� Murray Bookchin discusses a false dichotomy
"We have no need for `biocentrism,' `anthropocentrism,' or
for that matter any `centrism,' nor for any ideology that diverts popular
attention from the social sources of the ecological crisis."
Introduction by Ian Angus
Some green writers, particularly those who
support the viewpoint known as deep ecology, accuse socialist
environmentalists of anthropocentrism, of giving absolute priority to human
needs and ignoring or downplaying the needs of non-human nature. To that,
they counterpose what is variously called biocentrism or ecocentrism � the
view that all living things have the same or similar intrinsic value.
Many who call themselves biocentrists argue that their viewpoint is
superior to, and incompatible with, socialism and Marxism. The late David
Orton, for example, refused to sign the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration in
2008, because it was "people-centered, not Earth-centered."
tendency among ecologically-conscious socialists to reply to such criticisms
by simply denying that we are anthropocentric. That's an understandable
response: after all, who wants to be labeled as anti-nature?
following remarkable passage, the noted radical ecologist Murray Bookchin
offers a very different response, one that in my opinion deserves careful
consideration from all green lefts and left greens, whether or not they
agree with his anarchist philosophy.
The following is from Murray
Bookchin's essay "Where I Stand Now," in Defending the Earth (South End
Press, 2001), a book in which he debated these and related issues with
EarthFirst! founder and deep ecology exponent Dave Foreman. The book is now
out of print, but it can be downloaded from The Anarchist Library. To aid
readability on screen, I have added paragraph breaks, but otherwise the text
To those who dismiss me as
"anthropocentric," I must ask: Why must I be forced to choose between
"biocentrism" and "anthropocentrism?" I never believed that the Earth was
"made" for human exploitation. In fact, as a dyed-in-the-wool secularist, I
never believed it was "made" at all. I also don't believe that humans should
"dominate" nature -- the ultimate impossibility of this is a key idea in
Given my longstanding fascination with the wonders of
natural evolution and, yes, wilderness, what need do I have for a
"biocentrism" that deflects me from the social roots of the ecological
crisis? I believe that non-human and human nature are as inextricably bound
to each other as the ventricles of the heart are bound to the auricles and
that both human and non-human nature deserve moral consideration.
"anthropocentrism" that is based on the religious principle that the Earth
was "made" to be dominated by "Humanity" is as remote from my thinking as a
"biocentrism" that turns human society into just another community of
We need a much better perspective, I think. Whether there
will be any wild areas or wildlife left in a century or so depends
decisively upon the kind of society we will have -- not on whether we lecture
the human species over its failings, call it a "cancer" or worse on the
planet, or extol the virtues of the Pleistocene or Neolithic. It will depend
not only on our attitude toward non-human life but on the extent to which
countless social oppressions are permitted to exist that compel peasants to
cut down forests in order to survive, and that destroy their traditional lifeways in the bargain.
Even more fundamentally
-- and we had better
get down to fundamentals if we wish to be "radical" in the real meaning of
the word -- whether there will be wild areas or wildlife left in a century or
so depends upon whether we continue to preserve the "grow-or-die" economy
(be it free-market corporate capitalism or bureaucratic state capitalism) in
which an enterprise or a country that doesn't grow economically is devoured
by its rivals in the domestic market or in the international arena.
Indeed, until humanity can actualize its evolutionary potentialities as
highly creative and ecologically-oriented beings, the antagonisms engendered
by social oppression in all its forms will literally tear down the planet --
both for human and for non-human life-forms alike.
technology per se for this terrible distortion of second nature; to deal
with human population growth as if it were not influenced profoundly by
cultural factors; to reduce the basic social factors that have produced the
present ecological crisis to largely, often purely biological ones -- all
this is to deflect attention away from the fact that our ecological
dislocations have their primary source in social dislocations. The very
notion of "dominating nature" has its roots in the domination of human by
human -- in hierarchies that brought the young into subjugation to
gerontocracies, that brought women into subjugation to patriarchies,
ordinary people into subjugation to military chiefdoms, working people into
subjugation to capitalist or bureaucratic systems of exploitation, and so
Granted, we need profound cultural changes and a new
sensibility that will teach us to respect non-human life-forms; that will
create new values in the production and consumption of goods; that will give
rise to new life-fostering technologies rather than destructive ones; that
will remove conflicts between human populations and the non-human world; and
that will abet natural diversity and evolutionary development. I have
written on these needs for scores of pages in books and articles. But does
anyone seriously think these cultural changes can be achieved in a society
that pits people against one another as buyers and sellers, as exploited and
exploiters, as subjugated and subjugators at all levels of life?
deflect our attention from these crucial social questions with a
"biocentrism" that basically ignores them at best or that blames a vague
"Humanity" for problems generated by a rotten social system at worst is to
lead the ecology movement onto an ideological sidetrack. We have no need for
"biocentrism," "anthropocentrism," or for that matter any "centrism," nor
for any ideology that diverts popular attention from the social sources of
the ecological crisis.
