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Social Ecology: Radicalizing the Climate Movement

The struggle for climate justice cannot limit its focus to environmental issues. It is the hierarchical system as a whole that is threatening our planet and our lives.

Originally published by Roar Mag. Written by Katie Horvath. Image above: Climate justice demonstration in Madrid during the COP25 UN Climate Conference in December, 2019. Image by ph_m / Shutterstock.com.

It is not up for debate: climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. Aside from the rather obvious fact that we cannot wage any struggle or build any new society in the shell of the old if we are all dead, the struggle for climate justice is a deeply intersectional one that touches on all the other issues we hold dear.

Concerned about inequality and the class war? Look at the way the wealthy have already started building walls to protect themselves while the lower classes drown or burn. Concerned about housing as a human right? Millions of houses are in areas that will soon be underwater or in flames will bring the affordable housing crisis to levels we have never seen before. Concerned about migrant justice, racial justice and the violent impacts of the nation-state more broadly? Look no further than Fortress Europe and the US-Mexico border to see that white, wealthy nations are already justifying locking out the Global South to face the effects of the climate apocalypse the North caused. No movement or strategy can afford to ignore the struggle for climate justice.

To tackle this hydra, organizers and authors on the left are increasingly embracing a dual power strategy by creating directly democratic, grassroots assemblies and institutions that are capable of challenging and ultimately supplanting capitalism and the nation-state.

Less well known are the origins of this strategy. The philosophy that is actually responsible for introducing dual power as a strategy for the contemporary left while connecting to the struggle for climate justice is social ecology. Examining social ecology provides the missing link in understanding the radicalization of the environmental movement historically and in constructing a dual power climate strategy for the future.

FROM DOMINATION OF MAN TO DOMINATION OF NATURE

Social ecology is a philosophy that understands environmental problems as stemming from human social problems, especially hierarchy. As Murray Bookchin, the founding theorist of social ecology, explained in Toward an Ecological Society,

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. The hierarchical mentality that arranges experience itself — in all its forms — along hierarchically pyramidal lines is a mode of perception and conceptualization in to which we have been socialized by hierarchical society.

In response to these social and environmental ills, social ecology puts forward a politics of radical democracy and dual power. In the same essay, Bookchin writes, “I would like to ask if the environmental crisis does not have its roots in the very constitution of society as we know it today, if the changes that are needed to create a new equilibrium between the natural world and the social do not require a fundamental, indeed revolutionary, reconstitution of society along ecological lines.” In later works, Bookchin elaborates this “revolutionary reconstitution of society” as communalism achieved through dual power, as many of the other essays in this issue have elaborated on aspects of that vision and strategy.

Social ecology’s understanding that environmental problems are rooted in social problems was a key contribution to the early climate justice movement. Now it’s common sense, but at first the case had to be made that capitalism and ecological sustainability are fundamentally incompatible.

The popularization of the idea that environmental problems are rooted in the deeper social issues of hierarchy, particularly the hierarchies of capitalism and the state, was largely thanks to Bookchin and social ecology. “Bookchin was among the first thinkers in the West to identify the growth imperative of capitalism as a fundamental threat to the integrity of living ecosystems,” Brian Tokar, board member of the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) and author of multiple works on the intersection of social ecology and climate justice, writes. “[Bookchin] consistently argued that social and ecological concerns are fundamentally inseparable, questioning the narrowly instrumental approaches advanced by many environmentalists to address particular issues.”

Bookchin pointed to capitalism and hierarchy as the deeper roots of environmental issues in the early 1960s, when much of the burgeoning environmental movement was focused on band-aid, surface level solutions. Dan Chodorkoff, who co-founded the ISE along with Bookchin, illustrated the point using the example of acid rain in a 2017 lecture introducing social ecology:

It [acid rain] was a huge problem, and an environmentalist looked at that problem and said, “Well, the problem is the particulates, the sulfur dioxide, and the solution of course is just put scrubbers on the tall stacks, and that’ll clean it up.” And it did, to a certain extent. Those scrubbers were an effective technology. But a social ecologist looked at that same situation and said, “Well yes, the sulfur dioxide is a problem and the tall stacks are a problem, but so is the centralized form of industrial production that requires those tall stacks and burning coal, and underlying that centralized form of industrial production is the system of capitalism. And underlying the system of capitalism is this notion that we have that society must be organized along hierarchical lines…

Scrubbers might mitigate the effects of acid rain, but they do so while the rest of the ecological crisis created by burning coal, centralized industrial production and capitalism rages on.

Tokar explains that these arguments in the “largely underground distribution” of essays by Bookchin such as “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” heavily influenced popular environmental movements in the 1960s: “Ideas he first advanced, such as the need for a fundamentally radical ecology in contrast to technocratic environmentalism, were embraced by growing numbers of ecologically-informed radicals.”

