The Legacy of Social Ecology and Sustainability

Summary: Please find here remarks, notes, and links for the Environmental Studies Reunion, Saturday December 5, 2015. This outline serves to guide my talk: "Environmental Studies, Social Ecology and Sustainability: Reflections on the Ramapo Legacy." This is a work in progress.

I will reflect upon the Environmental Studies legacy from its foundation upon Social Ecology, its turn to World Sustainability, and the prospects for its future. I will elaborate on this outline, providing background to fill out the story.

I thank Mike Edelstein and Ashwani Vasishth for their assistance in helping me catch up on recent events.

Remarks on the Ramapo Legacy

  1. Greetings and acknowledgments

  2. I have recently retired after 43 years at Ramapo. Thanks for all the memories and the good ride that I have enjoyed for decades! Let me provide some background as to how I got here, exploring Growth Games at Cornell University, then research and advocacy in Jersey City and in County Donegal, Ireland.

  3. What is Social Ecology? This dynamic theme was embedded in the curriculum early and has has endured, adapting to changing conditions. This definition of Social Ecology comes from the Institute for Social Ecology in Marshfield, Vermont:

    "Social Ecology advocates a reconstructive and transformative outlook on social and environmental issues, and promotes a directly democratic, confederal politics. Social Ecology envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, toward a world that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom."

    Professor Bookchin's vision endures. A reference to Murray Bookchin's thought as currently practices by the Kurds appears in the November 24, 2015, edition of the New York Times Magazine: A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard. The article states in the 2nd paragraph:

    "In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets."

    Oxford University Press has recently released (2015) a biography of Murray Bookchin authored by Janet Biehl: Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin. Janet Biehl offers a short biography.

  4. The emergence of the environmental movement and the Energy Crisis in the 1970s shaped the Environmental Studies curriculum. The Environmental Studies response was hands-on: the Alternate Energy Center. Mike Edelstein offers the 400-level capstone course, the Environmental Assessment Seminar, a response to the National Environmental Policy Act. This commitment and this curriculum continues. The stable 200-level of the Environmental Studies curriculum reflects that vibrant era.

  5. The Reagan assault on environmentalism of the 1980s introduced aggressive neoliberalism and the depredations of economic globalization. The response to no-liberalism's creed of "There is no alternative" (TINA) was "A Better World is Possible." Out of this dialectic came the Brundtland Report and its formulation of sustainable development. The Social Ecology mission responded with anti-globalization curricular reform and a more activist posture. A mainstay of the Environmental Studies syllabus was a masterful critique of sustainable development, Fairness in a Fragile World by Wolfgang Sachs, which he delivered in a speech at Ramapo College.

  6. Mike Edelstein and Trent Schroyer re-defined Social Ecology as the more contemporary and urgent World Sustainability, under consideration as a core course for the School of Social Science and Human Services. The syllabus template provides three essential themes:

    1. The ecological crisis: The potentially catastrophic degradation and contamination of our planetary home
    2. The social crisis:The polarization between globalized rich and localized poor; the exclusion of most of the world's inhabitants; the eclipse of community; and increasing violence and misery
    3. The economic crisis: The systemic imperative of economic globalization to ceaselessly grow despite overshooting the limits to endure exponential demands on resources and on vulnerable and vital ecosystems and the decoupling of economic growth from human well-being and security.

    Trent Schroyer offers a fresh definition of Social Ecology:

    "When we talk about 'world sustainability' we are concerned not only with getting our metabolism with nature right and creating an equitable world but also with maintaining an ethos of evidence and truthfulness, of public accountability and transparency in which legitimate democratic discourse and political action can change the rules and establish human rights."

    My Statement of Concern captures the sense of crisis.

  7. Civil society organizations sprang up in response to economic globalization, as Paul Hawken describes. Trent Schroyer invented a new mainstay 300-level course, Ecology, Economics and Ethics. Trent Schroyer initiated the semester-long Study Abroad Program at the Fireflies Ashram in Bangalore, India. Ashwani Vasishth now runs the program. Around 1998, following Mike's inspiration years before, Environmental Studies and Environmental Science faculty began the conversation around a graduate program, leading to the Masters in Sustainability Studies.

  8. In preparation for the COP21 climate change summit now (12/4/2015) convening outside Paris, Vandana Shiva has prepared a vibrant statement of principles, Sign the Pact for the Earth – Terra Viva, Earth Democracy, that remains consistent with Social Ecology. Her statement is dated November 26, 2015.

  9. I use this quote from Wendell Berry to provide a context for economics in my page Economic Aspects of Sustainability:

    "The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich and famous."
  10. The Environmental Studies program has adapted the logic of Social Ecology to expand beyond a conservationist or environmentalist paradigm. How shall Environmental Studies and Masters in Sustainability Studies adapt once more to a changing world? Challenges loom and time grows short.

    What are the next steps? Let's join in a discussion. I will explain my plans and vision.


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