The Interconnectedness of Ecology and Democracy: Towards a strategy “from below”

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By Yavor Tarinski

[I]t is one thing to establish international treatises, national laws, and environmental
ministries and agencies; it is quite another to effect the concrete changes in attitudes,
practices and institutions necessary to resolve the ecological crisis.
Dimitrios Roussopoulos[1]

Nowadays the need to act against the ongoing environmental degradation seems more than evident, as well as its relatedness to other social, political and economic problems that we are facing today. From marginal activist groups to governments of the strongest countries on the planet, all appear to be concerned with how the future of our shared world will look like. What however doesn’t seem so obvious is HOW we are going to deal with the deepening ecological crisis.

The mainstream environmentalist strategy, strongly propagated by governments and big business, strives at situating the current ecological challenges on the level of nation-states and global markets. According to it, it is the national governments and the multinational corporate players, the very ones responsible for the current mess in the first place, that should agree on how to protect nature. For many years a significant part of the environmental movement had its imaginary entangled with the bureaucratic dynamics of political parties or green consumerism. But renowned author Dimitrios Roussopoulos masterfully points at the inability of nation-states and intergovernmental technocratic institutions to successfully tackle the crisis, despite thousands of international agreements and protocols:

In 1886, the first international environmental agreement was signed; today there are over 250 agreements, most of them concluded since the 1960s. Since the 1972 United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm, almost all-important international bodies, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to the World Bank, have adopted environmental protection programs. Since the Stockholm conference, some 10,000 new environmental groups have come into being adding to some 15,000 such groups that had been formed prior to the conference.[2][…] [T]he state management of the environment, along with the rigmarole of intergovernmental institutions and agreements, have overwhelmingly failed.[3]

It is clear that it is up to the people themselves, in their role as active citizens, to organize on grassroots level and bring a holistic change that will create a more democratic and ecological future. But for such a horizontal strategy to be initiated, one must first understand the social and political roots of the environmental crisis, the relationship between ecology and direct democracy, and then to move on to analyzing and researching ongoing struggles and social movements that already have made practical steps in this direction.

1. Roots of the Environmental Crisis

The ongoing environmental crisis is rooted in the social relations of hierarchy and domination. Social ecologists have been arguing that the human attitude of superiority over nature has been developing hand-in-hand with the idea of superiority of one man over another. Thus the domination over nature precedes capitalism, unlike some trends of eco-socialists would like to believe.

The phenomenon of people attempting to dominate over nature and other people can be traced back to the rise of patriarchy and gerontocracy. The gradual enslavement of the young by the old and of the woman by the man led to major shift in social imaginary: there was a replacement of feminine conceptions of symbiosis within society and with nature by masculine conceptions of strong authority and exploitation.

With the emergence of statecraft, domination and hierarchy were further internalized by society through the bureaucratization of everyday life, imposed by the State. Bureaucratic management dehumanized people by turning them into taxpayers and vote casters, while destroying the traditional organic relation communities had with the land and the commons.

Environmental degradation was much worsened when older forms of domination and hierarchy were compounded with capitalism. The capitalist trend towards unlimited economic growth and utilitarization of everything increased exponentially the destruction of ecosystems. This was so because the synthesis of the State with capitalism established a system of domination with global dimensions which views life as insignificant and in narrow utilitarian manner. Business elites and ruling politicians formed global stratum, whose power expands over the entire planet and those on it, creating preconditions for unseen exploitation, both of nature and human beings.

Thus in the current reality of social stratification, where the vast majority of the population is being exploited and oppressed, dominates the idea of humanity exercising mastery over the vast world of complex ecosystems that covers the planet. But our social relations can be radically restructured so as to reflect the complexity of the natural world.

Democracy is the antithesis of domination. If the latter indicates the concentration of power in the hands of tiny elites, the former seeks to distribute it equally among all members of society, encouraging a different relation with nature as well.

The primitive people of ancient times lived in what Bookchin called “organic societies”, i.e. communities whose members had non-hierarchical and highly egalitarian relations with each other and with the surrounding environment. They were not patriarchal, but “metricentric”, which does not mean that they were run by women, but that they had internalized feminine values like care and mutual aid.

