Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (2015)BIO book cover

The first biography of this important radical environmental thinker. Published by Oxford University Press.

“Biehl has an insider’s view of Bookchin as both his collaborator and his lover, and she uses that insight to paint a detailed and lively picture of this important figure.”

Publishers Weekly

“Janet Biehl’s meticulously researched biography splendidly captures Bookchin’s intellectual and personal journey from youthful communist to mature anarchist. Bookchin influenced the thinking and actions of a generation but today his writings and insights are largely unknown. Biehl’s terrific book will do much to overcome this illiteracy and introduce a new generation to one of the key intellectuals of our time.”

David Morris, Director, Public Good Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

“Murray Bookchin was irascible, human, brilliant, and above all relevant to our own time. This valuable book brings his work to life and takes us through his intellectual, activist and personal struggles between the late 1930s and the end of the 20th Century. An ecologist before the term was understood by most Americans and a sophisticated anarchist who recognized the importance of clear (but decentralized) organizational structure, Bookchin’s story also offers a reminder of what it takes to live a committed life in our own time in history.”

Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, Co-Founder of The Democracy Collaborative

“Creative, charismatic, controversial and, many would add, more often than not a bit cantankerous, Murray Bookchin was without doubt one of the most significant anti-capitalist thinkers of the last century. Here in Janet Biehl’s intimate and meticulously researched biography, we see his tumultuous life and times laid out in such a way as to illuminate the cross-currents and confusions that powered the rise of left-wing ecological movements over more than half a century. This biography deserves to be widely read for its contemporary relevance.”

David Harvey, CUNY Graduate Center


Other books by Janet Biehl:


Mumford Gutkind Bookchin: The Emergence of Eco-decentralism (2011)

This pamphlet highlights the solution of eco-decentralism, which Bookchin proposed as a solution to the ecological crisis as early as the 1950s.  Industrial agriculture, driven by the desire for profits, was turning farming into a branch of capitalism. Where it was large scale, we need to return to human-scale farming. Where it used pesticides and other chemicals, we need to return to organic farming. And where it used preservatives for large-scale transport, we need to return to local farming, so that freshness is not a problem.  As for the cities, they depend on fossil fuels for their existence. But since fossil fuels are causing the greenhouse effect (he wrote in 1965) and thereby imperiling the natural environment, we need to step down from fossil fuels and use renewable energy, like solar and wind and geothermal. (Again, he was writing this in the mid-1960s.) And since renewable energy is suited not for the large scale but for the human scale, cities will have to be broken up. Thus solving global warming, he foresaw, would require smaller-scale living. However this would not be primitivistic, as new technologies of communication, production, and transportation would maintain abundance and make a decentralized society more civilized than that of the present day. (The pamphlet was published by New Compass in Norway.)

The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1998)

This book concisely summarizes the political ideas of Murray Bookchin.  By the mid-1990s, he had advanced Libertarian Municipalism in several books and articles, but the pieces needed to be brought together and synthesized in a single, brief handbook that would be useful for organizers  Biehl rose to the task, identified the major themes, and organized the material accordingly, in chapters like “The Historical City,” “The Formation of Citizenship,” “Confederalism,” “Dual Power,” and so on. The text is followed by a probing interview with Murray Bookchin conducted by Biehl; the  program of the Burlington Greens for their municipal election campaign of 1989; and a list of items for further reading. The Politics of Social Ecology was published in French translation  by Editions Ecosociété in 2013.


The Murray Bookchin Reader (1998)

To compile the reader, I sorted through Bookchin’s decades-long oeuvre and selected the best, clearest statements, then organized them in these sections: (1) An Ecological Society; (2) Nature, First and Second; (3) Organic Society; (4) The Legacy of Domination; (5) Scarcity and Post-Scarcity; (6) Marxism; (7) Anarchism; (8) Libertarian Municipalism; (9) Dialectical Naturalism; (10) Reason and History.

Bookchin praised The Murray Bookchin Reader as the best  introduction to his work. It was published by Cassell in London, with a Canadian edition by Black Rose Books in Montreal.



Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (1995)

In the early 1990s, social ecologists like Biehl were engaged in a debate with advocates of deep ecology, a mystical, antihumanist ideology that proposes that human beings are a blight on the planet.  In order to get right with the biosphere, people need to have individual mystical experiences in the natural world. Social ecologists, by contrast, affirmed that human beings are just as much a part of nature as any other creature, albeit with capabilities unknown to others; that since the causes of the ecological crisis are social—the capitalist enterprises that are laying waste the biosphere–a social movement was necessary if the fight for the biosphere is to have any chance of success; and that for that movement, we must appeal to reason, not emotion.

Appeals to emotion in politics can have frightening results.  Peter Staudenmaier, in his contribution to this two-part book, examined the “green wing” of the Nazi party, with its mystical appeals to  nature.  Biehl, for her part, examined the way the German far right the 1980s invoked ecology as an argument for reverting to authoritarian structures to control resources and counter immigration. Against these regressive ideas, both Biehl and Staudenmaier argued for social ecology, with its sanguine commitments to reason and freedom.

The book’s two essays are: “Fascist Ideology: The ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and its HIstorical Antecedents” by Peter Staudenmaier, and “‘Ecology’ and the Modernization of fascism in the German Ultra-right” by Janet Biehl. It was published by A.K. Press in 1995 and has been republished with new material, as Ecofascism Revisited by New Compass in 2011.

Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (1991)

Ecofeminism, a form of cultural feminism that emerged in the 1970s, initially proposed that women have a special ethical role in saving the planet from ecological destruction. For most of history, women have been denigrated as “closer to nature”–that is, less rational than men and therefore less human.  Ecofeminism not only accepted this highly dubious concept, it proposed to base an ecological ethics on it:  affirming “women’s values,” which are somehow more in tune with natural processes.  Celebrating irrationalism as the antidote to the “linear” thinking so implicated with domination, ecofeminism promoted goddess worship throughout the 1980s ecology movement, romanticized neolithic prehistory, and generally spread mystification in the name of feminism.

Finding this ideology regressive for women’s progress and unhelpful to the cause of averting ecological destruction, Biehl wrote this critique in 1991. She offered social ecology as an alternative framework, as more liberating for both men and women and more promising as a solution for the ecological crisis.  It was published by South End Press in Boston, along with a Canadian edition by Black Rose Books (under the title “Finding Our Way”).