Social Ecology in Everyday Life

© Grace Gurshuny

This is the text of a talk given at the fourth faculty colloquium in the Institute for Social Ecology’s 1993 Ecology and Communty program, updated in 1995 for publication the International Social Ecology Network newsletter. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

How do we recognize and strive to change opressive, hierarchical behavior in our own relationships? Everyday life is the basic building block of social movements. If you talk anti-oppression yet behave oppressively with family, friends, and coworkers, you are sending the message that it can’t work in real life.

The Buddhist idea of compassion -- this is the most important anti-hierarchy idea. Compassion begins with the self. It is ok to criticize, and set goals to attain, but problems arise when we are either arrogant or self-blaming. This sets up an inner hierarchy, a ‘higher’ self and a ‘lower’ one -- depending on how you feel, one or the other is the ‘real’ you. Then this gets projected onto others, turning some people into (fill in the blanks)... ‘eco-fascists,’ ‘greedy corporate industrialists,’ ect.

This is not to say that eco-facism or corporate greed aren’t serious problems. No, the question is whether people are 100% identifiable with whatever position they may be holding at the time, and whether we can accept contradictory and paradoxical ideas and feelings within ourselves, and be gentle with the inner eco-fascist. By rejecting that person as not us, we serve to perpetuate the very idea we abhor, and give it new life. If I deny my own inner tyrant, I must find her outside myself, and end up making others fill that role for me.

I have just spent a couple of weeks in a family encounter therapy emotional pressure cooker. It was extremely difficult and painful, but taught me a great deal about how I put myself down in many ways, and therefore put others down. Perhaps the first form of oppression is not social oppression, but self-oppression. That is, of course, learned through socialization and passed along to the next generation. There are subtle and not-so-subtle forms of this kind of oppression throughout the social ecology community.

An example of this is the organic farming advocate who refuses to eat at the family’s table because the food is too impure, and who condemns the ignorance and inadequate social analysis of the poor deluded slobs who would buy junk food. It is here in the self-righteousness of the true believer, who has discovered the correct pathand must convince the world of its folly in order to save it. Have you ever paid attention to anyone who clearly thought you were stupid? It is not necessary to disavow belief in organic farming or any other set of wise principles to drop the self-righteousness.

But if we have learned to oppress ourselves, we can also learn to stop. If we learn to classify other human beings as anything than less than human, we must learn to become aware of how we do this and examine our daily behavior minutely, watching for signs of it. This is not something you can take a course in. This is a lifelong quest and devotion. To return to the subject of our first faculty colloquium, this is a profoundly spiritual project.

In my search for wholeness, I have tried very hard to make my life reflect what I believed. To a startling extent I have succeeded, only to discover that I was trying to live up to an ideal which was being undermined y my own inner hierarchy, my inability to accept and love the impure, incorrect, ignorant, greedy me. Wholeness and living with one’s beliefs are

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necessary, but not sufficient. Ending social oppression and oppression of nature require the terribly demanding commitment to ending self-oppression.

Knowledge and compassion for your own oppressive behavior will allow you to have compassion for other oppressors -- the paradox is that this compassion does not contradict the necessity of fighting oppression. What is does do is remove some barriers to communication and understanding between opposing ideological camps, the very existence of which perpetuates the model of competition and power struggle. When you own your own imperfection, you become less of a threat to those whom you may be criticizing. But if you still catch yourself screwing up, be gentle, point it out to yourself, chuckle inside, and go forward. Warning: don’t try to totally eradicate inner or outer forms of oppression. Like in biological pest control, it’s undesirable to try to wipe out all the pests, because you will also wipe out the creatures who keep them from getting out of hand. Your inner ecosystem requires acceptance of the pests as well as the butterflies -- some of whom may also be pests when they’re hungry larvae. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and you will have no need of pesticides, and always have enough to eat.

(August. 1995)

In the two years since I wrote this essay, life has presented me with many unanticipated challenges. Though I had to give up, at least temporarily, my home in Vermont and being on the ISE faculty for the Ecology & Community program, my intellectual and spiritual roots are still firmly planted in the soil of Social Ecology, my heart’s home is still in Vermont’s green hills.

