Friday, February 11, 2011

An Attempt at Social Ecology Praxis

We are assailed by advocate armies of ever-multiplying doctrines, competing for attention, and even more so, adherents - the volume of causes promoted by 7 billion human beings discovering and proclaiming for themselves what holds meaning, what matters. I received a phone call today from a nonprofit foundation asking for $25 which would benefit children with life expectancies between six months to a year in having some decent opportunities for enjoyment in their truncated existence. I am stopped in the street to sign a petition against excessive political campaign spending. I am reported stories of the slum children of India who live in abject poverty on the streets. Stop the injustice! They cry. Within this clamor of competition, I choose to brand myself a social ecologist. Within potentiality for manifested action, I must now choose to advocate for the socially ecological just, wise, and the good (back to the Platonic basics). Wading through many a school of thought dispassionately considered, it flattered me as a well-worn garment tailored to my highly particular body form. A centering connection of disparate realms, an intersection and conceptual house for my concerns, under one totalizing roof. A nexus which acknowledged the braided thread of social organization and an ethic of ecology. This is not a refutation of care for sickly, unfortunately fated children nor an endorsement of seven figure marketing for Senate candidates (oligarchy smuggled in as democracy) nor a dismissal of the suffering people endure when their basic needs go unmet, but a choice of narrowing conscription to make a difference. An attempt to penetrate the complexity of issues to locate the source. Should social ecology be that source, be the answer, if we are to embody it, to unite its theory and praxis, we should no longer have such derivative problems requiring someone to champion their solutions, their alleviation, their reparation.

Social ecology breaks the unhelpful division between the human-made world and the natural world: it brings society into ecology’s fold and ecologizes the social order. Society and Nature are necessarily intertwined, yet our awesomely amazing abstracting powers have created strange contradictions when a total, holistic point-of-view is had. We get caught up utilizing fossil-fuel powered vehicles (planes, trains, automobiles) to save the turtles caught in an oil spill on a remote South American coastal island. The very means by which we try to save is the very cause of their plight. Isolating phenomena and treating them as discrete entities can do more total harm. We are left with iatrogenic complications. Avatar sends a mighty fantastical message, whilst the actual production of the film, the substratum of the realization of its message, is the culprit of flagrant use of resources and therefore habitat destruction, where sympathetic characters are portrayed by our celebrity elite, in which its marketing teams breed all sorts of spin-off material, the litter of Jake Sully dolls and other promotional junk that wind up in the landfills of the world. This is false consciousness: the manifest portrays one reality, the actual material reality involved is its very antithesis. Let’s not assume I have converted my Avatar love here. I continue to love Avatar. But I see that without social ecology, we are doomed to propagate an ecological ethic within a social organization, a way of doing things, which by its very structure undermines our most professed faith in the preservation and nourishment of our home.


Social ecology finds its roots in the radical 60s, its thought originated in and organized by Murray Bookchin, a social philosopher/ libertarian socialist (social anarchist) who wrote and lectured lifelong as an academic and activist. Take any specific cry of environmentalists today, Bookchin I imagine would say, EO Wilson’s call to biodiversity, Gore’s advocacy for climate change, Pollan’s exposé of industrial food - open your eyes to their collective location: our social order: capitalism. Through extension of Marx’s analysis of society, his critique of capital and the system that embodies it, capitalism, we can find Eco-Marxism, where we not only note, as we do traditionally, that capitalism has destructive control of the mode and relations of production (destructive to human liberty), but that it has destructive control over the all-encompassing environment, increasingly invading every corner of social and natural life as it appropriates everything in its grasp to capital. In Avatar it becomes every corner of galactic social and natural life, as the ever-expanding demon literally exhausts the globe. Marx said the natural limits of an economic system would produce collapse when the carrying capacity of its internal mechanics reaches an upper limit. I fear that we extend that upper limit and that we are nowhere closer a revision based on increasing internal contradiction, despite living 150 years after these predictions.

