E.0 Section E Introduction

Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?

This section of the FAQ expands upon section D.4 ("What is the relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis?") in which we indicated that since capitalism is based upon the principle of "grow or die," a "green" capitalism is impossible. By its very nature capitalism must expand, creating new markets, increasing production and consumption, and so invading more ecosystems, using more resources, and upsetting the interrelations and delicate balances that exist with ecosystems. We have decided to include a separate section on this to stress how important green issues are to anarchism and what a central place ecology has in modern anarchism.

Anarchists have been at the forefront of ecological thinking and the green movement for decades. This is unsurprisingly, as many key concepts of anarchism are also key concepts in ecological thought. In addition, the ecological implications of many anarchist ideas (such as decentralisation, integration of industry and agriculture, and so forth) has meant that anarchists have quickly recognised the importance of ecological movements and ideas.

Murray Bookchin in particular has placed anarchist ideas at the centre of green debate as well as bringing out the links anarchism has with ecological thinking. His eco-anarchism (which he called social ecology) was based on emphasising the social nature of the ecological problems we face. In such classic works as Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Toward an Ecological Society and The Ecology of Freedom he has consistently argued that humanity's domination of nature is the result of domination within humanity itself.

However, anarchism has always had an ecological dimension. As Peter Marshall notes in his extensive overview of ecological thought, ecologists "find in Proudhon two of their most cherished social principles: federalism and decentralisation." He "stands as an important forerunner of the modern ecological movement for his stress on the close communion between humanity and nature, for his belief in natural justice, for his doctrine of federalism and for his insight that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order." [Nature's Web, p. 307 and p. 308] For Proudhon, a key problem was that people viewed the land as "something which enables them to levy a certain revenue each year. Gone is the deep feeling for nature." People "no longer love the soil. Landowners sell it, lease it, divide it into shares, prostitute it, bargain with it and treat it as an object of speculation. Farmers torture it, violate it, exhaust it and sacrifice it to their impatient desire for gain. They never become one with it." We "have lost our feeling for nature." [Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 261]

Other precursors of eco-anarchism can be found in Peter Kropotkin's writings. For example, in his classic work Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin argued the case for "small is beautiful" 70 years before E. F. Schumacher coined the phase, advocating "a harmonious balance between agriculture and industry. Instead of the concentration of large factories in cities, he called for economic as well as social decentralisation, believing that diversity is the best way to organise production by mutual co-operation. He favoured the scattering of industry throughout the country and the integration of industry and agriculture at the local level." His vision of a decentralised commonwealth based on an integration of agriculture and industry as well as manual and intellectual work has obvious parallels with much modern green thought, as does his stress on the need for appropriate levels of technology and his recognition that the capitalist market distorts the development, size and operation of technology and industry. Through his investigations in geography and biology, Kropotkin discovered species to be interconnected with each other and with their environment. Mutual Aid is the classic source book on the survival value of co-operation within species which Kropotkin regarded as an important factor of evolution, arguing that those who claim competition within and between species is the chief or only factor have distorted Darwin's work. All this ensures that Kropotkin is "a great inspiration to the modern ecological movement." [Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 311 and p. 312]

As well as Kropotkin's work, special note must be made of French anarchist Elisee Reclus. As Clark and Martin note, Reclus introduced "a strongly ecological dimension into the tradition of anarchist and libertarian social theory". He made "a powerful contribution to introducing this more ecological perspective into anarchist thought," of "looking beyond the project of planetary domination and attempting to restore humanity to its rightful place within, rather than above, nature." Reclus, "much more than Kropotkin, introduced into anarchist theory themes that were later developed in social ecology and eco-anarchism." [John P. Clark and Camille Martin (ed.), Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 19] For example, in 1866 Reclus argued as follows:

"Wild nature is so beautiful. Is it really necessary for man, in seizing it, to proceed with mathematical precision in exploiting each new conquered domain and then mark his possession with vulgar constructions and perfectly straight boundaries? If this continues to occur, the harmonious contrasts that are one of the beauties of the earth will soon give way to depressing uniformity . . .

