Review of Murray Bookchin’s Pathways to a Green Future

Murray Bookchin was born in the early 1920s and passed in July of 2006.  He is the founder of the term “Social Ecology,” which is basically the theory that insists capitalism and the way people relate to each other is the cause of poor ecological and political conditions. He joined the Communist youth movement at a young age and by the 1950s considered himself to be a libertarian socialist.  In 1974 he co-founded The Institute for Social Ecology.  This work, published in 1990, was among many publications that join the ideas of socialist theory with ecological views.

In Pathways to a Green Future, Murray Bookchin discusses the need for “a vision of social reconstruction,” which would stem from ecology “rooted in social criticism,” (13).  This basically means that the views about the environment should be based on carefully looking at society, because society’s problems directly relate to the environmental problems we have.  The vision of social reconstruction should start with analyzing social problems and then figuring out how our social problems are effecting the environment. Bookchin began by laying the foundation of his thoughts.  Humans have become “aliens” of nature for the very same reason that people are “alien” in their own society.  The dominating nature of the old over the young, men over women, and men over other men has in the same way affected the human relationship to nature with the dominance of human over “non-human.”

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Humans are a product of natural evolution and have a unique place within nature as its main source of influence (75).  Therefore society should not try to separate itself from nature or be ignorant of the fact that humans affect nature.  He builds on his argument slowly throughout the book, using specific examples from history and personal critiques of “deep ecology.”  He is firm against the idea that humans have the right to totally dominate nature, and he makes the point that the way society treats nature is the way society treats itself (187).

His book expresses that the movements post World War II are the result of abundant capitalism.  The Civil Rights Movement and the “youth revolt” of the sixties were basically based on freedom ideals limited by poverty and basically a reaction to the social shifts towards development, industry and capitalism (142).  He makes mention of other periods.  For example, he says that during the Middle Ages, society had a mixed economy not a capitalistic one (87).  In that chapter he explained historical periods like these I have just mentioned to explain how capitalism began.  Ultimately the idea was to show that because of the combination of industrial development and human competitiveness, most societies developed a hierarchy.  This pyramid like hierarchy has the few rich dominating on top of the poorer people.

His audience was possibly liberal environmentalists, complacent capitalists and anyone who is serious about improving society.  He had a vision of a smaller ecological society in which nature was respected, which in turn improved not only the natural world but society by lessening the dominate and oppressive forces between humans one to another and humans to non-humans.  He further explains that true social reconstruction is a process that will take time.  Clear thought and planning is needed.  All the prior attempts at reconstructing society that he mentions where attempts to deal with “a profound and growing crisis rather than eliminate it,” (101).  In other words, prior attempts have only been temporary solutions rather than permanent ones.

I understood his points, although they are extremely verbose and quite specific.  He uses many examples to illustrate his points, perhaps too many.  He frequently summarizes what he has addressed previously to then introduce the next aspect of this thinking.  On the one hand that is good because he reminds the reader of what he has been discussing so far.  On the other hand, it seems a little bit like he is trying to hard to convince the reader that he is building a solid case.  I would recommend this book for anyone with patience and a real interest in the pursuits of social ecology.  His ideas are firm and interesting, especially this one:

Technology… is one of the major points of contact between social values and ecological values. At a time of sweeping ecological degradation, we can no longer retain techniques that wantonly damage human beings and the planet alike -and it is hard to think that damage can be inflicted on the one without being inflicted on the other. (188)

Bookchin makes very valid points about how the social condition is related to the natural environment and is good at organizing thoughts by first posing several questions and issues and then addressing them one at a time.  Although this book was published over ten years ago, it seems that the points are not only still valid, but the condition of society has worsened along the lines of the capitalist and domineering pursuits of humanity and on the same token, the environment continues to suffer (ozone layer breakdown, greenhouse effect, etc.)  It is easy for one to see where Bookchin was coming from years ago when he wrote about that connection between people and nature.  There is much evidence beyond this book that is relevant and supports his theories about the close relationship between society’s condition and the condition of nature.

Radical social movements have been farther and fewer in between, but society in general still has the problem of using quick remedy for problems and not uprooting deeper issues of social problems, as he points out.  There haven’t been many large, strongly motivated pushes for social change recently and I wonder there is really a need for a new vision for balancing powers and respecting each other and nature.  If there was clear vision and a deep understanding of the root issues in societal problems, then perhaps the human world would be a better one.  Many people, like those involved with Greenpeace, are trying to remedy the environmental problems, but if society’s problems can be rooted out first, perhaps the environment will be better as a result.  That is the essence of Bookchin’s message in this book, which is clearly relevant today.