Social ecology needs development, dissent, dynamism



If you’re reading this post on the ISE blog then chances are I don’t need to spend much time reviewing the seriousness of the contemporary situation. Suffice to say, we are experiencing numerous social and ecological crises and the ongoing consequences of climate change foretell a bleak future. And if you are familiar with social ecology, as a body of ideas developed by Murray Bookchin, then a detailed description of his influential vision of a non-hierarchical, ecological , decentralized, and directly-democratic alternative is unnecessary.

Unfortunately, while Bookchin’s social ecology is recognized to have played a significant role in the ongoing worldwide resurgence of anarchist social movements and social theory in addition to having had major influence on the emergence of the “Green” movement in Germany and, later, the US, Bookchin’s social ecology is not currently widely consulted in radical circles.

There are many complex reasons for this and the contemporary status of Bookchin’s social ecology is a topic that demands a fuller discussion than appropriate for a blog post.

While I know there are some who are understandably concerned about the “watering-down” or otherwise distorting of Bookchin’s ideas, I feel it necessary to call for a critical evaluation of Bookchin’s social ecology by those who identify with social ecology.

My interest in doing so is certainly partially selfish; over the past several years I’ve learned a great deal from studying Bookchin’s work alongside that of other social ecologists such as Ben Grosscup, Brian Tokar, Chaia Heller, Dan Chodorkoff, Eirik Eiglad, Grace Gershuny, Janet Biehl, Matt Hern, and Peter Staudenmaier, while being inspired by the activism of Hilary Moore, and Samantha Gorelick, among others. In short, I value the community of people associated with Bookchin’s social ecology and the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) and I want to see both the ISE and the social ecology tradition grow.

But my reasons are not solely selfish. I do believe there is much in the social ecology tradition that has vital insights to contribute to our efforts at overcoming the crises we face.

(In referring to the social ecology tradition, I mean not only Bookchin’s work and those clearly identified with it, but the many historical lineages and contemporary endeavors of theory and action which are complementary to a social-ecological perspective, including but not limited to the anarchist, anti-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, indigenous, libertarian socialist, queer, and radical ecology milieus.)

However, with Bookchin’s passing in July 2006  and the only tangentially-related scaling back of the ISE’s educational programming, there is a definite need for those of us associated with social ecology to be reflexive about where the social ecology tradition has been and where it might go:

Which aspects of Bookchin’s social ecology are essential and what elements might, at least for some self-identifying social ecologists, deserve critique and revision?

I believe this question demands robust and respectful public discussion.

Can there be social ecologies—that is, varying interpretations, philosophies, and modes of praxis that differ in some ways but remain in solidarity with one another and identified with the social ecology tradition?

I believe this answer definitive “yes” not as a cynical strategy for over-extending the relevance of the social ecology tradition, nor as a means for avoiding critical, direct disagreement, but as means of renewing an important community of activists and thinkers who can do the crucial work of developing social-ecological theory and putting it into practice. Dissent is not only inevitable, it is healthy and necessary and we who draw support and energy from the social ecology tradition should not shrink from disagreeing anymore than we ought be quick to alienate those with dissenting opinions.

For its part, the ISE has had literally thousands of students participate in its educational programs over the course of its more than 35 years.  The Institute remains a vehicle for radical education and action notwithstanding the relatively modest level of activity over the past few years. For the ISE to be revitalized the social ecology tradition must be revitalized. And the ISE faces the challenges of evolving and developing new educational programming and strategies in a context that is rapidly developing distance-learning tools while the economic and ecological costs of face-to-face meeting increase.

But these are not insurmountable obstacles—not even remotely. The only question is how they will be overcome. The several thousand ISE alumni and countless others who’ve been influenced by the social ecology tradition are already at work right now, developing ideas and staging actions, building movements, and agitating for a sustainable social-ecological future.