Ethics, Anarchy and Sustainable Development

Murray B 2001

[Image of me visiting Murray Bookchin at Vermont in 2001]

First published in Anarchist Studies, Autumn 1994. This draft version is reproduced here because I believe it to be relevant to the issues we face in 2020. I also acknowledge my debt to Murray Bookchin in the evolution of my own thinking from social ecology to the Symbiocene.



This paper will critically contrast two approaches in ethical and political thought that have taken into account the concept of Sustainable Development (SD).  In particular, it will examine the major ethical implications of SD, intra- and inter-generational equity and biodiversity, through left and right-wing traditions in anarchist thought.  While both these traditions are compatible with notions of self-determination and self-generated order, they employ very different assumptions about ethics, nature and human nature.  The interpretation of SD within a right-wing tradition in anarchism and ethics stresses the primacy of individual freedom within the spontaneous social order generated by the economic market place, while a left-wing interpretation gives stress to human freedom within the spontaneous social order created by the sociality of the species and by the self-generated organisation present in ecological systems.  It shall be argued that only a notion of ecologically sustainable community development based on left-anarchist thought offers the hope of a genuinely ecological and equitable society.

Keywords:  Ethics, Anarchy, Sustainable, Ecology, Development.

Introduction: Sustainable Development

The concept of `Sustainable Development’ (SD) has been explicated in a number of theoretical and policy documents on the human-nature relationship over the past two decades.  Birch, writing in 1976 and himself giving credit to John Stuart Mill for first considering the issue, gave an early description of a sustainable society.  He argued then that:

The basic proposition of this book is that a fundamental transformation needs to take place in Western culture and in those developing countries which are embracing the same values.  From a society whose direction is primarily orientated to material growth we have to move to one which is more in conformity with the carrying capacity of the earth and in which a high quality of life for all peoples in all countries can be attained and then sustained indefinitely.  The sustainable society is dependent on an ecologically ordered world. (Birch, 1976:24)

The concept of SD received international recognition and rose to prominence with the report of The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), sponsored by the United Nations and first published in 1987.  Since then, many nations have attempted to create public policy guidelines on how human development can be made compatible with environmental considerations and how ethical concern about the burdens the present generation is placing on future generations of humans can be resolved.  In the UK, Australia and Canada, major policy initiatives have been produced that take into account the implications of SD on current practices.  The European Community and The United Nations have also promoted the concept, the latter most recently in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, the major principle and policy outcomes of The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992.

The WCED, for example, in its seminal document Our Common Future (1987), concentrated on what is good for humans and discussed the need for improvements in the quality of life of many humans on the planet.  Rather than highlighting an ecologically derived `limits to growth’ version of SD as we saw with Birch, the WCED links it the expansion of economic growth.  At the beginning of Chapter Two there is the now often quoted definition of what SD means:

Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It contains within it two key concepts:

  * the concept of `needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and [this rarely quoted statement]

  * the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. WCED (1990:87)

The main focus of the WCED report is that the issue of human development is linked to the satisfaction of essential or basic human needs and aspirations.  Limits to growth are imposed on what humans can extract from nature by the current level of technological expertise and the degree of social organisation.  There is occasional acknowledgement that ecological realities will play a role in directing or limiting economic growth.  In other words, the thrust of the WCED Report is highly anthropocentric or human welfare orientated.  It explicitly links advancement in human welfare to improvements in technological capacity, wealth generation and environmental management.  Greater wealth generation will enable basic needs to be better met, which in turn will generate less demand on fragile environments by stressed and desperate people.  Thus, issues of social justice for both present and future generations of humans will be addressed by a type of economic development that will also protect the environment.  Sustainable Development carries with it the ethical issues of intra- and inter-generational equity and the value of biodiversity.

The idea that the national and global distribution of benefits and burdens is inequitable is certainly not new.  Marxists and other critics of the anti-egalitarian tendencies of Western Capitalist growth have long pointed out that `progress’ within this system is achieved at the material and spiritual expense of various groups or classes of people.  What is new is the idea that failure to develop creates poverty and poverty generates a tendency to destroy the environment.  In the hands of many western governments, the concept of SD has been welcomed as the means by which the existing mode of economic production and its associated values can continue with only minor modifications.  The major goal of increasing economic growth is not contested, it is actually seen as the key to social justice and environmental protection advances that will follow from the wealth generation that is characteristic of capitalism.

It is thought by those who support the WCED concept of SD that it represents an advance over many other attempts to get humans to rethink the human-environment relationship.  Rather than reject the notion of development, as seems to be the case with biocentric focused conservation, SD engages the challenge of trying to reshape industrial progress in such a way that forces like poverty that are likely to destroy the environment are neutralised.  Such an approach also goes beyond the limited extension of human ethical concerns to sentient species.  The Animal Liberation movement does not provide an ethical base for considering the totality of the human-nature relationship.  SD represents an enlightened form of stewardship that replaces the despotism of past human-nature relationships typical of resource consuming, industrial societies.

The optimism about the economic version of SD to succeed in achieving ethical and environmental gains has been seriously questioned by many non-government organisations and critics.  For these groups and individuals, in varying degrees, the concept of SD is retained but there is deeper critical analysis of the whole basis of the system of production and exchange.  Rees, for example, after analysing the current carrying capacity of the globe concludes:

Such considerations call seriously to question the Brundtland Commission’s [WCED] route to sustainable development through a five-to-ten-fold increase in industrial activity.  Indeed, it forces a reconsideration of the entire material growth ethic, the central pillar of industrial society. (Rees, 1990:21)

It is clear then, that the meaning of the concept of SD is highly contested.  On the one hand it is seen as a blueprint for increasing economic growth without a corresponding decline in social and environmental quality, while on the other it is viewed as a means for providing a radical critique of the whole industrial growth paradigm and a base for remaking society along new and very different lines.  These two perspectives shall now be analysed within anarchist theory.  As shall be argued, right-wing anarchism shares many of the features of the `growth’ version of SD, while eco-anarchism and the Social Ecology of Murray Bookchin supports the `limits to growth’ version of SD.  Both traditions argue against state intervention to “enforce the common interest” (WCED, 1990:107) but do so in very different ways.

