The Deep Ecology Movement


Every atom in this body existed before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago. Remember our childhood as minerals, as lava, as rocks? Rocks contain the potentiality to weave themselves into such stuff as this. We are the rocks dancing. Why do we look down on them with such a condescending air. It is they that are the immortal part of us.

– John Seed et al., Thinking Like A Mountain, 1988

Deep ecology teaches us that every living thing, from the small club moss on the forest floor, to the coyote, to the human being, has equal right to live and flourish. As we learn about the plants and animals we live in partnership with, we yearn to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.

When I first discovered the Deep Ecology Movement, I had already been preaching it’s tenants without realizing it. Deep ecology was the first environmental movement that challenged a lot of the way western culture views and relates to the natural world. The movement also entered into the realm of the emotional and spiritual through exploring the connections we have to wild nature not only through our biology, but through the heart and spirit.

Deep ecological thought challenges us to question the ideologies of our culture that have formed our relationship to the natural world, and justified our often destructive actions. Since the 1970’s the deep ecology movement has called for a change in our basic values and beliefs that have caused the immense amount of environmental destruction we now face.

Deep ecologists believe that every living being, human and nonhuman equal alike, have inherent value, and the basic right to flourish on this earth. What would our actions look like if we understood that all species have equal rights, and must be considered in all of our actions?

For the past 30 years the deep ecology movement has called for a revolution of human thought, believing that most importantly our anthropocentric world-views need to change in order for our exploitation of the environment to change. Deep ecologists seek to look deeper into the ecological crisis, and examine the cultural ideologies that impact our behavior. Hoping in the process to understand and include deeper-rooted social issues in the environmental movement.

The deep ecology movement arose in the wake of the environmental revolution that had emerged as a result of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, one of the books that has most influenced my life. Silent Spring not only examined the dangerous effects of the use of pesticides on the environment, but asked readers to look at the impacts of human technologies on their own health as well as the health of the environment, showing their obvious connection. In Silent Spring, Carson challenged the paradigm of Western society by looking at the ways it has claimed the right to dominate and exploit the earth as well as other living species. Deep ecologists took this further, seeking cultural change that would address the dominant anthropocentric worldview the West has been operating from.

arneArne Naess

A Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess is credited for the term “deep ecology,” though its concepts have been found in many non-Western cultures, and in personal beliefs held by many people who share a strong connection to the natural world. After reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Naess sought to find the source of our ecological crisis, as well as its solutions, in the roots of the human psyche.

Naess defined the deep ecology movement has operating from “biospherical egalitarianism” as it’s main principle, in which all life is seen as equal, dependant on each other, and free of “master-slave” relationships that have existed. He called for a movement towards nonanthropocentric environmentalism in which the natural world is given equal status as human beings. He stressed the need for a diversity of forms of life, which contribute to the ability of many living beings coexisting and cooperating in complex relationships rather than the domination of one species over others. Naess also challenged the class structure of capitalist/industrial nations, examining social inequalities, a perspective which had just been emerging in the 1960’s with the civil rights movement.

Naess held a strong critique of the modern industrialism that had caused so much environmental degradation, and changed our culture to one that has developed a notion of the human being as completely separate and independent from the natural world. From a modern industrialist perspective, the human being is able to live and function well, completely cut off from the natural world, relying solely on human-made technologies. Naess criticized this ideology, and the destruction that our separation from nature has caused within our own psyches.

The Deep Ecology Movement gathered together many people who saw the effects and injustice in Western anthropocentric thought such as the well known poet and writer Gary Snyder. In the late 70’s, two scholars, George Sessions and Bill Devall, discovered Naess’ work, from which they began to build a framework for the deep ecology movement in America. In 1985 they published the first book on deep ecology, Deep Ecology: Living as if nature mattered.

In 1984 Arne Naess and Sessions formulated the eight basic principles of deep ecology, which became the foundation for the deep ecology movement. The following is a summary of each of these principles, and the ideology they represent within the deep ecology movement.

