Politics As If Evolution Mattered: Some Thoughts on Deep and Social Ecology

by Lorna Salzman

A lively, interesting debate is now taking place in the Green movement between 'social' and 'deep' ecologists that, one fervently hopes, will enrich and diversify Green politics rather than render it marginal.

Social Ecologist (SE), Murray Bookchin, who has synthesized as no one else has, the interconnections of ecology and politics, has attacked 'Deep Ecology' (DE), accusing its adherents of neo-fascist beliefs, muddle-headed New Age mysticism and cultism, and indifference to the socio-political roots of the ecological crisis. Targets of his criticism include Kirkpatrick Sale, Charlene Spretnak, George Sessions and Bill Devall, and the group 'Earth First'. Ynestra King, a leading eco-feminist theorist who teaches with Bookchin at the Institute for Social Ecology, has called for the expulsion of DE from the Green movement on grounds that DE's professed biocentrism submerges humanism (Bookchin has replaced the first of the Green Ten Key Values, ecological wisdom, with ecological humanism), charging that DE fails to differentiate between oppressor and oppressed, voicing fears, as Bookchin also does, that New Age religiosity/cultism will destroy the Green movement.

Bookchin himself is failing to make an important distinction: between those who come to the Green movement out of spiritual need or commitment, and those who regard the movement as a spiritual one rather than political. But the reason individuals are attracted to certain movements is not necessarily the same thing that guides or designs the movement as a whole. A person may drift into a group for intellectual, spiritual, political or moral reasons, yet still concur with the political nature of the movement, as well as its diversity.

Environmentalism is a good example of this. It is a formidable, potentially revolutionary movement, arguably the most successful of the century, with tens of millions of supporters whose diversity is legion: fundamentalists, atheists, minorities, intellectuals, farmers, artists, young, old, libertarian. No doubt many came because of their professional involvement or scientific background or because it had touched on their lives personally (a toxic waste dump across the street or something similar), but there can be no doubt that environmentalism appealed to a deep-seated innate spiritual concern for Nature. If the movement had demanded that its supporters join for the 'right' reason (a non-spiritual one), or that they hew to a single philosophy, it would have died aborning. Instead, it was able to make significant headway due to its inclusive appeal and its integrated strategies and objectives that fused science, politics and moral concerns.

Many, if not most, people strongly believe that the planet is in grave danger and that the survival of the human species is highly questionable. There is much scientific evidence to give us cause for alarm, but in fact most people are not familiar with it or have only superficial awareness of the facts. Their fears about the fate of the earth are intuitive, emotional, instinctive - and unproveable, based on fragmentary, selected, or personally observed experience. However, the perceptions they have are sufficient to justify using the presumption that the earth is in danger as a working hypothesis and as a political premise.

As such, it is no more or less proveable than the hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow; neither can be demonstrated as a fact yet both suffice as rational bases for action. Should we reject those who intuitively fear for the earth's future on grounds that they are irrational? Isn't this precisely what technocrats and scientists in fact do with pesky environmentalists who make trouble: disparage their 'emotional' fears? Is Bookchin saying we should do the same thing with those 'irrational' mystics and spiritualists who support the Green movement because they have a heavy 'gut feeling' that all is not well with the earth? DE, furthermore, is hardly a new-radical philosophy. In 1948, Aldo Leopold expounded on his 'land ethic' in this way:

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land…A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources', but it does affirm their right to continued existence…In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members and also respect for the community as such.

It is not such a great distance from this land ethic to 'deep ecology', nor could Aldo Leopold be accused of being either an environmental extremist (early on he was of the resource management persuasion but later shifted in his views) or a mystic (he was a trained scientist).

Though, to an outsider, the DE and SE schools do not seem so disparate, Bookchin apparently thinks they are incompatible. Rejecting the DE notion of biocentrism as naïve and inhumane (he accuses them, unfairly I believe, of equating the value of a human life with that of a smallpox virus), his accusations seem to be based on certain premises:

the domination of Nature arose from the domination of human by human; therefore human liberation and political reconstruction are required before protection of Nature can be assured;

political strategies must distinguish between oppressor and oppressed rather than simply positing industrialism or anthropocentrism as generic causes of ecological destruction.

