When the Geneva-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that "the sweet voice of nature is no longer an infallible guide for us" he was referring to a time when the civilised world was about to embrace a new alchemical age. It was the beginning of an era that would bring us to where we are today – living in a civilised, human-built environment that is based on our ability to play the role of Gods using the natural resources of the planet – iron, salt, water, oil, plants and trees – combining them with natural elements to make electricity and petrol, engines and tools, medicines and plastics, computers and televisions, microchips and transistors, furniture and paper, and many other items we now take for granted. Rousseau, who added that the independence we have received from nature is not "a desirable state", would not, in his wildest dreams, be able to imagine the world we live in today or the precarious relationship we now share with the planet's species and its dwindling resources. By the time of his death, at Ermenonville in July 1778, his native Swiss were destroying their natural environment by stripping the mountains of their tree cover, so much that today avalanches, floods, landslides and rock falls are a serious threat, despite an equally serious attempt to erect defences.
The Valais canton, in south-west Switzerland, was devastated by floods in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2000. The storms of October 2000 brought an earthflow of immense proportions into the Rhone valley, laying waste the carefully constructed human-built infrastructure. In Gondo 13 people were killed when the earthflow burst through a barrier that was insufficient to withstand the pressure. Flooding is now costing between one and two billion Swiss francs a year.
Despite this threat from nature in its fury the human-built environment continues to expand with 40 billion Swiss francs (€25.7 billion) spent each year by the federal government on the country's infrastructure. In 1998 the Swiss people voted to spend 31.6 billion Swiss francs (€20.3 billion) on two base tunnels through the Alps. One of these, the 34.6 kilometre Lötschberg base tunnel between Raron in the Valais and Frutigen in the Berner Oberland, started construction amidst the chaos of 1999 and 2000, workers beginning to blast and drill out 16 million tonnes of rock.
Nowhere on this planet is the social relationship between the civilised, human-built environment and the natural, ecological world better defined than in Switzerland, where nature in its fury frequently destroys what humanity has built, with blood, sweat and tears, and where the ecological balance is a constant concern to every Swiss person. Suddenly the sense of place that has always existed among the Swiss has become an emotional issue among its people. Heimat, the German word that describes identity, place and belonging, has taken on a social and ecological significance among the Swiss that is slowly becoming apparent – and which Rousseau might have approved of. When Rousseau was advocating a social contract between the individual and society, Europe was attempting to drag itself out from an era of barbarity that the philosopher despised and that left him a pathetic paranoid figure whose philosophical thought was centuries ahead of his time. In his 1755 essay, A Discourse on Inequality, he wrote: "All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws."
Rousseau argued that humanity could never return to a state of nature, no matter how hard it tried. Civilisation, as Rousseau perceived it, had ruined humanity and there was no turning back. The late 20th century would see a movement develop that Rousseau might have approved of and then referred its philosophers to his argument: "The philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there ... Peace and innocence escaped us for ever, even before we tasted their delights. Beyond the range of thought and feeling of the brutish men of the earliest times, and no longer within the grasp of the 'enlightened' men of later periods, the happy life of the Golden Age could never really have existed for the human race. When men could have enjoyed it they were unaware of it; and when they could have understood it they had already lost it."
Those who call themselves social ecologists and many others now argue that Rousseau got it wrong, that humanity cannot return to a state of nature because it never left it; all humanity did was evolve using its imagination and its ability to interact and adapt; it was the process of using tools and exploiting the planet's resources that changed humanity into a social animal that Rousseau believed had left nature behind. Rousseau, looking around him at a world that was being swiftly changed by science and technology, was viewing the world through a glass as dark as his moods. What he really wanted to see was a society that was not based on the exploitation of nature and of labour, a society that did not define itself by unequal competition and a flawed belief in a red-in-tooth-and-claw nature. Rousseau's obsession with nostalgia meant he believed humanity had abandoned its natural state, and it wasn't until the Russian geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin came along with the evidence that the planet's species actually cooperated with each other using mutual aid that human society began to understand its true relationship with nature. Kropotkin would argue that it was not a return to a state of nature that was required but a move forward towards a time when humanity could live in a world defined by cooperation, mutual aid and respect.
