Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments

Murray Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment helped alert the public to the dangers to health and life emanating from postwar America’s increasingly artificial environment, that is, from overurbanization, technologies, and the resulting degradation of the natural world.

Summary of Event

From 1776 until the mid-1920’s, Americans inhabited a meagerly populated continent within what was first a largely natural and then a predominantly rural environment. Until the last half of the nineteenth century, vast areas of the continent bore close resemblances to the landscapes that had been familiar to American Indians thousands of years before. Within little more than a century, two major waves of technical revolutions, and many minor ones, fundamentally altered these traditional surroundings and the lifestyles that arose within them. Urbanization;environmental impact
Our Synthetic Environment (Bookchin)
Technology and science;effects
[kw]Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments (1962)
[kw]Health Hazards of Artificial Environments, Bookchin Warns of (1962)
[kw]Environments, Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial (1962)
Urbanization;environmental impact
Our Synthetic Environment (Bookchin)
Technology and science;effects
[g]North America;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
[g]United States;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
[c]Environmental issues;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
[c]Science and technology;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
[c]Urban planning;1962: Bookchin Warns of Health Hazards of Artificial Environments[07130]
Bookchin, Murray
Sinclair, Upton
Wiley, Harvey W.
Commoner, Barry

The U.S. population had increased dramatically, from a few million in 1776 to 250 million by the 1990’s. Statistically, the frontier phenomenon had disappeared by the 1890’s. By the mid-1920’s, Americans had become a multicultural urban people—increasingly so as the twentieth century progressed. By 1950, Americans’ lives were overwhelmingly conditioned by an environment that their technologies had drastically transformed.

Providing abundant evidence of the dark accompaniments to these transformations, Murray Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment (1962) collates and chronicles the major hazards that technologies pose to American’s lives, health, and resources. Bookchin, a Manhattan-born freelance author and naturalist, had spent a decade writing his study, and he originally published it pseudonymously as Lewis Herber (it was republished in 1974 under his real name).

The study’s main focus places it within a minor, but growing, body of scientific and literary criticism that cites the mounting human costs—physical, psychic, and economic—of unbalancing and degrading nature. Worse, to these critics, the human-made environment that replaced nature was dangerously reliant on an often fallible science and on insufficiently tested technologies that generated grave perils of their own.

Some of these perils had already been singled out and addressed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Harvey W. Wiley’s actions as chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aided by exposures of unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906), for example, marshaled public support for passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) . Progressive-era conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot embarked on their crusade to safeguard the nation’s forests and other natural resources whose limits were fast becoming apparent. Simultaneously, small-scale battles were initiated for public health and against air pollution, inadequate waste and sewage disposal, and industrial diseases.

In post-1945 America, confronted as it was by the omnipresence of a human-made environment, Bookchin’s generation greatly expanded these assaults. Naturalist Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac
Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) (1949) expounded a philosophy for “deep ecology,” an antinuclear movement was begun along with campaigns by Barry Commoner and others calling for more information on nuclear testing and “sane” nuclear policies, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Silent Spring (Carson) (1962) alerted the general public to the frightening price humankind and nature were paying for the unwise exploitation of insecticides. By the 1960’s, with the empowerment of the liberal presidency of John F. Kennedy, the conservation, environmental, and ecological movements—and the popular sentiments that their writings reflected—gained additional momentum.

In this context, Our Synthetic Environment broadened the scope of what by the 1960’s were the already numerous, but fragmented, legislative enactments, inquiries, and exposés concerning the hazards of the new surroundings in which Americans lived. In eight chapters written for a general readership, Bookchin surveyed major health problems that were directly attributable to America’s synthetic environment.

Prominent among these were threats to health stemming from the degradation of the soil and soil fertility; the physical and mental stresses attending urban life and overurbanization; the menaces of chemicals employed in agriculture, food, and food processing; the effects of environmental factors on the incidence of cancers; the dangers of radiation and nuclear fallout; and the importance of human ecology to survival.

Without wholesale denunciations of the demonstrable benefits brought by science and without any prescriptions for a cultural regression toward primitivism, Bookchin nevertheless concluded that, as in the past, remedial legislation was likely either to be diluted seriously by political compromises or to be too slow and incremental to be effective. Instead, he championed a decentralization of metropolitan life—the “unbuilding” of overurbanization—a process foreshadowed, at least spiritually, by the massive suburbanization already under way on the peripheries of major American cities. He advocated concentration on the development of small-scale cities combining agriculture and industry with attention focused on the quality of life. The trade-off in such a shift, he reasoned, might be a decline in strictly defined economic efficiency, but the return would be better health for humans, improvement in the appreciation and preservation of the natural environment, and thus a strengthening of society’s chance for survival.


In subsequent years, Bookchin and the environmental discussions to which he contributed gained credibility among growing audiences. Bookchin also progressively redefined his philosophies. He remained an environmentalist whose interests were reinforced by his familiarity with many of the country’s remaining nature preserves as well as with broader ranges of the Appalachians in New York State and wilderness areas of the far West. Although a native of New York City, Bookchin became a resident of Burlington, Vermont, a smaller city that approximated in size and function those he hoped would become the norm in the process of urban decentralization. He became a professor at New Jersey’s Ramapo College and a director of Goddard College’s Institute for Social Ecology.