Bookchin has confused and merged two conceptually separate modes of thought: the ecological on the one hand, and the political/moral on the other. The latter concerns the relationship of the individual to others within human society. The ecological mode, however, concerns the relationship of human societies to nature. It is no longer the one-to- one relationship of man vs. deer as in hunter-gatherer societies but how human systems and institutions relate to Nature, a collective relationship concerning how humanity uses and depends upon Nature for sustenance. In fact, in hunter-gatherer societies there was no such distinction between the ecological and the moral; what proved to be ecologically sound (i.e. sustainable) ways of obtaining food and staying alive were encouraged, not only because those practicing them survived and passed on their knowledge but because these practices were formalized with moral codes, myths, and taboos so that they would be continued. The ecological way of living was deemed the moral one. Non-human animal populations perpetuate these sustainable practices because of natural selection; non-adaptive practices are punished by the death of the individual from starvation, lack of skill or conflict, and the individual's genes dissipated, thus snuffing out anti-ecological tendencies. Primitive human cultures that did not achieve ecologically sustainable practices simply disappeared; the human tribes that failed to ingest a balanced protein diet, whether by hunting, fishing or cultivating rice and beans, do not exist today. In later times religions or cultures that possessed adaptive codes of belief about the relation of humanity to the natural world were replaced after the Enlightenment by science, which assumed the explanatory function that the priests formerly performed, and gave 'rational' explanations of humanity's relationship to Nature, but without the moral component.

Moral/political issues are issues between individuals and within human society, and ecological ones are those between human systems and the external world. In this respect, DE's depiction of 'humanity' as oppressive and exploitive of the natural world is, for practical purposes, accurate because humans dwell within societies and systems, because all utilization, however benign, of Nature's resources involves technology of one kind or another, and because human/Nature interaction, in contemporary times, is not an interaction of the individual with Nature but of organized institutions, systems and governments using technology. (Individuals do interact with Nature but the impact of such isolated cases is negligible compared to the impact of a system or a society.)

However, the central theme which both SE and DE are clearly addressing is: how to reconcile internal social relationships and individual morality with the external world on more than a utilitarian or technological basis. The clash between the two modes of discourse arises because Bookchin is trying to construct an ecological politics from a political/moral (i.e. social) base, as Marxism does, whereas DE is trying to construct politics and morality from an ecological base, which is more difficult. Bookchin believes that, once social problems are resolved, people liberated and society reconstructed, it will then be possible to rehabilitate our relationship to Nature. It seems more likely and conceivable, however, that the reverse is true. Given the magnitude of what would have to be changed to protect nature, changes in societal values, in technology, in political structures, in the economy, in human settlements, we would probably have come nearly all the way toward liberating human societies if we succeed in re-establishing our peace with Nature.

Imagine, for example, a decision to shift to a solar/renewable energy economy in place of fossil and nuclear fuels, coupled with a program to recycle materials and resolve the solid waste disposal crisis, in other words a comprehensive conservation-oriented society. These would involve more individual participation, community cooperation, replacement of central bureaucracies, new institutional mechanisms to encourage (if not subsidize) conservation-oriented technologies, reform of industries, domination if not abolition of the vast regulatory agencies that are needed for things like nuclear power plants. Reinvestment criteria and strategies would be radically changed. The scale as well as nature of the institutions needed to regulate solar energy and conservation strategies would be drastically altered, as would social conflicts between people, classes and governments. In brief, a 'conserver society' would not perhaps guarantee greater social justice and freedom but would make it highly likely.

In any case, Bookchin's assumption is dubious on other grounds. It is perfectly possible to conceive of a democratic, egalitarian, equitable, participatory, decentralized, nonoppressive, pollution-free society that still degrades the natural world. Such a society would be acting in a politically and morally correct manner for its own society, for human purposes, but it would not be an ecological or an ecologically responsible society.

Bookchin also confounds biocentrism with anthropophobia, again mixing two modes of thought. The DE view of equality of all life forms is an ecological view, from outside the universe, from the 'eye of God', looking in at evolution, species, biological systems and the biosphere as a functioning whole, whereas Bookchin seems to think that they mean moral equality. The fact that by ecological criteria we are not more 'important' than other species does not mean we are prohibited from making moral choices. The moral sphere impels us to take human actions to protect human welfare, while the ecological sphere impels us (or should do so) to take equal steps to protect the rest of nature.

