Ecology’s Family Feud : Murray Bookchin Turns Up Volume on a Noisy Debate
Decked out in a rumpled shirt and slacks, a woefully unstylish vest, and a corduroy cap with ear flaps, Murray Bookchin looked more like Captain Kangaroo than an anarchist firebrand as he hobbled across the USC campus eating chocolate gelato last week.
But Bookchin has been stirring things up since he joined the revolutionary Young Pioneers in 1930 and began picking fights with Boy Scouts in his native Bronx.
A self-described eco-anarchist, Bookchin picked his latest fight a couple of years ago when he began lashing out against two of the most influential trends in the radical environmental movement--the biocentric view of “deep ecology,” which sees humanity as a disproportionately destructive species among millions of equally valuable species on the planet, and the sometimes overlapping New Age-style spirituality that seeks mystical or meditative solutions to environmental woes.
Bookchin’s anger first erupted over an article by the late novelist-naturalist Edward Abbey, who had argued, with his usual cantankerous flair, that immigration into the United States, especially from Latin America, posed a threat to America’s natural resources and must be stopped.
Bookchin then attacked Earth First!, the publication of the radical, deep-ecology oriented group of the same name, which ran an article titled “Is AIDS the Answer to an Environmentalist’s Prayer?” along with discussions of the possibility that such calamities as starvation in Ethiopia, while tragic, would have a positive environmental effect by thinning the world’s population.
Bookchin called such views (which Earth First! never endorsed editorially) as “eco-fascism.”
‘Wilderness Cult at Best’
A proponent of a philosophical school called social ecology, Bookchin labeled deep ecology “a wilderness cult at best, intellectually frivolous at worst,” and accused Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, of “less than intelligent obfuscation of social problems.”
“I don’t regard people as a cancer on the planet . . . ,” Bookchin wrote in a publication called Green Perspectives. “The real cancer that afflicts the planet is capitalism and hierarchy.”
To ecologists whose world view is primarily spiritual, he added: “I don’t think we can count on prayers, rituals and good vibes to remove this cancer; I think we have to fight it actively with all the power we have.”
Mike Roselle of Earth First! fired back that social ecology is “nothing but recycled leftist drivel.”
“Compost the word anarchy and do something real,” another biocentrist wrote.
Everyone who’s anyone in radical environmentalism quickly jumped into the fray, as the debate sparked through esoteric publications such as Green Synthesis and Trumpeter, then overflowed into more widely circulated journals including the Utne Reader and the Nation.
Now a driving force in the so-called Left Green movement, Bookchin got his revolutionary fervor from his Russian immigrant parents while still in the cradle, he said last week as he passed through Southern California to lecture at USC and UCLA and to a group of Green activists.
An industrial laborer in the ‘40s, Bookchin began rabble-rousing as a trade union organizer, but transformed himself from a mainstream Marxist to an anarchist when he began to see the leftist movement of the 1930s becoming as bureaucratic and centralized as the “capitalist machine” it hoped to topple, he said--and he now derides both American capitalism and the economic structures of Marxist states such as the Soviet Union.
Although he earned a degree in electrical engineering from a trade institute, the education that has fueled his career as a political philosopher came from voracious reading and sporadic attendance at New York universities, he said.
“He’s an autodidact,” said Ynestra King, a key figure in the movement known as “eco-feminism.” “He’s the last organic proletarian intellectual. He’s one of the most learned people that I have ever come across.”
Bookchin’s complex philosophy arose from the simple belief that environmental woes are caused by social problems, and that social communities evolved from and have an integral connection to the natural world. “The notion of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human,” he said.
Particularly upsetting to Bookchin is the tendency of deep ecologists to discuss humanity as a uniform whole, “an ecumenical we,” he said.
To illustrate what he sees as a key flaw in deep ecology thinking, he told his audience at USC about one of his own moments of realization.
Shortly after Earth Day in 1970, Bookchin attended a show at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibit featured display after display portraying ways in which the environment is besieged. The final display was a mirror.
Bookchin watched as a teacher led two black girls up to the mirror, he said.
As they stood looking at themselves, she read them the exhibit’s caption: “The greatest threat of all.”