Anarchism – Right-Wing and Left-Wing

Left- and right-wing versions of the ethical and political philosophy of anarchism have come into prominence in the debate on economic and ecological matters.  Both, in the name of libertarian values, claim that the best form of society is one that allows for social order to be the spontaneous result of humans living their lives with minimal restrictions on individual freedom.  Each of these traditions is critical of the need for centralised governance and authority and are advocates of self-regulation on matters of importance.  Both conceptualise ethics as descriptive of good people and a good society and in theory oppose any conception of ethics which is prescriptive.  The ethical foundation of anarchism is simply that order can be produced by voluntary, rather than imposed restriction to freedom.  Anarchy literally means `order without a ruler’ and left and right would be happy to agree on this point.

Where these traditions differ is on the nature of order and how that order is to be produced.  Those on the right see order in society as substantially the outcome of freedom from constraint within the economic market place and hence the emphasis is on `economic rationalism’.  This rationality is based on a conception of human beings who are isolated individuals or autonomous moral agents, as the bearers of rights, all in open competition with each other.  Such competition produces order through the mechanisms of the market place and its law of supply and demand.  Market Liberalism tends toward the anarchist pole of the political spectrum when in addition to self-generated economic order, other cultural values are seen to be determined by social self-regulation rather than state intervention.  Right-wing ecoanarchism is the view that private property rights and free markets can self-regulate to create a sustainable society.

Left-wing ecoanarchism has addressed the ethical questions of SD through a different foundation and has provided a radically different outlook for the future of humanity.  In this tradition human sociality is linked organically to the evolutionary/ecological context in which it is embedded.  `Freedom’ is a concept that begins to take on meaning only in a context where basic needs and desires can be satisfied in cooperation with others.  Such cooperation forms the basis of social life and is formally expressed by participation in decision-making that determines common goods.  The ecoanarchism of Bookchin, for example, forwards a naturalistic ethic which is based primarily on scientifically-derived knowledge of ecological and evolutionary structures and processes.  It is these structures and processes that support life, including human life, so they provide a foundation for an ethic that is itself life-supporting.  From this material and ethical foundation come the design principles for the elements of a sustainable society.  As long as it satisfies the fundamental role of maintaining the integrity of ecosystems, such design can be as creative as the diversity of habitats that support life will allow.  Left-wing ecoanarchism sees participatory democracy, and hence the absence of a formal political State, as consistent with both ecological and communitarian ideals.

Sustainable Development and Right Wing Anarchism

Sustainable Development (SD) as presented by the WCED directly addresses the main concerns of a human-centred ethics.  Two major ethical issues arising out of this anthropocentric perspective are those of intra- and inter-generational equity.  Concerns about the inequitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of development (injustice) and the thought that the present generation might be creating major social and environmental problems for future generations is the ethical impetus for change toward a society that has continuity or sustainability.  A third issue, biodiversity, is also considered under a human welfare perspective with species and ecosystems being seen as “crucial for development” (WCED, 1990:191).

In the WCED, these major ethical issues are addressed by, as was pointed out above, the advocacy of considerably expanded global economic growth.  As chairperson of the WCED, Brundtland, in her forward to the report put it: “What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable” (WCED, 1990:xvii).

In that the WCED sees the achievement of increased global economic growth as the outcome of both strong, centralised government and the free market, it cannot in any way be considered as consistent with economic liberalism nor its extension into right-anarchist theory.  However, those on the right have been given a considerable fillip by having an internationally influential document, purporting to harmonise economic and environmental issues, claiming that this is possible by the expansion of the processes that create economic wealth.  In effect the WCED have produced a global version of the “trickle down” theory of wealth where nations at the bottom of the international hierarchy become better-off as the global economy as a whole becomes wealthier.

The WCED perspective on how the twin problems of poverty and environmental destruction are to be solved is supported by market liberal political philosophy with its stress on the primacy of the freedom of the individual actor in social negotiations, particularly economic transactions in the market place.  Here the foundation for ethics is what is good for the individual, with competition between individuals or collections of individuals the basis for order in society.  It is argued by those who support this position that enlightened self-interest will spontaneously generate order in a liberal democracy because limitations on excesses are produced within the market’s system of checks and balances and information gathering.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, otherwise known as the law of supply and demand provides the order necessary for the continuity of social life and the judicial law upholds such order by protecting the freedoms of individuals within a prescribed set of rights.

Contemporary support for this position comes from those such as Hayek who see the emergence of a market based economy as the expression of spontaneously produced order.  Hayek argues:

Modern economics explains how such an extended order came into being, and how it constitutes an information-gathering process, able to call up, and put to use, widely dispersed information that no central planning agency, let alone any individual, could know as a whole, possess or control.  Man’s knowledge, as Smith knew, is dispersed. (Hayek, 1988:14)

The self-regulating order of the market is also linked to the primacy of the rights individual social actor.  Rand has championed the idea that a free society is possible only if is based on the principle of individual rights and that in turn “if one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realize that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them” (Rand, 1964:92).

