Notes on an Ecology of Everyday Life

People gardening

We need to rethink desire in social, rather than romantic or individualistic terms. This is crucial because, while our society offers us a variety of ways to describe the many dimensions of romantic and individualistic desire, we are offered a paltry vocabulary with which to describe a social understanding of desire.

We are saturated by consumerist rhetoric of ‘personal satisfaction’ yet rarely do we hear eloquent discussion regarding the craving for a free and non-hierarchical society. Our society worships at the fountain of capitalism whose insatiable waters of material greed and sexual domination crowd out the opportunity to cultivate a desire to regenerate rather than deplete cooperative social and ecological relationships.

Ecology is as much about desire as it is about need. While activists take to the streets to fight genetically manipulated organisms that threaten environmental and health safety, they also take over the streets, creating a carnivalesque demand for community, pleasure, and meaning. Ecology speaks to two demands, then –one quantitative, the other qualitative. Born out of the call for enough clean water, air, and land to survive, ecology is also the demand for a particular quality of life worth living.

The desire for an ecological way of life carries within it the nascent demand for an ecological society, a demand that has potentially revolutionary implications. For once we collectively translate this desire into political terms, we are able to challenge a global system that immiserates most of the world’s inhabitants, forcing them to forgo their desires, lowering their ecological expectations to the level of mere sustenance or survival. Keeping a desire-focus within the ecology movement keeps our demand for satisfaction, vitality, and meaning alive, invigorating our ability to envision a socially and ecologically desirable society.

Yet the question is what kind of desire will inform ecological movements and what kind of ‘nature’ will be the object of ecological desire? Will it be an individualistic desire for a pure ‘nature’ that is understood to be outside of society? Or will it be a social desire, a yearning to be part of a greater collectivity that challenges the structure of society to create a cooperative and ecological world?

Yet while we need to rethink our understanding of desire, we also have to rethink our understanding of nature. ‘Nature’ cannot be the ‘country home’ of our desires—-that place we run to in our dreams, longing to escape the pain and confusion of life at the beginning of a new century. By placing the idea of nature within society itself, we may transform society into a ground in which we may build, collectively, a new practice of both nature and community. An ecology of everyday life translates the desire for ‘nature’ into a social desire to create a society that is whole, humane, and meaningful.

Nature is not a pure and abstract thing removed from the everyday lives of people living in cities, suburbs, and towns. By bringing the idea of ‘nature’ down to earth, ecology becomes the very stuff of our everyday lives: the crowded street in our neighborhood, the water with which we wash our clothes, both sky scraper and smoke-stack, as well as the plants, animals, and other creatures with whom we share this planet.

An ecology of everyday life transforms ecology from a lofty romantic venture into an ongoing everyday labor of love. Ecology is just as much about providing day-care for parents attending organizing meetings and fighting to save urban neighborhoods from road building and gentrification as it is about protecting forests and green spaces.

Removing the idea of nature from its pristine and static display case, we may see nature for what it is: a dazzling and dynamic evolutionary process that continues to unfurl about us and within us. And in turn, we may see capitalism for what it is as well: a voracious fire burning through society and nature, reducing all that is living to ash. By recognizing our minds, our hands, our bones, and our hearts as part of a collective natural history –as an evolutionary inheritance– we become outraged by this fire, breathing it into our lungs, transforming it into a moral outrage that is fuel for revolutionary action.

Once we are able to locate ourselves within this evolution, we can begin to measure our everyday lives as they are against what they could be if only we were free to actualize our potential for such evolutionary coups as cooperation, creativity, and community and self-development. Suddenly, the dull office job, the lonely neighborhood, the poverty, or even the unsatisfying privilege –all take on new meaning.

Ecology provides a lens through which we may take a long and often excruciating look at our own lives, a chance to evaluate the quality of our relationships, both local and global. And if we are not heartened by what we see, we realize that we have an enormous challenge before us. For once we appreciate the interconnectedness of life, we understand that we cannot simply work to save a certain species of plant or animal -we realize that we must also transform society itself.

