Green debate: two radical views

Wednesday, May 20, 1992

Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman
Edited with an introduction by Steve Chase
A Learning Alliance Book from South End Press, Boston, Mass. 1991. 147 pp.
Reviewed by Joanne Dittersdorf

In recent years the radical environmental movement has seen much debate surrounding two very visible and distinct approaches to philosophy and activism. The two are "social ecology", focusing primarily on the social — capitalist and industrial — causes of the world's ecological crisis, and "deep ecology", based on the premise that all forms of life have intrinsic value and that humans have no divinely exalted place in the biosphere.

In November 1989, the Learning Alliance, an alternative education organisation in New York City, brought together two of the most vocal individuals from those feuding branches of radical ecology: social ecology theorist Murray Bookchin and deep ecology activist Dave Foreman. Defending the Earth is largely a transcript of that event, which also featured questions from Paul McIsaac of New York's progressive WBAI radio, on ecology and the left; Linda Davidoff of the Parks Council of New York, on mainstream environmentalism versus radical perspectives; and Jim Haughton of Harlem Fight Back, on racism and building alliances across racial lines.

It also includes essays written by Foreman and Bookchin a year later and some other background information.

Long differences

The two men epitomise the differences between the two sides. Bookchin, closely associated with the Left Greens, is an academic with roots in labour and anarchist politics who has written about ecology issues for many years. Foreman's political roots are closer to right-wing libertarianism. He left the mainstream conservation movement to devote himself to building Earth First!, a radical, direct action wilderness movement. The editor of Eco-Defense; A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, he is now on five years' probation after being convicted of conspiracy after a series of eco-sabotage actions in Arizona abetted by an FBI informant — and allegedly inspired by his book.

At the rift's most acrimonious, social ecologists accuse deep ecologists of being racist rednecks — especially after Foreman told an Australian interviewer in 1986 that the best solution to famine in Ethiopia "would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve" and a pseudonymous article published in the Earth First! journal

in 1987 that said AIDS would help relieve population pressure on the environment.

Deep ecologists, in contrast, have criticised social ecologists as being academics who talk about all kinds of wonderful social engineering from behind a typewriter while others are putting their bodies on the line to protect biological diversity.

"The vast majority of leftists today are still unable to see the natural world as part of the circle of life that deserves direct moral consideration", Foreman said in the debate. Bookchin admits that "the traditional left assumes that the domination of nature is an objective, historical imperative" but expresses a concern that Foreman and other deep ecologists " borrow [from] the left-libertarian tradition while ignoring or downplaying the underlying emancipatory, naturalistic and humanistic logic of the tradition".

In spite of the divisions, the two philosophies are not mutually exclusive. The great irony of the dialogue was that there were no fireworks and little disagreement. It is difficult to imagine that there was such nasty, divisive name calling and feuding going on a short time before.

Common ground

The two seemed to find the most common ground when asked by Davidoff, "Why don't you work within the system more? Why are you so convinced that our society is rotten to the core?" Both criticised capitalism as a source of the problem. Both acknowledged that how you organise defines who you are and that decentralisation is a key factor.

However, Davidoff's use of the defeat of Westway — a highway and development planned on Manhattan's West Side that would have done enormous damage to the Hudson River — as an example that the system can serve environmentalism unfortunately lacked any consciousness of who the system is designed to protect and serve. The affluent Upper West Side has more political clout than poorer areas of the city. Other examples of New Yorkers fighting threats such as the Radiac radioactive waste facility in the mostly Latino and Hasidic Williamsburg section of Brooklyn or the planned genetic engineering laboratory at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem would show that the system does not work equally.

The section on racism finds Foreman wrestling with his past. "I'm a product of this deeply entrenched racist tradition in the United States", he declared. "Like other white environmentalists, it ... affects my politics and organising." He expresses a greater, more complex understanding of the issues of population, immigration and racism, and yet in the end his criticisms of liberal relief

efforts as ineffective Band-Aids stop short of embracing a broader solution that would address the real causes.

In the essays written a year later, Foreman apologises for two of his most offensive past statements: the comments about letting Ethiopians starve (which at the time he justified by saying, "The alternative is that you go in and save these half-dead children who never will live a whole life. Their development will be stunted. And what's going to happen in 10 years' time is that twice as many people will suffer and die.") and another comment in the same 1986 interview that "letting the USA be an overflow valve for problems in Latin America is not solving a thing. It's just putting more pressure on the resources we have in the USA."

"I have been insensitive", he wrote. "For that I humbly apologise." He now feels that he did not clearly say what he meant and that he was wrong about some of it.

He now writes: "We need to acknowledge the many social, cultural and economic causes of the population bomb as well as the biological, and we need to campaign for economic justice and an end to maldistribution of land, food and other necessities of life as well as for the humane and long-term reduction of the human population".

Population issues, one of the key points of contention between the two, were covered in the section on racism but should have been included in a critique of the mainstream environment movement. Carrying capacity, the concept that there is a limit to the population of any single species that can be supported within a biological region, is a crucial issue.

The mainstream environmental movement fails to address the social causes and solutions of population growth. Many mainstream environmentalists often miss the fact that when people have greater control over their lives they also exert a great control over their reproductive activities. Just as importantly, however, social justice movements need to understand that while we must take into account issues of consumption, forced sterilisation and racist, genocidal agendas, we must also understand that carrying capacity is relevant to all communities because it is a factor in the health of the biological community.

Other perspectives

Time has shown that there are many different perspectives within both these philosophies. There are deep ecologists who work against racism in Earth First! and are also activists on social issues such as Central America, and there are direct action activists and organisers among social ecologists, such as those defending the sub-arctic wilderness of James Bay and fighting

genetic engineering.

In the essays written one year later, Bookchin and Foreman still have serious disagreements, but speak with more respect and understanding. Bookchin has moved from a harsh adversarial tone to one of strong encouragement as well as strong criticism. Foreman acknowledges some of the specific systemic causes of the environmental crisis while maintaining his focus on ecological preservation.

Unfortunately, by focusing only on those two men and not including any other voices from within their respective groups, the forum served to reinforce patriarchal roles within movements that are consciously working toward decentralised futures and did little to dispel the perception that they do, in fact, speak for those movements.

Also missing is a discussion of the spiritual aspects of radical environmentalism. Bookchin has criticised the "eco-la-la" aspects of deep ecology, and that could have used some discussion.

However, the book is important because it sheds some light on their common ground. With so much work to do, it seems wasteful to focus so much energy on such battles. And yet it showed that in the end, necessary criticism can provoke change, even in this small way.

With continuing ozone depletion, deforestation and the dramatic die-back of biological diversity, many scientists believe that we have very little time left. Environmentalists need to broaden their understanding of the political causes of the crisis and how to solve it through mutual aid. Social justice activists need to understand the importance of biological diversity and see how desperate the ecological crisis is. Both radical movements need to focus on getting this planet to a point where we can be sure of its healthy future.
[From the US Guardian.]