It was no co-incidence that the first no global protests took place in the multi-cultural, international city of Geneva, in 1998 and that some protesters, with their mouths gagged, carried a coffin to bury the 'social contract' in front of Rousseau's memorial. Switzerland has been the scene of two of the most brutal police responses to the no global protests, in Geneva in 1998 and in Lausanne in 2003, while the continent of Europe has become a violent battleground, the forces of globalisation killing one protester and hospitalising many others during peaceful protests since 1998. This is not what Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher, expected when he advocated non-violent direct action and the ideal of a biocentric, eco-defence movement (Earth First!). It was, however, exactly what Murray Bookchin, the American radical and one of the principle authors of social ecology, expected when he advocated a left-libertarian eco-social movement that would challenge and set out to radically change the hierarchical structure of society (Peoples Global Action, Social Forums).
It was George Marsh, in his seminal 1864 work Man and Nature or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, who remarked that man (sic) is everywhere a disturbing agent. "Everywhere he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." Lewis Mumford, who challenged the role of technology in the destruction of both humanity and nature, called Marsh's book "the fountainhead of the conservation movement". Sadly, this is where the challenges, against those who would destroy so that they could gain personal wealth and power, went astray. The conservationist movement, especially in north America, attracted people with bourgeoisie sensibilities. It became a liberal movement that naively believed it could prevent the destruction of nature using polite protest. By the 1980s it was no longer called a conservationist movement, it was called environmentalism and its philosophical core was known as deep ecology – and it was flawed.
The emergence of Bookchin's social ecology differed significantly from Naess's deep ecology, yet both could be seen to influence each other, especially in modern Europe, where anarchism and socialism would become the defining forces in an eco-defence movement that was evolving into an eco-social movement. Rousseau's eco-social ideals and nostalgia had been clarified and modified by Kropotkin, with his argument for mutual aid in society. This brought the debate back into the realm of the individual, where sense of belonging, identity and place are paramount in the relationship between humanity and nature.
In modern Ireland sense of place is often confused with nostalgia though its more recent association with culture and with ecology would gave the impression that we too, like the Swiss, have an understanding of the relationship between the human-built and natural worlds and are aware of the philosophies of deep and social ecology – and what needs to be done. The evidence however is sparse. Attempts to save waterways, woodlands and bogs, prevent the denuding of mountains, the planting of ecologically-destructive commercial pines and quarrying at ancient sites, and generally improve the quality of Ireland's ecology have been met with failure, with few exceptions. The greater failure, however, has been our inability to marry the philosophical thought or theory with the ecological and social practice. Deep ecology has never had a hearing in Ireland while social ecology has been misunderstood, in much the same manner that Bookchin has been maligned. The history in Ireland of eco-social theory and practice is, so far, a short one. It consists of an attempt to form an Earth First! style direct action collective to protect Ireland's wild places and ecologically sensitive areas and ecosystems; an attempt to form an alliance between eco-social non-violent direct action groups in other countries and use their knowledge and experience to develop both an ideology and a campaign structure in Ireland; and an attempt to introduce a debate about the differences between environmentalism, sustainable development, self-sufficiency and social ecology.
Bookchin's definition of social ecology is not even a subject for debate. "Social ecology calls upon us," he wrote, "to see that nature and society are interlinked by evolution into one nature that consists of two differentiations: first or biotic nature, and second or human nature. Human nature and biotic nature share an evolutionary potential for greater subjectivity and flexibility. Second nature is the way in which human beings as flexible, highly intelligent primates inhabit the natural world. That is to say, people create an environment that is most suitable for their mode of existence. In this respect, second nature is no different from the environment that every animal, depending upon its abilities, creates as well as adapts to, the biophysical circumstances-or ecocommunity-in which it must live. On this very simple level, human beings are, in principle, doing nothing that differs from the survival activities of nonhuman beings." In Ireland it is a definition that has no resonance in society.