Social ecologists were also some of the first to enact the deeper environmental solutions they called for. The ISE assisted residents of New York’s marginalized Lower East Side in early experiments with wind and solar initiatives in the 1970s. In Vermont, windmills, solar collection and organic gardening were a core part of the institute from the earliest days of its founding in 1974. In the late 1970s, social ecology played a key role in the movement against nuclear power and the development of anti-nuclear alliances across the US, and social ecologists also played an important role in the development of concepts such as ecofeminism and affinity groups as they are used today.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK TO CHALLENGE CAPITAL AND THE STATE

Social ecology’s most important contribution to the climate justice struggle, however, is not historical. It is the concept of using dual power as a strategic blueprint, and it is vital for the present and the future of the struggle for a livable planet. Dual power is a transitional strategy that lays the groundwork in the here and now for the ecologically sustainable and just future we want.

The historical and theoretical context above leads us to the conclusion that — as social ecology has argued for decades — our struggle for climate justice cannot focus only on the narrow realm of climate or environmental issues. It is the whole hierarchical system that is threatening our planet and our lives. Smokestack scrubbers will not suffice; they never have. Nothing short of a radical overhaul will do.

Which brings us back to dual power. The term was originally a descriptive one, used by Russian socialists to describe the period during the Russian Revolution when workers’ councils had so much grassroots power that they contended with the state for authority and legitimacy. Lenin argued that this situation of divided power could not last and might give way to revolutionary overthrow.

Austro-German Marxists began to use the term theoretically after WWI, but they thought of it as a desirable permanent state: permanent councils for workers and a parliamentary state for the bourgeoisie, each balancing the other. Bookchin argued that by using this term, social democrats “divested ‘dual power’ of its revolutionary tension, and the term became a synonym for a two-part government that could conceivably have existed indefinitely.”

By contrast, Bookchin was the first to identify the potentiality of the “revolutionary tension” inherent in the idea of dual power and apply it prescriptively as a blueprint for the revolutionary transformation of society. He argued that we must build directly democratic assemblies in order to challenge and ultimately supplant their existing exploitative counterpart, the state. Just as dual power was originally used in Russia to describe a situation that could not persist long-term, dual power in social ecology is a transitional framework, intended to ultimately create a situation where confederations of assemblies and the nation-state cannot coexist, and the former must eventually displace the latter.

The beauty of dual power as a framework is that we can make concrete improvements to our daily lives while simultaneously laying the groundwork to challenge capital and the state. By constructing grassroots, horizontal, local institutions that take the place of exploitative or absent statist and/or capitalist institutions in our and our neighbors’ lives, we are both planning for the future and meeting our needs right now.

Students protesting for climate justice in Taranto, Italy, September 2019. Photo by Massimo Todaro / Shutterstock.com

STEPS TOWARDS BUILDING DUAL POWER 

Examples of such dual power institutions specifically related to climate resiliency and climate justice abound. The capitalist food and agriculture system is simultaneously one of the greatest drivers of climate change and woefully incapable of providing healthy sustenance to all; dual power initiatives can begin to supplant this exploitative system by creating community-owned agriculture and cooperative food provision.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is building a localized food system through Black-led urban farming on their seven-acre D-Town Farm and, soon, a Detroit People’s Food Co-op that will employ more than 20 residents and improve access to local, healthy grown food for the surrounding community. Cooperation Jackson, the arm of the Jackson-Kush plan aimed at building a cooperative network in Jackson, Mississippi, is in the process of creating interconnected farming, landscaping, waste management/recycling and construction cooperatives to develop an eco-village on its collective land.

Climate justice is not always front and center in the labor or even worker cooperative arena. But shifting to worker cooperatives and community ownership of the means of production provides countless opportunities to ecologize those means and their chains.

On the energy front, through community-owned energy production and infrastructure communities can bypass corporate pollution and monopolistic price-gouging, supplying affordable energy to their immediate neighbors in the short term while laying the groundwork for a decentralized, community-owned grid of renewable energy in the long term.

Soulardarity in Highland Park, Michigan provides an example of what such dual power initiatives might look like — their community organization installs collectively owned solar street lights, recently released a comprehensive “Blueprint for Energy Democracy Framework” for their city, and is building a community energy cooperative so that they can begin to scale production and access. In the Bay Area, the Local Clean Energy Alliance seeks to develop community-owned, decentralized, renewable energy systems as alternatives to the dangerous stranglehold of corporate utility PG&E in the face of the worst fires the area has seen in decades, and a movement is building for democratic control of utilities and energy projects across the country.

As climate-related disasters increase exponentially over the next several decades, mutual aid responses to disaster are an opportunity not just to provide short-term relief, but to lay the groundwork for adaptive, resilient, democratized institutions outside of the state. Common Ground Relief, the community-initiated mutual aid organization established after Hurricane Katrina, has been operating for almost 15 years, and their transition over the last decade-and-a-half provides a potential example of the way mutual aid disaster relief can be turned into long-term climate justice solutions.

They have transitioned multiple times toward ever-longer-term and more permanent community-owned climate action: providing immediate relief in 2005; building affordable and energy efficient housing for displaced residents in 2007; shifting in 2013 from rebuilding to a mission focused on “creat[ing] resilient Gulf Coast communities that are environmentally sustainable, financially viable and personally cohesive;” and, in 2015, focusing on restoration and preservation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands that are quickly disappearing under climate change.

