Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman vs social ecologist Murray Bookchin. Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman vs social ecologist Murray Bookchin. Photos © David J. Cross

This article is part of A\J's web series Night School. In celebration of back-to-school time and our Night issue, the A\J web team brought you a series of quick lessons, posted between September 16 to October 11, 2013, covering everything from activism tactics and canning tips to how factory farms breed disease.


Last week in A\J History, we followed the thread of ecosystems thinking through some A\J issues in the 1990s and 2000s, including what former editor Robert Gibson named as our most influential article, James Kay and Eric Schneider’s “Embracing Complexity.”

This week, we’re sharing a suggestion from our publisher and creative director Marcia Ruby: a lengthy battle waged in the A\J letters section, sparked by Brian Tokar’s 1988 article “Exploring the New Ecologies: Social Ecology, Deep Ecology and the Future of Green Political Thought,” which chronicles the “increasingly bitter feud” between social ecologists and deep ecologists.

Social ecology, developed by Murray Bookchin in New England in the 1960s, and represented by the Institute for Social Ecology, is based on “a radical ecological critique of hierarchy and domination in society,” and an understanding that social problems are at the root of ecological ones.

Deep ecology originated with Arne Naess in Norway in 1973 and spread to Europe and North America, manifested in and promoted by the Earth First! movement. Deep ecology, according to Tokar, “purports to speak more directly for the biosphere as a whole and seeks a better relationship between the human species and other forms of life.”

Despite holding “potentially complementary world views,” the two schools of thought instead somehow completely “polarized the nascent new ecological movements,” with “their very different theoretical assumptions and political styles,” Tokar laments. He goes on to say:

Vital questions of political strategy, efforts to understand better the evolution of people’s historical relationship to the land, and explorations of the links between political and cultural change are being lost in a war of personalities, accusations and counter-accusations.

Tokar urges everyone to move on from this disruptive dispute and get “back to the work of forging an ecological radicalism that can really shake the foundations of the miserably anti-ecological and anti-human society in which we live.” He then outlines his take on many of the major points of debate.

Now, A\J’s mandate is to provide a forum for debate on environmental issues, but it’s not too often that we see such a full-fledged argument play out in the magazine. But with Tokar quoting Bookchin describing deep ecology as a ‘black hole of half-digested, ill-formed and half-baked ideas,’” and saying that Dave Foreman “accuses social ecologists of being dour, humourless and hyperrational” – and given that it soon becomes obvious that Tokar’s real motive is to advocate specifically for the Green political movement – it was perhaps inevitable that the article would provoke a strong response.

In the issues that followed, letters called Tokar and A\J out for having “joined the current fad of deep ecology and Earth First! bashing” (in 16.2) “romanticizing early American experience” (in 16.4/17.1). There are also responses from Tokar and Bookchin himself.

We’ve compiled everything in one PDF so you can read the whole saga for yourself.

More from our political theory and activism categories on the website:

  • Rethinking Resistance: Leading environmentalists share their thoughts on civil disobedience
  • Alternatives: Three short essays about ideas and initiatives that rattle the authorities
  • Copy the Cure: Ideas worth stealing from the Breast Cancer Foundation

Also in the 80s: The move from Trent to uWaterloo

From founder Robert Paehlke:

Alternatives moved from Trent to Waterloo because I had done it for a very long time and had for the moment run out of local victims to serve as editor at Trent (a lull in environmental hiring) and, most important, the esteemed Robert Gibson seemed both able and willing.

Also new technologies were emerging and we could not afford to experiment with them in the production process. What did they call them? Oh, yes: computers. Rumor had it they knew about that sort of new-fangled stuff at Waterloo.

Laura is a past A\J managing editor. She has an MA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, is an organizing aficionado, lackadaisical gardener, and former musical theatre producer. @inhabitings

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