Given the breadth and severity of problems facing our natural world, we need to expand our notion of “community” from one focused exclusively on human beings to one focused on all living beings and the Earth itself. Given the absolute failure of mainstream approaches to changing our relationship to the natural world, we need to shift our political orientations to more participatory forms of democracy that embrace citizen activism.
Social justice is a concept that describes fairness in society among social groups. In particular, a social justice perspective highlights the economic inequality between social classes and the plight of the poor in modernity.
Typically, social justice is defined as a state in which all people have equal access to basic human services and are treated with dignity and respect. Classism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are seen as evils that impede the evolution of humanity.
As our environmental situation worsens month after month, I feel increasingly drawn to the ecological movement. I believe that the destruction of nature is a social justice issue because environmental problems most adversely affect poor and minority populations.
For example, research on “environmental racism” has documented the effects of toxic chemicals on African-Americans living along “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, the contamination by uranium mining of the drinking water consumed by some indigenous people, and how the proposed pathway of the Keystone XL pipeline will damage the lives of disadvantaged populations. Poor and minority groups often lack the political power to stand up to corporate greed.
The focus of a social justice perspective on ecological issues has led to the concerns for “environmental justice” — focusing on the unfair distribution of environmental burdens on particular social groups. This focus on how ecological ruin adversely affects human beings has been rightly critiqued for “anthropocentrism” — that is, the exclusive attention to how our species is impacted discounts the rights of the Earth and other species.
The “ecocentric”, or “biocentric,” ethic was conceived by Aldo Leopold in his famous essay “The Land Ethic” in his A Sands County Almanac (1949). The focus becomes the biotic community as a whole. From this perspective, the well-being of ecosystems must take precedence over the well-being of individual sentient animals.
As Leopold states: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Rather than advancing a park-making conservationism in which parcels of private land moved into the public domain, Leopold insisted on changing the fundamentals of society as a whole.
He argues: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively, the land. [A] land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
The dominant streams of Western thinking have desacralized nature and led to its oppressions. Our alienation from nature is a disease born of industrial civilization. Many who hold ecocentric perspectives believe that the land is sacred and all its inhabitants are kin to whom humans owe reverence and caregiving. To reconnect to nature, we need to listen and learn from the land. The transformation of human consciousness is a prerequisite to environmental sustainability.
Like many in our culture, I can be so immersed in mainstream discourses that I can lose sight of their complicity with structures of power. The political left of our country is composed of two divergent groups with opposing approaches to dealing with our ecological crisis.
Liberals insist that ”everything will be OK,” while radicals insist that the problems are so serious that we need major structural changes in the organization of society. Liberals tend to regard the basic institutions of our culture as sound and call for reforms. Radicals tend to regard industrial capitalism as inherently flawed and call for a major overhaul of our operating system.
According to Lierre Keith, the two groups have different conceptions of the basic unit of society. Liberals believe that societies are made up of individuals and individualism is a guiding ideology. Radicals see society as composed of groups and classes and regard identifying with a group as the first step toward political consciousness. Of course, this is a simplification.
The United States was founded upon the ideology of classical liberalism, an ideology that values the sovereignty of the individual and insists that economic freedom and property rights are essential to that sovereignty.
Liberals embrace capitalism while radicals reject it. Since the Great Depression, liberalism has embraced government intervention into the economy to regulate business and enforce safety and labor standards.
When it comes to addressing our ecological crisis, liberalism hands us a framework that truncates actions that could otherwise be effective. Lawsuits, recycling and petitions are not enough to confront the powers that be.
Our planet is dying, and nicely asking those in power to do something is not working. Bolder steps are required. We need a massive protest movement that will challenge the systems of power that are killing our planet. Changes in individual lifestyles are not enough. Replacing one consumer choice with another will not do. We need to think institutionally and not personally.
While I have long voted for environmentally-minded politicians, recycled my cans and bottles and have taken part in Earth Day festivities, “saving the planet” wasn’t my particular bag. I had other issues that more passionately stirred my heart. The “silo effect” of American politics allowed me to advocate for social justice detached from an ecological framework. I no longer think this is possible.
To become “deep green” is to combine the ecocentrism and the radical perspectives outlined above. Deep green is another way to talk about radical environmentalism. It has been borne out of frustration with the co-option of mainstream environmentalism.
I used to wonder how people got involved with ecological organizations such as Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. These leaderless resistance organization often subscribe to the idea of taking direct action in defense of Mother Earth, including civil disobedience, ecotage and monkeywrenching. While I appreciate their uncompromising attitudes, I personally have not (yet) embraced extra-legal tactics.
A deep green analysis of our environmental crisis would reveal the endemic structural violence at the heart of our socioeconomic order, highlight how power works in this phase of capitalism, and listen to the voices of those who are marginalized and silenced by these systems. Moreover, a deep green perspective listens to the land.
Being “radical” means not just having a critical analysis based on understanding the power structure of our country, but means embracing the role of disruption in bringing forth social change. When people collectively refuse to cooperate in the institutional relationship that constitutes society, they can create a mass protest movement that can alter or abolish the institutions that organize power.
The environmental crisis is rapidly becoming one of the accepted truths of the modern age. There is no more denying the loss of wilderness, the poisoning of land, sea and air, climate change or massive species extinction. While humans have a right to a healthy environment, we must move beyond questions of how environmental ruin affects us humans. The ethical community must be pushed out to include nature and we must fight to protect it.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).