faced with the unthinkable: reading bookchin in catastrophe
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
"If we do not do the impossible, we will be faced with the unthinkable." — Murray Bookchin
A few weeks ago, CNN reported that we are slow-cooking the oceans like a giant crockpot. This is cataclysmic news that surprises no one, as the oceans have been coming to a boil for the past century or so— but now we measure the rate of warming in Hiroshimas, because I guess we've topped out every other scale. The current rate of warming is equivalent to dropping four atom bombs into the water, every second, for the past twenty-five years. Scientists have this weird thing for measuring climate-related news in Hiroshimas— global warming is like detonating 400,000 Hiroshimas every day. Greenhouse gases trap seven million Hiroshimas every week. Al Gore wrote an article in the New York Times about humanity’s battle with the climate, where he – you guessed it – compares global warming to nuclear war.
These metaphors are forceful, striking, and alarming, which is why everyone is clawing at the chance to use them. It’s hard to connect melting glaciers with physical human suffering, and Hiroshima conjures up the whole smorgasbord of war horror – charred flesh, skeletal cities, blackened landscapes, rivers of corpses, etc. The comparison implies that we’re locked in endless total war with Nature. So what should we do? So far, the answer seems to be to declare more war, except this time the war is against fossil fuels, or big money, or the meat industry, or overpopulation, or cars. We assume humanity is inherently awful, brutish, nasty, stinky, and just all-out destructive.
But what if we didn’t think that way? We tend to frame the relationship between humans and the environment as always and forever brutal, warlike. The caveman fleeing the rain becomes the farmer shaking his fist at the drought, who becomes the peasant cursing the flood, who becomes the engineer clotting the river with the dam. What if the entire problem wasn’t declaring war on the wrong thing, but declaring war at all?
This one idea threads through all of Murray Bookchin's thought. Born in the Bronx, Bookchin spent his teen years agitating for various leftist organizations. Once he graduated high school, he worked factory jobs where he was a labor organizer for the United Electrical Workers and the UAW. After getting into the standard meaningless ultraleft spats (Lenin was right and Trotsky was a traitor! No, Trotsky was right and Stalin was the traitor!) he broke from the Communists (thank God). It was the sixties. Computers could fit inside a single room. Dartmouth held regular conferences on artificial intelligence. America was about to go to the moon, for Christ’s sake. Bookchin beat Rachel Carson to the punch by four months. In Britain, Ted Hughes wrote a book about a giant robot saving the world by eating industrial farm equipment. In the South, the Klan carried out a terror campaign against the civil rights movement. In Manhattan, Andrea Solanas put two shots through Andy Warhol’s stomach with the same gun Peter Sellers used in The Pink Panther. “The old classes are breaking down, the old values are in disintegration,” Bookchin wrote in his essay Ecology and Revolutionary Thought. Anything could happen. “We cannot be extravagant enough in releasing the imagination of man.” Everything could happen.
Nature and humanity should lean against each other, each supporting the other, each nourishing the other. The environment includes us. We belong to the world.
Bookchin’s work is notable for its optimistic fervor, for its deep and serious commitment to justice, but also to its remarkable foresightedness. In essays such as What Is Social Ecology?, books like Remaking Society, and in countless interviews and talks, Bookchin argued that any environmental movement must be anti-racist and anti-patriarchal. The horrifying and generational effects of environmental racism could only be tackled with a movement that was willing to fight for nature without forgetting people. Today, we finally realize that climate change will hurt the most vulnerable populations. Organizations from the NAACP to the Sunrise Movement place social justice at the core of their activism. The current three Democratic frontrunners have pledged to fight against decades of environmental racism, prioritize historically marginalized groups, and take legal action against polluters in low-income communities.
His impact goes beyond climate justice. Bookchin’s thoughts on decentralization, termed “libertarian municipalism” in his writing, find a cozy home in today’s degrowth movement. Post-Scarcity Anarchism argued that small networks of local municipalities could produce enough to sustain their own populations, an idea echoed by the Sustainable Development Commission. Violent eco-extremists from Kaczynskites, who advocate for industrial society's collapse, to ecofascists , who wish mass slaughter under the guise of “population control,” are gaining ground in dark fringes of the internet. Bookchin slammed both in Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology for underestimating and disparaging human life. Nature and humanity should lean against each other, each supporting the other, each nourishing the other. The environment includes us. We belong to the world.
As early as the 60s, Murray Bookchin saw that humanity’s tremendous power could be used with nature, not against it. No one needed to starve. No one needed to freeze in the cold or collapse in the heat. No one had to fight and die for men they’d never met. Imagine a world without racism, without the patriarchy, where people worked in harmony with nature, where societal and class divisions gave way, where technology was used to repair the world, not destroy it. The activist and political philosopher spent his entire life articulating an open, equitable, and optimistic vision of humanity working in conjunction with the natural world. Currently, he’s rolling in his grave furiously enough to provide the entire continent with clean energy. Now, with the planet burning, with entire movements echoing his thought, there’s never been a better time to return to his writing. A better world is possible, if we’re brave enough to imagine one.
Samuel Gee is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.