Book review from Black Flag #216 1999.
(Images Publishing, Worcestershire, ISBN 1 897817 80 8--remaindered available for around £5)
This book is not a unified thesis upon anarchism and ecology or their relationship to one another. Although contemporary thought is assessed, a fair percentage of the book is given over to looking at the life and ideas of a variety of historical figures, some of whom have little no association with anarchism or ecology at all. A less engaging title, but which more accurately describes its contents, might have been Collected Essays of Brian Morris. This is not a criticism but a statement of fact, as essay collections, at their best, and this is certainly a very fine collection, entertain the reader with a variety of short essays covering many subject areas and disciplines that have inspired the author over a number of years.
Anarchism and ecology, are however, very much major themes/threads, both of which are explored intelligently and engagingly. Morris explores, with great lucidity, various perspectives which, Bookchin, myself, Morris and others, have for quite some time been involved in criticising: lifestylism, deep-ecology, neo-malthusianism, eco/anarcho-mysticism, vegetarianism, eco-feminism, anti-industrialism/rationalism, wilderness worship involving romanticism, anti-humanism and escapism, and a lot more neoisms besides. I co-authored a book with Morris and Bookchin in 1993 upon the subject of Deep Ecology and Anarchism, and in 1994 published a book (Anarchism and Environmental Survival) criticising and evaluating these various ecologisms, that have some how become entangled with radical politics and anarchism. Murray Bookchin has also engaged in a sustained polemical attack upon such manifestations of ideological degeneracy (see Remaking Society and Lifestyle anarchism or Social anarchism). Morris' considered thoughts are a useful contribution to the contemporary debates; complementing, clarifying and enriching them. Morris' analysis of radical ecology in relation to anarchism, published over a number of years in a variety of journals are now collected in a single volume and rendered more accessible. There is little with which I disagree and his discussions concerning the relationship between 'spirituality and ecology', '(micro/non-conventional) livestock/farming, vegetarianism & ecology', and 'mechanistic versus dynamic naturalistic approaches to science', are essentially similar to my own thinking. Like me, he is also deeply worried by the voluminous amount of horseshit that is being published upon green thought, which threatens the integrity and credibility of social and ecological philosophy. At one point he talks of a virtual conspiracy by publishers against non-religious or genuinely radical works examining libertarian or anarchist ecology. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I couldn't agree more. To my great satisfaction Morris comes out strongly in favour of Bio-regionalism in his review of Kirkpatrik Sale's book 'Dwellers in the Land: The Bio-regional Vision'. The notion of a society, at least in part, structured around human/nature reciprocity within the context of the natural region is in my opinion the most realistic approach to ecological survival and a necessary component of modern conceptions of social anarchism.
Morris is a big fan of Bookchin and has a tendency to judge other thinkers in relation to his ideas. Morris's use/exegesis of Bookchin is not however unjustifiable. It is also adept succinct and intelligent; bringing out or summarising what is most worthwhile in Bookchin's works. My own view of Bookchin is much more mixed. I have however no problem in agreeing that Bookchin towers above most, if not all, of the oft quoted would-be social philosophers and eco-gurus, that Morris takes to task: Rand, Naess, Skolinowski, McKibben, Mellor, Roszak, Snyder, for example.
By way of criticism, I found it a little disquieting that Morris when not referring to Bookchin explores the history of anarchism and ecology largely through discussion of a variety of mystics and non-anarchists: Lao Tzu, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Erich Fromm (whom are all given a whole essay). Although he acknowledges Kropotkin positively in places, his ideas are not explored in detail. Elisee Reclus is not mentioned at all, despite the fact that he was writing profound works upon nature in the 1860's, long before Kipling, Seton, or any of the other non-anarchist precursors of modern ecology which Morris chooses to examine. Fourier also would have been worthy of some attention. Geographers and pioneering (non-anarchist) scientists, such as Humboldt and Ritter, who inspired Reclus' early works might also have been worthy of mention.
Although Morris endorses the practicality of the green and self-governing city in, for example, his discussion of Sale's bioregionalism and the organisation of the Paris sections in the French Revolution, the lack of an industrial perspective and the focus upon such figures as Tolstoy or Aurobindo may lead the reader to assume that anarchism is primarily about small-scale communal experimentalism. Another deficiency is that it is a book by an anarchist for anarchists. It assumes prior knowledge of anarchist theory through containing no introduction to what the basic principles of anarchism are. By restricting its audience the book looses a great deal of propaganda value. It is a mistake to assume that the majority of people have any real knowledge concerning anarchism.
As noted at the beginning, this book is a diverse collection of essays concerning a wide variety of personalities, movements and issues. There is an article of Baden-Powell exposing him as a fraud and a hopeless right-winger. I have read one of Powell's book and am familiar with the history of the scout movement. There is no doubt that what Morris says of him is true. Likewise from my own reading of W. Shirer's memoir of Gandhi (one of Morris' sources) there seem little doubt that the Indian leader was a in many respects a traditionalist, and certainly a nationalist who also had a strong authoritarian streak, in part resulting from his bungled attempts to repress his own sexual appetites. The essay on Lao Tsu I thought was rather weak, though Morris is right to highlight the important insights contained in studies of Lao Tsu's works and to acknowledge the contribution of Watts and Needham et. al. in our gaining a greater understanding of him. Lao Tsu was indeed a profound thinker with affinities to modern ecological thought and anarchism. Lao Tsu however, was not the founder of anarchism or scientific-naturalism as Morris claims. A similar sort of viewpoint can be found in earlier pre-Socratic thinkers, Heraclitus (who was from Persia) is particularly noteworthy in this respect. I really do think (and Morris in his essay on the French revolution suggests this to) that anarchism, although having ancient roots, begins during the great European revolutions and developed further in response to the developmentof industrial-capitalism. I do not believe that the retrospective inclusionof pre-modern and ancient thinkers into the anarchist tradition is veryuseful or particularly valid, though Lao Tsu is certainly well worthy ofthe anarchist and ecologists study and admiration. Morris is sympathetic toChomsky, but criticises him for his lack of attention to environmentalissues. An essay upon the displacement and deterritorialization of the 30million tribals (aborigines) of India and the terrible effect upon their environment from deforestation is entirely consistent with my own assessment of the situation when I visited tribal areas of Tamil Nadu,Kerela and Kanartaka. Val Plumbwood 's eco-feminism gets a well deserveddrubbing for its one-sided, unoriginal and unimaginative approach toecology and its near complete neglect of the anarchist tradition. The bookalso contains essays upon Bolshevism, Flores Magon and Thomas Spence. Theessay on Spence I thought was a particularly interesting piece ofscholarship concerning a much neglected early British revolutionary, about,whom I was previously quite ignorant. Upon the basis of Morris' scholarshipit would be fair to say that Spence who began writing in 1775 had a notionof a decentralised society consisting of complex federations of selfgoverning communities and independent local industries interacting with oneanother upon the bases of need and equality in the absence of centralisednational government. This vision has close affinities with that suggested by Proudhon and Kropotkin.
There is something to interest everyone in this fine collection of essaysthat is currently available in a quality cloth bound edition for a very reasonable price.