Society and Ecology
., 3 Si I is
By: Murray Bookchin
The problems which many people face today in "defining" themselves, in knowing "who
they are"--probIems that feed a vast psychotherapy industry-are by no means personal
ones. These problems exist not only for private individuals; they exist for modern society
as a whole. Socially, we live in desperate uncertainty about how people relate to each
other. We suffer not only as individuals from alienation and confusion over our identities
and goals; our entire society, conceived as a single entity, seems unclear about its own
nature and sense of direction. If earlier societies tried to foster a belief in the virtues of
cooperation and caring, thereby giving an ethical meaning to social life, modern society
fosters a belief in the virtues of competition and egotism, thereby divesting human
association of all meaning-except, perhaps, as an instrument for gain and mindless
We tend to believe that men and women of earlier times were guided by firm beliefs and
hopes-values that defined them as human beings and gave purpose to their social lives.
We speak of the Middle Ages as an "Age of Faith" or the Enlightenment as an "Age of
Reason." Even the pre- World War II era and the years that followed it seem like an
alluring time of innocence and hope, despite the Great Depression and the terrible
conflicts that stained it. As an elderly character in a recent, rather sophisticated, espionage
movie put it what he missed about his younger years during World War II were their
"clarity"— a sense of purpose and idealism that guided his behaviour.
That "clarity," today, is gone. It has been replaced by ambiguity. The certainty that
technology and science would improve the human condition is mocked by the
proliferation of nuclear weapons, by massive hunger in the Third World, and by poverty
in the First World. The fervent belief that liberty would triumph over tyranny is belied by
the growing centralization of states everywhere and by the disempowerment of people by
bureaucracies, police forces, and sophisticated surveillance techniques— in our
"democracies" no less than in visibly authoritarian countries. The hope that we would
form "one world," a vast community of disparate ethnic groups that would share their
resources to improve life everywhere, has been shattered by a rising tide of nationalism,
racism, and an unfeeling parochialism that fosters indifference to the plight of millions.
We believe that our values are worse than those held by people of only two or three
generations ago. The present generation seems more self-centred, privatized, and mean-
spirited by comparison with earlier ones. It lacks the support systems provided by the
extended family, community, and a commitment to mutual aid. The encounter of the
individual with society seems to occur through cold bureaucratic agencies rather than
warm, caring people.
This lack of social identity and meaning is all the more stark in the face of the mounting
problems that confront us. War is a chronic condition of our time; economic uncertainty,
an all-pervasive presence; human solidarity, a vaporous myth. Not least of the problems
we encounter are nightmares of an ecological apocalypse-a catastrophic breakdown of
the systems that maintain the stability of the planet. We live under the constant threat that
the world of life will be irrevocably undermined by a society gone mad in its need to
grow-replacing the organic by the inorganic, soil by concrete, forest by barren earth, and
the diversity of life-forms by simplified ecosystems; in short, a turning back of the
evolutionary clock to an earlier, more inorganic, mineralized world that was incapable of
supporting complex life-forms of any kind, including the human species.
Ambiguity about our fate, meaning, and purpose thus raises a rather startling question: is
society itself a curse, a blight on life generally? Are we any better for this new
phenomenon called "civilization" that seems to be on the point of destroying the natural
world produced over millions of years of organic evolution.
An entire literature has emerged which has gained the attention of millions of readers: a
literature that fosters a new pessimism toward civilization as such. This literature pits
technology against a presumably "virginal" organic nature; cities against countryside;
countryside against "wilderness"; science against a "reverence" for life; reason against the
"innocence" of intuition; and, indeed, humanity against the entire biosphere.
We show signs of losing faith in all our uniquely human abiliti - our ability to live in
peace with each other, our ability to care for our fellow beings and other life-forms. This
pessimism is fed daily by sociobiologists who locate our failings in our genes, by
antihumanists who deplore our "antinatural" sensibilities, and by "biocentrists" who
downgrade our rational qualities with notions that we are no different in our "intrinsic
worth" than ants. In short, we are witnessing a widespread assault against the ability of
reason, science, and technology to improve the world for ourselves and life generally.
The historic theme that civilization must inevitably be pitted against nature, indeed, that it
is corruptive of human nature, has surfaced in our midst from the days that reach back to
Rousseau- this, precisely at a time when our need for a truly human and ecological
civilization has never been greater if we are to rescue our planet and ourselves.
Civilization, with its hallmarks of reason and technics, is viewed increasingly as a new
blight. Even more basically, society as a phenomenon in its own right is being questioned
so much so that its role as integral to the formation of humanity is seen as something
harmfully "unnatural" and inherently destructive.
