The revolution will be ecologised: social change in the 21st century

The future of our planet itself depends on revolutionising the fabric of our entire social order. Natural forces of evolution and revolution can provide a model. The latest essay from the SYMBIOSIS RESEARCH COLLECTIVE

The planet needs far more than a ‘just’ or ‘sustainable’ ‘transition’; it needs a fundamentally new social order that enhances our humanity alongside the well-being of the natural world.

The climate crisis today demands nothing less than a worldwide social and political transformation.

Piecemeal reforms, technocratic schemes, and state-driven ‘climate resilience’ have proven not only ineffective at stymying the effects of climate change, but also utterly incapable of combating its underlying cause: a capitalist global order.

This order systematically shreds the social and ecological fabric which enables complex life on this planet. The cynical mantra that ‘humans are to blame for global warming' is a deception - a logic of domination and an ideology of endless ‘growth’ are the real culprits.

Fortunately, human beings can overcome our present condition. All over the world, alternative technologies, social movements, and schools of thought are contesting the exploitative practices and institutions of capitalism.

However, these alternatives will remain little more than scattered, unfulfilled promises unless they are united within a coherent institutional framework of freedom and democracy.

The language of revolution

The planet needs far more than a ‘just’ or ‘sustainable’ ‘transition’; it needs a fundamentally new social order that enhances our humanity alongside the well-being of the natural world.

And this requires both deep changes to our cultural sensibilities, as well as a serious confrontation with the seemingly impenetrable institutions that govern global society. In a word: revolution.

Given this situation, it’s no surprise that people all over the world are beginning to speak the language of revolution.

From the USA, where during the 2016 presidential election social democrat Bernie Sanders promised a progressive ‘political revolution’, to Northern Syria, where women-led defense forces advance cultural pluralism and freedom against Turkish invasion, Baath authoritarianism, and fascist Islamism, revolution is reentering the global imagination.

However, outside the left, revolution is a widely misunderstood and mistrusted concept. When many people hear the word ‘revolution’, images of violence, confusion, and disorder come to mind.

Ecological process

These popular impressions, as American Marxian theorists James and Grace Lee Boggs observed in 1974 [1], confuse the momentary firestorms of rebellions and insurrections with revolution, which is an ongoing, cumulative process.

This confusion of course is cultured and encourage by mass media that is controlled by ruling elites. Indeed, if people cannot even conceive of fundamental social change, how can they ever hope to bring it about?

Being human means being bound up in processes of biological, psychological, social, cultural, and material development. In this way, revolution can be seen as an inextricable part of our development as a species. As the Boggs write, [1] (page 13):

The planet needs far more than a ‘just’ or ‘sustainable’ ‘transition’; it needs a fundamentally new social order that enhances our humanity alongside the well-being of the natural world.

Man/womankind’s revolutions have been an essential part of their evolution, and their evolution an essential part of their revolutions. What we are today is the result of a long and continuing process of evolution and this process of evolution is still going on and will go on as long as there are men and women on this planet.

Today, the entanglement of ecological and political crisis has twisted into a veritable Gordian knot; one cannot be resolved without the other. This circumstance invites us to collectively reflect and redefine the meaning revolution as an ecological process. And to do so, we must examine the origin and historical totality of revolution as a concept.

The history of revolution

Although we do not often think of ‘revolution’ as having a history, it is actually a very young concept. Prior to 1805, ‘revolution’ denoted the movement of objects around an axis of rotation, such as in the orbit of planets or the turning of wheels.

Revolutions were the concern of natural philosophers and astronomers, not idealists. However, at the twilight of the French Revolution, political upheaval gave way to conservative backlash. In 1795, as the Directory regime assumed control of the state, participants and partisans of events from 1789-1805 began to identify as revolutionaries [2].  

While the events of the French Revolution were spontaneous and unpredictable, after it ended its witnesses came to understand the process as a goal that can be imagined, sought, and achieved.

Like the physicist’s definition of revolution, modernity’s politicised reinterpretation signifies an action that is at once novel and a repetition.

French revolutionaries saw themselves as courageously forging a new social order, yet destruction of the French monarchy also represented something like a return to a Rousseauian ‘state of nature’ [3], that is, before the development of aristocratic hierarchies.  In the struggle for a fundamentally more free and equal society, humanity retraces many of its steps.

Sense of reality

Of course, the French Revolution was just one crashing wave in a typhoon of revolutionary activity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Popular revolts demanding equality, fraternity, and liberty sprang up all along the global routes of mercantile colonisation.

In the French colony of Saint-Dominique, former slaves outmaneuvered the newborn French regime in what became the world’s first and to-date only ‘successful’ slave revolt: the Haitian Revolution.

Yet the Caribbean also experienced uprisings in Cuba and Trinidad. Europe, meanwhile, witnessed serious attempts to overthrow aristocracies in Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, and Poland.

In South America, colonial planters and traders overthrew the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, yet soon saw their fledgling nation-states facing fierce peasant and indigenous resistance.

Revolutionaries across the ‘new’ and ‘old’ world alike proved that human beings can alter our shared sense of reality and transform the institutions which govern everyday life.

Powerful forces

The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed the ascendance of elite-driven ‘liberalism’ as the prevailing order. Revolution as a concept once again developed and expanded.