In Puerto Rico, community members and organizer allies came together after Hurricane Maria to form Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Aid Centers), repurposing former government buildings to provide the services the state neglected. Over two years later, the centros are still functioning, installing off-grid, scalable renewable energy solutions and building community resilience and much-needed communal space. When the next climate disaster strikes Puerto Rico or the Louisiana coast, local communities will be far better prepared to weather the storm and to expand opportunities for directly democratic decision-making in the absence of the state.

The above examples are somewhat attenuated from Bookchin’s original description of dual power; he was insistent on the power of assemblies in particular, and remained skeptical of institutions not subordinated to the assembly. I argue that any grassroots, community-owned institution is a step towards building dual power, provided it is connected to a wider project of creating democratic assemblies and greater citizen engagement; municipal assemblies will need infrastructure to oversee, and that will not grow overnight.

But what happens when assemblies are actually in charge of their municipalities and thus own ecological systems? The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), known more popularly as Rojava, provides a sense of the possibilities that unfold. In addition to taking in tens of thousands of refugees from other parts of Syria and Iraq, the democratic decision-making councils of this libertarian socialist project have embarked on an ecological revolution. As a statement by the internationalist Make Rojava Green campaign explains:

Cooperatives and communal economy projects based on agriculture and livestock are being developed, in which people can work their land collectively and in a sustainable way. Hundreds of reforestation projects, with fruit trees and olives trees, will help in the future to counter the effects of the climate change and the desertification that is advancing mercilessly.

Their reforestation campaign is planting thousands of new trees and supporting a longer-term plan for an ecological Northern Syria Federation. “Rojava teaches us that, in order to change the world, we have to change the way we look at nature and society,” they write in their call to action against the recent Turkish onslaught. “Our struggle is the struggle against oppression and exploitation, the struggle against capitalism, against nation-state and against patriarchy. Now more than ever, we will continue the fight for a free and green Rojava.”

These are just a few of the ways in which communities across the world are creating dual power institutions capable of mitigating climate change, democratizing decision-making and ultimately challenging the might of capitalism and the state. But the final piece — actually supplanting dominant institutions of today’s society — will not happen if our local efforts remain isolated.

Combating climate change requires a globally scaled dual power response, which is why our work cannot remain isolated or strictly local in nature. If we are serious about changing the way humans interact with nature and ourselves, we will not succeed by sticking to our little corner of the world; the tides will keep rising no matter how utopian our island. We must scale up our work so that we can act in concert. And we do not have much time.

AN ECOLOGICAL, DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY FOR HUMAN AND NON-HUMAN ALIKE

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that we have 12 years to cut global emissions roughly in half, which does not give us much time to fundamentally alter the world social order.

It seems likely that we may need social democratic compromises to buy us some time. In this regard, it seems that the US presidential election in 2020 will either be our final chance for a turning point, or the final nail in the planetary coffin. Proposals like the Green New Deal could go a long way toward staving off the worst of climate apocalypse; if lead polluter states can transition to fully renewable energy systems in the next decade, we will have valuable years in which to build dual power institutions and prepare for the fight to come.

And yet electoralism and social democracy should not be confused for real victories. This is where social ecology provides us with a helpful theoretical grounding, reminding us that our environmental challenges are inextricably linked to the hierarchical nature of capitalism and the state. Changes that leave in place the underlying systems of capitalism, with its rapacious, never-ending growth imperative, and the state, with its domineering hierarchy of violence, will not save us — nor will it wither away if only the right people are in power.

Hierarchical institutions are inherently unaccountable to the people most affected by the climate crisis; we cannot expect the institutions responsible for the crisis to be capable of managing our collective future going forward. At best they will buy us a couple of decades.

In that time, if we are serious about building a new society capable of addressing the root of our current climate crisis, we will have to get serious about building what Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader, visionary and author calls “democratic confederalism.” Democratic confederalism is a political system in which deliberative local assemblies are networked into multiple confederated levels, but in which, contrary to US federalism today, the locus of power remains at the grassroots, with the local assemblies.

To be able to coordinate future climate disaster response, engage in mutual aid across the world to areas most impacted by climate change, prevent further destabilization, and work toward a just transition framework will take serious democratic deliberation on a global level. We need to connect our local institutions — assemblies, worker cooperatives, tenants’ unions, mutual aid projects — to one another, first at the municipal level, then in regional bodies, then ultimately globally. Organizations like Symbiosis, a new federation of directly democratic, grassroots, dual-power-building institutions across North America, are trying to do just that.

By ensuring that such an international body has limited power and is held accountable to regional bodies that answer to yet more powerful local bodies, each run according to principles of direct democracy and sending recallable delegates to the next level of coordination, we can make sure that the institutions we need to take on global climate issues are accountable to all of us.

We can work toward a world in which, as Bookchin writes, “Humanity, far from diminishing the integrity of nature, would add the dimension of freedom, reason, and ethics to it and raise evolution to a level of self-reflexivity that has always been latent in the emergence of the natural world” — an ecological, democratic society for humans and non-humans alike.


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