The world of the 21st century faces the ruins of its past and present. War has become a normal state, poverty and hunger marginal news that no longer merit headlines. Many people have lost the meaning and significance of being human, and the word society means only isolated individuals subsumed under a state that manages their interpersonal relationships. Given these developments, environmental issues seem to be secondary – incidental to many, something for environmentalists to worry about.
But the ecological crisis has become the most urgent challenge of our time, because it touches and impacts all areas of society. The ecosystem has been wrecked to such an extent that much of the damage has become irreversible. A large part of life, both human and natural, has entered a stage of crisis. On this note, Abdullah Öcalan writes: "A policy that promises salvation from the present crisis can only lead to a proper social system if it is ecological.”
It is necessary to outline such an ecological social system and to develop a policy that can overcome the ecological and social crisis as a whole: a policy that not only fights the symptoms, but that recognises that the ecological crisis and the societal crisis are intimately linked. In order to solve the ecological crisis, we must change the social relations of power and domination fundamentally.
If we take this as our starting point in the search for new ways to live, we must also be able to answer the question of how and why societies have ended up in opposition to nature. From a historical perspective, we must be able to identify the decisive moments of social change that led to the break between nature and society that we see today in capitalist society. To speak simply of humanity and not of concrete mentalities, systems, and rulers, only hides the causes and leads us to false premises. It conceals the contradictions that lie behind the categories of humanity: the antagonisms between oppressed and oppressors; men and women; old and young; light and dark; and the rich and the poor.
To be successful in building a new social-ecological society we have to conceive of the human being as a life form that, with its creativity and creative power, can make a great contribution to the improvement of the entire natural world. Even more than that, it is our obligation to accept this potential in ourselves, and to believe in it. It's clear that solving the ecological crisis, and moving towards a social ecological society, cannot be left to science and technology alone; it is also the task of a critical theory that is able to overcome the division between humanity and nature.
Many thinkers - Abdullah Öcalan, Silvia Federici, Friedrich Engels, and Murray Bookchin, in particular – have played an important role in contributing to such a theory, with their analyses of social power relations and historical developments, their understanding of nature and humanity, and their firm belief in the viability of an ecological, free society.
The historical changes in the relationship between society and nature
When we look at the changes in society's relationship to nature, it is vital not to lose sight of the changes in societal power-relations, modes of production, and ideology. There is not a single societal relationship with nature: different modes of production, social classes, cultures and genders develop different relations. Nature includes various aspects, like food and energy, but also an individual's relationship with her or his body. It's about how the external world around the human is seen, understood and felt.
The current relationship with nature, dominated by the state-capitalist structure of society, developed from a long process of changes. To disconnect this relationship from its development gives it the appearance of a system that has always been inevitable. Failure to analyse this history and its development results in an inability to understand the present or construct the future. With this in mind, in the following section we will look at some aspects of the changes in society's relationship with nature.
The human: nature become self-aware.
— Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Natural society can be understood as the first social form. In small communities of clans, human beings began the process of becoming socialised.
In early societies people's understanding of nature was characterised by a close connection with it; nature was regarded as something living, embracing the idea that every natural entity had a soul. The experience of nature found its expression in the idea of spirits, with which humanity sought an understanding. Humans had to live in harmony with these forces, because they determined life and its rhythms. People didn't try to conquer nature, but to influence it through magical rituals, to appeal to the spirits of nature. This magic was based on the observations of the processes of life and death in nature and human beings themselves. The life of humans, in small clan communities and with an idea of living nature, ran according to the basic principles of ecology – that is, in harmony with nature and each other.
So we can define the natural society as "a spontaneous form of an ecological society” (Öcalan). In the collective memory of humanity, nature is like a mother, giving people life and it's necessities. The term “mother nature can be traced back to this collective experience.
The rule of man over humanity and nature
The life of the first communities was based on what people could gather from nature, but hunting came to augment the collecting of plants and fruits. The systematic and deliberate killing of animals evolved into a hunting culture. Out of this, and the emerging conflicts between clan communities, a culture of war developed that went beyond self-defence. The foundation was laid for the further development of a war mentality and its associated institutions and hierarchies, and this had serious consequences for the development of society. In parallel with the arrival of the first hierarchies and the division of people into categories and classes (such as race and gender), the relationship with nature also changed.
