Toward a Poststructural Social Ecology
In recent years, the field of Social Ecology has experienced a reemergence in both environmentalist and anarchist milieus as a powerful tool for understanding the complex and dynamic relationship between humans and nature. Developed by Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology emphasizes the importance of understanding how social and ecological issues arise from domination and how they are perpetuated through the hierarchical, centralized organization of society. It suggests that decentralized, non-hierarchical forms of social organization, which take into account ecological principles, are the path toward a future that blurs the dichotomy between “humanity and nature” and addresses the harmful social and environmental divisions that this separation has facilitated.
While Social Ecology has provided valuable insights into the root causes of social and environmental problems, it is crucial to consider how it may be expanded or modified to more effectively address the complex and rapidly changing challenges of the 21st century. One way to do this is by embracing a poststructural approach to Social Ecology.
The particular approach suggested here is based on an ethos of epistemological autonomy that would encourage a decentralized and fluid perspective on knowledge. By eschewing the ‘pedestaling’ of “Great Theoretician(s)” who came before, we can view their work as contributions to living theories to be further developed by promoting the ideas of a diverse array of contributors. Applying this epistemic fluidity to the philosophy of Social Ecology helps to reassert its rootedness in the tradition of ecological anarchism from which it emerged. Regardless of the strained relationship Murray Bookchin had with Anarchism in his later years, Social Ecology remains a meaningful philosophical strain of eco-anarchist thought. Many of its foundational ideas are based on the work of historic anarchists such as Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin. By viewing Social Ecology as separate from Murray Bookchin, and instead through the vision of the theoretical lineage from which it is contextually situated, we can create space for contributions from a more diverse group of contemporary thinkers and further develop the distinctly eco-anarchist philosophy of Social Ecology.
To give a brief overview, poststructural analysis is a theoretical approach that emerged in the mid-20th century as a response to the limitations of modernist frameworks. Modernist frameworks, which were dominant at the time, often focused on universal truths, and through their eurocentricity, tended to prioritize the experiences and perspectives of dominant groups over others. Poststructural analysis, on the other hand, emphasizes the social and cultural contexts that shape our understanding of the world. It argues that knowledge is shaped by the power dynamics and social structures that form our society. It critiques the idea that individuals can be reduced to a single identity or category, and instead highlights the fluid and complex nature of the human experience. By encouraging a more open and inclusive approach to analyzing the world, it seeks to dislodge dominant narratives and power structures.
For instance, Gilles Deleuze, a poststructuralist French philosopher, focused on the complex and dynamic relationships between different forces and processes. Rather than seeing these relationships as fundamentally opposed to one another, as in the Hegelian dialectical approach, Deleuze emphasized the importance of understanding the myriad ways in which they influence and shape one another.
It follows that in a Poststructural Social Ecology the relationship between humans and nature would be seen as more fluid and dynamic, with each influencing and shaping the other in complex and constantly changing ways. This approach could offer a more nuanced and accurate understanding of how social and ecological issues emerge and interact, and could inform more effective strategies for addressing these issues.
A Poststructural Social Ecology would recognize the ways in which the ecocidal degradation of nature is interconnected with specific instantiations of domination, such as patriarchy and white supremacy. This approach would inform more intersectional and holistic approaches to addressing social and ecological issues by considering the multiple and intersecting systems of power and oppression that shape our relationships with the natural world. It would also recognize the particular ways in which these systems have been employed to exploit humans and nature. The inclusion of the perspectives of those oppressed by these systems would further the reality of working towards creating societies that facilitate the autonomy of all people and ecologies. By taking a radically intersectional and holistic approach, a Poststructural Social Ecology can more effectively address the specific root causes of social and ecological problems – as opposed to remaining theoretically dependent on a sometimes amorphous macroscopic conception of hierarchy – to work towards creating lasting and transformative change.
This new iteration of Social Ecology would also recognize the importance of diverse and decentralized forms of social organization. Rather than advocating for a specific programmatic model, such as Bookchin’s Libertarian Municipalism, it would embrace the complexity and multiplicity of approaches to creating a more just and equitable society. This could involve experimenting with a variety of forms of social organization and tactics, and being open to learning from diverse perspectives and experiences. The importance of creativity and experimentation in addressing social and ecological issues would become theoretically integral. Rather than strict adherence to predetermined models or solutions it would necessarily encourage the exploration of new and innovative approaches to creating change. This might involve reimagining previously existing institutions and systems, as well as continuously striving to create new ones, to more fluidly address the emergent socio-ecological challenges of the 21st century.
Perhaps most importantly, a poststructural revamping of Social Ecology could deconstruct and shed light on modernist, eurocentric, and unilineal biases within Murray Bookchin’s original Social Ecology by challenging the notion of a singular, linear process of social and historical change. Bookchin’s approach is based in part on a Hegelian philosophical framework, which sees human history as a process of conflict and resolution between opposing forces, with each resolution giving rise to new conflicts and resolutions. While this approach has provided valuable insights into how social and ecological issues arise from domination, it can also reinforce modernist and Eurocentric notions of progress and the superiority of Western thought.
A poststructural approach, on the other hand, would reject the idea of a singular, linear process of change and instead emphasize the complexity and multiplicity of social and ecological relationships. It would recognize the importance of diverse and decentralized forms of social organization and the need to be open to learning from a variety of perspectives and experiences. This could involve challenging modernist frameworks and Eurocentric notions of progress and superiority, and instead embracing a more inclusive and diverse approach to understanding and addressing social and ecological issues. The voices of the subaltern would take meaningful form as their unique epistemological lenses of understanding would become primary to the formulation of social-ecological critiques, as opposed to the manner in which the theory previously flowed in a centralized manner, predominantly from a singular individual.
Ultimately, incorporating aspects of poststructuralism into Social Ecology is a worthwhile endeavor for updating and expanding the field of Social Ecology. By embracing a more fluid and non-dogmatic approach, incorporating a “postmodern squint” that acknowledges the complexity and multiplicity of social and ecological issues, and importantly, including a decolonial perspective that challenges and dismantles specific systems of domination, Social Ecology can continue to be a meaningful strain of ecological anarchist philosophy and a potent analytical tool for creating a just world that fosters the interconnected freedom and autonomy of all people and ecologies.