BOOKCHIN, Murray. Society and Ecology

NatureNature. EvolutionEcologyBOOKCHIN, Murray (14 janvier 1921 – 30 juillet 2006) CultureSociety. Society (views of - )TechnologyBiologyNature. Social ecology
Murray Bookchin

The problems which many people face today in "defining"

themselves, in knowing "who they are"—problems that feed a vast psychotherapy industry—are by no means personal ones. These problems exist not only for private individuals; they exist for modern society as a whole.

Socially, we live in desperate uncertainty about how people relate to each other. We suffer not only as individuals from alienation and confusion over our identitiesand goals; our entire society, conceived as a single entity, seems unclear about its own nature and sense of direction. If earlier societies tried to foster a belief in the virtues of cooperation and caring,

thereby giving an ethical meaning to social life, modern society fosters a belief in the virtues of competition and egotism, thereby divesting human association of all meaning—except, perhaps, as an instrument for gain and mindless consumption. [1]

We tend to believe that men and women of earlier times were guided

by firm beliefs and hopes—values that defined them as human beings

and gave purpose to their social lives. We speak of the Middle Ages

as an "Age of Faith" or the Enlightenment as an "Age of Reason."

Even the pre-World War II era and the years that followed it seem

like an alluring time of innocence and hope, despite the Great

Depression and the terrible conflicts that stained it. As an elderly

character in a recent, rather sophisticated, espionage movie put it

what he missed about his younger years during World War II were

their "clarity"—a sense of purpose and idealism that guided his


That "clarity," today, is gone. It has been replaced by ambiguity.

The certainty that technology and science would improve the human

condition is mocked by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, by

massive hunger in the Third World, and by poverty in the First

World. The fervent belief that liberty would triumph over tyranny is

belied by the growing centralization of states everywhere and by the

disempowerment of people by bureaucracies, police forces, and

sophisticated surveillance techniques—in our "democracies" no less

than in visibly authoritarian countries. The hope that we would form

"one world," a vast community of disparate ethnic groups that

would share their resources to improve life everywhere, has been

shattered by a rising tide of nationalism, racism, and an unfeeling

parochialism that fosters indifference to the plight of millions.

We believe that our values are worse than those held by people of

only two or three generations ago. The present generation seems

more self-centred, privatized, and mean-spirited by comparison

with earlier ones. It lacks the support systems provided by the

extended family, community, and a commitment to mutual aid. The

encounter of the individual with society seems to occur through cold

bureaucratic agencies rather than warm, caring people.

This lack of social identity and meaning is all the more stark in

the face of the mounting problems that confront us. War is a

chronic condition of our time; economic uncertainty, an

all-pervasive presence; human solidarity, a vaporous myth. Not

least of the problems we encounter are nightmares of an ecological

apocalypse—a catastrophic breakdown of the systems that maintain

the stability of the planet. We live under the constant threat that the

world of life will be irrevocably undermined by a society gone mad

in its need to grow—replacing the organic by the inorganic, soil by

concrete, forest by barren earth, and the diversity of life-forms by

simplified ecosystems; in short, a turning back of the evolutionary

clock to an earlier, more inorganic, mineralized world that was

incapable of supporting complex life-forms of any kind, including

the human species.

Ambiguity about our fate, meaning, and purpose thus raises a

rather startling question: is society itself a curse, a blight on life

generally? Are we any better for this new phenomenon called

"civilization" that seems to be on the point of destroying the natural

world produced over millions of years of organic evolution.

An entire literature has emerged which has gained the attention of

millions of readers: a literature that fosters a new pessimism toward

civilization as such. This literature pits technology against a

presumably "virginal" organic nature; cities against countryside;

countryside against "wilderness"; science against a "reverence" for

life; reason against the "innocence" of intuition; and, indeed,

humanity against the entire biosphere.

We show signs of losing faith in all our uniquely human abiliti

- our ability to live in peace with each other, our ability to care for

our fellow beings and other life-forms. This pessimism is fed daily

by sociobiologists who locate our failings in our genes, by

antihumanists who deplore our "antinatural" sensibilities, and by

"biocentrists" who downgrade our rational qualities with notions

that we are no different in our "intrinsic worth" than ants. In short,

we are witnessing a widespread assault against the ability of reason,

science, and technology to improve the world for ourselves and life


The historic theme that civilization must inevitably be pitted

against nature, indeed, that it is corruptive of human nature, has

surfaced in our midst from the days that reach back to Rousseau—

this, precisely at a time when our need for a truly human and

ecological civilization has never been greater if we are to rescue our

planet and ourselves. Civilization, with its hallmarks of reason and

technics, is viewed increasingly as a new blight. Even more

basically, society as a phenomenon in its own right is being

questioned so much so that its role as integral to the formation of

humanity is seen as something harmfully "unnatural" and inherently


Humanity, in effect, is being defamed by human beings themselves,

ironically, as an accursed form of life that all but destroys the world

of life and threatens its integrity. To the confusion that we have

about our own muddled time and our personal identities, we now

have the added confusion that the human condition is seen as a form

of chaos produced by our proclivity for wanton destruction and our

ability to exercise this proclivity all the more effectively because we

possess reason, science, and technology.

