldn’t load ourselves up with so many goods and spend our
lives thinking about how we should have much more of everything. But
voluntary simplicity often makes a religion out of a life of virtual
poverty: The less one needs, it seems to say, the better one is. That’s
a simplistic statement. The more cultivated and rational our needs are,
the better we are, indeed the more human we are. We could have a long
discussion about what “cultivated” and “rational” mean, but the point is
that needs evolve. I don’t want to live like a monk, but like a
knowledgeable, cultured human being. And today that requires fulfilling
many needs, like books, music recordings, decent food, appropriate
clothing, and the like. I know what it is to live in poverty, to live
without a secure home. New York in the 1930s was not a ball, and I am
puzzled by people who choose to live with the technologies of seventy
years ago in the name of “voluntary simplicity.”
*DV:* You’ve been very critical of the concept of biocentrism as well. I
think of nature as natural evolution, the evolution above all of organic
life and the potentialities that it may actualize. I see in the natural
world the potentiality of actualizing subjectivity and thinking; that
human beings can potentially become nature rendered self-conscious. So I
can never be biocentric. In fact I think human beings are still the most
remarkable product of natural evolution.
*DV:* Aristotle seems to loom behind your ideas.
*MB:* Yes, as do a lot of philosophers in the history of ideas. I have
great respect for Aristotle, especially because his outlook is permeated
with ideas of growth and the unfolding of potentialities and
development. But because of the limitations of his time, Aristotle’s
overall concept of nature is static: he had no concept of natural
evolution. He regarded his hierarchical system of life as a given. In
the nineteenth century Hegel, who was the other great developmental
thinker, knew about theories of natural evolution (although he died a
few decades before /The Origin of Species/ was published). But he
rejected them in volume 2 of his /Encyclopedia/. Today we have the
benefit of knowing about organic evolution and can allow it to inform
Please let me stress one debt that I must always acknowledge. Marx
taught me to look for connections between phenomena, to synthesize, and
to place the problem of humanity and nature and their interaction into
the context of philosophy and history. My concept of the natural world
is thus evolutionary and dynamic. In the 1950s, I brought together my
understanding of Aristotle, Hegel, and other philosophers with the
problems of humanity’s place in the natural world. To me, human beings
are a potential fulfillment of natural evolution ? which is the way I
define the word /nature/. My thinking on this matter culminated in /The
Ecology of Freedom/ and my books on philosophy and history. For me it’s
always a question of synthesis and, above all, the idea that humanity is
/what gives nature meaning/. I would not want to be on this planet with
only mammoths or dinosaurs. The potentiality that human beings could
emerge has always been latent in natural evolution. Hindsight is always
twenty-twenty, but the point is: human beings are here, and we have to
explain what existed in natural evolution that brought about their
*DV:* Aren’t you afraid of falling into “anthropocentrism”? Even if you
don’t say the Earth was made for human beings, you maintain that humans
are the most valuable beings on Earth. I can imagine many people calling
*MB:* The word anthropocentrism doesn’t frighten me. It implies that the
natural world was “made for” human beings by some sort of deity. This,
in my opinion, is absurd. One of my critics, Robyn Eckersley, challenged
me in the journal /Environmental Ethics/ to explain, “Why should human
thinking be regarded more valuable than the navigational skills of
birds?” But that’s just a silly question. In “navigating,” birds are
affected by the magnetic field of the Earth, they’re affected by the
changes of temperature; they’re adapting to their surroundings. But
human beings, crucially, can innovate, as I pointed out, and they live
on another level of phenomena, culture. They can make airplanes, and
they know how to navigate. Now they can go beyond birds and farther than
birds and higher than birds.
Human beings differ profoundly from all living things, because
potentially at least, they can be natural evolution rendered
self-conscious. They can be a “natural force,” so to speak, that can
enter into that evolution, reflect upon it, and act on it empathically,
morally, and rationally, to make life a better experience for animals as
well as themselves.
*DV:* Can we come back to your thesis that there is no solution to the
environmental crisis without solving social problems?
*MB:* By all means. The society we live in was made by the bourgeoisie
and its use of modern industry. We can’t ignore the fact that we are
living in a capitalist world. Contrary to what Marxism believed,
capitalism is not falling apart ? it is disturbingly stable. Cyclical
depressions used to take place every ten years or so. But now there
hasn’t been a depression in decades. Lenin predicted that capitalism was
entering a period of war and socialist revolutions. It might have done
so between 1914 and 1945 or 1950, but it’s not doing so today ? at
least, not on a scale comparable to the twentieth-century world wars.