Later on societies became more centralized and authorities emerged that regarded those they ruled, and the land they ruled over, as inferior. Ancient Athens was an important exception to this trend, because of a political project that emerged among its people – direct democracy. Athenian democratic politics created space of equality between men and respect for nature.

Athenians created a system through which citizens directly managed the public affairs of their city and chose their magistrates by lot. And while they did not allowed women to participate in political deliberation, and neither abolished slavery, something that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, it is important to note that in most places of the ancient world exclusion of women and slaves from public life was very common. What was exceptional for its time was the notion of democracy: the idea that ordinary people, without titles or professional skills, can participate consciously and equally in the management of their society. On this last point Bookchin noted that the Athenian experience represented an advance over the primitive organic societies.

Athenians were conscious of the consequences their acts could have on nature, thus adopting an attitude of stewardship. They viewed themselves as stewards, i.e. not masters or exploiters, but beings that depend on the natural environment, hence responsible for its protection and sustenance. This was an attitude that highly resembled direct democracy. People like Theophrasus, who came to Athens at an early age, regarded the interaction of society with nature as relationship between two autonomous equal entities.

Nowadays there are also such democratic and ecological exceptions like the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, as well as the Kurdish communities of Northern Syria (Rojava). The emancipatory projects that these societies are building are based on confederal  networks of self-managed municipalities, with similar organization pillars: autonomous society, ecological sustainability and gender equality. The Zapatistas have been struggling for decades to protect the rainforests of Chiapas Mexico[4], while the people of Rojava have launched an ecological campaign to “Make Rojava Green Again”. Through it they aim at addressing and dealing with issues related to cultivation of food beyond monocultures and chemical fertilizers, reforesting large swaths of land, providing alternative forms of sustainable electricity, limiting fossil fuel usage, preserving water supplies, and even developing waste management solutions.

2. The Interconnectedness of Ecology and Democracy

Philosopher Murray Bookchin saw the interconnectedness of humanity and the natural environment around us. He wrote that human nature is derived from nonhuman nature and social evolution from natural evolution.[5] We can agree with him, by suggesting that nature is the body of all living beings, including humans. Humans are part of it and are not necessarily destined to dominate it. Instead, they can assume a more symbiotic and ecological role – that of the steward.

Nature has a multidimensional effect on human life and is essential for the development of culture and identity. It is the source of food, housing and all other material needs of life but its significance spreads beyond that. As French philosopher Simone Weil suggests, despite the purely physical human needs, there are also ones that are related to the soul[6]. And nature played an important role in this second category, providing inspiration, motivation and creativity for human imaginaries.

Unfortunately, our societies today are organized in heavily non-ecological and non-democratic basis.  This is due to the fact that the main incentives today are domination and the paradigm of constant economic growth, which are always unsustainable and environmentally degrading. The current growth-based model’s main aim is the continuous commodification of resources, natural elements, even human relations. There is constantly decreasing space for communal, sustainable and democratic ways of life, which are detached from capitalist markets and state control. Furthermore, the very idea of such alternatives is being made more and more distant from the social imaginary.

The way of life imposed on us by the capital-nation-state complex implies the disconnection of people from their natural, social and cultural heritage, promoting instead detached and individualistic lifestyles. This produces an existential crisis which, as Simone Weil explains[7], uproots individuals from their organic communities and solidarity-based relations. In this way a fertile ground is being provided for xenophobic and nationalist sentiments. Such uprootedness creates anthropological type that is much more amenable to exploitation, consumption and mob mentality – all ingredients for an authoritarian and oppressive political system. Statecraft and the current capitalist order detach people from each other by introducing mundane bureaucratic procedures and financial speculations in the social relations, thus degrading them into nothing more than transactions between consumers.

