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Murray Bookchin, 85; Writer Pioneered Social Ecology and Influenced Green Parties

Times Staff Writer

Murray Bookchin, an anti-capitalist thinker who in the early 1960s was among the first theorists to bring ecology into the political debate, arguing that economic policies based on profit were harming the environment, has died. He was 85.

Bookchin, a teacher and author who was well known within the Green movement, died of heart failure July 30 at his home in Burlington, Vt., said his son, Joe.

A self-described eco-anarchist, Bookchin raised an alarm about pesticides and promoted alternative energy sources in his 1962 book “Our Synthetic Environment,” published several months before Rachel Carson’s better-known “Silent Spring.”

His first several books were written under the pseudonym Lewis Herber, a common practice at the time among leftists who wanted to avoid attention from anti-Communists, said Janet Biehl, his longtime companion.

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Through his writing, Bookchin introduced a theory called social ecology, which blames environmental woes on human behavior and a capitalistic, consumer culture.

To save the planet, he said, people needed to change how they treat one another.

“His most telling contribution was that he saw that our economic system was on a collision course with nature because capitalism is based on a hierarchy of bosses and profit-seekers who always seek to turn the whole world into a way to make money,” said Sandy Baird, a former student. She studied with Bookchin at the Institute for Social Ecology, which he co-founded in 1971 in Plainfield, Vt., to further his ideas.

The view put him at odds in the 1980s with the ideas of other environmentalists, including bio-centric “deep ecologists,” who see humanity as a disproportionately destructive species and New Age-style spiritualists, who seek mystical or meditative solutions to environmental problems.

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“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 with all the power we have.”

A typical response from a bio-centrist: “Compost the word ‘anarchy’ and do something real.”

In 1992, the Independent newspaper of London called Bookchin “probably the foremost Green philosopher of the age.”

The author of more than two dozen books, he wrote extensively on the environment, including “The Ecology of Freedom,” a 1982 book regarded as one of the “classic statements of contemporary anarchism,” the Independent said. He also wrote about politics, philosophy, history and urban affairs.

His writings strongly influenced the Green political parties in the United States and Europe, and he was the keynote speaker at the 1987 founding conference of the U.S. Green Party in Amherst, Mass., Biehl said.

Bookchin was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on Jan. 14, 1921. He traced his revolutionary fervor to his Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Nathan and Rose Bookchin. His father, a farmer who had been active in the revolution against the czar in Russia, became a hatter in his new country.

By 9, Bookchin had joined the communist-run Young Pioneers but left the organization at 16 because he didn’t like the authoritarian nature of the international communist movement.

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He worked in a foundry and as a union organizer in New Jersey before joining the Army during World War II. Stationed at Fort Knox, he helped teach the troops to drive tanks.

After the war, Bookchin became an autoworker at General Motors, helping to organize a large strike in 1946.

When he began to see the leftist movement of the 1930s become as bureaucratic and centralized as the “capitalist machine” it hoped to topple, he transformed from a Marxist into an anarchist, Bookchin told The Times in 1989.

Growing up, he developed a love of nature while hiking in national parks, and through his writing his postwar politics turned from red to green. As early as 1952, he wrote about the problems of chemicals in food, and he spent much of the 1960s crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada lecturing about ecology, Biehl said.

A voracious reader, he was largely self-taught and had a reputation as a spellbinding orator. He never earned a college degree yet was a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey from 1977 to 1981.

“He did not follow a very orthodox path,” Biehl said. “Through his institute, he was sort of this oracle in Vermont. Students would come hear him speak and develop an idea they heard from him into a PhD dissertation.”

As a teacher, he was “incredibly provocative and knowledgeable,” Baird said.

For a dozen years, Bookchin was married to the former Beatrice Appelstein, the mother of his son Joe, who is the director of the film and video program at Burlington College, and daughter Debbie, a freelance writer.

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In addition to his children, Bookchin is survived by Biehl, his companion of nearly 20 years; a brother; and a granddaughter.

He raised his family in Greenwich Village in the 1960s but after the couple divorced, his ex-wife and children moved to Burlington, Vt., and he soon followed.

His son remembered a father “with an encyclopedic mind and an extraordinary ability to synthesize ideas who tried to change the world until the very end.”


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