Ecosophy Reading Group: first meeting

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I signed up to an Ecosophy Reading Group, organised by the same people who delivered the talk I recently attended about the Nottingham Wasteland project. For the first meeting we read two articles: Ecophilosophy, Ecosophy and the Deep Ecology Movement by Alan Drengson, which provides an overview of deep ecology and what deep ecologists believe, and Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement, which is a refutation of deep ecology from a social ecologist called Murray Bookchin.

As far as I understand it (and I don’t pretend to understand it very far), the key difference between deep ecology and social ecology is that deep ecologists believe that population control is necessary to avoid environmental catastrophe. Social ecologists, on the other hand, believe that social problems such as poverty, which are in turn caused by capitalist governments, are a key cause of environmental problems and it is by tackling these issues that we can begin to tackle the environmental issues.

The discussion we had about the two articles was really good and it raises a lot of interesting points that I’ve often thought about myself and also a couple of things I hadn’t thought of. So, here’s 5 interesting things that came up.

1. Ecology, politics and society

The idea that the state of the environment is linked to the actions and policies of governments is an obvious one, but that there is an extra link in the chain – the wider society – is not something I had thought of before. Bookchin argues that by changing the nature of the governing system, we can in turn transform society and the knock on effect of this is a society that will live in harmony with nature because its members live in harmony with one another. I’m not sure any attempt to restructure society in to a nonhierarchical cooperative one will ever be successful, but I think there is something in the idea that our relationship with nature is reflected in the wider state of society.

2. Harmony

The above quote from Bookchin leads me on to my second interesting-point-we-discussed. Someone in our group asked what does ‘harmony’ mean? It’s a good question to ask. What exactly does it mean for humans to live in harmony with nature? Can even hunter-gather societies claim to live in harmony with nature? They have to eat, cloth themselves, build shelters, and that inevitably means some kind of destruction.

What’s more, nature itself is often described as being harmonious, yet it’s a very brutal world in which animals must kill and inevitably be killed. Animals experience cold and hunger and have no concept of harmony. So what does it mean to describe their world as harmonious? I think all too often we view animals and the natural world as being perfectly evolved, but animals make mistakes too and they pay the price.

3. Primitivism

Talking of hunter-gatherers, there is actually a philosophy known as primitivism, which argues that we should return to a hunter-gatherer mode of existence. But, as someone in the group pointed out, that would mean giving up technology and I’m not sure I’d want to do that. It’s something I’ve often wondered about. We live in an age of technology and I wonder if it is really ever possible to reconcile that with living a more ecologically sound lifestyle?

4. Next Nature

Another interesting philosophy that was mentioned is the Next Nature movement, which basically argues that all nature is a human construct. Apparently the movement originated in Holland and was influenced by the fact that Holland is itself completely constructed.

The argument can, of course, go the other way. Perhaps there is no such thing as man made and everything is a part of nature. This is something that Bookchin touches on when he says: the fact that  [human beings] are constituted to act upon nature, to intervene in natural processes, to alter them in one way or another, is no less a product of natural evolution than the action of any life-form on its environment. Perhaps our man made objects and actions are arguably as natural as anything we usually think of as being encompassed by that term – if we haven’t already started to completely doubt whether the word ‘nature’ has meaning (as I have).

5.Ecology and the far-right

I recently came across this interesting Venn diagram, which show a cross over between support for the BNP and support for the Green Party. At the time I thought this cross over was very odd – the BNP are the last party I’d expect to align themselves with the Greens – but one of the articles we read offered an explanation. The reason seems to be that the BNP have marketed themselves as a ‘green’ party. They claim their immigration policy would help preserve British nature because it would prevent more land being used for housing to accommodate an increasing population.

Although the discussion we had was very interesting (I probably could have extended this list to include 10 interesting points) and it was good to force myself into reading something I would never usually read, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole act of theorising about ecology is a little pointless. Ultimately what is needed is action and although I realise that we need to agree on what that action should be, the squabble between deep ecologists and social ecologists doesn’t seem very helpful.

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