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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).