In Political Ecology (2004) Paul Robbins describes in the introduction a trip he takes through Yellowstone National Park. He unveils in nearly two pages what there is to know about the contemporary production of ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’, since Yellowstone was under the influence of human activity by Native Americans for probably millennia, but is contemporarily dealt with as ‘untouched nature’. Robbins most importantly shows that approaches to environmental issues that are blind to history, politics and the reciprocity of human activity with our ‘natural’ or nonhuman environment are necessarily misdirected.
Having said that, in my opinion one of the thinkers that most strikingly elaborated philosophically on the interrelations of human and nonhuman life was Murray Bookchin (1921-2006). His work is of interest to me because he developed a comprehensive socio-ecological theory from the classics in humanities (especially Aristotle, Hegel and members of the Frankfurt School) under consideration of contemporary perspectives long before environmentalism became the movement we know today, and was institutionalised in political bodies, such as parties and legislation. Due to his approval and development of anarchistic forms of living and his work on Marxism/socialism, his work is reckoned among the many strands of libertarian socialism. Furthermore, his work on Communalism highlights his interest in a community management-based economy. Hence, he is further presumed to be a precursor of the ecology movement.
Bookchin’s work is important, because it is fundamentally concerned with questions around social hierarchy, which provide the prism through which he analyses contemporary socio-ecological problems. As demonstrated in The Ecology of Freedom and other works, he rejects the Marxist stance that domination over nature is the prerequisite for prosperity and livelihood. Instead, he develops an ecological perspective based on community action that places humanity within nature and rejects all sorts of domination, whether human (race, gender, class) or nonhuman (religious or spiritual) hierarchies. In his view, environmental problems stem from hierarchies between human beings, which result in the domination of humans over nature.
His overarching theoretical concept called ‘Social Ecology’ differs from the closely related ‘ecosocialism’ in many ways. For ecosocialists the capitalist system leads into the destruction of the natural environment, yet for Bookchin capitalism is rather a symptom of the much bigger problem of social hierarchies. Consequently, Bookchin tries in his philosophy to reconnect the human species with the natural environment through his concept of ‘wholeness’. Generated from Hegelian dialectics, the concept rejects and challenges for instance the concept of ‘oneness’ promoted by deep ecologists and the notion of blood-and-soil based humanness integral to Nazism. His approach to holism embraces fragmentation and diversity and rejects attempts to blur the exceptional position of the human species within nature, as well as rejecting the idea of a unifying spirituality that ultimately renders people apolitical. With the emphasis on the interconnectedness of processes between animate and inanimate nature as well as human and non-human nature
For Bookchin, the distinctive feature of the human species is society and its ability to build institutions; from kinship ties to class distinctions, the emergence of cities, states, hierarchies and domination. Bookchin traces, whilst thinking about the image of nature through history, the development of gendered attributions and patriarchy that derived over time and resulted in the imagined division between culture/man and nature/woman. This binary between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ was likewise crucial to understand the argumentation of 18th, 19th and 20th century racism, which was primarily based on and justified through ‘scientific’ biological and anthropological knowledge respectively. These widespread views were further a crude byproduct of the Enlightenment’s thinking, which exemplifies Immanuel Kant’s On the Different Races of Man in the 18th century.
The interconnectedness Bookchin ascribes to human beings derives from his anthropological work around the relationship and the understanding of ‘nature’ in different historical and social contexts. He starts his argument with theses around hunter-and-gatherer societies, or so called ‘ecological societies’. He continues with pastoral societies and the early societies of the Middle East, ancient Greek and Roman societies and the discourse of freedom in Christian thought throughout the centuries. Ultimately, he fuses these assumptions with a historic analysis of technology and culture and its importance on the philosophy and imagination of ‘nature’, to collect the most significant theoretical fragments still alive in contemporary societies.
Some argue that the emergence of nuclear weaponry led into times of increased doubts and disenchantment concerning many of the deluding promises of technical innovation, is no secret. However, Bookchin illustrates the connections between reason/science/technics, culture and hierarchy. By doing so, he elaborates a notion of ‘appropriate’ technologies and a politics of ‘in-between’ in a debate that oscillates between hope and fear and frustration (see Post-Scarcity Anarchism).
However, Eckersley (1992) argues Bookchin could not convincingly show that the abolishment of vertical social structures necessarily entailed empowerment for the individual or the community. For instance, Bookchin neglects the city as a vital space of aesthetic, political and social confrontation and locus of encounter and mutualistic stimulus. Neither the small-scale community based polity nor the centralised state offers the necessary means to cope with the needs of the local, regional and international simultaneously, Eckersley states.
The Ecology of Freedom is an attempt to generate an ecological philosophy that dismisses the binary of society and nature and instead convincingly demonstrates how human society is part of ‘nature’, without falling prey to essentialism or misanthropic views of the past. Bookchin’s thought is a spark of utopianism and offers a multi-layered framework that applies an appropriate approaches to complex problems. Thus, Eckersley ultimately argues that what was so radical about Social Ecology was its “ecological sensibility, which recognizes what is seen to be the nonhierarchical interdependence of living and nonliving things.”