The application of the rights-based approach to environmental and economic matters would see dollar values being put on the environment as a way of enabling individuals and corporations to own `environmental capital’. Those species and ecosystems that are directly economically valuable will be protected by the self-interest and property rights of those individuals and corporations.  Such a system may lead to much effort and care being put into the conservation and preservation of, for example, a section of a river or a commercially important species such as the African Elephant.  As Anderson argues in the context of private fishing rights:

 When water for instream uses can be privately owned, there is an incentive to manage and improve the fishing habitat. In order to capture a return on the investment, owners must invest in enforcing their property rights, so the British hire fish and game managers and invest in capital improvement on their streams. (Anderson, 1990:141)

Market liberalism when dominated by economic rationalism can be taken to its anarchistic extremes.  The world market becomes the arena for the action of autonomous moral agents or their corporate counterparts all seeking to maximise gain through growth and expansion.  It is these agents that wish to operate with minimal constraints of world or national governance upon their freedom.  This is why, during an era of unprecedented ecosystem destruction, when to some the need for regulation has never been greater, the cry for “freedom from restraint” and the need for a `level rainforest’ has never been louder.[i]

The national and international market is anarchic in that for those like Milton Friedman, Nozick[ii], Hayek and Rand, there is the profound belief that freedom from the interference of government will produce the best kind of social order.  As argued by the Friedmans:

In a free trade world, as in a free economy in any one country, transactions take place among private entities – individuals, business enterprises, charitable organizations.  The terms at which any transaction takes place are agreed on by all parties to that transaction.  The transaction will not take place unless all parties believe they will benefit from it.  As a result, the interests of the various parties are harmonized.  Cooperation, not conflict, is the rule. (Friedman & Friedman, 1980:74)

Arising out of the international market is order which is the spontaneous result of the actions of individuals.  According to libertarians of all persuasions, spontaneous order is ethically preferable to order which is achieved by authoritarian command.  Again, for the libertarian economists, this is why market-based or economically `rational’ solutions to environmental problems are thought to be preferred to imposed regulation and control.  Enlightened self-interest, operating within the system of checks and balances provided by the market place, are thought to generate the best result for all factors concerned.  As was also argued by the WCED, efficiency and growth will account for equity and justice and enlightened self-interest will protect the future.  Consumer choice will also influence the market to be environmentally aware in that a green preference will force the market to respond with green (sustainable) products.  The ethical strength of this tradition is its commitment to the freedom or autonomy of the individual to pursue interests without interference from the State in the market-driven distribution of benefits and burdens.  The minimal state of traditional liberals shifts closer to right-wing anarchism under the logic of economic rationalism and the opposition to the authoritarianism of the State.  Free-market environmentalists see government regulation as the cause of many environmental problems and support the deregulation of the environment and the expansion of contract and property rights as the way to avoid its `nationalisation’.

The right-anarchist version of SD can now be fleshed out.  It takes as its starting point the WCED’s view that robust economic growth is needed for improvements in the quality of human life and the environment.  It is argued the best way to achieve that growth is to take government out of the development process since regulation by government and bureaucracy only retard economic development with “green tape” and the standard “inefficiencies” of planned economies.  O’Brien, writing in the Australian context gives clear expression to this view when he argues, “the government and the community must enable industry to spend less time in process and more time in progress in order to be internationally competitive, instead of being consumed in a growing black hole of government controls” (O’Brien, 1993:75).

Sustainable development for the right-anarchist involves the priority of humans concerns and interests over the non-human.  Human and environmental problems are solved by the ongoing expansion of human interests through economic development.  The economic system, rather than government intervention to protect the environment, must be given priority in the creation of a sustainable society.

The Critique of Rights

In modern, professional, Western philosophy, the individual as the focus of ethical attention has created a number of competing traditions.  These traditions have stressed that it is the individual adult (rational) human being that is the centre of ethical attention.  In these traditions the emotions, the intuitions, the moral utterances and the rights of the individual are given emphasis.  It is, however, a rights based view of the good that has come to dominate ethical language in the context of the freedom of the moral agent to make choices and enter into contracts or reciprocal relationships in the market place.  Moreover, the language of rights has now permeated a great many more contexts where clashes of interests or ethical dilemmas occur.  The rights based approach has certainly come to prominence in environmental ethics where, for example, Nash’s book on the history of environmental ethics in the USA is presented as the progressive extension of the concept of `rights’ from human to the non-human contexts (Nash, 1990).

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue has produced an important critique of the concept of rights.  In this work he argues, “the concept of rights was generated to serve one set of purposes as part of the social invention of the autonomous moral agent…” (1981:68). The historical context where this invention made sense was the attempt by philosophers such as Locke to provide an explanation for the possession of certain entitlements to things like land and property.  The justification for the existence of rights for humans was that they provided “objective and impersonal criterion” for moral `rightness’ (MacIntyre 1981:68).  What was required was a “secular, rational justification” for moral choice to replace the older foundations of ethics such as divine law, hierarchical authority and natural teleology (as represented by institutions such as the Church and the Crown).

That philosophers such as Locke, and subsequent rights-based moral philosophy have failed in this project, MacIntyre takes as self-evident, given the endless disagreement about the basis of rights and the fact that they can be claimed by almost anyone or anything in the service of some cause or another.  His claim that “there are no such things as rights” is based on the argument that “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed” (MacIntyre 1981:67).  MacIntyre presents substantial argument to show that, for example, appeals to “self-evident truths” and “intuitions” have failed to fulfil the promise of the project. He also analyses the work of modern writers such as Rawls and Nozick, who in their own attempts to provide a rational base for dispute resolution, simply construct theories of justice that rely in the final analysis on an “individualistic view”.  Such a position fails to acknowledge limits to human relationships other than those “set by our private and competing interests” (MacIntyre 1981:233).  The idea that, in addition to the competing interests of individuals, there are limits to human relationships that arise out of reciprocal, communal contributions and the way nature ecologically sustains us as a species shall be explored below.

Despite the fact that the concept of a right was born in a specific historical epoch and for specific historical reasons, and that in addition, there is no agreed on position about what a right is, the concept of a right and the concept of the autonomous moral agent continue to dominate ethical discourse.  The net result of this confusion is, according to MacIntyre, the extensive use of notions like rights by autonomous moral agents against other autonomous moral agents, equally concerned to assert their rights in opposition.  By locking ourselves into these “manipulative modes of relationship” MacIntyre claims that we now possess an incoherent conceptual scheme for ethical thought.  This incoherence is manifest in the endless confrontation of atomistic social entities all claiming with equal righteousness their rights to exert or express their freedom.  The phrase, “land rights for gay whales” captures some of the nonsensical elements of this attempt at ethical discourse.  The spectacle of Nation States asserting their sovereign rights to do whatever they like with their natural resources in the international market place at UNCED in 1992 only highlights the uselessness of rights-based international relations.  The easy conversion of political and economic power into `rights’ through corruption and clever use of the law is also an undesirable outcome of the “manipulative modes of relationship” present in contemporary societies.