In Ireland all we are concerned with is development and destroying the natural world – for gain. Only the wind and rain brings the kind of devastation that the Swiss in their mountain valleys are used to. It is all that reminds us of our relationship with nature, as we seek to stand apart from it. We talk about self-sufficiency and sustainability when we actually mean something else, something Rousseau identified 250 years ago, when he said we contradicted our need to return to nature with "want, avidity, oppression, desires and pride".
Nowhere was this more apparent than during the campaign to prevent Wicklow County Council widening the road through the Glen of the Downs and destroying one of the few remaining natural woodlands left in Ireland. There was no real debate, among the greens, among the bureaucrats, among the academics, among the politicians. What should have been an eco-social reaction to the state's desire to spend EU funds on road building became a misinterpretation of the EU's desire to move freight off the roads, for environmental and ecological reasons. It also made a mockery, at the same time, of an non-EU country, Switzerland, putting in place a project that would reduce vehicle emissions while EU member states prevaricated.
The campaign in the Glen of the Downs said more about the problems within Irish society than it did about any desire to protect a threatened eco-system. It did not seem to matter that various species would be affected by the road widening and that the slopes of the valley and the tree roots would be compromised by the destruction. The campaign was mirrored by other campaigns around the country, against other threatened woodlands, against the planting of genetically-modified sugar beet, and against the against the erection in rural areas of telecommunication masts. The real interface between the human environment and the natural world has occurred among the grassroots within communities who understand the meaning of heimat. While they attempt to define what this means to modern Irish communities they realise they are up against power and money. These days land and property are seen as essential elements in our lives and to get them we must do what we can. For some of us that means exploiting natural resources without consequence to the eco-balance and exploiting other humans without consequence to their well-being. This has been a refrain of politics in Ireland for many years, that it is impossible to live low-income sustainable lives, that we must trade our natural resources for the jobs that will provide us with our basic needs. "A society based on grow or die as its all-pervasive imperative," argued Bookchin, "must necessarily have a devastating ecological impact." There is certainly a recognition that Irish society must change if it is to survive. But that recognition has not got past the talking stage. When a liberal green like Richard Douthwaite stated that "a sustainable world ... will be one of small communities that run their own affairs ... meeting or making their own requirements from local resources" he was lauded by fellow liberals. But when a Sinn Fein policy document stated that "community regeneration is a key process for ensuring that responses to disadvantage are community led, strategically driven and correspond directly to the actual specifics of local social need, the development process itself as well as sustainable outcomes" the issue was side-tracked by the same liberals. The publication of county development plans with sustainability at their core would indicate that the state is aware of the issues and has encouraged county councils and their development boards to seek partnerships that will improve the human environment with minimal harm to the natural world. What is missing from this plan is the ideal of self-sufficiency and the even greater ideal of community empowerment and participation, and the belief that the 21st century solution to our needs is a bioregional vision based on cooperation and mutual aid.
It was the Swiss people who voted to make long holes in their mountains, and it was the Swiss people back in 1912 who voted, with the threat of war hanging over Europe, to turn their county into a self-sufficient haven. They did this by reclaiming their valleys from nature and by using the power of nature to build large dams high in the mountains along with hydro-electric installations and by encouraging everyone to grow food and participate in a cooperative system. The result is a public transportation system, buses, trams and trains, run on electricity; a land abundant with food, from wheat to vines to fruit to cattle; and a society that realised that to sustain its self-sufficiency it would have to work with rather than against nature. The theory was thought out and it was put into practice, slowly refined using an ecological model – everything that was taken out of the system was put back in. Swiss society is a society with virtually no waste. Recycling is an everyday habit and a countrywide industry. However Switzerland is not a perfect society; it has deep moral and social flaws with historical roots. The people speak four languages that are distinctive to Switzerland, they practice several strands of the same Christian religion; the urban people think that the rural people are ignorant and insular, while the rural people think the urban people are arrogant and competitive. Sounds familiar?
