Social Ecologist Profile: Blair Taylor of Brooklyn, NY USA

1. Please introduce yourself (What kind of work you do, Where you live, etc.)

My name is Blair Taylor, I live in Brooklyn, NY. I’m a PhD student in political science at the New School, working on a dissertation on social movements and recuperation. I teach and do some freelance editing.

2. How did you become introduced to the ideas of social ecology? How do you  define social ecology when asked about it?

I had been active in ecological and anarchist politics for a while. I was involved in Earth First! work in the NW and was sympathetic to deep ecology. I had read some of Bookchin’s polemical works and liked them, but a when my environmental politics professor assigned some reading from Murray’s debate with Dave Foreman, I was completely won over by the arguments and started to read more. In 2000 I came to the ISE for the Ecology and Community program, loved it and returned for the next four summers. It felt like I’d found my intellectual and political home. It’s hard to encapsulate such a diverse, wide-ranging body of ideas that have also changed over time, but I usually emphasize the insight that ecological problems are fundamentally social/political problems and must be addressed as such. This is a good starting point for sketching out social ecology’s vision of a democratic, just, ecological society.

3. How does social ecology and/or your experience with the Institute for Social Ecology influence your current work?

Well I first came to the ISE while the alterglobalization movement was in full swing, so it directly informed the political work I was doing then, and we started a project called the Alliance for Freedom and Direct Democracy that was based on many of the ideas of social ecology, but which ultimately fizzled along with the global justice movement. Presently I’m working on a dissertation that deals with changes in left politics over the past 40 years, one them is the left’s failure to find what Hannah Arendt called “The Lost Treasure of the Revolutionary Tradition,” a democratic politics with strong affinities to communalism. From the New Left’s descent from liberalism into Maoist factionalism and terrorism, to the more recent shift from alterglobalization movement tropes of direct democracy to those of communism and insurrectionism, social ecology remains incredibly relevant in the search for a radical democratic left politics.

4. What do you see as the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for achieving a sustainable relationship between humanity and the wider world?

The recuperation of social and ecological ideas. Our movements have been quite successful in popularizing certain elements of both our critique and vision of a more just, sustainable world. Today, people far beyond the self-identified left increasingly don’t want to be complicit in exploitative products and practices, and in turn many especially young people seek to turn this urge into careers where they can both make a living while making the world a better place. The problem is that without a systemic analysis, this energy is largely funneled into creating a “green capitalism” that offers the illusion of change while reinforcing the underlying logic of social and ecological erosion. The trajectory of ex-radical Van Jones to the White House (then being forced to step down when his leftist past was exposed) is instructive – our ideas are being recuperated to reinforce the very system creating the problems. So this widespread desire to make the world a better place, coupled with it being channeled into green jobs and products, is both what I find hopeful and challenging. And it illustrates the job of social ecologists – to point out that we can’t solve these problems through alternative technology, cooperatives, farmers’ markets, or ethical products without confronting the larger and incredibly powerful forces of capitalism that either doom or relegate them to niche markets for those that can afford to spend extra to salve their conscience in what remains an fundamentally exploitative system.

5. Any great stories about being around the ISE?

Too many. I’ve met so many amazing people, lifelong friends, co-conspirators, and roommates that it’s hard to narrow it down to individual stories. One that stands out is going down to Philly for the 2000 RNC immediately following the largest ISE summer session in recent memory due to the post-Seattle influx. We went down with two carloads of students and profs, one car got totaled on the way, the other got pulled over by a phalanx of bike cops just as we arrived. Shortly thereafter we watched one of our instructors get abruptly tossed in the paddywagon, then held vigil outside the roundhouse over the next few days. Then doing it all again a week later in LA with many of the same people. The ISE was ground zero for movement strategizing during the heady alterglobalization years. Those experiences, friendships, and political lessons will stay with me forever.

2 Replies to “Social Ecologist Profile: Blair Taylor of Brooklyn, NY USA”

  1. Hey Blair, since fear blocks change do you think it is possible to rephrase confronting the larger forces of capitalism? Maybe rethink it, if you dare. Might it be a bit more involved than any one socio-economic system?…From a gal you once knew.

  2. Christina. Thanks for commenting. Fear does seem to tend to make people cling to the known. Which is why rephrasing the left’s orientation to contemporary captialism is so crucial – it’s is much more than a mere socioeconomic system but colors all social relationships. I would personally say market logic is the inviolable master logic at present, one reason why anti-discrimination for the left (and anti-immmigration for the right) are so popular – both stand out as anachronistic violations of a meritocratic, competitive market logic.

    Yet much of the left’s discourse on capitalism, so similar to much of the right’s, plays on people’s fear of conspiratorial Big Business, evil CEOs and bankers, and fear of ecological collapse. This strikes me as overly personalistic, good guys/bad guys thinking that occludes the systemic nature of capitalism as a destructive yet also progressive/rationalizing force, within its own constraints. So today the populist left and right are united in a superficial critique of corporations/Wall Street, turning to the local – main street, farmers coops, mom and pop stores – as somehow better, when in fact they’re often worse as they are less able to compete, have fewer resources, and are thus even more vulnerable to market logic than the bigger concerns. In short, knowing your local merchant might be less alienating, but it’s no alternative; the “community” created is one mediated through the antisocial logic of buyer and seller, all intentions aside.

    After a generation of criticizing the state and corporations, both left and right seem to have turned towards entrepreneurialism as the motor of social change. In a way this addresses the desire for a proactive solution in an unethical world – yet without understanding the nature of capitalism, such attempts will change business (and they have – business today speaks the language of social movements), but as generations of vegetarians can tell you, not the world.

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