Admittedly, few antihumanists, "biocentrists," and misanthropes,

who theorize about the human condition, are prepared to follow the

logic of their premises to such an absurd point. What is vitally

important about this medley of moods and unfinished ideas is that

the various forms, institutions, and relationships that make up what

we should call "society" are largely ignored. Instead, just as we use

vague words like "humanity" or zoological terms like !homo

sapiens! that conceal vast differences, often bitter antagonisms, that

exist between privileged whites and people of colour, men and

women, rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed; so do we, by the

same token, use vague words like "society" or "civilization" that

conceal vast differences between free, nonhierarchical, class, and

stateless societies on the one hand, and others that are, in varying

degrees, hierarchical, class-ridden, statist, and authoritarian.

Zoology, in effect, replaces socially oriented ecology. Sweeping

"natural laws" based on population swings among animals replace

conflicting economic and social interests among people.

Simply to pit "society" against "nature," "humanity" against the

"biosphere," and "reason," "technology," and "science" against less

developed, often primitive forms of human interaction with the

natural world, prevents us from examining the highly complex

differences and divisions within society so necessary to define our

problems and their solutions.

Ancient Egypt, for example, had a significantly different attitude

toward nature than ancient Babylonia. Egypt assumed a reverential

attitude toward a host of essentially animistic nature deities, many of

which were physically part human and part animal, while

Babylonians created a pantheon of very human political deities. But

Egypt was no less hierarchical than Babylonia in its treatment of

people and was equally, if not more, oppressive in its view of

human individuality. Certain hunting peoples may have been as

destructive of wildlife, despite their strong animistic beliefs, as

urban cultures which staked out an over-arching claim to reason.

When these many differences are simply swallowed up together

with a vast variety of social forms by a word called "society," we do

severe violence to thought and even simple intelligence. Society !per

se! becomes something "unnatural." "Reason," "technology," and

"science" become things that are "destructive" without any regard to

the social factors that condition their use. Human attempts to alter

the environment are seen as threats —as though our "species" can do

little or nothing to improve the planet for life generally.

Of course, we are not any less animals than other mammals, but

we are more than herds that browse on the African plains. The way

in which we are more— namely, the !kinds! of societies that we

form and how we are divided against each other into hierarchies and

classes— profoundly affects our behaviour and our effects on the

natural world.

Finally, by so radically separating humanity and society from

nature or naively reducing them to mere zoological entities, we can

no longer see how human nature is !derived! from nonhuman nature

and social evolution from natural evolution. Humanity becomes

estranged or alienated not only from itself in our "age of alienation,"

but from the natural world in which it has always been rooted as a

complex and thinking life-force.

Accordingly, we are fed a steady diet of reproaches by liberal and

misanthropic environmentalists alike about how "we" as a species

are responsible for the breakdown of the environment. One does

not have to go to enclaves of mystics and gurus in San Francisco to

find this species-centred, asocial view of ecological problems and

their sources. New York City will do just as well. I shall not easily

forget an "environmental" presentation staged by the New York

Museum of Natural History in the seventies in which the public was

exposed to a long series of exhibits, each depicting examples of

pollution and ecological disruption . The exhibit which closed the

presentation carried a startling sign, "The Most Dangerous Animal

on Earth," and it consisted simply of a huge mirror which reflected

back the human viewer who stood before it. I clearly recall a black

child standing before the mirror while a white school teacher tried to

explain the message which this arrogant exhibit tried to convey.

There were no exhibits of corporate boards or directors planning to

deforest a mountainside or government officials acting in collusion

with them. The exhibit primarily conveyed one, basically

misanthropic, message: people !as such!, not a rapacious society

and its wealthy beneficiaries, are responsible for environmental

dislocations— the poor no less than the personally wealthy, people

of colour no less than privileged whites, women no less than men,

the oppressed no less than the oppressor. A mythical human

"species" had replaced classes; individuals had replaced hierarchies;

personal tastes (many of which are shaped by a predatory media)

had replaced social relationships; and the disempowered who live

meagre, isolated lives had replaced giant corporations, self-serving

bureaucracies, and the violent paraphernalia of the State.