By observing the natural processes of birth, growth and death, we developed the first understanding of biology that led to the deliberate use of plants and livestock in agriculture. Humans began to shape the environment according to their needs, and to influence the biological development of animals and plants. Increasing yields from agriculture which went beyond the level of immediate needs now had to be managed.
This administration of social wealth was closely connected with the emergence of social hierarchy (which had already found its expression in the dominion of the old over young, men over women, and leaders over the led). In the course of this process, these hierarchies were increasingly transformed into a more complex social system – as we see in the development of Sumerian and Egyptian priests. These first state structures were legitimised by a mythological system that eliminated the spirits of nature and placed gods - and their human interpreters - above them. And just as the new gods were enthroned above nature, their new priests ruled over society like gods.
From the perspective of the new mythology [...] nature and the universe are full of ruling, punishing gods. These gods actually oppressive and exploiting despots are located outside of nature [...]. Its like they dried out nature. It develops a view of an inanimate nature and matter. All living beings are humiliated, and servants created from the excrement of the gods.
— Abdullah Öcalan
In this process, we find the interweaving of man's dominion over man with man's dominion over nature. Moving from a free and ecological co-existence in natural society, with mutual respect, solidarity and care, towards a society based on hierarchies, classes and domination, people alienated themselves not only from each other, but also from nature. This was the beginning of our downfall, because the evolving class society developed in clear contradiction to nature. The idea of a living, animated, colourful and productive nature gave way to one of a vindictive and mean-spirited nature – something to compete with. Beginning with Sumerian society, this counter-revolution against the natural society, accompanied by a radical change in the mentality of the people, gradually spread throughout the Middle East until it fundamentally changed large parts of the world.
The idea of nature as merciless, oppressive and dominating, which still persists today, goes back to this break in the social relationship. Humanity, confronted with this oppressive force as a small, naked and fragile creature, must protect itself and develop its own powers in order to conquer nature, to become its ruler. This understanding then served to justify the increasingly oppressive relations of people among themselves. According to this doctrine, humanity can escape the power of nature through the productivity of enslavement. Our collective survival depends on with the power of human labor. At the same time, the suffering of the enslaved seems a small thing when compared with the acquired power of man over nature; the enslaved are the collateral damage of the liberation of mankind.
The return to nature and the lived world, which had always been demonised.
— Abdullah Öcalan
Society's relationship with nature was not fundamentally changed in Europe until the Reformation. The determination of people to break away from the Church's dogmas led to a return to rationality and the everyday, which had been demonised by Christianity. The idea of an animated, living nature, in which God Himself lived, found its place again in the imagination of the people. In art, this was expressed in the depiction of nature and people in realistic forms, showing their beauty. This ended the mentality that treated nature and the environment as something inert.
At the same time, the state tried further to dissolve the social knowledge system of natural healing - of birth, life and the human body. This knowledge came from millennia of women's experiences, who developed it and passed it on. Women who believed in the power of natural ways and had a deep relationship with nature were executed during the Inquisition. Possessing this knowledge was seen as the work of the devil and the women were called witches. They were considered remnants of the times in which myths, goddess cults and belief in nature existed along with the worship of natural places. The attack on women and the femicide committed against them also represented an attack on the social bond with nature and knowledge of it.
This attack wasn't limited to the societies in the global North: with colonialism, social relations of nature in the global South have increasingly been subjected to the paradigms of exploitation, destruction and centralisation of social knowledge. At the same time, the ideas of the indigenous populations of the colonies exerted a great fascination. Their attachment to nature and freedom, lack of institutionalised conditions of exploitation, and their participation in a collective community that left little room for individual greed, reminded people from war-torn Europe of the natural society.
The centralisation of agriculture, the expropriation of peasant land, and migration to cities further destroyed society's knowledge of ecological processes and its links to nature. The seizure of land by feudal lords converted large parts of previously collective land into the private possessions of individuals.
In modern times humans have become a wolf not only to humans, but to all nature.
— Abdullah Öcalan
With the development of science as a method for explaining the world, the understanding of natural biological processes also deepened and spread. This was defined more and more in a scientific way and described in rational rather than religious terms. Humanity detached itself from nature; it again put itself at the centre of things, and now considered nature and even the human body as inert and static objects for research. The transition from a holistic world view, which regarded nature as animated, to a mechanistic worldview of positivist ideology, was a decisive step in the change in the social relationship with nature. Nature became inanimate matter that could be worked, divided, measured, examined and controlled - a resource that might have a price, but no value as mere life.