It is very difficult to see how the notion of inter-generational equity can be defended under the umbrella of the autonomous moral agent as the bearer of rights.  We have what could be called the Groucho Marx syndrome.  This Marx is reputed to be the originator of the saying, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they done for me?”  The modern philosopher, following his logic, would argue that since ethical relationships can only exist between two or more autonomous moral agents with rights, future humans, since they are not persons and hence are not the bearers of rights, are not party to the reciprocal relationships that characterise the ethical.  This is the same type of reasoning that would exclude animals and other non-human biota from ethical consideration.  It would certainly exclude the non-biotic from consideration within an ethical perspective based on rights.

As private property rights are extended to the environment and hence, the concept of SD, we have the potential for clashes of the type MacIntyre warned us about, with resolution likely only through “manipulative modes of relationships” dominated by those with the most power.  Despite our best attempts at conflict resolution (a major growth industry), the issues of inter- and intra-generational equity will not be resolved through a concept of SD that has as its base, an ethical tradition tied in philosophical theory, convention and law to the expansion of rights.

In many of the policy applications of SD, it is difficult to see genuine ethical commitment to bio-diversity and inter-generational equity because such notions either lie outside the scope of the dominant ethical discourse or under a rights-based ethic they simply conflict with other, equally powerful or powerless rights.  It should come as no surprise then that documents like WCED and the Commonwealth Discussion Paper on the implications of SD in the Australian context[iii] lay great stress on the economic system which is the conceptual and economic partner of the ethical tradition based on the notion of the autonomous moral agent.  Although the WCED and other policy documents do not explicitly advocate economic liberalism in all respects, they provide ample support for those like Anderson and O’Brien who wish to emphasise the private enterprise growth dimension of SD rather than acknowledge the ecological limits to human development.

The SD debate, partly as a consequence of the incoherence evident in the ethics of the autonomous individual and the language of rights, has done little to provide greater ethical and political clarity to the claims of the desirability of intra-generational equity.  Indeed, by explicitly linking SD to wealth generation in the free market, its advocates have simply provided, within the context of the “trickle-down” theory of wealth, a justification for the perpetuation of inequality.[iv]  If we are serious about reversing the injustices present in the current distribution of benefits and burdens, then a different foundation for ethics must be given.

To more concretely illustrate the inability of growth version of SD to resolve ethical and practical issues, the following five areas are offered as examples of the difficulties that can be encountered when a rights-based system attempts to resolve the central problems of SD.

1) The Biodiversity Problem

A rights-based system is likely to be effective in protecting species that are commercially important only if the commercial value of that species exceeds that of other potential sources of income that could be generated from the same `natural capital’ that the species inhabits.  If, for example, the conservation of species for ecotourism generates income which is greater than that which could be gained by using their habitat for the growing of cash crops, then the private property rights of the owners of that habitat will effectively protect those species.  Game parks in Africa and the private ownership of wetlands for shooters are good examples of how a property rights-based conservation/exploitation model can work.  However, this model becomes progressively less plausible as a means for protecting biodiversity when we are confronted with rare but commercially unimportant species versus very large development proposals that are inconsistent with their continued existence.  The less charismatic the species, the more `unattractive’ the ecosystem, the more likely it will be that the development proposal will proceed.  The `rights’ of developers will eventually win out over species and ecosystems since within the right-anarchist position, biodiversity itself has no right to exist and even if it did, the clash of rights between an endangered species and multi-national capital would be a very uneven contest.

2) The Cultural Hegemony Problem

If, as it is claimed in the WCED, a five-to-tenfold increase in world industrial output is required for economic growth into the next century, then this level of development assumes that the Western model of economic growth is to be thought of as a universal bench mark of sustainable development.  However, economic growth does not exist in isolation from the attendant social values of individualism and the rights of autonomous moral agents to enter freely into contracts in the market.  There is an implicit assumption that the western economic system and its “universal” values are to be adopted by all cultures in the developing world.  Anupam Mishra, an Indian commentator on WCED, has questioned basic assumptions behind such an economic order.  The basic thrust of his ideas are summarised by de la Court:

… the real cause of environmental destruction, increasing poverty and a growing world population lies in their [WCED] own prescription of a Western standard of living for everyone, and not vice versa … If bringing Western development was so necessary, our governments could have encouraged, he says, a healthy debate on the question, convincing the people of its importance for their own well-being. But they chose the other way – of ridiculing us, by labelling our culture as backward, by branding our simple knowledge as ignorance and superstition and then forcing us to join their elitist race for scientific development to make us ‘civilised’. de la Court (1990:15)

A profound disagreement over the content of the good is created when there is a clash between Western values, appearing as universal and progressive, and other value orientations appearing as relative and regressive.  This is particularly the case when the stakes at issue are poverty and environmental destruction.  The Mishra perspective, rather than seeing Western economic growth as progress, sees only the same kind of arrogance and hubris that created environmental problems on a global scale, now being repackaged as the saviour of the under-developed world.  As Gandhi was reported to have said when asked if an independent India could achieve Britain’s standard of living, “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity; how many planets will a country like India require?” (de la Court 1990:15).