"The question of knowing which of the works of man serves to beautify and which contributes to the degradation of external nature can seem pointless to so-called practical minds; nevertheless, it is a matter of the greatest importance. Humanity's development is most intimately connected with the nature that surrounds it. A secret harmony exists between the earth and the peoples whom it nourishes, and when reckless societies allow themselves to meddle with that which creates the beauty of their domain, they always end up regretting it." [quoted by Clark and Martin, Op. Cit., pp. 125-6]

"Man," Reclus says, can find beauty in "the intimate and deeply seated harmony of his work with that of nature." Like the eco-anarchists a century later, he stressed the social roots of our environmental problems arguing that a "complete union of Man with Nature can only be effected by the destruction of the frontiers between castes as well as between peoples." He also indicated that the exploitation of nature is part and parcel of capitalism, for "it matters little to the industrialist . . . whether he blackens the atmosphere with fumes . . . or contaminates it with foul-smelling vapours." "Since nature is so often desecrated by speculators precisely because of its beauty," Reclus argued, "it is not surprising that farmers and industrialists, in their own exploitative endeavours, fail to consider whether they contribute to defacing the land." The capitalist is "concerned not with making his work harmonious with the landscape." [quoted by Clark and Martin, Op. Cit., p. 28, p. 30, p. 124 and p. 125] Few modern day eco-anarchists would disagree.

So, while a specifically ecological anarchism did not develop until the revolutionary work done by Murray Bookchin from the 1950's onwards, anarchist theory has had a significant "proto-green" content since at least the 1860s. What Bookchin and writers like him did was to make anarchism's implicit ecological aspects explicit, a work which has immensely enriched anarchist theory and practice.

In addition to pointing out the key role ecology plays within anarchism, this section is required to refute some commonly proposed solutions to the ecological problems we face. While it is wonderful that green ideas have becoming increasingly commonplace, the sad fact is that many people have jumped on the green bandwagon whose basic assumptions and practices are deeply anti-ecological. Thus we find fascists expounding on their environmental vision or defenders of capitalism proposing "ecological" solutions based on expanding private property rights. Similarly, we find the notion of green consumerism raised as viable means of greening the planet (rather than as an addition to social struggle) or a focus on symptoms (such as population growth) rather than root causes. This section refutes many such flawed suggestions.

A key concept to remember in our discussion is that between environmentalism and ecology. Following Bookchin, eco-anarchists contrast their ideas with those who seek to reform capitalism and make it more green (a position they term "environmentalism" rather than ecology). The latter "focus on specific issues like air and water pollution" while ignoring the social roots of the problems they are trying to solve. In other words, their outlook "rest[s] on an instrumental, almost engineering approach to solving ecological dislocations. To all appearances, they wanted to adapt the natural world to the needs of the existing society and its exploitative, capitalist imperatives by way of reforms that minimise harm to human health and well-being. The much-needed goals of formulating a project for radical social change and for cultivating a new sensibility toward the natural world tended to fall outside the orbit of their practical concerns." Eco-anarchists, while supporting such partial struggles, stress that "these problems originate in a hierarchical, class, and today, competitive capitalist system that nourishes a view of the natural world as a mere agglomeration of 'resources' for human production and consumption." [The Ecology of Freedom, pp. 15-6] This means that while some kind of environmentalism may be possible under capitalism or some other authoritarian system, an ecological approach is impossible. Simply put, the concerns of ecology cannot be squeezed into a hierarchical perspective or private property. Just as an eco-system cannot be commanded, divided and enclosed, nor can a truly ecological vision. Attempts to do so will impoverish both.

As we discuss in the next section, for anarchists the root cause of our ecological problems is hierarchy in society compounded by a capitalist economy. For anarchists, the notion of an ecological capitalism is, literally, impossible. Libertarian socialist Takis Fotopoulous has argued that the main reason why the project of "greening" capitalism is just a utopian dream "lies in a fundamental contradiction that exists between the logic and dynamic of the growth economy, on the one hand, and the attempt to condition this dynamic with qualitative interests" on the other. ["Development or Democracy?", pp. 57-92, Society and Nature, No. 7, p. 82] Green issues, like social ones, are inherently qualitative in nature and, as such, it is unsurprising that a system based on profit would ignore them.