What capitalism is doing is creating a synthetic environment, one in
which “wilderness” is more of a metaphor than a reality. That’s
particularly true in the United States, which has a long history of
dealing with “wilderness.” Here “wilderness” is a formative cultural
concept. Today American deep ecologists sing the praises of wilderness,
by which they seem to mean places like Glacier National Park and Olympic
National Park. But Indians were living in and transforming those places
long before any Europeans came, thousands of years ago. In fact, human
beings began to change the planet as far back as the time of /Homo
erectus/ and perhaps even earlier. They started burning forests
systematically soon after they learned to make and use fire.
Now, especially, it’s ridiculous to believe in the myth of wilderness.
There are no wilderness areas anymore. Yes, wild animals are now
drifting into the cities – deer are coming into Burlington, wolves are
going into Nome, Alaska. Wild animals look for food in urban garbage
cans. There are polar bears in Churchill, on the Hudson Bay, about 700
of them. They all congregate there, breaking open garbage cans and
trying to open the doors of houses. But wilderness areas are gone ?
they’re reserves. The whole planet has been changed, and now the polar
icecaps and mountain glaciers are melting. A synthetic world is being
created that flatly contradicts deep ecology hopes about returning to
Will science and technology be able to keep up with this destruction,
prevent the worst damage, and make this synthetic world sustainable?
That issue hangs in the balance. I don’t know anymore. Things that
seemed inconceivable 40 years ago have now come into existence.
Scientists have mapped the human genome, they have discovered the
secrets of life – genes, genetics, and bioengineering. They have
discovered the secrets of matter – nuclear energy, nucleonics. Maybe
your generation or your children will witness innovations that will
prevent the synthetic world from becoming uninhabitable.
The whole ecological question is up for grabs today, and people should
focus on the main thing: to try to create a free, rational ? and
ecologically oriented ? society. We have to raise consciousness so that
reason and an ecological outlook will prevail. This is a profoundly
social ? and I should add political ? problem. And we have to create a
movement that is educational and political, that has a real philosophy,
a real concept of history, a real economics, a real politics, and a real
ecological sensibility. This movement has to talk to people, assuming –
and this is a big problem – that their minds are not destroyed by
capitalism. People have to learn from history and understand what they
can apply from the past to the present and future. We have to have a
creative point of view. We can’t just be against something, we have to
offer alternatives, rational and ecological ones, and offer ways to
change this society. Basically, if we are to resolve the ecological
crisis today, we have to build a new political culture.
Unfortunately, commodification is not only turning everything into an
object of exchange, it is changing the way people think. The famous
question in America today is “What’s the bottom line?” That’s the
language of accounting, of business. It frightens me that people think
in those terms.
*DV:* People like to “invest” in their children?
*MB:* Yes, especially by educating them to go out and make money.
*DV:* You’ve written that the movements of the 1960s were opposed to
commodification ? and that while the 1960s were radical, the 1970s were
*MB:* Relatively so, compared with today. In terms of their potentiality
for making social change, the 1960s were more interesting than the
1970s. In the 1960s ecology seemed to be developing toward a
revolutionary outlook, toward social ecology. The counterculture, it
seemed, was challenging hierarchy and elitism. Feminism was expressing
an opposition to hierarchy. Utopian wishes favored humanly scaled and
But in the 1970s things changed. The counterculture drifted into the New
Age. Much of feminism turned into a lobbying movement for getting women
into corporations and high military positions. That change is hardly
progressive. The 1960s, in effect, were swallowed up by capitalism. What
is revolutionary today about wearing a beard and wearing long hair?
Nothing. Many 1960s radicals have since become professors and teach
postmodernism. And social ecology, founded in the 1960s and truly
radical, was to a great extent replaced by deep ecology, whose naive
biocentrism I find regressive at best.
*DV:* In my country, deep ecology is often labeled a very radical
movement. I know that “radical” is not necessarily the opposite of
“reactionary” – you can be reactionary in a radical way. I just mean
that deep ecology is not usually taken as a movement for conserving the
political status quo.