Humanity, in effect, is being defamed by human beings themselves, ironically, as an
accursed form of life that all but destroys the world of life and threatens its integrity. To
the confusion that we have about our own muddled time and our personal identities, we
now have the added confusion that the human condition is seen as a form of chaos
produced by our proclivity for wanton destruction and our ability to exercise this
proclivity all the more effectively because we possess reason, science, and technology.
Admittedly, few antihumanists, "biocentrists," and misanthropes, who theorize about the
human condition, are prepared to follow the logic of their premises to such an absurd
point. What is vitally important about this medley of moods and unfinished ideas is that
the various forms, institutions, and relationships that make up what we should call
"society" are largely ignored. Instead, just as we use vague words like "humanity" or
zoological terms like homo sapiens that conceal vast differences, often bitter
antagonisms, that exist between privileged whites and people of colour, men and women,
rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed; so do we, by the same token, use vague words
like "society" or "civilization" that conceal vast differences between free, nonhierarchical,
class, and stateless societies on the one hand, and others that are, in varying degrees,
hierarchical, class-ridden, statist, and authoritarian. Zoology, in effect, replaces socially
oriented ecology. Sweeping "natural laws" based on population swings among animals
replace conflicting economic and social interests among people.
Simply to pit "society" against "nature," "humanity" against the "biosphere," and
"reason," "technology," and "science" against less developed, often primitive forms of
human interaction with the natural world, prevents us from examining the highly complex
differences and divisions within society so necessary to define our problems and their
Ancient Egypt, for example, had a significantly different attitude toward nature than
ancient Babylonia. Egypt assumed a reverential attitude toward a host of essentially
animistic nature deities, many of which were physically part human and part animal,
while Babylonians created a pantheon of very human political deities. But Egypt was no
less hierarchical than Babylonia in its treatment of people and was equally, if not more,
oppressive in its view of human individuality. Certain hunting peoples may have been as
destructive of wildlife, despite their strong animistic beliefs, as urban cultures which
staked out an over-arching claim to reason. When these many differences are simply
swallowed up together with a vast variety of social forms by a word called "society," we
do severe violence to thought and even simple intelligence. Society per se becomes
something "unnatural." "Reason," "technology," and "science" become things that are
"destructive" without any regard to the social factors that condition their use. Human
attempts to alter the environment are seen as threats -as though our "species" can do little
or nothing to improve the planet for life generally.
Of course, we are not any less animals than other mammals, but we are more than herds
that browse on the African plains. The way in which we are more— namely, the kinds of
societies that we form and how we are divided against each other into hierarchies and
classes- profoundly affects our behaviour and our effects on the natural world.
Finally, by so radically separating humanity and society from nature or naively reducing
them to mere zoological entities, we can no longer see how human nature is derived from
nonhuman nature and social evolution from natural evolution. Humanity becomes
estranged or alienated not only from itself in our "age of alienation," but from the natural
world in which it has always been rooted as a complex and thinking life-force.
Accordingly, we are fed a steady diet of reproaches by liberal and misanthropic
environmentalists alike about how "we" as a species are responsible for the breakdown of
the environment. One does not have to go to enclaves of mystics and gurus in San
Francisco to find this species-centred, asocial view of ecological problems and their
sources. New r York City will do just as well. I shall not easily forget an "environmental"
presentation staged by the New York Museum of Natural History in the seventies in
which the public was exposed to a long series of exhibits, each depicting examples of
pollution and ecological disruption . The exhibit which closed the presentation carried a
startling sign, "The Most Dangerous Animal on Earth," and it consisted simply of a huge
mirror which reflected back the human viewer who stood before it. I clearly recall a black
child standing before the mirror while a white school teacher tried to explain the message
which this arrogant exhibit tried to convey. There were no exhibits of corporate boards or
directors planning to deforest a mountainside or government officials acting in collusion
with them. The exhibit primarily conveyed one, basically misanthropic, message: people
as such, not a rapacious society and its wealthy beneficiaries, are responsible for
environmental dislocations- the poor no less than the personally wealthy, people of
colour no less than privileged whites, women no less than men, the oppressed no less than
the oppressor. A mythical human "species" had replaced classes; individuals had replaced
hierarchies; personal tastes (many of which are shaped by a predatory media) had
replaced social relationships; and the disempowered who live meagre, isolated lives had
replaced giant corporations, self-serving bureaucracies, and the violent paraphernalia of
THE RELATIONSHIP OF SOCIETY TO NATURE
Leaving aside such outrageous "environmental" exhibitions that mirror privileged and
underprivileged people in the same frame, it seems appropriate at this point to raise a
highly relevant need: the need to bring society back into the ecological picture. More than
ever, strong emphases must be placed on the fact that nearly all ecological problems are
social problems, not simply or primarily the result of religious, spiritual, or political
ideologies. That these ideologies may foster an anti-ecological outlook in people of all
strata hardly requires emphasis. But rather than simply take ideologies at their face value,
it is crucial for us to ask from whence these ideologies developed.