The problem for me as an individual social ecologist is an extending of myself beyond academics, my usual trade, my training, my type. I must turn toward at least the verge of activism, in an effort of really doing something, becoming a theory-praxis unity (in Bookchin’s likening). Although, as we’ve seen analogically in the unity of social ecology, good academics do change the world, and good activists are usually academics, if but informally, at heart. Okay, as if that wasn’t enough of a personal challenge, beyond this change in the use of myself is the more pervasive problem of full immersion. I work from within an already corrupted working space. My life is already infused with the fettered channels of our economic order. I was birthed and raised in it; I am now cloaked in it. Everywhere I turn, I find it. We are back to the realization already mentioned: I am the commercial plane passenger saving the damn turtles. The disadvantage, and for me, emotionally challenging, fact of our position is that we have to discover these untruths as we live them. Currently I am a torn being: I live out the very practices I find fault with, simply because I cannot immediately and instantaneously refashion my entire lived existence. I have found that biking is a reliable form of commuting, indeed it has become apart of me: I am a cyclist. Yet I haven’t quite figured out how to get groceries home on my bike, nor how to navigate certain weather conditions, like heavy snow and ice, on a bicycle. So I use the convenience of my car on these challenging days. I realized this challenge when a critic asked me, “Do you think you’re really changing the world by using that reusable coffee mug when you want coffee?” I stood there with my stupid little mug and thought of the irony and self-contradictions of which I am apart: the plastic bags of tortilla chips I fill my reusable canvas tote bags with. Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The way we produce and how we consume is permeated by a waste cycle. I ask of everything now, can I continue using this? Can I morally continue eating these tortilla chips? This week, in an effort of resolve, I purchased chips from a company who used brown paper bags (with a tiny sliver of plastic, of course, to see the contents within) as their packaging. I felt good for a second, but of course I know I am not saving the world with my brown bag tortilla chips. As I attempt zero waste I have to reconceive of how I do everything. And I thought, at the beginning of this declared project (January), that it would involve becoming just a more conscious shopper. Small efforts are wrangled within a system designed for waste. Zero waste requires a self-overcoming of a lifestyle I am embedded in. As an American, I am waste. Parts of the rest of the world see my true colors. Ha, they say in remaining village life, an American of zero waste!

11 comments:

Ben said...

Great blog posting! As for charity - I live by the motto that charity begins at home. Right now my own country (USA) is in bad shape and I prefer to help my own countrymen and kindred out.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

The barrage of so-called charity. The approach is simple, when there is a problem, throw money at it. This is the essential message and approach to most of the world's major problems, yet it comes out in one form or another. Haiti, donate on your iPhone; 9/11, go shopping; 2002, your house is your bank; and 2008, bailout. Money allows those that might otherwise be socially active to be passive. And it is not disconcerting that they are not doing something (flying to Haiti, etc.) but that they are not thinking something. While throwing money at a problem (one is reminded here of Borat throwing money at the Jews so that they will go away) may in fact be a legitimate solution and an act in and of itself (for don't forget money is congealed human labor power), it has taken the position of the only act. Just as science has come to mean intellect, money has come to mean action. Can we blame them? What social action is there left for us to do? Walk around the streets of our fair city handing out leaflets that are destined for garbage bins; collect signatures of the mildly interested and the timid; hang posters in your local bar; ask for donations. When compared with these options, throwing money at a problem does seem to have some merit, for at least it has the possibility of working. Social ecology, as you understand it, requires more. Not necessarily more action, but more thought. When thinking through the theory and praxis distinction, we always give more weight to praxis. However, the theoria(seeing) of the problem is just as necessary. Praxis without theoria is blind, theoria without praxis is empty. Hence the modern situation. So many empty phrases and empty attempts to change the world, and so many misguided actions. The alienation of seeing from doing is staggering.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

One such empty attempt is found in Avatar. It is not the films external qualities (the way it was produced, the great waste that the movie industry produces, etc.), for this is the cost of making a movie today. It would be the same as condemning Marx for publishing a book instead of handing out leaflets. No this is much deeper. Avatar's redeeming quality is that it attempt to have us see something, that is, it attempts to provide a theoria that will lead to praxis. It captures something that many Marxist/activist attempts are missing, the power of the cinema especially when embedded in an epic story. However, its down side is that the theoria is crooked. It does not understand itself. There is much in Zizek's article that I find agreeable, but do not wish to mention here. However, while it may successfully point to the "horrors" of the technological suffusion of our existence, it fails to approach this critically. Here we have the classic dichotomy of the evil empire and the good natural natives. It is Return of the Jedi without the awesomeness. The presents the natives' relationship with nature as one of deep spiritual connection and feeling. Problem number one is that the mystification of nature as a sacred/religious object and technology as everything cold. It calls to mind a well-worn idea that the West has lost its sacredness with the advent of modern technology and presents the natves as non-alienated and in harmony with a sacred spirit which is ecological. The problem with this is manifold in that this world does not exist, man has not lost his soul to the technological, and the natives become nothing more than a fantasy for the West of regaining its spiritual foundation. There does not exist a place which is not infused with technology (techne logos captures this quite well, no?). The theoria is exposing an empty praxis. What is more important to recognize is that the technological is imbued with the flesh of the sacred. The native, therefore, exposes a fundamental expression of our alienation. That we seek in fantasy to exist in a world that is "untouched" and "pure" that has no need for fuel and that exists off of the given. This is what is fundamentally behind most ecological activity, a harkening back to a time which never existed. Hence America's fascination with our own native population. It is ironic that the very thing which can offer true praxis, the ecological, can only offer an alienated theoria, thus alienating all praxis.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

