Environmentalism = Ecology?

[This the sixth and last post in my series Ecology 101. The shot was taken near Kiama on the South Coast of NSW.]


Does it matter if we stress the ‘environment’ (environmentalism) or the ‘ecosystem’ (ecology)? In the early 1970s libertarian social ecologist Murray Bookchin stressed the difference between non-systemic, reformist environmentalism and systemic, radical ecology.

Like mainstream economics, environmentalism looks at what is ‘surrounding’ us (the environs, the Umwelt) as something split off, different from us, a non-systemic entity and, implicitly, from the point of the view of something ‘more important’ like the economy.

The ‘environment’ thus quickly becomes synonymous with capitalist-industrial ‘resource management’. The resulting environmentalist activities focus on fragmented single issues and fluctuating crisis symptoms which are never seen in a systemically interrelated way.

Thus for example, aircraft noise issues in Sydney are not linked to growth of capitalist tourist industries or diminishing oil production; waste disposal issues are not linked back to consumerism and capitalist industrial growth. Seen as single issues, they thus become apparently amenable to quick techno-fix, regulatory or band-aid ‘solutions’ which then usually cause other problems elsewhere (e.g. a new airport is put somewhere else; energy-intensive waste recycling or polluting incineration are introduced).

These environmentalist ‘solutions’ are thus not infrequently linked to a degree of short-term nimbyism on the part of environmentalists and affected communities. (Other examples are combatting global heating via carbon ‘offsetting’ via rainforest buy-ups leading to increased resource commodification, indigenous community destruction and resource imperialism in poor countries; or green consumerism for the affluent on the backs of the poor or exploited workers in other countries).

The basic problem is that in environmentalism the crisis symptoms are not linked to their root causes in the capitalist growth economy, consumerism and techno-industrial paradigms. Instead environmentalist alternative ‘causes’ are abstract or politically naïve notions like ‘greed’, ‘human nature’, ‘lack of state regulation’ and ‘political will’.

In contrast, to stress ‘ecosystems’, as ecology does, is to adopt a radically systemic approach in which nature is not separate from us, the economy or social power relationships.

From this ecological perspective, human society and economy are contained and embedded within the larger systems and cycles of the biosphere. Nature is not reified and commodified into dead things like ‘resources’ but seen as a living, organic whole made up of the complex, dynamic interrelationships between its diverse parts. In food webs and hydrological cycles, in oceanic and atmospheric interactions, everything is connected to everything else.

Systems are thus not technologically ‘controlled’ from the outside or from above but work via complex, systemic or intrinsic controls, in which human intervention takes the form of the science and art, the dynamic and dialogic ju-jitsu of ecological management attuned to the specific, evolved and dynamic character of the ecosystem(s).

From an ecological perspective, crisis issues cannot be handled in a fragmented way but are linked back to other issues and to their root causes in social, economic, technological and spiritual structures and paradigms. Ecologically, there can thus be no quick technical fixes for what are ultimately social, economic and spiritual issues and ecological solutions are ultimately linked to deep social, economic, technological and spiritual change.

By challenging the final viability of capitalist growth economics, mega-industrial technologies, the dominant engineering and technocratic paradigm, the global market system, the per capita resource consumption of the wealthy as linked to inequitable wealth distribution and power relationships ‒ all from the systemic viewpoint of the limits and laws of the biosphere, ecology poses a threat to the capitalist-industrial system itself. Ecology is inherently subversive.

Further readings in Radical Ecology:

Vandana Shiva, Soil not Oil
Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, Eco Feminism
Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Dave Dickson, Alternative Technology & the Politics of Change
G. Boyle and P. Harper (ed), Radical Technology
Richard Heinberg, The Party is Over
Ted Trainer, Towards a Sustainable Economy
Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture
Wackernagel and Rees, Ecological Footprints

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 4, 2012.

2 Responses to “Environmentalism = Ecology?”

  1. Reblogged this on Tormented Critic.

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