While the system today tries to separate society from nature, many oppressed communities find expression of their resistance in the latter. For them the natural world stands for the creative and vibrant organic social bonds that are threatened by the bureaucratization and privatization of life. Nature is at the heart of the struggles of indigenous people from Latin America, Middle East, and elsewhere, whose history of colonization by foreign invader coincides with the exploitation of the environment.

The degradation of nature has serious impacts on humans, thus it can be viewed as social degradation as well. The effects of extractivist industries, huge dams, oil pipelines etc. cause much harm to the environment, but they also affect local communities: either by degrading ecosystems that are vital for local economies, or by endangering the health of locals. Such threats often mobilize communities to stand against the profit-driven appetites of the Capital-Nation-State complex.

In this line of thought, ecology can offer a perspective that can provide common ground for various antagonistic to the status quo movements and political trends, combining anti-capitalism with struggles for self-determination, sustainability with urban self-management etc. As explained above, it is tightly related to gender liberation and democratic practices, and thus it can be considered as one of the pillars of a holistic project of direct democracy.

Ecology presupposes the creation of an anthropological type that will be different from the careless consumer of capitalist modernity. What it implies instead is the emergence of politically active stewards that are conscious of their dependence on the complex and dense network of ecosystems that are covering the planet. Or as Castoriadis puts it[8]: “the creation of human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom, and loving the common good”. Such anthropological type will be the basis of a society capable of self-limiting its activity so as to not exploit neither nature, neither other people. Such self-limitation, as demonstrated by Castoriadis[9], can only be based on direct democracy. In this sense ecology and democracy are intrinsically interconnected. Such an imaginary will imply that all living beings have the right to exist due to their natural occurrence, and humanity must find a way to coexist with it, without endangering it.

Struggles against environmental destruction and extinction of species are essential, but it is important, as social ecologists suggest, to be placed in a political context. The protection of nature requires a systemic critique on the current organizational model of our society and the advancement of alternative model: one that will offer radical break with capitalism and statecraft, proposing instead ecology and direct democracy.

For this reason Castoriadis have said that [e]cology is essentially political; it is not “scientific.” Science is incapable, as science, of setting its own limits or its goals [finalités]. If science were asked the most efficient or the most economic means of exterminating the Earth’s population, it can (it should, even!) provide you with a scientific answer. Science qua science, it has strictly nothing to say about whether this project is “good” or “bad.” One can, one should, certainly, mobilize the resources of scientific research to explore the impact that such and such an action within the sphere of production might have upon the environment, or, sometimes, the means of preventing some undesirable side effect. In the last analysis, however, the response can only be political.[10]

Andrew Flood has suggested back in 1995, that in a society where we democratically control production we will decide not to pollute or to limit pollution to a level that can be absorbed.[11] This is not a mere speculation, but an expression of the connection between ecology and democracy: both imply direct relationship between individuals and their immediate space – be it the community or the natural environment. As Kurdish researcher and activist Ercan Ayboga puts it: In order to defend nature and ecological relations, destructive and exploitative projects need to be stopped and the models of housing, production, consumption, mobility etc have to be altered radically. All this can be done only if democratic decision making structures are dominant in the society, i.e. radical democracy is developed, and no more small circles in the society can influence via lobbying the political decision.[12]

3. Towards a democratic and ecological strategy “from below”

In order to give a positive response to the dilemma ecology or catastrophe, as formulated by Janet Biehl, we are in need of developing a strategy “from below”, which to correspond to the interrelatedness between ecological sustainability and direct democracy. One such approach will go beyond parliamentarism and narrow environmentalism, seeking instead connection with other movements on the basis of participation in public affairs and the strive towards holistic system change.

3.1 Inhabitation and Durability of the Struggle

The temporality of a struggle is of crucial importance, and as such it cannot be overlooked by social movements aiming at radical social change. If it expands within a long period of time, or it is a momentous eruption, creates different conditions for the forms it will take. Often environmental struggles have protracted timespan, due to their non-negotiable character. Either certain area will remain as it is –wild or in symbiosis with local communities – or it will be integrated into the capitalist paradigm of unlimited economic growth through some kind of development project. As author Kristin Ross writes: an airport is either built or it is not; farmland is either farmland or it has become something else – housing developments, say, or an army training ground.[13]

Another important aspect of environmental struggles is the element of inhabitation, which implies that often communities are living within the areas they protect. This places locals in oppositions to the frames of the contemporary statist-capitalist order, and thus in need of thinking beyond it.

