Social Ecology talk at Yale April 14th

Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology and American Environmentalism
Damian White, Associate Professor of Sociology, The Rhode Island School of Design

Dept of Environmental Studies and Forestry, Yale University; April 14th, 2011

Kroon Hall, 195 Prospect St. New Haven CT 7 pm.

Murray Bookchin first wrote a critique of the use of chemicals in agriculture in 1952. Six months before Rachel Carson’s wrote Silent Spring in 1962, he published Our Synthetic Environment, a comprehensive book length account of post war environmental and urban “crises”. By the mid-1960s, Bookchin had not only suggested that climate change might well be emerging as one of the defining political issues of the age but he begun to systematically rework critical theory along ‘ecological lines’. Despite these notably accomplishments and Bookchin’s commitment to developing an ‘authentic American radicalism’, Bookchin’s social ecology does not seem to have found a place in the ‘respectable pantheon’ of American environmentalism. If one turns to recent anthologies of critical American environmental thinkers (See McKibben and Gore, 2008), his contribution is ignored. More generally, since his death in 2006, scholarly interest in his work has subsided.

In this paper, I explore the contours of this controversial thinker. I suggest that whilst his attempt to develop a ‘social ecology’ is marked by numerous limitations and problems, there are also a range of critical areas where his work has made a valuable contribution to American Environmental thought. Specifically, I argue that Bookchin critique of neo-Malthusian thought and attempt to fashion a social ecology attentive to multiple forms of social domination anticipates much of the agenda of contemporary political ecology. I suggest his calls for an ecological politics premised on a ‘liberatory technology’ and a politics of pleasure has much to recommend itself. I suggest his attention to the ecological promise of the city was farsighted. Finally, I suggest that his attempt to develop an ecological politics still committed to humanism and some mode of utopian thought has continued relevance.

Damian F. White is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of History, Philosophy and Social Science at The Rhode Island School of Design. He has most recently instigated, organized and co-curated the exhibition ‘Green RISD 2010: Nature, Culture, Innovation’ at the Rhode Island School of Design. Books published include: Bookchin: A Critical Appraisal (authored, Pluto, 2008); Technonatures: technologies, natures, spaces and places in the 21st century (co-edited, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2010); Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Read (co-edited AK Press, 2011). Books in progress include The Environment, Nature and Social Theory (co-authored, Palgrave/Macmillian, under contract) and Designing the Future – A History and Sociology (author – proposal under review with Berg).

8 Replies to “Social Ecology talk at Yale April 14th”

  1. I have just been reading the summary note on American Environmentalism by Stacy J.Silveira, and kept saying to myself that the ideas of Bookchin, and Mumford, and others, are related to; in support of; developments from, and to; environmentalism and new social movements. The emergence of direct action in opposition to pollution, waste dumping, poisoning of the air, by residents in their community groups in association with environmental groups, is very much in tune with community responsibility and participative decisions,in order to improve living conditions for all.
    ‘Grow or die’ is a basic tenet of exploitation capitalism, whereby all is sacrificed for the sake of profit, and market share.
    ‘Grow and die’ is central to environmentalism, and the battle against capitalism and destructive exploitation.
    ‘No growth, subsistence, and sustainability’ has to be seen as the future in a steady state economy.
    The Institute of Social Ecology, under your guidance Brian, should be concerned to work out a new economics that will allow humans and the biosphere to survive the capitalist onslaught against the environment.
    I wish to assert that these issues should be central to the future of the ISE.

    go to http://www.kelvynrichards.com [Discourse:A Social Ecology]

  2. Clearly these have long been important themes in social ecology. Our colleague Peter Staudenmeier has been teaching on these topics at the ISE consistently since the early 2000s. I’m not sure I have any particular expertise to lend here (the ISE is collectively managed by our board), but I certainly view discussions of economic alternatives as essential in these times, especially given the accommodation of many writers in the field of ecological economics to market-centered approaches.

  3. @ Brian
    I agree that all matters to do with human societies and the environment, from the conservation, and preservation of the biosphere; the survival of species; the monitoring of gases and the pollution of the atmosphere, in order to limit climate change, and global warming, are central themes in social ecology.
    But as an outsider, witnessing the debates on this SE blog, I am constantly driven to the conclusion that the most important themes are seen as the universal adoption of direct democracy, municipalism, and communalism as practiced in the town hall meetings in New Hampshire…..another example of American imperialism?
    Nevertheless, I hope you agree that if there is to be a future for billions of people across the globe by 2050, it is clear that there have to be social changes, now:
    Free market capitalist enterprises to be replaced by a steady state economy, in which sustainability and subsistence enterprises are the priority.
    Research carried out to secure new sources of water for the benefits of all peoples, so as to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, and irrigation operated to conserve water as well as to help grow agricultural crops.
    Wealth and resources shared equally to enable communities to live equitably and survive, if not thrive; and allow them to work in cooperative enterprises planned to provide local employment and protect local environments.
    Family planning to be pursued globally so as to introduce limits to population growth, rather than simply watching communities die from starvation, lack of water and disease.
    Renewable energy sources to be developed to the exclusion of coal, fuel oil, and nuclear power.
    All of these changes are significant and large scale. They will involve debate and discussion, and community participation. I would suggest that the ISE could identify the strategies that will be essential for the effective implementation of these social changes.

  4. “But as an outsider, witnessing the debates on this SE blog, I am constantly driven to the conclusion that the most important themes are seen as the universal adoption of direct democracy, municipalism, and communalism as practiced in the town hall meetings in New Hampshire…”

    Kelvyn, you’re making gross generalizations based on a microscopic and arbitrary window into the diverse work of once and present ISE activists, teachers, and theorists. If you have a serious research proposal to make, the blog isn’t the place to make it.

  5. @ Rafter
    My observation is based on the nature of the contributions to the blog, now…. not at all to the diverse work of the ISE in the past.
    My recent posts are intended to outline projects for the ISE in the future.
    Viewing the ISE and the work of social ecologists, from the other side of the Atlantic, I am aware that there is considerable support for all groups that are intent on working towards solutions to the considerable problems of environment,conservation, preservation, pollution,climate change, global warming, poverty, racism, elitism; all of which are to be seen as interdependent in the cycle of capitalist exploitation.

  6. Karl, I have tried on several occasions to make contact with the European Social Ecology Institute, but have failed every time. I have not been able to email them…..I get a ‘unable to deliver’ message, So I gave up.

  7. We are each, in our own way, in accordance of our enlightened rationality, striving to attain an accurate assessment of all potential threats and injustices known throughout the biosphere and to ensure that all appropriate alternative scenarios are being implemented and considered.

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