Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, mid-1970s. All photos by Lionel Delevingne.

by Murray Bookchin

On August 24, 1978, Murray Bookchin gave a lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in Amherst, Massachusetts. Also speaking at that year’s gathering were several prominent thinkers, including R. Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. In his speech, Bookchin argues against the ideology of futurism and for ecological utopianism. In the Q&A session, he points out that he is not against technology itself, he is against technocracy, and he also describes, in detail, his political vision for the future.

The speech is surprisingly relevant in today’s context: it’s as if he predicted the rise of fascist ideology and lifeboat ethics in the 21st century, and it feels like a direct rebuttal of Elon Musk-esque technocratic futurism on both the right and the left.

Because his speech is so applicable today, we decided to republish it here, making it accessible to a wider audience. It has been transcribed and edited lightly for flow, brevity, and grammar, and we have divided it into sub-sections for ease of reading. The text is published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust.

This morning at eleven o’clock, I tried to explain to you why I was not an environmentalist, but rather was an ecologist. And I tried to give you some idea, at least from my point of view, what ecology meant, as distinguished from environmentalism. The point that I tried to make most fundamentally is that environmentalism tries to patch things up, applies band-aids, cosmetics, to the environment. It sort of takes hold of nature, strokes it, and says, ‘Produce!’ It tries to use soil, pour chemicals into it and if only they weren’t poisonous everything would be great. Whereas ecology believes in a genuine harmonization of humanity with nature. And that harmonization of humanity with nature depends fundamentally on the harmonization of human beings with each other. The attitude that we’ve had towards nature has always depended on the attitude we’ve had towards each other. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no such thing as a ‘pure nature.’ 

The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism. And it’s these questions that I’d like to talk about, if I may.

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, 1977.

What is futurism?

What is futurism? Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. That’s what futurism is. If you have a population of X billions of people, how are you going to have food, how are you going to do this… nothing has changed. All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright was going to build an office building that was one mile high. That was futurism.

The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. They’re all very busy, they’re coming around, they even have long hair and they even have beards, and they come around and they say ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into my first space shuttle!’—that is the future.

This is regarded as ecology and it’s not ecology. It’s futurism! It’s what Exxon wants to do. It’s what Chase Manhattan wants to do. It’s what all the corporations want to do. But it is not utopia, it is pure futurism. It is the present extended into the future.

A mass society, and how do we keep in touch with each other? We don’t even have to look at each other. We’ll look at television screens. I’ll press a button, I’ll see you on the television screen, you’ll be on Mars, for all I know, and we’ll have a wonderful conversation with each other, and we’ll say ‘Gee whiz! We’ve got an alternate technology!’ The point is it isn’t a liberatory technology. I may know people in the future for years and years—play chess games with them, have interesting intellectual conversations with them—and never touch them once. If that is what the future is going to look like, I’m glad I’m fifty-seven years old and don’t have that much to go. I don’t want it. [laughter from audience] I am very serious. 

The anti-nuclear movement.

Now I’d like to touch a few nerves. I don’t believe that the Earth is a spaceship.1 I’m asking you to think about what it means to think of the Earth as a spaceship. It does not have valves. It does not have all kinds of radar equipment to guide it. It is not moved by rockets. It hasn’t got any plumbing. We may have plumbing. But it is not ‘a spaceship’. It’s an organic, living thing, to a very great extent, at least on its surface, built of inorganic material. It is in the process of growth and it is in the process of development. It is not ‘a spaceship’.

We’re beginning to develop a language which has nothing whatever in common with ecology. It has a lot to do with electronics. We talk of input. ‘Give me your input. Plug in!’ [laughter] Well, I don’t ‘plug in’, I discuss [applause]. Machines ‘plug in’. Radar is the language that produced it and the military is the language that produced the words ‘plug in’.

‘Give me your input’. That is not what I want. I don’t want your output, I want you. I want to hear your words. I want to hear your language. I’m not engaged in ‘feedback’ with you [laughter], I’m engaged in a dialogue, a discussion. It isn’t your ‘feedback’ I want, I want your opinion. I want to know what you think. I don’t want to have a circuit plugged into me where I can get your ‘feedback’ and you can get my ‘input’. [laughter]

Please, I’m making a plea here, and if you think I’m talking about language, I think you would be wrong. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about sensibility. A plant does not have ‘input’ or ‘output’. It does something for which electronics has absolutely no language—it grows! It grows! [applause]. And let me tell you another thing, it not only grows, it does more than change; it develops. We have a big problem with all these words which reflect a way in which we think, and that’s what bothers me.

This is the sensibility of futurism. It is the language of futurism, in which people themselves are molecularized and then atomized and then finally reduced to subatomic particles, and what we really have in the way of an ecosystem is not growth, and not development, what we have is—plumbing. We run kilocalories through the ecosystem. And we turn on valves here and we turn off valves there. 

Now, this may be useful, I don’t deny that. We should know how energy moves through an ecosystem. But that alone is not an ecosystem. We’re beginning to learn that plants have a life of their own and interact with each other. That there are subtle mechanisms which we cannot really understand. They can’t be reduced to energy, they can’t be reduced to kilocalories, we have to look at them from a different point of view. We have to view them as life, as distinguished from the non-living, and even that distinction is not so sharp and clear as many people think. 

Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’

So this is the language of futurism, and the language of electronics, which reflects a very distinct sensibility, that bothers me very, very, much. It is not utopian—and I’ll get to that afterwards—it is the language of manipulation. It is the language of mass society. Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked. Not ‘what if’ you have a shopping mall, then what do you do.