During the three decades following the publication of Our Synthetic Environment, Bookchin expanded his pastoral environmentalism, that is, the vision that humans reintegrate themselves with the natural world and actively participate in molding it. The direction of his growth, in fact, is easily traced through his writings. He wrote or coauthored eight more books, five of which dealt with environmental problems and their melioration: Crises in Our Cities (1965), Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), The Ecology of Freedom (1982), Remaking Society (1990), and Defending the Earth (with Dave Foreman, 1991), among others. In addition, he helped edit Contemporary Issues and Radiation Information. It was these publications that eventually brought Bookchin recognition as a leading theorist of what had become, by the 1980’s, the small American Green movement that emerged within the broad reach of pastoralism.

Bookchin’s pastoral political and social vision called for an America composed of decentralized and radically democratized communities. Fundamental to this vision was Bookchin’s historical premise that in the distant past, humankind’s communities had existed without distinct social hierarchies. Social equality accordingly was the rule in these “organic” communities, and, as a consequence, humans enjoyed harmonious relationships with nature. That is, there was no compulsion to dominate nature. When this social equality eroded before a human urge to conquer nature, however, the old natural harmonies were fatally disrupted.

Thus, in Bookchin’s view, environmental problems were attributable primarily to modern social injustices and related social problems. While Bookchin believed that environmental problems deriving from these injustices assumed severe forms in capitalist countries, he acknowledged that the origins of environmental problems transcended the institutional arrangements of all modern societies. These problems were the result of inequitable class divisions and the aggrandizements of economic interests, both of which conflicted with ecological imperatives. In Bookchin’s words, “The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from man’s domination of man.”

Bookchin described his environmental theory as “social ecology,” the ultimate objective of which was a reintegration of humans into the pattern of natural evolution. Humans would thereby be emancipated from the unnatural restrictions of class, hierarchy, and the conformities imposed by governments, bureaucracies, and overurbanization. This reintegration process included translating observations about the qualities of nature into the source of a new ethics. Bookchin did not believe that humans would interfere with or alter the natural world once his theory gained acceptance. For, once rid of their own social maladjustments, they would intervene and interact constructively with nature rather than act with intent to destroy it. Urbanization;environmental impact
Our Synthetic Environment (Bookchin)
Technology and science;effects

Further Reading

  • Biehl, Janet, ed. The Murray Bookchin Reader. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1997. A collection of Bookchin’s writings on environmentalism, human ecology, and libertarianism. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Black, Brian. Nature and the Environment in Twentieth-Century American Life. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. A look at the history of the Green movement and human ecology in the United States. Includes the chapter “Sifting Through the Debris of Hurricane Katrina.” Bibliography and index.
  • Bookchin, Murray. The Ecology of Freedom. Palo Alto, Calif.: Cheshire Books, 1982. Reprint. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2005. This is a concise indication, twenty years after his first book, of Bookchin’s evolving social ecology and maturing pastoralism. Written for a general audience, it clearly indicts social injustices and class divisions as causes of environmental degradation. Chapter notes and a useful index.
  • _______. Our Synthetic Environment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. Reprint. New York: Harper, 1974. (The 1962 edition was published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber; the book was republished by Harper in 1974 under Bookchin’s real name.) Provides rich exemplary materials on environmental problems. Intended for a general audience, well organized, and well written. Chapter notes and a useful index.
  • _______. Remaking Society. Boston: South End Press, 1990. A well-presented prescription for the constructive reintegration of humans with nature. Bookchin argues that humans may legitimately alter the natural world, so long as they abandon attempts to dominate it. Also discusses his visions of new organic and radically democratic communities as substitutes for overurbanization. Chapter notes and index.
  • Bookchin, Murray, and Dave Foreman. Defending the Earth. Boston: South End Press, 1991. Useful primarily for revealing the opposing positions of Bookchin and Foreman on biocentrism and deep ecology. A good insight into the evolution of the Green movement in the United States. Chapter notes and index.
  • Commoner, Barry. Making Peace with the Planet. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. Illuminates areas of agreement between Commoner and Bookchin as well as Commoner’s differences with neo-Malthusians. An interesting read. Notes and index.
  • Milbrath, Lester. Environmentalists. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. An instructive survey of the subject. Especially valuable for elucidating the many nuances, both philosophical and programmatic, among American environmentalists. Bibliography, notes, index.
  • Naess, Arne. Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle. Translated and edited by David Rothenberg. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. An influential statement for the deep ecology that Bookchin opposed. Naess’s position is that reformist environmentalism or the pastoral and progressive conservative traditions both sustain antiecological attitudes. Naess is interested in attacking the fundamental worldview of modern societies in regard to the environment. Bibliography, notes, index.
  • Taylor, Bob Pepperman. Our Limits Transgressed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. An outstanding concise analysis of environmental thought in the United States, with particular emphasis on the late twentieth century. Taylor’s discussions of Bookchin’s evolving visions and philosophy are clarified in context along with others who share some of his views and those who dissent from them. One of the best works of its kind. Bibliography, notes, index.

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