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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

Envisioning Ecotopia: The U.S. Green Movement and the Politics of Radical Social Change, by Kenn Kassman, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998, x, 160 pp.

 

Reviewed by Bron Taylor, Oshkosh Foundation Professor of Social Ethics and Director, Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Radical environmentalists envision and strive for three types of ecologically utopian or "eutopian" societies, says Ken Kassman, who earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Hawaii with a Future Studies emphasis. These green visions (which of course are also ideologies) are embedded in different worldviews, or cosmological perspectives, that shape the various ideologies.

Kassman labels his first type "Neo-Primitivism," taking Dave Foreman, Earth First!'s most charismatic leader, as its foremost representative. Neo-primitivists desire a return to small-scale, tribal, foraging societies. Such societies are believed by neo-primitivists to recognize the "intrinsic value" of all life and to be more ecologically sustainable than modern ones.

The second group of eutopians Kassman calls the "Mystical Deep Ecologists." He focuses especially on certain ecofeminists, taking as exemplary Charlene Spretnak (a green feminist promoter of goddess spirituality) and Starhawk (the most prominent architect of contemporary witchcraft). Such mystical deep ecologists blame patriarchal domination and legitimating, masculine, sky-gods for the assaults on women and nature. They seek a return to matriarchal, goddess-worshipping societies that are, putatively, benign.

The third movement Kassman analyzed is "Social Ecology," represented by Murray Bookchin and his colleague Janet Biehl. These analysts view both primitivism and deep ecology as regressive, failing to recognize hierarchy and social injustice, in all its forms, as the root of environmental decline. Social ecologists insist that humans must assume responsibility as rational moral agents for the well being of their own societies and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Kassman asserts that the tensions and disagreements among the different movements and their intellectual leaders may obscure patterns that underlie these movements, the way they challenge power and promote in a salutary way a rethinking of current, environmentally destructive lifeways. Yet he also warns of "dystopian" tendencies in all three approaches, hoping thereby to ensure that the negative logic embedded in these visions can be avoided.

The most innovative part of this book is where Kassman, in a method popularized by Future Studies scholars, shifts to a fictional genre. He first projects what an ordinary day would look like if each of the three eutopian visions were realized. He then speculates about what such a society would look like if the negative, shadow-side tendencies of these visions were realized instead.

Unfortunately, much of this book, both the typologies established and the projections about their presumed, most-likely unfolding, are based on inaccurate, oversimplified, or out-dated information about the individuals or subcultures supposedly supporting the different visions. Consequently, the volume devolves into straw-man analysis.

The portrait of the neo-primitivists, for example, is drawn on insufficient and out-dated sources. Unmentioned is the schism in Earth First! that culminated in 1990, precipitating Dave Foreman's resignation from the group. Foreman subsequently founded the conservation-biology oriented journal Wild Earth, while simultaneously returning to more conventional environmental activism with his Wildlands Project. This is hardly a primitivist approach. The Wildlands Project is utterly dependent on cutting-edge biological science, striving to convince governments to set aside large, biological preserves. Foreman's neo-primitive fantasies were far-fetched and he knew it from the start ÷ but the reader would not ÷ on Kassman's account. The Wildlands Project does not promote a foraging ideal, at least in the foreseeable future. Instead it urges dramatic reductions or de-populating of natural areas by humans, but this is unacknowledged by Kassman. In the light of Foreman's recent endeavors, portraying him as a "neo-primitivist" is strained, despite Foreman's sometimes idealization of the primitive.

Kassman's arbitrary choice to focus on the most "essentialist" of the ecofeminist writers as the representatives of "mystical deep ecology," then turning to express fear that the logic that inheres to such a vision could produce an oppressive matriarchal regime, is another example Kassman's straw-man alarmism. This choice of focus provides him with more to worry about in his dystopian scenario than stronger forms of deep ecological thought, but it is hardly fair to take as deep ecology's representative form an essentialist, overtly goddess-oriented deep ecology. It is also out-dated to do so, since essentialist ecofeminism is decreasingly influential within radical green groups. It is a bad analytical choice to begin with the assertion "Mystical ecofeminism can be used as a distilled representative of the Mystical Deep Ecology worldview" (p. 25). It may serve Kassman's purpose, which is to criticize ecofeminist essentialism, but it is an empirical mistake.

My greatest quarrel is with Kassman's oversimplified and rigid typology that paints a portrait of three, distinct (and largely separate) subcultures promoting their own distinct eutopian ideals. Such an analysis can only be sustained in the absence of fieldwork that would have revealed that his typology was untenable. On one occasion Kassman acknowledged that "many members of the Greens exhibit tendencies toward more than one subculture affiliation" (p. 96). Unfortunately, this recognition does not nuance his analysis. Indeed, even in his own sources, we can see that he has forced his data to fit his typology. In different places bioregionalist pioneer and Planet Drum founder Peter Berg, for example, is called a social ecologist, as well as a primitivist, even though Berg also clearly identifies himself as a deep ecologist and animist (and thus a mystic). Fritof Capra (misspelled Fritov on two occasions by Kassman) is called a social ecologist (p. 44). Capra today, however, clearly considers himself a deep ecologist (see chapter one of The Web of Life, 1996). The mystical deep ecologists are portrayed as those who promote "reenchantment" of human attitudes toward nature, but there is no mention that such "resacralization" was viewed as a central objective by Dave Foreman during the 1980s and into the 1990s. These few examples reinforce what I have repeatedly found during my own fieldwork, that radical environmentalism is a dynamic mix of cross-fertilizing ideas and people. Radical environmentalism is a far more difficult phenomenon to sub-divide and typify than one would assume when reading Kassman's volume.

A neophyte to green thought might well find this volume interesting. Although there is some unclear writing, in general it is accessible. Teachers might find helpful the charts characterizing differences in worldviews which Kassman has painstakingly assembled, drawing partially on previous scholarly analyses of green worldviews. There are, however, better trailheads leading the neophyte into green thought and the subcultures giving rise to it. Indeed, by the late 1990s, a substantial critical literature has emerged focusing on radical green thought and spirituality. Much of it is lucid and provides a better picture of the pluralism, tensions, and mutual influences among such groups. Despite their earlier publication dates, to grapple with the issues posed by Kassman, it would be better to start with Andrew Dobson's Green Political Thought (1990), Robin Eckersey's Environmentalism and Political Theory (1990), Michael Zimmerman's collection in Environmental Philosophy (1993), and Roger Gottlieb's edited volume This Sacred Earth (1996).