Social Ecology

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= Social Ecology is a radical-political approach to social change, advocated by Murray Bookchin and other 'green anarchists'. It is also called Communalism.



by Eleanor Finlay:

"Social ecology is a coherent Leftist vision that underscores the potential for human beings to play a mutualistic and creative role in natural evolution. We can fulfill this potential, social ecology argues, by uprooting the irrational, hierarchical, and ecologically-destructive society we currently live under, and by replacing it with a socially-enlightened and ecological society. An essential feature of such a society would be the Aristotelian notion of politics, that is, the direct management of towns, cities, and villages by the people who live there. In other words, social ecology maintains that we can supplant capitalism and the state with a global federation of directly-democratic municipalities." (


John Clark:

"Over the past quarter-century, a broad social and ecological philosophy has emerged under the name « social ecology. » While this philosophy has recently been most closely associated with the thought of social theorist Murray Bookchin, it continues a long tradition of ecological communitarian thought going back well into the nineteenth century. The lineage of social ecology is often thought to originate in the mutualistic, communitarian ideas of the anarchist geographer Kropotkin (1842-1921). One can certainly not deny that despite Kropotkin’s positivistic tendencies and his problematical conception of nature, he has an important relationship to social ecology. His ideas concerning mutual aid, political and economic decentralization, human-scaled production, communitarian values, and the history of democracy have all made important contributions to the tradition. [1] However, it is rooted much more deeply in the thought of another great anarchist thinker, the French geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905). During the latter half of the last century, and into the beginning of the present one, Reclus developed a far-ranging « social geography » that laid the foundations of a social ecology, as it explored the history of the interaction between human society and the natural world, starting with the emergence of homo sapiens and extending to Reclus’ own era of urbanization, technological development, political and economic globalization, and embryonic international cooperation.

Reclus envisioned humanity achieving a free, communitarian society in harmony with the natural world. His extensive historical studies trace the long record of experiments in cooperation, direct democracy and human freedom, from the ancient Greek polis, through Icelandic democracy, medieval free cities and independent Swiss cantons, to modern movements for social transformation and human emancipation. At the same time, he depicts the rise and development of the modern centralized state, concentrated capital and authoritarian ideologies. His sweeping historical account includes an extensive critique of both capitalism and authoritarian socialism from an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian perspective, and an analysis of the destructive ecological effects of modern technology and industry allied with the power of capital and the state. It is notable that a century ago Reclus’ social theory attempted to reconcile a concern for justice in human society with compassionate treatment of other species and respect for the whole of life on earth—a philosophical problematic that has only recently reemerged in ecophilosophy and environmental ethics. [2]

Many of the themes in Reclus’ work were developed further by the Scottish botanist and social thinker Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who described his work as « biosophy, » the philosophical study of the biosphere. Geddes focuses on the need to create decentralized communities in harmony with surrounding cultural and ecological regions and proposes the development of new technologies (neotechnics) that would foster humane, ecologically-balanced communities. He envisions an organicically developing cooperative society, based on the practice of mutual aid at the most basic social levels and spreading throughout society as these small communities voluntarily federate into larger associations. Geddes orients his work around the concepts of « Place, Work, and Folk, » envisioning a process of incorporating the particularities of the natural region, humane, skillful and creative modes of production, and organically developing local culture into his « Eutopia » or good community. Geddes calls his approach a « sociography, » or synthesis of sociological and geographical studies. He applies this approach in his idea of the detailed regional survey as a means of achieving community planning that is rooted in natural and cultural realities and grows out of them organically. He thus makes an important contribution to developing the empirical and bioregional side of the social ecological tradition. [3]

Many of Geddes’ insights were later integrated into the expansive vision of society, nature, and technology of his student, the American historian and social theorist Lewis Mumford (1895-1992), who is one of the most pivotal figures in the development of the social ecological tradition. Ramachandra Guha is certainly right when he states that « [t]he range and richness of Mumford’s thought mark him as the pioneer American social ecologist . . . . » [4] Most of the fundamental concepts to which Bookchin later attached to the term « social ecology » were borrowed from Mumford’s much earlier ecological regionalism. [5] The philosophical basis for Mumford’s social analysis is what he calls an « organic » view of reality, a holistic and developmental approach he explicitly identifies as an « ecological » one. [6] In accord with this outlook, he sees the evolution of human society as a continuation of a cosmic process of organic growth, emergence, and development. Yet he also sees human history as the scene of a counter-movement within society and nature, a growing process of mechanization. Much like Reclus before him, Mumford depicts history as a great struggle between freedom and oppression. In Mumford’s interpretation of this drama, we find on one side the forces of mechanization, power, domination, and division, and on the other, the impulse toward organism, creativity, love, and unification. The tragedy of history is the increasing ascendancy of mechanism, and the progressive destruction of our organic ties to nature and to one another. The dominant moment of history, he says, has been « one long retreat from the vitalities and creativities of a self-sustaining environment and a stimulating and balanced communal life. » [7]