Leaving aside such outrageous "environmental" exhibitions that

mirror privileged and underprivileged people in the same frame, it

seems appropriate at this point to raise a highly relevant need: the

need to bring society back into the ecological picture. More than

ever, strong emphases must be placed on the fact that nearly !all

ecological problems are social problems,! not simply or primarily

the result of religious, spiritual, or political ideologies. That these

ideologies may foster an anti-ecological outlook in people of all

strata hardly requires emphasis. But rather than simply take

ideologies at their face value, it is crucial for us to ask from whence

these ideologies developed.

Quite frequently, economic needs may compel people to act

against their best impulses, even strongly felt natural values.

Lumberjacks who are employed to clear-cut a magnificent forest

normally have no "hatred" of trees. They have little or no choice but

to cut trees just as stockyard workers have little or no choice but to

slaughter domestic animals. Every community or occupation has its

fair share of destructive and sadistic individuals, to be sure,

including misanthropic environmentalists who would like to see

humanity exterminated. But among the vast majority of people, this

kind of work, including such onerous tasks as mining, are not freely

chosen occupations. They stem from need and, above all, they are

the product of social arrangements over which ordinary people have

no control.

To understand present-day problems—ecological as well as

economic and political—we must examine their social causes and

remedy them through social methods. "Deep," "spiritual," and

humanist, and misanthropic ecologies gravely mislead us when they

refocus our attention on social symptoms rather than social causes.

If our obligation is to look at changes in social relationships in order

to understand our most significant ecological changes, these

ecologies steer us away from society to "spiritual," "cultural," or

vaguely defined "traditional" sources. The Bible did not create

European antinaturalism; it served to justify an antinaturalism that

already existed on the continent from pagan times, despite the

animistic traits of pre-Christian religions. Christianity’s

antinaturalistic influence became especially marked with the

emergence of capitalism. Society must not only be brought into the

ecological picture to understand why people tend to choose

competing sensibilities—some, strongly naturalistic; others, strongly

antinaturalistic—but we must probe more deeply into society itself.

We must search out the !relationship of society to nature,! the

!reasons! why it can destroy the natural world, and, alternatively,

the reasons why it has and still can !enhance, foster, and richly

contribute! to natural evolution.

Insofar as we can speak of "society" in any abstract and general

sense—and let us remember that every society is highly unique and

different from others in the long perspective of history—we are

obliged to examine what we can best call "socialization," not merely

"society." Society is a given arrangement of relationships which we

often take for granted and view in a very fixed way. To many

people today, it would seem that a market society based on trade

and competition has existed "forever," although we may be vaguely

mindful that there were pre-market societies based on gifts and

cooperation. Socialization, on the other hand, is a !process,! just as

individual living is a process. Historically, the !process! of

socializing people can be viewed as a sort of social infancy that

involves a painful rearing of humanity to social maturity.

When we begin to consider socialization from an in-depth

viewpoint, what strikes us is that society itself in its most primal

form stems very much !from! nature. Every social evolution, in

fact, is virtually an extension of natural evolution into a distinctly

human realm. As the Roman orator and philosopher, Cicero,

declared some two thousand years ago: " the use of our hands,

we bring into being within the realm of Nature, a second nature for

ourselves." Cicero’s observation, to be sure, is very incomplete: the

primeval, presumably untouched "realm of Nature" or "first nature,"

as it has been called, is reworked in whole or part into "second

nature" not only by the "use of our hands." Thought, language, and

complex, very important biological changes also play a crucial and,

at times, a decisive role in developing a "second nature" within

’’first nature’’.

I use the term "reworking" advisedly to focus on the fact that

"second nature" is not simply a phenomenon that develops outside

of "first nature"—hence the special value that should be attached to

Cicero’s use of the expression "!within! the realm of Nature..." To

emphasize that "second nature" or, more precisely, society (to use

this word in its broadest possible sense) emerges from !within!

primeval ’’first nature" is to re-establish the fact that social life

always has a naturalistic dimension, however much society is pitted

against nature in our thinking. !Social! ecology clearly expresses the

fact that society is not a sudden "eruption" in the world. Social life

does not necessarily face nature as a combatant in an unrelenting

war. The emergence of society is a !natural! fact that has its origins

in the biology of human socialization.

The human socialization process from which society emerges—be

it in the form of families, bands, tribes, or more complex types of

human intercourse—has its source in parental relationships,

particularly mother and child bonding. The biological mother, to be

sure, can be replaced in this process by many surrogates, including

fathers, relatives, or, for that matter, all members of a community. It

is when !social! parents and !social! siblings—that is, the human

community that surrounds the young—begin to participate in a

system of care, that is ordinarily undertaken by biological parents,

that society begins to truly come into its own.

Society thereupon advances beyond a mere reproductive group

toward institutionalized human relationships, and from a relatively

formless animal community into a clearly structured social !order!.