When durability and inhabiting are combined, the struggles for protection can transform into struggles for defense. And what is being defended changes over time. As Kristin Ross suggests: where once what was being defended might have been an unpolluted environment or farmland or even a way of life, what is defended as the struggle deepens comes to include all the new social links, solidarities, affective ties, and new physical relations to the territory and other lived entanglements that the struggle produced.[14] It is important to note, that there is no determinist relation here, just preconditions that can allow, if accompanied by other circumstances, a deeper sense and practice of democratic politics to appear.

The zad (zone à défendre) at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France, is one such case where durability and inhabiting helped for new and creative ways of coexistence and collaboration to be found. It became clear to the zadists that the state and capitalism do not have to completely collapse in order to begin living in relatively free and egalitarian manner. During the defense of the zad, participatory and collective practical ways of satisfying basic needs, both material and social—housing, food, education, health care—were created in a relative independence from the statist, capitalist and other forms of domination.

The autonomous communities of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Kurds in Northern Syria have also experienced enormous development in their political projects and practices during the decades of inhabiting their struggles. Their very communal and sustainable ways of life, by being threatened by neoliberal globalism and statist bureaucratism, became a site of struggle. During prolonged temporalities of opposition to domination and oppression from foreign power-structures, the political nature of the Zapatistas and the Kurdish liberation movement became increasingly anti-authoritarian, embedding deeply democratic and ecological elements in all spheres of their social life. Highly indicative of this is the way women liberation gradually proliferated amidst their struggle.

3.2 Localism and Translocal Confederalism

The question of space as a site of genuine political deliberation is crucial for the implementation of a democratic and ecological project. The way our societies are being politically structured today places the main decision-making power on an extra-social level, beyond the reach of most people. It is the modernist realm of bureaucratic technocrats and economic elites. This level expands over vast areas, within national borders and/or transnational agreements. This organizational form is among the main vehicles of domination today, as it creates a culture of social alienation, political immaturity and environmental commodification.

Direct democracy on the other hand, as a deeply egalitarian and ecological project, strives at creating genuinely public space, i.e. a political arena on which all citizens can deliberate and decide on all issues that affect their common life: political, economic, social and ecological. This implies the radical rethinking of the levels of decision-making.

The departure from the extra-social space will take us to the local in the face of cities, municipalities and neighborhoods. In them citizens themselves will have to institute democratic and ecological institutions like popular assemblies and councils. This would mean the creation of public space where genuine political deliberation can take place and allow for equal redistribution of power among all members of the community.

But since such localities cannot exist in a state of isolation, they will have to establish another level of coordination with each other, which to go beyond the extra-sociality of the nation state. Such is the proposal of direct-democratic confederalist approaches, in which local communities maintain their sovereignty by electing revocable delegates and not voting for representatives. There is an essential difference between the two:  in the latter case people give their power away to professional politicians, while in the former they delegate to revocable individuals certain decision(s) of the local community which to be coordinated with other social collectivities. This is a break with the logic of expertise in political decision-making, since as Castoriadis suggests[15]: “there are not and cannot be ‘experts’ on political affairs. Political expertise – or political ‘wis­dom’ – belongs to the political community”.

Ocalan writes that in democratic confederalism “higher levels [of decision-making]only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. For limited space of time they are both mouthpiece and executive institution. However, the basic power of decision rests with the local grassroots institutions.”[16]

In this way the local and the community remains the main locus of power, while remaining part of wider and regional social ecosystems. In a sense such self-emancipated municipalities could overcome the limits of isolationism, allowing cities, towns and neighborhoods to sustain a democratic counter-power to the centralized political institutions of the state, while overcoming parochialism, promoting interdependence, advancing a broad liberatory agenda and bringing people closer to their natural environment. As Bookchin wrote: “It is through the municipality, that people can reconstitute themselves from isolated monads into a creative body politic and create an existentially vital … civic life that has institutional form as well as civic content.”[17]

4. Conclusion

Dealing with the ongoing environmental crisis is first and foremost a political matter. Our societies have reached a point in which man-made climate change has become an existential threat. The main reason for this is the political-economic basis on which our modern way of life has been organized. We cannot save the fragile planetary conditions which make life-as-we-know-it possible, because our societies are currently anti-ecological.

