Questions on anarchism and ecology, roughly. . .

Rough notes in response to this week’s Carnival of Anarchy:

I had a rare chance to sit and talk with my father face to face a couple of weeks ago. He’s a retired civil servant, who in a career with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked on a range of environmental issues from game management to endangered species recovery. We were talking about the weakening of endangered species protection and about the environmental damage likely to be done in the Rio Grande Valley by the immigration “fence,” and he challenged me a bit about how anarchism of the individualist, market-centered variety could respond to problems that are really ecological in nature. While decentralization and individualization of interests may reduce environmental impacts in some ways, it is certainly not guaranteed to solve problems where a big-picture approach and some degree of coordination seem called for.

I’m sympathetic to the concern, however much talk of “coordination” rubs my individualism the wrong way, and however little faith I have in “resource management” on current governmental models. I don’t think that any form of anarchism has really explained how it will deal with these sorts of problems. Primitivism seems like a denial of present realities at best, and at worst to harbor a nasty assumption that maybe the best thing to hope for is a massive human die-off. It probably is an anti-humanism in a way that even a good poststructuralist mutualist like myself can object to, in that primitivism seems to deny the ability of the human species to solve its own problems. I’m not for recklessly plunging ahead; there really do seem to be environmental crises facing us. But I’m guessing we can do better than a retreat to the “primitive.” Bioregionalism still seems like not much more than a slogan in anarchist circles. Market-anarchist denials of the need to concern ourselves too much, since presumably the market will sort things out, don’t convince me much. There’s just too much we don’t have a clear picture of. We don’t know what we’re losing with the loss of biodiversity, except in a general (generally disturbing) sense. Maybe global climate change is significantly impacted by human factors, and maybe not. The difficulties in that debate shouldn’t blind us to all the ways in which human action obviously is shaping our enviroment.

So many cans, full of so many worms. I don’t want to deal with much of that mess right now. I don’t have answers, and I’m guessing you don’t either. I do, however, have a few questions which strike me, right now, as of some interest.

On the leftlibertarian2 list, in another context, J. Neil Schulman raised the question of how individualists are to behave as individualists in the midst of conflicts, like the “war on terror,” where the actors seem to be collectivities, particularly where actors seem to be immersing their identities in these collective entities. It seems to me that, for individualists, it’s no easy task, but that, for individualists, there also isn’t any escape hatch. If we’re committed to the principles of individual liberty and responsibility, then we just have to do the best we can to uphold in individualist ethics, and this is perhaps most important where it is most difficult.

In the context of some writing I have been doing on mutualist economic theory, something like this same question resurfaced, and my answer, which had seemed relatively simple in the first context, came back to haunt me. The notion of the individual is not necessarily simple in mutualist theory. The mutualist agnosticism about property begins with some thorny questions about he degree to which the self is separable from other selves, from solidarity. William B. Greene wrote persuasively about what we might now call the social construction of the self, and borrowed from Pierre Leroux the notion that life itself involved relations with others. But the essentially prosthetic theory of property in Locke had already complicated the notion of the inside and the outside of the self in ways that we might not be faulted for considering ecological, even if the treatment of nature as “the passive element” in much liberal and libertarian property theory does not exactly lend itself to environmental concern. Anyway. . .

The question I’ve been wrestling with is this: how, given the involvement of the individual in complex, far-flung economic and social networks, is it possible to act as an individual in an ecological sense? What would than entail? Individualists who wish to act only at their own cost can’t stop exploring the costs when they find their “footprint” extends, in however dispersed a fashion, over the horizon. Michel Serres, in The Natural Contract, has asserted that human beings now act upon the planet in the form of a collective actor, call it Humanity, and that this has forced upon us the question of the rights, if there are any, of an-other, Nature or Environment, equally unsatisfactory from the perspective of libertarian philosophy, but perhaps equally real in its impacts.

It is a point of pride among individualist anarchists not to be “collectivist,” not to allow oneself to be submerged in mass-actors, to be driven by abstractions and spooks. But it isn’t always clear how, from this perspective, we account for those parts of our individualities that are at the very least strongly conditioned by external actors and forces, by others human and nonhuman, abstract and concrete. We’re not so good at accounting for our social contexts, for solidarity, for ecology. But unless these notions are simply fictions, our ideological and ethical commitments seem to call for some serious engagement with these broadly ecological concerns.

I hope to return to these questions soonish…

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.