At the risk of being repetitive, let me stress
that deep ecology's limited, and sometimes distorted, social understanding
explains why no other "radical" ecology philosophy could be more congenial
to the ruling elites of our time. Here is a perspective on the ecological
crisis that blames our "values" without going to the social sources of these
values. It denounces population growth without explaining why the poor and
oppressed proliferate in such huge numbers or what social changes could
humanely stabilize the human population. It blames technology without asking
who develops it and for what purposes. It denounces consumers without
dealing with the grow-or-die economy that uses its vast media apparatus to
get them to consume as a monstrous substitute for a culturally and
spiritually meaningful life.
To fail to explore these issues, give
coherent explanations of them, or provide a clear sense of direction in
dealing with them, is to completely bypass the core problems that confront
ecologically-minded people today. It amounts to separating the ecology
movement from the struggles of women for complete gender equality, people of
color for racial equality, the poor for economic equality, subcultures like
gays and lesbians for social equality, the oppressed of all kinds for human
Characteristically, the literature produced by most deep
ecologists takes little -- if any -- note of lead poisoning in ghettos. It
rarely, if ever, deals with workplace pollution, and the special
environmental hazards that face women, ethnic minorities, and city dwellers.
Laudable as Earth First!'s reverence for wild areas and wildlife may be, the
failure of deep ecology to provide a radical social orientation to its
admirers often leaves them as mere acolytes of a wilderness cult.
Further, in its totally misplaced attack on "Humanity" deep ecology
alienates many sympathetic activists who may respect wild areas and wildlife
as much as deep ecologists do, but who are unwilling to flirt with
misanthropy and self-hatred.
Limits of space do not permit me to cite
all my reasons for regarding deep ecology as far from "deep." What I must
stress is that social ecology is neither "biocentric" nor "anthropocentric."
Rather, it is naturalistic.
Because of this naturalist orientation,
social ecology is no less concerned with issues like the integrity of wild
areas and wildlife than are "biocentrists." As a hiker, an ecologist, and
above all a naturalist who devoutly believes in freedom, I can talk as
passionately as any deep ecologist about the trails I have followed, the
vistas I have gazed at, or the soaring hawks I have watched for hours from
cliffs and mountain peaks.
Yet social ecology is also naturalistic in
the very important sense that it stresses humanity's and society's profound
roots in natural evolution. Hence my use of the term "second nature" to
emphasize the development of human social life out of the natural world.
This second aspect of social ecology's naturalistic perspective not only
challenges misanthropy; it challenges conventional social theory as well.
The philosophy of social ecology denies that there can be a complete
separation -- let alone a desirable opposition -- between human and non-human
evolution. As naturalists, we respect the fact that human beings have
evolved out of first or non-human nature as mammals and primates to form a
new domain composed of mutable institutions, technologies, values, forms of
Social ecology recognizes that we are both biological
and social beings. Indeed, social ecologists go so far as to carefully
analyze the important social history that has pitted humanity not only
against itself but, very significantly, against non-human nature as well.
Over the centuries, as I have said many times before, social conflicts
have fostered the development of hierarchies and classes based on domination
and exploitation in which the great majority of human beings have been as
ruthlessly exploited as the natural world itself. Social ecology carefully
focuses on this social history and reveals that the very idea of dominating
nature stems from the domination of human by human. This hierarchical
mentality and system has been extended out from the social domination of
people -- particularly the young, women, people of color, and yes, males
generally as workers and subjects -- into the realm of non-human nature.
Thus, unlike most deep ecologists, social ecologists understand that
until we undertake the project of liberating human beings from domination
and hierarchy -- not only economic exploitation and class rule, as orthodox
socialists would have it -- our chances of saving the wild areas of the
planet and wildlife are remote at best.
This means that the radical
ecology movement must have programs for removing the oppressions that people
suffer even while some of us are primarily focused on the damage this
society is inflicting on wild areas and wildlife.
We should never
lose sight of the fact that the project of human liberation has now become
an ecological project, just as, conversely, the project of defending the
Earth has also become a social project.
Social ecology as a form of
eco-anarchism weaves these two projects together, first by means of an
organic way of thinking that I call dialectical naturalism; second, by means
of a mutualistic social and ecological ethics that I call the ethics of
complementarity; third, by means of a new technics that I call
eco-technology; and last, by means of new forms of human association that I
It is not accidental that I have written works
on cities as well as ecology, on Utopias as well as pollution, on a new
politics as well as new technologies; on a new ecological sensibility as
well as a new economy. A coherent ecological philosophy must address all of