Mumford describes the first decisive step in this process as the creation in the ancient world of the Megamachine, in the form of regimented, mechanized massing of human labor-power under hierarchical control to build the pyramids as an expression of despotic power. While the Megamachine in this primal barbaric form has persisted and evolved over history, it reemerges in the modern world in a much more complex, technological manifestation, with vastly increased power, diverse political, economic and cultural expressions, and apparent imperviousness to human control or even comprehension. Mumford sees the results of this historical movement as the emergence of a new totalitarian order founded on technological domination, economic rationality and profit, and fueled by a culture of obsessive consumption. The results are a loss of authentic selfhood, a dissolution of organic community, and a disordered, destructive relationship to the natural world.

Mumford’s vision of the process of reversing these historical tendencies is a social ecological one. He foresees a process of social decentralization in which democratic institutions are recreated at local and regional levels as part of organic but diverse communities. « Real human communities, » he contends, are those that combine unity with diversity and « preserve social as well as visual variety. » [8]

Following Geddes and prefiguring bioregionalism, Mumford believes that the local community must be rooted in the natural and cultural realities of the region. « Strong regional centers of culture » are the basis for « an active and securely grounded local life. » [9] Regionalism is not only an ecological concept, but also a political and cultural one, and is the crucial link between the most particular and local dimensions and the most universal and global ones. « The rebuilding of regional cultures » Mumford says, « will give depth and maturity to the world culture that has likewise long been in the process of formation. » [10] Mumford contends that an epochal process of personal and social transformation is necessary if the course of history is to be redirected toward a humane, ecological, life-affirming future. Much in the spirit of communitarian philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), he foresees a humanized, cooperative world culture emerging out of regenerated regional cultures that arise in turn out of a regenerated human spirit. [11]

While he begins with a general perspective on society and nature that is close to Mumford’s, Bookchin makes a number of crucial contributions to the further development of a social ecology. [12] Most significantly, he broadens the theoretical basis of the communitarian, organicist, and regionalist tradition developed by Reclus, Geddes and Mumford by making dialectical analysis a central focus. He thereby opens the way for more critical and theoretically sophisticated discussions of concepts like holism, unity-in-diversity, development, and relatedness. He also develops Mumford’s defense of an organic world view into a more explicitly ecological theoretical perspective. Mumford’s analysis of the historical transformation of organic society into the Megamachine is expanded in Bookchin’s somewhat broader account of the emergence of diverse forms of domination and of the rise of hierarchical society. He devotes more detailed attention to the interaction of the state, economic classes, patriarchy, gerontocracy, and other factors in the evolution of domination. Of particular importance is Bookchin’s emphasis on the central role of the developing global capitalist economy in ecological crisis, which corrects Mumford’s tendency to overemphasize the technical at the expense of the economic. [13] He also adds some additional chapters to the « history of freedom, » especially in his discussions of the mutualistic, liberatory and ecological dimensions of tribal societies, millenarian religious movements and utopian experiments. Finally, while his predecessors presented a rather general vision of a politics that was anti-authoritarian, democratic, decentralist and ecological, Bookchin gives a concrete political direction to the discussion of such a politics in his proposals for libertarian municipalism and confederalism.

Some of these contributions have come at a considerable cost. Although Bookchin develops and expands the tradition of social ecology in important ways, he has at the same time also narrowed it through dogmatic and non-dialectical attempts at philosophical system-building, through an increasingly sectarian politics, and through intemperate and divisive attacks on « competing » ecophilosophies and on diverse expressions of his own tradition. Unfortunately, he lapses into the undialectical « fallacy that technology is a neutral tool to be used or abused by the one who wields it, » as David Watson notes in Beyond Bookchin : Preface for a Future Social Ecology [14] To the extent that social ecology has been identified with Bookchinist sectarianism, its potential as an ecophilosophy has not been widely appreciated.

