Environmental Crisis and the perspective of Social Ecology

Zarina Glaveva interviews author and activist Yavor Tarinski for the Bulgarian student radio ”Reakcia”.


Zarina Glaveva: What means Social Ecology?

Yavor Tarinski: Social ecology is a theory according to which the current ecological crisis is a direct consequence of social relations and the way we have structured our society. It advances the idea that if we are to put an end to the environmental degradation, we will have to restructure our societies along ecological lines. According to this theory, ecology is a deeply political matter to which we have to respond in a direct-democratic manner. I.e. the people must regain their power on grassroots level, to be able to directly control their cities and to attempt collectively to change their way of life and to abolish the practices that are the source of the greatest environmental damage.

On the other hand, the mainstream environmentalism around the world strives to spread the idea that in order to deal with the crisis, we have to change our personal lifestyles. In this way it tries to shift the blame to the common person, be it in Bulgaria, the US or elsewhere. Of course, the way we live is exclusively irresponsible. But there is a crucial issue that is being overlooked by this tendency: our very civilization has been built on the idea of mindless consumption. The needs we take for granted, which are pseudo-needs (like constantly replacing our mobile phones or getting new cars), are actually a product of whole industries whose sole task is to create consumerist culture based on replacement. What is being produced is initially intended for replacement and not for long-term use.

This is not a new thing. As in the conditions of neoliberal capitalism in which we live today, and which is the most extreme form of this wastefulness, we also saw in the past, during the actually existing socialism in Bulgaria and the Eastern Bloc, that industries were still dirty and non-environmentally minded. According to the founder of the social ecologist school of thought Murray Bookchin, a great philosopher, the reason for our destructive attitude towards nature has deep roots that can be traced back to ancient times. With the replacement of the so called “miterocentric” societies, based on feminine and egalitarian values, by patriarchal ones, based on domination and strength, were placed the foundations of a culture which with the time led to an exploitative attitude towards the environment. Thus, as Bookchin says, the exploitation of nature by human beings is made possible by the exploitation of one human being by another, and vice versa. He concludes that if it is to put an end to the exploitation of nature, we must first put an end to the exploitation of human beings.

What this implies is the creation of a culture of stewardship. In other words, humans finding a comfortable place for themselves within the fragile climatic and planetary conditions, which make life possible as we know it. To understand that he is dependent on nature and to interact with it in a responsible and regenerative manner. This is not a call to primitivism. We can still use technology. We must not give up on it, but to redirect it towards such a direction, which to make possible the symbiotic coexistence between humans and the complex interconnected ecosystems that cover the planet.

There are many groups, initiatives and communities around the world that think in this direction. One example can be found in Northern Syria/Rojava where the Kurdish liberation movement has established an autonomous democratic project. There, in parallel with the ongoing experiments with direct democracy, new ecological innovations are emerging. One of their campaigns is called “Make Rojava Green Again”, through which they attempt to gradually reduce their dependence on petrol and create more ecologically sustainable communities.

ZG: But is it possible to achieve something like this without economic growth and technological innovations, which to actually help the transition towards renewable energy and other similar technologies?

YT: There is no relation between economic growth and the creation of new technologies. Let’s take David Graeber’s book Utopia of Rules. There he speaks about the capitalist (and socialist as well) societies based on unlimited economic growth, and how they dwell into technologies that imitate reality. This is evident even from pop culture: we see the stark difference of how in the 60ies people imagined the technological development of our time and our current reality. Instead nowadays we have focused on technological imitations of reality like screens, instead of striving at actual innovations. So it is important to make the distinction between technological development and economic growth.

What the growth paradigm actually strives at is to integrate as many commons as possible into the current economy and to make the life outside of it impossible. We can clearly see this in the struggles of the indigenous people around the world. Either in capitalist countries or in socialist ones like those in South America, growth requires from the ruling elites the commodification of rivers, forests and other resources. This places them in direct confrontation with indigenous communities , which live sustainable lives beyond the nation-state and the market. The way of life of the latter makes them the first obstacle to the realization of economic growth.

Again I do not advocate a retreat to such lifestyles. But we can learn a lot from the indigenous sustainable and stewardish ways. They not only use, in a regenerational manner, the natural resources that surround them, but they also manage them as commons. I.e. they institute, on communal level, certain rules and laws, which to regulate the usage of common resources. In this regard I’ll only mention Elinor Östrom – the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. In her award winning research she observed communities in Latin America, Nepal and many other places, which sustainable manage their common resources through regulations, created in public assemblies. Östrom’s work refuted Garret Hardin’s thesis on the tragedy of the commons. She saw firsthand, how such communities successfully lived in this traditional ways for centuries, without depleting their common-pool resources.

ZG: But what about overpopulation?

YT: This is a Malthusian argument, which is deeply racist. Thomas Malthus was an 18th century English cleric, who argued that the increase of population automatically means depletion of resources. In other words, he placed the problem of scarcity on the people as such, disregarding the dominant systemic characteristics of society. But the reality is much different. According to the Hampton Institute, today there are 7.7 billion people living on Earth while we produce enough food to satisfy the needs of 10 billion people. Thus we have a profit & distribution problem (capitalism), and not a population one. Furthermore, there is even a bigger problem – who determines our needs. Who decides that we should produce stuff that is meant to be replaced, instead of renewed or upgraded?

To tackle this problem it is not enough the state to introduce some laws, forbidding this or that, because people will find ways to overpass them. The cultural environment within which we live is extremely barbarous. People are taught to think along the line of short-term profit, and this very logic is the basis on which we are currently destroying the planet.

Simultaneously, according to researchers, local communities are against pollution, or at least against it taking place in their “back yard”. And for me there is a possible key: the real democratization of society, with power being equally distributed among all people, and not concentrated in the hands of national governments or transnational technocratic institutions. In this way people will have to find ways to go on with their lives without polluting, and thus not putting in danger themselves and those they care about. Andrew Flood has written, back in 1995, that in a society where we democratically control production we will decide not to pollute, or to limit pollution to a level that can be absorbed. This might seem as exaggeration, but it is an argument in the right direction, because as long as decisions concerning the environment are being taken behind closed doors, in luxurious resorts, by people that have the wealth and power to shelter themselves from natural disasters, we cannot hope for real solution to the ecological crisis.

ZG: So what must be done?

YT: We need to democratize. And here comes to mind the book „Beyond Environmentalism: Political Ecology by the important social ecologist Dimitrios Roussopoulos, in which he develops coherent critique on mainstream environmentalism, with all its petitioning and dependence on state institutions and international treaties. He demonstrates how until today hundreds of such agreements have been signed with little to no real effect. There is a lot of empty talk with no action. Instead we saw that when Donald Trump announced his plans to strengthen anti-ecological industries, it was no such treats that stood in his way, but the thousands of social activists that took to the streets, as well as many municipalities.

Thus the overcoming of the ecological crisis necessarily goes through the struggle for the right to the city, the fight of citizens to take direct control of their communities. The cities are the main actor of the future: they are the main economic knots, as well as increasingly important political players. But alsо they are the place where most of us live, and from where we can begin building one direct democratic project, based on equality and ecology. In this way we can create a culture and an anthropological type that is much more responsible. And responsibility is what we need, but is missing today, because the nation-states and capitalist markets teach irresponsibility through the dis-empowerment of common people.  So nowadays we have irresponsible anthropological type which is concerned with its narrow, private interest, without realizing the implications, which the environmental degradation will have on him and the rest of society.

Source: Вредна емисия

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