II. Deep Ecology’s Deep Roots
III. The Defining Principles of Deep Ecology
IV. Critiques of Deep Ecology
Coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972, the term deep ecology designates both a philosophical and social/political movement intended to address the global environmental crisis. On a philosophical level, heavily influenced by Native American and other aboriginal spiritual traditions, deep ecology maintains the fundamental equality and right to flourish of all elements of the earth and living world. Deep ecology’s emphasis on the inherent value of the earth and all living things is grounded in the concept of the fundamental unity of human beings with the whole cosmos to which they belong. Much of the debate and discussion inspired by deep ecology centers around the question of how to balance human need with the necessity to preserve and care for the environment on which human (and all other) life depends.
II. Deep Ecology’s Deep Roots
Deep ecology advocates a move away from an anthropocentric (that is, a human-centered ) perspective to an ecocentric (that is, a physical world–centered ) worldview that recognizes as primary the continued flourishing of the entire living and natural world (Sessions 1995a, 156–158; Seed, Macy, Fleming 1988, 35–39). This ecocentric perspective at the core of deep ecology has ancient roots in the cosmological and religious systems of indigenous or primal hunter-gatherer cultures, which regard all aspects of the cosmos as sacred, interrelated, and alive. Given that hunter-gatherer life ways have characterized cultures spanning most of human history, associated holistic and ecocentric worldviews rank as the most ancient of human religious and philosophical systems (Sessions 1995a, 158). Indigenous holistic and ecocentric worldviews have inspired the writings and work of many deep ecologists, including Pulitzer prize–winning poet Gary Snyder, whose poetry collection Turtle Island grew out of his close work with Native Americans, and rainforest activist John Seed, who draws extensively on the wisdom of indigenous peoples in his work to save the rainforest and heal people’s relationship to the earth and living world (Snyder 1995, 457–462; Seed, Macy, Fleming 1988, 9–11).
In its contemporary form, however, the deep ecology movement arose in the 1960s alongside the ecological movement, inspired by the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Early deep ecologists found inspiration and direction in the nature writings of Henry David Th oreau and John Muir; Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, presented in his Sand County Almanac; and the Buddhist perspective of Alan Watts. Gary Snyder, in his synthesis of Native American and Zen Buddhist philosophies, has become a prominent international spokesperson for deep ecology. In the academic sphere, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess began developing some of the principles of deep ecology as early as 1968, building on the philosophical ideas of Spinoza and Gandhi (Sessions 1995b, 157, 232–234).
Particularly significant in helping to crystallize the ecocentric perspective was UCLA historian Lynn White’s seminal 1967 article The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. White argued that Christianity, characterized by a dangerous anthropocentrism, has desacralized the natural world and encouraged its mindless exploitation as nothing more than a resource to be utilized for purely selfish human ends. Instead of science, technology, or Marxism (which he regarded as a Christian heresy), White advocated as a possible solution a return to the nature mysticism of Saint Francis of Assisi (White 1967, x, 158).
III. The Defining Principles of Deep Ecology
As defined by philosophers Bill Devall and George Sessions, deep ecology is rooted in two fundamental principles. The first is self-realization, which affirms that each individual (human or otherwise) is part of a larger whole, or Self, which encompasses ultimately the planet Earth and the entire cosmos. Expressed in the Native American (Lakota) prayer Mitakuye Oyasin (“I am related to all that is”), the concept of self-realization is embraced in some form by diverse religious traditions worldwide (Badiner 1990, xv; Brown 2001, 89). Many indigenous traditions understand human beings’ relationship to the living and natural world in kinship or familial terms: animals and trees as well as rocks and rivers are brothers, sisters, and ancestors belonging to one all-encompassing, all-inclusive interdependent family. As a powerful modern expression of the self-realization concept, many deep ecologists have embraced James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, which views the entire planet as a living being (Lovelock 1982, 9; Abram 1990, 75).
The second fundamental principle of deep ecology, as outlined by Devall and Sessions, is biocentric equality, which upholds that all elements of the biosphere have an equal right to live and flourish. In maintaining the principle of biocentric equality, deep ecologists do not deny the apparent inequality of the natural world, as evident in the biological realities of predation or natural selection. Yet deep ecology is concerned primarily with challenging the deeply ingrained anthropocentric notion that human beings have an absolute right to reign supreme over the environment and living things without regard for the welfare of the whole. Deep ecology’s insistence on biocentric equality derives from the recognition that all entities in the cosmos live interrelated with and interdependent upon one another. The principle of biocentric equality follows logically from that of self-realization insofar as harming one element of the biosphere harms the whole. Ultimately, deep ecology thus embraces a vision of the cosmos where human beings live in harmony and balance with all entities in the interconnected web of life. In practical terms, this means that humans, as an interdependent part of a much greater Self, should live in ways that encourage the survival of all other species (and the environment) upon which they depend.
