Social Ecology: An Ecological Humanism

In this essay taken from the book The Anthropology of Utopia, Dan Chodorkoff provides an introduction to the philosophy of social ecology.

Submitted by GoogleMurrayBookchin on June 13, 2019

Social ecology begins with an exploration of the past in order to gain an epistemological understanding into how humanity defines, and thus constitutes, nature. This is a question of vital importance, not merely an exercise in philosophical abstraction. The way we conceptualize nature and humanity’s place in nature has become a highly contentious issue in ecological thought and environmental philosophy. The conclusions that we draw will inform our ethics and the political decisions that shape our world. How can we derive such an epistemology?

We must start out by understanding that nature is not a static entity but evolutionary, indeed, that the very process of biological evolution constitutes nature. The evolutionary record, natural history, is the reality of nature. From the molecular to the biospheric level, nature is in a process of constant flux and change: birth, death, mutation, even extinction are all part of a process which creates the complex web of life, of which humanity is a part. In biological terms, then, nature is both being and becoming. Evolution is nature.

First Nature and Humanity

Humanity must be placed within the evolutionary matrix and recognized as playing a unique role in that matrix by virtue of our capacity for both creative and destructive interaction with the rest of nature. As a species we have the ability to profoundly affect other species, ecosystems, and the biosphere itself in ways unparalleled by any other life form. This makes us both an integral part of nature—a product of the same evolutionary forces that created all other species on the planet, past and present—and at the same time distinct in our ability to affect nature. Social ecology recognizes this fact, compelling us to make a distinction between what we term “first nature,” nature evolving according to processes not affected by humanity, and “second nature,” which is nature determined by human consciousness and action.

In first nature a primary mode of evolution is natural selection: species change or mutate over time in order to adapt to the environment in which they find themselves, thus conferring an evolutionary advantage that ensures survival and regeneration. At some point cultural evolution emerges out of—though it does not replace—biological evolution. Second nature is best characterized by the emergence of self-consciousness and culture. Humanity remakes itself constantly through processes of tool making (technology), institution building, explanation (religion, philosophy, and science), and art. As humanity advances our understanding of the evolutionary process, of physics, genetics, and other arenas of science our species is becoming, at least potentially, to use Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s phrase, “nature rendered self-conscious,” nature aware of itself and consciously forming its own development. To an unprecedented degree, and with a rapidity seen nowhere else in nature, humanity adapts the environment to meet its needs: cultural evolution is a remarkably dynamic process capable of transforming the conditions of a society in less than a generation.

If we acknowledge the reality of a second nature, produced by human creativity and artifice, as distinct from first nature, we must also acknowledge that it grows directly out of first nature, or biological evolution. Thus, logically, first nature contained within itself, from its very inception, the potential for second nature. Natural history, the evolutionary record, must be read as a process in which nothing essential is lost. Second nature still contains within it first nature; complex forms of mammalian life begin as single cells and organize into more complex cellular forms (organs) contained within still more complex assemblages of cells (organisms). The pH of the ancient oceans in which life first began is replicated in the amniotic fluid that supports life in the womb of complex mammals, like human beings. In a certain sense the conception, gestation, and birth of an individual person roughly replicates the process of biological evolution. Our species comprises both first nature and second nature.

When we view the evolutionary record over the whole of biological development we see a movement toward an ever-greater degree of diversity and complexity of life forms, and the potentiality for consciousness and self-consciousness. This is not to say that there is a linear, unbroken ascent toward human consciousness; evolution is full of fits and starts, florescence and decline, even extinction. But it is undeniable that life on earth evolved from unconscious, single-celled organisms, to biologically complex forms of life with the capacity to think abstractly and to reason. Does this fact confer upon humanity the “crown of creation,” the right to dominate the rest of nature and view first nature as mere resource? Or does it require us to understand ourselves as a part of nature with the capacity to play either a destructive role or a creative and sustaining role? Does this understanding not bring with it the responsibility to critically examine the existing relationship between first and second nature, particularly in light of the insights offered by the science of ecology? And should we not create an ethics and politics that can ensure a reharmonization of first and second nature to stem the tide of destruction resulting from our current ethics and politics, which threaten the integrity of both first nature and second nature?

