Date: Fri, 2 Aug 1996 00:05:51 -0400
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: Harel Barzilai <>
Subject: Social Environmentalism and Native Relations (Green Web Bulletin #50)

(Note: Much of the following Bulletin, but with some additional material, was published under the title, "Deep Left Dilemmas", in the July-August 1996 issue of _Canadian Dimension_, Vol.30, No.4.)

Social Environmentalism and Native Relations

By David Orton

From Green Web Bulletin #50

There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be 'easily satisfied' either by producing much or desiring little. (Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, 1972.)


The main focus of this article is on critiquing social environmentalism in relation to native issues from a left-biocentric perspective. As an Earth defender I define myself interchangeably as a "left biocentrist" or a "left ecocentrist". (Biocentric is a term which has had a long movement life and is widely used but ecocentric is more encompassing and includes the landscape.) The left biocentric tendency represents a left focus within the deep ecology movement. See Bulletin #49 for a fuller discussion of "Left Biocentrism". This is a real emerging theoretical tendency although presently appearing under various names, e.g. radical ecocentrism, deep green theory, ecologism, etc. Although the terminology and content of the left biocentric tendency are tentative and yet to be collectively outlined, it should be understood that 'left' in this biocentric context means anti-capitalist but not necessarily socialist. Thus while some left biocentrists consider themselves socialists, as I do myself, some do not. When fundamental choices have to be made in my own consciousness, the 'left' is subordinate to the 'green'. This is why I am part of the Earth First! ecological movement. All left biocentrists would consider radical deep ecology a subversive philosophy, with goals that cannot be fulfilled within industrial capitalism.

There is agreement among left biocentrists that industrial capitalism has to go--both industrialism and capitalism. But the nature of its replacement is the subject of continuing thinking and discussions. Other theoretical tendencies within the environmental and green movements such as social ecology, ecological Marxism and ecofeminism, while raising important questions, are not biocentric but remain human-centered in their fundamental orientations.

Non-biocentric environmentalists who are influenced by the left/socialist/ communist/Marxist tradition of social justice, usually stress economic/ social/cultural justice for humans, over biocentrically defined all-species environmental justice. The ultimate subordination of non-human animal and plant life and the Earth itself to a human agenda, is taken as a given. At the philosophical level, the world view of class struggle is human-centered, not Earth-centered. 'Ownership' of the Earth by humans is accepted. Disputes are over which classes or groups of humans, including indigenous peoples, should have ownership, and how the benefits should be distributed.

I personally continue to believe that the communist/socialist promise of social justice through economic redistribution, remains necessary and valid today for the human species. So a transformed anti-industrial "socialism" could still be relevant, if it incorporated justice for non-human species, was against economic growth and consumerism, and was for human population reduction and a frugal lifestyle.

Being consciously left and expressing this in one's writings has not been particularly popular within the ecocentric stream of the North American environmental and green movements. Working within a capitalist framework, e.g. paying "commissions" to individuals to raise funds for radical environmental organizations, is mostly taken for granted. Many U.S. Earth Firsters, who have been weaned on a Cold War capitalist culture of anti-communism and who have drunk at the anarchist anti-communist watering hole, need to become open to the positive contributions of the socialist movement for promoting social justice. This openness does not cancel-out criticizing the anti-biocentric nature of industrial socialism.


While both social and environmental issues are crucial to address for left biocentrists, environmental issues are more fundamental than social issues. Left biocentrists believe that an egalitarian non-discriminatory society, a highly desirable goal, can still have an anthropocentric exploitive attitude towards the Earth. As I show in this article, for many left-wing environmentalists, social justice is upheld over environmental justice. Social ecology and eco-feminist beliefs help buttress this position. These beliefs hold that human-to-human relations within society are more important and, in the final analysis, determine society's relationship to the natural world. So from this social ecology/eco-feminist perspective, clearly the priorities for 'environmental' organizers are social, not environmental relationships. This anthropocentric tendency, enhanced by involvement with aboriginal peoples in various "solidarity" campaigns, is not usually explicitly articulated. It can be called social environmentalism. It is time for social environmentalism to be lifted into consciousness among environmental activists. It is necessary to ask whether the underlying assumptions of social environmentalism should be supported. Not having the ability to rationally assess a situation is fatal to activism.

