Down to Earth: Anarchist efforts to save the planet

The Environment Crisis

The environment today is in a state of ruin. With forests across the world being felled en masse and there being untenable emissions of bio-chemicals, hardly does there seem to be any sign of going back. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that human activity is the leading cause of global warming. Carbon emissions between 1988 and the present day alone amount to one-half of the total carbon emissions throughout the history of humanity.

Ecological Approaches

The idea that the ecological world and its preservation are vital to any positive social change can be broadly termed as ‘ecologism’. The environment and ecological life have been a concern for a varying group of thinkers and practitioners, and in that sense is politically diverse. Authoritarians such as William Ophuls, Garret Hardin and Rudolf Bahro are associated with the far-right ecological thought. They advocate for an all-powerful state as a means to ensure ecological sustainability. They point to the increase in population as a major factor for the depletion of natural resources.

‘Deep ecology’ was the term coined by Arne Naess for the ecological movement that called for rapid, large-scale changes in lifestyle (such as giving up commercial meat production) in order to sustain nature. The term ‘deep ecology’ was contrasted with what the thinker called ‘shallow ecology’, a form of environmentalism that doesn’t seek any radical action and merely advocates for small modifications like using cars and refrigerators that cause comparatively less harm than others.

Deep ecologists inherited the Malthusian trend of representing population growth as a harmful affair that will inevitably lead to an apocalyptic catastrophe. Some deep ecologists even hailed the AIDs epidemic as a positive event that will reduce the population to benefit the natural world. They also call for a spiritual sensibility regarding nature, which they appropriate from tribal animistic philosophies or Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism. They have been criticised for their anti-human, neo-Malthusian worldview and a lack of consideration for the social, political and economic conditions that impact people’s interaction with nature.

Green capitalism is the view that increased free-market capitalism with an increased amount of ecological consciousness can be the solution for ecological problems. In an Earth Day meeting in 1991, several ecologists met to discuss the crisis and concluded that privatisation of land and wildlife would be a viable means to sustainability.

Market-driven solutions are often inefficient. Multiple corporations realise that resorting to green products will place them at a disadvantage against other corporations which can produce and sell at much cheaper rates. Thus, more companies are discouraged to strive for ecological improvement, since the very structure of the competitive free-market system doesn’t incentivise it. Other problems include the fact that emission trading schemes such as those in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol enable wealthy countries to buy poorer or less industrialized countries’ pollution quotas and then carry on polluting. Besides, even the go-green schemes purported by corporations such as Shell, Vedanta and Rio Tinto are merely a façade to cover the fact that these same companies indulge in ecologically untenable forms of logging and mining, single-handedly contributing to global warming and other environmental issues.

Eco-socialists believe that to sustain the ecology of the planet it is necessary to establish a socialist economy that is designed to benefit ordinary people and isn’t dependent on constant growth and profitability. They point out that it is the character of capitalism to grow into every corner of the world and exploit every natural resource to fulfill its inherent need for capital accumulation. Although early socialist movements ignored ecology to the point of neglect, various modern socialist thinkers such as John Bellamy Foster and Joel Kovel have revisited and presented Marxist theory in a new light with the preservation of nature at its core.

Another form of ecologism is eco-anarchism. Since anarchism isn’t very widely understood, I’ll attempt to lay down what the term implies, before I go on to explain its ecological involvement.


Anarchism is a historical movement, a political ideology and a system of organisation of society. Like other political ideologies, anarchism is diverse and has different strands of thought within it, I shall focus on the ideas and principles on a broader and more general level.

The word ‘anarchism’ literally means ‘against authority’ (or ‘against hierarchy’.) Anarchist thinkers trace the origins of their thought to as far back as slave revolts in ancient times or peasant uprisings in the medieval age; however, the term was first properly used by French political organiser Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and later by Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin.

Anarchism is characterised by its vehement opposition to the nation-state as it epitomises the most extreme forms of authority and hierarchy. Anarchists argue that society can be set up without a coercive government or state. Land, industrial property and natural resources can be communally owned by their inhabitants, who can be organised into small communities in the position to voluntarily interact with other such communities. Workers own their factories and farmers own their farmlands, therefore there is no economic exploitation. People interact with one another with mutual-respect and solidarity, eliminating the need for a coercive state to force people to function together.

This might sound utopian, but it is to be noted that such a society is possible and has been successfully achieved in history. Perhaps it is the ideology of our present political system that has us believe that people cannot peacefully organise, coexist and sustain, without being enforced from above through authority and hierarchy.

The above description of an anarchist society might sound similar to that of a Marxist communist society to an unfamiliar reader. Socialism and communism call for the seizure of land, industry and resources by the workers (just like anarchism) but they facilitate that seizure through a government and a state. Socialists seek to elect socialist parties and leaders into office and get them to legislate pro-worker welfare schemes and progressive taxation, paving the way for more radical change. Revolutionary socialists seek to organise a vanguard party that represents the ordinary people, in order to seize the state mechanism and turn it into a worker’s state, thus arriving at socialism where government, production and distribution are all controlled by the workers (indirectly through the vanguard party that represents them.)

