Brian Tokar: Social Ecology and the Future


Excerpt from the book Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change by Brian Tokar (New Compass Press, 2014)

Today, with a growing awareness of climate disruptions and the profound social and ecological upheavals that we face, environmental politics may once again be ascendant. But often we see similar forms of narrowly instrumental environmentalism to those Bookchin critiqued in the 1960s and seventies. “Green consumerism,” which first emerged as a widespread phenomenon around the 1990 Earth Day anniversary, has returned with a vengeance, incessantly promoted as the key to reducing our personal impact on the climate. Even some critical observers, such as the popular British columnist George Monbiot, have focused on the feasibility of a “least painful” lower-energy scenario, rather than posing a fundamental ecological challenge to the further destructive development of global capitalism.[1]

In this disturbingly constrained political and intellectual environment, what does the future hold? Will capitalism finally come to terms with the environmental crisis, perhaps driven by the dynamic movement to withdraw university and public funds from investments in fossil fuel corporations? Or are such campaigns mainly a step toward a more fundamental political challenge and a movement toward a thoroughly transformed future? To address these questions, it is useful to consider some of the particular ways that social ecology may continue to inform and enlighten today’s emerging social and ecological movements.

First, social ecology offers an uncompromising ecological outlook that challenges the entrenched power structures that underlie the systems of capitalism and the nation-state. A movement that fails to confront the underlying causes of environmental destruction and climate disruption can, at best, only superficially address those problems. Capitalism continually promotes false solutions such as carbon trading, geoengineering, and fracked gas as a “bridge fuel,” which serve the system’s imperative to keep growing. Ultimately, to fully address the causes of climate change and other compelling environmental problems requires us to raise long-range, transformative demands that the dominant economic and political systems may prove unable to accommodate. We can structure our activist campaigns in a manner that illuminates hidden structures of oppression and hierarchy, and reveals how various oppressions intersect, even while joyfully and dramatically illustrating the long-range, reconstructive potential of our movement.[2] Such a systemic approach can help guide our movements further in the direction of the social transformation that we know is necessary, challenge the continuing sellouts of corporate-friendly “official” environmentalism and help us “keep our eyes on the prize.”

Second, social ecology offers us a lens to better comprehend the origins and the historical emergence of ecological radicalism, from the nascent movements of the late 1950s and early sixties right up to the present. Over five decades, the writings of Murray Bookchin and his colleagues have reflected upon the most important on-the-ground debates within ecological and social movements with passion and polemic, as well as with humor and long-range vision. Movements that are aware of their history, and comprehend the lessons of their many ebbs and flows over time, are much better equipped to discuss where we may be headed.

Third, social ecology offers the most comprehensive theoretical treatment of the origins of human social domination and its historical relationship to abuses of the earth’s living ecosystems. Social ecology has consistently pointed to the origins of ecological destruction in social relations of domination, in contrast to conventional views suggesting that impulses to dominate non-human nature are a product of mere historical necessity. Social ecologists celebrate the ways that humans can participate meaningfully and supportively in the processes of natural evolution, rather than pretending that we can live as merely passive observers. Evolving eco-technologies, from permaculture to green urban design, can help point the way toward new relationships of harmony between our own communities and the rest of nature, prefigure new kinds of social relationships, and help us usher in more profound changes that reach beyond the local level.

Fourth, social ecology presents a framework for comprehending the origins of human consciousness and the emergence of human reason from its natural context. Bookchin’s philosophy reaches far beyond popular, often solipsistic notions of an “ecological self,” grounding the embeddedness of consciousness in nature in a coherent theoretical framework with roots in both classical nature philosophies and modern science. It advances a challenge to overturn popular acceptance of the world as it is, and to persistently inquire as to how things ought to be.

Fifth, social ecology offers activists an historical and strategic grounding for political and organizational debates about the potential for direct democracy. Social ecologists have worked to bring the praxis of direct democracy into popular movements since the 1970s, and Bookchin’s writings offer an essential historical and theoretical context for this continuing conversation. When environmental organizations refuse to be accountable to their membership, we can offer a principled challenge, and also develop new forms of organization that help illuminate the potential for a fundamentally different kind of social and political power.