Out there in the great vast distance, which people feel we should colonize, moving out into spacecraft, or somehow relate to the distant universe and listen to the stars, but we haven’t even begun to listen to our own feelings. We haven’t even begun to listen to our own locality. This planet is going down in ruin, and people are talking about means of projecting space platforms out there, talking of a global village,2 when we don’t have villages anywhere on this planet to begin with. We don’t have them. We don’t have any villages, we don’t have any communities, we live in a state of atomization, and we expect to electronically communicate with each other through global villages. This bothers me because it may be good physics, it may be good mechanics, it may be good dynamics, it may be good anything you wish, but it is not ecology. It is not ecology.

What is ecology?

The most fundamental mistake begins with the idea that things change. Now, you know, to change may mean something or may mean nothing. If I step away here and walk three feet away, I have ‘undergone change’. I’ve moved three feet away, but I haven’t done a damn thing so far as I’m concerned, or so far as you are concerned. It is not ‘change’ that I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. So mere input and output and feedback, mere motion means nothing—the real problem is discussion and dialogue, recognition of personality, growth and development, which is what biology is concerned with. It is not concerned merely with change.

Lastly, it must be made very clear that if you believe that the Earth is a spaceship, then you believe that the world is a watch. You and Sir Isaac Newton agree perfectly, the world is a clock, just as a spaceship is a lot of plumbing with a lot of rockets, with a lot of dials, with a lot of pilots, and all the rest of that stuff. And if you believe in addition that the beauty, today, of change is that you can move all over the place in a helicopter, which will pick up your geodesic dome,3 or use some type of electronic communications to relate to somebody who is three thousand miles away, whom you may never see, then we are not changing, in the developmental sense, anything at all, we’re making things worse, and worse all the time. And that is a matter, also, of very great concern to me.

Ecology—social ecology—must begin with a love of place. There must be home. Oikos—home—ecology—the study of the household. If we do not have a household—and that household is not an organic, rich community—if we do not know the land we live on, if we do not understand its soil, if we do not understand the people we live with, if we cannot relate to them, then at that particular point we are really in a spaceship. We are really out in a void. 

Ecology must begin with a very deep understanding of the interaction between people, and the interaction between people and the immediate ecosystem in which we live. Where you come from, what you love, what is the land that you love. I don’t mean the country or the state, I’m talking about the land that you may occupy. It may even be a village, it may be a city, it may be a farmstead. 

But first and foremost, without those roots that place you in nature, and in a specific form of nature, it is a deception to talk about cosmic oneness, it is a deception to talk about spaceships, it is a deception even to talk about ecosystems without having this sense of unity with your immediate locale, with your soil, with your community, with your home. Without that community and without that sense of home, without that sense of the organic—of the organic and the developmental rather than the mere inorganic and ‘change’ in which you merely change place—you are changing nothing, the problems are merely amplified or diminished, but they remain the same problems. 

What isn’t ecology?

It is for this reason that futurism today plays an increasingly very very reactionary role, because it works with the prejudice that what you have is given. You have to assume what exists today, and you extrapolate into the future, and you play a numbers game. And then you go around and you logistically manipulate here and there, and implicit in all of this is the idea that you are things to be manipulated. There are all kinds of technicians who are going to decide through their knowledge of electronics, through their ‘know-how’, through their ‘feedback’ and their ‘input’, where you go, what you should do: and this is becoming a very serious problem today, particularly when it is mistaken for ecology, based on the organic, on the growing, on the development as an individual, as a community and as a place.

You then finally reach the most sinister numbers game of all: who should live and who should die. The ‘population game’. The terrifying lifeboat ethic, in which now in the name of ecology, today views are being proposed that are almost indistinguishable from German fascism.

There are those who are made to drown, they happen to live in India. Conveniently, they happen to have black or dark skin, and you can identify them. And then there are those who occupy another lifeboat, that lifeboat is called North America. And in that lifeboat, you have to conserve what you have, you see? 

You have to be prepared to develop an ethic, you have to be prepared to develop the stamina to see people die. Of course you’ll regret it, but scarce resources and growing population, what can you do? You’re out there on the ocean, the ship is sinking, so instead of trying to find out what was wrong with the ship that makes it sink, and instead of trying to build a ship that will make it possible for all of us to share the world, you get into a lifeboat, just like you get into a spaceship, and at that particular point, the world be damned. And that is a very sinister ideology. 

I speak as one who comes from the thirties, and remembers, very dramatically, that there was the demographic ecology, if you like, in Germany, no different from some of the demographic ecology I have been witnessing today.4 Remember well that the implications of some of these conceptions are extremely totalitarian, extremely un-ecological, extremely inorganic, and tend, if anything, to promote a totalitarian vision of the future in which there is no human scale, in which there is no human control.

Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference. [Applause] The same relationships will exist there as under any other circumstances of domination exist. If ‘household’ means that women take care of the dishes, and men go out and do the manly work such as make war and clean up the planet, and reduce the population, where have we gone? Nothing has changed. What will a ‘spaceship’ on earth look like? What will it be? Who will be the general to give the orders, who will be the navigator to decide which way the ‘spaceship’ goes?

Please bear in mind what the implications of these things are. If people live in cities that are one mile high, how the hell can you get to know each other? How can you have a feeling for the land in which you live, when the landscape that you see goes up to a horizon twenty, thirty, forty miles away? On top of the World Trade Center, I have no feeling for New York. If I were just an ordinary, simple product of the United States Airforce, and I were ordered from the World Trade Center, way up there, to bomb Manhattan, looking down upon it, I would see nothing. I would press the button and it would be meaningless. Up would go the great bomb, the great flash, the great cloud. It wouldn’t have any meaning to me. Down on the ground, when I look up at the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, I feel oppressed. I feel that I have been reduced to a lowly ant. I begin to feel the demand for an environment that I can control. That I can begin to understand. But when I see plants growing around me, when I see life existing around me—human life, animal life of all its different forms, flora—then I can relate. This is my land.