Compared to Irish society, however, Switzerland is an ecological paradigm with deep social roots, that are fed and watered by a system of government that is ultimately decided by the people. It is not an anarchist system but it has anarchist qualities; it is not a capitalist system but it has advanced capitalist qualities. It has the yin and the yang, and more significantly it has a balance between human and nature that is both ecological and social. Rousseau said that our needs bring us together at the same time as our passions divide us and the more we become enemies of our fellow-men (sic), the less we can do without them. Writing at a time when gender issues were firmly patriarchal, Rousseau identified the issues that now face humanity in the early 21st century – how to change society without personal harm, how, in the words of the Dublin-born, Mexico-city based academic John Holloway, to change society without talking control.
Few of us understand why we should challenge this global culture – the product of civilisation, the consequence of our greed and our selfishness – and the impact our consumer-dependent lives are having on the eco-systems we depend on for our survival. The reason for this, asserted Sandra Postel in the 1992 edition of the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World, is because most people are in a "psychological state of denial" concerning the seriousness and magnitude of the global ecological threat and the consequent effect on our lives. According to eco-psychologist Chellis Glendinning, "in western culture, we live with chronic anxiety, anger, and a sense that something essential is missing from our lives, that we exist without a soul". This is understandable. "Never before," the eco-theologian Thomas Berry lamented, "has the human community been confronted with a situation that required such a sudden and total change in life style under the threat of a comprehensive degradation of the planet." Yet Naess made the answer seem simple. "[People] must also find others who feel the same way and form circles of friends who give one another confidence and support in living in a way that the majority finds ridiculous, naive, stupid and unnecessarily simplistic. But in order to do that, one must already have enough self-confidence to follow one's intuitions – a quality very much lacking in broad sections of the populace. Many people follow the trends and advertisements and tend to become philosophical and ethical cripples."
The Grassroots Gathering is certainly not a circle of friends given the diversity and age range of the people involved but, if one journalist's reaction to it is a barometer, it definitely gives those involved "confidence and support" in promoting a way of life "that the majority finds ridiculous, naive, stupid and unnecessarily simplistic". The first Grassroots Gathering attracted 80 people in Dublin on November 24, 2001. It is now a feature in Irish radical society, with GG groups based in most towns and cities, and a regular gathering shared between Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick.
Laurence Cox described the motivation behind GG:
We're working really hard to reach out to movements, which are only tangentially involved – particularly community activism, anti-racist and solidarity groups – as well as trying to get beyond 'the usual suspects' in terms of individual participants. That's not for tokenistic reasons, but because once again the way to achieve real change is to bring all those different voices and struggles together. So it's about getting beyond the natural tendency of any group of people [including us] to define 'politics' [or whatever they call it] as being the kind of thing they do, define 'activists' [or whatever] as being the kind of people they know, and so ignore and fail to communicate with other people and struggles. Basically our strength, as people who want to change very fundamental aspects of this society, lies in each other. And so we constantly have to move beyond our own comfort zones, at the same time as hoping that other movements and individuals are doing the same kind of thing themselves. Of course there are also a lot of gobshites, but the point is that these emotional responses are not the private property of a small group of activists surrounded by an uncaring mass. And that translates into the ability of many activists – not all, but many – to remain human, not to be traumatised by the pressures of the situation, to look after themselves emotionally and to support each other. And those are very important things – and the sense that things are changing, that we don't really know where we're going but the sense of possibility is becoming bigger, and the future is seeming more open. Which is absolutely wonderful, not simply to be playing a part in a script that's already written, but to be present in making our own history and feel that that's the case. It is not an easy task.
