Continuing my recent theme of dealing with big issues, like anarchism and feminism, in today’s installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchy and ecology. While Murray Bookchin is often credited with bringing the ideas of ecology and anarchism together, previous writers had dealt with ecological themes, including the anarchist geographers, Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, the communitarian anarchist, Gustav Landauer, the English writer, Ethel Mannin, and the American social critic and author, Paul Goodman. Selections from their writings can be found across the three volumes of the Anarchism anthology. A bit early for Earth Day, but here it is.
Anarchy and Ecology
Anarchists had long been advocates of decentralized, human scale technology and sustainable communities. In the 1940s, Ethel Mannin drew the connections between increasing environmental degradation, existing power structures and social inequality, writing that as long as “Man continues to exploit the soil for profit he sows the seeds of his own destruction, not merely because Nature becomes his enemy, responding to his machines and his chemicals by the withdrawal of fertility, the dusty answer of an ultimate desert barrenness, but because his whole attitude to life is debased; his gods become Money and Power, and wars and unemployment and useless toil become his inevitable portion” (Volume Two, Selection 14). Murray Bookchin expanded on this critique in the 1960s, arguing that the “modern city… the massive coal-steel technology of the Industrial Revolution, the later, more rationalized systems of mass production and assembly-line systems of labour organization, the centralized nation, the state and its bureaucratic apparatus—all have reached their limits,” undermining “not only the human spirit and the human community but also the viability of the planet and all living things on it” (Volume Two, Selection 48).
Bookchin was fundamentally opposed to those environmentalists who looked to existing power structures to avert ecological collapse or catastrophe. This was because the “notion that man is destined to dominate nature stems from the domination of man by man—and perhaps even earlier, by the domination of woman by man and the domination of the young by the old” (Volume Three, Selection 26). Consequently, the way out of ecological crisis is not to strengthen or rely on those hierarchical power structures which have brought about that crisis, but through direct action, which for Bookchin is “the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly, without ‘representatives’ who tend to usurp not only the power but the very personality of a passive, spectatorial ‘electorate’ who live in the shadows of an ‘elect’”(Volume Three, Selection 10).
In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued not only that the state was unlikely to effect positive social change, given the interests it represents, but that reliance on state power renders people less and less capable of collectively managing their own affairs, for in “proportion as the obligations towards the State [grow] in numbers the citizens [are] evidently relieved from their obligations towards each other.” As Michael Taylor puts it, under “the state, there is no practice of cooperation and no growth of a sense of the interdependence on which cooperation depends.” Because environmental crisis can only be resolved through the action and cooperation of countless individuals, instead of strengthening the state people should heed the anarchist call for decentralization, by seeking to disaggregate “large societies… into smaller societies,” and by resisting “the enlargement of societies and the destruction of small ones,” thereby fostering the cooperation and self-activity upon which widespread social change ultimately depends (Volume Two, Selection 65). Otherwise, as Paul Goodman argued, we are stuck in “a vicious circle, for… the very exercise of abstract power, managing and coercing, itself tends to stand in the way and alienate, to thwart function and diminish energy… the consequence of the process is to put us in fact in a continual emergency, so power creates its own need.” For the emergency or crisis to be effectively resolved, there must be “a profound change in social structure, including getting rid of national sovereign power” (Volume Two, Selection 36).