Social Ecologist Profile: Bruce Norman of Quebec, Canada

[This post inaugurates what we plan to be a regular series of profiles of social ecologists. Special thanks to Bruce, who utilizes a pseudonym in honor of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who served in the Spanish Civil War.]

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

I am a freelance science writer living in Quebec. I’m orginally from Vancouver, British Columbia. My main interests are social and affective neuroscience, medical ethics, and non-drug approaches to healing mental illness. I also write short stories and poetry; I play the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and guitar, and I love to draw.

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

I was introduced to Murray Bookchin by my good friends in Vancouver and met him when he visited in the mid-1980s. I was immediately attracted to the philosophy of social ecology because of its pure, undiluted rationality. It just made perfect sense. When asked about social ecology, I explain it as a worldview based on cooperation, communitarianism, self-governance, and respect for the natural world. Most importantly, social ecology entails the development of social intelligence that lies within every human. It’s what enabled us to survive throughout our evolution and it’s what will enable us to survive far into the future…if we get that far. There’s even a spiritual element to social ecology, one based on a naturalistic worldview rather than supernaturalism and mysticism.

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

My current work is in the area of social and affective neuroscience and especially non-drug approaches to mental health. Throughout his work, Bookchin wrote about the indispensible requirement for human consociation, which Merriam-Webster defines as “association in fellowship or alliance.” Recent research is revealing just how important human consociation is for our well-being, especially in children. Without close social ties that literally begin in infancy with strong mother-child attachments, children become isolated, fearful, and distrustful of others. Although Bookshin saw no role for psychology in social ecology, I believe it was due more to the individualistic human potential movement of his time rather than any irrelevance of psychology per se. Social psychology has gone far beyond that and an enormous body of research supports much of what Bookchin wrote concerning the need for human cooperation and consociation. The most important message is that healthy societies need healthy individuals who have learned from a very early age how to get along with each other.  The seed of camaradarie is planted in the cradle.

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

As I imply above, humanity needs to pay far more attention to how they raise and educate their young. Children need consistent connection and with healthy parents, and small social peer groups. They need to engage in unstructured play, preferably in close contact with nature. In other words, we need to bring up our children and teach them to live as evolution adapted us to live!  Otherwise, the social intelligence required for major social change on a large scale will never develop. Fairness and empathy are inborn traits so a child raised in a healthy community by healthy parents will naturally resist tendencies toward hierarchy and domination of human over human. You can’t teach that through didactic instruction alone; kids have to feel its natural appeal to respond to it. I find it so encouraging that kids raised by social ecologists invariably have that inherent sense of fairness and empathy.

Any great stories about being around the ISE?

The ISE is filled with smart people who LOVE to discuss interesting ideas and have a good time with each other. I’ve attended the ISE summer colloquium two years in a row now and each one was a highlight of the year. I especially love meeting folks from Europe and learning about the many community projects in process that have been inspired by social ecology. I am currently introducing social ecology concepts to a small community in Quebec and I hope to get some people from that area to attend future colloquia with me. As for great stories, there’s nothing quite so agreeable as hanging out in Dan’s back yard behind the converted barn that houses the ISE and singing Phil Ochs songs with Ben Grosscup and Peter Prontzos under the stars of an August evening.

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