Often, nature is understood as all-determining. The individual human being and society itself are reduced to zoological entities that follow the law of nature – the survival of the fittest. Competition and enmity projected onto nature are reflected in people and social affairs. War, violence, domination, and oppression are viewed as natural things from which there is no escape. This can only be controlled, if at all, by a supernatural and superhuman entity, the authoritarian state, as proposed by Hobbes. The difference between humanity and nature dissolves almost completely; it is only the ability to think that differentiates humans from animals. Here lies the possibility of individual reason and will and, with this, the instinctiveness of body and nature can be disciplined.
The bourgeois Enlightenment wanted to take away humanity's fear of nature, so that nature could be completely subjected to its own ends. The prerequisite for this was knowledge of physical laws and technical tools. Nature and society face each other in a dualistic, hostile relationship; it isn't surprising that such a relationship with nature elicited other reactions. An attitude developed that did not regard nature as the enemy of society, but society as the enemy of nature. In the face of increasingly frightening environmental catastrophes, for which humanity is responsible, there is resignation and pessimism regarding civilisation, society, and even humanity itself. Technology is shown in contrast to innocent, organic nature; science opposed to reverence for life; reason against innocent intuition; more or less, humanity against all of life. It's argued that humanity should, therefore, subordinate itself to nature and subject itself to nature's rules. But even in this primitivist understanding of nature and humanity, their inner opposition - their duality - persists.
The deep alienation between humanity and nature and between people and their bodies is the legacy of positivist science. It is the absolute object-subject relationship that has entered human thinking via positivism and determines the basis of the social relationship of nature in capitalist modernity. The development of this mentality, this conception of nature, became part of the process of increasingly centralised social systems, including the modern nation-state. This mentality is interwoven with industrialisation, the development of machinery and engines. The impact of this hierarchical, industrial economy on soil, air, water, and people has expanded to such an extent that the ecological system is now irreversibly damaged.
The Capitalist Modernity: Profit and enrichment as the meaning of the existence of all life
A person alienated from nature is alienated from and destroying his- or herself. No system has shown this connection more clearly than capitalist modernity; environmental destruction and ecological crises go hand in hand with the oppression and exploitation of people. Capitalist modernity, which makes a commodity of everything, has not even stopped at the limits of life itself: through new technologies (such as genetic engineering) life itself is commodified. In capitalist modernity, the system commands the entire planet, as it commands life itself.
Capitalism's spread to all areas of life seems to have no end in sight. The capitalist mode of production is characterised by the necessity of constant expansion:
Capitalism can no more be persuaded to limit growth than a human being can be persuaded to stop breathing
— Murray Bookchin
Growth in this sense does not mean more time, health, happiness or contentment, but only the ever-expanding increase in profits. The idea of a fulfilled life is to savour as much as possible of what capitalist modernity has to offer, creating a purely consumer society; this is the basic paradigm of capitalist modernity: an imperialist, all-consuming, nature-destroying lifestyle.
The exploitation of nature and humanity to maximise the profits of a few has no moral limits. Social status is defined by power and wealth. Individualism and greed have become virtues. Disregard for everyone and everything is reflected in society's mentality and culture. Its accepted that development, be it human or natural, requires rivalry and competition. Profit and enrichment become the meaning of existence.
The current ecological crisis has shaken up the modern social-natural relationship, because the effects of trying to control and commodify nature have become obvious. But the strategy of capitalist modernity is now to make the ecological crisis itself the starting point of a renewed deepening of the exploitation and commodification of nature. Because, according to the experts and economists, whatever in nature doesn't have a price, can't be appreciated, and there will be no economic incentives to spare it.
This shows once again that a solution to the ecological crisis will only be possible with a fundamental change in mentality and the methods of production, and the overcoming of capitalist modernity itself. The solution lies in restoring a balanced relationship between nature and humanity, at all levels. In this sense, it is about the renewed, conscious development of a democratic-ecological society.
The ecological question is fundamentally solved as the system is repressed and a socialist social system develops. That does not mean you cannot do something for the environment right away. On the contrary, it is necessary to combine the fight for the environment with the struggle for a general social revolution...
