A look at how social ecologists picture the ideal society.

by Kenn Kassman 

Social Ecologist theory maintains that only through the creation of a just and participatory society can a healthy and benign relationship to the natural world be developed.[1] Presupposing that the domination of humans by humans preceded the domination of nature by humans, {mosgoogle}the Social Ecologist future is structured to eliminate all hierarchy and delegitimate all forms of discrimination. Every person is viewed as valuable to the community and worthy of community respect and mutual support. Social Ecologists argue that harmony can then be applied to ecological relationships.[2] Political Change Strategies

Using Isaak's (1987) analysis of political change strategies, one can identify two major praxis orientations (putting theory into action) within Social Ecology.[3] The first praxis orientation can be categorized as the radical approach since it calls for total systemic change. The radical approach primarily utilizes strategies typical of nonviolent oppositional politics. The second praxis orientation can be called the reformist approach. The reformist approach agrees that major changes in the system are needed but concentrates upon the gradual Greening of society through participation within the dominant systems of power.[4] The goal of both the reformist and the radical praxis approaches is the integration of nature and what Social Ecologists call "natural precept" into the realm of human being.[5] Examples of these precepts include diversity, cooperation, and freedom. Social Ecologists posit that by utilizing these precepts of nature as a blueprint for human design, their visions of utopia can be realized.

The primary praxis strategy of Social Ecologists who adopt the radical approach is the creation of institutions and participation in activities outside of the dominant political system.[6] The theory behind this strategy is based upon the concept of dual revolutionary power, where counterinstitutions are organized to compete with and offer alternatives to official political institutions, economic systems, and cultural traditions. To accomplish this, Social Ecologist praxis stresses inclusiveness, communicative action, and structures with power residing at the lowest possible level.[7]

In the economic realm, Social Ecologist praxis strategies include attempts to break the stranglehold of corporations on small communities and their workers by establishing nonprofit community-managed and community-owned food and merchandise cooperatives. These are viewed as a transition stage leading to a total economy of workplace democracies owned and managed by workers.[8] Social Ecologists have also attempted to reduce their dependence upon the federal monetary system by establishing barter networks called Local Exchange Trading Systems.[9] To reduce the power of those seeking only profit from small communities, some Social Ecologists have organized community land trusts where local people buy and then manage land and businesses for the good of the entire community . The eventual goal of these economic praxis strategies is not only freedom from the dominant economic system but the development of a consciousness of community citizenship and mutual obligation. This municipalization of the local economy is seen as a means to politicize the economic realm and dissolve it into the civic domain (Bookchin 1986).

Radical Social Ecologist praxis in the political realm has the goal of citizen empowerment. It attempts to do away with professional politicians and to redemocratize government in the spirit of Athenian democracy and New England town hall meetings. Radical Social Ecologist praxis strategies encourage the creation of neighborhood assemblies and alternative citizen legislatures to push agendas from the grassroots . Bookchin advocates that these alternative community-based institutions form confederations and begin to challenge the powers and functions of the present governmental system.[10] Ernest Callenbach has gone so far as to outline a general strategy for these small, politically empowered communities to use as a guide to disassociate from the United States.[11]

Self-Sufficient Communities

Active attempts by radical Social Ecologists to integrate the natural world into alternative communities include Bill Mollison's attempts at self-sufficient communities practicing "permanent agriculture" . Mollison has designed eco-villages of 30 to 200 houses with the goal of being totally independent of outside support. Peter Berg and the Planet Drum Foundation , John Todd and Nancy Todd of the New Alchemy Institute, and Ira Rohter of the University of Hawaii Department of Political Science have designed similar projects for the cities of San Francisco and New York and the state of Hawaii, respectively. These proposals include a breakdown of traditional city/nature barriers, with miles of fish-laden aqueducts and streams, sidewalk edible gardening, and the reintroduction of wild animals. While the most radical of their ideas have not been realized, these Green City programs have inspired numerous reformist changes and served to network important civic organizations around common goals.[12] Cultural traditions are also actively challenged by radical Social Ecology. Within Social Ecologist organizations, dominantly accepted and semiaccepted cultural beliefs such as racism, ageism, patriarchy, and heterosexuality have been challenged by the formation of the Green Justice Caucus, the Youth Green Network, the Women's Leadership Network, and the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Caucus. These radical networks seek to break the hierarchical grip on power they see being held by old, wealthy, white men by ensuring that alternative voices (and votes) are heard on all deliberations. Other Green groups, such as the Hawaii Green Movement, have institutionalized gender-balanced leadership roles from their inception and actively seek out people of color in order to break the grip of traditionally dominant elites .