DE does not in fact value human life less than non-human. What it does say is that non-human life forms and functions (their evolutionary history and present biosphere role) are, examined from outside the universe, no more or less important than other life forms and their functions. This is an ecological, not moral view. Would DE rescue a human life before that of a smallpox virus? Yes, of course; this is a moral decision. Is it right to sacrifice one human life to save a non-human species? Probably not, though some cultures probably had good ecological reasons to make human sacrifices. Is it morally right to sacrifice non-human creatures, or species, for human profit and convenience? Of course not. This is the heart of the DE argument, the real question, and, notwithstanding Bookchin, is not a moral or spiritual one, but a political one.

This same issue, in a different guise, is what animal rights activists are trying to grapple with, though not yet in any consistent integral way, since they are dealing, again, at the level of the individual within society, not at the species level or with humans versus Nature. Animal rights activists are stymied by their lack of understanding of how ecosystems function, and why it is perfectly possible (and ecological) to kill individual animals for food while preserving populations and species. They shed tears over the killing of a single animal, yet do not yet seem perturbed by the fact that, every time a woodland is cut down or a swamp drained, hundreds of creatures die, often whole populations or species.

Carried to its logical conclusion, animal rights activists would have to say that humans can never, for any reason or at any time, utilize or consume another living thing, thus condemning themselves to death (or extinction, if our whole species were of this persuasion). No animal rights spokesperson has yet made either a moral or ecological argument for why it is all right to eat plants but not animals; in any case, any such distinction would be on purely human/social grounds, not on ecological criteria. Is it more moral to cut down a redwood than eat a clam?

Powerful ecological arguments exist for saving species, none at all for saving individual plants or animals. Evolution gave rise to biotic interdependence which necessarily includes ingestion and metabolism of food. To make a decision that it is wrong to kill other living things for food may be 'moral' but it is totally counteradaptive to human survival. Any society that came to that conclusion would perish; maybe some already did. (None of this has anything to do with the very sound health, environmental and social reasons why we should eat less meat or meat raised differently.)

To assert that human rights are equatable with non-human species' rights is, therefore, functional, not moral, equality: granting all species the right to evolve on their own terms. It is precisely our highly evolved intelligence, a product of evolution and culture, that enables us to recognize this functional equality and construct an ethics out of it.

There is really little difficulty in specifying why whales should be protected more earnestly than the smallpox virus as an endangered species. To allow smallpox viruses to wreak human havoc is not only morally reprehensible but would constitute an exception to the drive of all creatures to avoid harm and seek ways of surviving. No perceived harm has come from whales, yet we have pursued their slaughter for human profit and convenience (subsistence hunting cultures aside). That is quite different from seeking to promote human health by curing and abolishing disease.

The biocentrism/anthropocentrism debate has similarly been polarized because of different modes of discourse and interpretations, not so much because of any dichotomy between human and Nature, but because we are speaking of a continuum of philosophical thought about humanity's relation to the natural world, interspersed with discrete technological developments. The argument did not exist while there was a one-to-one, unmediated relation of individual to Nature, whether through food gathering and hunting, spiritual contemplation or myth and cosmologies revealed by elders and shamans.

Humanism, that is the concern for (if not the primacy of) human need fulfillment, is, like the mastery of Nature, a product of human consciousness and conscience; that it would become, or seem to become, indifferent to the non-human world was no doubt due to the replacement of animistic, ecologically based, emotionally appealing spiritual relationships in primitive human societies by more sophisticated, 'rational' mediated modes of human survival and survival codes.

If one methodically, 'rationally', replaces direct biospheric interaction - fishing, hunting, gathering, human labor, cutting wood for fuel and shelter, using skins for warmth, plants for medicine - with technospheric ones - processed packaged food, fossil-fuel based machines, artificially generated heat and power, manufactured and synthetic materials, doctors and hospitals - then there can hardly be any 'rational' (much less spiritual) reason for holding onto what appear to be outdated moral codes since their ecological (evolutionarily adaptive) values are no longer demonstrated.

One of Bookchin's chief concerns is whether the American ecology movement "will locate the principal sources of ecological breakdown in a grossly irrational society as social ecologists contend", or whether the movement will "become a religion, an inwardly directed, personalistic exploration of our 'spiritual' failings, akin to cultic groups".

