Ecology and the Right Question

by Lorna Salzman



The author is co-founder of the New York Green Party and a former regional representative of Friends of the Earth. She describes herself as an eco-anarchist decentralist, she is the mother of twin daughters, interested in birds, mushrooms, music and anti-Gaian evolution and a renewed appreciation for Charles Darwin, the collapse of society and a new era of ecologically responsible work.


There is more substance to Murray Bookchin's criticisms of the Green movement than many Greens, myself included, have cared to admit. The unfortunate overbearing tone and ad hominem attacks of Bookchin have deflected attention away from the real underlying issues in the social vs. deep ecology debate. If we are to take both sides at their words, the deep ecologists and "spiritual" Greens, (which are not the same despite Bookchin's confusing them), do not abjure political/institutional change, and the social ecologists do not abjure an ecological emphasis and consciousness, in theory, then, the Green movement could seek to integrate values/spirituality in a political program to radically alter the corporate/capitalist/industrial system and the nation-state towards something both sides profess to support, a participatory, decentralized, ecologically sustainable and socially just society.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. The "elephant and blind men" syndrome is operative here as usual; worse, both sides proclaim a moralistic stance that for all intents and purposes says "we are right because we are right": the Left proclaims to have the true historico-political analysis, and the spiritualists profess to have the moral high ground (it is wrong to eat or kill animals, wear furs, it's right to compost our garbage, and we need to change our individual life styles and values in order to change society).

Spirituality is not the problem per se; what hamstrings spiritualists are two things: a sense of personal guilt that can be absolved only by abjuring certain materialist objects and behavior; and a total absence of any understanding of the evolutionary history of life on earth. Either we develop a political movement/program that has a basis in some kind of objective impartial reality or we have one that is purely subjective, personal, and morally based–a Green Moral Majority as it were. Either we understand the transcendental significance of the ecological crisis (including its social manifestations) and meet the challenge with a truly revolutionary political platform, or we doom ourselves to tinkering, cosmeticizing and tidying up the messy ends of daily life–in effect, environmental reformism with a Green face.

The Last Crisis

Bookchin's inference that we must change society and its political institutions before we can achieve an ecological society is, in my opinion, both dangerous and wrong. One must seek to change society based on a clear analysis of the problem(s) as well as with a coherent, consistent integrated political strategy. both of these assume agreement on the main problem facing the planet. It is therefore useless for the Left Greens to argue, on the one hand, that it is capitalism, and for the spiritual Greens to argue that it is a lack of individual or societal spirituality or consciousness.

But past and present events have given us sufficiently powerful evidence that the ecological crisis on earth (which has environmental as well as social manifestations) is the most severe of all–in fact, it may well be the last crisis that human beings have to face.

No political movement, program or strategy can succeed solely on the basis of deep conviction or personal morality. There are concrete, quantifiable, demonstrable, substantiated and objective reasons why synthetic chemicals, nuclear power, global warming, acid rain, destruction of habitat and diminuation of species, and crop monoculture are bad, for people and wildlife. Saving species, rare, endangered or otherwise, is crucial not because furry animals are pretty but because saving habitats and ecosystems are the ways we save both species and the world. There are many reasons to reduce and phase out fossil fuel combustion, not just because it leads to global warming. Ecology is not just a nicety, an agreeable phrase, a splendid idea. It is an interdisciplinary science and way of looking at the world.. Unless we understand how and why ecosystems came into being and interact, and unless we understand how human activities (whether socialist nuclear power or capitalist hydroelectric plants) are endangering these systems and not incidentally human beings, we will remain a marginal movement, with our wish-lists, our assertions about what is "right" and what is "wrong". This raises the real danger of eco-fascism, of a movement inspired by truly irrational and subjective beliefs, fanatically intent on saving the world by imposing its own views on everyone else.

This is the potential risk in the spiritual sector of the Green movement. However, it is already operative within the Left Greens. Their own statements demonstrate their refusal to credit any non-Left movements or individuals with any meaningful historical understanding or achievement (environmentalism, eco-feminism, for example). Their crude attempts to insinuate that Green beliefs in decentralism and participatory democracy and non-hierarchy demonstrate that Greens are ipso facto Left are amusing, at best, and insidious at worst.

Societal Priorities

In company with the sparse attention given to environment and ecology in the Left Green Network manifesto–a token one or two sentences–this attitude must be taken seriously, for it indicates that the Left in America is determined not to give up its superannuated views about the need for an industrial proletariat (needed both for the Revolution as well as for the Left elite to control) and about the need for industrial production and consumption per se. When Carl Boggs, a socialist writer, says: "efforts to repeal or dismantle industrial society, as the negation of industrialism implies, can only add to the present levels of chaos and destruction", one wonders where he has been since the Industrial Revolution, or since 1970 for that matter. If not industrialism, what precisely is it that he thinks has caused already the social "chaos", the ecological destruction? Does he see these as the capitalists and liberals themselves do–as mere accidents or unfortunate byproducts of economic growth and industrial production, that can be cleaned up by technology, money or change in personnel? By worker/workplace democracy? Does he think that industrialism exists in a vacuum, apart from the rest of society? Does he not see around him that the very values and character of industrialism go far beyond the mere toxicity of chemicals and the annoyance of solid waste to permeate how we relate to each other and to the rest of the world? Industrial culture is more than quantitative; it involves issues of scale, of political control, of decision making, of risk and benefit, of bureaucratic regulation and control, of societal priorities, and much much more. Industrialism is valued as much for itself as for its products, because it is the most appropriate model for perpetuating societal control by bureaucrats and elites.

It is possible that there may be an impasse in the Green movement that cannot be overcome. If the spiritualists resist political organizing, and the Left insists on its anti-capitalist rhetoric and its ignorance of the ecological crisis, it may be time to start a new faction–the Ecological Greens, or perhaps the Green Greens. Ecology is "the subversive science," and ecological consciousness translated into political change potentially the most subversive movement. What is puzzling is the fact that while government and corporations recognize the threat of ecology to their way of doing business, the Left and other radical social movements have yet to understand that ecology is the most radical of all movements extant. It is ecology that can help us understand and deal with both the political crisis in the world, and with our own self-understanding. The US Green movement will never be more than a marginal gadfly unless it regards and describes itself as an ecology movement and formulates its program and values on an ecological base.

Source: Fourth World Review, #38, 1990.

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