The Fundamentals of Social Ecology


What does today's ecological crisis look like? How do we frame it and describe it? What is social ecology, and how does it understand the ecological crisis?

Often the ecological crisis is described in mainly scientific terms. Some researchers have for example launched the term "Planetary boundaries" to describe the environmental processes that uphold the stability of our planet. Since humanity became the strongest force of change in the biosphere, scientists have even started to speak of a new geological era: the Anthropocene.

This perspective on the looming crisis definitely has its points. It emphasizes, among other things, that farming and civilizations have emerged under unusually favorable climate conditions. It is these conditions that the galloping economic development - the so-called "Great Acceleration" - risks disrupting.

Video: This short clip from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme explains both the concept of "Anthropocene" and "the Great Acceleration":

You may also take a look at Johan Rockström’s presentation on TED Talks, which also presents these concepts and paint a similar picture.

The problems with these admittedly factual descriptions are that they lack a clear social dimension. One often speaks of "humankind" as if it was one person -- as if we all had an equally big footprint on earth and had equal opportunities to affect the development. When the debate becomes dominated by these kind of diagnosis there is a risk that the solutions presented focus more on technology, percentages and "policy", and less on democracy, social justice, participation and social change.

The description therefore needs to be complemented with a social analysis that expose that human society has inner problems that are obstructing people from collectively choosing a more sustainable development. The problem is not only how society affects the environment, but just as much how different social groups in society relate to each other. The problem concerns institutions and ideology.

The problem is our society

We are many people today that have absorbed the problem of accelerating environmental destruction. We are trying to explore meaningful alternatives of action. Some of us choose to buy organic food, we use more sustainable forms of transportation like cycling, bus, trams, trains and more, we use second hand stuff etc. But still we see that there are forces in society that are not affected by "good examples."

The problems we encounter as active in these issues are not primarily technological. Instead they come from the fact that a certain economic logic locks the development in a certain direction. Politics today seem unable to change - or even raise questions about - fundamental power relations. In addition, large sections of the population are not even involved in the decision-making processes of our societies. It's not strange that people feel disempowered in the face of the political and economic processes that shape how we take care of natural resources and social development.

Image: One of the main centers of social ecology has been the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, USA. Here a photo from the institute around 1974.

In fact there are groups in society that profit from us continuing to destroy the environment and waste nature's resource. It is also in the interest of these powerful groups that large sections of the population are kept out of decision-making processes.

This is a fundamental insight in the field that is called "social ecology" or more broadly "political ecology". Social ecologists and political ecologists try to explore the social reality that has led to "the Great Acceleration" and the forces pushing it forward. They are also concerned with the local, regional and global social conditions that shape the ecological challenges in contemporary society.

A version of political ecology

With a social ecology perspective we move away from an abstract perspective on humanity's relationship to nature. Instead we look at individual societies and the processes that govern them. As social ecologists we see the economic system called capitalism as a driving factor behind environmental destruction and climate change. But we also emphasize that there are other hierarchical social systems that sustain the environmental crisis. These are, among others, the inequality between women and men, the centralization and bureaucratization of society, urbanization as it looks today, and not at least racist structures that underpin unequal international relations, violence against and discrimination of women, segregation in our cities, etc.

Video: The research network ENTITLE (The European Network of Political Ecology) explain how they see political ecology:

If political ecology is a more general term, then the term social ecology points to a more specific movement within political ecology. Here, one does not only criticize how power relations create the ecological challenges we face, but also define the new democratic model that we need in order to tackle the crisis.

Already in 1964 a group called Ecology Action East formulated a statement describing the analysis of social ecology and the overarching goals of a new democratic politics. It still inspires today (The Power to Create, The Power to Destroy).

A short summary of how ecological issues and democratic challenges are connected, as seen from a social ecology perspective, can be read in the article "9 arguments for Democracy" published on New Compass.

Social Ecology as a radical social philosophy was founded by American theorist Murray Bookchin. A short biography of Bookchin and his ideas can be found in “Bookchin's Ecology and Assembly Democracy”.

This is the first of a series of posts that were originally written for a study group on social ecology in Sweden. If you want to organize a study group on this series yourself, here are some questions you might discuss based on the material in this post.

  • How does the ecological crisis affect you? What is considered the biggest environmental problems where you live?
  • How do you see people talking about environmental problems and the ecological crisis? What or who do they hold responsible?
  • What do you think of the perspectives presented by Ecology Action East in 1964? Are they outdated or still relevant?
  • What do you think is the alternative to tackling the ecological challenges through democracy? What are the arguments for and against it?
  • Is there anything like a social ecology movement in your area? How does it look? And if there is no such movement - how do you think it could be developed?