Social ecology suggests that we need to look at first nature to gain insight into the principles that inform natural history and ensure ecosystem health. Such an examination must draw on the best scientific understanding and interpretation we can assemble, but we must also recognize that such a project is not purely empirical. The history of interpretation of “the laws of nature” is fraught with highly subjective, politically charged moments. In the nineteenth century, Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer twisted Darwin’s ideas to provide a rationale for British colonialism and imperialism. More recently, Hitler justified his views by drawing on the “immutable laws of nature.” In light of this history, rather than claim immutability or absolute authority, social ecology attempts to use the best existing science to identify tendencies or principles at work in evolutionary processes and ecosystem dynamics, and acknowledges that these tendencies may be mutable and do not exhaust the whole range of processes at work in first nature. They do seem, however, to represent important tendencies that relate directly to the project of reharmonizing first and second nature, a project that takes on some urgency given the current threats facing the planet. We must also recognize, as with any theory based on science, that social ecology too will require modification as new scientific insights emerge.

Ecological Ethics and Society

An ethics that has a goal to reharmonize first and second nature must be oriented toward encouraging ever-greater complexity, diversity, and higher degrees of consciousness. This orientation must inform its relation to both first and second nature, striving to protect and create ecosystems that offer a multiplicity of trophic levels to support biologically diverse species in a set of complex interactions, and do so in a highly self-conscious fashion.

The same principles must be applied in the realm of second nature. If our goal is an ecological society our ethics must ensure complex, diverse societies and cultures that encourage ever-greater degrees of human self-consciousness, characterized by respect, participation, equity, and scientific understanding.The pursuit of ever-greater degrees of complexity, diversity and freedom (as consciousness and choice) is a necessary condition for both healthy ecosystems and healthy societies, and a precondition for the reharmonization of first and second nature.

A related principle present in first nature that must necessarily be applied to human societies in order to achieve a healthy relationship between the two is the principle of unity in diversity. The health, strength, and stability of an ecosystem stand in direct relation to the diversity of species that interact within the system. Ecosystems with the highest degree of biodiversity, like rainforests or estuaries, are able to sustain themselves for thousands of years. Large numbers of species fill every trophic level, giving the system as a whole the ability to compensate for even vast fluctuations in the population of any particular species, therefore allowing it to maintain its overall stability and integrity.

An application of this principle is an ethical imperative in second nature, where lack of unity and intolerance of diversity pose a threat not only to individual cultures and societies but to the biosphere as a whole. The results of second nature’s unwillingness to embrace this principle has led to social and ecological disaster alike; warfare, genocide, and racism in second nature, and a frightening diminution of biodiversity, a wholesale destruction of ecosystems, and global climate change, in first nature. The two are inextricably linked, and social ecology demands a recognition and implementation of the principle of unity in diversity as a corrective to the destruction that has already been wrought.

Hierarchy and Evolution

When the science of ecology began its study of ecosystems the tendency was to view systemic relations in hierarchical terms; a central concept in understanding ecosystem dynamics was that of the food chain, a rigid hierarchy of dependencies in which the largest carnivores were placed at the top. As our scientific understanding has increased, this crude model has been replaced by more sophisticated descriptions that define the complex interrelationships at work in an ecosystem as a food web. The food web describes an essentially non-hierarchical network of relationships based on interdependencies, linking together all species into a mutually supportive whole. This has led to a recognition that first nature is organized non-hierarchically.

The hierarchies that we establish between species in first nature—the lion as “king of beasts,” or the “lowly ant”— are really a projection of human hierarchies. In a technical sense, hierarchy is defined as an institutionalized system of command and control that ultimately has recourse to physical coercion in order to compel obedience. No such systems exist in first nature. The lion does not command and control any other species, nor do lions institutionalize their relationships. Even the seemingly dominant role that an individual female lion may play within her pride is better understood as a form of situational dominance than an institutionalized hierarchy.

