“Mumford Gutkind Bookchin” – A brief review

Review of Janet Biehl’s booklet, Mumford Gutkind Bookchin: The Emergence of Eco-Decentralism (available from New Compass Press)

by Brian Tokar

The link between ecology and decentralist politics is often taken as a given, as natural a connection as between bees and pollen or tulips and Dutch gardens. But as with everything in the evolution of ideas, this link has a particular history and, in this case, its origin story is woven through the works of the pioneering social ecologist, Murray Bookchin.

In this brief but insightful booklet, Janet Biehl traces the intellectual origins of Bookchin’s earliest 1960s works on the ecology of cities, and carefully dissects Bookchin’s influences in the works of critical urbanists such as Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes. To this fertile ground, Bookchin introduced influences from Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and from the now little-known social ecologist, E.A. Gutkind. Biehl tells this story with a keen historical sense, a colorful re-creation of some of Bookchin’s early personal history, and a thoughtful and engaging reading of the key texts.

The shortcomings of this piece are mainly in those areas where Biehl tends to underestimate Bookchin’s continuing legacy. First, while passages from Bookchin’s first major work, Our Synthetic Environment, are cited in some detail, the wider impact of that book is significantly underplayed. (In contrast, the microbiologist and pioneering ecophilosopher Réne Dubos once compared its influence to that of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [1].) Second, whereas Biehl depicts Bookchin’s radical urbanism as having been largely supplanted by recent historical developments, the approach he pioneered lives on in the work of a whole generation of “green” architects and planners. Many in this field still trace their intellectual roots to efforts that Bookchin directly participated in and influenced, including articles in the path-breaking Rain Magazine and the eco-city movement that first emerged in places like Portland, Oregon and the San Francisco Bay Area. Hopefully these matters will be further addressed in Biehl’s forthcoming biography of Bookchin.

Nonetheless, Biehl’s current essay is essential reading for those who wish to explore the origins of social ecology and the intellectual roots of the renewable technology movement. It offers an illuminating window into the unique ecological urbanism that emerged from the earliest years of the environmental movement, inspired the first wave of green city designers, and continues to carry important lessons for the future of human civilization.

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[1] René Dubos, Man Adapting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, p. 196.

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