Think human

What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human.5 Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful. 

What is important is not only that a technology is appropriate. As I have said before: the Atomic Energy Commission is absolutely convinced that nuclear power plants are appropriate technology—to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B1 bombers are very appropriate technology—to the Air Force. 

What I am concerned with is, again, what is liberatory, what is ecological. We have to bring these value-charged words, and we have to bring these value-charged concepts into our thinking, or else we will become mere physicists, dealing with dead matter and dealing with people as though they are mere objects to be manipulated, in spaceships, or to be connected through various forms of electronic devices, or subject to world games, or finally, set adrift on a raft or a lifeboat in which they kick off anyone who threatens to eat their biscuits or threatens to drink their distilled water—and that becomes ecofascism. That becomes ecofascism, and it horrifies me to think that anything ecological—even that word ‘eco’—could be attached to fascism.

First and foremost, we must go back to the utopian tradition, in the richest sense of the word. Not to the electronic tradition, not to the tradition of NASA, not to the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton, in which the whole world was a machine or a watch. 

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create. 

What does it mean to be utopian?

‘Imagination to power’, as the French students said. ‘Be practical, do the impossible’, because if you don’t do the impossible, as I’ve cried out over and over again, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself. So to do the impossible is the most rational and practical thing we can do. And that impossible is both in our own conviction and in our shared conviction with our brothers and sisters, to begin to try to create, or work toward a very distinct notion of what constitutes a finally truly liberated as well as ecological society. A utopian notion, not a futuristic notion. 

It finally means this: that we have to begin to develop ecological communities. Not just an ecological society—ecological communities, made up of comparatively small numbers of groups, and beautiful communities spaced apart from each other so that you could almost walk to them, not merely have to get into a car and travel sixty or seventy miles to reach them. It means that we have to reopen the land and reuse it again to create organic garden beds, and learn how to develop a new agriculture in which we’ll all participate in the horticulture. 

If you don’t do the impossible, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself.

We have to look into communities that we can take into a single view, as Aristotle said more than 2200 years ago—and we have yet to learn a great deal from the Greeks, despite all their shortcomings as slave-owners and as patriarchs—a community that we can take into a single view, so that we can know each other. Not a community in which we know each other not by virtue of sitting around and talking over the telephone, or listening to some honcho talk over a microphone, or listening to some bigger honcho talk over a television screen. It has to be done by sitting around in communities, in those town meetings, and in those structures which we have here in the United States as part of the legacy, at least—the best legacy of the United States—and start thinking utopian in the fullest sense of the word.

We have also to develop our own technologies. We can’t let other people simply build them for us. They can’t be transported from God knows where to us. We have to know how to fix our faucets, and create our own collectives. We have to become richly diversified human beings. We have to be capable of doing many different things. We have to be farmer-citizens and citizen-farmers. We have to recover the ideal that even a Ben Franklin—who by no means can be regarded, in my opinion anyway, as anything slightly more than a philistine—believed in the 18th century: you can both print and read, and when you printed, you read what you printed. That’s what we have to bring to ourselves. We have to think not in terms, merely, of change; we have to think in terms of growth. We have to use the language of ecology so that we can touch each other with the magic of words and communicate with each other, with the magic and the richness of concepts, not of catchphrases that are really snappy [snaps fingers]—’input’, ‘output’.’Dialogue’ is longer, but it has a beautiful ring to it. Dia logos, speech between two, talking between two. Logos—logic, reasoning out creatively, dialectically, and growing through conversation, and growing through communication. This is what I mean by utopia. We have to go back to Fourier, who said that measure of a society’s oppression could be determined by the way it treats its women. It was not Marx who said that, it was Charles Fourier…. We have to go back to the rich tradition of the New England town meeting, and all that was healthy in it and recover that and learn a new type of confederalism.

Today, the real movements of the future insofar as they are utopian in their outlook—insofar as they are trying to create not an extension of the present, but trying to create something that is truly new, that alone can rescue life, human spirit, as well as the ecology of this planet—must be built around a new, rich communication, not between leader and led—but between student and teacher, so that every student can eventually become a teacher, and not a dictator, a governor, a controller and a manipulator. 

And above all, we have to think organically. We have to think organically—not electronically. We have to think in terms of life and biology, not in terms of watches and physics. We have to think in terms of what is human, not what is merely small or big, because that alone will be beautiful. Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists. 

[applause]

Murray Bookchin was asked two relevant questions from the audience, which were inaudible in the recording. The first questioner asked if he was against technology. 

Murray Bookchin: No, that is not at all true. I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people. The beauty of an ecological technology—an ecotechnology, or a liberatory technology, or an alternative technology—is that people can understand it if they are willing to try to devote some degree of effort to doing so. It’s simplicity, wherever possible, it’s small-scale, wherever possible. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going back to the paleolithic, I’m not talking about going back into caves. We cannot go back to that and I don’t think we want to go back to that. 

In the next question from the audience, Bookchin is asked to, very concretely, describe his political vision. There is laughter after the question. 

