Social Ecology: Social & Ecological Change

by Virginia Craft

Social ecology (as explained by Murray Bookchin in his essay What is Social Ecology?) asserts that almost all of the vast, disastrous ecological problems are directly related to—and originate from—problems within human societies. Furthermore, attempts to solve these problems cannot begin to be made without first taking sufficient time to understand them with a careful awareness. To do so, we must focus on deep-rooted causes in society instead of only digging at the surface. Similarly, Bookchin also calls for a serious transformation of our spiritual values and dominance-oriented mentalities into what he calls “complementarity”. He explains complementarity as, “[…] we would see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life” (463). An ethics of complementarity advocates human support instead of dominance. In this way, we would foster a respect for nonhuman life which, I believe, can only arise from a human respect for humanity since cultures and societies have evolved from the natural environment and, thus, directly affect it.

In addressing social problems, Bookchin highlights “economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts” (462) as being among the most serious contributors to ecological disconnection. It is important to note that there are numerous other factors that have piled onto this ecological mess we find ourselves struggling in, all of which we should embark upon with communal understanding and action.

Bookchin expresses that nature is ever-changing and evolving. As creatures in nature, humans are also following along this same path which led us to be “highly intelligent” animals. All of our technological, scientific, and, ultimately, social creations have risen as a result of our evolutionary processes within the natural world of humans and non-humans alike. Equipped with a lot of the same functions as nonhuman animals, humans perform with a more intense perception and a more extreme mentality. Therefore, the separation of humans from non-humans is false because they are really just different parts of the same whole. However, although humans are a part of nature, we have used our evolved intellects to create what Bookchin labels a “second nature” within the constructs of what we call our societies. He elaborates on this concept, saying, “Human beings always remain rooted in their biological evolutionary history, which we may call ‘first nature,’ but they produce a characteristically human social nature of their own, which we may call ‘second nature.’ And far from being ‘unnatural,’ human second nature is eminently a creation of organic evolution’s first nature” (466). The distinction between “first nature” and “second nature” (along with the emphasis on human “second nature” as a dominating force) reduces the creative, multi-faceted dimensions of natural evolution into an idle, one-sided wall for humans to climb in order to falsely claim some sort of hierarchical worth. It is crucial for us to be aware of the damaging effects that this ignorant view has on the entirety of humans and non-humans—on the entirety of nature. Equally damaging is the opposite excessive act of reducing humans’ unique place in nature by putting it on the same plane as all animals, ignoring particularities in an effort to evade the social/organic dichotomy and the problems associated with it. This negligent effort does not resolve the ecological problems that we have created, nor does it eliminate the social problems that loom heavily underneath it all.

Broadly speaking, the focus on second nature (as distinct from first nature) accounts for the emergence of human hierarchies and domination. What started for humans as group survival skills, morphed into social dominance tactics when humans drank too heavily from the mind’s intoxicating intellect. An alternate way of thought, as brought on by social ecology, would mend the holes in these ‘other’ ways of thinking by weaving biological nature (or “first nature”) with human nature (or “second nature”) to form one nature.

Although technology, science, rationality, and other human achievements hold the capacity to inflict drastic ecological damage, it is important to realize that we do not have to renounce all of these things in order to make significant changes. Social ecology acknowledges the potential of these human accomplishments while maintaining an ecological awareness of the effects they have on the whole of nature. Bookchin says, “We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis will transcend them in the form of a creative, self-conscious, and therefore ‘free nature,’ in which human beings intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities […]” (476). Social ecology chooses mindfully from the natural and the social, establishing a more stable middle ground and, therefore, neither choking from over-consumption, nor starving from deprivation.

Also important is the idea that we cannot let ourselves get caught in a stagnant web of ideals. Although things like rhetoric and slogans seem to serve more as cheerleaders on the sidelines than as active players on the field, I believe that they can at least spark an awareness of the ecological problems we face today; however, I do not think that they should be solely relied on as means of change. In my opinion, they hardly even play a role in the overall transformation that needs to take place through social ecology, but I do not find it necessary to dismiss them unless they tranquilize people with idealistic visions that, essentially, evade the social problems that must be addressed. It is not enough to only cultivate individual’s spiritual transformation—these spiritual changes must be mixed collectively with other like-minded people in order to inform larger social and, thus, ecological transformations. In this way, I believe that deep ecology and social ecology could work together toward change—enlightening and educating one another with respect for nature. In order to begin this transformation, it is crucial for individuals to change their outlooks of nature toward a more ecologically-centered view, without neglecting the best of what can be utilized of human accomplishments (respectful of nature).

Furthermore, the domination and the creation of social hierarchies between humans and nature (and of humans by humans) is invariably an issue of which we must make ourselves aware before we can make change. However, more than just being aware of these issues, we should embody a new environmental ethic. I do not think that our ethic should be one that leans too far toward an eco-centric ethic (as proposed by deep ecologists), nor do I think that it should lean too far on the other end toward an anthropocentric ethic. Both of these ethics fall into the cold waters of domination and hierarchy by imposing control over one another, claiming that one is ‘more right’ than the other. In my opinion, these extreme ethical viewpoints are contributing factors to the overall mess of social and ecological problems we face today. An eco-centric ethic may contribute to the problems by evading them in favor of more idealistic visions that ultimately do not leave the confines of the mind’s imaginative fortress, and do not endeavor to pursue tangible active change. Similarly, an anthropocentric ethic may contribute to the problems by ignoring them altogether and focusing only on one part of the natural whole; that is, focusing only on “second nature” (or human nature), while “first nature” (or biological nature) festers into an even bigger blister on human heels, until excess causes it to burst painfully.

Bookchin draws upon a natural and social dichotomy, saying, “In this ‘either/or’ propositional thinking, the social is either separated from the organic, or flippantly reduced to the organic, resulting in an inexplicable dualism at one extreme or a naïve reductionism at the other” (466).

In Mary Mellor’s Ecofeminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist Perspective, she addresses this false dichotomy between eco-centrism and anthropocentrism more directly. I agree with her assertion that we should not try to choose one over the other, and to do so would be to separate humans from nature when really humanity is embedded within nature, along with non-human organisms and creatures. Developing an ethic like this and like that of Bookchin’s complementarity, I believe that social problems can be understood and approached more effectively.

If humans embodied an ethic that respected nature and humanity together, an ethic that discontinued oppressive, violent hierarchies and various forms of dominance, an ethic that embraced the best of reason and of ideals, then I believe we could resolve ecological problems by transforming ourselves spiritually and socially.