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This article was written for IBEX‘s forthcoming ezine.
No sane person can doubt now that we are in serious trouble. The consequences of the accelerating destruction of the natural world, according to the UN Global Environment Outlook, published in October, include the disappearance of fertile land because of degradation, a dwindling amount of uncontaminated water, a rate of species extinction a hundred times faster than that of the fossil record, the rapid rise of oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the oceans, and the growing reality of climate change. 20 per cent of disease in the developing world is because of pollutants, 60 per cent of ecosystems are degraded and 1.8 billion people face world shortages by 2025. There is a serious risk, the UN asserts, that environmental damage could soon reach the point of no return.
But in comparison to the scale of the problem, our responses seem pitifully inadequate. People are urged to “save the planet” by recycling plastic bags, not filling their kettle to the brim, and unplugging the telly. Companies promote their “green” credentials and aspire to become carbon neutral. Still emissions rise, the seas are poisoned and the countryside is steadily engulfed in concrete and tarmac. In the UK, a “greenfield” area the size of Leicester is lost to development each year and traffic is predicted to increase by 30 per cent by 2015.
Social ecology is based on the understanding that the ecological crisis we face is caused by social problems and conflicts. We will not cease to dominate the natural world until we cease to dominate each other. Our failure of imagination in dealing with this crisis stems from a refusal to come to terms with these social divisions. “We” as a species cannot hope to heal our relationship with nature while the vast majority of us remain so palpably unfree and powerless. To hold slum dwellers in Nairobi (or for that matter debt-ridden, overworked westerners) and Wall Street hedge funds managers equally culpable for environmental problems is as stupid as it is offensive. The conventional remedies for overcoming ecological destruction – moral exhortation, education of consumers, lobbying of corporations and governments, a striving for greater “political will” evade this uncomfortable fact and as such skim the surface of the problems they are trying to confront.
According to social ecologists we cannot hope to understand our current plight unless we fully comprehend the economic and social system that dominates the world and is in the process of transforming China and India; a system that regards both human beings and the natural world as nothing more than objects to be exploited for gain, and compels most people to be so concerned with their own economic survival they are unable to make the choices necessary to avert ecological disaster.
Capitalism is much more than an economic system based on private property and exchange. What makes it unique in human history and so lethal to the environment is that it is a system of unrelenting expansion. Profits are made, not just to be consumed by owners, but to be reinvested in order to grow the enterprise. It is a system of grow or die. Firms that do not grow are swallowed up by competitors. The result is a dynamic system but one entirely without limit or balance. It is profoundly unecological.
Business leaders will meekly suggest that they are merely responding to our own desires. The flip-side of this view is that it is people’s inherently greedy natures that are responsible for spewing waste into the atmosphere, killing the oceans and destroying the natural landscape. But to social ecologists, this is reading the situation backwards. In truth, a competitive economic system, dedicated to maximising returns for shareholders, is duty bound to endlessly generate new products and find ways of convincing us that we need them. In the US in 1994, 50 new food products were launched aimed at children. In 2004, the same juvenile market was bombarded with 470 new food products. Our market economy precariously depends on this perpetual contrivance of necessarily unfulfilling desires. Without this motor, the economy falters and jobs dry up. This fact can do more than any other to explain why humanity’s ecological footprint is now dangerously beyond the Earth’s biological capacity.
The realisation that we weren’t born with a desire for an SUV might seem commonplace but it leads to an important insight. That we live in a society that fans and stimulates certain desires whilst starving other basic needs, such as the need for affordable housing or interesting, meaningful work. This leads to the understanding that while we shackle society to an economic system whose sole aim is, not our welfare but the maximisation of profit, we will produce a dangerously one-sided and extreme society, that is inevitably in conflict with the natural world as well as our own decent, human impulses. It also leads to the realisation that the same system that got us into this mess cannot get us out of it. We, as a species, have other choices. Capitalism is not our inexorable fate.