Socialists like Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin recognised that revolution took place not only through the replacement of political regimes, but also through the production of goods and the provisioning of basic needs. Socialism rejected bourgeois ‘representation’, wage labor, and nation-state territorialism in favour of internationalism, cooperative labor, and solidarity.

International socialism refined the meaning of revolution as part of a long-term process of social development. Here, themes of evolution and return appear once again.

Socialists referred to indigenous, small-scale, and peasant societies as ‘primitive communism’ which in many ways prefigured the principles of a socialist society. Socialist revolution would represent both a step forward for human development, as well as a return to communitarian sensibilities and social ties.

Unfortunately, 19th century mechanistic ways of thinking contributed to revolution’s undoing during this era. Fatally, so-called ‘scientific’ socialism presumed that if one could only discover the “laws” of revolution, one could predict and even control it.

Lenin took this deterministic outlook to a disastrous extreme; the Russian Revolution collapsing into dogmatic, tyrannical state rule. Although the classic revolutionary Left advanced powerful forces against capitalism, it ultimately failed to realise its noble aim by robbing revolutionary philosophy of creativity, relationality, and open-endedness.  

Ecologising revolution

Fortunately, social movements of the 21st century are bringing about a new paradigm of social change. And this paradigm brings some of ecology’s best qualities to the table. It’s important to reflect on these qualities because they can help everyday people grasp the great importance of revolutionary transformation.

First, an ecological revolution will mobilise holistic and mutualistic ways of thinking about society and nature. Nature is not a static entity, but rather a history of organic phenomena that is ever-developing in a cumulative and interdependent way.

Nature as such cannot be dominated. It is no accident that indigenous, peasant, and women-centered ways of thinking share a mutualistic outlook toward the natural world.

For most of human history, people have realised the interdependent nature of people and our environment. In fact, the idea that ‘man’ might aspire to one day control nature became widespread only very recently with emergence of 19th century industrialism.

As libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin puts it, the very idea of humans dominating nature stems from the real domination of human by human.

Attention to scale

For this reason, an ecological revolution means foregrounding humanity’s recovery of mutualistic and communal bonds—beginning with our ourselves and extending up to the level of global solidarity.

While environmental and ecology movements of the 20th century largely focused on redefining how humans relate to nature, the 21st century’s plunge into climate crisis means we must really focus on how humans relate to each other.

People are coming to recognise that systems of social exploitation such as sexism, colonization, and class share the same sensibility, logic, and organisational structure of the forces that profess to ‘rationalise’ and discipline the natural world.

Thus, hierarchical arrangements like the boss-worker, patriarch-family, buyer-seller relationship must be replaced with relationships that are voluntary, participatory, and mutually enriching.

Ecology’s attention to scale is essential to this process. Today, top-down systems of domination create social worlds that are flat, monolithic, and gargantuan.

Historically remarkable

A free society, on the other hand, would strive toward the creation of cultural and economic nodes and networks that differentiate incrementally. Just like natural ecosystems, social diversity creates stability and balance.

But it is important to remember that people and institutions which constitute and defend capitalism are not going to hand over the keys to the future willingly.

An ecological revolution requires not only a world without capitalism, but also a world without states. In fact, for millennia, states have been enforcing depletion of natural ecosystems in the service of aristocrats and elites.

The ecological degradation of ancient times so often blamed on ‘agriculture’ more accurately can be seen as product of states which abused agriculture to support their expansion.

Although it may seem that states are natural or inevitable, nothing could be further from the truth. They are fragile entities. Not so long ago, even in Europe states had relatively little control over their subjects. What’s historically remarkable is that the state—and capitalism as its progeny—are now embedding themselves so deeply in the realm of everyday life.

In this way, a truly ecological transformation requires the redefinition politics at the local, grassroots level. Social movements around the world are already taking up this task.

Groups like Coalizione Civica in Bologna, Italy, Barcelona en Comu and La CUP in Catalonia, Cooperation Jackson and Olympia Assembly in the United States, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, and Reclaim the City, in Capetown, South Africa, and many more today are effectively laboratories where people are collectively experimenting with directly-democratic and participatory decision-making that empowers society’s most marginalized.


In every era, the definition of revolution changes and expands. And these changes are part of human beings deepening our self-knowledge as a species.

Today, we are coming to understand —really understand— that neither humans nor nature thrive under systems based on domination and hierarchy. The climate crisis, a product of capitalist exploitation and nation-state domination, is a painful testament to this.

Revolution toward a directly democratic society represents both a return to humanity’s communal roots, as well as a progressive step into realms of scientific, philosophical, and cultural discovery beyond our current conceptual horizons.

Just as the Enlightenment revolutions were closely tied to the development of secular sciences like optics and astronomy, the gradational and relational logic of ecology today provides the conceptual basis of a truly democratic transformation.

Revolution in the 21st century advances natural evolution not only in content, but in form. Our time is now.

This Author

This article was written by Eleanor Finley (@EleanorFinley16).

[1] James and Grace Lee Boggs. 1974. Notes on Revolution and Evolution. Monthly Review Press.

[2] Baker and Edelstein. 2015. Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions. Stanford University Press.  

[3] To read more about the definition and development of hierarchy, read Symbiosis Research Collective’s second installment “Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature”  by Katie Horvath, Mason Herson-Hord and Aaron Vansintjan.

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