Sixth, at a time when the remaining land-based peoples around the world are facing unprecedented assaults on their communities and livelihoods, social ecology reminds us of the roots of Western radicalism in the social milieu of peoples recently displaced from their own rural, agrarian roots. Bookchin’s fourvolume opus, The Third Revolution, describes in detail how revolutionary movements in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Spanish Civil War were often rooted in pre-industrial social relations, an understanding which can serve to historicize and deromanticize our approach to contemporary land-based struggles. Rather than an exotic other, vaguely reminiscent of a distant and idealized past, current peasant and indigenous movements offer much insight and practical guidance to help us live better on the earth, reclaiming both our past and our future.

Seventh, social ecology offers a coherent and articulate political alternative to economic reductionism, identity politics, and many other trends that often dominate today’s progressive left. Bookchin polemicized relentlessly against these and other limiting tendencies, insisting that our era’s ecological crises compel a focus on the general interest, with humanity itself as the most viable “revolutionary subject.” Social ecology has helped connect contemporary revolutionaries with the legacies of the past and offered a theoretical context for sustaining a coherent, emancipatory revolutionary social vision.

Finally, Bookchin insisted for four decades on the inseparability of oppositional political activity from a reconstructive vision of an ecological future. He viewed most popular leftist writing of our era as only half complete, focusing on critique and analysis without also proposing a coherent way forward. At the same time, social ecologists have often spoken out against the increasing accommodation of many “alternative” institutions—including numerous once-radical cooperatives and collectives—to a stifling capitalist status quo. Opposition without a reconstructive vision often leads to exhaustion and burnout. “Alternative” institutions without a link to vital, counter-systemic social movements are cajoled and coerced by market forces into the ranks of non-threatening “green” businesses, merely serving an elite clientele with products that are “socially responsible” in name only. A genuine convergence of the oppositional and reconstructive strands of activity is a first step toward a political movement that can ultimately begin to contest and reclaim political power.

Some defenders of the status quo would have us believe that “green” capitalism and the “information economy” will usher in a transition to a more ecological future. But, like all the capitalisms of the past, this latest incarnation relies ultimately on the continued and perpetual expansion of its reach, at the expense of people and ecosystems worldwide. From urban centers to remote rural villages, we are all being sold on a way of life that can only continue to devour the earth and its peoples. Today’s high-tech consumer lifestyles, whether played out in New York, Beijing, Bangalore, or the remotest reaches of human civilization, defy all meaningful limits, ultimately raising global inequality and economic oppression to previously unimaginable proportions while profoundly destabilizing the earth’s ability to sustain complex life.

The corrosive simplification of living ecosystems and the retreat into an increasingly synthetic world that Murray Bookchin warned of in the early 1960s has evolved from a disturbing future projection into an impending global reality. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to challenge economic and social systems at their core and evolve a broad, counterhegemonic social movement that refuses to compromise its values or settle for partial measures. Nearly fifty years ago, Bookchin observed and reported on the dramatic May-June revolt in Paris in 1968, when huge crowds of students and workers united to occupy the universities and the streets. One of their popular slogans, inspired by the writings of the French Situationists in the late 1950s and early sixties, is usually translated as, “Be realistic—do (or ‘demand’) the impossible.” In response to the emerging ecological crisis, Bookchin urged his readers to consider a “more solemn injunction”: “If we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.”[3] Facing a future of unstoppable climate chaos if we fail to act quickly, we need to set our sights on nothing less.


[1] George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (Boston: South End Press, 2007). For a comprehensive review of more radical solutions to the climate crisis, see the “Less Energy” series in the Green politics journal Synthesis/Regeneration (now Green Social Thought), beginning with the Winter 2007 issue, No. 42 (Available at

[2] Chaia Heller, “Illustrative Opposition: Drawing the Revolutionary Out of the Ecological,” in Ecology of Everyday Life, pp. 149–171.

[3] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 41. Bookchin’s more detailed account of Paris in 1968 can be found in a pair of essays, reprinted in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (supra note 4), pp. 249-270.

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