“Why were these two little girls, utterly disempowered and weak . . . these victims of air pollution, water pollution” and other ecological ills, labeled a threat? Bookchin asked the USC audience.
“I’ll tell you who’s the greatest threat of all!” he shouted in a tone that must have served him well on the street corner soapboxes of his youth. “A whole bunch of corporate leaders! A whole bunch of multinational corporate executives! But don’t take these two little black girls and tell them they’re responsible!”
“It’s time we spit out the word we and decide who is truly responsible,” he said.
Bookchin said he has attempted to do that in his books. In 1962, Bookchin raised an alarm about pesticides in a book called “Our Synthetic Environment,” several months before Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” appeared.
He went on to write about solar power, wind power and other environmental issues in books such as “The Limits of the City,” “Toward an Ecological Society,” and his 1982 volume, “The Ecology of Freedom,” which Carl Boggs, a visiting professor of political science at USC and a Green activist, called “perhaps the most important contribution to political and social thought in 20 years” in introducing Bookchin at USC.
The Human Species
In 1974, Bookchin helped create the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vt. From the social ecology perspective, the human species is a part of nature, but rather than an absolute equal with other species, “we are nature rendered self-conscious,” he told students at USC. “We are made to intervene in nature by nature. . . .”
At least as he sees it, this belief in man’s responsibility to intervene in nature puts him at odds with deep ecologists.
As the conflict continues into its third year, though, resentment of Bookchin among radical environmentalists is building.
“I think Murray was looking at himself to be the leader of the activist wing of environmental politics, and felt threatened by the attention being paid to deep ecology,” said Gary Snyder, whose nonfiction works and Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry have added to the growing momentum of biocentric thinking in America.
“Murray launched an attack that I feel really misrepresents what deep ecology literature has been saying in a scandalous way,” he said. “Although he claims to be an anarchist, he writes like a Stalinist thug.”
Bookchin has raised “some interesting concerns and issues, but they’ve been blown way out of proportion,” Snyder said. “No one in deep ecology doubts that social justice and political justice are important issues. But the focus naturally is on the relationship of humanity as a whole to nature.”
Bookchin’s criticisms are “grossly irresponsible,” said Bill Devall, a sociology professor at Humboldt State University and the co-author of the seminal book, “Deep Ecology--Living as if Nature Mattered.”
Social ecology might be seen as a detailed plank in the more encompassing platform of deep ecology, Devall said.
“When we’re talking about bio-centrism and eco-centrism, we’re not talking about a misanthropic approach at all. We’re talking about human beings who are exploring their ecological self, we’re talking about fuller and richer lives. . . .”
And while he and his co-author have criticized the more egocentric aspects of New Age spirituality that have infiltrated the environmental movement, both also believe that nature-centered spiritual beliefs add depth to ecological thought.
“People concerned with deep ecology have an emotional attachment to the health of the planet,” said Dale Turner, assistant editor of Earth First! “The social ecology movement seems to be purely an intellectual exercise . . . without that emotional connection.”
Meanwhile, some mainstream observers are amused by the uproar. “The environmental movement does not produce a lot of thinkers, it produces actors,” said Samuel P. Hays, an environmental historian at the University of Pittsburg, and author of the book, “Beauty, Health and Permanence--Environmental Politics 1955 to 1985.”
“You don’t get very many people writing reflective books on what it all means. Instead you get people who want to rally the troops. As a result, I think deep ecology and social ecology tend to preempt the field.”
But because both schools call for fundamental changes in the economics and politics of the world, Hay doubts they will have much impact on mainstream environmentalism.
Others in the traditional environmental movement disagree.
“Some of these people are incredibly sane when it comes to looking at where the country is going,” said Peter Borrelli, editor of the National Resources Defense Council’s Amicus Journal.
“Deep ecologists and social ecologists say that the flaws the mainstream environmental movement is overlooking have to do with the fundamental economic structure of America, with moral leadership, economic and social inequity, and (society’s) perceptions of moral and ethical obligation,” he said.
But while mainstream environmentalists have been “fine-tuning” their positions, the ozone layer has continued to burn away, rain forests have vanished and the Earth has become increasingly imperiled. In short, the time may be near when radical solutions are no longer so easily dismissed, Borrelli said. “We’re about to have a rude awakening.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.