Issues like `equity within generations’ as an ethical expression of SD are clearly not capable of easy resolution if the whole meaning of the concept “equity” is not one shared by the participants in the debate.  Within the advanced industrial nations the current value orientation is one that accepts that inequality is the inevitable outcome of individuals and corporate entities all competing against each other with a minimum of interference to their freedom to profit from such activity.  Despite the claim in WCED that “many of us live beyond the world’s ecological means” (WCED:88), there is no clear suggestion as to what living within ecological means might entail.  The implication is, however, that the standard of living of many of those in the developed world would have to fall and that seems inconsistent with the insistence that economic growth must continue to expand.  Ironically, under the prescriptions of WCED, the very people who are currently close to or even under a standard of living that would ensure intra-generational equity with respect to quality of life are being asked to change that lifestyle to one that is clearly not achievable by all of the human beings presently on the planet.

Sustainable development as envisaged by WCED does not give adequate attention to the possibility that there are many ways of being human and many ways of achieving a sustainable lifestyle with a standard of living that all could reasonably attain.  Although lip-service is given to concepts of biological and cultural diversity, the over-whelming emphasis is on universalisability of the Western model of economic growth and a Western standard of living.  Such a model for development would inevitably mean the replacement of indigenous communitarian-based ethics with a commercial society based on the ethic of the autonomous moral agent.  These new converts to the international order would then be free to pursue their self-interests with other like-minded self-interested parties in the open competition of the economic market.  Thus new markets will be created out of the natural `capital’ exploitable in the developing world.

3) The Minority Groups Problem

In addition to the negative evaluation of cultural alternatives to the Western model of development, the SD debate has failed to address questions of intra-generational equity with respect to groups that, due to their relatively powerless position in society, have their life-chances and their quality of life significantly reduced.  These groups include the indigenous peoples of countries now dominated by colonial powers, the unemployed and women.  As ethics conceived in an anthropocentric sense is concerned about maintaining or increasing the quality of life for humans, the SD debate has through its explicit support for individualistic conceptions of human interaction, ignored the structural implications of Western Economic Growth on groups and communities.

Indigenous peoples, for example, who have had their land taken from them by acts of aggression and dispossession, have been forced to claim `land rights’ in order to have (some) of it returned.  Those who now ‘own’ their land defend their use and ownership by virtue of property rights granted under the protection of say, British Law.  The doctrine of universal human rights derived in deliberate isolation from historical realities generates a situation where the dispossessed must contest the claim to legitimate title to property in an institutional structure designed and run by the aggressor.

Under the prevailing dogma of economic rationalism the expanding numbers of unemployed can find little hope of finding expression for their “fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life in an environment of quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being” (WCED:374), since the having of a job is the key to having a good quality of life under a consumer-driven set of social standards.  The outcome of freedom in the international market is a world economy that becomes increasingly efficient at achieving an irrational end – that being a substantial net reduction of the numbers of employed.  This occurs because ‘efficiency’ means the replacement of labour-intensive work with labour-replacing capital-intensive investment in technology and/or the cheapest possible market for labour which takes industry from the first into the third world.

Although not a minority group, the position of women in the SD debate is also one that requires resolution of potential conflict over differences in what constitutes SD.  There is now a large ecofeminist literature that contests both the rights based ethical system and its economic counterpart.  As Shiva argues:

The crisis of survival and the threat to sustenance arises from ecological disruption that is rooted in the arrogance of the west and those who ape it.  This arrogance is grounded in a blindness to the quiet work and the invisible wealth created by nature and women and those who produce sustenance. (Shiva 1989:44)

4) The Ethics of Risk Imposition

Questions of intra-generational equity and/or justice also arise in the context of industrial activity which is clearly life threatening or seriously diminishes the quality of life.  Pollution of the air, water, soil and food in a way that threatens human health is obviously not sustainable, yet it is characteristic of much industrial action.  The greatest burden of the life and health threatening by-products of industrial processes falls on those least able to exercise options that provide respite.  The poor have risks to health imposed on them while the wealthy can afford to purchase a healthy lifestyle.  In newly industrialising countries the poorest people often are faced with no choice in living close to plants which present a significant threat to the local population.  The tragedy at Bhopal in India is testimony to the failure of industry to adequately acknowledge the risks to human health and life[v].  With the international trend toward moving manufacturing industry to the cheapest sources of labour, there is an increasing likelihood that standards in occupational health and safety will decline and damage to human and environmental health will increase.

5) Technology Transfer Dilemmas

The transfer of technologies from advanced industrial states to newly developing countries in order that they be more environmentally responsible raises interesting ethical dilemmas.  As it currently stands, technological innovation is largely controlled by a system of patents and rights that protect the product from unlicensed use.  This system of ownership guarantees maximum profit for those who own the patent.  New technologies, even those developed in public institutions like universities, are unlikely to be transferred to markets without the full commercial value of the technology being realised.  This means that all will be required to buy new environmentally friendly technologies, for example, at the price the market will tolerate or with considerable government subsidy.  The right-anarchist response to this is likely to be a refusal to subsidise any group so as to skew the spontaneity of market-based order and the ethic of the autonomous moral agent is likely to push for a “look after number one” policy at a corporate-national level.  Again, the rhetoric of the WCED version of SD does not match the reality of the way the world works when animated by an individualist ethic.

We shall now examine how the left-wing interpretation of SD handles the contradictions and ethical dilemmas generated by the threats to the continuity of life and the diminution in the quality of life posed by environmental degradation.

Sustainable Development and Left-wing Anarchism

A tradition has developed in response to environmental degradation that gives emphasis to the way that alternatives to market-based social order arise out of the sociality of the human species and guidance provided for social design by the structure and processes of nature.  A different kind of spontaneous order is formed when the individual, the social and the ecological are in harmony with each other, rather than in perpetual conflict. The ethic that underpins this order is also very different from the ethic of the autonomous moral agent.  Not for mere politically expedient reasons, this tradition would add the term `ecologically’ to SD.  Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) would go further than the definition of SD in WCED since a major premise would be that there are ecologically derived limits to what humans can do in their social spheres.  These are limits, contrary to WCED, that transcend the current state of technological development and any given level of social organisation, and hence provide a perspective on development in general that goes beyond the consideration of purely human interests.  Something that is independent of human concerns and interests and that can set objective limits on human activity is a major threat to the ethic of the autonomous moral agent and its economic and social correlates.