I’m going to be really hard rocks about this and get down to it and not just tell you that I’m giving you some vague philosophical principles. I would like to see communities, food cooperatives, affinity groups, all these types of structures—town meetings developed all over the United States. I’d like to see neighborhood organizations, non-hierarchical in their form, developed all over the United States, from New York City to San Francisco, from rural Vermont to urban California. When these particular organizations develop rapidly and confederate, at first regionally, and hopefully, nationally, and perhaps even internationally—because we are no longer talking about the United States alone, we’re even talking about what’s going on in the Soviet Union to a very great extent—I hope they will then, through one way or another, by example and through education win the majority of people to this sensibility. And having done this, demand that society be changed, and then afterward we’ll have to face whatever we have to face. The only alternative we have after that, if we don’t do that, will be as follows: we will be organized into bureaucracies, bureaucracies in the name of progress, as well as bureaucracies in the name of reaction, as well as bureaucracies in the name of the status quo. And if we’re organized in the form of these bureaucracies, whether we use solar power or nerve gas, it makes no difference, we’re going to wind up, ultimately, with the same thing. In fact, the idea that solar power or wind power or methane is today being used instead of fossil fuels, will merely become an excuse for maintaining the same multinational, corporate, and hierarchical system that we have today. 

So I propose that those types of organizations, and those types of social forms, be developed all over the country, and increasingly hopefully affect the majority of opinion, to a point where the American people, in one way or another, make their voices heard, because they are the overwhelming majority, and say they want to change the society. And if America turns over, the whole world will change, in my personal opinion. Because this happens to be the center, literally the keystone of what I would call the whole capitalistic system that today envelops the world, whether it be China, Cuba and Russia, or whether it be the United States, Canada and Western Europe. That is, very concretely, what I propose. 

Daydreams are dangerous. They are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.

I’d like to make this very clear, the American people first will begin to change unconsciously, before they change consciously. You’ll go around to them and you’ll say, what do you think of work? And they’ll say it’s noble. You’ll ask them what do you think of property? And they’ll say it’s sacred. And you’ll ask them, what do they think of motherhood, they’ll say it’s grand, it’s godly. What do you think of religion and they’ll say they belong to it and they are completely devoted to it. You’ll ask them, what do they think of America, and they’ll say, either love it or leave it.  You’ll say, what do you think of the flag and they’ll say it’s glorious, Old Glory.

But then one day something is going to happen. One day, the unconscious, the expectation, the dream, the imagination, the hope that you go to bed with as you sink into the twilight hours of sleep, or the early morning when you daydream, just after the alarm clock has gone off and you’ve shut it down—those expectations and dreams that lie buried in the unconscious mind of millions upon millions of American people are going to break right into consciousness. And when they break right into consciousness, heaven help this society. [audience cheers] I’m very serious. 

That is the strange catalysis, the strange process of education; everyone today is schizophrenic, we’re all leading double lives, and we know it. And not only are we leading double lives, those ordinary—so-called ‘ordinary’—people out there are also leading double lives. And one day, that double life is going to become one life. Maybe it’ll be for the worse. But maybe it’ll be for the better. At that particular point, maybe something like May, June 1968 in Paris will start. All over the place, all kinds of flags will go up that don’t look like the flag we’re accustomed to seeing. [laughter from audience] Maybe black or red, I don’t know. At that particular point, millions of people will stop working, and they’ll start discussing.

Then you’ll have that terrifying situation called mob rule. But that will happen, and that’s what happened here in 1776, they believed in the King, right up until July 1776. In the meantime, they were having doubts. They didn’t even know they didn’t like the monarchy. But one day they woke up and said, the hell with King George. And they ran ahead, and they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was read to the troops. At that particular point, the Union Jack went down and the Stars and Stripes went up. This is the way people actually change. People change unconsciously before they change consciously. They begin to float dreams—daydreams are dangerous. Daydreams are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history. 

Transcribed and edited by Constanze Huther.

Murray Bookchin was a political theorist, philosopher, and activist. He developed the philosophy of social ecology and the political theory of libertarian municipalism, or communalism, which has influenced the growing ‘municipalist’ movement around the world. He was the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, which is still active today. Bookchin died in 2006. The full audio version of this speech is available from the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives here.  

This text is ©2019 and published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust. For permission requests contact: bookchindebbie@gmail.com.

All photos are by Lionel Delevingne, taken between 1975-1978, reprinted with permission from the Lionel Delevingne Photograph Collection at UMass Amherst. Thank you to Eleanor Finley for obtaining the scans.

After mass mobilizations, what direction for the Belgian climate movement?

“I put more work into this sign than you put into my future.” “I’d rather be a truant than have a climate disaster on my conscience.”

by Rafa Grinfeld

Tens of thousands of Belgian students have been leaving their classes to go on strike in defense of the climate. For almost two months now, every Thursday many of these students are striking. And they’ve been taking to the streets in mass protests.

One of the adult protesters is Karen Naessens of Rise4Climate, an organisation that has coordinated a recent demonstration in Brussels. Almost 100,000 people showed up for the protest. Never before did Belgium have such a large climate march. Naessens explains:

We’re protesting because we feel politicians still haven’t got it. We want to show these demands are held by the public at large and that people really care. It’s not only Belgium that should be more ambitious. It’s one of the worst performers in the EU. The EU should take a pioneering role. Europe should take the lead. It’s up to us to put it on the agenda!

Much of the Belgian media has been remarkably benevolent towards the climate protests. I have been wondering if this will change, when many climate truants will have been campaigning every Thursday for months. In my view, some of the students are obviously planning to do just that: to strike every Thursday.

