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Murray Bookchin and the Ecology Movement

John Simkin

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It is usually argued that the start of the modern ecology movement began with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. In fact, it was Murray Bookchin, who published In Our Synthetic Environment (1962), six months before Carson's book. Bookchin surveyed the scientific literature on pesticides, food additives, and X-radiation as sources of human illness, including cancer.

Bookchin became a pioneer of the ecology movement and in 1971 he co-founded, the Institute for Social Ecology at Goddard College in Vermont. Bookchin later argued: "Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it."

Bookchin published a series of books on social ecology including Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), The Limits of the City (1973) and Toward an Ecological Society (1980). In The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982), Bookchin argues that "If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable."

As a Marxist, Bookchin argued that capitalism had to be overthrown: "The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man… But it was not until organic community relation… dissolved into market relationships that the planet itself was reduced to a resource for exploitation. This centuries-long tendency finds its most exacerbating development in modern capitalism. Owing to its inherently competitive nature, bourgeois society not only pits humans against each other, it also pits the mass of humanity against the natural world. Just as men are converted into commodities, so every aspect of nature is converted into a commodity, a resource to be manufactured and merchandised wantonly.… The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital."

According to John P. Clark, the author of The Anarchist Moment: Reflections on Culture, Nature and Power (1984): "Bookchin's work continued to evolve in the 1980s. He developed a theory of libertarian municipalism, a full-scale critique of nature philosophy, and the defense of radical ecology within the Green movement." Other books on social ecology included The Modern Crisis (1986) and The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1987). In Remaking Society (1990) Bookchin argues that capitalism cannot solve these environmental problems. He attacks the idea of green capitalism and points out that "capitalism can no more be persuaded to limit growth than a human being can be persuaded to stop breathing."

Other books by Bookchin included Re-Enchanting Humanity (1995), The Third Revolution (1996), Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1997), The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1997) and Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left (1999).

In his later life Bookchin became increasingly disillusioned with anarchism. In the 1990s he began to argue that social ecology was a new form of libertarian socialism and was part of the framework of communalism. According to Janet Biehl in a 2002 essay "he rejected anarchism altogether in favor of communalism, an equally anti-statist doctrine that he felt to be more explicitly oriented than anarchism to social rather than to individual liberation."


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