Thus, for social ecology, to attain a balance in our relations with nature and a society that doesn’t relentlessly try to turn us into unsympathetic, selfish egotists, we need to replace the market. We need an economy in which we as citizens, not an anonymous mechanism of buying and selling, determine our social priorities, a sane balance between leisure and work, and how we can exist with nature, not against it.
But social ecology profoundly differs from many forms of anti-capitalism, such as Marxism. Unlike most 20th century revolutionary movements, social ecology does not believe in seizing state power and imposing its vision of a perfect society on an unwilling populace. To social ecology, the state, even in its democratic garb, is a mechanism for elites to manage society. The “democratic” states in which we live are, more truthfully, oligarchies. “Democracy, as conceived by politicians, is a method of making people do what their leaders wish under the impression that they are doing what they themselves wish,” observed the philosopher Bertrand Russell. As a form of libertarian socialism, social ecology wants to go beyond this highly constricted form of “democracy” to create a radical, participatory form of democracy in which citizens collectively manage their own affairs.
In this vision for a free society, social ecology recovers a concept that is alien to conventional political ideologies such as liberalism and Marxism: the notion of the political realm – defined as the popular self-management of the community. Historically, social ecology looks to lived examples of this political realm from the direct democracy of Ancient Athens to the free, self-governing cities of Medieval Europe, the Parisian sections of the French Revolution and the worker and peasant collectives of the Russian and Spanish Revolutions. Despite concerted attempts to stamp it out, the political realm keeps reasserting itself. After the economic crisis in Argentina in 2001, a network of neighbourhood assemblies sprang up that, for a time, seriously rivalled the discredited official political system, organising vital functions such as the community purchasing of food. One third of the population were thought to have participated and many believed they were building “a new form of political organisation”.
It is these local, face to face assemblies that social ecology believes can be the nucleus of a new society. They provide an arena for people to manage their own affairs without the mediation of professional politicians or bureaucrats. But in an interdependent world such assemblies cannot be autonomous. They would join together with others assemblies in a town or city and elect delegates, with clear mandates, to a council to determine matters of mutual concern. These democratic municipalities would themselves join with other municipalities, electing delegates to higher level councils. They would develop a participatory economy which responded to the conscious articulation of material needs, not to profit maximisation and exploitation. This economy would embrace eco-technologies that would reduce needless toil and labour and give people the free time to manage their own society. This approach to political organisation, in which power flows up from the bottom, in contrast our top down centralised systems, is known as confederalism. This society would not result in “anarchy” in the pejorative sense of the term. It would establish its own laws and have a “government” conceived, not as a state, but popularly-controlled institutions to deal with matters of common concern. But power would be exerted, as much as possible by the population as whole, not self-interested elites.
Clearly, such as different political dispensation will not come into being spontaneously and without struggle. Social ecologists believe in the formation of an organised, political movement to establish local assemblies and the election of delegates to local councils to give power to them. A network of these assemblies would eventually be able to form a dual power to both capitalism and the centralised state. That is a long-term vision. But whilst working towards it, social ecologists will join with environmentalists in efforts to stop ecological destruction and support reforms that reduce harmful human impacts on the natural world. They will also defend democratic aspects of the state, such as publicly-owned health services, from the assaults of privatisers and neo-liberals, whilst working to open them up to greater popular control. These activities are important. But without a carefully thought out vision of a different kind of society, activism will get lost in endless compromises and eventually completely capitulate to the status quo.
Would the kind of society articulated by social ecology succeed in healing relations with the natural world? It is possible that humanity could democratically decide to go on plundering the environment just as it is now. But there are sound reasons to think that this would not happen. Firstly, in a post-capitalist society people would no longer be compelled by the economy to behave in selfish, anti-social ways. They would no longer be bombarded with advertising urging them to consume without regard to the consequences. But also a society that had abolished the domination of one part of society by another could develop an ethical and rational attitude to nature. No longer riven by conflicts based on class, gender or ethnicity, people could move beyond a narrow sense of self-interest, to become, for first time, genuinely responsible. They could become stewards of the natural world, not its enemies.
Social Ecology London