Why Social Ecology, Jakob?

Photo of Jakob Zethelius, by Sara Andersson

Jakob Zethelius lives in Gothenburg, studies ecology and nature conservation, and alters studies with work as a taxi driver. He is a social ecologist concerned with issues of forestry and democratic control.

Becoming politically active when he went to gymnasium, Jakob first became involved in Fältbiologerna, a Swedish environmental youth organization. For the last five years his political involvement has primarily been in the communalist organization Demokratiskt Alternativ. Jakob has been involved in left-libertarian projects, in study groups, and more practically by working with a neighborhood-based democratization initiative in Gothenburg.

How did you get introduced to social ecology?

—The first time I got in touch with these ideas was when I got hold of a pamphlet of Janet Biehl’s Lisbon speech, which had been distributed at the protests against the European Union Summit in 2001.

I had chosen to get involved in the environmental movement partly because I found it hard to choose between anarchism and syndicalism on the one hand and socialism and Marxism on the other. Both had their strengths and weaknesses. In the environmental movement, however, I experienced a lack of ideological and political direction.

I was taken by surprise when I read the pamphlet: others shared my political views and had put them so well into writing.

What in particular did you find interesting?

—Above all, what appealed to me was the way in which ecology, anti-capitalism and egalitarian ideas were brought together, and how an inspiring utopian vision was unified with a clear programmatic approach to social change.

In my opinion, social ecology gives us a well-articulated theoretical ground to understand society, historical development and human potentialities. Its theory about social hierarchies and their destructive impact seem particularly important. What makes this ideology unique, I think, is that it is clearly anti-authoritarian and anti-state while it insists on the need for social institutions, emphasizing that these must be primarily municipal.

Until now, I have been more interested in the political aspects of social ecology and less about the philosophical ones, as its politics have been more directly relevant for my activism. I think its programmatic politics for radical democratization is one of its great strengths.

How, in your view, does social ecology relate to the broader radical movement? How does it relate to other political movements and tendencies fighting for democracy, ecology, humanism, and solidarity?

—First, I would like to say that because social ecology emphasizes social freedom and solidarity, and because it presents a critique of hierarchies and of capitalism, it has a given place within the Left, if by Left we mean socialist in the broad sense. Here it is distinct from the authoritarian socialist alternatives as well as from various types of anarchism.

My experience, however, is that most oppositional movements are not presenting any ideological or political alternatives. To be sure, many social and ecological movements are fighting for a range of the same issues as social ecologists are, but with a limited focus. Remarkably, they often lack clear political demands, not to speak of political programs. Very few of these movements dare to formulate their long-term and utopian visions. By presenting a coherent politics and programmatic alternatives, social ecology is actually, in my view, the more radical of oppositional movements today.

Radical, yes. But social ecology has not yet become a broad movement. How can we reach out to people? What lessons have you drawn from your experience as a social ecology activist?

—Through my years of activism, I think my most important experience is that we must have a good insight into the communities in which we are active. It is easy for activists to remain on the fringes of society. In order to create a broad movement, however, we must be serious about what we are doing, and we need to convey that to people.

Such an understanding must be used to formulate political programs describing social problems in a nuanced and principled fashion, where we take a stand for concrete and applicable solutions. These are lofty words, to be sure, but if we are to connect current political issues to our long-range demands, we need an in-depth knowledge of the various spheres of our society. If we are going to present appropriate policies regarding, say, forest use, than we must have an extensive knowledge of forestry.

Please explain your interest for forestry.

—Well, I grew up in the Swedish region of Värmland, in a small town surrounded by forests. Ever since my childhood I have been much in the outdoors, to play and to work. I also take a great interest in hiking and cross- country skiing: I quite simply enjoy being in the forest.

In general, I think forests are exciting because they encompass so many aspects and complex connections. Through forestry we get building materials, as well as paper and firewood. Forest ecosystems make room for a great variety of different plants, fungi, and animals, and forests also have great recreational value for humans. I am interested in the conflicts related to human interaction with the forest, and of course, their possible solutions.

How is the situation in Sweden? Who owns the forests?

—Forests are important in Sweden: nearly sixty percent of the land mass is covered by them. We do have deciduous forests in the south as well as mixed forests, but a full eighty percent of our forests consist of conifer trees, of which spruce is the most common, closely followed by pine. These form part of the taiga of the Northern hemisphere.

Individual private owners own about half of the forests, and private companies own a fourth, while the state owns something less than one-fifth. The rest is owned by the Swedish Church, municipalities and a variety of foundations and economic associations.

And how are they generally managed?

—More or less all forests in Sweden are used by so-called age-class forestry or even aged timber management. Here the fields are partitioned into patches varying in size depending on the type of forest and ground conditions. In order to maximize production, this kind of forest management aims to keep a uniform age and size of all trees within each patch. After some 80 years the trees are considered mature and then the whole patch can be cut down. This is not really a particularly old age for these trees, but cutting and regeneration is more profitable for the owner then another hundred years of slow growth.

