In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lively debate between social ecologists and deep ecologists. In 1988 The Ecologist even devoted a whole issue to this debate (Vol. 18 No. 4/5). It has flared up on several occasions since, often couched in the rather opaque language of ‘anthropocentrism’ versus ‘ecocentrism’.

Murray Bookchin was one of the earliest ecological activists who championed the idea of social ecology. He started to highlight and analyse the ecological crisis some years before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. “Social ecology”, he said, “is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems.” For him and his followers it was the rise of dominance and hierarchy that had caused both the oppression of people and the despoliation of the planet. You couldn’t hope to address ecological ills without changing the ruling economic order. Bookchin’s ‘solution’ was local democratic communalism. His thinking has had a great influence on many ecological thinkers and activists.

The roots of deep ecology are more eclectic. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss is credited with coining the term and is often referred to as the father of deep ecology. The basic philosophy is that all the diverse forms of life on Earth have intrinsic value and their value is independent of any usefulness to humans; indeed humans have no right to reduce diversity except to satisfy vital needs. As well as this, deep ecology recognises the ecological damage humans are doing and explicitly acknowledges that a decrease in human population is required.

In the 1980s, Dave Foreman and a few others – people who described themselves, perhaps misguidedly, as deep ecologists – wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Earth First! Journal and elsewhere. Very much in the spirit of eugenicist Garrett Hardin, these were misanthropic neo-Malthusian pieces on the issue of over-population. They claimed, in the words of Stephan Harding, that “the AIDs virus was good because it reduced population, and that famines in Africa were good because they too reduced population”. They also had some derogatory things to say about social ecology. Now Bookchin was a pugnacious character, so he responded in kind, denouncing the anti-humanism of the authors. But his critique also extended to the whole of deep ecology: “Whatever its merits, the fact is that deep ecology, more than any other ‘radical’ ecological perspective, blames ‘Humanity’ as such for the ecological crisis – especially ordinary ‘consumers’ and ‘breeders of children’ – while largely ignoring the corporate interests that are really plundering the planet. This socially neutral aspect of deep ecology appears to be very agreeable to the powers that be.”

Harding regards this whole exchange as “water under the bridge”. Any distinction between deep and social ecology has become, he says, a “false dichotomy”: “First, as Arne Næss would have said, there’s no one central dogma in deep ecology. Everybody has to work out their own ecosophy, their own ecological wisdom. So these people by calling themselves deep ecologists had completely misunderstood the key point. Second, the first guiding principle for Arne Næss was that all life has intrinsic value, and ‘all life’ includes humans, therefore to be anti-human is not in tune with deep ecology… Bookchin was right to attack the anti-human views of Dave Foreman etc., but he was wrong to attack deep ecology, because these views have nothing to do with deep ecology...”

Harding continues: “I have a lot of respect for Bookchin. Arne Næss’s philosophy is radically pluralistic and different people have to work at different points of the frontier… For Bookchin the important thing is to reconnect with each other and then we’ll treat Nature properly. For Arne, if we reconnect with Nature we will treat each other better. Both are different viewpoints on the same spectrum.”

Brian Tokar was a colleague of Murray Bookchin for many years. He was also one of the people who contributed to the debate in the pages of The Ecologist back in 1988. In a long, thoughtful and quite conciliatory piece entitled Deep Ecology, Social Ecology and the Future of Green Political Thought, he wrote: “The increasingly bitter debate between these approaches, with their very different theoretical assumptions and political styles, threatens to obscure the essential work of movement-building and the development of more lasting alliances among people dedicated to saving the earth and creating more ecologically sound ways to live upon it. Instead of becoming further mired in sectarian debates between philosophical approaches that increasingly define themselves in opposition to one another, eco-activists need to begin evolving a broader approach, firmly grounded in a commitment to ecologically-sound living.”

More than 20 years later Tokar still eschews the more “polemical and divisive” language of his mentor, believing that greens need to find common ground. He says: “Movements are stronger when people with different views that have aspects in conflict, but others that are complementary, are able to collaborate to move a larger common agenda forward.” Of course, being a social ecologist, he regards active opposition to hierarchy and domination as crucial; yet he is positively effusive when it comes to the contribution of certain deep ecologists. He mentions John Seed and Joanna Macy. “They are two people who are most identified with the side of deep ecology that most emphasises personal therapy and ritual, but they always encourage people to be active.”

The question of population or, for some, over-population, has often been seen as a sort of dividing line in politics and policy. It remains a hot topic (see Jonathon Porritt’s article in Resurgence 274). Green MP Caroline Lucas recently called it “an elephant in the room when it comes to many environmental debates”.

Tokar and Harding have a similar take on the issue. Tokar says: “The question is whether we’re going to really try to understand the causes of rapid population growth or view it merely as a matter of numbers and demographics.” Harding thinks that the population issue is possibly a red herring. It might be that the planet could support 10 billion people for a while. “It’s not population per se that’s the problem; it is over-consumption, which has got to do with inequality,” he says. So women in poor countries need “good health care, education and access to contraception” while the other area of focus must be the unequal distribution of resources between rich and poor countries.

Others see things slightly differently. Writing in The Independent in October 2011, Jonathon Porritt described over-population as the crisis that “dare not speak its name”. He added: “Damage to soil, fresh water, forests, biodiversity and fisheries affect both the rich world and the poor world, and cannot any longer be blamed on ‘over-consumption in the West’.” He asserts that by avoiding the issue for too long the green movement has scored an own goal.

Overall there is a remarkable degree of convergence between Stephan Harding’s and Brian Tokar’s views. To the extent that their opinions are in some way representative of the two ecological philosophies – deep ecology and social ecology – then perhaps any lingering differences between them can now be consigned to the waste bin of history. And it would probably be good if they were, because what is surely more important is what actions we now take.

Almost without exception greens, of whatever philosophical persuasion, are involved in some form of activism, and very often some form of direct action as well.

Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not averse to making provocative statements that many social ecologists and others can find misanthropic. But does it really matter what his ‘philosophy’ is? He and the Sea Shepherd volunteers have arguably done more to obstruct and prevent the slaughter of whales and other sea creatures than any other single organisation.

The Occupy movement might seem quite different. One of its supporters is physicist and activist Vandana Shiva. Although she comes from a Gandhian background, parts of her recent article in Resurgence (No. 270) in support of the movement could have come straight out of one of Bookchin’s books. Having referred to ‘hierarchy and domination’, the key words in social ecology, she goes on to say: “‘Free markets’ mean freedom for corporations to exploit whomever and whatever they wish, wherever they wish and however they wish. It means the end of freedom for people and Nature everywhere.” No hint of an opposition between social and deep ecology here.

The social or political philosophy that informs people’s actions is important – be it deep ecology, social ecology or anything else. But what is really crucial is that some action is being taken.

This issue was covered in the Ecologist, in Vol. 18 No. 4/5. UK filmmaker, Mark Saunders is currently crowd funding for a documentary on the life and work of Murray Bookchin. For more information: <>;

Stephen Lewis is an economist, historian and writer.