*MB:* It’s not the first time popular opinion is wrong. Capitalism has a
remarkable ability to take ideas that seem to be against it and use them
to deflect attention from the real problems of capitalism itself. For
example, believers in deep ecology don’t focus on capitalism as the
source of ecological ills, or hierarchy, for that matter. They blame
technology and certain religions. They call for greater spiritual
development, getting in tune with the cosmos, becoming part of the web
of life. They are not building a social movement ? they’re offering a
religion. This spiritual rubbish, decorated with ecological language,
ultimately supports the status quo. Capitalism is ready to embrace any
religion, as long as it doesn’t have to surrender its profits.
A good example that supports my concerns is that deep ecology has
distorted radical ecology into an apologia for statism. In a recent
interview, Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology who has called
himself a sort of Gandhian anarchist, recently came out in support of a
strong centralized state. He wants a strong centralized state because,
he believes, if you leave the solution to ecological problems up to
small localities, they will do great ecological damage. Yes, in a
capitalist society, to be sure; but strong centralized states will do
that in /any/ society. In the same interview he attacked me for
“localism” ? as if I had never written about interdependence and
confederation. But Naess is popular because he gives people an ecology ?
a spiritual ecology ? that is very personal. And that is easy to
understand, especially when vast numbers of people go to psychoanalysts
and movies where all they hear about is love affairs and personal problems.
*DV:* What do you find unacceptable about deep ecology’s diagnosis of
the roots of the environmental crisis?
*MB:* First of all, it addresses people’s attitudes, not social issues.
Most deep ecologists seem to think that by changing human attitudes
alone, we can produce an ecological, beautiful, harmonious world, in
which all forms of life, and human beings among them, can live in
harmony. Now, I regard that as the height of naÔvetÈ. To begin with, our
social environment is extremely important in shaping the acceptability
of new ideas. Many centuries ago – whether rightly or wrongly – Roger
Bacon, a monk, anticipated many ideas that modern science and
engineering turned into realities. But he lived in the 13th century, and
the world around him was so socially conditioned by the Church and
hierarchy that his fairly naturalistic ideas were not accepted. Who
knows how many of these Roger Bacons existed before him, people who died
Today we are faced with a basically anti-ecological social environment.
The social environment today favors atomization and money-making. People
look after themselves, after their families, after their jobs, after
their income, and that pretty much constitutes their concerns. It’s not
like in the 1930s, when everyone I knew seemed concerned above all with
changing the world. There were always group meetings, street-corner
meetings, there was activity, vitality, and a high degree of public
concern. We had a radical, lively political culture. We were embattled
especially against the dangers of fascism.
Now being embattled about anything is regarded as disruptive: When
people speak out in anger, they are told, “You’re rocking the boat. We
have to hug each other.” It’s a hugging culture. It’s a culture that
fosters passivity. And deep ecology plays up to these moods. Deep
ecology emphasizes our kinship with birds and spiders, our place in a
supposed mystical circle of life, not differences in wealth and
lifeways. At something called a “Council of all Beings,” people sit in a
circle, and one person says: “I represent rabbits.” Another person says:
“I represent trees.” Deep ecologists love these rituals. Actually,
people represent nothing but themselves. Such deceptions are all over
the place in America. And we all have to live in harmony with each
other! Tell it to people of color and oppressed women.
*DV:* But Joanna Macy, the author of that ritual, does not seem to be a
passive person. Many other deep ecologists are very active as well.
*MB:* I don’t know about her recent activities, and certainly some deep
ecologists participate in protests around environmental issues. But most
deep ecologists emphasize, as Macy does, spiritual change over political
and social change, and the cultivation of a reverential consciousness or
sensibility about the natural world rather than organization and
movement building. They talk about inwardness and Buddhism and
archetypes rather than the real social forces that produce the
ecological crisis. They call upon human beings to follow their instincts
and feeling, not remake the world according to reason. This is a turn
toward private sensibility rather than public action and often produces
little more than lifestyle changes. That easily leads to accommodation.
Other aspects of deep ecology ? its biocentrism ? are simply reactionary.