In addition to the possibility of an objective ethic derived in part from ecological knowledge, a different perspective on human relationships and the point and purpose of social life will also generate a very different ethic to that outlined above.  In contemporary, left-wing, anarchist thought is to be found the idea of an objective ethic derived from life-supporting features of nature.  It is this ethic that gives point and purpose to social life and a communitarian ethos that makes possible the mirroring of the associative qualities of life in general in the design and social ecology of human communities.  The origins of this view in anarchist thought are usually traced back to Peter Kropotkin and his seminal text Mutual Aid (1902).  Kropotkin, in the conclusion to this work argued:

In the practice of mutual aid, which we can trace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part. Kropotkin, 1987:234.

Murray Bookchin, in his contributions to eco-anarchism, has extended Kropotkin’s thesis and argued for an objective foundation for ethics that arises out of an ecological an evolutionary understanding of the way humans relate to their environment (see Bookchin 1980, 1982 [revised, 1991] 1989, 1992).  This understanding makes important connections between ethics as understood as defending the continuity and quality of life and the structure and processes of nature.  The science of ecology, as developed in the twentieth century, has, above all else, provided a clearer picture of the way biotic life and the physical processes of nature are interconnected in vital ways.  It is this integrated picture of life and its processes that gives Ecology such an important role in epistemology in the late twentieth century.  Ecology reunites, insights that had been forged separately under the reductionism that characterised positivist science.  Bookchin, writing in 1965 in his own distinctive style, argues:

The critical edge of ecology, a unique feature of the science in a period of general scientific docility, derives from its subject matter – from its very domain. The issues with which ecology deals are imperishable in the sense that they cannot be ignored without bringing into question the survival of man and the survival of the planet itself. The critical edge of ecology is due not so much to the power of human reason – a power which science hallowed during its most revolutionary periods – but to a still higher power, the sovereignty of nature…ecology clearly shows that the totality of the natural world – nature viewed in all its aspects, cycles and interrelationships – cancels out human pretensions to mastery over the planet. (Bookchin 1971:59).

The order that arises out of the totality of nature is self-generated in that it is the result of the combined action of species and ecosystem evolution.  It is within this natural order that humans find themselves located in various parts of the planet.  Thus our evolutionary interconnectedness with spontaneous order formed in nature sets a material boundary on human action.  If humans break vital relationships within and between biotic and non-biotic systems, then they threaten not only their own quality of life but ultimately, life itself.  Another way of putting this point would be to say that interconnectedness maintains diversity of life which is not simply a contingent, but a necessary feature of life.  Thus, as evolution produces diversity, there is unity in diversity, and this is a feature that is of major ethical importance.  Without it there would, in the long-term, be a breakdown in the ability of ecosystems/evolution to maintain spontaneous order and the arrest of the possibility of new forms of life that may increase complexity and usher in a rise in the quality of order.

The rational response to this knowledge would be to develop what Bookchin calls an ethics of complementarity or mutualism where the structure and processes of society are designed, built and operated in such a way that they complement the structures and processes of nature.  Thus, such a society would itself manifest unity in diversity as human thought creatively engaged in the search for “a new symbiotic relationship between human communities and the nonhuman ecocommunities in which they are located” (Bookchin 1990:259).

Like its right-wing counterpart, the left wing of anarchist thought lays great stress on the free unfolding of a spontaneous order without the use of external force or authority.  Unlike its counterpart, the ethical basis of such order is not the autonomous moral agent and the freedom of the market place, but the spontaneous order which is self-generated when life is `allowed’ to unfold according to its own potentialities.  Self-generated movement from potentiality to actuality is the ethical model for all forms of development.  The ethical core of this view is that indwelling or immanent in life is an urge to create spontaneous or self-organised order.  This occurs at the level of the individual member of a species, whole ecosystems, and, perhaps uniquely in humans, with the evolution of consciousness.

Self-generated order, according to Bookchin, indicates that nature can be read as exhibiting a “…self-evolving patterning, a ‘grain’, so to speak that is implicitly ethical” (Bookchin 1982:365).  Bookchin makes it clear that values are “implicit in nature” and cannot be read directly from nature.  He is of the view that “[t]here is no ethical nonhuman nature as such” (Bookchin: 1990:255).  It is humans that through an ecologically inspired rationality, construct an ethic derived from the life-supporting features of nature and its evolution.

The “grain” or ethical direction Bookchin identifies is the freedom to evolve toward ever-increasing interrelated diversity which includes the evolution of human consciousness out of nature and its expression in the form of “subjectivity”.

Bookchin sees movement from the simple to the complex as evidence of directionality in nature but this is not the result of some `preordained’ end[vi].  Even if we see nothing inevitable about the movement in evolution from the simple to the complex and diverse, the fact that such movement is discernible in the fossil records and is supportive of life, is sufficient for us to forward a new foundation for ethics.  Alternative possible evolutionary pathways of the history of earth and its life, for example, the punctuated equilibrium thesis of Eldridge and Gould (1972) can be defended with substantial argumentation.  However, according to the ecoanarchist view, such theories do not contradict the basic thesis of Bookchin’s that when conditions permit, life evolves in such a way so as to increase complexity and diversity.

The order which is the outcome of nature freely unfolding toward greater diversity and complexity is ethically preferable to any other sort of order because it exhibits the highest degree of organic unity.  The more opportunities for freedom to be exhibited within the conditions that permit life to flourish, the greater the opportunity for organic order to `phase’ into conceptual and ethical order of the highest quality.  It is the complexity and adaptability of organic life that has created environments which evolving life forms can continue to exploit.  As Bookchin argues:

That living things, emerging ages ago from their primal aquatic habitat to colonise the most inhospitable areas of the earth, have created the rich biosphere that now covers it has been possible only because of life’s incredible mutability and the enormous legacy of life-forms inherited from its long development. (Bookchin 1982:24)

Organic unity in diversity produces order of the highest quality.  This type of organic order is to be contrasted with other forms of order such as unity-in-monotony (an aggregate) and mechanical unity (parts and whole externally unified).  In the case of mechanical unities, in the social realm, such unity can only be imposed on uncooperative social atoms in an authoritarian manner.  In the case of the market place, such order is the outcome of a competitive struggle between social atoms who have no sense of common purpose.  Their ‘rights’ only perpetuate conflict since they offer only a basis for its expansion.