Since 1994, the law has been focused less on generating short-term profit. The Swedish Forestry Act states: “The forest is a national resource that shall be managed in such a way that it gives sustainable and good yields at the same time as biological diversity is maintained.” Out of the productive Swedish forests, some 3–4% is formally protected by national parks and natural reserves. Individual forest owners voluntarily commit another 5% to protection. The greater bulk is concentrated in the sub alpine forests, partly because the mountain forests are ecologically important, and partly because of its poor profitability due to slow growth and difficult transportation conditions.

Besides protecting ecologically valuable areas, the law now prescribes a general obligation to take ecological concerns into forestry. This is about, for example, leaving a line of trees toward waterways and wetlands, encouraging deciduous trees, and letting a number of old trees stand until they die a natural death, as well as leaving standing and fallen dead trees. The obligation to regenerate cut forest areas has been legal prescription for more than 100 years.

So, do you think the Swedish law is a useful instrument?

—With the Forest Act, Swedish forestry today looks like a sustainable exploitation of the forest. Reality, however, is different. About one-fourth of all forest cutting breaks the minimal demands of the law. There are also important loopholes in the law. In practice this never has any consequences. In Sweden we use to say that forestry is conditioned on “freedom under responsibility,” but unfortunately this freedom is often abused.

This, however, is not the full extent of the problem. By use of age-class forestry, forests are deprived of many of its key ecological characteristics, which depend on variation in tree types, size and age. Other species in the forest also depend on the diversity. The various development stages, from germinating plants to old decomposing trunks, are the most important parts in the forest ecosystem, and it greatly affects its microclimates and its ability to contain water. In the last 60 years, we have had an intensive use of age class forestry. The consequences are that diverse and varied forests are transformed into conifer plantations – a catastrophe for biological diversity.

This biological impoverishment, I may add, is not unique to Sweden, but is unfortunately a general pattern in forestry in all different climate zones.

Another serious problem is that demands for profit necessarily give a short-term perspective and have resulted in over-cropping. From the 1960s to the 1980s these involved clear-cutting of enormous areas, the largest of several thousand hectares. Today, the clear-cut areas are not so big, but instead they are far more frequent, dotting the landscape. In northern Sweden there are whole landscapes consisting of clear-cuts and young forest. Such forestry is not only causing ecological problems, but is becoming a concern for local inhabitants as well. Other ways of benefiting from nature – even economically, like, say, nature tourism, berry and mushroom foraging, and reindeer herding – becomes next to impossible. In the past decade, we have seen several cuttings met by heavy protests from local populations who have tried to save the last full-grown forest nearby. The protests have received media attention, but have seldom been successful. The high rate of cuttings has also led to a deficiency of mature forest in northern Sweden, which means that younger and younger forests are cut.

So, although it may be a useful instrument, I do not think that existing laws are sufficient to encourage viable forestry, in great part due to the strong pull of market forces.

Why is it such a strong dichotomy between forestry and environmental protection?

—At least 20% of an original biotope must remain to not risk the survival of sensitive species. Out of the approximately 25,000 species in Swedish forests, 1875 are on the red list of endangered and vulnerable species. 92 species have recently disappeared. The decimation of species and their disappearance from the forest is for the most part caused by intensive forestry: by the disappearance of their biotopes by cutting, and through ditches, fertilizers, and mechanical damage caused by forest machinery.

We need this perspective to look at the conflict between forestry and ecology. This is not traditional conservationism and nature romanticism. Current forestry methods presuppose quite simply that large areas are to be withheld from production if the remaining values of the forest shall be sustained. This is not only about securing a biological diversity of species and life environments, but also about securing the so-called ecosystem services, its natural resources for other businesses, its recreational value, as well as its cultural-historical values.

But how is the mismanagement of our forests contributing to the ecological crisis today?

—Viable forest ecosystems offer crucial services; they clean the air and water, uptake carbon dioxide, and protect against floods. Here we see a clear connection to other ecological issues. When a whole layer of trees is removed by cutting, large quantities of carbon dioxide stored in the ground is released. The forests’ function as storage for carbon dioxide, often mentioned in the climate debate, is greatly reduced or annulled by clear-cutting. Furthermore, the use of heavy machinery reduces the grounds ability to bind heavy metals like mercury, especially if the ground is damaged with deep skid trails. Without sufficient protective ranges toward waterways and wetlands, this mercury comes into the water system.

Ideally, how should our forests and natural resources be managed, and how does this contrast with current situation?

—A fundamental aim for us will be to place natural resources under democratic control and local administration. It makes absolutely no sense that this responsibility rests in just a few private hands, as are the case today. How to use and maintain natural resources is a concern for all citizens.

Guidelines for forestry must be deliberated in direct democratic processes. While it is important that every community and municipality administer their own forests, it is wise also to have some over-arching principled positions to be taken for larger regions or even globally in the future. But even this must happen in direct democratic processes, coordinated between all the involved communities.

So what do you suggest would be a social-ecological approach to forestry?

—In an ecological society the active use of renewable natural resources will be the foundation for welfare. In forestry, there has to be a long-term perspective as well as a landscape perspective, and all aspects of sustainable ecological use must be taken into consideration.