1) The well being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

In the first principle Naess and Sessions explain that nature does not exist or have value solely for the use of human beings. Life on this planet is not here simply for our exploitation or gain. They propose that all life, including ours, has equal rite to exist and flourish on this earth. As opposed to “shallow” ecology, Naess proposes an outlook that seeks to justify the protection of the natural world simply because other living things have equal rights as us to be on this earth, and the value of nonhuman life is not dependent on its usefulness to humans. The first principle of the deep ecology movement focuses in on the basic rights of equality that we have not given to other species, viewing ourselves as superior to (and thus worthy of dominating) all other life forms.

2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

Because we are dependent on all other life forms on this planet for maintaining the balance of life on earth, we must preserve biodiversity. In the second principle Naess and Sessions explain that biodiversity sustains life on earth, including ours, by maintaining and feeding the web of life that has taken millions of years to evolve. By decreasing biodiversity, we stress the natural system that we rely on completely for our own life. Proponents of deep ecology perceive that we are a part of a vast web of species that rely on each other, and seek to address Western society’s ignorance of the vital need for biodiversity to maintain life on earth. Deep ecologists explain that we have upset the basic harmony on earth that has allowed for the continuation of life, to the point of endangering our own survival. Never in the history of the earth has there been a species such as ours that has caused the destruction of the very web of life itself depends on. The second principle examines the decreasing biodiversity that is threatening our survival, and our need to protect and foster biodiversity in order to support the basic right of every species to live and flourish.

3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

In this principle, Naess and Sessions argue that we should only take the lives of other living beings if it is absolutely necessary for a human’s vital needs for survival and wellbeing. The deep ecology movement calls for us to do as little harm as possible to the natural world, taking only enough life as needed for one’s “vital” human needs while protecting the balance, and stability of the ecosystem, and the right of life belonging to all other life forms. There are many in the deep ecology movement who believe that living a way of life that involves giving up the excess that is possible in our society is a part of this principle.

In order to protect the diversity of life on this planet human beings must live with less resources for our vital needs, a concept that is challenged by critics of the deep ecology movement who focus on human wellbeing above the wellbeing of nonhuman life. There are also many disagreements as to what each person’s “vital needs” constitute. Much of the material things (and extreme richness/excess of food in this country) we believe we need, when in fact it is extravagance and excess in the extreme. Because we have grown so accustomed to this way of life, we do not realize that most of the material and energy resources we use are not in fact needed for our vital needs, wellbeing, or happiness.

Deep ecologists stress the inter-relatedness of all that exists, and under this notion, if one species is hurt or goes extinct, all other living things are impacted, including ourselves.

4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

The forth principle addresses this issue of excess in our society, and the rapid increase of environmental destruction we are currently inflicting on the earth in order to satisfy our lifestyles. Naess and Sessions stress that we are interfering with the nonhuman world, clarifying that our excessive use of natural resources is not necessary, but an interference. Ecologists such as Thoreau who believed in allowing the natural world to stay wild and without human manipulation influenced this perspective within deep ecology. They stress in this principle that our interference is continuing to increase rather than stay at a constant level.

5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

In their fifth principle Naess and Sessions address the issue of the human population explosion that has contributed to the destruction of nonhuman life. They explain that human life and culture will not be negatively impacted with a decrease in human population, since it would result in less resource use and less decrease in the diversity of species, which contributes to our survival. The issue of reducing human population is controversial since it has difficult social implications. Social ecologists and human rights proponents have challenged these perspectives in the deep ecology movement. Deep ecology is often misunderstood as advocating for the destruction of the human species in order to allow other species to flourish. This is a false interpretation since deep ecology calls for the equality of all species, each given equal rights to life and wellbeing, including all human beings. Much of the deep ecology platform challenges the social institutions that have harmed not only nonhuman life, but also many different peoples of the world.

6) Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

The sixth principle calls for the policy changes that are needed for the deep societal change that will restructure how we interact with the nonhuman world, use resources, and destribute the resources we use. Though Naess and Sessions did not address how policy should be changed, they did stress that social change has to also occur on a governmental level in order for it to be effective. Some critics of the deep ecology movement have argued that deep ecologists are too concerned with theory rather than the practical changes that are needed. The sixth, seventh, and eighth principles clearly illustrate that deep ecologists understand the need for actual change both within the policies of our government and in the behaviors of the people.

7) The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

In the seventh principle Naess and Sessions propose that a deep ecology movement advocates for change to occur in our lifestyles in order to reduce our resource use, and measure our quality of life by things other than material possessions. Here they are again examining the social and ideological issues that effect the way we impact the nonhuman world, stressing the need to evaluate the ever-increasing high standard of living that causes such destruction of the earth. Naess and Sessions also examine the roots of thought that are behind such a high standard of living, calling for a deeper understanding to be had between a materially “big” life, and one that is much richer in that which cannot be given monetary value.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

In the final principle they call for those who share the same ideology of the deep ecology movement to put their actions behind their beliefs, and participate in creating these changes. Culture change happens with individuals, which then spreads into communities, first local and then global. Many other environmental ideologies do not speak to the proponents of the perspective, and challenge them to work hard to put their beliefs into action and manifestation.

Deep ecologists tried to separate themselves from what they called “shallow” ecologists who focused on human-centered issues of the environment. Naess explained that the aim of “shallow” ecology was to fight against resource depletion and the sources of pollution, as well as support the health and excess of upper class people of developed countries. Shallow ecology was seen as focusing mostly on the controlling of natural resource use for the future benefit of human generations. Deep ecologists favored preservationist perspectives that advocated for the protection of “wild lands” that were untouched by humans for the sake of preserving their natural integrity. Preservationists saw the natural world as something that is complete without the introduction of humans, and tend to break down when the human element is introduced. From this perspective the natural world is worked to be kept whole, unchanged, and unimpacted by humans.


“Supporters of deep ecology also tend to encourage the restoration movement, which seeks to enhance and restore native biodiversity within a bioregional context, and to favor protection of ancient forests, tropical rainforests, and all other types of ecosystems on the planet. Some supporters of deep ecology also favor vegetarianism… Generally speaking, the norm of nonviolence is widely accepted by deep ecologists. Naess himself wrote an explanation of Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and has been interested in Gandhian types of social movements since the 1930’s.” (Dunlap and Mertig, 1992)

Deep ecologists argue that through our desire to control the natural world and use it for our benefit (as resource, or manipulated into recreational areas) we have created a “master-slave” relationship with all non-human living things. The “shallow” ecology movement that Naess referred to is rooted in environmental protection that focuses on benefiting human generations. The deep ecology movement calls for an environmentalism that seeks to protect nonhuman life for the benefit of all beings, rather than for the benefit of humans singularly.

The 1960’s social movements paved the way for ideologies that desired to break down Christian-based, patriarchal, capitalist, and industrial structures that contributed to both individual and collective oppression. The deep ecology movement sought to address the ways Western society and values were affecting the natural world (rather than solely focusing on the social impacts on people of different classes, sex, or ethnic backgrounds). Environmental activists, sociologists, spiritualists, wilderness advocates, and back-to-the-earthers were drawn to the deep ecology movement because of their similar values. By the end of the 1970’s the deep ecology movement had attracted scholars such as Michael Zimmerman, Gary Snyder, and Dolores LaChapelle.

In 1974 George Sessions published articles that attacked anthropocentric and Christian thought in our culture, examining their roles in destroying cultures and life ways around the world that are more ecologically sustainable. He went on to publish the journal Ecophilosophy, as well as organize colloquiums for scholars on environmental ethics. The deep ecology movement and the rise of different environmental philosophies at this time generated the field of environmental ethics in the late 1970’s.