It is not entirely clear that our society is grossly irrational rather than compulsively hyper-rational. In this same paper, Bookchin points out "the greatest achievements of humanism for our times were to replace irrationality, superstition and mysticism with rationality". Yet now he says we are irrational; then how did our present-day irrationality grow out of rationality? (Presumably the irrationality of pre-Enlightenment times was replaced by that rationality he praises so highly.) Certainly, rationality arose from and contributed to the comprehension, harnessing and implementation of the laws of Nature. To state now that our society is acting irrationally would seem to be a contradiction: immorally, compulsively, intensively, perhaps, but not irrationally! I will return to this shortly. What Bookchin is saying is that DEs and spiritualists are not addressing society's aberrant behavior and political structures. But is spirituality per se irrational? Is human life each and every day only rational, mechanical, political? One could easily argue that, for most of us, life involves rather larger measures of intuition, emotion, subjective reflection, aesthetics, common sense and personal value judgements; is Bookchin arguing that we are only, or primarily, political beings (like the Marxists who seem to think we are only economic beings)? This is a risky business.

Bookchin seems to fear that the ecology movement will become "a largely escapist, anti-political, self-indulgent mysticism centered on nature worship, gods and goddesses". I personally have no such fears, but let us take a different view, that is, a historic one with which he can hardly quibble. Throughout most, if not all, of pre-industrial history, and perhaps pre-agricultural, the means of dominating humans was mainly by forced labor and slavery. Such physical labor was not much different from the necessary labor that free humans had to perform to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. The difference lay in scale and purpose. Hunting and gathering cultures all shared in the food economy; if they did not hunt or gather they prepared, stored or preserved food supplies. Large-scale agriculture changed the scale and scope of the food economy because larger numbers needed to be fed and social stratification was imposed by a dominant class, royal, priestly or military.

Even medieval feudalism was, in a sense, a welcome relief to this hierarchical situation, at least in terms of the scale of agriculture, which now reverted to the manor level where only those within the demesne had to be fed. This decentralized type of agriculture was still labor-intensive although laborers were tithed rather than being self-sufficient. But the increase in labor-saving tools and mechanical devices in the flowering of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was never intended or looked upon as a way of more effectively enslaving laborers, even though that was the ultimate result. Nearly everyone regarded such devices as ways of liberating humankind from menial labor, and indeed in many cases this was true. Even today many people quiver in rage at the notion of abolishing industrial agribusiness, its machinery, artificial fertilizers and pesticides and replacing it with ecologically sound, labor-intensive techniques; our hearts go out to migrant workers although they should really go out to factory workers.

Leaving aside unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, is physical labor a form of oppression and domination? Do small farmers who farm their own land for a living feel oppressed? Or does the issue of domination only arise when issues of ownership, control, profits and commodity labor are concerned? If so, then it would seem that the domination of humans, socially and politically, was facilitated and intensified by the Industrial Revolution, and by its scale and environmental impact, which permitted enhanced social and economic stratification, exploitation, and inequity to a degree that was not really possible earlier in human history. It was, therefore, no accident that the toll taken on Nature became far greater. With a few earlier exceptions (overgrazing by goats in the Mediterranean, deforestation), the advent of mechanization and fossil fuels made domination of humans and decimation of Nature and wilderness possible on a regional and later global scale, much of which damage is now irreversible.

But the word 'domination' has other connotations, and it is not at all clear that it is applicable regarding human relationships to the natural world. 'Domination' implies not only power but hierarchy; one individual or a group or an institution over others. In an evolutionary sense, all living creatures must and do manipulate their environment to gain sustenance. The history of life - ecology - in its starkest outline is a study of how living things strive within their biotic communities to eke out the biological, physical and chemical resources not only to live but to reproduce.

Some organisms do this passively by chemical means (plants), others by living off dead and decaying matter or living things (bacteria, fungi, vultures, tapeworms). Still others live off plants, seeds or fruits (deer, pandas, birds), and finally some prey on other animals (wolves, snakes, hawks). Humans are highly evolved omnivores and cannot extract useable protein from plants because they lack the proper bacteria to break down cellulose.

Consuming other life forms is neither aggression nor murder; it is predation. This is the 'mastery' of Nature, of natural laws and resources, not 'domination', which is a human and moral dilemma. From Nature's viewpoint, the death of an individual is trivial, without moral significance. From a human view, the contrary is true, although it has no ecological content as the decimation of a whole species decidedly does.

The evolution of life has been not only from biological simplicity towards complexity, but towards social complexity in many 'higher' animals; more effective communication, cooperation and interdependence of parts, together leading to and permitting human culture and more effective use of the earth's resources. Technology, by permitting greater access to terrestrial resources because of mechanics and fossil fuels rather than human labor, was only a quantitative leap in living things' ability to extract what is needed to live, but it produced a qualitative leap in the ability of certain individuals or classes to dominate other humans.