Protests of young people have gathered force in Europe over the past weeks, especially in countries like the UK, The Netherlands and Germany. In France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, activists have also gathered in large numbers, the protests taking a different shape in each country. Nevertheless, the movement does have its common inspirations.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has drawn worldwide attention and inspired many of the protesters. She was the first to raise awareness of global warming through a school strike. In the beginning she was striking alone. Nobody expected her to become so influential . But her idea has taken hold among the youth, and not without reason: the strikers belong to a generation that will suffer immeasurably from climate change and its impacts.

In this text I am focusing on Belgium, where I live, and where climate protests have been larger than in any other country. Here, all age ranges are out on the street demanding for better climate policies, and youth is at the forefront of it. But, the movement does have its challenges. First, there is some danger from the Right. Second, many people don’t seem to really understand what is going on when it’s about climate change and what to do against it. And so, there are many who turn to experts to solve the problem. I argue that radical democracy, and the ideas of social ecology, are a much-needed antidote.

One of the reasons for the climate movement here becoming so big is the fact that it is very influenced by the ecological left. The ecological Right is small, but growing. Yes, the Right is slowly turning green – or so it seems. Amongst other things, they’re proposing “nuclear energy solutions” (like nuclear fusion or using thorium) and new climate technology (whether it already exists or not), stopping what they see as overpopulation, putting electric cars on the roads and setting up climate taxes (for the rich as well as the poor).

But is it really that green? After all, it has kept rather close connections with industrial lobby groups (investing in fossil fuels, for example) and climate skeptics. Arguably, the Right is just nervous after the large climate protests. Greenwashing their policies and proposals could simply be a response to feeling the wind turn under the impetus of the climate movement. The mainstream of the Right is only just trying to appear more ecological than it is in reality, to obtain more votes because there are important elections coming up in May.

What we especially need now in Belgium is a growing movement from below that puts good climate measures on the political agenda, not false or unwelcome solutions like those proposed by the “green” Right. If we look at all the climate protests of the past couple of months, we are doing quite well in that respect.

Beyond the challenge from the Right, Belgium is also facing another problem: the over-reliance on experts. Lately we have heard more and more pleas to have climate-related problems “solved” by experts. Experts, the argument goes, should sit around the table with policymakers, or should be given more money to do research on new technologies. Normal people are considered incompetent to find adequate solutions for climate change.

And so, the opinion of many people, even some of the students, has become that more power must be placed in the hands of experts. Experts who have to come up with a new type of nuclear power plant. Or experts who know a lot about the nature of climate change because they are climatologists, or architects, or … policy makers.

Experts are called in if people do not know how to solve problems. For example, when proposed solutions do not fit within their own ideological framework, or when they see themselves as not competent enough to come up with enough adequate solutions. Experts can help to solve problems, but their large power must be treated with some mistrust. If experts contradict each other a lot, like in Belgium for the moment, one soon has to deal with social stagnation and political immobility.

When it comes to climate change, Belgium has already looked at what experts do or do not advocate. Or what people do who are viewed as experts in a certain area (or whose expertise is questioned or even denied by some). There is therefore a battle going on when it’s about measures against climate change and choosing the experts that are fit for this.

So if not the experts, then who? If we leave measures against climate change to current policy makers, we will be setting ourselves up for a long wait. Power is nowadays mainly in the hands of large companies, as lobby groups they determine a large part of the Belgian and European policies. The large corporations generally are not much interested in ecological life, harmony or production. Their main raison d’être often is making profits and competing with other corporations. They want to keep their important positions within the contours of the market economy, and many principles have to be denied for that.

When experts obtain too much power we have elitist technocracy. This is really problematic, it’s disempowering and patronizing for most people. It’s especially a problem when the experts who have too much power are just politicians of top-down parties defending technocratic statecraft—like the case is now in Belgium and many other countries—and not at all climate experts trying to do something against climate change… well, then we really are in trouble. Then it becomes important for us to build counter-power and participation through grassroots movements.

The climate movement in Belgium needs to come to grips with the fact that the current ecological crisis cannot be solved by the market, or experts, alone. As Murray Bookchin wrote in 1993:

Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — technology as such or population growth as such — for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.” Ecology should not become dismal science or co-opted by the right, and therefore it should be infused with good social theory and interesting politics. Ecologists should be aware of the way the present market society is structured and the ills and disadvantages of industrial capitalism.

Taking advantage of the growing momentum in the climate movement, a new group of grassroots activists in Liège, a city in the south of Belgium, is planning a large international conference on what is called “social ecology” in September. In the words of Murray Bookchin once again, what defines social ecology is:

its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

Projects like the conference on social ecology in Liège in September can help influence the climate movement to ask the hard questions about the role of capitalism and the need for alternative, direct democracy. We already have many climate protests now in Belgium. What we especially need now are some good debates and analyses about what direction the climate movement in Belgium (and other countries) should take.

Rafa Grinfeld has been studying social ecology for more than 25 years, and has been active in social and ecological activism, writing and traveling to meet and talk with social ecologists in Europe and North America.

 

The Craven mode of production: Introduction

by Aaron Vansintjan

A Craven is a floating island which, as some readers may know, is made up of debris and organic matter, largely held together by trees. Each Craven is home to about 200-600 Craveners, though there are some that house up to 5,000. The Craven Confederacy is made up of hundreds of thousands of floating islands dotting the Atlantic. Cravens breed fish, grow algae for ethanol, and harvest crops. They have an extensive trading network, being innovators in preserved foods, recycled microchips, and peer-to-peer wireless technology. The first Cravens were constructed—or rather, grown—about 300 years ago, in the first decades of the Climate Crisis. Named after an enigmatic figure referred to simply as ‘Craven’, it started as a politically-oriented, experimental farm on the Mains, close to what remained of New York City. It was then brought out to sea following a military crackdown on dissent. Since then, they have multiplied slowly, largely out of sight of global events. Today, while they may not rival the economic force of the Global Free Trade Company, or the military might of the Sino-Japanese, American, and Saudi empires, they represent a growing and significant power block in the world system.