Deep ecologists challenged the ideologies of Christianity that helped create the foundations for anthropocentric thought and behavior in our culture. Our view of the human being has elevated since the shift to patriarchal religions. The human (man) rose to the position of an almost God, with the divine right to rule over all other life forms. The man made image of God (created in his own image) inflated man’s self-image, and created an overpowering super ego of the human being as the pinnacle of evolution. This ideology of man as the end point of evolution has placed us at the top and center of all life on earth. Scientists do understand that humans are not the most evolved species, and that life on earth did not in fact evolve in order to create the human species. We are in fact a very young species compared to many other species that have existed for millions of years before us. It is also curious that we are creating our own demise as a species incredibly fast, which challenges the notion that we are the most evolved and intelligent species on earth. In “Beyond Anthropocentrism” John Seed writes,

“Human chauvinism, the idea that humans are the crown of creation, the source of all value, the measure of all things, is deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness… When humans investigate and see through their layers of anthropocentric self-cherishing, a most profound change in consciousness begins to take place. Alienation subsides. The human is no longer an outsider, apart.” (John Seed, 1982)

Deep ecologists propose a perspective other than anthrocentrism, and that is “ecocentrism” or “biocentrism,” which proposes an ecosystem centered or life centered perspective. An ecocentric perspective favors actions and ideologies that center on ecosystems, while anthropocentric actions and thoughts center around (and often benefit) only the human being. Biocentric perspectives focus on all life, favoring actions and ideologies that are life-centered. Deep ecologists have often sought out other ideologies, cultures, and spiritual traditions that have an ecocentric or biocentric focus. Since many of the world’s indigenous, animistic, and Eastern religious traditions are not anthropocentric in nature, many deep ecologists drew connections to other belief systems around the world. In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Taylor and Zimmerman explain,

“Deep ecologists generally believe that only by “resacralizing” our perceptions of the natural world can we put ecosystems above narrow human interests and thereby avert ecological catastrophe by learning to live harmoniously with the natural world. It is a common perception within the deep ecology movement that the religions of indigenous cultures, the world’s remnant and newly revitalized or invented pagan religions, and religions originating in Asia (especially Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism), provide superior grounds for ecological ethics, and greater ecological wisdom, than do Occidental religions.” (Taylor et al., 2005)

As Zimmerman and Taylor state, deep ecology has looked to eastern, pagan, and indigenous spiritual traditions for a theology that views and experiences the sacredness of the natural world, worshiping nature rather than a self-aggrandized image of man.

Gary Snyder

Many deep ecologists find that their consciousness was expanded and deepened through time spent in the natural world, which many other spiritual traditions of the world speak of. Gary Snyder, a proponent of the deep ecology movement, wrote a Pulitzer prize winning book called Turtle Island, which advocated ideas based in earth-based spirituality, animistic beliefs, and indigenous world-views. In Deep Ecology, Zimmerman includes Paul Shepard in with Gary Snyder as someone who set a foundation for perspectives of deep ecology. Shepard wrote books such as Nature and Madness, and Coming Back to the Pleistocene, which argued, “foraging societies were ecologically superior to and emotionally healthier than agricultures.” Zimmerman also sites Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as an another important work that advocated non-anthropocentric understandings of nature.

Deep ecologists warn society that unless we address the root causes of our behavior as a species, the underlying cause of the environmental crisis will not be addressed and changed. Rather than seeking a remedy to the results of a deeper issue, they advocate for healing of the human psyche and belief systems. In Deep Ecology, Zimmerman argues that if we adopted ecocentric perspectives, we would spontaneously shift towards more sustainable ways of living on the earth that would foster the health of all living things in our ecosystem. Though this process would be gradual, we would learn how to consider the needs of all living things (including humans), balancing how we work and live in the environment with the needs of other life forms around us. This shift in ideology and the resulting behavior transformation would be gradual, and would signal deep cultural and societal change.