The term ESD captures the ecological and evolutionary limits to human action provided by nature, but it fails to provide insight into what type of human social order is the appropriate response to ecological knowledge.  Moreover, while emphasis on the importance of ecology on giving an ethical context for SD is welcomed, ESD is likely to move toward the options of the autonomous moral agent and its economic counterpart as the basis for social order, since there is no ethical commitment to the social expression of organic unity in the form of a new social ecology.  The ecoanarchist tradition would require us to add the term `community’ to ESD, giving us Ecologically Sustainable Community Development (ESCD).

Community’ as a term in modern social and political theory, has a complex history, however, within ecoanarchism it signifies a social order that links sociality with ecology.  Chodorkoff, in an essay supporting Bookchin’s social ecology, suggests that the integrative aspects of natural ecosystems and early organic human communities need to find expression in the way humans relate to one another.  He argues:

True community development, from the perspective of social ecology, must be a holistic process, which integrates all facets of a community’s life.  Social, political, economic, artistic, ethical, and spiritual must all be seen as part of a whole. (Chodorkoff, 1990:70)

It is Bookchin’s view that the libertarian traits in humanity, namely the love of freedom and the dislike of hierarchical authority are consistent with nature conceived ecologically.  He suggests that, “ecology knows no `king of the beasts’ and no `lowly creatures'” (1982:5) and that early organic human societies manifested unity in diversity with social structures characterised by unity, harmony and a sense of common purpose.  The emergence of social hierarchy and exploitation-domination in post-organic societies, particularly Capitalist and Socialist versions of industrial society, saw the separation of human evolution from the evolution in nature.  This separate evolution has seen the social ecology of human life come to dominate and destroy the natural ecology from which it emerged.  What is needed, in the ecoanarchist view, is the voluntary return of our social ecology to one which is in harmony with the natural ecology of its locality, district and region and continent.

It is the natural production of organic order that provides the most fundamental context for the existence of an objective ethic and it is this context that gives point and purpose to the freedom of the human agent’s subjectivity.  The freedom that is important in the ecoanarchist tradition is the choice that humans have between a human culture that lives with the grain of nature and supports unity in diversity or one that works against it.[vii]  Bookchin is convinced that development which would sustain humans entails the construction of forms of communal life consistent with the unity, diversity and spontaneity of nature.  In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Bookchin links anarchism with his ecologically derived ethics:

I submit that an anarchist community would approximate a clearly defined ecosystem; it would be diversified, balanced and harmonious… A relatively self-sufficient community, visibly dependent on its environment for the means of life, would gain new respect for the organic interrelationships that sustain it. (Bookchin 1971:80)

The concrete content of this new social ecology includes a new type of social order which has as material expressions of its ethical base, technologies that are on human scale and in harmony with the environment, direct democracy so that all participate in decision making, decentralised urban communities that exhibit high degrees of self-sufficiency and organic food production.  Support for one element of a new organically integrated society, such as urban decentralisation, without the others, is to give only token support for the ethical foundation of the society based on ESCD.

The difficult ethical questions raised by the SD debate, intra- and inter-generational justice and biodiversity can now be assessed from the communitarian and ecological ethic generated by the left-anarchist tradition.

Intra-generational justice cannot become a reality unless social hierarchies produced by competitive struggle are replaced by the “principle of the equality of unequals” (Bookchin 1982:340).  Unless people are ethically motivated to address and rectify the problem of the distribution of benefits and burdens within the context of environmental limits, then no solution to this problem will be found.  George Bradford, for example, writing from within the anarchist tradition, sees the problems of famine and starvation in the third world in a quite different light than OCF.  He argues that Western, capitalist agribusiness currently wastes and dumps enormous amounts of food.  The causes of hunger, he suggests, lie in the destruction wrought on traditional agriculture, particularly so where luxury crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and beef cattle that mostly go to rich nations, have displaced traditional economies. (see Bradford 1989: 40-50)

Without some communally-derived and agreed-on standards of what is considered to be enough and what is excessive, no resolution of equity issues is possible.  It is only through active political involvement within the community that definitions of `the good life’ emerge to give direction on what may improve the quality of life.  Without an ethos or ‘way of life’, which arises out of communal agreement, ethics, as the study of what is good, is in a state of perpetual conflict.  Recognition of the limits to growth imposed by nature and needs that can be met in a sustainable way, provides an objective base for conceptions of production and consumption that link ecological ethics to human concerns and interests.

Similarly, concern for the life and quality of life of future generations of humans is predicated on the possession of a vision of the unfolding potentiality of the species to live better lives in harmony with nature and other humans.  That we do not yet fully know the richness and complexity of nature is sufficient reason to be careful that we do not exclude options for future generations.  Biodiversity, under the left-anarchist tradition, becomes a source of basic ethical insight.  Unity in diversity, as was argued above is a concept rich in ethical implications.  In its most basic form, it provides a guide to “…help us distinguish which of our actions serve the thrust of natural evolution and which of them impede them” (Bookchin 1982:342).

The social mirror of biodiversity would be a culture that celebrates socio-diversity and eschews homogeneity.  The principle of complementarity would ensure that bio and socio-diversity would be in creative union. Both social and biological diversity share the ethical imperative to allow potential to grow.