But at the very inception of society, it seems more than likely that

human beings were socialized into "second nature" by means of

deeply ingrained blood ties, specifically maternal ties. We shall see

that in time the structures or institutions that mark the advance of

humanity from a mere animal community into an authentic society

began to undergo far-reaching changes and these changes become

issues of paramount importance in social ecology. For better or

worse, societies develop around status groups, hierarchies, classes,

and state formations. But reproduction and family care remain the

abiding biological bases for every form of social life as well as the

originating factor in the socialization of the young and the formation

of a society. As Robert Briffault observed in the early half of this

century, the "one known factor which establishes a profound

distinction between the constitution of the most rudimentary human

group and all other animal groups [is the] association of mothers and

offspring which is the sole form of true social solidarity among

animals. Throughout the class of mammals, there is a continuous

increase in the duration of that association, which is the consequence

of the prolongation of the period of infantile dependence," a

prolongation which Briffault correlates with increases in the period

of fetal gestation and advances in intelligence.

The biological dimension that Briffault adds to what we call

society and socialization cannot be stressed too strongly. It is a

decisive presence, not only in the origins of society over ages of

animal evolution, but in the daily recreation of society in our

everyday lives. The appearance of a newly born infant and the

highly extended care it receives for many years reminds us that it is

not only a human being that is being reproduced, but society itself.

By comparison with the young of other species, children develop

slowly and over a long period of time. Living in close association

with parents, siblings, kin groups, and an ever-widening

community of people, they retain a plasticity of mind that makes for

creative individuals and ever-formative social groups. Although

nonhuman animals may approximate human forms of association in

many ways, they do not create a "second nature" that embodies a

cultural tradition, nor do they possess a complex language, elaborate

conceptual powers, or an impressive capacity to restructure their

environment purposefully according to their own needs.

A chimpanzee, for example, remains an infant for only three years

and a juvenile for seven. By the age of ten, it is a full-grown adult.

Children, by contrast, are regarded as infants for approximately six

years and juveniles for fourteen. A chimpanzee, in short, grows

mentally and physically in about half the time required by a human

being, and its capacity to learn or, at least to think, is already fixed

by comparison with a human being, whose mental abilities may

expand for decades. By the same token, chimpanzee associations

are often idiosyncratic and fairly limited. Human associations, on

the other hand, are basically stable, highly institutionalized, and

they are marked by a degree of solidarity, indeed, by a degree of

creativity, that has no equal in nonhuman species as far as we


This prolonged degree of human mental plasticity, dependency,

and social creativity yields two results that are of decisive

importance. First, early human association must have fostered a

strong predisposition for !interdependence! among members of a

group—not the "rugged individualism" we associate with

independence. The overwhelming mass of anthropological evidence

suggests that participation, mutual aid, solidarity, and empathy were

the social virtues early human groups emphasized within their

communities. The idea that people are dependent upon each other

for the good life, indeed, for survival, followed from the prolonged

dependence of the young upon adults. Independence, not to mention

competition, would have seemed utterly alien, if not bizarre, to a

creature reared over many years in a largely dependent condition.

Care for others would have been seen as the perfectly natural

outcome of a highly acculturated being that was, in turn, clearly in

need of extended care. Our modern version of individualism, more

precisely, of egotism, would have cut across the grain of early

solidarity and mutual aid— traits, I may add without which such a

physically fragile animal like a human being could hardly have

survived as an adult, much less as a child.

Second, human interdependence must have assumed a highly

structured form. There is no evidence that human beings normally

relate to each other through the fairly loose systems of bonding we

find among our closest primate cousins. That human social bonds

can be dissolved or de-institutionalized in periods of radical change

or cultural breakdown is too obvious to argue here. But during

relatively stable conditions, human society was never the "horde"

that anthropologists of the last century presupposed as a basis for

rudimentary social life. On the contrary, the evidence we have at

hand points to the fact that all humans, perhaps even our distant

hominid ancestors, lived in some kind of structured family groups,

and, later, in bands, tribes, villages, and other forms. In short, they

bonded together (as they still do), not only emotionally and morally,

but also structurally in contrived, clearly definable, and fairly

permanent institutions.

Nonhuman animals may form loose communities and even take

collective protective postures to defend their young from predators.

But such communities can hardly be called structured, except in a

broad, often ephemeral, sense. Humans, by contrast, create highly

formal communities that tend to become increasingly structured over

the course of time. In effect, they form not only communities, but a

new phenomenon called !societies.