Quite frequently, economic needs may compel people to act against their best impulses,
even strongly felt natural values. Lumberjacks who are employed to clear-cut a
magnificent forest normally have no "hatred" of trees. They have little or no choice but to
cut trees just as stockyard workers have little or no choice but to slaughter domestic
animals. Every community or occupation has its fair share of destructive and sadistic
individuals, to be sure, including misanthropic environmentalists who would like to see
humanity exterminated. But among the vast majority of people, this kind of work,
including such onerous tasks as mining, are not freely chosen occupations. They stem
from need and, above all, they are the product of social arrangements over which ordinary
people have no control.
To understand present-day problems— ecological as well as economic and political— we
must examine their social causes and remedy them through social methods. "Deep,"
"spiritual." and humanist, and misanthropic ecologies gravely mislead us when they
refocus our attention on social symptoms rather than social causes. If our obligation is to
look at changes in social relationships in order to understand our most significant
ecological changes, these ecologies steer us away from society to "spiritual," "cultural," or
vaguely defined "traditional" sources. The Bible did not create European antinaturalism;
it served to justify an antinaturalism that already existed on the continent from pagan
times, despite the animistic traits of pre-Christian religions. Christianity's antinaturalistic
influence became especially marked with the emergence of capitalism. Society must not
only be brought into the ecological picture to understand why people tend to choose
competing sensibilities— some, strongly naturalistic; others, strongly antinaturalistic— but
we must probe more deeply into society itself. We must search out the relationship of
society to nature, the reasons why it can destroy the natural world, and, alternatively, the
reasons why it has and still can ! enhance, foster, and richly contribute to natural
Insofar as we can speak of "society" in any abstract and general sense— and let us
remember that every society is highly unique and different from others in the long
perspective of history~we are obliged to examine what we can best call "socialization,"
not merely "society." Society is a given arrangement of relationships which we often take
for granted and view in a very fixed way. To many people today, it would seem that a
market society based on trade and competition has existed "forever," although we may be
vaguely mindful that there were pre-market societies based on gifts and cooperation.
Socialization, on the other hand, is a process, just as individual living is a process.
Historically, the process of socializing people can be viewed as a sort of social infancy
that involves a painful rearing of humanity to social maturity.
When we begin to consider socialization from an in-depth viewpoint, what strikes us is
that society itself in its most primal form stems very much from nature. Every social
evolution, in fact, is virtually an extension of natural evolution into a distinctly human
realm. As the Roman orator and philosopher, Cicero, declared some two thousand years
ago: "...by the use of our hands, we bring into being within the realm of Nature, a second
nature for ourselves." Cicero's observation, to be sure, is very incomplete: the primeval,
presumably untouched "realm of Nature" or "first nature," as it has been called, is
reworked in whole or part into "second nature" not only by the "use of our hands."
Thought, language, and complex, very important biological changes also play a crucial
and, at times, a decisive role in developing a "second nature" within "first nature".
I use the term "reworking" advisedly to focus on the fact that "second nature" is not
simply a phenomenon that develops outside of "first nature"-hence the special value that
should be attached to Cicero's use of the expression "within the realm of Nature..." To
emphasize that "second nature" or, more precisely, society (to use this word in its
broadest possible sense) emerges from within primeval "first nature" is to re-establish the
fact that social life always has a naturalistic dimension, however much society is pitted
against nature in our thinking. Social ecology clearly expresses the fact that society is not
a sudden "eruption" in the world. Social life does not necessarily face nature as a
combatant in an unrelenting war. The emergence of society is a natural fact that has its
origins in the biology of human socialization.
The human socialization process from which society emerges-be it in the form of
families, bands, tribes, or more complex types of human intercourse-has its source in
parental relationships, particularly mother and child bonding. The biological mother, to
be sure, can be replaced in this process by many surrogates, including fathers, relatives,
or, for that matter, all members of a community. It is when social parents and social
siblings—that is, the human community that surrounds the young-begin to participate in a
system of care, that is ordinarily undertaken by biological parents, that society begins to
truly come into its own.