Hierarchy vitiates the mutualistic web of relationships crucial to ecosystem stability and even survival. The recurrent cycles of birth, death, and decay link all of first nature and second nature. Despite the undeniable role played by inter- and intra-species competition for evolutionary advantage, ecosystem dynamics are best characterized as rooted in the principle of mutualism; each species plays a critical role in the health and development of the other. This is true even in predator-prey relationships where various species are mutually dependent: put somewhat simplistically, predator species depend on prey for survival, and the prey is dependent on the predator for maintaining healthy population levels. The mutualistic relationships at work in an ecosystem become more complex in direct proportion to the biodiversity of the system.

Evolution is, above all, the realm of potentiality. Every life form contains within it a set of possibilities, both biological and behavioral. These potentialities and the striving to actualize them are what drive life forward. The degree to which this process is conscious is a major factor in natural history and one way that we can begin to differentiate second nature from first nature. This is not to suggest a radical disjuncture between first and second nature: although first nature is always present in second nature we can see a gradual emergence of consciousness, self-consciousness, and human efforts to fulfill inherent potentialities that characterizes the emergence of culture. If mutualism is to serve as a natural tendency that informs human ethics, it must be rooted in this understanding of potentiality; it must be a part of the continuum of behaviors that make us human. This potentiality has found wide expression throughout the whole of human history, which itself offers convincing evidence that we must incorporate this principle into an ethical framework that will allow us to fully reharmonize first and second nature.

The popular conception of an immutable human nature based on greed, competition, warfare, and domination is challenged by the anthropological record. Indeed, anthropology forces us to reject such a narrow view of “human nature,” and to replace it with the much broader concept of a continuum of potential human behaviors. This concept, while undeniably including the potentiality for greed, competition, warfare, and domination, also includes the potentiality for caring, sharing, mutualism, and non-hierarchical relationships. This framework provides a real basis for believing that our species, humanity, has the potentiality to create an ecological society. Anthropologists have identified these ecological behaviors as central in many forms of human society, primarily those rooted in pre-capitalist systems of production. These traits represent a potentiality for the future. I do not mean to suggest that our species could, or would want to, return to hunting and gathering: there can be no return. Rather, I would say that these forms of behavior represent principles. With human creativity and invention we can apply these principles in ways appropriate to modern life.

Cultures and societies have always reinforced and rewarded particular forms of behavior and devalued others. Through the processes of socialization and formal education our society has chosen to reinforce and reward ecologically destructive relationships and patterns of behavior, and furthermore to reify them into “human nature.” An awareness of the other potentialities embodied in our humanity gives hope that a transformation of those patterns may occur. Although by no means guarantied or preordained, social ecology argues that such a transformation must occur if we are to truly achieve our potential to become “nature rendered self-conscious,” thus reharmonizing first and second nature and resolving the ecological crises that threaten our existence.

From Ecology to Politics

A transformation of this magnitude requires a radically new vision and program: a new ecological epistemology, an ethics rooted in principles derived from first nature, and a bold social-political praxis. We must be willing to undertake a searching examination of the roots of the ecological crisis, using the ethical principles that we derive from our understanding of nature. Such an examination leads us from the realm of traditional environmentalism, still rooted in a dualistic epistemology that views “nature” as a collection of natural resources, to a social ecology that promises a fundamental reharmonization of first and second nature.

Indeed, this recognition calls for political solutions that go far beyond the “band aid” approach advocated by most environmentalists. It requires that we resolve the social crises that are the underlying causes of our various environmental crises. It suggests that healthy ecosystems and a healthy relationship between first and second nature only can result from an ecological society, and that such an ecological society must be an ethical community, rooted in the ethical principles that we derive from our understanding of first nature itself.

The ecological crisis demands more than a change in consciousness. Though such a change is necessary, it is not, in and of itself, sufficient. We must also begin to undertake action informed by a consciousness rooted in a social ecology. To be sure, the process of ecological reconstruction will not be an easy one: it will require major shifts in thinking and in social organization, as well as the use of new, ecologically sound technologies and techniques. We must begin the process of ecological reconstruction by preserving existing ecosystems to ensure their integrity and to draw upon them as reservoirs of biodiversity. We must stem the current tide of extinctions. It is also crucial to engage in ecological restoration to the extent that we are able, restoring damaged ecosystems to their previous state. This in turn suggests that we need to explore and implement new, ecological models for development, a community-based process that both meets human needs and respects and restores ecosystems. This critical reconstructive dimension must be fully articulated and applied within the ethical framework presented by evolution.

