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So Civilization is killing the planet? Is social ecology the answer?
By Campbell Young
This article was first published in Mayday magazine: A Forum for Progressive Thought in March 2008. It was written in response to a talk at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, by the author Derrick Jensen
As a metaphor, anti-civilization can be a powerful source of personal liberation. Who of an anarchist or libertarian affinity can’t remember that cathartic moment when they first rejected their “internal cop” – the obedient, “civilized” version of themselves they received from schooling, organized sports, religion, and the mass media? Whether they occur in a mosh pit, a rave, or a drum circle, these primitive, tribal moments are often important first steps in a longer term rejection of the system in favour of something more humane.
That’s why so many were positively stoked by Derrick Jensen’s recent talk at McMaster. The anti-civilization/primitivist author of Endgame was characteristically on-point in his denunciation of the death-cult that currently tries to pass itself off as a society. For many, it was a nice break from the self-deception of Al Gore style environmentalism. I can see why so many activists are motivated by Jensen.
The problem arises, however, when we speculate on how “bringing down civilization” and “returning to the primitive” might unfold. The current ecology-energy crisis could take many shapes. A rapid return to the Stone Age is one of the least likely, and certainly one of the least ethical, of all possible outcomes. It would likely involve a massive liquidation of already-fragile ecosystems and a large scale human “die-off” as the present population attempts to eke out a semi-nomadic living from the “land base.”
I’ve heard it opined that primitivism is a good theory without practical application. But what good social theory presents no opportunity for practical application? In my view, the lack of hope in primitivism stems directly from its lack of theoretical coherence.
My disagreement with primitivism is not that it is “too radical,” but rather that it is not radical enough. For all his impassioned and militant language, Derrick Jensen never squarely addresses the real root cause of the social-ecological crisis, which is the emergence of hierarchy and domination through history. Instead, he focuses on one tool that hierarchies use – the myth of civilized progress – and crudely inverts it
Like the state ideologues he assails, Jensen rules out the possibility that humanity has the capacity to achieve limit and well-roundedness through ethics. Instead we must effectively de-evolve by abolishing some of our most uniquely human achievements – science, technology, and the city – crippling ourselves in the process. Remember these attributes, like humanity itself, are products of natural evolution no less than a spawning salmon.
Like it or not, civilization has always had two sides. Yes, it has been the harbinger of greed, imperialism, and tyranny. But it has also created the promise of secular reason, mass literacy, radical democracy, and the notion of a universal humanity. This is not equivocation, but recognition of the tension between freedom and domination that characterizes the history of civilization. Recognition of historical process does not necessarily mean a simple-minded faith in progress.
At least Jensen defines civilization correctly as a society comprised of cities. But from there, his analysis loses all coherence. Sure, today’s formless blobs of suburban sprawl are highly unsustainable, ugly, spiritless entities whose energy gluttony forms a direct link to the cluster bombs in Iraq. No argument there.
But cities, especially what’s left of traditional neighbourhoods, are also the places where most radical activists live and engage. Cities are the logical places to begin the process of decentralization, to experiment with direct forms of democracy, to deschool our minds, and to apply the modern technologies of bicycle culture, permaculture design, passive-solar and small-scale wind energy in radical ways.
Most importantly, cities are the logical places to efface our domineering attitude toward each other and, ultimately, the natural world. Civic communities present the only opportunity to build relationships of free association based on affinity (as opposed to the limited ethnic and kinship associations of primitive tribes).
These forms of activism are highly “civilized” in the best sense of the term. Many of Jensen’s most fervent acolytes do this kind of work with a high degree of idealism and competence, and must sooner or later bring action into line with thought, or vice versa. I’m open about theory and generally pleased when I see people in my town take a libertarian stance, period. But I fear the commitment to primitivism will encourage some activists to abandon some important work for desperate acts. That’s why I’m putting out the call to form a group to study the praxis (theory + action) of social ecology.
The basic idea of social ecology is that the present ecological crisis is rooted in social hierarchy as such. A society where people see each other as instruments of domination is bound to see nature as an instrument of domination. Capitalism creates the “apotheosis” of this problem because it reorganizes all labour, ideology and culture around a set of bureaucratically engineered “needs” – most notably the need for incessant quantitative growth.
Like anarcho-primitivism, social ecology admires pre-literate societies for their egalitarian outlook and relatively harmonious relationship with nature. But rather than “going back” to a world of animism and stone tools, it seeks to re-constitute an ecological society on the more conscious plane that reason allows. It sees humanity’s potential to reclaim this ancient “legacy of freedom” in civilization’s long history of peasant revolt, Christian communism, working class struggle, revolutions, anti-imperialism, feminism, and more recently counterculture and radical ecology.
The social ecology movement has roots in the New Left and appropriate technology movements of the sixties and seventies. The theory goes all the way back to Elisee Reclus and Peter Kropotkin in the 1890s. But it was developed mainly by the American social theorist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006). Bookchin was the first anarchist writer to explore the planetary crisis, and to propose a vision of what a free, ecological society would look like. His multi-faceted philosophies cover the city in history, revolutions, technology, gender, work, and many other useful topics. His insights are sorely missed.
Bookchin has been criticized, perhaps rightly, for his arguably narrow view later in life. His public feuds with the “lifestyle anarchists” were unquestionably divisive in tone and perhaps even contradicted his own earlier ideas about counterculture, as well as his call for ecological “unity-in-diversity.”
But I have no doubt that social ecology would be of immense value to local people trying to contribute to a freer and more sustainable future. In particular, its call for a direct, face-to-face, decentralized democracy – which Bookchin termed libertarian municipalism – is in line with the place-based community building that seems to be going on. Libertarian municipalism is also broadly consistent with real anti-authoritarian social struggles currently happening around the world, from Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen to the Autonomous Municipalities of the Zapatistas. Even the workplace democracy taking place in Argentina (and so beautifully portrayed in the documentary The Take) has been nurtured by a much larger movement of neighbourhood based Assembleas Populares.
Most importantly, social ecology is generally consistent with the real organizing taking place locally in Hamilton. Five years ago, I saw Bookchin’s “trans-class people” crystallize in opposition to eco-cide and municipal corruption in the Red Hill Valley. For three months an essentially stateless community began to grow and thrive on the basis of mutual aid and participatory democracy. Red Hill was easily the most radical moment in Hamilton since the Stelco strike of ’46 and it pointed the way toward a broader communitarian movement within the city. But to create substantive change it needs the ideological clarity that social ecology provides. That’s why I want to start a group to practice social ecology formally.
A social ecology group could read and discuss Bookchin’s often-challenging writings in a collaborative learning environment. It could examine writers more peripheral to social ecology, such as John Clark, Janet Beihl, Ivan Illich, and Lewis Mumford. It could discuss concrete strategies for liberation in the Hamilton community. It could examine concepts and issues that Bookchin never dealt with directly. And finally, this group could discuss the role of violence and non-violence in a setting free of histrionics. It could even become a forum to discuss the role that bush craft, foraging skills and primitive lore could play in a broader social ecology movement.
I believe an understanding of social ecology is crucial at the present time. As this civilization appears to be straining under the weight of its contradictions, the left-libertarian scene seems to be growing and fragmenting simultaneously. “New Urbanists” and “workerists” want to recede into cartoons of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and proletariat respectively, while primitivists want to recede all the way back into the Stone Age. Only social ecology has the breadth and depth to include the knowledge of all these sects, while offering a constructive vision to move forward.
Campbell Young is a social ecologist from Hamilton, Canada.