— Abdullah Öcalan
Social ecology as a way out of capitalist modernity
Social ecology is the science of people's relationship with their natural and social environments. It examines how these relationships are shaped from different perspectives spanning classical scientific disciplines including anthropology, philosophy, history, archaeology, and social theory. It is not a purely descriptive theory: its crucial project is how the critical human-nature relationship can be reimagined and transformed.
In theorizing a new understanding of the societal relationship to nature, social ecology offers decisive starting points: humanity developed through a natural process of evolution, in which, early on, there was neither opposition, competition nor submission between nature and human. In this process of social development and in the organisational forms that societies have adopted, there is a connection to natural evolution. We can think of pre-human nature - plants and animals – as "first nature” the active, turbulent substance of organic life that is developing toward greater complexity and differentiation arriving, finally at “second nature” – human beings who are self-conscious and aware, able to intervene in the natural world.
The social and the natural permeate each other. As human beings, we will always have basic natural needs, even though these have been institutionalised in society through a variety of social forms. We must also understand the uniqueness of humanity's intellect in the interplay of natural and social evolution. The brain did not come from nowhere, but was the result of a long evolutionary process that slowly developed into a complex nervous system. The intellect is thus deeply rooted in nature. This uniqueness is characterised by the social behaviours of people, their creativity and imagination.
...the human species is a warmhearted, exciting, versatile and especially intelligent way of life in which nature has testified to its highest creative power and is not merely a cold blooded, genetically determined, thoughtless insect.
— Murray Bookchin
In humans, nature has created a form of life that, through awareness and reason, can shape and change its environment. Unimaginable, limitless paths of evolution can open up before us. But, humanity must also accept the responsibility that results from its creative power and this connection with the creative power of nature. This does not happen by denying our own productive and creative powers and placing them in opposition to the power of nature, by making a contrast between nature and society, or between living fertility and dead technology. Rather, we must see ourselves as integrated with nature, viewing nature as a realm of potentiality in which human beings represent the apex of nature's long evolution toward ever greater consciousness, subjectivity, creativity and freedom. "Humanity, in effect, becomes the potential voice of a nature rendered self-conscious and self-formative” (Bookchin). Human beings alone are able to intervene to change the course of the natural world through technology and innovation. The question is whether they will do it rationally, in the service of ever greater freedom, or destructively.
Cornerstone of a democratic ecological social order
If human alienation from its natural environment and ecological destruction cannot be separated from internal social conflicts, then social ecology must propose a new social order. Such an order must be based on radically democratic structures and built up outside of state power, which has always been a centralised structure of control.
Democracy is the antithesis to the state, dissociates itself from it and represents a self-organised regulation of the processes of societal self-coordination. In such a society, production of commodities can only take place in the sense of a cooperative, ecological and decentralised mode of production. Needs are determined based on a democratic process of negotiation and with the awareness of the possibilities of an ecological system in balance between nature and human beings. This means that technologies, modes of production, distribution, and forms of consumption will be decided upon in terms of their impact on the natural environment. At the same time, decisions must be evaluated on a longer-term basis. Often, ecological consequences can only be understood with a long-term perspective. The essential criterion is not only the protection of nature, but the improvement of the ecosystem and its equilibrium.
If the state and capitalist modernity derive their power from the creation of a hegemonic culture and mentality, then an ecological society must be a political and moral society that offers mutual aid, service to society and nature, and an active role in one's own self-determination.
In this society, humanity will regain an understanding of nature that has nearly been lost. And if capitalism alienated humanity from nature and from the land, then an ecological society must insist on love of the land, which houses people and gives them what they need to live. As Öcalan points out, "a life without the awareness of a nature that is alive and well, talking to us, living with us and living through it, [...] is hardly worth living”.
A democratic-ecological society is based on the moment of reconciliation between humanity and nature, which lies only in the overcoming of domination over both. A fundamental prerequisite for this is to subdue capitalist modernity with its requirement of oppression, exploitation and accumulation - and eventually overcome it. The democratic-ecological society will enter into a new relationship with nature, to improve its beauty and diversity for future generations.
Social ecology advances a message that calls not only for a society free of hierarchy and hierarchical sensibilities, but for an ethics that places humanity in the natural world as an agent for rendering evolution social and natural fully self-conscious.
— Murray Bookchin