Fortunately, the fundamental issues posed by a social ecology will not fade away in the smoke of ephemeral (and eminently forgettable) partisan skirmishes. Inevitably, a broad, vibrant, and inherently self-critical tradition like social ecology will resist attempts to restrict it in a manner that contradicts its most fundamental values of holism, unity-in-diversity, organic growth and dialectical self-transcendence. Thus, despite its temporary setbacks, the project of a social ecology continues to develop as a general theoretical orientation, as an approach to the analysis of specific problems, and as a guide to practical efforts at social and ecological regeneration." (


"Ever since the debate between social ecology and deep ecology broke out in the summer of 1987, various individuals have taken it upon themselves to attempt to reconcile the two approaches and produce what they feel is a higher synthesis. Social ecology and deep ecology, however, are incommensurable, for several basic reasons. Deep ecologists differ among themselves as to the content of their approach, which often renders deep ecology itself self-contradictory and amorphous. Nevertheless, based on the writings of its major theorists, its basic areas of disagreement with social ecology may be identified.


Social ecology argues that the idea of dominating nature resulted from the domination of human by human, rather than the reverse. That is, the causes of the ecological crisis are ultimately and fundamentally social in nature. The historical emergence of hierarchies, classes, states, and finally the market economy and capitalism itself are the social forces that have, both ideologically and materially, produced the present despoliation of the biosphere.

Deep ecology, by contrast, locates the origin of the ecological crisis in belief-systems, be they religions or philosophies. Most particularly, deep ecologists identify ancient near eastern religions, including those of Mesopotamia and Judea; Christianity; and the scientific worldview as fostering a mindset that seeks to dominate nature. It is by asking deeper questions, as Arne Naess puts it, that these origins are identified, so that the social causes of the ecological crisis are somehow relegated to the category shallow.


Social ecology views the natural world as a process – and not just any process, but a development toward increasing complexity and subjectivity. This development was not predetermined from the outset and need not have occurred, but retrospectively the increasing complexity of natural evolution and the development of increasing subjectivity are impossible to miss. With the emergence of human beings, biological evolutionary processes (first nature) have continued in and been sublated by social and cultural evolutionary processes (second nature). Unlike sociobiology, which reduces the social to the biological, social ecology emphasizes the gradations between first and second nature: second nature emerged out of first nature. Yet the boundary between human and nonhuman nature is real and articulated.

Deep ecology, by contrast, views first nature, in the abstract, as a cosmic oneness, which bears striking similarities to otherworldly concepts common to Asian religions. In concrete terms, it views first nature as wilderness, a concept that by definition means nature essentially separated from human beings and hence wild. Both notions are notable for their static and anticivilizational character. (Deep ecologists sometimes highlight the evolution of large animals strategically, as a rationale for expanding wilderness areas.) Deep ecologists emphasize an ungraded, nonevolutionary continuity between human and nonhuman nature, to the point of outright denial of a boundary between adaptive animality and innovative humanity.


Social ecology aims to reintegrate human social development with biological development, and human communities with ecocommunities, producing a rational and ecological society. The mere biological presence of humans in large numbers does not determine the type of society they will form. Even large numbers of human beings are capable of organizing society along lines that are not only not destructive of first nature but even enhance it. A sensitive combination of ecotechnics and existing technologies prudently applied constitutes the technological basis for post-scarcity, affording humans the free time to manage their social, political, and economic affairs along rational lines and fostering and restoring the ecological complexity of first nature.

Deep ecology, by contrast, does not aim to integrate humans with first nature. It regards the mere biological presence of human beings in any large numbers as intrinsically harmful to first nature, and sometimes even the basic means of human sustenance as damaging. Instead, deep ecology seeks to preserve and expand wilderness areas, excluding human beings from ever-larger tracts of land and forest. Subsistence agriculture, writes George Sessions, which destroys tropical forests, cannot be considered long-term economic progress for the poor. The severe overpopulation in Third World countries requires that most of the poor will live in urban areas in the near future. Of paramount importance to deep ecology is a radical and potentially ruthless scaling-down of the human population – indeed, population reduction as an issue has been named the litmus test of deep ecology. Maximizing wilderness and minimizing human population, some deep ecologists look upon even farming as such with disfavor, views that have rightfully given rise to charges that deep ecology is misanthropic.


Social ecology openly asserts that human beings are potentially the most advanced life-form that natural evolution has produced, in crucial respects of intelligence, moral capacity, and dexterity – which in no way provides a license for humans to wantonly destroy first nature. Indeed, in a rational society, human beings could be nature rendered self-conscious. Clearly it is part of their evolutionary makeup to intervene in the natural world; what is not determined is whether that intervention will be ecologically benign or malign, a problem that is resolved by what kind of society they create.