And yet, for a first-time visitor, a Craven looks like a messy, unstructured place. There are barely any straight lines, nor does there seem to be much logic in where things are placed, or why. Plants grow all over, there isn’t too much coordination of who does what work, everything is incoherently cobbled together—not unlike a shantytown. In other words, there is no plan.

This was certainly my assessment when I first set foot on a Craven thirty years ago. I worked as an assistant on a trading skipper, dealing mostly in scavenged chips and rare metals. I had never grown my own vegetables, nor did I have any understanding of ecology—what Craveners refer to as ‘common knowledge.’

Trained as an engineer, I could only understand systems that approached order—inputs, outputs, scale, closed or open systems. My experience had told me the most productive industries were organized, clean, and depended on an economy of scale. What I saw on the island did not look like any of the models I had learned about, so I assumed Craveners knew very little about science, efficiency, or industrial design. Theirs was an undeveloped society, I thought, and their success over the past centuries has been largely accidental.

Despite my patronizing attitude, I found that, in business, Craveners were reliable, fair, and delivered quality products. So when I had saved up enough money to start my own skipping business I kept coming back. And as I got to deal with Craveners more I started seeing patterns. I got curious about what they were actually doing. Craveners aren’t very guarded, so I also learned to ask lots of questions.

This is how the conversation often went: I’d point at something, say, one of the many towers dotting one island, and they’d say, ‘That? It’s a pigeon tower.’ ‘What does it do?’ I’d ask. ‘The pigeons feed the soil.’ ‘They feed the soil?’ I’d ask, waiting for more explanation. The Cravener would pause, look at me, confused that this wasn’t self-explanatory. ‘Their dung has nitrogen and phosphorus, doesn’t it?’ they’d respond, ‘but that’s common knowledge,’ they’d add. I soon found that Craveners don’t really see what they are doing as complicated or requiring ‘expertise’. From their perspective, they aren’t doing anything special.

The difficulty of trying to describe Cravener production methods is that each Craven is so different. While many anthropologists have spent lifetimes living on a Craven, doing so does not provide a broad understanding of what techniques they use. Further, knowledge transfer is notoriously decentralized—they may host gatherings and conferences to exchange information, and there may be wikis on different technologies and practices, but there is no central repository, as far as I know at least, about all the practices and technologies that are actually in use. The problem is similar to that of being an Internet historian: you can’t know what is worth reading without some kind of wider knowledge of the Internet era; some theoretical framework by which to assess what is factual, what is useless, or what amounts to a conspiracy theory.

What’s more, Cravener production techniques don’t involve much prior planning. Many practices seem to require highly technical implementation and maintenance, an understanding of wider systems. And yet, construction seems to happen in a very hodge-podge manner, with no clear moment of decision-making. I have rarely witnessed a Cravener creating a model of what they wanted to build. Rather, Cravener infrastructure, with some exceptions, seems to be guided by a kind of vernacular ‘know-how’, instilled into a Cravener from the moment that they’re born.

For example, I’ll often see Cravener children touring the island with an adult, and they’ll stop by some kind of structure. The children will ask questions, and if the adult doesn’t know, they might ask someone working nearby. Children, even when young, might be asked to help build something—and so they learn how it works through practice. As they grow up, they engage in play where they build small versions of these technologies—the same way children on the Mains might build high-risers on the beach. When whole Cravens come together for a festival or a conference, children will travel with their parents to visit relatives and then learn about other Cravener practices. At these conferences, teenage Craveners are organized into teams and asked to come up with an invention, and those that come up with a creative design will be presented with an award. However, the models are not taught in a single ‘course’, the participants in the competitions base them on what they already know from a lifetime of experience. These experiences are not categorized into ‘fields’ but drawn from a kind of general understanding of ecology, design, or even their own society—necessary for knowing the extent to which a new technical practice can be reasonably adopted by their peers.

Of course, many Craveners do specialize as they get older, joining, for example, breeding and genetic modification labs, or spending years building and experimenting with new structures as part of what they call a ‘technical committee’. As many other researchers have documented, Craveners will also participate in a kind of ‘internal participatory ethnography’, where they move to another Craven known for a particular craft and learn from other specialists. And as goes without saying, their conferences can themselves be quite specialized, often focusing on a specific technology or even minutiae like the most ideal water dripping rate needed to grow tomatoes in an aquaponic system. But what they discuss at the conference is rarely implemented at scale or even adopted widely–and so the conferences cannot be seen as representative of Cravener means of production. They constitute more of a ‘best practices’ of what really happens ‘on the ground.’

Only repeated visits to multiple Cravens over a long time period, as well as multiple interviews of Craveners, can allow a researcher to deduce, from general visible patterns, the Cravener mode of production and the specific technologies that power it. I have been a Craven-approved merchant over three decades, which has allowed me to visit over 400 Cravens with a total of about 2,200 unique visits. I’ve also attended 43 Craven conferences. These experiences have provided me with valuable insight into Craven production processes, and the differences and similarities between Cravens. In fact, my research method can be seen as a kind of statistical ethnography, as my accumulated experience is somewhat representative of Cravener society as a whole.

