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!