Is there hierarchy in nature? Yes and no, depending on the viewpoint (inside or outside the universe). Bees and ants are highly structured, 'social' colonies with one individual (female) at the top who does nothing but breed, and a whole class of workers who do nothing but serve the queen. Wolves and dogs, highly social animals, also have rigid social structures, with dominant males, high-ranking females, and the low animals on the totem pole, immature males who hang around waiting for a chance to challenge sick or older males or waiting for them to die. These immature animals, and young, are 'lower' on the hierarchy because they feed last and breed less, sometimes not at all (but they had better stay around to replace males who get killed).

Do these workers and low-caste males know they are 'dominated', that they are part of a hierarchy? Of course not. The hierarchy that we perceive is from outside their world, a human construct and interpretation of a social structure which is appropriate to that animal and which persists because it is highly adaptive: it furthers their reproduction, and is preferable to the alternative of letting individuals fend for themselves, which would be lethal and truly oppressive (which is why runaway domestic dogs form packs; nothing is more helpless and pathetic than a single deserted dog). What we humans perceive as hierarchy (e.g. some individuals being stronger, eating more, having more access to females, etc.) is really an ecologically sound and evolutionarily evolved social structure that enhances the survival possibilities for all, not just the top dogs, because it is an advantageous way of life, or niche, for that species.

The concept of domination, therefore, really applies only to human relationships. Like all animals, humans utilize and manipulate their physical environment, and the advent of technology enhanced this manipulation, but the issue of how technology is used, towards what ends, and to what degree is what should concern us, not the actual utilization of tools or use of Nature per se.

It is not clear that the continuum of increased human technological mastery of nature has occurred at a regular pace; certainly the leap from hunting and gathering societies to agriculture, from mechanical or human-powered devices to those powered by energy sources, were huge leaps technically as well as economically and politically. What distinguished all these leaps was a change in the interrelations between people, between people and the tools, and to the ultimate objectives.

Hunting and gathering cultures have a one-to-one relationship to their food source and to the purpose: feeding themselves. Agriculture and cities involve feeding not just one's self but others, and unrelated, unknown others at that. Replacing human labor with fossil fuels and machines means distancing one's self from the cause and effect of working to obtain one's food (just as killing someone with a bomb replaces the more difficult close-encounter killing with a knife; thus bombs were able to overcome the natural taboo against taking another human life).

Which came first, technology or new (oppressive) social relationships and structures? As one example, cities could not have come into existence until means for feeding and controlling large populations were assured; thus it is strongly arguable that only the 'mastery' of Nature and technology enabled drastic shifts in human relationships, leading to stratification and dominance, to emerge. (This is no way excludes the positive feedback mechanism wherein the character of a complicated technology necessitates certain social structures which then make the original technology even more dangerous; nuclear power is one of these).

Mastery of Nature by science and technology was probably an evolutionary inevitability, given our brain development and striving of all living things to persist, but it was and is the shifting relationship of the individual to other humans and society, the erasing of individual spiritual relationships to Nature, and the consequent attitudes towards and abuses of technology in place of this one-to-one relationship, that set in motion the ecologically destructive currents whose full force we are now feeling.

Of course, the ecological crisis has proximate socio-political roots and manifestations, but it also has historic and philosophic roots embedded in the alteration of the individual's relationship to Nature through technology and therefore has both a moral and an ecological dimension. To ignore this and posit a political/social change movement that denigrates or dismisses the unitary spiritual/ecological dimension which enabled primitive human societies to survive, or to deny human spiritual, ethical or moral (i.e. subjective) values a role in determining a new direction for humankind is not only foolish and sectarian but counter-evolutionary. If we do not understand the ecological and evolutionary roots of human morality, spirituality and social structures, we are no better off than if we ignore the moral and socio-political roots of the ecological crisis.

It is in this historic and evolutionary sense that treating the human species as a unified group is justified, although contemporary institutions and classes oppress individuals and other classes. Clearly, for practical political purposes such distinctions must be made. But as a contemporary 'rational' species, we are the intellectual product of our Enlightenment ancestors, the rational product of which Bookchin so proudly speaks.

