A vignette of Murray Bookchin's eco-anarchistic model of 'Social Ecology’ and bringing it into our Covid climate, to assess what it can offer to us. The story is a pertinent one right now; everyone is over quarantine, everyone wants to get back to normal. But what next, what will be the next normal, what should be? This fresh 1,000 words is original, and tackles our emergence from this pandemic.
The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) implicates capitalist societies which pivot upon domination. Our relationship with the natural world is interdependent, and we are currently suffering the consequence of poisoning that crucial bond. At this critical point in environmental and social history, what can Murray Bookchin’s revolutionary model of Social Ecology provide to us?
The emergence of zoonotic diseases can nearly always be attributed to human behaviour. The destruction of habitat for farming, mining and rises in global temperatures increase the proximity of humans to animals and plants. Given that 75% of emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife, driving us into closer contact makes another, potentially more deadly, pandemic only a matter of time. The UN’s environment chief Inger Andersen stated last month that “nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic”. But the message has been clear for decades: Ebola, Mad Cow disease, SARS, Swine and Bird flu have all evidenced that a manipulation of the environment, and the animals within it, equates to the death of human-beings. Extinction Rebellion demonstrate on behalf of this idea — their very name expounding that a destruction of ecosystems is a destruction of our life-system. They appeal to our identification with self-preservation, but these groups fail to properly elucidate that ecological devastation arises from societies which organise themselves hierarchically — those societies yoked to capital which batten their growth upon a domination and exploitation of the natural world. An ethical or moral appeal to the powers that be, who are in the business of greed, is destined to be futile.
50 years ago, social theorist and political philosopher Murray Bookchin wrote his work Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, in which he developed his eco-anarchistic model of Social Ecology. His ideas vibrate loudly with our society today, and offer a lens through which to figure a sustainable emergence from this pandemic. Social Ecology is ‘based on the conviction that nearly all our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems, and that the destruction of nature stems from the social domination of people.’ Capitalist societies order humans along economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender lines, creating divisions which inform our conception of privilege. This ‘hierarchical chain of being’, enforced through pervasive codes of domination and competition, is transmuted into our relationship with nature. Social Ecology is not anthropocentric, nor does it align itself with Gaia theorists who believe that Earth ‘Gaia’ is one living organism: instead it is naturalistic. Social Ecology recognises humanity as baring the potential to be ‘highly creative and ecologically-oriented beings’. Yet without the elimination of hierarchical mentalities, which block the actualisation of these qualities, both human and non-human life will perish.
The natural world, says Bookchin, is imagined by humans as static: a postcard picture of an evergreen landscape. [This illusion is dangerously reinforced by nature documentaries which go to lengths to create a false impression of a perpetual, pristine world.] The natural world does not operate in our minds as a living organism which exists creatively alongside human-beings, but as something which we place ourselves against. Separate, it is objectified — for millennia humans have projected emotion onto its screen — and by the same token, it is an object to be owned, farmed, mined: dominated. Our destruction of the natural world, and the diseases which emerge as a result, is symptomatic of a society which is stained by neoliberal values of individualism. Our rat-race to the top relies upon ruthless competition, always at the expense of other people, and other species. The guise with which businesses [and this word also implicates countries] mask their environmental impact is evidence enough that corporations necessarily pivot upon a callous disregard for the well-being of the planet. The idea of ‘green capitalism’ is one such masquerade, the colour — and it is only a colour to business — functions only to placate environmentalists, oiling a machine which never intends to stop.
Attitudes towards the ‘animal kingdom’ which invoke ‘the food chain’ extend from this ideology as well. Our place at the top of the food chain, at this point in our evolution, is moot. While a carnivorous diet was imperative for our ancestral brain development, this cognitive development should now be used to exercise compassion towards, not only animals, but humanity as a whole. Because, as Social Ecology argues, ‘like it or not the future of life on this planet pivots on the future of society’ and the future of humanity relies upon the realisation that we must adapt, and continue to evolve beyond the idea that we exist in competition with the natural world — it has been ‘conquered’ long ago. We have, Bookchin argues ‘an ethical responsibility to function creatively in the unfolding of evolution, and play a supporting role in perpetuating the integrity of the biosphere.’
The nexus between ecological problems and social oppression means ‘a challenge must be mounted to the entire system of domination itself’, argues Bookchin. Our economy’s enslavement to GDP means infinite growth is a ‘necessity', but in a world of finite resources, flagrant deregulation of economic life - which capitalist systems rely upon - can only lead to our extinction. However, political and environmental regulation will function only in societies which are not insatiably propelled by competition. Blaming the symptoms of hierarchical societies, such as technological advancement or population growth, for ecological issues occludes an understanding that the root causes are in fact unregulated industrial expansion for its own sake and corporate self-interest. So, just as we implement measures to flatten the curve of disease, so we must erode the hierarchical edifices and flatten the curve of capitalist endeavour to prevent the emergence of zoonotic diseases, ecological catastrophe and humanity’s eventual extinction.
The kind of return to normality which has followed previous pandemics would, this time, not only be unsustainable but dangerous. Collectively we need to search further. Beyond even Kate Raworth’s model of ‘doughnut economics’ — which is a relatable framework and collapses the linearity of our present mentality, but remains to be centred around human consumption — to find a methodology which allows our cities, and our communities to be figured as part of nature itself: creatively and developmentally evolving alongside, and for the benefit of the whole.
Examining the gilded cage in such a way may seem trite, but the unprecedented worldwide pause has created space for newness; both literal green and clear environments and within the minds of many. As Bookchin wrote, ‘such a goal of Social Ecology remains mere rhetoric unless a movement gives it logistical and social tangibility. [This] would mean the free time to be artful and to fully engage in public affairs.’ Our time in quarantine, suspended from our every-day lives and characterised by many rediscovering artistic and horticultural pursuits, qualifies as just that. As George Orwell’s novel 1984 enjoyed a renaissance in 2016, hopefully the pause in the machine will engender a re-discovery of Murray Bookchin’s ideas, and allow them to be given new life: to germinate in this newly fecund and potentially receptive environment.