In this book, I describe and catalogue the unique technologies that I believe represent the foundation of the Craven mode of production. I focus largely on specific techniques used in production that make up what Craveners call ‘island ecology’. Technologies can be seen as general ‘types’ that are somewhat isomorphic across Cravens. I hope that this book is useful for anyone who is interested in Craven society, or (even better) wants to start their own Craven society and is curious how they could do so. Further, I believe that understanding these technologies will help readers understand why Cravens have become so successful in a world dominated by insecurity, violence, and ecological collapse.

From a Cravener perspective, of course, ‘technologies’ barely exist. Tools, constructions, and techniques are embedded within their day-to-day lives, rituals, and even political system. They are, as such, indistinguishable from their society as a whole, in the same way that it is difficult to tell the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in many other societies. For this reason, one might instead use the term ‘practices’.

Further, it is difficult to formalize these practices into a coherent field of study such as ecology, agriculture, engineering, or sociology. Following previous scholars in the field of Craven studies, I prefer to use the Craven term, ‘common knowledge’, connoting the scientific-social-ecological know-how that allows them to maintain their mode of production and has driven their success over time.

In any case, the reader should keep in mind that these practices are indistinguishable from Craven society as a whole—without their social norms, rituals, and political system, they would certainly not have come close to the kind of astonishing economic success that they enjoy today.

Of course, it’s impossible to write a book about all of Craven society, so I have chosen to focus on the technologies that drive their political economy. However, I hope that the reader will get a sense of how these technologies are integrated within an organic, but holistic, political system. Despite the seemingly disorganized nature of Craven production methods, underlying it is a coherent political system that ensures democratic, and open, economic participation.

As it turns out, what at first appeared to me to be an inefficient and unruly production method, with little centralized direction, is in fact a hyper-productive economic system that encourages constant innovation and experimentation. In other words, a society predicated on the natural abundance of the air, sun, water, and soil—rather than one that has regulated everyone into scarcity. Instead of an economy of scale, a political ecology of scale. The technologies highlighted in this book are an essential part of that ecology.

All photos by Aaron Vansintjan

Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.

Social ecology, Kurdistan, and the origins of freedom

Göbekli Tepe (Urfa, Kurdistan) site of one of the earliest known human structures. Kobane lies beyond the horizon.
Göbekli Tepe (Urfa, Kurdistan) site of one of the earliest known human structures. Kobane lies beyond the horizon.

by Eleanor Finley

I recently had the opportunity to visit Turkey and North Kurdistan. In that short time, Istanbul celebrated the third year anniversary of Gezi Park, the Democratic Union Party (HDP) won unprecedented political representation in the Turkish parliament, and the cantons of Cizire and Kobane were joined.

Throughout these dramatic events, I was often sitting cross-legged on living room floors, drinking tea and listening to the stories of journalists, activists, and families who had participated in the Rojava Revolution. Such conversations were made possible through many comrades, most of all through Jihad Hemmi, who acted as a guide, translator, and intellectual companion.

Through my travels, I was given a glimpse of the relation between the Kurdish freedom movement and the philosophy of social ecology. By the same token, I gained a much clearer sense of the extraordinary scope and meaning of this particular revolutionary struggle.

 

Reviving Politics

Social ecology is a coherent Leftist vision that underscores the potential for human beings to play a mutualistic and creative role in natural evolution. We can fulfill this potential, social ecology argues, by uprooting the irrational, hierarchical, and ecologically-destructive society we currently live under, and by replacing it with a socially-enlightened and ecological society.

An essential feature of such a society would be the Aristotelian notion of politics, that is, the direct management of towns, cities, and villages by the people who live there. In other words, social ecology maintains that we can supplant capitalism and the state with a global federation of directly-democratic municipalities.

Left-libertarian thinker Murray Bookchin invented and elaborated on social ecology from the 1960s until his death in 2006. However, many other education projects, publishing ventures, political organizations, and writers also constitute this intellectual movement. Social ecology groups exist in many countries- including Turkey, Norway, Spain, Greece, Columbia, the United States and others. Although marginal on the Left as well as the mainstream, social ecology has had 40 years of steady influence on social and political movements throughout the world.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan started reading Bookchin at the beginning of his prison exile in the early 2000’s, bringing Bookchin’s works to his lawyers as recommended reading for the rest of the PKK. In 2004, Ocalan recognized himself in a letter to Bookchin as his “student”, and was in the process of establishing his own theories modeled on Bookchin’s ideas.

In 2006, the PKK began organizing Democratic Autonomy, an administrative system of civic councils to statelessly govern North Kurdistan. Democratic Autonomy would become an important antecedent for the cantons in Rojava, as well as for the confederal projects currently being set up within the Turkish state by the HDP (Democratic Union Party).

Democratic Autonomy is one of the first revolutionary Left projects to exercise power under an explicitly confederalist agenda. Although it did not practice direct democracy, it did mark the 21st century’s first serious attempt to approach the municipality—not the nation or the state—as the authentic unit of governance.

Unlike traditional Marxism, which reduced politics to economics and thus failed to offer democratic solutions, this approach brings economic decisions under the umbrella of communal decision-making. And unlike traditional anarchism, which avoided the question of institutional power altogether, this approach seeks to popularize power and render it transparent. Democratic Autonomy, the Rojava cantons, and other projects under democratic confederalism are steps toward creating (however imperfectly) a new realm of human activity characterized by free deliberation, debate, and the exercise of reason.

Freedom and Organic Society                                                                                                       

“The PKK never regarded the Kurdish question as a mere problem of ethnicity or nationhood. Rather, we believed, it was the project of liberating society and democratizing it.” – Abdullah Ocalan, 2011.

