Does hierarchy kill nature?

After reading Freya Mathews’ article “A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry”, (see my summary here)  – which I find very inspirational – I feel the need to further investigate some of the paths she’s laying out. Particularly I would like to dig more into her framework for a ‘deeper philosophy’ based on the two concepts conativity and least resistance. However, I also sense some internal contradictions in her arguments. Before addressing her conceptual framework in more detail, I would like to clean up my thoughts, by dealing with these latter.

The thing I can’t quite get to fit, when reading (and hearing) Mathews, is what I perceive as an inherent contradiction in her argumentation. On the one hand, she stresses the problems with modern civilization’s ‘impose and control’ behavior, that “effectively places us ‘outside nature’”, and has made us “ravage the living constituency of the biosphere”. On the other, she professes a “setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.” My point is that Mathews equates the coercive behavior of a collective with negative impact on the environment, while at the same time advocating for population degrowth, in a language that implies large scale coercion on human societies.

This raises two questions. First of all: Can we take for granted that a given society (human or not) which is organised according to hierarchical principles will necessarily have a negative impact on it’s surroundings? In the article “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology” from 1987, Murray Bookchin writes:

“Decentralism, small- scale communities, local autonomy, even mutual aid and communalism are not intrinsically ecological or emancipatory. Few societies were more decentralized than European feudalism, which in fact was structured around small-scale communities, mutual aid, and the communal use of land. Local autonomy was highly prized and autarchy formed the economic key to feudal communities. Yet few societies were more hierarchical.”

Following Bookchin, there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between a society’s degree of authoritarianism, and it’s negative impact on its environments. This brings to mind our current situation, where China – a country which we Westeners like to consider as authoritarian – seems to take the front as a green super power, leaving far behind the US, (formerly?) seen as ‘the leader of the free world’

This bridges to the second question that Mathews’ argument raises, which has to do with “setting a target for human population”. Bookchin writes – rather bluntly – about “the mistakes of the early 1970s with their hoopla about ‘population control’, their latent antifeminism, their elitism, their arrogance, and their ugly authoritarian tendencies”. Again, China comes to mind with its one child policy (1979 – 2015).

Since Mathews subscribes to “targets for human population”, is it fair to count her among the authoritarian, antifeminism, elitist etc. stances, Bookchin is rallying against? That Mathews is concerned with environmental as well as social issues, shines through in her comparison between the impose-and-control mode of our modern times with their extensive use of energy supplies, external to our own life-force, and earlier civilizations’ use of slaves “who have been treated as external to the social corpus”. However, reading Mathews, I haven’t sofar come across any particular spelled out strategy of hers for the implementation of a policy for population degrowth. Her focus seems to be on the ways in which we can educate ourselves to become attentive to nature. The implementation of these educational strategies seems to have to do with small scale endeavours, based in communities or educational institutions. In this way, Mathews’ thinking is leaning more towards panpsychism than ideology critique. Mathews’ panpsychism is inspired by Norwegian deep ecologist Arne Næss, and can be describes as a thinking , “in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For [Mathews], there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems”. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Mathews is building on Næss and through him, Spinoza, but she doesn’t make this connection very explicit, at least not in the text I am referring to here. The problem with Mathews’ argumentation is, as I see it, that she doesn’t manage to apply Spinoza’s thinking to its fullest, and thereby, she lands in some middle ground, where her effort ends in a kind of spiritualistic impasse. And the problem with that, is that in order to have an impact on the current dominant ideas about ecology, nature, climate etc., a vague spiritualism doesn’t speak with a very efficient voice. If I suggest a typical Dane that we solve our current ecological crisis through a ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales, he would probably at its best have a good laugh.

The rhetorics of deep ecology with its insistence on humans’ parasitic abuse of Nature, as well as discussions of invasive species, etc. comes dangerously close to the imagery of right wing populism. The difference being that whereas the latter refers to specific ethnic or religious groups, and use natural science as a repertoire of metaphors for the unwanted ethnic group’s behavior (“jews/muslims multiply like rats”), the former refers to humanity as a whole (“we are a cancer to the planet”), and their reference to natural sciences is literal. What is common to both, is the expression of hatred. Hatred towards the other or to one self. In the end of the day, it’s no wonder that some people have a hard time telling the difference.

An argumentation that would have a much stronger impact is Bookchins assessment, that “throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, [improvements in the quality of life and the status of women] reduced rates of population increase, in some cases leading to negative population growth rates.”

This is a pretty straight forward argument for how people’s taking care of each other can have a positive impact on their environment. Whether intended or not. In this sense, Bookchin seems to be giving a much stronger argument about a possible correlation between how we as humans treat each other and how we treat our surroundings.

To return to the somewhat primitive question in the title, I might conclude by saying that hierarchy does not in it self kill nature, or sustain it for that matter. On the one hand there is the Chinese model of population degrowth, imposed on the population through a top-down, authoritarian strategy and on the other hand there is a, let’s say, Italian or Japanese (non-)strategy based on cultural, socio-economic factors with the consequence that people do not (want to) reproduce. Does welfare lead to sustainable living? Well, in the West we might have a declining population growth, but it wouldn’t make sense to assert that our way of life is sustainable for the planet. In other words: hierarchy or not, welfare or not, at the end of the day, an ecological, economical and social sustainability must be based on cultural sustainability.


Bookchin, M. (1987). Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. In Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, nos. 4-5

Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Mathews, F. (2011) A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. Organization and Environment. Volume: 24 issue: 4, page(s): 364-387

Sharp, H. (2011). Spinoza and the politics of renaturalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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