Society thereupon advances beyond a mere reproductive group toward institutionalized
human relationships, and from a relatively formless animal community into a clearly
structured social order. But at the very inception of society, it seems more than likely that
human beings were socialized into "second nature" by means of deeply ingrained blood
ties, specifically maternal ties. We shall see that in time the structures or institutions that
mark the advance of humanity from a mere animal community into an authentic society
began to undergo far-reaching changes and these changes become issues of paramount
importance in social ecology. For better or worse, societies develop around status groups,
hierarchies, classes, and state formations. But reproduction and family care remain the
abiding biological bases for every form of social life as well as the originating factor in
the socialization of the young and the formation of a society. As Robert Briffault
observed in the early half of this century, the "one known factor which establishes a
profound distinction between the constitution of the most rudimentary human group and
all other animal groups [is the] association of mothers and offspring which is the sole
form of true social solidarity among animals. Throughout the class of mammals, there is a
continuous increase in the duration of that association, which is the consequence of the
prolongation of the period of infantile dependence." a prolongation which Briffault
correlates with increases in the period of fetal gestation and advances in intelligence.
The biological dimension that Briffault adds to what we call society and socialization
cannot be stressed too strongly. It is a decisive presence, not only in the origins of society
over ages of animal evolution, but in the daily recreation of society in our everyday lives.
The appearance of a newly born infant and the highly extended care it receives for many
years reminds us that it is not only a human being that is being reproduced, but society
itself. By comparison with the young of other species, children develop slowly and over a
long period of time. Living in close association with parents, siblings, kin groups, and an
ever-widening community of people, they retain a plasticity of mind that makes for
creative individuals and ever-formative social groups. Although nonhuman animals may
approximate human forms of association in many ways, they do not create a "second
nature" that embodies a cultural tradition, nor do they possess a complex language,
elaborate conceptual powers, or an impressive capacity to restructure their environment
purposefully according to their own needs.
A chimpanzee, for example, remains an infant for only three years and a juvenile for
seven. By the age often, it is a full-grown adult. Children, by contrast, are regarded as
infants for approximately six years and juveniles for fourteen. A chimpanzee, in short,
grows mentally and physically in about half the time required by a human being, and its
capacity to learn or, at least to think, is already fixed by comparison with a human being,
whose mental abilities may expand for decades. By the same token, chimpanzee
associations are often idiosyncratic and fairly limited. Human associations, on the other
hand, are basically stable, highly institutionalized, and they are marked by a degree of
solidarity, indeed, by a degree of creativity, that has no equal in nonhuman species as far
as we know.
This prolonged degree of human mental plasticity, dependency, and social creativity
yields two results that are of decisive importance. First, early human association must
have fostered a strong predisposition for interdependence among members of a group-
not the "rugged individualism" we associate with independence. The overwhelming mass
of anthropological evidence suggests that participation, mutual aid, solidarity, and
empathy were the social virtues early human groups emphasized within their
communities. The idea that people are dependent upon each other for the good life,
indeed, for survival, followed from the prolonged dependence of the young upon adults.
Independence, not to mention competition, would have seemed utterly alien, if not
bizarre, to a creature reared over many years in a largely dependent condition. Care for
others would have been seen as the perfectly natural outcome of a highly acculturated
being that was, in turn, clearly in need of extended care. Our modem version of
individualism, more precisely, of egotism, would have cut across the grain of early
solidarity and mutual aid- traits, I may add without which such a physically fragile
animal like a human being could hardly have survived as an adult, much less as a child.
Second, human interdependence must have assumed a highly structured form. There is no
evidence that human beings normally relate to each other through the fairly loose systems
of bonding we find among our closest primate cousins. That human social bonds can be
dissolved or de-institutionalized in periods of radical change or cultural breakdown is too
obvious to argue here. But during relatively stable conditions, human society was never
the "horde" that anthropologists of the last century presupposed as a basis for rudimentary
social life. On the contrary, the evidence we have at hand points to the fact that all
humans, perhaps even our distant hominid ancestors, lived in some kind of structured
family groups, and, later, in bands, tribes, villages, and other forms. In short, they bonded
together (as they still do), not only emotionally and morally, but also structurally in
contrived, clearly definable, and fairly permanent institutions.
Nonhuman animals may form loose communities and even take collective protective
postures to defend their young from predators. But such communities can hardly be called
structured, except in a broad, often ephemeral, sense. Humans, by contrast, create highly
formal communities that tend to become increasingly structured over the course of time.
In effect, they form not only communities, but a new phenomenon called societies.