In Towards an ecological society, Bookchin wrote: "The problem they face is the need to discover the sweeping implications of the issues they raise; the achievement of a totally new, non-hierarchical society in which the domination of nature by man, of woman by man, and of society by the state is completely abolished – technologically, institutionally, culturally and in the very rationality and sensibilities of the individual." Yet, a movement forcing perpetual change is now a reality all over the world, embracing eco-social issues in a holistic manner seemingly destined to shape a brand new world. It could be argued that this change is anarchistic by its nature because it is happening without structure and form as more and more people realise they have no choice. They are empowering themselves to challenge the political and economic orders because that is all there is left to do. People are beginning to realise that their lives have a meaning that is not simply an extension of consumerist society. More people are empowering themselves to change this abstract thing called "civilisation". To be a passive viewer or an intense participant is the choice facing large sections of society. Let's put this into perspective. Prior to civilisation, 10,000 years ago, forests covered one third of the planet or 6.2 billion hectares. By 1975 forest cover had been reduced to a quarter. By 1980 it was a fifth. Now forests vanish at a rate of 17 million hectares per year (about half the size of Finland). Twenty years ago, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that 35% of the earth's land surface was threatened with desertification. The four principle causes, stated UNEP, are:
•1. Overgrazing of rangeland.
•2. Overcultivation of crop lands.
•3. Waterlogging and salinization of irrigated lands, and •4. Deforestation.
We are also raising the temperature of the planet with our industrial and domestic activities. In 1998 natural disasters caused more global damage than during all of the 1980s. Drought devastated 54 countries while 45 countries suffered from floods. These disasters are not the natural consequence of planetary cycles, they are, said the Worldwatch Institute, a consequence of modern society. "Higher temperatures mean that there is more energy driving the earth's climatic system. This in turn means more evaporation, more destructive storms and more flooding." Civilisation, said William Kotke, is murdering the planet. "We must create the positive, co-operative culture dedicated to life restoration and then accompany that in perpetuity, or we as a species cannot be on earth," he wrote. At the close of the 20th century Lester Brown summed it up in the 1999 edition of State of the World. "The western economic model – the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that so dramatically raised living standards for part of humanity during this [20th] century is in trouble. Indeed, the global economy cannot expand indefinitely if the ecosystem on which it depends continues to deteriorate."
These are gloomy predictions which those with eco-social sensibilities have been listening to for a long time. Around the world people are coming together to create cooperatives that combine capitalist economics, worker participation and fiscal realities. So far they are centered primarily on food; such as the fair trading by native workers of indigenous crops (dried organically-grown bananas, mangoes, pineapples, tea, coffee and sugar); such as the wholesale supply of organically-produced vegan and vegetarian produce; such as the retail supply of organic seeds; such as organic farms, organic retail stores and organic box suppliers. Housing co-ops supported by lending agencies that do not demand a high return of interest are helping people with bioregional visions to create small, autonomous, interactive communities determined to live self-sufficiently. Eco-villages, despite a tendency towards elitism and isolation, are lighting up like tiny beacons all over the western world. Barter schemes, local currencies and mutual aid clubs are working alongside capitalist economic methods of exchange in many communities.
What all these activities have in common is a gradual drift towards a bioregional paradigm. Kirkpatrick Sale, in his impelling book on bioregionalism, does not underestimate the personal and social obstacles. "It will take some broad and persuasive education to get people to realise that it is not the bioregional task that is irrelevant but precisely the business-as-usual politics of all the major parties of all the major industrial nations, not one of which has made ecological salvation a significant priority, not one of which is prepared to abandon or even curtail the industrial economy that is imperilling us. And it will take patience to lead people past their fear and lingering hatred of the natural world, which grows as their ignorance of it grows."
That ignorance is not unusual in people who no longer spend their lives in commune with nature or struggle to live in an environment where exploitation is their only means of survival. But, as Sale and others of his persuasion now realise, times are changing and people are beginning to realise that something is wrong with the way we live. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would approve of their thinking and particularly of their actions.
This is based on an essay first published in the Irish geography magazine Chimera.
