BOOKCHIN, Murray. Society and Ecology

natureNature. EvolutionecologyBOOKCHIN, Murray (14 janvier 1921 – 30 juillet 2006) cultureSociety. Society (views of - )technologybiologyNature. Social ecology

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 It has been replaced by ambiguity.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