The owl of Minerva, takes flight at dusk


Ecology or Catastrophe is not just a biography of Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology and  the one who developed the doctrine of libertarian municipalism. It is also a memoir.

The author Janet Biehl was Bookchin’s lover, editor, researcher, and, finally, nurse for about two decades. In this well documented biography, she invites the reader to traverse the full arc of Bookchin’s life from his earliest days to New York City, his Marxist education and his participation in the revolutionary Left to his transformation into a green libertarian anarchist, and to his latest and isolated days to Burlington, Vermont.

2016-03-05 12.31.56After the death of his grandmother Zeitel, a “strict and strong” Russian émigré that first “groomed him to become a Russian revolutionary”, in 1930, Bookchin entered, at the age of nine, the international Communist movement as a member of the Young Pioneers of America, the Communist children section. “It was the Communist movement that truly raised me”, he would recall. ….. “They [the Communist movement] taught him to subsume his personal distress into an intense devotion to Communist Party, the Soviet Union and the coming revolution. …..The Communist movement became, in effect, his home”, they educated him, “they provided him with stability and validation.”

In the 1950s, under Joseph Weber’s influence, (Weber was an intellectual and heterodox communist from Germany and Bookchin’s mentor) and especially, after reading Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s The Road to Survival, Bookchin had started to rethink the impact of chemicals to the environment and food. He realised that the subject had enormous implications, that “the adulteration of food was part of ‘the misuse of industry as whole.’ ……. Chemicalization was part of the instrumentalization of food production, which commodified both farming and gustation. Capitalism as a system, it turned out, was harmful to human health and well-being. The very concept, Bookchin recognised, was explosive.”

Bookchin was also moved by Lewis Munford’s The Culture of Cities (1938) that culminated that gigantic cities, corrupted by capitalism and authority, are organised for power and money. The “small, close-knit European cities”, Munford had written, “had been human in scale, ….. attractive, communal and traversable on foot. In their many green spaces, people could gossip, trade, pray and politic face to face.”

Inspired by both Marx and Mumford, Bookchin concluded that the “possibilities of the cities are exhausted” and proposed that eco-decentralisation “could open magnificent vistas for individual and social development”. He said that they would have to break up the giant metropolises into small, highly-integrated, “humanistic in scale and appearance” free communities of [people] whose “social relations are blemished neither by property nor production for exchange.”

Hierarchical society could be replaced by a society of small-scale, organic, renewable – energy powered, self-governing communities. Against all things impersonal, anonymous, authoritarian, and commodified, Bookchin championed the cooperative, mutually responsible, libertarian and ethical. Authoritarian approaches to reason, science, technology, and ethics would be overturned in favour of libertarian ones. And this transformation not only could but must happen, because the ecology crisis affected everyone, giving rise to the need for a general social revolution. Such was the basic argument of the book that, written in fits and starts over the following years, would be called The Ecology of Freedom (p144-145).

Bookchin was a dynamic thinker and produced a huge amount of work. It was Murray Bookchin’s book Our Synthetic Environment (1962), which was published six months before Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring, that signalled the beginning of the modern ecology movement in the U.S. In this book, Bookchin presented a comprehensive account of environmental contaminants, pesticides, food additives, and X-radiation as sources of human illness, including cancer, while he also indicated the social and economic interests that underlay these contaminants.

In the early 1980s, Bookchin developed the doctrine of “libertarian municipalism” a vision of a political system based on the idea of direct democracy on a local level, formed by confederated municipalities and councils of recallable delegates with policy mandates on higher levels. ‘The potential for social freedom’ Bookchin argued, ‘still reposes in the municipality. …. existing municipal governments, with their city managers, mayors, and councils, are states-in-miniatures, but popular democratic struggle could rework them into citizens assemblies.’ He presented these ideas and arguments, in their fullest form in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, published in 1986.

Delving into the anarchist history to find support for his movement, Bookckin mounted a veritable and unsuccessful campaign to try to persuade anarchists to adopt libertarian municipalism. He became pivotal figure in the history of anarchism, but anarchists will never participate in elections. Municipalism is statism, it is parliamentarism, they said. Bookchin, had finally broken with anarchism considering it as fundamentally individualistic.

Biehl met Bookchin in 1986. She was mesmerised  by him. It was she was a mess but gradually the “hyperanxious, underachieving drifter-through-life” gave way to a competent and creative woman”, transformed by Bookchin’s “extraordinary affection”. She, finally, broke with social ecology and reverted to the political identity she had before meeting Bookchin, a liberal Democrat.

Ecology or Catastrophe is in  an insightful, but rather incomplete  biography of a radical and complicated person that lived a fascinated life. Janet Biehl tells a personal tale, at the same time, she vividly captures the most relevant environmental and social movements of the 20th century.