If we fail to distinguish animal communities from human

societies, we risk the danger of ignoring the unique features that

distinguish human social life from animal communities—notably, the

ability of society to !change! for better or worse and the factors that

produce these changes. By reducing a complex society to a mere

community, we can easily ignore how societies differed from each

other over the course of history. We can also fail to understand how

they elaborated simple differences in status into firmly established

hierarchies, or hierarchies into economic classes. Indeed, we risk

the possibility of totally misunderstanding the very meaning of

terms like "hierarchy" as highly organized systems of command and

obedience—these, as distinguished from personal, individual, and

often short-lived differences in status that may, in all too many

cases, involve no acts of compulsion. We tend, in effect, to confuse

the strictly institutional creations of human will, purpose, conflicting

interests, and traditions, with community life in its most fixed

forms, as though we were dealing with inherent, seemingly

unalterable, features of society rather than fabricated structures that

can be modified, improved, worsened—or simply abandoned. The

trick of every ruling elite from the beginnings of history to modern

times has been to identify its own socially created hierarchical

systems of domination with community life !as such!, with the

result being that human-made institutions acquire divine or

biological sanctity.

A given society and its institutions thus tend to become reified into

permanent and unchangeable entities that acquire a mysterious life

of their own apart from nature—namely, the products of a seemingly

fixed "human nature" that is the result of genetic programming at the

very inception of social life. Alternatively, a given society and its

institutions may be dissolved into nature as merely another form of

animal community with its "alpha males," "guardians," "leaders,"

and "horde"-like forms of existence. When annoying issues like

war and social conflict are raised, they are ascribed to the activity of

"genes" that presumably give rise to war and even "greed".

In either case, be it the notion of an abstract society that exists apart

from nature or an equally abstract natural community that is

indistinguishable from nature, a dualism appears that sharply

separates society !from! nature, or a crude reductionism appears that

dissolves society !into! nature. These apparently contrasting, but

closely related, notions are all the more seductive because they are

so simplistic. Although they are often presented by their more

sophisticated supporters in a fairly nuanced form, such notions are

easily reduced to bumper-sticker slogans that are frozen into hard,

popular dogmas.


The approach to society and nature advanced by social ecology

may seem more intellectually demanding, but it avoids the

simplicities of dualism and the crudities of reductionism. Social

ecology tries to show how nature slowly !phases! into society

without ignoring the differences between society and nature on the

one hand, as well as the extent to which they merge with each other

on the other.The everyday socialization of the young by the family is

no less rooted in biology than the everyday care of the old by the

medical establishment is rooted in the hard facts of society. By the

same token, we never cease to be mammals who still have primal

natural urges, but we institutionalize these urges and their

satisfaction in a wide variety of social forms. Hence, the social and

the natural continually permeate each other in the most ordinary

activities of daily life without losing their identity in a shared process

of interaction, indeed, of interactivity.

Obvious as this may seem at first in such day-to-day problems as

caretaking, social ecology raises questions that have far-reaching

importance for the different ways society andnaturehave interacted

over time and the problems these interactions have produced. How

did a divisive, indeed, seemingly combative, relationship between

humanity and nature emerge? What were the institutional forms and

ideologiesthatrenderedthisconflict possible?Given the growth of

humanneeds and technology, was such a conflict really

unavoidable? And can it be overcome in a future, ecologically

oriented society?

How does a rational, ecologically oriented society fit into the

processes of natural evolution? Even more broadly, is there any

reason to believe that the human mind—itself a product of natural

evolution as well as culture—represents a decisive highpoint in

natural development, notably, in the long development of

subjectivity from the sensitivity and self-maintenance of the simplest

life-forms to the remarkable intellectuality and self-consciousness of

the most complex.

In asking these highly provocative questions, I am not trying to

justify a strutting arrogance toward nonhuman life-forms. Clearly,

we must bring humanity’ s uniqueness as a species, marked by rich

conceptual, social, imaginative, and constructive attributes, into

synchronicity with nature’s fecundity, diversity, and creativity. I

have argued that this synchronicity will not be achieved by opposing

nature to society, nonhuman to human life-forms, natural fecundity

to technology, or a natural subjectivity to the human mind. Indeed,

an important result that emerges from a discussion of the

interrelationship of nature to society is the fact that human

intellectuality, although distinct, also has a far-reaching natural

basis. Our brains and nervous systems did not suddenly spring into

existence without a long antecedent natural history. That which we

most prize as integral to our humanity—our extraordinary capacity to

think on complex conceptual levels—can be traced back to the nerve

network of primitive invertebrates, the ganglia of a mollusk, the

spinal cord of a fish, the brain of an amphibian, and the cerebral

cortex of a primate.

Here, too, in the most intimate of our human attributes, we are

no less products of natural evolution than we are of social

evolution. As human beings we incorporate within ourselves aeons

of organic differentiation and elaboration. Like all complex

life-forms, we are not only part of natural evolution; we are also its

heirs and the products of natural fecundity.