Reformist Strategies

The second praxis orientation that Social Ecologists follow in their attempt to restructure society is reformist in that it advocates active participation in the dominant institutions of society in an attempt to subvert from within. The most obvious of these attempts is the formation of Green political parties organized to run candidates for political office.[13] A less obvious but more traditional method of electoral participation is for Greens to run as Green Democrats and Green Republicans.[14] Participating in public hearings, referendum drives, and lobbying are other ways reformist Greens work within the political system.[15] Outside of the electoral arena, Green reformists operate in large governmental bureaucracies and educational institutions attempting to Green these institutions from the inside out.[16] In the economic realm, Green reformists have set up Green Investment Funds, Green Banks, and Green Credit Unions advocating socially responsible investing.[17] The advocacy of socially responsible investing is typified by Greens in Portland, Oregon, who have started a community investment fund to sponsor a mixed-income cohousing community and a transitional house for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Reform-minded Greens have also set up businesses and manufacturing companies touting everything from mechanisms to improve automobile gas mileage to Green disposable diapers. Slickly printed corporate magazines appealing to Green readers have also proliferated: Garbage, Buzzworm, and In Business, the Magazine for Green Entrepreneurs. On the high-tech front, Green computer networks and bulletin boards are readily accessible, and a Green television network has begun organizing in Chicago.

On the cultural integration front, reformist Social Ecologists try to combine public awareness, community rebuilding, and personal empowerment in their attempts to combat racism, sexism, and hierarchy. Examples include local Green groups nationwide who helped to organize and participated in Detroit Summer, a project that brought together activists from across the nation with people from "the Hood" in order to help rehabilitate one of America's most devastated inner cities. Syracuse Greens undertook a similar project, linking inner-city solidarity with ecology to highlight the problem of violence against children. The Demmy Project, in Syracuse, now plants a tree every time a child is killed in the community.

Other attempts to make human space more ecological include solar-power education and composting demonstrations, inner-city and rooftop gardening projects, the transformation of parking lots into parks, and the implementation of recycling programs. John and Nancy Todd have designed solar-powered bioshelters that feature greenhouses and aquaculture and are designed to be as self-sufficient as possible in energy and food. With ecological designs like the Todds' bioshelters readily available, people can choose the option to join the dominant economic system or, to a large extent, "opt out." Murray Bookchin is also helping people choose a more reformist path to social change. Bookchin has created a master of arts degree in Social Ecology in affiliation with Goddard College. At his Institute for Social Ecology, students learn the design, construction, and maintenance of eco-technologies such as windmills and solar collectors. Over two thousand students have participated in seminars granting college credit at the Institute.

In regards to community building and community economics, each of the three subcultures of the American Green movement participates in traditional political change activities. Each subculture also concentrates on changing political and cultural consciousness in its own unique way. Neo-Primitivism emphasizes active ecological resistance—both overt and covert. Mystical Deep Ecology stresses the creation of new ways of thinking. Its praxis is oriented toward worldview creation and the development of ecological intuition. Social Ecology encourages methods often used by social change activists, from reformism to the building of alternative institutions countering and replacing the functions performed by present power holders. It is thus Social Ecology that is the most concerned with the economic realm.


  1. The Social Ecologist sees human beings as nature, but a very special manifestation of nature. As nature rendered self-conscious, the Social Ecologist believes humans have the utopian potential to rationally intervene in the ecosystem to direct evolution in an intentional, examined, and beneficial way (Murray Bookchin Remaking Society [New York: Black Rose Books, 1989], 203-4).

  2. Social Ecology argues that the synthesis of social freedom and complementarity with nature found in Social Ecology will lead to a new ecological instrumentalism that would transcend the present consciousness of environmental domination to bring human consciousness to the service of both humans and nature (Janet Biehl, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics [Boston: South End Press, 1991], 126-27).

  3. Alan Isaak's An Introduction to Politics (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1987, 287-91) discusses social change categories in detail. Also see Samuel Huntington's Political Order in a Changing Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968) for an overview of political and social change categorization.

  4. Green radicals often disagree with Green reformism, accusing reformationists of co-optation and activity that soothes one's conscience more than it changes society. Green reformists respond that Green radicalism is unrealistic and unnescessarily adversarial. For active discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of Green radicalism versus reform, see John Resenbrink's The Greens and the Politics of Transformation (San Pedro, CA: R & E Miles, 1992); Jay Walljasper's "Can Green Politics Take Root in the US?" (Utne Reader, [September/October 1989]: 142-43); and various authors under the broad topic title, "shades of Green" (Utne Reader, [July/August 1990]: 50-63).