In turn, the demand for an ecological society cannot be reduced to an individual or personal quest for a better quality of life. It must be a social desire to fight for the quality of life for all, a desire that ultimately requires a dramatic restructuring of political, social, and economic institutions. It asks that we transform our love for nature into a revolutionary activist politics that strives to bring to society the best of what we long for when we talk about “nature.”

We need to rethink our desires to ‘simplify’ our lives, or our desires to create autonomous zones in which we can find asylum from the deadening society that capitalism creates in its own image. In addition, we must begin to grapple with what I call “the complexity of complicity”: a recognition that, despite attempts to extricate ourselves from systems of injustice through personal choices about how we will live, because of the pervasiveness of overlapping systems of power, we will always remain embedded, and thus complicit within, such institutions as global capitalism, the State, racism, and sexism.

Yet instead of despising ourselves for privileges we may have, we may begin to redefine such guilt as “ineffective privilege.” By identifying privileges based on such factors as gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, education, class, ethnicity, or nationality –we may transform particular privileges into a potent substance to be used for social and political reconstruction. We can transform, for example, guilt associated with class, racial, or educational privilege into time, economic resources, and information useful to political struggles. Privilege within complex systems of hierarchy can be morphed from paralyzing guilt into an active process of thinking rationally and compassionately about how to utilize particular resources to dismantle systems of power and to rebuild a new society in its place.

This desire to rebuild represents a kind of ‘visionary freedom’ that goes beyond the ‘protest freedom’ that has become prominent within social movements. While we must express our freedom to protest against the inhumanity of our times, it is also vital that we actualize our potential to become fully human, our potential to create a compassionate, beautiful, and rational world.

If we are to express visionary freedom, then we have to begin to ask ourselves what kind of society should we begin to envision? To envision a new kind of ecological society, we need a new kind of passionate politics, a new idea of what it means to be politically engaged. We must demand a revolutionary democracy in which citizens are no longer dominated by the nation-State. We may re-create ourselves as state-less citizens empowered to directly manage our everyday lives.

We must develop a new understanding of citizenship that is not defined in relation to capital or to the nation-state but is instead, defined in opposition to capital and the nation-state. We may become revolutionary citizens defined in relation to local communities that are part of a larger confederation of self-governing bodies. We may become “a community of communities.” This new way of thinking about political regeneration is called libertarian municipalism. Developed by social ecologist Murray Bookchin, libertarian municipalism proposes a way for members of communities to reclaim existing local political forums, or to create extra-legal citizen forums, gradually transforming them into citizens assemblies. Such assemblies constitute the public sphere in which we may gather together as members of communities to directly manage our own everyday lives.

Libertarian municipalism is a way in which we may publicly seize our power as political actors, taking back decision-making power from professional politicians, states, corporations, and transnational apparatuses such as the WTO. As members of municipalities form local groups engaged in the process of political transformation, we may confederate with other groups from other municipalities to create a true rapport de force, a coordinated and united counter-power to the State and capital. If we do not find this deadening world desirable, then we must do more than protest: we must create the world we desire.

To fulfill its revolutionary potential, ecology must become the desire to infuse the objects, relationships, and practices of everyday life with the same quality of integrity, beauty, and meaning that people in industrial capitalist contexts commonly reserve for “nature.” It means recasting many of the values often associated with nature within social terms, seizing the power to create new political institutions that encourage, rather than obstruct, the expression of a social desire for a cooperative, pleasurable, and ecological society.

An ecology of everyday life is about reaching for this desirable society, reclaiming our humanity as we reclaim our abilities to reason, dream, and to make decisions about our own communities. It is about looking into the uncharted ‘wilderness’ of direct-democracy itself, that delicious, empowering, and deeply social process through which we become a truly humane expression of that ‘nature’ for which we have yearned all along.

Editorial Comment

From Ecology of Everyday Life: Rethinking the Desire for Nature (1999) Black Rose Books