This reconstructive project is a crucial element in the development of a social ecology: it is not enough to philosophize, we must act. Our actions, however, must be informed by ethics and scientific understanding. Mindless or insufficiently considered action may indeed make our situation worse, instead of improving it. The ends that we seek—societies moving toward ever-greater complexity, diversity, and freedom, creating unity through diversity and mutualistic organization, and highly self-conscious about their relationship to first nature—can only be brought about by social movements that reflect and embody those same principles. Ends and means must be congruent.

Action rooted in social ecology demands broad participation and democracy. All around the world, local communities are already challenging the irrational culture of destruction. The struggles of indigenous farmers in Mexico fighting to save their rainforests, peasants in Nepal fighting to prevent the damming of rivers, and poor black communities in Louisiana fighting to close down toxic chemical plants are all part of the same global movement. So too are urban homesteaders in devastated Detroit neighborhoods reclaiming abandoned buildings, and youth groups growing organic vegetables on vacant lots in New York City. They stand together with the millions around the world who protest a rapacious world economy dominated by giant corporations.

These combinations of protest and reconstructive action are only fledgling steps in what must become a larger and broader movement, but they are promising nonetheless. They point the way toward new organizational models that embody the ecological ethics necessary to achieve a reharmonization of first and second nature. They are diverse, decentralized, non-hierarchical, and participatory, and represent a new model for social action that can begin to counter the destructive path of the dominant culture.

Toward a New Enlightenment

A perspective informed by social ecology must also address the future, and it must do so in a manner that draws on the ethical principles derived from first nature. It is insufficient to extrapolate the present into the future, as futurists and systems theorists do. Any discussion of the future, if it is to be ecological, must be rooted in the concept of potentiality, an understanding of what could be. Evolution itself is a process of unfolding potentiality on a biological level: of organisms either fulfilling their potential for growth, development, and reproduction, or failing to do so. Potentiality should not be equated with inevitability; many factors influence whether it is actualized or not. Social ecology examines the future by trying to tease out potentialities for ecological restoration and a reharmonization of first and second nature, while working to actualize those potentialities.

By doing so, social ecology draws on one of the great traditions of humanity, utopian thinking, which is based on an understanding of the potentialities inherent, though unrealized, in the present. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, utopian thinking emerged as one of the most important forms of both social criticism and speculation about possible new forms of social organization. It was used to explore the far shores of human possibilities; to inspire people to transcend the limitations of their severely limited societies. But utopian thinking offers more than inspiration: it also offers a sense of orientation. Without a vision of the type of society we desire, it will be impossible to ever achieve it. In a modern ecological context, the details of those utopian principles, rooted in a scientific understanding of ecosystems, will be applied through democratically developed plans at the local level.

Social ecology examines the future from this perspective and recognizes the real, existing potentiality for an ecological society. Utilizing modern scientific insights and technics we have the potential to solve the world’s ecological problems; we can create and utilize non-polluting, renewable sources of energy; we can reverse the process of global climate change; we can restore damaged ecosystems and ensure continued biodiversity; we can end pollution and clean up toxic wastes; and we can provide a healthy diet for the world’s population. Today, all of this is possible by utilizing existing technologies.

For the first time in the history of the planet we now have the capacity to eliminate scarcity. Our society has the technology and science required to meet the needs of all humanity for food, shelter, and energy. What we lack is the social vision and the political will to do so. Hierarchical concentrations of wealth and power have led to a catastrophic imbalance in the distribution of resources around the planet. The gap between rich and poor has been steadily increasing in recent decades. Just as the Enlightenment led to a restructuring of society that shook the foundations of the old social order, a new Enlightenment rooted in a social ecology must aim for the same. I am painfully aware of the limitations and many problematic aspects of the original Enlightenment, and I am not arguing that we should replicate the content, but rather that it represents a process from which we must learn.

The Enlightenment project began with a set of ideas that offered a radical critique of what was, and a transcendent vision of what could be and what should be, rooted in a new ethical framework. A similar process is urgently needed today if the potentiality for an ecological society is to ever be realized. To fail to do so is to abandon our humanity and enter headlong into an era of unprecedented ecological devastation.