*DV:* I heard that Prince Charles calls himself a deep ecologist. When
did you realize for the first time the reactionary character of deep
*MB:* In the very beginning, when I heard about biocentrism. In the
mid-1980s, I met the deep ecologist Bill Devall at a conference in
Wisconsin, where we had a discussion, and he talked about it. I tried to
be friendly enough, but I had to criticize this idea. In the summer of
1986 at the first national gathering of the American Greens at Amherst,
Massachusetts, I launched a public criticism of deep ecology. I was the
keynote speaker, and I distributed an article called “Social Ecology
versus Deep Ecology.” I didn’t realize at the time that I was dealing
with people who didn’t want to debate ideas, and because I was very
sharp, I antagonized a lot of them. They paid less attention to what I
had said than to my tone. That was the big issue ? my tone! I was
criticizing David Foreman for his statement that we should let Ethiopian
children starve and “let nature take its course,” but his reactionary
views bothered them less than they way I criticized him.
I don’t know what’s going on among deep ecologists today. I don’t read
their press anymore. I’m too old to waste my limited time reading their
materials. I’ve already written what I had to say about them.
*DV:* I’ve met many people within the environmental movement who have a
rather equivocal view of modern society or modernity in a broader sense,
covering technology, specific sets of ideas, lifestyle, and so on. They
acknowledge that modernity has brought many positives – or at least they
do not want to simply go back to the pre-modern society – but they do
not want to talk about these positives publicly. Their rationale is we
are overmodernized right now, so putting the pendulum into balance
requires talking only about the opposite extreme: since we face the
negative effects of technology, let’s minimize talking about its
positives. What do you think of this shyness? Is it a good strategy?
*MB:* Let’s face it ? by deliberately telling people things that they
know are not true ? by refusing to acknowledge the positive aspects of
modernity ? these people are being dishonest. I don’t approve of such
strategic falsification, which is what it amounts to. If you want people
to work with you, you can’t patronize them by talking down to them and
telling them fairy tales. You have to tell them the whole story, not
just the parts that serve your cause. You have to talk to them as
intelligent, competent people. Otherwise there is no purpose to our
educational efforts. By treating people like children, we are behaving
like the politicians we criticize.
The fact is that we will have to use modern technology in a different
social order. There’s no sense in misleading people about that. Nowadays
technology obviously can be used to produce the greatest amount of
destruction, but it can also be used to produce the great amounts of
good. Even if we succeed in preserving more forests, open land, and
wildlife, we will still need technology desperately to keep these
forests, open land, and wildlife intact. It will take high levels of
technology to engage in ecological restoration and maintenance.
The real problem is not technology itself ? although there are some
technologies, admittedly, like nuclear energy, that I’d like to see
disappear. The basic question we face is, by what standards and toward
what ends do we use technology? Today its is used primarily to make
money, not to improve people’s lives. In this country now there’s a big
scandal about defective automobile tires. The Firestone tires on many
large “sport utility vehicles” have fallen apart when the vehicle is
going at high speeds. Everyone in the country knows that this problem
stems from one thing: the companies are producing cheap or unsuitable
goods to make larger profits. The people don’t believe fairy tales about
benevolent auto manufacturers.
Sooner or later, however, society will produce vehicles and tires that
never wear out but can be handed down from generation to generation. If
this technology is used for rational ends, it will be a boon. Therefore
I can’t single out technology alone as the source of the problem. I can
single out the reasons for which technology is being used and toward
We live in a very confusing time. Sometimes people look for easy answers
to complex questions. If a machine or item functions poorly, it is easy
to blame technology rather than the competitive corporations that try to
make money, or to blame people’s attitudes rather than the mass media
that shapes people’s thinking, or to say we should go back to old
ideologies ? Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, orthodox
Marxism, orthodox anarchism, even orthodox capitalism ? for solutions.
People need new ideas based on reason, not superstition; on freedom, not
personal autonomy; on creativity, not adaptation; on coherence, not
chaos; and on a vision of a free society, based on popular assemblies
and confederalism, not on rulers and a state. If we do not organize a
real movement ? a structured movement ? that tries to guide people
toward a rational society based on reason and freedom, we face eventual
disaster. We cannot withdraw into our “autonomous” egos or retreat to a
primitive, indeed unknown past. We must change this insane world, or
else society will dissolve into an irrational barbarism ? as it is
already beginning to do these days.
David Vanek (born in 1974) does postgraduate studies in philosophy
at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, where he is also the
editor of Sedma Generace (Seventh Generation) magazine, a
publication of Friends of the Earth Czech Republic. He interviewed
Bookchin in Burlington, Vermont, in the summer of 2000. The
interview was originally published in Sedma Generace.