Any conception of SD that implicitly or explicitly endorses the right-anarchist view will argue that the order that arises out of this system will generate maximum productivity, efficiency, wealth and prudent protection for the environment.  That this model of SD produces order is not open to question; however, it is an order that cannot achieve the very demanding requirements of intra- and inter-generational justice nor the ethical pull of maintaining or even facilitating biodiversity.  The mention of these ethical elements of SD in most contemporary commentary is mere environmental rhetoric masquerading as ‘concern’.  Sustainable Development comes to mean the continuation of a market-driven economy where individuals are free to enter into economic transactions for private capital accumulation.  Their freedom to do so is an expression of their right as autonomous moral agents to freely enter contracts and this right is upheld by law.  It is the belief that ‘development must be sustainable’ that is typical of this tradition and it quickly translates into the view that perpetual capitalist growth is the means of wealth generation that will enable humans to afford the luxury of a clean, green and humane society.

The radical basis of Social Ecology is that it claims, with supporting evidence, to provide an objective foundation for ethics.  Such a foundation is used to demonstrate that a market economy, animated by autonomous individuals, is not only an unethical or immoral society, it is contradictory or likely to self-destruct.  In this respect Bookchin and others who support a positive or objective ethic are defending a realist account of ethics against various relativist views.  This is consistent with a realist view of nature.  While the concept of nature is open to many different interpretations and can be explicated through various `frames’, not all perspectives are equally valid.  From the realist position, some interpretations are mistaken and are not consistent with the structure of reality.  The structure of reality, it is argued, has been sufficiently discovered by eco-evolutionary science for the development of an ethics that has a factual base.[viii]

Under the influence of this objective ethic, the ethical dilemmas of equity and justice find no simple solutions but at least they can be debated in a context that allows for some resolution.  The egalitarianism of Bookchin has its origins in his anti-hierarchical view of nature; so too does his celebration of creativity and diversity.  Bookchin’s anarchism would see him support ESCD at the levels of the small-scale community embedded within larger cooperative enterprises and all tuned to harmonise with the structures and processes present in their local, regional, continental and planetary ecosystems.

What is clear in both traditions is the distrust of authority and the support for spontaneous order.  Common enemies are state bureaucracies and other national and international agencies of governance that impose order in authoritarian ways.  Ethics, if it is to be at all ethical, cannot have a conception of the Good imposed on the unwilling and uninterested.  Ethical choice is largely a matter of education, of being able to freely choose between alternative ideas and courses of action that are provided by people of good will.  The choice between left and right has never been more important since we live in times where the possibility of life and the increasing quality of life are no longer taken for granted.


[i]. Although much of the theoretical and policy development of SD has taken place in Western Europe where strong traditions of state interventionism are present, the Uruguay round of `The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade’ (GATT) has the potential to considerably extend the scope of international free trade. If the GATT is fully implemented, then the human and environmental equity consequences will largely be the outcome of market forces, not State regulation.

[ii].  In his early work, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick presented the case for a minimalist state that has affinities with right-wing anarchism.

[iii]. Although the Australian Government has adopted the term “Ecologically Sustainable Development” (ESD) to describe its policy approach, it did so without any clear commitment to the ecological limits to economic growth.  In its draft policy, June 1990, it gave very subdued status to biodiversity and the ecological limits to growth.  In its final policy document, released in December 1992, even this emphasis is toned-down and in its place is a more vigorous focus on the need for Australia to have sustainability within the context of being competitive in the international market place.  This ideological shift has taken place partly because of the right critique of the idea of ESD and the pressures on policy created by domestic and international recession.  The right critique is focused on how the wealth needed for adequate environmental management is to be created.  Brunton, for example, agrees with the basic position that “richer is safer”.  He suggests that:

This recognition underpins the Brundtland Commission’s work on sustainable development.  But in Australia it has been compromised by the conservation movement’s success in changing the phrase to `ecologically sustainable development’, as though world economic, social, political and strategic realities might permit wealth and environmental stewardship to be disentangled.             (Brunton, 1991:7)

O’Brien, another commentator on the Australian process of outlining ESD, has argued that in his view the misanthropic and anti-economic bias of the process is revealed by the very term itself.  He comments that “the lack of balance skewed the ESD process from the outset, of course, by bonding the word `ecologically’ with the phrase `sustainable development’.  This initiative, perhaps peculiar to Australia, incorporated a bias from the beginning and made a mockery of the concept of balance in all the debates and reports …if there was to be a real balance, then the word `economically’ might have been added…” (O’Brien, 1993:71).

[iv]. In some respects, the “trickle-down” theory of wealth has affinities with Rawls’ `difference principle’ in his A Theory of Justice (1971:76-80).  Although Brown Weiss (1990) and others have used the difference principle to give substance to the concept of intra-generational equity, it is possible under the application of this principle that very large inequalities will continue to exist at national and international levels.  Indeed, it might be argued that the Rawlsian justification for inequality in society is entirely consistent with the current levels of inequality in the world because although the gap between rich and poor countries is widening, poor countries are still perhaps marginally better off.

[v]. See Bradford, 1991, for details on this issue.

[vi]. Bookchin does not present a standard teleological account of development.  His position may be described as an immanent teleology where there is the unfolding of latent potential over time.  There is, however, no predetermined goal or end-state towards which the process is moving, only an open-ended direction of increasing complexity.

[vii]. In this respect, Bookchin challenges post-modernist attempts to remove any foundation for ethics.  Bookchin’s position is one that sees human freedom and spontaneity as existing within certain limits……..

[viii]. Although obviously controversial, the development of a realist ethic from scientific realism provides some sort of answer to MacIntyre’s critique of modern ethics.  With a foundation for ethics in eco-evolutionary processes that increase complexity and diversity, we have something that is independent of all culture-bound traditions.  Cultures are either compatible with this directionality in nature or they are not.  Those that are can then be described as `sustainable’.  Within eco-evolutionary directionality, there is still considerable scope for the full and spontaneous expression of human potential; it is potential, however, that has certain clearly defined natural boundaries. The diversity of cultures on the planet prior to industrial capitalism and colonialism by industrial powers is testimony to the richness of cultural diversity that can co-exist with biological diversity.


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