Marxist theory prescribes for “withering away of the state” which is a stage in socialism where workers have been so entirely empowered that they don’t require to be represented by their vanguard leaders and can organise directly on their own. Thus, the socialist state machinery dissolves and we arrive at full-blown communism. So the end-result is communism where there is no state authority or corporate power and the society consists of self-organised workers who own land, industries and resources collectively. The final stage of anarchism and Marxist communism looks pretty much the same. But here’s the catch: the “withering away of the state” never really happened in history. Socialist parties have often taken control of the state (such as in the USSR or China) but have always remained in control. And, as the anarchists have feared, even the socialist states have turned into repressive dictatorships. Thus the anarchists aim to arrive at the final stage without having to go through state-controlled socialism.

The spirit of anarchism is summed up in the words of Mikhail Bakunin as, “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” In that sense, anarchism is socialism with freedom and without a state.

Unlike socialist states with a centralised government, anarchists call for genuinely decentralised, self-dependent communes which have their mix of ‘factories, farms and workshops’ and can produce for their own subsistence. Decentralised and small organisations help in structurally avoiding the hierarchy, authority and bureaucracy that forms in centralised systems.

Anarchist praxis involves organising workers in their workplace, forming collective organisations where workers can help one another. It involves the creation of an alternative societal setup, based on solidarity and mutual-respect which can function irrespective of what happens in the government. A major anarchist success was the creation of Mondragon Corporation, a cooperative company where employees and workers own most of the industrial equipment and manage their affairs by mutual discussion and workplace democracy, without requiring managers and CEOs above. Despite its flaws, Mondragon Corporation is doing astoundingly well, making great profits and competing knee-to-knee with other corporations.

Anarchist Ecology

Anarchism has always had an affinity for environmental and ecological concerns. Founding anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin’s book ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’ published in 1899 laid out the directions to create a society that integrated wilderness with rural and urban settlements, in order to sustain nature in perfect synchrony with modernised human lifestyle.

Kropotkin keenly studied nature and the myriad organisms present therein to propose a nuanced social understanding of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Unlike various reactionary thinkers who had appropriated Darwin’s ideas of natural selection to assert a rigorous individualist competition, Kropotkin’s influential study ‘Mutual Aid’, rejected such claims. It proved, with evidence from both human societies and animal life, that cooperation, coordination and solidarity were much better proponents that helped organisms evolve and grow.

Anarchism’s inherent call for decentralisation also puts an end to some persistent environmental problems. In an average metropolitan city in today’s globalised age, one might go to the grocery store to find carrots imported from Mexico in the same aisle as Kashmiri apples. Merely this phenomenon contributes tremendously to global warming, because of the emissions and biochemical generation involved in production and transportation processes of global supply chains. The technical term for this is ‘food-miles’ issue. A hundred years ago, Kropotkin had argued that a heavily populated country like Britain could structure its production in a way that it could feed its entire population through locally grown food.

Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network and researcher for a United Nations report on agriculture, appreciated the fact that 90% of vegetables in Chinese cities are grown locally. In the heavily populated city of Hong Kong, the majority of the vegetables, meat and poultry are grown within the city. While China isn’t an anarchist society by any means, this implementation and its success is a great indication of how environmentally helpful the anarchist method of decentralised production can be.

Peter Harper along with a group of other enthusiasts had launched the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) at Machynlleth, Wales. It is a corporation organised along anarchist lines with workers owning it cooperatively (similar to Mondragon Corporation, mentioned previously in this article). This venture is visited by about 80,000 people every year and is globally renowned as a demonstration site for environmentally friendly practices. It generates 90% of its own energy requirements in renewable form.

Murray Bookchin is a revered anarchist ecologist who has strived for ‘post-scarcity’ anarchism for multiple years. He has pioneered social ecology which enables the integration with nature through anarchist methods of social organisation. He critiques supernatural absurdity by drawing from Darwinian naturalism and its evolutionary worldview. He argues that humans are neither terribly destructive creatures, nor are we intrinsically separate from nature. Our cultural developments have been within the sphere of the natural world, in which we have evolved over the ages. We evolve not by merely adapting to the changing conditions, but creatively influencing and changing those conditions in the process. Humans are therefore an integral part of nature and our relationship with nature shouldn’t be that of mastery and dominance, but that of coordination and symbiosis, or as Bookchin would say, “dialectical”.

Murray Bookchin, Alan Carter, Brian Morris and other social ecologists have made lifelong contributions and a strong case for anarchist ecologism. As can be seen, various environmentalist developments are being made along anarchist principles, even by organisations which aren’t necessarily anarchist. One may hope that these ideas are more widely discussed and understood, as they stand as a beacon of hope for a green future.

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Suryashekhar Biswas, a media undergrad who likes to read history and Nazim Hikmet poems.

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