Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/3.3

A.3.3 What kinds of green anarchism are there?

An emphasis on anarchist ideas as a solution to the ecological crisis is a common thread in most forms of anarchism today. The trend goes back to the late nineteenth century and the works of Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus. The latter, for example, argued that a "secret harmony exists between the earth and the people whom it nourishes, and when imprudent societies let themselves violate this harmony, they always end up regretting it." Similarly, no contemporary ecologist would disagree with his comments that the "truly civilised man [and women] understands that his [or her] nature is bound up with the interest of all and with that of nature. He [or she] repairs the damage caused by his predecessors and works to improve his domain." [quoted by George Woodcock, "Introduction", Marie Fleming, The Geography of Freedom, p. 15]

With regards Kropotkin, he argued that an anarchist society would be based on a confederation of communities that would integrate manual and brain work as well as decentralising and integrating industry and agriculture (see his classic work Fields, Factories, and Workshops). This idea of an economy in which "small is beautiful" (to use the title of E.F. Schumacher's Green classic) was proposed nearly 70 years before it was taken up by what was to become the green movement. In addition, in Mutual Aid Kropotkin documented how co-operation within species and between them and their environment is usually of more benefit to them than competition. Kropotkin's work, combined with that of William Morris, the Reclus brothers (both of whom, like Kropotkin, were world-renowned geographers), and many others laid the foundations for the current anarchist interest in ecological issues.

However, while there are many themes of an ecological nature within classical anarchism, it is only relatively recently that the similarities between ecological thought and anarchism has come to the fore (essentially from the publication of Murray Bookchin's classic essay "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" in 1965). Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to state that it is the ideas and work of Murray Bookchin that has placed ecology and ecological issues at the heart of anarchism and anarchist ideals and analysis into many aspects of the green movement.

Before discussing the types of green anarchism (also called eco-anarchism) it would be worthwhile to explain exactly what anarchism and ecology have in common. To quote Murray Bookchin, "both the ecologist and the anarchist place a strong emphasis on spontaneity" and "to both the ecologist and the anarchist, an ever-increasing unity is achieved by growing differentiation. An expanding whole is created by the diversification and enrichment of its parts." Moreover, "[j]ust as the ecologist seeks to expand the range of an eco-system and promote free interplay between species, so the anarchist seeks to expand the range of social experiments and remove all fetters to its development." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 36]

Thus the anarchist concern with free development, decentralisation, diversity and spontaneity is reflected in ecological ideas and concerns. Hierarchy, centralisation, the state and concentrations of wealth reduce diversity and the free development of individuals and their communities by their very nature, and so weakens the social eco-system as well as the actual eco-systems human societies are part of. As Bookchin argues, "the reconstructive message of ecology. . . [is that] we must conserve and promote variety" but within modern capitalist society "[a]ll that is spontaneous, creative and individuated is circumscribed by the standardised, the regulated and the massified." [Op. Cit., p. 35 and p. 26] So, in many ways, anarchism can be considered the application of ecological ideas to society, as anarchism aims to empower individuals and communities, decentralise political, social and economic power so ensuring that individuals and social life develops freely and so becomes increasingly diverse in nature. It is for this reason Brian Morris argues that "the only political tradition that complements and, as it were, integrally connects with ecology -- in a genuine and authentic way -- is that of anarchism." [Ecology and Anarchism, p. 132]

So what kinds of green anarchism are there? While almost all forms of modern anarchism consider themselves to have an ecological dimension, the specifically eco-anarchist thread within anarchism has two main focal points, Social Ecology and "primitivist". In addition, some anarchists are influenced by Deep Ecology, although not many. Undoubtedly Social Ecology is the most influential and numerous current. Social Ecology is associated with the ideas and works of Murray Bookchin, who has been writing on ecological matters since the 1950's and, from the 1960s, has combined these issues with revolutionary social anarchism. His works include Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Toward an Ecological Society, The Ecology of Freedom and a host of others.

Social Ecology locates the roots of the ecological crisis firmly in relations of domination between people. The domination of nature is seen as a product of domination within society, but this domination only reaches crisis proportions under capitalism. In the words of Murray Bookchin:

   "The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man. . . But it was not until organic community relations. . . 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. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly . . . The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital." [Op. Cit., pp. 24–5]

"Only insofar," Bookchin stresses, "as the ecology consciously cultivates an anti-hierarchical and a non-domineering sensibility, structure, and strategy for social change can it retain its very identity as the voice for a new balance between humanity and nature and its goal for a truly ecological society." Social ecologists contrast this to what Bookchin labels "environmentalism" for while social ecology "seeks to eliminate the concept of the domination of nature by humanity by eliminating domination of human by human, environmentalism reflects an 'instrumentalist' or technical sensibility in which nature is viewed merely as a passive habit, an agglomeration of external objects and forces, that must be made more 'serviceable' for human use, irrespective of what these uses may be. Environmentalism . . . does not bring into question the underlying notions of the present society, notably that man must dominate nature. On the contrary, it seeks to facilitate that domination by developing techniques for diminishing the hazards caused by domination." [Murray Bookchin, Towards an Ecological Society, p. 77]