Intellectual commentators of the Kurdish revolutionary movement often focus on the juncture of principles and practice, looking no farther back in history than the establishment of the PKK in the 1970’s. But in order to understand how (or rather why) these principles came to emerge, one must use a deeply historical and dialectical lens. Social ecology offers one crucial piece of that puzzle. Through Ocalan’s interpretations, it has offered Kurds a radical new framework for asserting their role in the history of human liberation.

In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin accounts for the historical development of the concept of freedom. He identifies the beginning of this development in the earliest human settlements of Mesopotamia, what is now modern-day Kurdistan. Nearly 12,000 years ago, human beings initiated a decisive step in social development, undertaking the project of living together with more than they could carry on their backs.

This project presented vast new challenges for organizing and making sense of the world. Thus Mesopotamia is where we find the earliest instances of written language, mathematics, architecture, and agriculture. It is also, Bookchin recognized, where we find the beginnings of the struggle between ideologies of freedom and domination.

Bookchin points to the cuneiform word amargi (“return to the mother”), which first appears nearly 5,000 years ago in juxtaposition to the newly oppressive conditions under the Sumerian state. Organic society, he argues, had no previous word for the concept of ‘freedom’, just as fish might have no word for ‘water’. This conflict between freedom and unfreedom has stayed with society to the present day. Indeed, the revolutionary challenge we face today is that of pushing the development of freedom forward, making freedom, rather than hierarchy, the dominant social principle.

Just a few short days within a Kurdish household reveal that the organic society upon which the earliest states imposed themselves never fully vanished. From oral traditions of epic song to meaningful practices of naming children (I spent time with a little girl named Amargi, for instance), Kurds have retained ancient forms of egalitarian and organic social life since the Neolithic.

Like many organic or so-called indigenous peoples, traditional Kurdish kinship networks are vast and intricate. Once, while explaining the role of tribal groups in the Kobane defense, Jihad turned to me and asked, “How many cousins do you have?” “About 20,” I replied, “I have a big Catholic family on my father’s side,” to which he responded, “Counting both sides, I have over 200.”

Many of the Ocalanist revolutionaries I spoke to described their struggle as one of organic society against authoritarian society. They articulated a clear sense that not only capitalism and statist forces produced ISIS, but also the mentality of hierarchical society itself.

Many of the Ocalanist revolutionaries I spoke to described their struggle as one of organic society against authoritarian society. They articulated a clear sense that not only capitalism and statist forces produced ISIS, but also the mentality of hierarchical society itself. However, it was also emphasized that the purpose of democratic modernity is not simply to revive organic society. Rather, it is to revive the social and ethical aspects of organic society and weave them with the ethical principles gained by Western enlightenment. At the same time, it advocates the use of reason to work out the unethical aspects of traditional Kurdish society (tribal rivalries, for example), while also refusing the cold scientism and positivism of the West. Such a synthesis moves us into a new stage in the development of freedom, one which Ocalan calls “democratic civilization” and which Bookchin referred to simply as a free society.

Kurdistan2-284x300
An Ocalanist and the author share tattoos. Tattoos are prohibited under Islam, but are a retained aspect of Zoroastrianism in Kurdish culture.

The Power of a Coherent Narrative

By focusing on hierarchy instead of class, Bookchin became the first Leftist thinker to offer a coherent, meaningful framework to understand the liberation struggles in the Middle East. His narrative implies that a revolutionary movement in Kurdistan is a struggle at the material origin of institutional hierarchy itself.

Although such a localized struggle cannot automatically release hierarchy’s tight grip over rest of the world, it does powerfully illustrate the full scope of the revolutionary task at hand. In this way, the Kurdish freedom movement is not only influenced by social ecology, it also enriches that perspective and articulates it further.

The human beings who live at the material origins of institutional hierarchy, and who have maintained organic ways of life there for millennia, are now answering the call to establish the positive conditions of a free society.

Many Westerners are baffled by the determination of PYD and YPJ fighters, their ability to simultaneously withstand multiple attacks of genocidal violence and maintain a commitment to the praxis of anti-authoritarianism.

Many Westerners are baffled by the determination of PYD and YPJ fighters, their ability to simultaneously withstand multiple attacks of genocidal violence and maintain a commitment to the praxis of anti-authoritarianism. In Kurdistan I found myself humbled by the seriousness with which revolutionaries went about their project. Yet from a social ecological perspective I was also able to grasp that the Kurdish movement is infused with a deep sense of purpose, a knowledge that they have a catalytic role to play in world history. I was reminded of one of the passages in Bookchin’s essay, “The Communalist Project”,

“[Communalists] do not delude themselves that the state will view with equanimity their attempts to replace professionalized power with popular power…That the new popular-assemblyist municipal confederations will embody a dual power against the state that becomes a source of growing political tension is obvious. Either a Communalist movement will be radicalized by this tension and will resolutely face all its consequences, or it will surely sink into a morass of compromises that absorb it back into the social order it once sought to change.”

Clearly Kurds have selected the former path. What remains to be answered is how will we respond? Will we resolutely face the consequences of a coherent, historicized revolutionary vision, or will we continue to slowly fade into a morass of ever-diminishing compromises? Kurds have found—indeed, have chosen—their place in the development of human freedom. What is ours?

Eleanor Finley is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology. She has a background in feminist activism and was a participant in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Eleanor is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, environment, and energy in Europe. She is currently conducting action-research within the Spanish anti-fracking movement, and interns with Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

This article was originally posted on The Kurdish Question and has been revised from its original version.