In the book Environmental Ethics (2003), Light and Rolston explain that the deep ecology movement is more of a “consciousness movement” than one of environmental ethics. Light and Rolston describe this call for a transformation of consciousness as having two key concepts, that of holism, the belief that all things are one, and the realization of the Self as being one “knot in a web” or a “center of interaction.” An important part of the deep ecology perspective is that of the “ecological Self,” where the self is felt and understood to be a part of the all that exists in Nature, rather than a separate “ego.” This concept of self as part of a larger whole is very similar to concepts found in Buddhism and Hinduism, and many indigenous traditions around the world.

Deep ecologists define the self as an open system that is made of many relationships to other living things in the universe. In this definition, the self is not an isolated separate or “closed system,” but an open, dynamic/changing system that is defined by its relationships to the rest of the ecosystem. In this concept of self as understood through its relationships to the natural world, our role and place in our environment comes into being. From this understanding of the unified self (as one with all life) a deep sense of connection, rootedness, and responsibility to the rest of life emerges.

“If everything is part of one’s self, and one is aiming at self-realization (which deep ecologists argue to be the case) then the clear conclusion to be drawn is that the realization of all (living) organisms is necessary for one’s own full self-realization.” (Light and Rolston, 2003)

This idea of the extended or expanded self that includes all of nature is often called “ecocentric identification,” the central method of self-realization within the deep ecologist’s paradigm. This identification with nature helps one to realize their true nature as bring interconnected and a part of the natural world. Joanna Macy and John Seed developed a ritual process called The Council of All Beings that attempts to help people experience and view the world from the perspectives of nonhuman living things. The idea of “I am the rainforest,” or “Thinking like a mountain,” illustrates this practice.

“ ’I am protecting the rain forest’ develops into ‘I am part of the rain forest protecting myself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into thinking.’ What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature. That is, the change is a spiritual one, thinking like a mountain, sometimes referred to as ‘deep ecology.’ ” (John Seed, 1982)

Critics of deep ecology’s concept of the “extended self” (that is one with all living things) believe that this concept ignores any sense of separateness or “otherness,” allowing no room for the experience of difference. In her book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy addresses this critique.

Joanna Macy

“To experience the world as an extended self and its story as our own extended story involves no surrender or eclipse of our individuality. The liver, leg, and lung that are “mine” are highly distinct from each other, thank goodness, and each has a distinctive role to play. The larger selfness we discover today is not an undifferentiated unity.” (Macy, 1993)

The deep ecology perspective is rooted in the understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life, and the knowledge of what our place is in this web. The understanding of our dependence and place in the larger ecosystem of earth gave many deep ecologists a sense of belonging to the natural world, healing our separation from it. Many deep ecologists attributed the origin of these beliefs to transcendent experiences they had spending time in nature. Many found that their experiences with nonhuman nature were spiritual or religious, and restored a sense of their place in the web of all of life.

Many deep ecologists believe that the way for humans to understand their place in connection to the rest of the natural world is through spiritual experiences in nature, which have the potential to transform their consciousness in a way that opens them to the connectedness of all living things. Delores LaChappelle, one of the important proponents of the deep ecology movement examined how ritual was an important social and spiritual “technology” and can potentially reconnect us to our home on earth. She maintained that other cultures who maintained a more sustainable relationship to the natural world used ritual as a way of staying deeply connected and in relationship to the land. LaChappelle explains,

“Ritual is essential because it is truly the pattern that connects. It provides communication at all levels – communication among all the systems within the individual human organism; between people within groups; between one group and another in a city and throughout all these levels between the human and the non-human in the natural environment. Ritual provides us with a tool for learning to think logically, analogically and ecologically as we move toward a sustainable culture. Most important of all, perhaps, during rituals we have the experience, unique in our culture, of neither opposing nature or trying to be in communion with nature; but of finding ourselves within nature, and that is the key to sustainable culture.”