Although we need a variety of practical approaches depending on local conditions, I am quite convinced continuity forestry has an important role to play and I believe social ecologists must contribute to advance this.

What is continuity forestry?

—Continuity forestry strives to increase the variation of the age of trees. Every twentieth year or so, the trees that have reached maturity are cut, and in these clearings space is given for a new generation of trees. With the right maintenance the forest produce materials as well as outdoor life, nature tourism, animal husbandry, and even encourages the biological diversity of the region. Forestry without clear-cutting is fully possible; some even argue that the long-term profitability is increased.

Continuity forestry is of course not the full solution and even these methods can be used to exploit the forest. Long-term planning is necessary. Today’s one-sided focus on conifer trees must also be broken into a multilayered forest where the combination of tree types will give room for a larger biological diversity that maintains the whole spectrum of ecosystem services, and becomes less sensitive to storms, fungi and insect attacks than the one-layered and intensively exploited spruce fields created by the Swedish forest industry.

Creative attempts are needed to develop a new approach to forestry. Here the municipalities, particularly the ones who own forests, have a big responsibility.

Should social ecologists integrate alternative forms of forestry into their ecological vision?

—Yes, I definitely think so. But another important question is how the resources that are taken out of the forest are used. This too must be decided democratically and not dictated by profit motives. To the greatest extent possible, forest resources should be used locally and regionally and not be transported over long areas.

Therefore, social ecologists must work so that all links in the production chain are within a sensible distance, and that the municipalities undertake the responsibility for this. If forests are used, there should be a sawmill nearby. If there is a sawmill, there should be a workshop. Local development projects should use building materials from the local and regional chain of production. Municipal authorities must initiate and establish missing businesses in a local production chain.

How do you suggest that we initiate the transition to an ecologically responsible management of natural resources, like our forests? To what extent is such a transition necessarily tied to a new political approach?

—Today’s forestry is in many ways better than it was only 30 years ago, thanks to pressure from ecological movements, scientists, and the general public. Social ecologists can and should help uphold this pressure, but we must also demand more than most ecological movements are willing to. Astonishingly, the broader questions of power and control over natural resources are almost completely lacking from ecological movements. But for us, as social ecologists, an obvious task is to combine the demands for an ecological reorientation of forestry to the broader demands for decentralization and democratization.

So how can we initiate these changes?

—In practical terms, I see three possible ways of initiating these changes and I think that all three need to be implemented.

First, when municipalities own forests themselves they can start immediately to use participatory planning to formulate and decide the direction of the forest management. Detailed and general plans about forest use and community development should to the greatest extent possible be formulated by citizen participation.

Second, when forests are owned by the state or by larger forest companies, one or several areas within a municipality could be given high priority, simply because they are particularly valuable to the community. The municipality could take over the administration of the selected areas, without necessarily taking over ownership in the actual sense. Gradually, these demands could include additional areas, and increasingly these areas and their natural resources could be fully taken over by the municipality.

It is not impossible that the state should transfer some property to municipalities, if only pressure is significant. However, as long as the integrity of the state remains intact this will not concern larger areas. As long as property rights remain as they are today, the same goes for private companies. At this stage, I do not consider it important that municipalities take over control over all property or all natural resources, but to increase citizens’ power over areas that they care about and that are ecologically important.

Third, we should extend the use of landscape planning. For a responsible management of forests, a regionally ecological perspective is fundamental to how we initiate a change in forestry. Extensive use of landscape planning will increase the value of regulated property and protected areas.

Demands to municipalize property will probably be resisted at this point; even if less than 4% of the population own forest, it will be hard to muster public support for these demands today. Landscape planning, building upon consultations with property owners, could be a first step that will gain acceptance more easily. Successively, the process must also be opened up for more participation from the public, and our long-term aim is that the power over natural resources and how they are used are placed in the hands of citizens instead of property owners. And again, this must be tied in with a new municipalist politics and a programmatic approach to social change.

How can we ensure that the communalist takeover of production and distribution will foster a responsible management of these resources?

—Well, of course there are no guarantees that the municipal and democratic control over natural resources will give a more responsible management. With local decision-making processes, however, I think the risk for over-exploitation is much smaller than in today’s society, especially if our societies are guided by something other than profit. I think that civic participation and shared responsibility gives a better overview of the various ecological and social consequences of how we manage our common resources. We also have to actively propagate the knowledge and the appropriate methods to advance long-term resource management and a stable direct democracy.

But, to sum up, what do you think are the prospects for social ecology and communalism?

—I think that the greatest potential is in our political ideas. If a communalist politics can make a breakthrough in a number of communities these could work as inspiring examples and create a broader interest for communalism as well as the other aspects of social ecology. Today, the majority of people do not see any alternatives to prevailing social order. The challenge for us – as social ecologists – is to present our perspectives, a political program and our utopian vision in a way that people can understand. If we can do this carefully and with inspiration I think the prospects for a new popular movement are very good.


Editorial Comment

This interview was first published in Communalism #2 (May 2010).