If we fail to distinguish animal communities from human societies, we risk the danger of
ignoring the unique features that distinguish human social life from animal communities—
notably, the ability of society to change for better or worse and the factors that produce
these changes. By reducing a complex society to a mere community, we can easily ignore
how societies differed from each other over the course of history. We can also fail to
understand how they elaborated simple differences in status into firmly established
hierarchies, or hierarchies into economic classes. Indeed, we risk the possibility of totally
misunderstanding the very meaning of terms like "hierarchy" as highly organized systems
of command and obedience-these, as distinguished from personal, individual, and often
short-lived differences in status that may, in all too many cases, involve no acts of
compulsion. We tend, in effect, to confuse the strictly institutional creations of human
will, purpose, conflicting interests, and traditions, with community life in its most fixed
forms, as though we were dealing with inherent, seemingly unalterable, features of
society rather than fabricated structures that can be modified, improved, worsened-or
simply abandoned. The trick of every ruling elite from the beginnings of history to
modern times has been to identify its own socially created hierarchical systems of
domination with community life as such, with the result being that human-made
institutions acquire divine or biological sanctity.
A given society and its institutions thus tend to become reified into permanent and
unchangeable entities that acquire a mysterious life of their own apart from nature-
namely, the products of a seemingly fixed "human nature" that is the result of genetic
programming at the very inception of social life. Alternatively, a given society and its
institutions may be dissolved into nature as merely another form of animal community
with its "alpha males," "guardians," "leaders," and "horde"-like forms of existence. When
annoying issues like war and social conflict are raised, they are ascribed to the activity of
"genes" that presumably give rise to war and even "greed".
In either case, be it the notion of an abstract society that exists apart from nature or an
equally abstract natural community that is indistinguishable from nature, a dualism
appears that sharply separates society from nature, or a crude reductionist!! appears that
dissolves society into nature. These apparently contrasting, but closely related, notions are
all the more seductive because they are so simplistic. Although they are often presented
by their more sophisticated supporters in a fairly nuanced form, such notions are easily
reduced to bumper-sticker slogans that are frozen into hard, popular dogmas.
The approach to society and nature advanced by social ecology may seem more
intellectually demanding, but it avoids the simplicities of dualism and the crudities of
reductionism. Social ecology tries to show how nature slowly phases into society without
ignoring the differences between society and nature on the one hand, as well as the extent
to which they merge with each other on the other.The everyday socialization of the young
by the family is no less rooted in biology than the everyday care of the old by the medical
establishment is rooted in the hard facts of society. By the same token, we never cease to
be mammals who still have primal natural urges, but we institutionalize these urges and
their satisfaction in a wide variety of social forms. Hence, the social and the natural
continually permeate each other in the most ordinary activities of daily life without losing
their identity in a shared process of interaction, indeed, of interactivity.
Obvious as this may seem at first in such day-to-day problems as caretaking, social
ecology raises questions that have far-reaching importance for the different ways society
and nature have interacted over time and the problems these interactions have produced.
How did a divisive, indeed, seemingly combative, relationship between humanity and
nature emerge? What were the institutional forms and ideologies that rendered this
conflict possible? Given the growth of human needs and technology, was such a conflict
really unavoidable? And can it be overcome in a future, ecologically oriented society?
How does a rational, ecologically oriented society fit into the processes of natural
evolution? Even more broadly, is there any reason to believe that the human mind—itself
a product of natural evolution as well as culture-represents a decisive highpoint in
natural development, notably, in the long development of subjectivity from the sensitivity
and self-maintenance of the simplest life-forms to the remarkable intellectuality and self-
consciousness of the most complex.
In asking these highly provocative questions, I am not trying to justify a strutting
arrogance toward nonhuman life-forms. Clearly, we must bring humanity' s uniqueness as
a species, marked by rich conceptual, social, imaginative, and constructive attributes, into
synchronicity with nature's fecundity, diversity, and creativity. I have argued that this
synchronicity will not be achieved by opposing nature to society, nonhuman to human
life-forms, natural fecundity to technology, or a natural subjectivity to the human mind.
Indeed, an important result that emerges from a discussion of the interrelationship of
nature to society is the fact that human intellectuality, although distinct, also has a far-
reaching natural basis. Our brains and nervous systems did not suddenly spring into
existence without a long antecedent natural history. That which we most prize as integral
to our humanity— our extraordinary capacity to think on complex conceptual levels-can
be traced back to the nerve network of primitive invertebrates, the ganglia of a mollusk,
the spinal cord of a fish, the brain of an amphibian, and the cerebral cortex of a primate.