The deep ecology movement has many critics, some of whom follow the ideologies of social ecology, and human rights philosophies. What seems to often not be understood of the deep ecology perspective is that it advocates for the protection of all life forms, including human, and the need for all beings to be allowed the basic rights of flourishing on earth. In order for that to be possible, human beings must make sacrifices, and change the way they live on the earth, which includes decreasing our rate of reproduction and resource use. Many have criticized deep ecology for advocating these changes to be made in human lifestyle and behavior, viewing such perspectives as anti-human or sacrificing human livelihoods for the benefit of nonhuman nature. In one sense the last part is true, but the focus is on reducing our excess resource use, not on harming ourselves for the benefit of the nonhuman world. Social ecologists also criticized deep ecologists for focusing too much on the cultural factors of environmental problems rather than the social, political, and economic factors “inherent in global capitalism” that are involved in our negative impacts on the earth.

Deep ecologists in general stress the need for us to change our behavior and cultural idioms that are based on anthropocentric beliefs about the world, but do not advocate for the destruction of humans, or the ignoring of their needs. What we can sacrifice from our lifestyles of excess is not clearly understood yet, but deep ecologists call for the examination and questioning of why we have led the destructive lives we lead, and how we can change our behavior.

The perspectives of deep ecology have sustained and initiated many environmental activist groups around the world. Many environmental activists who may not know that such a movement exitss share deep ecology’s ideologies. The beliefs of deep ecology are also held by many people around the world, within ideologies that are imbedded in many people’s cultural, personal, or religious attitudes.

Many local and global oppositions to our industrialism (factories, roads, logging, nuclear power, damns, and pollution) have found their ideological roots in the principles of deep ecology. Proponents of direct action, such as the ecoactivists of Earth First!, the tree-sitters of the Pacific Northwest, and organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace feel a connection in their ideologies to those of the deep ecology movement.

Although the deep ecology movement has been very controversial, it’s principles have been increasingly influential amongst many environmentalists, those within the earth-based spirituality movement, and in many proponents of a return to the earth lifestyle. According to Taylor (2001) its influence in environmental ethics and philosophy has been “profound” in its advocation for nonanthropocentric perspectives.

As a result of deep ecology movement there are Institutes for Deep Ecology in England, dozens in the United States, Oceania, and Europe, which “provide ritual-infused experiences in deep ecology and training for environmental activists.”

It is not, however, the movement’s institutions, but instead the participants’ love for the living Earth, along with their widespread apocalypticism (their conviction that that the world as we know it is imperiled or doomed), that give the movement its urgent passion to promote earthen spirituality, sustainable living, and environmental activism.

Currently the rate of species extinction continues to increase as more and more stress is put on the earth due to human actions. Deep ecology is a practice of changing our thought patterns as individuals and as a society in the hopes that when we change our perspective, we change our actions, our lives, and our relationship to all that surrounds us. It is from the desire to protect all of life from extinction that deep ecologists seek to examine the ultimate source, and possible long-term solution, to the environmental crisis we have created.

 

“Threat of extinction is the potter’s hand that molds all the forms of life. The human species is one of millions threatened by imminent extinction through nuclear war and other environmental changes. And while it is true that the “human nature” revealed by 12,000 years of written history does not offer much hope that we can change our warlike, greedy, ignorant ways, the vastly longer fossil history assures us that we CAN change. We ARE the fish, and the myriad other death-defying feats of flexibility which a study of evolution reveals to us. A certain confidence (in spite of our recent “humanity”) is warranted. From this point of view, the threat of extinction appears as the invitation to change, to evolve. After a brief respite from the potter’s hand, here we are back on the wheel again. The change that is required of us is not some new resistance to radiation, but a change in consciousness.”

– John Seed et al., Thinking Like A Mountain, 1988

© Sage Maurer

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One thought on “The Deep Ecology Movement

  1. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, animal rights activism, eco-friendliness, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.

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