In addition to articulating basic principles such as self-realization and biocentric equality, deep ecologists have also sought to distinguish deep ecology from what they see as the more shallow ecology characteristic of environmental policies in the industrialized world. In 1973, Arne Naess critiques what he terms a shallow ecological movement that, though attempting to fight pollution and conserve resources, is primarily concerned with maintaining the health and high living standard of developed countries (Naess 1995b, 151). In a 1986 article, he develops the shallow–deep antithesis further, contrasting the approaches of the two different movements to key issues such as pollution and resource depletion. With respect to pollution, the shallow ecological approach entails the creation of laws that, while seeking to limit pollution, often simply relocate it by exporting highpollution industry to developing countries. In contrast, the deep ecological approach analyzes pollution in terms of its overall systemic impact on the entire biosphere, looking at health effects on all species and seeking economic and political alternatives to the unjust practice of pollution exportation. With respect to resource depletion, deep ecology rejects the shallow ecological treatment of animals, trees, and the earth merely as resources for human use, insisting that the earth and living world are valuable in and of themselves, independent of their utility to human beings (Naess 1995a, 71–72).
Working together with George Sessions, Arne Naess formulated an eight-point deep ecology platform; a foundational statement embodying both the activist and philosophical commitments of the deep ecology movement (Naess 1995a, 68):
- The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.
- Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
- Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
- The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires a smaller human population.
- Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
- Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of aff airs will be deeply different from the present.
- The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.
- Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.
Naess notes that points one to five directly challenge dominant models of economic growth and development in industrialized countries. At the same time, he admits that reducing population growth and wealthy countries’ “interference with the non-human world” will take hundreds of years (Naess 1995a, 69). As a way of promoting the deep ecology movement in developing countries, Naess recommends direct grassroots action, which can circumvent government interference.
IV. Critiques of Deep Ecology
One of the most widely discussed critiques of deep ecology is that it is misanthropic: critics have argued that in its critique of anthropocentrism and commitment to biocentric equality, deep ecology advocates the survival and flourishing of nonhuman species at the expense of human beings (Sessions 1995, xiii, 267; Fox 1995, 280). For example, in a remark he subsequently retracted, former Vice President Al Gore charged Arne Naess’s deep ecology with treating people as “an alien presence on the earth” (Sessions 1995b, xiii). After giving a speech on overfishing in the Barent Sea, in which Naess advocated viewing the sea as a “whole complex ecosystem” where even microscopic flagellates have intrinsic value, a fishing industry representative is said to have quipped: “Naess is of course more concerned about flagellates than about people” (Naess 1995d, 406).
Deep ecologists respond that such critiques arise from a basic misunderstanding or misrepresentation of deep ecological principles. Al Gore’s remark was inspired by a statement from Dave Foreman, a leader of the radical Earth First! environmental group, about “not giving aid to Ethiopians and allowing them to starve”—a remark for which Foreman subsequently apologized (Sessions 1995b, xxvi). Although Earth First! has adopted the deep ecology platform, Sessions points out that such clearly misanthropic statements are fundamentally antithetical to deep ecology’s ecocentrism (Sessions 1995b, xiii). Admitting that deep ecology’s radical egalitarian stance has often been misunderstood, Naess emphasizes that such egalitarianism does not imply that humans are not extraordinary or that they have no obligations to their own species (Naess 1995a, 76). Deep ecology endeavors to promote “an egalitarian attitude on the part of humans toward all entities in the ecosphere—including humans” (Fox 1995, 280).
In developing this point further, Naess explains that deep ecology’s ecocentric perspective seeks to promote awareness of human interdependence and interconnectedness within the earth’s ecosystem, not to devalue human beings. In response to the charge that he cared more about flagellates than people, Naess explains: “My point was that the present tragic situation for fishermen could have been avoided if policy makers had shown a little more respect for all life, not less respect for people” (Naess 1995d, 406). At the same time, balancing human need with the necessity of preserving the ecosphere is, in practical terms, often very difficult. In addressing such difficult human and environmental issues, some of the most thoughtful challenges to deep ecology have come from scholars and environmentalists in the developing world. Indian environmental scholar Ramachandra Guha, for example, critiques deep ecology on several points, two of which are taken up here.
First, while Guha praises, in a general sense, deep ecology’s challenge to human “arrogance and ecological hubris,” he rejects the further conclusion “that intervention in nature should be guided primarily by the need to preserve biotic integrity rather than by the needs of humans” (Guha 2003, 555). Encouraging a philosophical shift from an anthropocentric to a biocentric perspective, Guha argues, fails utterly to address the two primary causes of environmental destruction: (1) overconsumption by wealthy nations and Third World elites and (2) militarization, with its threat of nuclear annihilation (Guha 2003, 555). The complex economic, political, and individual lifestyle factors that support militarization and overconsumption cannot be traced back merely to deeply ingrained anthropocentrism (Guha 2003, 556). In essence, then, Guha insists that protecting and preserving the environment necessarily entails addressing the root causes of overconsumption and militarization.
Guha’s second critique of deep ecology is that the setting aside of wildlife preserves and wilderness areas, a practice supported by Western deep ecologists, has been thoroughly detrimental in the developing world. As a prominent example, Guha cites Project Tiger in his native India—an effort spearheaded by Indian conservationists in cooperation with international agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund. Project Tiger, by displacing poor rural villagers to preserve endangered tigers, “resulted in a direct transfer of resources from the poor to the rich” (Guha 2003, 556). Guha sees such wilderness preservation efforts, and associated claims by Western biologists that only they are competent to decide how tropical areas are to be used, as a blatant expression of Western neocolonial imperialism (Guha 2003, 556–557).
Deep ecologists have responded to Guha’s and similar critiques, at various levels. First, deep ecologists disagree in some respects with Guha over how human beings ought to relate to and live within the natural world. Whereas deep ecology, drawing from the teachings of indigenous and many Eastern religious traditions, promotes a paradigm of cooperative interrelationship with the natural world, Guha sees Eastern religious traditions supporting a model in which humans throughout history in the East have engaged in a “finely tuned but nonetheless conscious and dynamic manipulation of nature” (Guha 2003, 557). From a deep ecological perspective, however, viewing the natural world as something to be manipulated or controlled constitutes in itself a form of imperialism. In an observation with which Guha might well agree, Thomas Birch condemns America’s “incarceration” of natural areas into wilderness reservations as another example of the “white imperium” attempting to subdue and control an “adversarial other.” Citing Luther Standing Bear, Birch upholds deep ecology’s vision of a human relationship with the earth that is not adversarial “but participatory, cooperative, and complementary” (Birch 1995, 348).
Second, from the ecocentric standpoint of deep ecology, the claim that human needs must take precedence over biodiversity illustrates just how deeply ingrained anthropocentrism is in human thinking about the environment (Sessions 1995b, xvi). Third, deep ecologists have pointed out that addressing the widespread social injustice associated with and perpetuated by such things as overconsumption and militarization does not by itself necessarily result in a harmonious or sustainable relationship with the natural world (Fox 1995, 276). Focusing merely on human problems unacceptably relegates the nonhuman world to its traditional secondary position as the “background against which the significant action—human action—takes place” (Fox 1995, 277). In a detailed response to Guha, Naess defends wilderness preservation efforts, clarifying that such a strategy is not intended for export to colonize the developing world but is one of the essential tools in limiting environmental destruction caused by industrial overconsumption in the West (Naess 1995d, 401).
Despite such differences in perspective, deep ecologists appear to stand in essential agreement with Guha’s analysis. Naess, speaking for many environmentalists, asserts that human beings must set as a universal goal the avoidance of “all kinds of consumerism” and questions whether wealthy nations, given their own environmental record, “deserve any credibility when preaching ecological responsibility to the poor countries” (Naess 1995d, 399, 401). Deep ecologists would have very little argument with Guha’s call for overconsuming, expansionist western nations to adopt an “ethic of renunciation and self-limitation” (Guha 2003, 558). In addition, deep ecologists and environmentalists, in general, are well aware of (and are seeking to address) the ongoing environmental (not to mention human) devastation caused by the military industrial complex (Sessions 1995b, xvi–xvii). Naess, Gary Snyder, and many other deep ecologists work with and support indigenous autonomous efforts worldwide to preserve and find ways to live sustainably in relation to the environment (Naess 1995d, 404 –405). In this spirit of cooperation and mutual concern, Naess presents deep ecologists with a question to guide future inquiry and action: “How can the increasing global interest in protecting all Life on Earth be used to further the cause of genuine economic progress and social justice in the Third World?” (Naess 1995d, 406). Returning to the core principles of self-realization and biocentric equality, deep ecology thus upholds a vision in which humans take care of themselves by learning to care for Mother Earth.
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