My continuing work as a Goddard faculty member in Social Ecology allows me to keep that connection alive, and I was honored to present the graduation speech to our most recent crop of graduates.

Trying to reconstruct that talk so it could be published in the International Social Ecology Network newsletter, I was inspired to revisit my “Ecology and Everyday Life” talk from 1993, and found that it has played an important continuing role in my thinking. The lessons I have learned in those two years have affirmed and emphasized the importance of these insights. Perpetually reminding myself of this painfully won knowledge has helped me to survive and make sense of all the strange situations I have had to cope with, from the surreal American embassy and Immigration Service in Kingston, Jamaica to the infinite hallways and bizarre bureaucratic idiocies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where I have accepted the challenge of institutionalizing organic agriculture.

There is much cause for despair in observing what seems to be mass social devolution, especially in the “belly of the beast,” Washington, D.C. The old order is visibly crumbling, and belief in the inevitability of social progress can no longer be upheld. I was stuck by the truth of Hazel Henderson’s comment in her recent talk here, to the effecft that the power brokers and political leaders in all the world’s capitals are confused and don’t knwo what to do, and what’s really dangerous is that they won’t admit it.

Frightening and potentially destructive as this sense of social disintegration may be, it also presents opportunties for real revolutionary change. It is my conviction that a major route to this revolutionary change is literally through the beast’s belly, the food system. It is no concidence that Bookchin’s depiction of the potential for an organic society is being elaborated

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in myriad practical ways through one of the few widespread movements to reconstruct the earth, organic agriculture. The “average consumer” is starting to flock to places like Fresh Fields, a supermodern, ultra-clean, nonthreatening and familiar kind of place to buy food, much of it the product of an exploding organic industry.

Repulsive as this kind of place is to someone like me, who is accustomed to funky food coops, face-to-face farmers markets, and more importantly, being directly connected with producing my own food supply, I can see how it represent a possibility for organic values to innoculate the compost that might form from the rotten stuff inside the decaying heap of mall culture. It is with appreciation for the paradozes of organic evolution that I subtitled my residency workshop as “a Social Ecologist invades USDA.”

Changing my perspective to work inside the “system” has heightened my inner awareness of the dangers of cooptation, each day asking myself to what extent I may be compromising my core values to be accepted. Each day I wonder about whether I am helping sell “real” organics down the river and open the door to creating the same old business as usual with an organic label. So far, I feel that at least nobody has demanded that I contradict or subvert anything I believe is true. Tone down remarks, perhaps, or more carefully choose my battles -- but how much discourse within radical circles similarly similarly deals with such strategic “positioning?”

What has become very clear to me is the extent to which organic activists can be guilty of some very nonorganic thinking, engaging in destructive internal power struggles and stereotyping. One of my favorite quotes to extend to those who believe that nobody who works for the government can get anything right comes from an Earth Day bumpersticker on sale at the Washington Mall: “If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know you still have one?”

Which brings me right back to the ideas expressed in “Social Ecology in Everyday Life.” Social Ecology clearly teaches that excessive focus on inner growth can lead to denial of social realities that cannot be addressed on individualistic levels. The unfortunate implication drawn from this by too many is that any work on one’s self is illegitimate and an unnecessary diversion from the “really” essential work on the social level.

Without that inner work, social relationships become intellectual exercises, driven by abstractions and lacking in any moral authority. Failure to “walk the talk” is the result of denial that the personal is political, one of the fundamental instructions of the feminist movement. While there can be no doubt that activism, organizing and rigorous intellectual social analysis are essential to realizing an organic society, they are not enough. It is essential that we not lose sight of the importance of continual inner development. “Growth and development,” perverted in the economists’ worldview to mean materialistic expansion, must be reinterpreted in an organic understanding of expansion of ecological and social complexity, diversity, consciousness, joy and beauty. As Hazel so nicely put it, “Yes we’ve got to grow, but we’ve got to grow up.”

The nice thing about Goddard and its emphasis on self-directed learning is how natural it feels to stand here and remind you that graduation is only the beginning, and that we must all be engaged in a lifelong process of growing up.

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