Moreover, we live in a global economy which is the culmination, however squalid and oppressive, of that replacement of the 'irrational' (religion, spirituality, superstition, taboo) with 'rationality'. If Bookchin is saying we need more rationality, he is indeed ignoring the fact that most of the past ages of human existence were times where, because of the dominance of spirituality, individual human/Nature relationships and animism, life was by any objective criteria far more ecological and humane if only because human technological capabilities were fewer and the resulting ecological and social impact smaller, more benign, and more local.

Like evolution, socio-political problems are part of a historic continuum in which certain conditions, we can retrospectively see, made certain outcomes inevitable. Today's global economy, which encompasses the First, Second and Third Worlds, can be traced back to colonialism, which infected the Third World and enabled the modern-day vector, the transnational corporation, to merge all nations into this economy. For political purposes, Bookchin's insistence on distinguishing 'oppressor' from 'oppressed' is not accurate. The division is between technologically advanced industrial societies and those Fourth World pockets which are not defined geographically or politically but actually lie within other countries in the First, Second and Third Worlds that themselves are part of the world capitalist economy.

Like Barry Commoner, Bookchin does not fault technology or industrialism per se, but rather the choices thereof and the system of control. Unfortunately, technology should not be so easily absolved of blame. Technology, as the surrogate and mediator between humans and Nature, has obliterated our sense of cause and effect between man and Nature and suppressed those evolved ecological taboos and moral codes so that individuals (and societies) are now insulated, albeit temporarily, from the immediate effects of unecological practices. As Edward Goldsmith has said, we have substituted the technosphere for the biosphere, which thus enables us to, in good conscience, appropriate from Nature without restraint, and dump all wastes back into it. The human economy is developed exclusive of Nature's so we live off the capital, not the flow, of the natural world. In this narrow econosphere, it then becomes merely an issue of how resources are used and how much.

Commoner and others frequently belittle the population growth issue by pointing out that economic development and social progress, not coercion, will inhibit the birth rate as has happened in Western Europe and the US. They may be correct, but unfortunately it will not happen soon enough: furthermore, if population stabilization is, as they infer, linked to development and industrialization, solving one problem, population, will be achieved only by creating new problems: pollution, urban over-crowding, toxic wastes (Bhopal), nuclear contamination, sewage disposal, and of course destruction of forests, wilderness and wildlife in the name of human needs.

Most theorists sincerely believed that technology would free humans from oppression and domination. But the domination of pre-industrial societies cannot come close in scale, environmental impact and social dislocation to that of modern-day industrial societies simply because there were then fewer people, smaller infrastructures, and fewer means of domination. The opportunities for making mischief were mercifully limited compared to contemporary mass technologies. (In much the same way, mechanized warfare with tank, bombs and machine guns dissolved human taboos against murder by making killing faceless and impersonal and by making large-scale atrocities possible).

Bookchin fears that the DE paradigm will be achieved "by degrading human beings into a mere species whose social being can be diffused in a 'biocentric democracy' and a mystical spiritualism", and seems quite prepared to relegate a large part of the human psyche to the dustbin, to throw out the spiritual/ethical/moral baby with the bathwater, to declare that the ecological/moral unity that was recognized and fulfilled (however- 'irrationally') in pretechnological societies was neither evolutionarily adaptive nor desirable, and to constrict human culture and the individual to a purely political sphere of being. Seen from the outside, Bookchin is attempting something highly irrational.

But human 'irrationality', whether in the form of religion, superstition, myth, taboo, or cosmology, is as valid and natural a part of the human psyche and brain as the 'rationality' that led up to modern-day science, as important as the intelligence that was able to make sense out of objective reality, discover the laws of Nature, and learn to forge new ways of making a living on earth. If we are indeed rational, we need to prove our case about the irrationality of those in power. Simply to accuse the fomentors of ecological devastation of irrationality, while they continue to believe that scientific rationality will save us (that same scientific rationality which Bookchin chooses over spirituality), will get us nowhere.

Bookchin, incidentally, is not free of the influence of certain intuitive, non-rational thinkers like James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis, and Teilhard de Chardin (the noosphere). In his Thinking Ecologically: A Dialectical Approach, Bookchin says (explicitly leaving aside "all the external selective factors which Darwinians invoke to describe evolution". I will return to this shortly):

…the striving that yields increasing degrees of subjectivity - constitutes the internal or immanent impulse of evolution toward growing self-awareness. This evolutionary dialectic constitutes the essence of life as a self-maintaining organism that bears the potential for a self-conscious organism.