In trying to show how society slowly grows out of nature,

however, social ecology is also obliged to show how society, too,

undergoes differentiation and elaboration. In doing so, social

ecology must examine those junctures in social evolution where

splits occurred which slowly brought society into opposition to the

natural world, and explain how this opposition emerged from its

inception in prehistoric times to our own era. Indeed, if the human

species is a life-form that can consciously and richly enhance the

natural world, rather than simply damage it, it is important for social

ecology to reveal the factors that have rendered many human beings

into parasites on the world of life rather than active partners in

organic evolution. This project must be undertaken not in a

haphazard way, but with a serious attempt to render natural and

social development coherent in terms of each other, and relevant to

our times and the construction of an ecological society.

Perhaps one of social ecology’s most important contributions to

the current ecological discussion is the view that the basic problems

which pit society against nature emerge form !within! social

development itself —not !between! society and nature. That is to say,

the divisions between society and nature have their deepest roots in

divisions within the social realm, namely, deep- seated conflicts

between human and human that are often obscured by our broad use

of the word "humanity".

This crucial view cuts across the grain of nearly all current

ecological thinking and even social theorizing. One of the most fixed

notions that present-day ecological thinking shares with liberalism,

Marxism, and conservatism is the historic belief that the "domination

of nature" requires the domination of human by human. This is most

obvious in social theory. Nearly all of our contemporary social

ideologies have placed the notion of human domination at the centre

of their theorizing. It remains one of the most widely accepted

notions, from classical times to the present, that human freedom

from the "domination of man by nature" entails the domination of

human by human as the earliest means of production and the use of

human beings as instruments for harnessing the natural world.

Hence, in order to harness the natural world, it has been argued for

ages, it is necessary to harness human beings as well, in the form of

slaves, serfs, and workers.

That this instrumental notion pervades the ideology of nearly all

ruling elites and has provided both liberal and conservative

movements with a justification for their accommodation to the status

quo, requires little, if any, elaboration. The myth of a "stingy"

nature has always been used to justify the "stinginess" of exploiters

in their harsh treatment of the exploited—and it has provided the

excuse for the political opportunism of liberal, as well as

conservative, causes. To "work within the system" has always

implied an acceptance of domination as a way of "organizing" social

life and, in the best of cases, a way of freeing humans from their

presumed domination by nature.

What is perhaps less known, however, is that Marx, too, justified

the emergence of class society and the State as stepping stones

toward the domination of nature and, presumably, the liberation of

humanity. It was on the strength of this historical vision that Marx

formulated his materialist conception of history and his belief in the

need for class society as a stepping stone in the historic road to


Ironically, much that now passes for antihumanistic, mystical

ecology involves exactly the same kind of thinking—but in an

inverted form. Like their instrumental opponents, these ecologists,

too, assume that humanity is dominated by nature, be it in the form

of "natural laws" or an ineffable "earth wisdom" that must guide

human behaviour. But while their instrumental opponents argue the

need to achieve nature’s "surrender" to a "conquering"

active-aggressive humanity, antihumanist and mystical ecologists

argue the case for achieving humanity’s passive-receptive

"surrender" to an "all conquering" nature. However much the two

views may differ in their verbiage and pieties, !domination! remains

the underlying notion of both: a natural world conceived as a

taskmaster—either to be controlled or obeyed.

Social ecology springs this trap dramatically by re-examining the

entire concept of domination, be it in nature and society or in the

form of "natural law" and "social law." What we normally call

domination in nature is a human projection of highly organized

systems of !social! command and obedience onto highly

idiosyncratic, individual, and asymmetrical forms of often mildly

coercive behaviour in animal communities. Put simply, animals do

not "dominate" each other in the same way that a human elite

dominates, and often exploits, an oppressed social group. Nor do

they "rule" through institutional forms of systematic violence as

social elites do. Among apes, for example, there is little or no

coercion, but only erratic forms of dominant behaviour. Gibbons

and orangutans are notable for their peaceable behaviour toward

members of their own kind. Gorillas are often equally pacific,

although one can single out "high status," mature, and physically

strong males among "lower status," younger and physically weaker

ones. The "alpha males" celebrated among chimpanzees do not

occupy very fixed "status" positions within what are fairly fluid

groups. Any "status" that they do achieve may be due to very

diverse causes.

One can merrily skip from one animal species to another, to be

sure, falling back on very different, asymmetrical reasons for

searching out "high" versus "low status" individuals. The procedure

becomes rather silly, however, when words like "status" are used

so flexibly that they are allowed to include mere differences in group

behaviour and functions, rather than coercive actions.

The same is true for the word "hierarchy." Both in its origins and

its strict meaning, this term is highly social, not zoological. A Greek

term, initially used to denote different levels of deities and, later,

clergy (characteristically, Hierapolis was an ancient Phrygian city in

Asia Minor that was a centre for mother goddess worship), the word

has been mindlessly expanded to encompass everything from

beehive relationships to the erosive effects of running water in

which a stream is seen to wear down and "dominate" its bedrock.

