The Cutting Edge: Deep Ecology and Its Critics

By Sale, Kirkpatrick | The Nation, May 14, 1988 | Go to article overview

The Cutting Edge: Deep Ecology and Its Critics


Sale, Kirkpatrick, The Nation


For me, the first indication that there was a concerted campaign afoot came at the Socialist Scholars Conference a year ago, where I appeared on a panel with Murray Bookchin, the author and co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, to discuss "The Politics of Ecology." Bookchin gave one of his elegant, impassioned, learned presentations, but I was surprised that it had a harsh edge to it of sourness and rancor directed, it became clear, against those who might hold to any of the tenets of deep ecology, particularly the ideas embraced in the term "biocentrism." Deep ecology, it seemed, was a part of the broad ecological movement in America that was wrongheaded and dangerous, divering attention from the serious tasks of eliminating capitalism and restructuring class society, and was in some way a threat to the reasonable, right-minded form of ecological truth -whose name was, so I gathered, social ecology.

Until that moment, I sincerely and naively thought that Bookchin and I were on the same wavelength (indeed, friends), that there was really only one great big ecology movement and that we shared an essentially similar position on the environmental destruction of the earth. But I suddenly realized that, in Bookchin's mind anyway, there was a battle going on within this movement and that the social ecologists were determined to distance themselves from - and argue their work superior to-all other sorts of ecologists. Not only that, but from the tone of his remarks (which was echoed by a colleague he had installed on the panel, Ynestra King, also from the Institute for Social Ecology) it seemed clear that they were actually out to destroy the influence of those thinkers and activists they found distasteful: the deep ecologists, in particular, but also members of the Earth First and bioregional movements, who might have similar ideas, and those they regarded as in the "spiritual" wing of the American Green and ecofeminist movements. The awful, acrid smell of righteous factionalism was in the air.

Next came a broadside presented by Bookchin to the national Green gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, last July, a paper starkly and forthrightly called "Social Ecology Versus 'Deep Ecology.' " In extraordinary language that was, I understand, shocking to and totally unexpected by most of the participants, Bookchin laid into those who fell short of the social ecology ideal, attacking the deep ecologists in particular with a vengeance-literally-that I don't think has been equaled in political disputes since the 1930s. "They are barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones and outright social reactionaries," Bookchin said, who offer "a vague, formless, often self- contradictory and invertebrate [sit) thing called 'deep ecology' and a "kind of crude eco-brutalism" similar to Hitler's. Deep ecologists "feed on human disasters, suffering and misery, preferably to Third World countries"; their ideas are "a bottomless pit . . . an ideological toxic dump"; they are guilty of "a sinists function that] legitimates extremely regressive, primitivistic and even highly reactionary notions." And so on and on, twenty-three pages of it.

Thereafter, the arrows from the social ecology quiver fairly flew. A special issue of the Fifth Estate, a Detroit-based alternative newspaper, featured a twenty-eight-page article, "How Deep Is Deep Ecology? "; a widely circulated, photocopied manuscript purporting to discredit Earth First I, the radical environmental group whose member have largely identified with deep ecology in the last few years arrived in the mail; the December 1987 Utne Reader gave somewhat scandalized prominence to an Earth First! article that spoke favorably of AIDS as, in effect, a welcome and necessary control on human global population a lengthy, heated letter from Ynestra King was printed in The Nation [December 12, 1987], attacking deep ecology as "a philosophy utterly bereft of compassion for human beings, with no analysis of U. …

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