Here, too, in the most intimate of our human attributes, we are no less products of natural
evolution than we are of social evolution. As human beings we incorporate within
ourselves aeons of organic differentiation and elaboration. Like all complex life-forms,
we are not only part of natural evolution; we are also its heirs and the products of natural
In trying to show how society slowly grows out of nature, however, social ecology is also
obliged to show how society, too, undergoes differentiation and elaboration. In doing so,
social ecology must examine those junctures in social evolution where splits occurred
which slowly brought society into opposition to the natural world, and explain how this
opposition emerged from its inception in prehistoric times to our own era. Indeed, if the
human species is a life-form that can consciously and richly enhance the natural world,
rather than simply damage it, it is important for social ecology to reveal the factors that
have rendered many human beings into parasites on the world of life rather than active
partners in organic evolution. This project must be undertaken not in a haphazard way,
but with a serious attempt to render natural and social development coherent in terms of
each other, and relevant to our times and the construction of an ecological society.
Perhaps one of social ecology's most important contributions to the current ecological
discussion is the view that the basic problems which pit society against nature emerge
form within social development itself --not between society and nature. That is to say, the
divisions between society and nature have their deepest roots in divisions within the
social realm, namely, deep- seated conflicts between human and human that are often
obscured by our broad use of the word "humanity".
This crucial view cuts across the grain of nearly all current ecological thinking and even
social theorizing. One of the most fixed notions that present-day ecological thinking
shares with liberalism, Marxism, and conservatism is the historic belief that the
"domination of nature" requires the domination of human by human. This is most obvious
in social theory. Nearly all of our contemporary social ideologies have placed the notion
of human domination at the centre of their theorizing. It remains one of the most widely
accepted notions, from classical times to the present, that human freedom from the
"domination of man by nature" entails the domination of human by human as the earliest
means of production and the use of human beings as instruments for harnessing the
natural world. Hence, in order to harness the natural world, it has been argued for ages, it
is necessary to harness human beings as well, in the form of slaves, serfs, and workers.
That this instrumental notion pervades the ideology of nearly all ruling elites and has
provided both liberal and conservative movements with a justification for their
accommodation to the status quo, requires little, if any, elaboration. The myth of a
"stingy" nature has always been used to justify the "stinginess" of exploiters in their harsh
treatment of the exploited-and it has provided the excuse tor the political opportunism of
liberal, as well as conservative, causes. To "work within the system" has always implied
an acceptance of domination as a way of "organizing" social life and, in the best of cases,
a way of freeing humans from their presumed domination by nature.
What is perhaps less known, however, is that Marx. too. justified the emergence of class
society and the State as stepping stones toward the domination of nature and, presumably,
the liberation of humanity. It was on the strength of this historical vision that Marx
formulated his materialist conception of history and his belief in the need for class society
as a stepping stone in the historic road to communism.
Ironically, much that now passes for antihumanistic, mystical ecology involves exactly
the same kind of thinking—but in an inverted form. Like their instrumental opponents,
these ecologists, too, assume that humanity is dominated by nature, be it in the form of
"natural laws" or an ineffable "earth wisdom" that must guide human behaviour. But
while their instrumental opponents argue the need to achieve nature's "surrender" to a
"conquering" active-aggressive humanity, antihumanist and mystical ecologists argue the
case for achieving humanity's passive-receptive "surrender" to an "all conquering" nature.
However much the two views may differ in their verbiage and pieties, domination
remains the underlying notion of both: a natural world conceived as a taskmaster-either
to be controlled or obeyed.
Social ecology springs this trap dramatically by re-examining the entire concept of
domination, be it in nature and society or in the form of "natural law" and "social law."
What we normally call domination in nature is a human projection of highly organized
systems of social command and obedience onto highly idiosyncratic, individual, and
asymmetrical forms of often mildly coercive behaviour in animal communities. Put
simply, animals do not "dominate" each other in the same way that a human elite
dominates, and often exploits, an oppressed social group. Nor do they "rule" through
institutional forms of systematic violence as social clues do. Among apes, for example.
there is little or no coercion, but only erratic forms of dominant behaviour. Gibbons and
orangutans are notable for their peaceable behaviour toward members of their own kind.
Gorillas are often equally pacific, although one can single out "high status," mature, and
physically strong males among "lower status," younger and physically weaker ones. The
"alpha males" celebrated among chimpanzees do not occupy very fixed "status" positions
within what are fairly fluid groups. Any "status" that they do achieve may be due to very
One can merrily skip from one animal species to another, to be sure, falling back on very
different, asymmetrical reasons for searching out "high" versus "low status" individuals.
The procedure becomes rather silly, however, when words like "status" are used so
flexibly that they are allowed to include mere differences in group behaviour and
functions, rather than coercive actions.