Caring female elephants are called "matriarchs" and attentive male

apes who exhibit a great deal of courage in defense of their

community, while acquiring very few "privileges," are often

designated as "patriarchs." The absence of an organized system of

rule—so common in hierarchical human communities and subject to

radical institutional changes, including popular revolutions—is

largely ignored.

Again, the different functions that the presumed animal hierarchies

are said to perform, that is, the asymmetrical causes that place one

individual in an "alpha status" and others in a lesser one, is

understated where it is noted at all. One might, with much the same

aplomb, place all tall sequoias in a "superior" status over smaller

ones, or, more annoyingly, regard them as an "elite" in a mixed

forest "hierarchy" over "submissive" oaks, which, to complicate

matters, are more advanced on the evolutionary scale. The tendency

to mechanically project social categories onto the natural world is as

preposterous as an attempt to project biological concepts onto

geology. Minerals do not "reproduce" the way life-forms do.

Stalagmites and stalactites in caves certainly do increase in size over

time. But in no sense do they grow in a manner that even remotely

corresponds to growth in living beings. To take superficial

resemblances, often achieved in alien ways, and group them into

shared identities, is like speaking of the "metabolism" of rocks and

the "morality" of genes.

This raises the issue of repeated attempts to read ethical, as well as

social, traits into a natural world that is only !potentially! ethical

insofar as it forms a basis for an objective social ethics. Yes,

coercion does exist in nature; so does pain and suffering. However,

!cruelty! does not. Animal intention and will are too limited to

produce an ethics of good and evil or kindness and cruelty.

Evidence of inferential and conceptual thought is very limited among

anima]s, except for primates, cetaceans, elephants, and possibly a

few other mammals. Even among the most intelligent animals, the

limits to thought are immense in comparison with the extraordinary

capacities of socialized human beings. Admittedly, we are

substantially less than human today in view of our still unknown

potential to be creative, caring, and rational. Our prevailing society

serves to inhibit, rather than realize, our human potential. We still

lack the imagination to know how much our finest human traits

could expand with an ethical, ecological, and rational dispensation

of human affairs.

By contrast, the known nonhuman world seems to have reached

visibly fixed limits in its capacity to survive environmental changes.

If mere !adaptation! to environmental changes is seen as the criterion

for evolutionary success (as many biologists believe), then insects

would have to be placed on a higher plane of development than any

mammalian life-form. However, they would be no more capable of

making so lofty an intellectual evaluation of themselves than a

"queen bee" would be even remotely aware of her "regal" status—a

status, I may add, that only humans (who have suffered the social

domination of stupid, inept, and cruel kings and queens) would be

able to impute to a largely mindless insect.

None of these remarks are meant to metaphysically oppose nature to

society or society to nature. On the contrary, they are meant to argue

that what unites society with nature in a graded evolutionary

continuum is the remarkable extent to which human beings, living in

a rational, ecologically oriented society, could !embody! the

!creativity! of nature— this, as distinguished from a purely !adaptive!

criterion of evolutionary success. The great achievements of human

thought, art, science, and technology serve not only to

monumentalize culture, !they serve also to monumentalize natural

evolution itself!. They provide heroic evidence that the human

species is a warm-blooded, excitingly versatile, and keenly

intelligent life-form—not a cold-blooded, genetically programmed,

and mindless insect—that expresses !nature’s! greatest powers of


Life-forms that create and consciously alter their environment,

hopefully in ways that make it more rational and ecological,

represent a vast and indefinite extension of nature into fascinating,

perhaps unbounded, lines of evolution which no branch of insects

could ever achieve—notably the evolution of a fully !self-conscious!

nature. If this be humanism—more precisely, ecological humanism,

the current crop of antihumanists and misanthropes are welcome to

make the most of it.

Nature, in turn, is not a scenic view we admire through a picture

window—a view that is frozen into a landscape or a static panorama.

Such landscape=D3 images of nature may be spiritually elevating but

they are ecologically deceptive. Fixed in time and place, this imagery

makes it easy for us to forget that nature is not a static vision of the

natural world but the long, indeed cumulative, !history! of natural

development. This history involves the evolution of the inorganic,

as well as the organic, realms of phenomena. Wherever we stand in

an open field, forest, or on a mountain top, our feet rest on ages of

development, be they geological strata, fossils of long-extinct

life-forms, the decaying remains of the newly dead, or the quiet

stirring of newly emerging life. Nature is not a "person," a "caring

Mother,=D3 or, in the crude materialist language of the last century,

"matter and motion." Nor is it a mere "process" that involves

repetitive cycles like seasonal changes and the building-up and

breaking-down process of metabolic activity—some process

philosophies to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, natural history

is a !cumulative! evolution toward ever more varied, differentiated,

and complex forms and relationships.