  5. Social Ecology believes that the new sciences of evolutionary biology, quantum physics, and ecology offer a "more true" view of the world than traditional science because these new sciences tend to posit nature as a balanced system stressing interconnectedness, participation, and process. See Fritjov Capra, The Turning Point (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 75-97; Nancy Todd and John Todd, Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1984), 9 and 14-18; and Chris Maser, The Redesigned Forest (San Pedro, CA: R & E Miles, 1988) for overviews. Social Ecologists translate the characteristics of the new sciences into ecological precepts, which they then use as guides for the political restructuring of modern society.

  6. Existing institutions are viewed as unwilling and unable to institute the fundamental changes that radical Social Ecologists seek. See Youth Green Caucus, May 1989 Gathering Summary (pages 7-9), for the rationale behind this view.

  7. See Biehl (1991, 150-157) for one Social Ecologists view of an ideal structure for what she calls "a new political realm."

  8. See Ira Rohter, A Green Hawai'i, (Honolulu: Na Kane O Ka Malo Press, 1992), 107-21, for an in-depth discussion of Green co-ops and workplace democracies. Tokar's The Green Alternative (San Pedro, CA: R and E Miles, 1987), 108-12, offers good historical background and additional contemporary case studies.

  9. See Michael Linton and Thomas Greco, "LETS: The Local Exchange Trading System," in Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant and Eleanor Wright (1990), 155-58 for an overview of how these systems work. In the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, people affiliated with the E.F. Schumacher Society have gone so far as to establish a local currency based upon the value of a cord of firewood in order to remove themselves from the federal economic system and promote community. See Tokar (1987, 110).

  10. Murray Bookchin, "Municipal Libertarianism," in Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright (1990), 145-46. For a critique of this proposal, see Mike Muench, "Some Politics for a Green Party," Green Synthesis, no. 36 (August 1992), 9-11.

  11. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia Emerging (1989) begins with small communities issuing declarations of independence, citing local authority and laws as having legal force above federal and state laws. The county of Hawaii tried a version of this, through a citizen-sponsored official initiative, declaring itself a nuclear-free zone. The United States government promptly sent a warship suspected of carrying nuclear weapons into Hilo Harbor to show the locals who's boss. The leading advocate of the nuclear-free initiative, Jim Albertini, jumped into the harbor to protest the ship's arrival. He spent three minutes swimming in the harbor, was arrested, and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison 1,500 miles from his home. This example illustrates the difficulties local activists will face in actualizing Callenbach's scenario.

  12. One hundred and thirty-five citizen groups have endorsed the New York Green City Program (Andruss et al. 1990, 105). One hundred and fifty groups in San Francisco participated in the creation of a Green city program for San Francisco Bay area cities and towns (Peter Berg, Beth Magilavy and Seth Zuckerman, A Green City Program for San Francisco Bay Area Cities and Towns [San Francisco: Planet Books, 1989]).

  13. Eighty-five Green candidates from thirteen states ran in the November 1992 elections; 13 of them won, making a total of 58 elected Greens in local and county positions throughout the United States (Chris Seymour, "Third Party Organizing," Z Magazine [November 1992]: 51; and Jodean Marks, "Proposal for a Green Electoral Politics Conference," The Greens Bulletin [December 1992]: 57).

  14. In a survey of Green-oriented legislation introduced into the U.S. Congress, Carol Grunewald Rifkin came to the conclusion that 10 U.S. Senators and 39 Representatives could be considered "unofficial or proto-Greens." Leading the list was the vice-president, Al Gore. Of these 49 legislators, only 2 Republicans made the list. See Rifkin's "The Greening of Capital Hill" (Utne Reader no. 53 [September/October 1992]: 99).

  15. See "Local Green Updates," Green Politics 2, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 3-4), for current examples by local Green groups. Also see Seth Zuckerman, "A Grassroots Rebellion Revamps Environmentalism" (Utne Reader no. 21 [May/June 1987]: 76-79), for a good discussion of the pitfalls and successes of these approaches.

  16. One of the best examples of ecological reformists working inside a government organization is the dissident Forest Service employees who publish Inner Voice. These employees call themselves The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and demand radical change in Forest Service policies and procedures. At the University of Hawai'i there were more than one dozen Green activists teaching at the major campuses and community colleges when I taught there in the late eighties and early nineties.

  17. See Susan Meeker-Lowry, "Breaking Free: Building Bioregional Economies," in Turtle Talk, ed. Plant and Plant (Philadelphia: New Society, 1990), 114-123. Rohter (1992, 414, n. 53) maintains that socially responsible investing reached $625 billion in 1990.

This article appeared in New Renaissance,Volume 7, Number 4. Copyright © 1998 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.Posted on the web on 5 April, 1998.