The same is true for the word "hierarchy." Both in its origins and its strict meaning, this
term is highly social, not zoological. A Greek term, initially used to denote different
levels of deities and, later, clergy (characteristically, Hierapolis was an ancient Phrygian
city in Asia Minor that was a centre for mother goddess worship), the word has been
mindlessly expanded to encompass everything from beehive relationships to the erosive
effects of running water in which a stream is seen to wear down and "dominate" its
bedrock. Caring female elephants are called "matriarchs" and attentive male apes who
exhibit a great deal of courage in defense of their community, while acquiring very few
"privileges," are often designated as "patriarchs." The absence of an organized system of
rule-so common in hierarchical human communities and subject to radical institutional
changes, including popular revolutions-is largely ignored.
Again, the different functions that the presumed animal hierarchies are said to perform,
that is, the asymmetrical causes that place one individual in an "alpha status" and others
in a lesser one, is understated where it is noted at all. One might, with much the same
aplomb, place all tall sequoias in a "superior" status over smaller ones, or, more
annoyingly, regard them as an "elite" in a mixed forest "hierarchy" over "submissive"
oaks, which, to complicate matters, are more advanced on the evolutionary scale. The
tendency to mechanically project social categories onto the natural world is as
preposterous as an attempt to project biological concepts onto geology. Minerals do not
"reproduce" the way life-forms do. Stalagmites and stalactites in caves certainly do
increase in size over time. But in no sense do they grow in a manner that even remotely
corresponds to growth in living beings. To take superficial resemblances, often achieved
in alien ways, and group them into shared identities, is like speaking of the "metabolism"
of rocks and the "morality" of genes.
This raises the issue of repeated attempts to read ethical, as well as social, traits into a
natural world that is only potentially ethical insofar as it forms a basis for an objective
social ethics. Yes, coercion does exist in nature; so does pain and suffering. However,
cruelty does not. Animal intention and will are too limited to produce an ethics of good
and evil or kindness and cruelty. Evidence of inferential and conceptual thought is very
limited among anima]s, except for primates, cetaceans, elephants, and possibly a few
other mammals. Even among the most intelligent animals, the limits to thought are
immense in comparison with the extraordinary capacities of socialized human beings.
Admittedly, we are substantially less than human today in view of our still unknown
potential to be creative, caring, and rational Our prevailing society serves to inhibit,
rather than realize, our human potential. We still lack the imagination to know how much
our finest human traits could expand with an ethical, ecological, and rational dispensation
of human affairs.
By contrast, the known nonhuman world seems to have reached visibly fixed limits in its
capacity to survive environmental changes. If mere adaptation to environmental changes
is seen as the criterion for evolutionary success (as many biologists believe), then insects
would have to be placed on a higher plane of development than any mammalian life-
form. However, they would be no more capable of making so lofty an intellectual
evaluation of themselves than a "queen bee" would be even remotely aware of her "regal"
status-a status, I may add, that only humans (who have suffered the social domination of
stupid, inept, and cruel kings and queens) would be able to impute to a largely mindless
None of these remarks are meant to metaphysically oppose nature to society or society to
nature. On the contrary, they are meant to argue that what unites society with nature in a
graded evolutionary continuum is the remarkable extent to which human beings, living in
a rational, ecologically oriented society, could embody the creativity of nature- this, as
distinguished from a purely adaptive criterion of evolutionary success. The great
achievements of human thought, art, science, and technology serve not only to
monumentalize culture, they serve also to monumentalize natural evolution itself. They
provide heroic evidence that the human species is a warm-blooded, excitingly versatile,
and keenly intelligent life-form-not a cold-blooded, genetically programmed, and
mindless insect-that expresses nature's greatest powers of creativity.
Life-forms that create and consciously alter their environment, hopefully in ways that
make it more rational and ecological, represent a vast and indefinite extension of nature
into fascinating, perhaps unbounded, lines of evolution which no branch of insects could
ever achieve-notably the evolution of a fully "self-conscious" nature. If this be
humanism-more precisely, ecological humanism, the current crop of antihumanists and
misanthropes are welcome to make the most of it.
Nature, in turn, is not a scenic view we admire through a picture window-a view that is
frozen into a landscape or a static panorama. Such landscape images of nature may be
spiritually elevating but they are ecologically deceptive. Fixed in time and place, this
imagery makes it easy for us to forget that nature is not a static vision of the natural world
but the long, indeed cumulative, history of natural development. This history involves the
evolution of the inorganic, as well as the organic, realms of phenomena. Wherever we
stand in an open field, forest, or on a mountain top, our feet rest on ages of development,
be they geological strata, fossils of long-extinct life-forms, the decaying remains of the
newly dead, or the quiet stirring of newly emerging life. Nature is not a "person," a
"caring Mother," or, in the crude materialist language of the last century, "matter and
motion." Nor is it a mere "process" that involves repetitive cycles like seasonal changes
and the building-up and breaking-down process of metabolic activity-some process
philosophies to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, natural history is a cumulative
evolution toward ever more varied, differentiated, and complex forms and relationships.