This !evolutionary! development of increasingly variegated entities,

most notably, of life-forms, is also an evolutionary development

which contains exciting, latent possibilities. With variety,

differentiation, and complexity, nature, in the course of its own

unfolding, opens new directions for still further development along

alternative lines of natural evolution. To the degree that animals

become complex, self-aware, and increasingly intelligent, they begin

to make those elementary choices that influence their own evolution

They are less and less the passive objects of "natural selection" and

more and more the active subjects of their own development.

A brown hare that mutates into a white one and sees a sn

covered terrain in which to camouflage itself is !acting! on behalf of

its own survival, not simply adapting in order to survive. It is not

merely being "selected" by its environment; it is selecting its own

environment and making a !choice! that expresses a small measure

of subjectivity and judgement.

The greater the variety of habitats that emerge in the evolutionary

process, the more a given life-form. particularly a neurologically

complex one, is likely to play an active and judgemental role in

preserving itself. To the extent that natural evolution follows this

path of neurological development, it gives rise to life-forms that

exercise an ever-wider latitude of choice and a nascent form of

freedom in developing themselves.

Given this conception of nature as the cumulative history of more

differentiated levels of material organization (especially of

life-forms) and of increasing subjectivity, social ecology establishes

a basis for a meaningful understanding of humanity and society s

place in natural evolution. Natural history is not a

=D2catch-as-catch-can" phenomenon. It is marked by tendency, by

directions and, as far as human beings are concerned, by conscious

purpose. Human beings and the social worlds they create can open a

remarkably expansive horizon for development of the natural wor

- a horizon marked by consciousness, reflection, and an

unprecedented freedom of choice and capacity for conscious

creativity. The factors that reduce many life-forms to largely adaptive

roles in changing environments are replaced by a capacity for

consciously adapting environments to existing and new life-forms.

Adaptation, in effect, increasingly gives way to creativity and the

seemingly ruthless action of natural law to greater freedom. What

earlier generations called "blind nature to denote nature’s lack of any

moral direction, turns into "free nature, a nature that slowly finds a

voice and the means to relieve the needless tribulations of life for all

species in a highly conscious humanity and an ecological society.

The "Noah Principle" of preserving every existing life-form simply

for its own sake—a principle advanced by the antihumanist, David

Ehrenfeld —has little meaning without the presupposition, at the very

least, of the existence of a "Noah"—that is, a conscious life-form

called humanity that might well rescue life- forms that nature itself

would extinguish in ice ages, land desiccation, or cosmic collisions

with asteroids. Grizzly bears, wolves, pumas, and the like, are not

safer from extinction because they are exclusively in the "caring"

hands of a putative "Mother Nature." If there is any truth to the

theory that the great Mesozoic reptiles were extinguished by climatic

changes that presumably followed the collision of an asteroid with

the earth, the survival of existing mammals might well be just as

precarious in the face of an equally meaningless natural catastrophe

unless there is a conscious, ecologically oriented life-form that has

the technological means to rescue them.

The issue, then, is not whether social evolution stands opposed to

natural evolution. The issue is !how! social evolution can be situated

!in! natural evolution and !why! it has been thrown—needlessly, as I

will argue—against natural evolution to the detriment of life as a

whole. The capacity to be rational and free does not assure us that

this capacity will be realized. If social evolution is seen as the

potentiality for expanding the horizon of natural evolution along

unprecedented creative lines, and human beings are seen as the

potentiality for nature to become self-conscious and free, the issue

we face is !why! these potentialities have been warped and !how!

they can be realized.

It is part of social ecology’s commitment to natural evolution that

these potentialities are indeed real and that they can be fulfilled. This

commitment stands flatly at odds with a "scenic" image of nature as

a static view to awe mountain men or a romantic view for conjuring

up mystical images of a personified deity that is so much in vogue

today. The splits between natural and social evolution, nonhuman

and human life, an intractable "stingy" nature and a grasping,

devouring humanity, have all been specious and misleading when

they are seen as inevitabilities. No less specious and misleading

have been reductionist attempts to absorb social into natural

evolution, to collapse culture into nature in an orgy of irrationalism,

theism, and mysticism, to equate the human with mere animality, or

to impose a contrived "natural law" on an obedient human society.

Whatever has turned human beings into "aliens" in nature are

social changes that have made many human beings "aliens" in their

own social world. the domination of the young by the old, of

women by men, and of men by men. Today, as for many centuries

in the past, there are still oppressive human beings who literally own

society and others who are owned by it. Until society can be

reclaimed by an undivided humanity that will use its collective

wisdom, cultural achievements, technological innovations, scientific

knowledge, and innate creativity for its own benefit and for that of the natural world, all ecological problems will have their roots in social problems.

[1This article originates from Spunk org where it is or was published