Deep ecology, by contrast, regards human-centeredness or anthropocentrism as the fatal feature common to belief-systems generative of the ecological crisis. It advances instead a concept of biocentrism or ecocentrism, which attributes equal intrinsic moral worth to human and nonhuman life-forms and even to ecosystems. It regards various striking capacities of particular creatures as skills of equal value to human capacities. In making decisions about whether humans should engage in a potentially ecologically damaging project, deep ecology upholds the vital needs of life-forms against the nonvital needs of humans. Which needs are vital, however, remains undefined. Invoking the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, deep ecology is biased against human intervention in first nature and often appears to regard human intervention as inherently destructive. Yet insofar as deep ecology calls upon human beings to alter their behavior in the light of the ecological crisis, it tacitly acknowledges that the behavior of human beings is decisive. Thus deep ecology is inherently self-contradictory.


Social ecology, while strongly emphasizing the need for an ecological sensibility, indeed an ethic of complementarity, contends that addressing the ecological crisis requires engaging in social and political activity to confront and ultimately eliminate its objective social causes: capitalism, social hierarchy, and the nation-state. Social ecology’s political dimension, libertarian municipalism, is a program for establishing direct, face-to-face democracies and confederating them into a dual power to confront these forces. Social ecology thus places itself in the Enlightenment and revolutionary tradition.

Deep ecology, by contrast, overwhelmingly emphasizes subjective factors. Drawing on subjectivists like Lynn White, Jr., it calls upon people to develop a quasi-mystical ecological consciousness by which they will feel themselves part of the natural world, as a self-in-Self. Deep ecologists approach this consciousness through highly personalistic philosophies or ecosophies that draw on an eclectic mix of alternative worldviews: native American, Buddhist, Taoist, pagan, and Pleistocene. Regardless of whether such views are accurately understood or, in some cases, are even knowable to people today, they share the common feature of instilling submersion to a larger one that, as a whole, has more value than the individual human. Deep ecology in practice is quietistic, emphasizing contemplation rather than intervention, to attain a state of awareness of the alleged absence of boundaries between human consciousness and the cosmic oneness. Some deep ecologists explicitly eliminate moral imperatives from this ecological consciousness. Although one deep ecologist makes the claim that attaining ecological consciousness will foster political activity, deep ecology often expresses an aversion to most political activity as such as anthropocentric, apart from basic conservationism and trite liberal attempts to curtail wilderness destruction. Participation in political movements is of value, however, insofar as it may contribute to personal transformation. Most often, deep ecology urges that people make lifestyle changes that reduce their consumption.


Social ecology argues that one of humans’ distinctive features, their capacity to reason at a high level of generality, gives them the ability to potentially understand natural processes and potentially organize society along ecological and rational lines. Even as it criticizes the ubiquitous claims of a means-ends rationalism that has historically instrumentalized human and nonhuman phenomena, it advances a dialectical reasoning that is appropriate for comprehending human social and natural evolutionary processes. In itself, it embodies this commitment to rationality by upholding and demonstrating coherence in social thought.

Deep ecology, by contrast, disparages and often even demonizes reason as endemic to the anthropocentric worldviews that have produced the ecological crisis. Alternatively, deep ecology advances intuition as an equal or even superior form of cognition. Through intuition, deep ecologists argue, the continuity between the human self and the cosmic one may be apprehended and appreciated. As an intuitional approach, however, deep ecology is subject to the dangers represented by earlier antirational and intuitionist worldviews that, carried over into the political realm, have produced antihumanistic and even genocidal movements. Deep ecology, by its very amorphousness, makes itself amenable to use by any parts of the modern social hierarchy, depending on how needs are defined. Indeed, it is not accidental that some deep ecology theorists are devotees of the late work of Heidegger, whose basic premises are socially and intellectually reactionary." (ISSUE # 8| JANUARY 2006 of Communalism)


The Democratic Autonomy experience in Kurdish Syria (Rojava, Kobane)

by Eleanor Finlay:

"Left-libertarian thinker Murray Bookchin invented and elaborated on social ecology from the 1960s until his death in 2006. However, many other education projects, publishing ventures, political organizations, and writers also constitute this intellectual movement. Social ecology groups exist in many countries- including Turkey, Norway, Spain, Greece, Columbia, the United States and others. Although marginal on the Left as well as the mainstream, social ecology has had a steadily growing influence throughout the world.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan started reading Bookchin at the beginning of his prison exile in the early 2000’s, bringing Bookchin’s works to his lawyers as recommended reading for the rest of the PKK. In 2004, Ocalan recognized himself in a letter to Bookchin as his “student”, and was in the process of establishing his own theories modeled on Bookchin’s ideas. In 2006, the PKK began organizing Democratic Autonomy, an administrative system of civic councils to statelessly govern North Kurdistan. Democratic Autonomy would become an important antecedent for the cantons in Rojava, as well as for the confederal projects currently being set up within the Turkish state by the HDP (Democratic Union Party).

