Ecology or Catastrophe: Learning from the Life of Murray Bookchin

Source: Roar Magazine

Janet Biehl’s “Ecology or Catastrophe” presents a lucid overview of Bookchin’s life and is possibly the best introduction we have to social ecology today.

Ten years ago, American radical Murray Bookchin drew his last breath in the bed of his apartment in downtown Burlington.

By his side was Janet Biehl, his partner for 19 years.

I remember the moment well—as vivid as the Atlantic Ocean allowed for. His health had been deteriorating rapidly the last few months, and the day before I had called him up and sent my parting words. He was unable to respond (and almost certainly unconscious), but I explained to him that I was with an international group of social ecologists, from Finland, Sweden, Turkey, England, Chile, and Norway, gathering in Telemark that week to discuss permaculture, municipal reconstruction and radical social change. The next day, July 30, 2006, we received the news of his death. Many of us knew Bookchin and had worked with his ideas for a long time. It was a sweet moment: we shared our memories and strengthened our resolve.

By the time of his death, Bookchin had few friends and even fewer political allies. The polemics and conflicts within the Green movement, with deep ecologists, and with anarchists, had taken a heavy toll. The endless political conflicts had earned him a reputation for being grumpy, sectarian, and divisive.

After his death, despite the serious work of social ecologists, Bookchin and his ideas seemed to wane steadily into obscurity. But recently, we have seen a renewed interest in his ideas: his name now gains public attention, in part because of the massive mobilizations against global warming, which increasingly recognize Bookchin’s prescient early contributions to radical ecology, and in part because of the remarkable communalist experiments in the Kurdish cantons of Rojava, in Northeastern Syria, which in many respects approximate Bookchin’s ideas of libertarian municipalism.

Bookchin was not only the founder of the social ecology movement, but his pioneering work to raise environmental awareness started in the 1950s; already in the 1960s he warned against the prospects of global warming, and he was an early advocate of organic farming, decentralization, and renewable energy sources. More than anything, however, he was instrumental in making ecology a concern for the left, and he never ceased to insist on a left humanist perspective in broader ecological movements. Many ideas that are now commonplace among ecologists and social activists, he helped develop half a century ago.

Indeed, Bookchin pioneered the development of anti-hierarchical analyses and solutions, and he suggested that popular assemblies should be the basic institutions of local power, a genuinely emancipatory arena for “remaking society” along ecological and democratic lines.

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