Under capitalism, ethics, nature and humanity all have a price tag. And that price tag is god. This is understandable as every hierarchical social system requires a belief-system. Under feudalism, the belief-system came from the Church, whereas under capitalism, it pretends to come from science, whose biased practitioners (usually funded by the state and capital) are the new priesthood. Like the old priesthoods, only those members who produce "objective research" become famous and influential -- "objective research" being that which accepts the status quo as "natural" and produces what the elite want to hear (i.e. apologetics for capitalism and elite rule will always be praised as "objective" and "scientific" regardless of its actual scientific and factual content, the infamous "bell curve" and Malthus's "Law of Population" being classic examples). More importantly, capitalism needs science to be able to measure and quantify everything in order to sell it. This mathematical faith is reflected in its politics and economics, where quantity is more important than quality, where 5 votes are better than 2 votes, where $5 is better than $2. And like all religions, capitalism needs sacrifice. In the name of "free enterprise," "economic efficiency," "stability" and "growth" it sacrifices individuality, freedom, humanity, and nature for the power and profits of the few.

Understanding the social roots of the problems we face is the key. Many greens attack what they consider the "wrong ideas" of modern society, its "materialistic values" and counter-pose new ideas, more in tune with a green society. This approach, however, misses the point. Ideas and values do not "just happen", but are the product of a given set of social relationships and the struggles they produce. This means that it is not just a matter of changing our values in a way that places humanity in harmony with nature (important though that is), but also of understanding the social and structural origins of the ecological crisis. Ideas and values do need to be challenged, but unless the authoritarian social relationships, hierarchy and inequalities in power (i.e. what produces these values and ideas) are also challenged and, more importantly, changed an ecological society is impossible. So unless other Greens recognise that this crisis did not develop in a social vacuum and is not the "fault" of people as people (as opposed to people in a hierarchical society), little can be done root out the systemic causes of the problems that we and the planet face.

Besides its alliance with the ecology movement, eco-anarchism also finds allies in the feminist and peace movements, which it regards, like the ecology movement, as implying the need for anarchist principles. Thus eco-anarchists think that global competition between nation-states is responsible not only for the devouring of nature but is also the primary cause of international military tensions, as nations seek to dominate each other by military force or the threat thereof. As international competition becomes more intense and weapons of mass destruction spread, the seeds are being sown for catastrophic global warfare involving nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons. Because such warfare would be the ultimate ecological disaster, eco-anarchism and the peace movement are but two aspects of the same basic project. Similarly, eco-anarchists recognise that domination of nature and male domination of women have historically gone hand in hand, so that eco-feminism is yet another aspect of eco-anarchism. Since feminism, ecology, and peace are key issues of the Green movement, anarchists believe that many Greens are implicitly committed to anarchism, whether they realise it or not, and hence that they should adopt anarchist principles of direct action rather than getting bogged down in trying to elect people to state offices.

Here we discuss some of the main themes of eco-anarchism and consider a few suggestions by non-anarchists about how to protect the environment. In section E.1, we summarise why anarchists consider why a green society cannot be a capitalist one (and vice versa). Section E.2 presents a short overview of what an ecological society would be like. Section E.3 refutes the false capitalist claim that the answer to the ecological crisis is to privatise everything while section E.4 discusses why capitalism is anti-ecological and its defenders, invariably, anti-green. Then we indicate why green consumerism is doomed to failure in section E.5 before, in section E.6, refuting the myth that population growth is a cause of ecological problems rather than the effect of deeper issues.

Obviously, these are hardly the end of the matter. Some tactics popular in the green movement are shared by others and we discuss these elsewhere. For example, the issue of electing Green Parties to power will be addressed in section J.2.4 ("Surely voting for radical parties will be effective?") and so will be ignored here. The question of "single-issue" campaigns (like C.N.D. and Friends of the Earth) will be discussed in section J.1.4. Remember that eco-anarchists, like all anarchists, take a keen interest in many other issues and struggles and just because we do not discuss something here does not mean we are indifferent to it.

For anarchists, unless we resolve the underlying contradictions within society, which stem from domination, hierarchy and a capitalist economy, ecological disruption will continue and grow, putting our Earth in increasing danger. We need to resist the system and create new values based on quality, not quantity. We must return the human factor to our alienated society before we alienate ourselves completely off the planet.

Peter Marshall's Nature's Web presents a good overview of all aspects of green thought over human history from a libertarian perspective, including excellent summaries of such anarchists as Proudhon, Kropotkin and Bookchin (as well as libertarian socialist William Morris and his ecologically balanced utopia News from Nowhere).

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles