Bookchin's theory presents a vision of human evolution that combines the nature of biology and society into a third "thinking nature" beyond biochemistry and physiology, which he says is of a more complete, conscious, ethical, and rational nature. Humanity, according to this line of thought, is the latest development in the long history of organic development on Earth. Bookchin's social ecology proposes ethical principles for replacing a society's propensity for hierarchy and domination with that of democracy and freedom. He wrote about the effects of urbanization on human life in the early 1960s during his participation in the civil rights and related social movements. Bookchin then began to pursue the connection between ecological and social issues, culminating with his best-known book, The Ecology of Freedom, which he had developed over a decade. His argument, that human domination and destruction of nature follows from social domination between humans, was a breakthrough position in the growing field of ecology. He writes that life develops from self-organization and evolutionary cooperation (symbiosis). Bookchin writes of preliterate societies organized around mutual need but ultimately overrun by institutions of hierarchy and domination, such as city-states and capitalist economies, which he attributes uniquely to societies of humans and not communities of animals. He proposes confederation between communities of humans run through democracy rather than through administrative logistics.
Bookchin's work, beginning with anarchist writings on the subject in the 1960s, has continuously evolved. Towards the end of the 1990s, he increasingly integrated the principle of communalism, with aspirations more inclined towards institutionalized municipal democracy, which distanced him from certain evolutions of anarchism. Bookchin's work draws inspiration from anarchism (mainly Kropotkin) and communism (including the writings of Marx and Engels). Social ecology refuses the pitfalls of a Neo-Malthusian ecology which erases social relationships by replacing them with "natural forces", but also of a technocratic ecology which considers that environmental progress must rely on technological breakthroughs and that the state will play an integral role in this technological development. According to Bookchin, these two currents depoliticize ecology and mythologize the past and the future.
Thus, social ecology is articulated through several key principles:
Interdependence and the principle of unity in diversity. Social ecology seeks to oppose the standardization of beings and thoughts, promoting the importance of diversity and the organic unions between different parts of society. These differences include a diversity of talents, points of view, and styles, which allows the society to evolve while simultaneously maintaining stability.
Decentralization. A social ecology society would take the form of a confederation of decentralized municipalities linked to each other by commercial and social ties. Dispersed renewable energy sources would feed these communities on a human scale and provide for each according to their needs.
Direct democracy. Structured around the principle of a form of communalism called libertarian municipalism, social ecology advocates the development of municipal assemblies, a modernized version of the type developed by the Athenians in Antiquity or implemented during the Paris Commune for political decision-making. The decisions concerning the life of the commune are discussed and voted by majority in these assemblies. Similarly, at the higher level, representatives with imperative mandates, and therefore revocable, are appointed to represent their municipality at regional and multi-regional assemblies. It is a horizontal, non-hierarchical popular democracy system, in which decisions go from the bottom up and are decided transparently and face-to-face.
A renewal of citizenship. At the base of the social ecology system are the citizen and the community. All people must relearn to participate in the decision-making process concerning local life, specifically by learning to come to these decisions through a communal process. All citizens are expected to have a basic level of civic responsibility that, at minimum, allows them to take an active part in making the decisions which have direct repercussions on their community and the lives of the people and ecology within that community.
A liberating technology. Social ecology is not opposed to modern technologies but is in favor of developing them solely to be used in service of human beings. Science must regain a moral foundation and develop for the benefit of humans, not to enslave them. Modern machines and tools must become multifunctional, durable, environmentally friendly and easy to use and maintain. By standardizing the technical skills required to complete the tasks, citizens will be able to free themselves from strenuous work and concentrate on the creative and positive aspects of the tasks.
A social vision of work. Developing machines have, in social ecology, the aim of freeing human beings from a large part of manual work (factory work) that can be done by machines, in order to leave human beings to more creative work and reduce working time. The time saved would allow them to participate in the political life of their district and to enjoy social life more fully. The model is thus articulated around diversified partial times, combining as much work as possible inside and outside, intellectual and concrete, etc. The hierarchies at work will be replaced by supervisors whose sole purpose is to provide a global vision on the work of a project.
Dialectical naturalism. Dialectical naturalism is a dialectical philosophy developed to serve as an ethical foundation for a society based on the principles of social ecology. In order to fight against the ravages of Western binary representations, this philosophy is based on "developmental" thinking to understand the complexity of living things. Thus, dialectical naturalism invites us not to study species by isolating them from each other, which is "a reflection of the entrepreneurial bias of our culture" but to think about their interrelations. Its principle is that "what should be" must serve as an ethical basis for "what is", with the aim of freedom and synchronicity with nature.
In May 2016, the first “International Social Ecology Meetings” were organized in Lyon, which brought together a hundred radical environmentalists, decreasing figures and libertarians, most of whom came from France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland, but also from the United States, Guatemala and Canada. At the center of the debates: libertarian municipalism as an alternative to the nation state and the need to rethink activism.
The second edition of the meetings takes place in Bilbao, in October 2017.