An interview with Dimitri Roussopoulos


New Compass Press has just published Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism, a work by Dimitri Roussopoulos, co-founder of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology. Originally released in 1993, the 2015 edition contains a great deal of new material. New Compass spoke the author when he visited London about the book ideas, the relevance and successes of social ecology and who will be attracted to the book’s message.

How does political ecology go beyond environmentalism?

The book reviews the failure of the state management of this environmental crisis. In other words, we know that since the late 19th century governments have manifested interest in preserving parts of nature or putting green spaces here or there. All this stuff is like smallpox, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, on the skin of the earth. But then, with the emergence of problems vis-a-vis society and nature, a number of environmental NGOs were born. For example, the conservationists, who believe in conserving natural green spaces, and the preservationists who believe in expanding green spaces.

So, from a critique of the state management of the environment, the book starts critiquing the NGOs who are environmentalists, who are essentially seeking technical solutions to divert the ecological crisis.

Where political ecology comes in is because it looks at a more systemic and more global understanding of why we have an environmental crisis. And so the political ecologists themselves have different schools. One school are the various Green parties. Their approach is pragmatic in one way but limited because they are tied up in Parliamentary politics. They try and navigate reforms in public policy and its implementation through various legislatures. Another school of thought among the political ecologists are the eco-socialists. The socialists are always trying to renew themselves, either through discovering feminism or discovering gay liberation. They are always trying to re-formulate what socialism is and is not. And so the latest manifestation is eco-socialism. But a problem there is that eco-socialists are tied up with the objective of large-scale nationalisation; of the banking system and national resources that are normally exploited through the extraction industries. And that presents a number of classical problems that state socialists have always had down through the years.

Finally among the political ecologists you have the social ecologists. That’s where the book has a lot to say, and contrary to Naomi Klein’s latest book, for instance, there is a whole section of the book that is called, ‘the roadmap’. In which there is a detailed analysis of the urban question. This section deals with libertarian municipalism in considerable detail and proposes what activists can do in their neighbourhoods and in their cities, in order to apply social ecology on the ground.

The book provides examples of successes inspired by social ecology. Could you describe the most important?

There are two successes on the ground. One is Montréal which has often been referred to as a laboratory of social ecology, through the various community organisations and urban struggles that have taken place and have established a lot of libertarian, cooperative housing projects. Of which the Milton-Parc project is the most celebrated. The book describes the 11 year struggle and what it’s like now, 35 years after being put in place. And the creation of the Urban Ecology Centre in Montréal and its impact on the city government.

The second case is Rojava. Where in the last little while, we’ve seen an incredible social revolution unfold. Where, if we can possibly imagine that in the Middle East, we have a society that practices gender equality and also practices ethic tolerance, and has a whole approach to the environment that is very much informed by social ecology.

These are two case studies that are put forward in the book from quite different contexts.

How are cities integral to developing alternatives to the global economic system?

First of all, unlike environmentalists, the social ecologists, as well as the other political ecologists like the eco-socialists, clearly critique capitalism, especially market capitalism and finance capitalism. And social ecology seeks economic, cultural and political alternatives to capitalism. That’s very important. It’s a radical form of ecologism. And that sets it apart from the environmentalists who don’t have a systemic critique. And also in that sense, social ecologists distance themselves from eco-socialists who still have a fixation on top down state socialist solutions to the environmental crisis. Whereas social ecologists look at bottom up solutions.

In other words, we know now what is going on amongst the social ecologist Kurds, who in the latest manifestations no longer talk about national liberation and the construction of a new Kurdish nation-state. They actually, in their programmes, put forward the idea of democratic confederalism, which is an organic working out of decision-making bodies that collaborate in a horizontal way. So, in that sense, social ecology critiques the social order, the political order, root and branch and tries to find very radical alternatives.

The book is a reprint of an older work but with much new material added. Who do you think will find it interesting?

People who are not satisfied with the state management of the environmental crisis. People who are looking for alternatives to that. People are not happy with the Greens. People who are sceptical but are drawn to eco-socialism, although uneasy about the wolf having different clothing. And people who are interested in an alternative politics, a new politics.

These people do exist, many of them are quite active on the ground but are very reluctant to have a larger vision about what to do. They are very much confined with their local communities. And so if we can with these ideas and with this book reach out to those people and build bridges with them, then they will be very interested in this book.

The book was first published in 1993 but two-thirds of this edition is much more developed. There is a Turkish edition, which in in the process of being published, and a Greek edition. And there’ll be a French edition, and before long, there’ll be a Spanish and probably a German edition.