The Gaia hypothesis postulates the earth as a single organism that controls its own conditions, in all systems, for its own maintenance. The attribution of 'striving' to life per se would seem to imply one of two things:

  1. consciousness in all life forms, whether humans or amoebas; or
  2. an outside guiding force with prior intent and purpose (God).

Either one of these unproven and probably unproveable hypotheses and Bookchin's statement could be termed mystical, spiritual, religious, irrational, inasmuch as they are subjective and probably unverifiable opinions.

It is at this point that we cannot let Bookchin off the hook by accepting his exclusion of Darwinian 'external selective factors', i.e. the mechanism of natural selection. Not insignificantly for our argument, Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection (differential breeding success of individuals due to their ability to adapt to extant environmental conditions) was in fact the primary scientific postulate that instilled rationality into science; indeed, evolution and its postulated mechanism, natural selection, form the working base today for all biological sciences. Prior to Darwin, science was superstition, alchemy and subjectivity, a humanly concocted, human-centered, cosmology that regarded all systems and their components, biological or human, as stratified and fixed, with no room for anomaly or divergence. Notwithstanding social Darwinism, (which distorted natural selection to fit its a priori social beliefs that rationalized oppression of minorities, the disadvantaged and the mentally defective) evolution and natural selection at one blow destroyed any scientific justification for dominance and hierarchy in humans and their societies.

Evolution and natural selection are vital to our understanding of how life forms persist, and genetics, which came later, was crucial in reconciling the apparent contradiction between what Jacques Monod called chance and necessity, dispelling the notion that life was pure randomness and chaos (or fixed and predetermined). An understanding of evolution and natural selection quite suffices to explain how consciousness and self-awareness arose if one takes the trouble to study them. The attribution of 'striving' to life is appropriate but only at the level of the individual organism, not at the level of life as a totality or collective entity. Extinction of species has been a fact; a second species of Homo coexisted with Homo sapiens until relatively recently. The fact that we are (or believe we are) the only self-aware species on earth (which we cannot prove) does not mean that this was evolution's impulse or our 'striving'. We need not have survived at all; there was and is no 'necessity' that we do so; that we did, however, can be explained quite satisfactorily by tracing our evolutionary ancestry back to intelligent hominids, or to primates, or even further back to mammals, whose warm blood, long gestation period, fur, and other physical traits were extremely advantageous after dinosaurs died out.

The point is that self-awareness, consciousness, ethics and morality are not qualitatively different from nonhuman behavioral traits, such as altruism, care of young, defense, friendship, maternal love, sorrow, food sharing, but are quantitatively different, i.e. more highly developed. The adaptability of both physical and behavioral traits encouraged their persistence as well as refinement. Higher consciousness, including all the intermediate stages of its manifestation before Homo sapiens appeared, was not 'preferred' or 'sought' or immanent (i.e. inherent as Bookchin seems to define it). The more primitive stages of consciousness were themselves adaptive enough to be reinforced and carried on; those who possessed them bred, survived and insured their perpetuation.

A critical and broad approach to ecological issues can, in fact, address and help resolve social and political problems, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Select any environmental problem at random: toxic chemical production and disposal, nuclear power, agricultural pesticides, dams. Under scrutiny, it becomes clear that these involve not just pollution or resource depletion, but abuses of power, bureaucratic coercion, land use, profit making, food policy and much more. The addressing of the safety of nuclear power generation inevitably leads to questioning of the purpose, objective and control by utilities, and the relation of corporations to the nation-state. The addressing of agricultural pesticides leads beyond worker poisoning to groundwater pollution, state subsidies, ownership, production, markets, exports, and relations with the less developed nations of the world.

To accept Bookchin's premise (that domination of nature arose from domination of man) is to accept his political prescription: re-order social relationships and Nature will be saved. The consequences of waiting around for this are serious, however, as can be quickly seen if we substitute 'civil rights' for 'Nature'. To the contrary, a radical, ecologically inspired politics that aims at ecological sanity and reconstruction necessarily subsumes all the issues of socioeconomic injustice and oppression with which social ecologists are concerned. Bookchin believes fervently that domination of Nature arose from domination of human by human, but if he is wrong and we follow his political prescription, we run the risk of mistaking, and thence dealing with, the effect for the cause. The stakes, survival of the planet and its species, are too high to take this chance.

Source: Changing Directions - The Proceedings of the Conference Ecopolitics IV . Held at Adelaide University, September 21-24, 1989. Edited by Dr. Ken Dyer & Dr. John Young.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.