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Political Ecology, by the veteran Canadian community organiser and publisher Dimitri Roussopoulos, opens with a prediction. The UN climate change conference in Paris this December will fail. State management of the environment, which has spawned hundreds of global agreements since the 19th century, has not arrested, let alone reversed, the environmental crisis. Political and economic elites are ‘practically speaking, in denial’, says Roussopoulos.
But NGOs are equally hamstrung by environmentalism – a managerial approach, akin to acute medicine, according to Roussopoulos’ definition, that tries to deal with one urgent problem after another (like climate change) but refuses to confront their underlying cause. So we come to political ecology, which transcends environmentalism, by demanding radical changes in social, economic and political life.
Roussopoulos concentrates on one variant: social ecology. A social ecologist himself, he was a friend of Murray Bookchin, the American theorist who invented the concept.
The relevance of social ecology is fourfold. First, it’s implacably anti-capitalist. We need to face the ‘raw brutality of capitalism’, says Roussopoulos.
Second, social ecology aims to create truly participatory democracy. A section of the book, which should be required reading for every UK housing activist, chronicles how a six-block area of Montreal (a city labelled ‘a laboratory of social ecology’) was saved from developers, creating 22 self-managed housing co-ops. ‘Imagine an entire neighbourhood where the buying and selling of property is not permitted,’ writes Roussopoulos.
Third, social ecology is against the nation-state. While this currently has little traction in the west, it has inspired a revolution in Syrian Kurdistan spearheaded by the formerly Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The now social-ecologist Kurds advocate ‘democratic confederalism’, gender equality and ethnic tolerance, to be spread throughout the region. As an alternative to bombing and ethnically dominated nation-states, this is infinitely preferable.
Lastly, social ecology is resolutely urban. Social ecologists focus on the city as the ecological future of humanity. Not the megacities sprawling everywhere today, but physically and institutionally decentralised, ‘human scale’ cities. There are many questions left unanswered, but this book is a good introduction to a strand of political thought that merits more attention.