What is ecopolitics? We notice first that the term is derived from ecology, a logos, that is, a reasoning about, or reflection on, the oikos, the place where we live, and secondly, that it is a politics, a practice based on our membership in an ethical community polis in which we pursue a common good. Ecological politics is thus an ontological politics, since it comes out of a profound reflection on our natural and social being.
When we consider our being as a "being-in-place," we discover that we inhabit many places. Just as there are no strict, rigid boundaries of the regions of the imagination, there are no clear demarcations of natural and social regions. We are situated in various overlapping bioregions, ecoregions, georegions, and in various locales within these regions. We are also located in a vast network of ethnoregions—spheres of culture, tradition, and history, of social imagination and creativity. Ecopolitics replaces the conventional focus on geographical political divisions with a commitment to the ecology of culture, a sensitivity to natural and social complexity, and a critical engagement in this multitude of natural, so cial, and imaginary regions and localities. Ecopolitics is a politics not only of being, but of becoming, for we do not exist in any static place. There is no simple location.
We and the places we inhabit exist within an ever-changing natural and social history. Ecopolitics has the task of situating our activity in the dialectic between nature and culture, and in the epochal processes of unfolding of potentiality on this planet. Within this vast complexity, it seeks to uncover the possibilities for self-realization of humanity and the earth in our own time. While ecopolitics may be expressed in structural terms by proposals for economic and political decentralization, for communal autonomy, and for direct democracy, such proposals are experimental applications of the more general quest for a non-dominating human community in harmony with nature.
Ecopolitics is thus the conscious realization of the moral and spiritual implications of our planetary being. As the great social geographer Elisee Reclus stated at the beginning of the century: "L’Homme est la Nature prenant conscience d’elle meme." We must judge politics by the degree to which it is an expression of humanity’s ontologically-based responsibility to act as this self-consciousness of the earth, and to chart a path of human self-realization that is in accord with the flourishing of the whole of life on earth.
In order to give social meaning to this responsibility, ecopolitics restores and broadens the classical concept of citizenship.
In an age in which identities such as consumer of commodities, political "constituent," and member of an anonymous "public" become central, the idea of citizenship takes on an increasingly critical dimension. Ecopolitics recaptures the essence of citizenship as identification of one’s own good with that of the larger whole. However, it expands this concept to embrace a series of more comprehensive wholes, up to the level of the earth itself. We are challenged to see and experience ourselves as members of a multitude of overlapping local and regional social and ecological communities, and ultimately as citizens of the entire earth community. We must thus rethink and reimagine our most basic identity—and create relationships and counterinstitutions that allow us to do so collectively.
For this reason, ecopolitics is perhaps above all a politics of the imagination. Its project will certainly fail unless the imagination can be freed from its bondage to economic and political power, so that a mutualistic, non-dominating, participatory ecological imaginary can emerge. Ecopolitics presupposes a transcendence of the many splits and dualisms of hierarchical society, and perhaps requires above all a new synthesis of reason, feeling, and imagination. It must avoid the narrow, dessicated rationalism of programmatic, instrumentalist and strategic thinking, and also the irrationalism of feeling that has lost touch with critic al rationality. The liberated imagination is the creative mediation between critical thought and expansive feeling.
As critique, ecopolitics is uncompromising in its attack on all forms of social domination. It remains focussed on the central role of corporate capitalism, the nation-state, patriarchy, and the technological megamachine in social and ecological destruction, and it exposes these institutions as intolerable outrages that cannot be tolerated. Further, it shows how domination is rooted not only in objective institutional structures, but also in the subjective realm: in an egoistic striving for power, in fear of the other, in sick attachments, and in false identifications. Ecopolitics presupposes an understanding of the epistemological and psychological basis of domination, and it must offer real satisfactions to replace illusory ones.
As a politics of the imagination, ecopolitics possesses a far-reaching utopian dimension. This might better be called a "eutopian" dimension, since it consists of a vision of "the good place" — that imaginary, impossible space by which we evaluate the real and the possible, and by which we measure the movement of the real toward the ideal. It is a vision of a self-realized society as a community of free eco-communities in dynamic harmony with the natural world, a culture of that joyfully affirms nature and reality, a politics based on democratic and participatory institutions, a technology that is liberatory and humane, a way of life filled with creativity and aesthetic appreciation, and personal relationships that are compassionate and mutualistic.
Eco-politics also presents us with a vision of free nature. On the one hand, it sees evolving, self-realizing humanity, not as being necessarily destructive of the natural world, but rather as being essentially a form of self-liberation of the earth itself. Through the development of human consciousness, expansion of the human imagination, and deepening and widening of human capacities for valuation, the earth gains greater self-knowlege and self-appreciation, and thereby attains a higher degree of freedom. But, on the other hand, nature can only be free to the extent that it can carry on its processes of unfolding, diversification and creative experimentation. The liberation of nature therefore depends on the overcoming of human ecological destruction and domination of the natural world.
The most essential project of ecopolitics at this point in the history of the earth is thus neither reform nor revolution in the traditional senses, but rather regeneration. It aims at reversing the processes of social and ecological devastation that homogenize and atomize human society and at the same time degrade and destroy ecosytems, thereby hindering the self-realization of both humanity and nature. It seeks to regenerate organic human culture through the creation of free, ecological communities, and to regenerate the natural world through the preservation of biodiversity, defense of ecosystems, and the restoration of wilderness. Ecopolitics is in essence a politics of values. It requires a definitive rupture with the dominant system of values based on the egoistic pursuit of power, the maximized consumption of commodities, and position in the social hierarchy. It looks to diverse traditions of mutual aid, solidarity, community, compassion, love and affection—all of which are still powerful social forces—as the basis for a new ecological way of life. It focuses on the question of selfhood, for without a highly-individualized and richly-developed, but also compassionate and communitarian self-identity, a true ecological culture and community cannot emerge. The development of forms of socialization, education and participation that foster such a selfhood is thus the most central political concern.
To succeed in its project of social and ecological regeneration, ecopolitics must reject the narrow secularism and materialist reductionism
that has dominated the traditional left. Spirituality must not be abandoned to the fundamentalists, dogmatists, reactionaries and irrationalists. An ecopolitical movement must locate itself within larger processes of unfolding, development, and self-realization at the level of the cosmos, the earth, and human history. This project has a deeply spiritual dimension, in that it demand that the narrowness of egoism be transcended as we see our connectedness with our communities, with the whole of life, and indeed, with the whole of being.
Ecopolitics is thus in the most profound sense the politics of spirit. The way out of our intensifying social and ecological crisis depends on our ability to transcend the nihilistic egoism that now dominates the human spirit, and to offer a hopeful and inspiring vision of a free, self-realizing community in harmony with nature.
This article is the English version of an article first published as "Une Politique de l’Esprit," in Silence: Ecologie, Alternatives, Non-Violence 199/200 (Jan. 1996): 13-15.