Now we turn to Mr. Bookchin. Other than being a titan in his age for social reform, he did truly work his entire life as his own man. Where many ecologists turn toward the past as a formulation of pure nature and man, Mr. Bookchin understood that the ecological is the social. We cannot disentangle the two, and thus must work socially to benefit ecologically and ecologically to benefit socially. This is a great step forward and circumvents so much garbage of the likes of Silent Spring. What is striking about the difference between Silent Spring and the assorted announcements of Mr. Bookchin is that SS is a bourgeois attempt at ecology, whereas Mr. Bookchin is a revolutionary. I feel that Mr. Bookchin would not be entirely adverse to the statements made above about Avatar. However, his Libertarianism is a destructive concept. Direct democracy is primitive anarchism. His insistence upon Enlightenment ideals and the rational spirit only show how much he moved away from his Marxist roots and how he left the realm of economic understanding to political obfuscation. Free election and direct democracy will not produce a rational society and it side steps the real problem, alienated labor. Eco-Marxism echoes the vile and putrid stench that hangs stalely in the air of the movie theater after viewing Al Gore's The Day After Tomorrow. It has come to this: apocalyptic visions and false polemics from the man the benefited most from the very structure he rails against. The Eco- of Eco-Marxism is a hijacking of Marxism and a false polemics. If Marxism is to be understood at all, it is to be understood as a totality and the Eco of Eco-Marxism ought to fold within the borders of Marxism. Why this insistence on placing the prefix? In order to pursue primarily ecological aims and cloaking it as having a socio-political foundation beyond itself. It is false polemics because it assumes that Marxism does not possess the ecological and that the ecological can place itself on an equal footing with Marx as a complimentary but rival notion. Such rivalry does not exist, but dialectical materialism is the totality. Why? Because dialectical materialism is a revolutionary ontology, and not a specific issue of that ontology. It is a view which encompasses the all, and a method of theoria and praxis. It is not a projective single issue topic that lays down specific oughts, instead it proclaims, critically, specific existences and orders them from hope.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

The activities of individuals to attempt to do their part, however small, is in fact a good thing. It is not necessarily the effectiveness of the act that makes the act good. And I am not going to go into some bullshit about the deontological ethics of the brown chip bag. All around us young people are compelled to action. These actions manifest themselves in different arenas and in differing intensities. However, the compulsion to action is itself valuable. It reveals the theoria of the new generation; the need to do speaks of an ability to see. The ability to see, unfortunately, can only see the problem, the question, and the general buzz that encircles it. We do not see what to do. Thus this impulsion to action, this angst, comes from the disjunct between theoria and praxis. The girl that rides her back all across New York City, almost getting killed in the process; the guy that joins peace corp.; the pseudo-bourgeois woman who gives ten dollars to Haitian hurricane victims; and the sociologist that teaches about the ills of capitalism all represent the angst felt by this disjunct. When I see photos of the Nazis marching I get a sense of sickening hope. The angst was felt and utilized on a mass scale. People did something; they were moved by hope. The Nazis taught us many horrifying lessons, and I am not advocating for them. But they also taught us that mass movement is possible, that people will perform extraordinary feats to fulfill the dream of the future, and they will do it en masse. I applaud your actions, your coming to consciousness. The angst is spreading.

Eric said...

"So great is the dignity and excellency of humane nature, and so active those sparks of heavenly fire it partakes of, that they ought to be look'd upon as very mean, and unworthy the name of men, who thro' pusillanimity, by them call'd prudence, or thro' sloth, which they stile moderation, or else through avarice, to which they give the name of frugality, at any rate withdraw themselves from performing great and noble actions."
—GIOVANNI FRANCESCO GEMELLI CARERI, A Voyage Round the World

Ben said...

It amazes me how modern English has digressed from it's more eloquent past where people had a wider grasp of words and their meanings than we do. It may not seem like it but we're in a state of retrograde and have been for quite some time.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

Ben---

The written texts that come from the past are written only by the educated. The modern era is astounding because for the fist time in history (in the West) the majority of the population can both read and write. Most people today utilize a skill that was scarce in the past, the ability to record, through writing, their expressivity. If the modern era appears to be vulgar and crass, it is only because the modern era allows those elements of society that are vulgar and crass to express themselves. The peasants of Shakespeare's time, the working class of Proust's were no where near as elegant as even these authors make them appear. Instead of despairing, we should rejoice in the light of the modern era. The linguistic retrograde that you speak of is a fiction and what is more it is not even a comforting fiction. Education has transformed writing. We can bemoan the fact that we are vulgar or we can rejoice in the knowledge that we were always vulgar...but now we can write it!!!

Ben said...

That was very well stated. Thank you. You live and you learn. I just hope that society doesn't digress back to the days where illiteracy was the norm. With all the cuts taking place in the education sector I fear that might become a reality in the not too distant future. Over a hundred thousand teachers are about to be cut here in Texas as we soon approach what might one day be termed the "greatest" depression ever.

Надежда Αντιγονη said...

Too true. Here in New York they are cutting teachers as well. And the risk of illiteracy, especially functional illiteracy (I can read the Dunkin' Donuts sign, but not much else). The depression, it only gets worse from here.

Cheers!

Ben said...

Said and true. I fear you're right. We're gonna decline into a world of illiterate morons.

:(