Putting ecology first

I promised someone yesterday that I would address the question they raised in response to one of my tweets.

Ecology loses when Greens first address creating a non-violent, just, democratic world.

The question was that of why this would be true. We have a small rat terrier who is an escape artist and took up my time last night”¦ bringing him back home and fixing yet another pathway out of the yard”¦ That may be a good example of how pressing needs transform priorities.

Now that I have started on this, it is not a very easy task and I admit that it will take more than one post. The short answer that I gave was “You can’t do the rest w/o working in ecological terms.” Not everyone would agree with that. Even among those who have thought seriously about ecology, there is a striking difference in approach. This is perhaps best understood by contrasting the ideas of Aldo Leopold and Murray Bookchin.

I have written about Leopold before, but not Bookchin. In Post-Scarcity Anarchisms, Bookchin places the root cause of our problems strictly in the deep soils of capitalism.

The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man”¦ But it was not until organic community relation ”¦ dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism.

Many, if not most, Greens would agree with Bookchin. However much he uses the concepts of ecology, Bookchin still relies on the social, economic organization of man to shape the rest of our relationships to the world. This leads him to develop the idea of Communalism”¦ again a term that Greens should pay attention to”¦ but that is a form of libertarian socialism.

Leopold, writing just before the time when Bookchin was formulating his ideas, defined what he called a “land ethic.” He begins by recognizing that humans are essentially a member of the biotic community. He saw the problem as an ethical one and that humans were in need of evolving their ethical relationships to a new communal future. ”

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: the the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

Maybe the difference comes from whether or not humans are granted free will or are pre-determined by their social structure, as Bookchin and all of the others who derived their thinking from Marx, seem to profess. If Bookchin is right, that we build our communal future to change human ethics, then I don’t see clearly that there is a way out. However, Leopold’s view that we need to evolve a new ethics, an extension of the process that moved us from treating other people as chattel to recognizing that “all men are created equal” gives guidance as to how we create the new society that Bookchin wanted.

Maybe my analysis is too simplistic. It probably is. The goal of creating a “non-violent, just, democratic world” seems to belong more in the realm of political action than ethics. I just don’t see how we meet that goal without our actions being informed by an ecological consciousness, a new land ethic to use Leopold’s term.


  1. If the problem was mostly just capitalism, then USSR and China wouldn’t have polluted and destroyed the environment as much as they have.

    Also, predeterminism by social class may have been true in Marx’s England but it isn’t in the US today. People can and do move between classes.

  2. Herman Daly argues that an economic theory seeks to maximize something – modern economics seeks to maximize growth. Even most socialist economies evaluate themselves using GDP and other such measurements that maximize the very thing theyshould oppose.

    Those favoring the environment and those favoring social justice both oppose that system, but that doesn’t mean they want the same thing. At some point, the two goals come into conflict. Whether it is the right to procreate versus the carrying capacity of the planet, or the right to eat versus local ecology, there will always be conflict between the ecology and that nonviolent, just, democratic world.

    That doesn’t mean they are impossible or incompatible, nor does it even mean that capitalism (with a small “c”) cannot be the economic relationship between individuals. But it does mean that we need a new system of evaluating economic activity, and it means there are divergent goals and therefore an inherent conflict that must be managed.

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