The prospect of an ecological society cannot be thought of without it being genuinely a democratic one as well. Leaderless movements like the gilets jaunes in France have made it clear that climate change and inequality cannot be confronted separately. It is when decision-making processes are taken back to the grassroots level, when a civic culture can appear that treats nature in a symbiotic manner.

A strategy for the achievement of such a democratic and ecological future must strive at building power from below. It must combine the non-negotiable character of ecological struggles and their protracted temporality, in order to infuse them with the seeds of direct democracy. Furthermore, our cities and villages, must become a main locus of political struggle, which we inhabit physically and mentally, for social emancipation from statecraft and capitalism. It is by creating “from” below” the tempo of our efforts at egalitarian self-institution, through which we can refute the heteronomous temporality of the Capital-Nation-State complex and its extra-social institutions of domination.

We can no longer rely on mundane bureaucratic processes or barbaric capitalist relations for the future of ourselves and the planet. It is up to us – without ideological dogmatism – to strengthen local struggles and connect them with each other by pointing at the common roots of their oppression. The creation of a wide network of interconnected localized movements is a logical step towards the creation of a democratic and ecological society.

According to Castoriadis[18]: “Direct democracy has been re­discovered or reinvented in modern history every time a political collectivity has entered a process of radical self-constitution and self-activity: town meetings during the American Revolution, sections during the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the workers’ councils, or the soviets in their original form.” It is up to us to inhabit our struggle and give it the democratic and ecological content within which we would like to see implemented in the future. There are no certainties, the impact of our activities is immeasurable and difficult to identify. But we know that we can produced a break from the norm, a change in others’ experiences of time through our interaction with them in their familiar everyday space. Such interactivity can lead to a person’s shift of perspective. This experience by one person, or by many, may in the future create a change.

Footnotes:

[1] Dimitrios Roussopoulos: Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism (Porsgrunn ,New Compass 2015) pp47-48

[2] Dimitrios Roussopoulos: Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism (Porsgrunn ,New Compass 2015) p.15

[3] Dimitrios Roussopoulos: Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism (Porsgrunn ,New Compass 2015) p.9

[4] https://globaljusticeecology.org/dvd-lacandona-the-zapatistas-and-rainforest-of-chiapas-mexico/

[5] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-society-and-ecology

[6] Simone Weil: The Need for Roots (London, Routledge 2002) p8

[7] Simone Weil: The Need for Roots (London, Routledge 2002)

[8] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers 1997) p.288

[9] http://www.publicseminar.org/2018/02/self-limitation-and-democracy/

[10] http://dkantalis.blogspot.com/2011/11/revolutionary-force-of-ecology.html

[11] Andrew Flood in ‘Anarchism and the Environmental movement‘ (1995) available online at: http://struggle.ws/talks/envir_anarchism.html

[12] https://komun-academy.com/2018/06/28/ecology-discussions-and-practices-in-the-kurdish-freedom-struggle-with-a-focus-on-north-kurdistan-bakur/

[13] Kristin Ross: The Long 1960s and “The Wind From the West” in Crisis & Critique Vol.5 Issue 2, p.327

[14] Kristin Ross: The Long 1960s and “The Wind From the West” in Crisis & Critique Vol.5 Issue 2, p.328

[15] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers 1997) p.277

[16] Abdullah Ocalan: Democratic Confederalism (London, International Initiative Edition 2011) p.33

[17] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-the-new-municipal-agenda

[18]Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford, Blackwell Publishers 1997) p.276

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