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New Perspectives in Social Ecology

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by Eric Jacobson

I wanted to add my voice to the discussion that has been initiated on these pages on whether fresh ideas can brought to the table of Social Ecology.

By Social Ecology, I mean the human dimension of nature, both the phenomenological inter-subjectivity between humans and the environment (we are beings that are apart of the things we observe) but also in that very specific sense of humans having a causal relationship with nature. Any attempt to wrestle with the challenges of environmental degradation must take these two dimensions to heart. Social Ecology is concerned with the social cause and the social cost to the poising of the environment. It sees these causes and costs unevenly distributed in the world, and yet cautions against the reduction of environmental problems to the readjustment of wealth or international regulations. The destruction of nature is a part of a greater narrative of freedom and necessity in history. Though tied to the economic systems that have emerged in the last two centuries of colonial empire and cold wars, this narrative of freedom speaks to the liberation of nature from mere necessity and in a more general sense is woven into the fabric of the human struggle for freedom, to overcome the arbitrary limitations imposed by the structures of power, the systems of alienation, and the dictates of convention. Social Ecology is a theory which seeks to participate in the striving for freedom in nature, beyond the arbitrary means-ends equation of idea of necessity. Freedom from necessity in nature today must be understood as a freedom from the necessity to destroy nature, a slavery that the contemporary economic and political structures impose on social world. In seeking new ideas and technologies that express cooperation, mutuality, and a unity of social and natural concerns, Social Ecology sees the struggle to protect the environment as part of a greater tradition in the politics of justice and the equality of cultures. Social Ecology means here that the idea of freedom is also an ethical idea. It cannot be won without the ability to conceive of the human being within nature, and the primacy of those relations — between humans, and between humans and nature — as essentially a realm of ethics. The social dimension of ecology points to the ongoing mediation of humans and nature without an ontological primacy of needs: its vision is not based on an ecological crisis, or the artificial construction of scarcity, but on the love of the great idea. Through the politics and philosophy of nature, it is the expression of a new conception of liberty, justice, and equality.

Over the last twenty years the politics and philosophy of Social Ecology has been articulated by two primary concerns. The first is whether there such a thing as ”dialectic in nature” exists as opposed to a dialectic seen to be operative in nature. The second is if the summum bonum, the highest good in both nature and society, can be achieved through a political form of direct democracy. I would like to address both concerns in the following comments.

First, with regard to the philosophy of nature, I would like to suggest that the idea of a “dialectic in nature”, a thesis which has dominated the discussion over the years, is implausible and that, in my view, a dialectic cannot be shown to exist outside of the person who thinks he sees it in nature.

The Immanency Argument

If one does not accept highly theological construct of the Hegelian system, it is difficult to see where one might begin with the idea of a dialectic in nature. Hegel puts forward the notion of immanent reason in the form of a Spirit moving through all being, nature, and history. If one rejects the idea that something such as a Spirit moves through the world in the form of an emanation of God—from Absolute Knowledge as the concluding moment of the Phenomenology through all of momentary incarnations in the world in a Trinitarian dialectic—then it is difficult to begin with the independence of the dialectic as a system which moves without a mover. Marx’s promises to reverse the system, to “stand Hegel on his head”, by redeeming the immanency of Hegel’s theory of causation without a Theos. He accepts the determinism of the system but rejects the notion of Spirit. The guiding hand within Marx’s system is a self-generating aspect of the material world, a wonderful promise, if true, which can explain the entire world though a series of economic concepts that have little to do with the players that inhabit them. In this sense, the Marxian notion of immanence suffers from the very same theological and more specifically theurgic temptations of Spirit: his theory is not only deterministic but ultimately suggests the possibilities of guiding the cosmological world through a series of interventions. In this way, it proved entirely possible for Marx to remove the God of old from the system, but not without replacing it with a God of “practical need and self-interest” as he writes in On the Jewish Question. We may rightly conclude that money is the new jealous God. However, it is not the God of Israel, but of Marxism, before whom “no other God may exist.” As Spirit was for Hegel, money is for Marx the “the universal self-established value of all things.” It is the regulating force of the dialectic, for “money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”

If we do not accept the spirit of God or the hand of money guiding reason and history, why would we want to continue in this folly and posit nature it its place? Can it be at all assured that nature follows such a strict pattern as automatically yielding an antithesis to every thesis presented in the mind’s eye? We could even ask whether the idea of the immanent critique itself is a form of magical thinking, for in what sense did Marx truly present such a rigorous critique of Hegel’s ideas that compelled the Hegelian to turn from philosophy to economics? Can it be seriously argued that Consciousness became Self-Consciousness through the externalization of the idea when manifested in monetary value? Alchemy makes such promises, but no procedure in philosophy is able to yield ideas in this manner.

The claim that such a thing as a dialectic in nature exists outside of our intersubjective attribution of meaning is not substantially different from the arguments first laid out by Frederick Engels in 1883 in his Dialectics of Nature, an over-deterministic thesis of nature that has sent many a Soviet-era biologist over the deep end. Determinism in the philosophy of nature is a problem that Social Ecology must seek to undo. Even the argument that continued environmental degradation is an ecological crisis is reminiscent of the very same framework of historical determinism and the approach to immanent contradiction that Marx sought to identify in capitalism. Yet the dialectic, if it exists in itself, in nature, or social affairs such as in capitalism, appears to offer no avenues of prediction. No person is wiser for use of the dialectic, and certainly not over another who studies nature with an analytical approach.

We need to consider a new epistemological idea for Social Ecology, one that looks upon the knowledge of nature and society as entities that remain outside of our absolute grasp but nevertheless provide a far more modest grounds of assumptions and ultimately the basis of action, both ethical and natural, in the basic schema of transcendental knowledge asserted by Kant.

It is for this reason that the realm of human action or praxis, the mediation of thought and action, is a necessary component of Social Ecology, and the only sensible alternative to the notion of immanent determinism. Social Ecology, in its very essence, is opposed to the idea that anything in nature moves from out of its own internal contradictions without the effect and interrelations of the human beings already present in those conditions. The politics of Social Ecology could only have meaning in the moment that nature and history are not predetermined but actually are caused by the actions and the judgments of human beings. The notion of a summum bonum, or of a highest good of both society and nature, must be explored in an immediate setting, such as a city, is the cornerstone of such an approach. Social Ecology is a pioneer in the politics of the city and the term is entirely justified as an approach to the idea of nature without recourse to immanence.

I would like to see the future discussion of an alternative philosophy of nature for Social Ecology take into account other traditions of modern thought, such as the ethical ideas that emerged from the Kantian tradition, a reconsideration of phenomenology, and, most importantly, a juridical idea that does not depend on a future beyond hierarchy but has something to say in the social and ecological conditions of the here and now. The thesis of immanent determinism in nature, or the dialectic in nature, should not hold Social Ecology hostage to fortune. Moreover, Social Ecology does not require an immanent critique of Social Ecology to move forward. It already has moved forward. It also does not need an ecological crisis with its temptations of historical determinism to make meaningful claims about society and nature.

This is just a brief outline of a future philosophy of Social Ecology. I hope to be able to dedicate myself to these questions in a more systematic way in the near future.

April 2011

Department of Humanities

Roehampton University London