SELECTED FURTHER READING:
Allen, R. and Jones, T. Guests of the Nation, Earthscan, London, 1990
Allen, R. No Global, Pluto, London/Dublin, 2004
Allen, R. Rendezvous with Rousseau, (forthcoming)
Allen, R and Dowling, É. Ireland Unbound, (forthcoming)
Anon. Switzerland 2003-04, Kümmerly+Frey, Berne, 2003 (annual)
Berry, T. The Great Work, Bell Tower, 1999
Bookchin, M. Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1971
Bookchin, M. toward an ecological society, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1980
Bookchin, M. The Ecology of Freedom, Black Rose Books, Toronto, (1982), 1991
Bookchin, M. Social ecology versus Deep Ecology, Socialist Review, London, 18(3): 9-29, 1988
Bookchin, M. (with Dave Foreman), Defending the Earth, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1991
Bookchin, M. The Philosophy of Social Ecology, Black Rose Books, Toronto, 1996
Booth, S. Into the 1990’s with Green Anarchist, Green Anarchist Books, Oxford, 1996
Borgmann, A. The nature of reality and the reality of nature, in Soule, M. and Lease, G. (eds) Reinventing Nature? Island Press, Washington, D.C., 1995
Bradford, G. How Deep is Deep Ecology? Times Change Press, California, 1989
Brown, L, Saving the Planet, Worldwatch/Norton, New York, 1992
Brown, L. State of the World 1999, Norton, New York, 1999
Capra, F. The Turning Point, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982
Commoner, B. The Closing Circle, Bantam, New York, 1971
Davis, J. (ed) The Earth First! Reader, Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, 1991
Day, D. The Eco Wars, Harrap, London, 1989
Devall, W. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, Peregrine Smith, Salt Lake City, 1985
Ehrenfeld, D. The Arrogance of Humanism, Oxford University Press, 1978
Evans, D. A History of Nature Conservation, Routledge, London, 1992
Foreman, D. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Harmony, New York, 1991
Foreman, D. and Haywood, B. Ecodefense, Abzug Press, Chico, (1987), 1993
Glendinning, C. My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilisation, Shambhala, Boston, 1994
Holloway, J. Change the World without taking Power, Pluto, London, 2002
Kitschelt, H. New social movements in West Germany and the United States, in Zeitlin, M. (ed) Political Power and Social Theory, JAI Press, Greenwich, 1985
Kotke, W. The Final Empire, Arrow Point Press, Portland, 1993
Kovel, J. The Enemy of Nature, Zed, London 2002
Kroptkin, P. The Conquest of Bread, Black Rose Books (1907), 1990
Kroptkin, P. Evolution and Environment, Black Rose Books (1912), 1995
Kroptkin, P. Fields, Factories and Workshops, Black Rose Books (1913), 1994
Kroptkin, P. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books (1914), 1989
Marsh, G. P. Man and Nature, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1864), 1965
Martell, L. Ecology and Society, Polity, London, 1994
Mumford, L. The Future of Technics and Civilisation, Freedom Press, London, 1986
Naess, A. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge University Press, London, 1989
Pepper, D. Eco-Socialism, Routledge, London, 1993
Pepper, D. Modern Environmentalism, Routledge, London, 1996
Roszak, T. Where the Wasteland Ends, Anchor Books, New York, 1972
Rousseau, J-J. A Discourse on a subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon: What is the Origin of Inequality among men, and is it authorised by natural law in The Social Contract and the Discourses, Everyman's Library/Knopf, New York, (1913, 1973), 1993
Rowell, A. Green Backlash, Routledge, London, 1996
Sale, K. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, University of Georgia, Athens, (1991), 2000
Scarce, R. Eco-Warriors, Noble, Chicago, 1990
Sessions, G. (ed) Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, Boston, 1995 Shepard, P. Nature and Madness, University of Georgia, Athens, (1982), 1998
Shepard, P. The Only World We've Got, Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1996
Taylor, B. Ecological Resistance Movements, State University of New York Press, 1995
Wall, D. Green History, Routledge, London, 1994
Wall, D. Earth First! and the Anti Roads Movement, Routledge, London, 1999
Zerzan, J. (ed) Against Civilisation, Uncivilised Books, PO Box 11331, Eugene, Oregon, 97440, 1999
Zerzan, J. Running on Emptiness, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002
Zimmerman, M. Contesting the Earth’s Future, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993