William Shanahan

Relearning Lessons from “The Great Debate”: Bookchin, Foreman, and Other Ecological Ghosts

By, William Shanahan, ICAS Economics & Politics IRC Chair


“I’ve never believed that the people in EarthFirst! are fascists. I am afraid, however, of certain positions and statements, the tendency of which remind of things I heard fifty years ago when there was a world-wide fascist movement that used “naturalistic” Malthusian arguments to justify racist population control policies. . . .I went through the 1930s. We paid the price of sixty million lives back then as a result of a racist, imperialist war and mass extermination policy. This sort of thing is no radical ecology” [Bookchin, 1991: 30].

Ah, Murray, the supreme polemicist. At the moment of his “rapprochement” with Dave Foreman and EarthFirst!, he obliquely chastises them (again) for harkening back to population control policies of the Third Reich, despite explicitly distancing his critique of deep ecology from the charge of fascism. That Bookchin, an unrepentant Hegelian, humanist, and a battle-hardened social activist, should engage in such a blatant reductio ad Nazism is not at all surprising. What might be surprising is the continuing relevance of this “Great Debate” for the current constitution of critical animal studies.

In summer of 1987, Murray Bookchin delivered the keynote address at the second National Green Gathering in Amherst, MA, in which he castigated the “Deep Ecology” movement for being antihuman and antisocial. His critique engendered a firestorm of controversy and acrimonious interchanges. A couple years later, Bookchin and Foreman enjoined their disputation again, this time mediated by the activist organization, the Learning Alliance. The subsequent love fest papered over serious, deep-seated disagreements among the various factions of the radical ecological movement.

Critical Animal Studies deserves a “heroic dose” of Bookchin’s social ecological critique, as well as the fast and furious rejoinders from the movement’s deep ecological wing. Specifically, the methodological debate concerning dialectical naturalism and ethical arguments from biocentrism. Effacing the distinction between humans and animals invites a whole host of concerns regarding extant and theoretical embraces of a radical ecology deeply rooted in egalitarian principles and philosophical discourse. Confronting the non/human dichotomy, navigating the inevitable disputes among committed environmental and animal activists, and critiquing the philosophical assumptions that precede and potentially determine said activism remain as nettlesome today as during the aftermath of “The Great Debate.”

This first part of this spectral examination attempts to adjudicate between their mutual charges of “misanthropy” and “anthropocentrism,” such that their resolution can hopefully implicate and explicate contemporary critical animal controversies. Enacting Bookchin’s emphasis on Hegelian dialectics, our philosophical haunting negates the former’s dichotomy between first and second nature, while focusing on his methodological approach to radical ecology as it relates to understanding critical concepts in animal activism today. Finally, the rhetorical trajectories of this “Great Debate” are folded back into the present critical animal milieu, exposing its pale underbelly and hastening to (theoretically) cover it back up.

Questions concerning method, rhetoric, philosophy, argument, and the like still deeply affect the continuing relevance of critical animal studies, radical ecology, and social activism. This paper proffers a historical, critical assessment of our exigent activist circumstances.


Coming soon…