With perhaps the exception of the 1871 Paris Commune, Democratic Autonomy is the first revolutionary Left project to exercise power under an explicitly confederalist agenda. Although it did not practice direct democracy, it did mark the 21st century’s first serious attempt to approach the municipality—not the nation or the state—as the authentic unit of governance. Unlike traditional Marxism, which reduced politics to economics and thus failed to offer democratic solutions, this approach brings economic decisions under the umbrella of communal decision-making. And unlike traditional anarchism, which avoided the question of institutional power altogether, this approach seeks to popularize power and render it transparent. Democratic Autonomy, the Rojava cantons, and other projects under democratic confederalism are steps toward creating (however imperfectly) a new realm of human activity characterized by free deliberation, debate, and the exercise of reason." (

Political Origins of the Kurdish experience

"The PKK never regarded the Kurdish question as a mere problem of ethnicity or nationhood. Rather, we believed, it was the project of liberating society and democratizing it.” – Abdullah Ocalan, 2011.

Intellectual commentators of the Kurdish revolutionary movement often focus on the juncture of principles and practice, looking no farther back in history than the establishment of the PKK in the 1970’s. But in order to understand how (or rather why) these principles came to emerge, one must use a deeply historical and dialectical lens. Social ecology offers one crucial piece of that puzzle. Through Ocalan’s interpretations, it has offered Kurds a radical new framework for asserting their role in the history of human liberation.

In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin accounts for the historical development of the concept of freedom. He identifies the beginning of this development in the earliest human settlements of Mesopotamia, what is now modern day Kurdistan. Nearly 12,000 years ago, human beings initiated a decisive step in social development, undertaking the project of living together with more than they could carry on their backs. This project presented vast new challenges for organizing and making sense of the world. Thus Mesopotamia is where we find the earliest instances of written language, mathematics, architecture, and agriculture. It is also, Bookchin recognized, where we find the beginnings of the struggle between ideologies of freedom and domination.

Bookchin points to the cuneiform word amargi (“return to the mother”), which first appears nearly 5,000 years ago in juxtaposition to the newly oppressive conditions under the Sumerian state. Organic society, he argues, had no previous word for the concept of ‘freedom’, just as fish might have no word for ‘water’. This conflict between freedom and unfreedom has stayed with society to the present day. Indeed, the revolutionary challenge we face today is that of pushing the development of freedom forward, making freedom, rather than hierarchy, the dominant social principle.

Just a few short days within a Kurdish household reveal that the organic society upon which the earliest states imposed themselves never fully vanished. From oral traditions of epic song to meaningful practices of naming children (I spent time with a little girl named Amargi, for instance), Kurds have retained ancient forms of egalitarian and organic social life since the Neolithic. Like many organic or so-called indigenous peoples, traditional Kurdish kinship networks are vast and intricate. Once, while explaining the role of tribal groups in the Kobane defense, Jihad turned to me and asked, “How many cousins do you have?” “About 20,” I replied, “I have a big Catholic family on my father’s side,” to which he responded, “Counting both sides, I have over 200.”

Many of the Ocalanist revolutionaries I spoke to described their struggle as one of organic society against authoritarian society. They articulated a clear sense that not only capitalism and statist forces produced ISIS, but also the mentality of hierarchical society itself. However, it was also emphasized that the purpose of democratic modernity is not simply to revive organic society. Rather, it is to revive the social and ethical aspects of organic society and weave them with the ethical principles gained by Western enlightenment. At the same time, it advocates the use of reason to work out the unethical aspects of traditional Kurdish society (tribal rivalries, for example), while also refusing the cold scientism and positivism of the west. Such a synthesis moves us into a new stage in the development of freedom, one which Ocalan calls “democratic civilization” and which Bookchin referred to simply as a free society.

By focusing on hierarchy instead of class, Bookchin became the first Leftist thinker to offer a coherent, meaningful framework for the liberation struggles in the Middle East. His narrative implies that a revolutionary movement in Kurdistan is a struggle at the material origin of institutional hierarchy itself. Although such a localized struggle cannot automatically release hierarchy’s tight grip over rest of the world, it does powerfully illustrate the full scope of the revolutionary task at hand. In this way, the Kurdish freedom movement is not only influenced by social ecology, it also enriches that perspective and articulates it further. The human beings who live at the material origins of institutional hierarchy, and who have maintained organic ways of life there for millennia, are now answering the call to establish the positive conditions of a free society." (