Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin
A review of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin by Janey Biehl (Oxford University Press, 2015, 344pp, £22.99)

Almost every day, we learn of new horrors in the Middle East. Syria and Iraq are suffering from a brutal war. Fundamentalist groups like the so-called Islamic State and authoritarian leaders are murdering innocent citizens. Yet there is one sign of possible hope: in Northern Syria, the Kurdish people and their allies have established a secular, feminist and ecological republic, called Rojava, which means ‘the West’. 

It would be easy to romanticise this – in a situation of conflict and war, it can be difficult to put high ideals into practice. Nonetheless, Rojava, with its organic agriculture, cooperatives, direct democracy and women’s leadership, is both fascinating and inspiring. 

Most striking is the fact that Rojava is based on the teachings of a New York, working-class and Jewish-born green philosopher, Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, who died in 2006, is having a massive and massively positive effect in the Middle East. Ecology or Catastrophe is the unputdownable biography of Bookchin, which I am sure will be thought provoking to any member of the Green Party. 

Bookchin was born in the 1921. His parents had emigrated from Russia and his grandmother had been a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries, a peasant- based radical organisation. From childhood, Bookchin was immersed in political activity and made a transition from socialism to anarchism to his own form of politics he called communalism. 

He can be seen as an early advocate of radical green politics. His book, Our Synthetic Environment, published in 1962, discussed the dangers of pesticides. In the 1950s, he was already warning of the effects of climate change caused by fossil fuels. He campaigned against giant freeways that devastated cities and felt that cars were wrecking the environment. 

Janet Biehl was Bookchin’s partner, and her book is honest, showing Murray’s flaws as well as his greatness. It is a very personal and sometimes sad book, but it is also political and philosophical, introducing the reader to important ideas. 

Bookchin thought deeply about green politics, arguing that capitalism threatened our survival and that we need a democratic, ecological alternative. To challenge climate change and introduce a socially-just society isn’t easy, but Murray provides some ideas and inspiration we can learn from.