Murray Bookchin: the concept of social ecology

This is part of a chapter by chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

chapter one: the concept of social ecology.

The Ecology of Freedom begins with an account of Norse mythology and how the Vikings saw the world’s precarious balance.  There was Asgaard, the celestial domain of the gods above; Midgard, where human beings lived on the earth; and Niffleheim, the dark, icy domain of giants, dwarves and the dead.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_These domains were linked by the great World Tree, which was sustained by a magic fountain that infused it continually with life.  Odin, the god of wisdom, and his mighty son Thor kept the great wolf Fenris, and the great serpent of Midgard and the hostile giants at bay.   They enforced the keeping of oaths and treaties and invited the bravest of warriors to dine with them in Valhalla.

Odin attained wisdom from drinking of the waters of the World Tree, but the price he had to pay was the sacrifice of an eye.  So his wisdom was a one-eyed wisdom, like that of modern science, which reveals the scientific laws that govern the world, but blinds us to the uniqueness of each individual thing, especially living things.

Order began to break down when the gods tortured the witch Gullveig, the maker of gold, to make her reveal her secrets.  Corruption, treachery and greed began to rule the world.  Warriors sought gold and forgot their blood oaths.

The end will be Ragnarok, a war in which the giants, Fenris the wold and the great serpent will destroy humanity and the gods and make the universe a void of cold and darkness.

In one version, that is the end.  In another, gods and humans will regenerate, learn from their mistakes and live in joy.

Modern scientific knowledge, according to Bookchin, gives us the possibilities both of Ragnarok or a world of joy.  It depends on whether we have a one-eyed or a two-eyed wisdom.


For Bookchin, the source of two-eyed wisdom is something that he calls social ecology—a blend of sociology, history and ecology that studies the human world and the non-human natural world as if they were parts of the same thing.

Human beings are part of nature, Bookchin wrote, but it is a mistake to blindly impose human concepts on non-human nature or vice versa.  There is no “king of beasts.”  The queen in a beehive or anthill is not the ruler of the hive, but merely the means by which the hives reproduce themselves.  Chimpanzees can be dominant or submissive, more so than other apes, but they don’t have anything resembling a human society.

He likewise criticized a woolly-minded nature mysticism, which substituted vague concepts such as “life force,” “Giaia” or “holism” for a precise observation of nature.   Humanity is not something that is over and above nature, but neither is nature something over and above humanity.

In a way, human beings are nature’s way of understanding itself.  If you think of things this way, all the “problems of knowledge” of philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Kant go away, Bookchin wrote, because they assume an absolute separation between your mind and the world you are trying to understand.  The reality is that you are part of that world and are trying to function within it.


The important thing about the non-human natural world, he wrote, is that it has no hierarchy.  In the cycles of nature, there is no point of entry or control, except the dependence of the system upon the energy of the sun.

Nobody is in charge, yet it functions well as a whole.  It has a history of adaptation to continuous change.  It has a history of increasing diversity and complexity, which makes it better and better able to adapt to change.

Human evolution, like non-human evolution, is in the direction of increasing complexity and diversity.  Both natural ecology and the social ecology suffer when powerful individuals and groups attempt to simplify them.

Bookchin spoke of the burst of creativity and popular political movements that arose in Russia after the abdication of the Czar, and how all this was suppressed by the Bolsheviks who insisted that all human activity be governed by their theory.

I was reminded of James C. Scott’s account of scientific forestry in Seeing Like a StateThe 19th century foresters cut down and rooted out all the tangled trees and undergrowth in the natural forest, and replaced them with useful tree species, planted in rows.

The scientific forest produced a high output for a while, until the trees started to die for lack of vital nutrients that the natural forest provided.  It is an example of what W. Edwards Deming called “tampering”—altering a system you don’t understand.

Today’s surface mining, single-crop chemical agriculture and clear-cutting of forests shows even less concern for the human and natural ecology.


PREVIOUS: Introduction.

NEXT: chapter two: the outlook of organic society.



The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

What is social ecology? by Murray Bookchin (1993)

Society and Ecology by Murray Bookchin (2009)

Learning from the Life of Murray Bookchin by Eirik Eiglad for ROAR magazine.

Social Ecology by the Green Fuse.


Minor revisions and additions made 4/22/2016


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2 Responses to “Murray Bookchin: the concept of social ecology”

  1. tiffany267 Says:

    I think this focus on hierarchy probably explains why so many feminists are interested in issues surrounding the earth and ecology ( The notion of dominance over earth and dominance over other humans seem to be intertwined in behaviors associated with toxic masculinity.


  2. dmf Says:

    Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations .


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