Social Ecology

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Social ecology is a radical ecological philosophy that was initiated in the 1960s by Murray Bookchin. Its fundamental assumption is that social and ecological issues are deeply interrelated. Environmental damage is created by particular social structures and ideologies, and ecological degradation harms social well-being and certain social groups (e.g., the poor) more than others.

Social ecology takes a dialectical approach to ecological philosophy and environmental issues. Culture is neither separate from nature nor simply reducible to it; it is the dialectic between them that needs to be addressed. Similarly, dialectic holism, as articulated by John Clark, affirms the reality and value of individuals as well as their relationships and the larger wholes they participate in, and the self is seen as a social being with communal individuality.

Social ecology also tends to take an organic view of reality. Nature is viewed holistically, as a unity-in-diversity with no supernatural reality. It is also seen as dynamic, a process of the unfolding of potentiality that results in increasing diversification. However, teleological notions of predetermination or a single final goal are rejected.

Deeply influenced by the communitarian anarchism of earlier writers and activists such as Peter Kropotkin, social ecology sees both environmental and social problems as primarily caused by systems of hierarchy, centralization, and domination. Capitalism and the nation-state are considered to be particularly guilty of the oppression of both people (especially marginalized social groups) and the natural world.

Social ecology’s ideal is a just society in harmony with the processes and patterns of the larger natural world. Such an ideal is egalitarian, libertarian, communitarian, and decentralized. Political structures should be small-scale and radically democratic, with no one having authoritarian power. Decisions are made by consensus, with freedom of dissent respected. Social cooperation is motivated by a deep feeling of solidarity and the recognition that community well-being and individual self-development are symbiotic. Societies interact with others in a confederation that involves broader and more inclusive political units, but power is ultimately retained by local communities. The ideal economy is decentralized in terms of resource use and local democratic control, and the chief goals of the economy are social justice and environmental sustainability. In such a society, individuals would not suffer from the sense of alienation from work, other people, and the natural world that is common in the corporate state. Satisfaction and pleasure are found not in consumer affluence or social status but in a high quality of life and mutually affirming relationships with others and nature.

These values, in particular decentralization and the goal of living in harmony with the natural world, associate social ecology with bioregionalism. Bioregionalism is an environmental and social movement that seeks to develop small-scale communities closely in tune with the specific character of the local community of life. Bioregionalism, like social ecology, has a radical, utopian ideal of a transformed society, but at the same time is practical and pragmatic, interested in on-the-ground developments that can benefit people and nature in the immediate future.

Social ecology has had a complex relationship with other radical ecological philosophies such as ecosocialism, ecofeminism, and especially deep ecology. Murray Bookchin, for instance, has been polemical in attacking deep ecology, particularly its neglect of social analysis, its holistic philosophy, and its embrace of Asian and indigenous spiritualities. However, other social ecologists, such as John Clark, have insisted that social ecology needs to maintain a dialectical openness to other perspectives. In addition, Clark and others have affirmed the value of spirituality for a fully developed social ecology.

Further Reading

Bookchin, Murray. Toward an Ecological Society. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.

Clark, John P. [Max Cafard]. The Surre(gion)alist Manifesto and Other Writings. Baton Rouge: Exquisite Corpse, 2003.

Clark, John. “Domesticating the Dialectic: A Critique of Bookchin's Neo-Aristotelian Metaphysics.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 19.1 (March 2008): 82-97.

Light, Andrew, ed. Social Ecology after Bookchin. New York: Guilford, 1998.


Murray Bookchin, “What is Social Ecology?”

John Clark, “A Social Ecology”

The Green Fuse

Institute for Social Ecology

Author: David Landis Barnhill