This evolutionary development of increasingly variegated entities, most notably, of life-
forms, is also an evolutionary development which contains exciting, latent possibilities.
With variety, differentiation, and complexity, nature, in the course of its own unfolding,
opens new directions for still further development along alternative lines of natural
evolution. To the degree that animals become complex, self-aware, and increasingly
intelligent, they begin to make those elementary choices that influence their own
evolution They are less and less the passive objects of "natural selection" and more and
more the active subjects of their own development.
A brown hare that mutates into a white one and sees a sn covered terrain in which to
camouflage itself is acting on behalf of its own survival, not simply adapting in order to
survive. It is not merely being "selected" by its environment; it is selecting its own
environment and making a choice that expresses a small measure of subjectivity and
The greater the variety of habitats that emerge in the evolutionary process, the more a
given life-form, particularly a neurologically complex one. is likely to play an active and
judgemental role in preserving itself. To the extent that natural evolution follows this path
of neurological development, it gives rise to life-forms that exercise an ever-wider
latitude of choice and a nascent form of freedom in developing themselves.
Given this conception of nature as the cumulative history of more differentiated levels of
material organization (especially of life-forms) and of increasing subjectivity, social
ecology establishes a basis for a meaningful understanding of humanity and society s
place in natural evolution. Natural history is not a "catch-as-catch-can" phenomenon. It is
marked by tendency, by directions and, as far as human beings are concerned, by
conscious purpose. Human beings and the social worlds they create can open a
remarkably expansive horizon for development of the natural wor -a horizon marked by
consciousness, reflection, and an unprecedented freedom of choice and capacity for
conscious creativity. The factors that reduce many life-forms to largely adaptive roles in
changing environments are replaced by a capacity for consciously adapting environments
to existing and new life- forms.
Adaptation, in effect, increasingly gives way to creativity and the seemingly ruthless
action of natural law to greater freedom. What earlier generations called "blind nature to
denote nature's lack of any moral direction, turns into "free nature, a nature that slowly
finds a voice and the means to relieve the needless tribulations of life for all species in a
highly conscious humanity and an ecological society. The "Noah Principle" of preserving
every existing life-form simply for its own sake-a principle advanced by the
antihumanist, David Ehrenfeld -has little meaning without the presupposition, at the very
least, of the existence of a "Noah"--that is, a conscious life-form called humanity that
might well rescue life- forms that nature itself would extinguish in ice ages, land
desiccation, or cosmic collisions with asteroids. Grizzly bears, wolves, pumas, and the
like, are not safer from extinction because they are exclusively in the "caring" hands of a
putative "Mother Nature." If there is any truth to the theory that the great Mesozoic
reptiles were extinguished by climatic changes that presumably followed the collision of
an asteroid with the earth, the survival of existing mammals might well be just as
precarious in the face of an equally meaningless natural catastrophe unless there is a
conscious, ecologically oriented life-form that has the technological means to rescue
The issue, then, is not whether social evolution stands opposed to natural evolution. The
issue is how social evolution can be situated in natural evolution and why it has been
thrown-needlessly, as I will argue-against natural evolution to the detriment of life as a
whole. The capacity to be rational and free does not assure us that this capacity will be
realized. If social evolution is seen as the potentiality for expanding the horizon of natural
evolution along unprecedented creative lines, and human beings are seen as the
potentiality for nature to become self-conscious and free, the issue we face is why these
potentialities have been warped and how they can be realized.
It is part of social ecology's commitment to natural evolution that these potentialities are
indeed real and that they can be fulfilled. This commitment stands flatly at odds with a
"scenic" image of nature as a static view to awe mountain men or a romantic view for
conjuring up mystical images of a personified deity that is so much in vogue today. The
splits between natural and social evolution, nonhuman and human life, an intractable
"stingy" nature and a grasping, devouring humanity, have all been specious and
misleading when they are seen as inevitabilities. No less specious and misleading have
been reductionist attempts to absorb social into natural evolution, to collapse culture into
nature in an orgy of irrationalism, theism, and mysticism, to equate the human with mere
animal ity, or to impose a contrived "natural law" on an obedient human society.
Whatever has turned human beings into "aliens" in nature are social changes that have
made many human beings "aliens" in their own social world, the domination of the young
by the old, of women by men, and of men by men. Today, as for many centuries in the
past, there are still oppressive human beings who literally own society and others who are
owned by it. Until society can be reclaimed by an undivided humanity that will use its
collective wisdom, cultural achievements, technological innovations, scientific
knowledge, and innate creativity for its own benefit and for that of the natural world, all
ecological problems will have their roots in social problems.