Social ecology offers the vision of a society in harmony with nature, one which "involves a fundamental reversal of all the trends that mark the historic development of capitalist technology and bourgeois society -- the minute specialisation of machines and labour, the concentration of resources and people in gigantic industrial enterprises and urban entities, the stratification and bureaucratisation of nature and human beings." Such an ecotopia "establish entirely new eco-communities that are artistically moulded to the eco-systems in which they are located." Echoing Kropotkin, Bookchin argues that "[s]uch an eco-community . . . would heal the split between town and country, between mind and body by fusing intellectual with physical work, industry with agricultural in a rotation or diversification of vocational tasks." This society would be based on the use of appropriate and green technology, a "new kind of technology -- or eco-technology -- one composed of flexible, versatile machinery whose productive applications would emphasise durability and quality, not built in obsolescence, and insensate quantitative output of shoddy goods, and a rapid circulation of expendable commodities . . . Such an eco-technology would use the inexhaustible energy capacities of nature -- the sun and wind, the tides and waterways, the temperature differentials of the earth and the abundance of hydrogen around us as fuels -- to provide the eco-community with non-polluting materials or wastes that could be recycled." [Bookchin, Op. Cit., pp. 68–9]

However, this is not all. As Bookchin stresses an ecological society "is more than a society that tries to check the mounting disequilibrium that exists between humanity and the natural world. Reduced to simple technical or political issues, this anaemic view of such a society's function degrades the issues raised by an ecological critique and leads them to purely technical and instrumental approaches to ecological problems. Social ecology is, first of all, a sensibility that includes not only a critique of hierarchy and domination but a reconstructive outlook . . . guided by an ethics that emphasises variety without structuring differences into a hierarchical order . . . the precepts for such an ethics . . . [are] participation and differentiation." [The Modern Crisis, pp. 24–5]

Therefore social ecologists consider it essential to attack hierarchy and capitalism, not civilisation as such as the root cause of ecological problems. This is one of the key areas in which they disagree with "Primitivist" Anarchist ideas, who tend to be far more critical of all aspects of modern life, with some going so far as calling for "the end of civilisation" including, apparently, all forms of technology and large scale organisation. We discuss these ideas in section A.3.9.

We must note here that other anarchists, while generally agreeing with its analysis and suggestions, are deeply critical of Social Ecology's support for running candidates in municipal elections. While Social Ecologists see this as a means of creating popular self-managing assemblies and creating a counter power to the state, few anarchists agree. Rather they see it as inherently reformist as well as being hopelessly naive about the possibilities of using elections to bring about social change (see section J.5.14 for a fuller discussion of this). Instead they propose direct action as the means to forward anarchist and ecological ideas, rejecting electioneering as a dead-end which ends up watering down radical ideas and corrupting the people involved (see section J.2 -- What is Direct Action?).

Lastly, there is "deep ecology," which, because of its bio-centric nature, many anarchists reject as anti-human. There are few anarchists who think that people, as people, are the cause of the ecological crisis, which many deep ecologists seem to suggest. Murray Bookchin, for example, has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of deep ecology and the anti-human ideas that are often associated with it (see Which Way for the Ecology Movement?, for example). David Watson has also argued against Deep Ecology (see his How Deep is Deep Ecology? written under the name George Bradford). Most anarchists would argue that it is not people but the current system which is the problem, and that only people can change it. In the words of Murray Bookchin:

   "[Deep Ecology's problems] stem from an authoritarian streak in a crude biologism that uses 'natural law' to conceal an ever-diminishing sense of humanity and papers over a profound ignorance of social reality by ignoring the fact it is capitalism we are talking about, not an abstraction called 'Humanity' and 'Society.'" [The Philosophy of Social Ecology, p. 160]

Thus, as Morris stresses, "by focusing entirely on the category of 'humanity' the Deep Ecologists ignore or completely obscure the social origins of ecological problems, or alternatively, biologise what are essentially social problems." To submerge ecological critique and analysis into a simplistic protest against the human race ignores the real causes and dynamics of ecological destruction and, therefore, ensures an end to this destruction cannot be found. Simply put, it is hardly "people" who are to blame when the vast majority have no real say in the decisions that affect their lives, communities, industries and eco-systems. Rather, it is an economic and social system that places profits and power above people and planet. By focusing on "Humanity" (and so failing to distinguish between rich and poor, men and women, whites and people of colour, exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed) the system we live under is effectively ignored, and so are the institutional causes of ecological problems. This can be "both reactionary and authoritarian in its implications, and substitutes a naive understanding of 'nature' for a critical study of real social issues and concerns." [Morris, Op. Cit., p. 135]

Faced with a constant anarchist critique of certain of their spokes-persons ideas, many Deep Ecologists have turned away from the anti-human ideas associated with their movement. Deep ecology, particularly the organisation Earth First! (EF!), has changed considerably over time, and EF! now has a close working relationship with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a syndicalist union. While deep ecology is not a thread of eco-anarchism, it shares many ideas and is becoming more accepted by anarchists as EF! rejects its few misanthropic ideas and starts to see that hierarchy, not the human race, is the problem (for a discussion between Murray Bookchin and leading Earth Firster! Dave Foreman see the book Defending the Earth).