Social environmentalism is to be found for example, in the Native Forest Network (I am the Canadian Maritimes contact), the Taiga Rescue Network, Canada's Future Forest Alliance, the government-funded Canadian Environmental Network, in some EF! Journal articles, and among most aboriginal organizations involved in environmental issues. Many non-native social environmentalists who work with aboriginals define themselves as "advocates" for indigenous interests. Some directly work, or do their main organizing work, for indigenous organizations.


In Canada, regarding environmental/native relations, social environmentalism implicitly or explicitly promotes the following views:


Past treaties were essentially dictated to aboriginals by a feudal-colonial state in Canada - "we have the guns here is the paper for you to sign" - for dispossession of lands, sweetened by some limited monetary and non-monetary benefits. How can such treaties be somehow models for contemporary land use and redress of grievances? It is not a question of past treaty rights but of social and ecological justice today in the 90's. (Since 1973, ten comprehensive land claims have been settled in Canada covering large land areas, such as the Nunavut Lands Claims Agreement of 1993.) It is necessary to go beyond human-centeredness, beyond treaties, and beyond land ownership and property rights. Native self-government must accept present day ecological and social imperatives, and discard the haggling over 18th century treaty rights. Non-native Canadians must accept the imperative of equality. New biocentric and anti-capitalist cultures are needed, grounded in respect for the Earth and social justice.


I am a bioregionalist at heart. Yet at present, the "nation" of Canada, my adopted country, is in a political and constitutional crisis of self-identity and could break apart, making absorption by the United States a real possibility. The existing federal arrangements in Canada do not satisfy the aboriginal peoples, the majority of francophones living in Quebec, or English-speaking Canadians. Therefore major changes are necessary. The results of the 1995 Quebec referendum, where the "sovereigntists" were barely defeated, is one illustration of the fragility of the Canadian nation. Given this general picture, I cannot support any "sovereignty" thrust by aboriginals or francophones, where representatives of either group define themselves as not being citizens of Canada.

Philip Resnick in his important 1994 book _Thinking English Canada_, points out that we cannot settle aboriginal land claims without having an overall general vision of what Canada should be like. One sees little awareness of this among non-natives in the environmental movement. Resnick says that sovereignty for aboriginals, or the people of Quebec, cannot mean nationhood or forming a state. We must recognize largely self-governing aboriginal nations, not aboriginal nation states. Resnick discusses from a social justice perspective, what a future Canada would possibly look like and the inevitable trade-offs for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians that will be necessary. The areas of jurisdiction that English Canada, Quebec, and aboriginals might want to share would, I think, include foreign policy, defence, trade, currency, citizenship, and quite possibly the environment.


All of us need to become much more conscious of what we want, in order to develop strong social justice and ecocentric alliances between natives and non-natives. This paper, although a critique of social environmentalism, is meant as a contribution towards this. Our common enemy is industrial society. Our common struggles are against social injustice and environmental destruction. Biocentric environmentalists whether non-native or native, must openly stand against further development in Canada. A larger de-industrialization strategy is needed for global ecological survival. Social justice for native peoples within Canada does not demand more development, however this concept is qualified, with its capitalistic assumptions of trickle-down economics. Social justice requires, within Canada and internationally, the redistribution of economic wealth, not further economic growth, and a frugal lifestyle by all, with minimal impact upon the Earth. It is important to see that deep ecology builds on but moves beyond the deep stewardship yet human-centeredness of traditional indigenous thought.

We all have to accept past aboriginal lessons of living simply, such as in the Sahlins' quotation from _Stone Age Economics_, about "desiring little" which introduces this article. Bourgeois economics promotes and rests on desiring much. The capitalist economic model in its fundamental assumptions is anti-Earth. It must be replaced and openly opposed. We need fundamental rethinking and revolutionary change not social environmentalism. All of us have to move on to an ecocentric ethics.

June 1996

Acknowledgement: Ken Wu, Helga Hoffmann and Ian Whyte gave valuable input to this article.

David Orton, Green Web, R.R.#3, Saltsprings, Pictou County, Nova Scotia, Canada BOK 1PO. Telephone/Fax: (902) 925- 2514. E-mail:

This article may be freely reproduced provided the text remains unaltered, no profit is made, and full credit is given to the author.