The Red and the Green: Left Perspectives on Ecology

By Yih, Katherine | Monthly Review, October 1990 | Go to article overview

The Red and the Green: Left Perspectives on Ecology


Yih, Katherine, Monthly Review


THE RED AND THE GREEN: LEFT PERSPECTIVES ON ECOLOGY

The U.S. environmental movement is, in Murray Bookchin's estimation, "potentially, at least, one of the most radical to emerge since the sixties." Radical ecology perspectives, encompassing deep ecology, social ecology, bioregionalism, ecofeminism, and Marxist views, all involve some fundamental critique of the prevailing social/economic/political order of things in the world, thereby distinguishing themselves from mainstream environmentalism. But, even without the mainstream environmentalists, does the "movement"--more a hodgepodge of organizations informed by divergent ideologies and employing disparate strategies--really have the will or capacity to build toward the structural change necessary to stave off and reverse environmental ruin?

Left perspectives on ecology--specifically social ecology and Marxist views--hold the most promise for conceptualizing and resolving problems in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. They share a commitment to justice and a recognition that capitalism ultimately stands in the way of both social equality and ecological rationality. Yet there are important distinctions to be made between these perspectives, which bear on their political effectiveness.

One of the fundamental points of difference between social ecologists and Marxists is the degree of emphasis they give to ecological concerns in their overall political programs. Social ecologists make ecology the central element in their program, from which all else is supposed to more or less follow. For Marxists with ecological sensibilities, ecological rationality is rather a critical goal linked to others within a larger analysis and program--it is necessary to be red as well as green.

The differences are not trivial and can have real-world consequences. For example, in Burlington, Vermont, the Greens (who in Burlington are largely social ecologists) ran a candidate in the 1989 mayoral election, in which the main contest was between a Democrat and an independent candidate endorsed by the socialist Progressive Coalition. The participation of the Greens thus threatened to split the Progressive vote. In the end, the Progressives won easily; only 3.4 percent of the vote went to the Greens. In the 1990 election for the Board of Alders, the Green candidate in one ward actually declared that his objective was not to win but to make the Progressives lose; the Progressives lost the ward and by a smaller margin than the proportion of the vote garnered by the Greens.

It's worth looking at the ideology and analysis underlying social ecology and Marxist views on ecology in more detail in order to evaluate their political implications and potential for bringing about a more desirable ecological and social order.

Social Ecology

Anarchist in origin, social ecology is anti-capitalist and opposes all forms of domination. The proponents of social ecology include many of the left Greens; the best-known is Murray Bookchin, who invented the term in his 1964 essay "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought."

Bookchin sees environmental degradation as closely tied to the grow-or-die imperative of capitalism. So, it is not industry or technology per se that is at fault, but a particular economic system, capitalism. Furthermore, like Marxists, he maintains that "class and exploitation are basic to capitalist accumulation and its unrelenting drive toward denaturing and devastating the planet."(1)

Social ecologists see human beings primarily as social beings, not as an undifferentiated species--social beings who, as Bookchin writes, "differ profoundly as to their status as poor and rich, women and men, black and white, gays and `straights,' oppressed and oppressor." Social ecology "emphasizes the just demands of the oppressed in a society that wantonly exploits human beings, and it calls for their freedom."(2)

While they are unambiguously humanist, social ecologists do not view nature solely as a means of satisfying human material needs. …

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