What is Deep Ecology?

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What is DEEP Ecology?

Through deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment emerges deep ecology

By Stephan Harding

In the 1960s, having read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, Arne Naess was moved to apply his formidable philosophical skills to understanding the ecological crisis and its resolution. Since becoming the youngest ever professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo whilst still in his twenties, Arne Naess has revealed his brilliance by studying and writing extensively in many fields, including semantics, philosophy of science, and the works of Spinoza and Gandhi. But he is much more than an academic. His approach to ecology bears the stamp of his life’s experience as a philosopher in the truest sense – as a lover of wisdom, and as a lover of mountains. A key influence in his long life has been his deep relationship to Hallingskarvet mountain in central Norway, where, in 1937, he built a simple cabin at the place called Tvergastein (crossed tones).

To understand what Arne Naess means by deep ecology it helps to imagine this place: high up, totally isolated, with commanding views of landscape down below. There he lived looking out on that vast, wild panorama, reading Gandhi or Spinoza and studying Sanskrit. In this inhospitable retreat, under snow and ice for most of the year, where only lichen and tiny alpine flowers grow, Arne Naess has spent a total of more than ten years, watching, climbing, thinking, writing, and adoring the mountain. It is at Tvergastein, with Arctic storms threatening to blow away his roof, that most of his important work in deep ecology has been done.

The word ‘ecology’ originates from the science of biology, where it is used to refer to the ways in which living things interact with each other and with their surroundings. For Arne Naess, ecological science, concerned with facts and logic alone, cannot answer ethical questions about how we should live. For this, we need ecological wisdom. Deep ecology seeks to develop this by focusing on deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment. These constitute an interconnected system. Each gives rise to and supports the other, whilst the entire system is,
what Naess would call, an ecosophy: an evolving but consistent philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world, that embodies ecological wisdom and harmony.

Eye of the Wolf
Deep experience is often what gets a person started along a deep ecological path. Aldo Leopold, in his book A Sand County Almanac, provides a striking example of this. For Leopold, the experience was of sufficient intensity to trigger a total reorientation in his life’s work as a wildlife manager and ecologist. In the 1920s, he had been appointed by the US government to
develop a rational, scientific policy for eradicating the wolf from the entire United States. The justification for this intervention was that wolves competed with sport hunters for deer, so that fewer wolves would mean more deer for the hunters.

As a wildlife manager of those times, Leopold adhered to the unquestioning belief that humans were superior to the rest of nature, and were thus morally justified in manipulating it as much as was required in order to maximise human welfare.

One morning, Leopold was out with some friends on a walk in the mountains. Being hunters, they carried their rifles with them, in case they got a chance to kill some wolves. It got around to lunch time and they sat down on a cliff overlooking a turbulent river. Soon they saw what appeared to be some deer fording the torrent, but they soon realised that it was a pack of wolves. They took up their rifles and began to shoot excitedly in to the pack, but with little accuracy. Eventually an old wolf was down by the side of the river, and Leopold rushed down to
gloat at her death. What met him was a fierce green fire dying in the wolf’s eyes. He writes in a chapter entitled Thinking Like a Mountain that: “there was something new to me in those eyes,
something known only to her and to the mountain. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Perhaps it is possible to understand what Leopold means when he says that the wolf disagreed with such a view, but how could a lifeless, inert mountain possibly agree or disagree with anything? What could Leopold have experienced in that pivotal moment in his life? Clearly, he is using the word ‘mountain’ as a metaphor for the wild ecosystem in which the incident took place, the ecosystem as an entirety, as a living presence, with its deer, its wolves and other animals, its clouds, soils and streams. For the first time in his life he felt completely at one with this wide, ecological reality. He felt that it had a power to communicate its magnificence. He felt that it had its own life, its own history, and its own trajectory into the future. He experienced the ecosystem as a great being, dignified and valuable in itself. It must have been a moment of tremendous liberation and expansion of consciousness, of joy and energy – a truly spiritual or religious experience. His narrow, manipulative wildlife manager’s mind fell away. The mind which saw nature as a dead machine, there for human use, vanished. In its place was the pristine recognition of the vast being of living nature, of what we now call Gaia.

Notice that the experience was not looked for, expected or contrived. It happened spontaneously. Something in the dying eyes of the wolf reached beyond Leopold’s training and triggered a recognition of where he was. After this experience he saw the world differently, and went on to develop a land ethic, in which he stated that humans are not a superior species with the right
to manage and control the rest of nature, but rather that humans are ‘plain members of the biotic community’. He also penned This deep questioning of the fundamental assumptions of our culture contrasts markedly with the mainstream shallow or reform approach which tries to ensure the continuance of business as usual by advocating the ‘greening’ of business and industry by incorporating a range of measures such as pollution prevention and the protection of biodiversity due to its monetary value as medicine or its ability to regulate climate. He also penned his famous dictum: “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Experience and Belonging
Arne Naess emphasises the importance of such spontaneous experience. A key aspect of these experiences is the perception of gestalts, or networks of relationships. We see that there are no isolated objects, but that objects are nodes in a vast web of relationships. When such deep experience occurs, we feel a strong sense of wide identification with what we are sensing. This identification involves a heightened sense of empathy and an expansion of our concern with non-human life. We realise how dependent we are on the well-being of nature for our own physical and psychological well-being. As a consequence there arises a natural inclination to protect non-human life. Obligation and coercion to do so become unnecessary. We understand that other beings, ranging from microbes to multicellular life-forms to ecosystems and watersheds, to Gaia as a whole, are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potentials. Naess calls this process self-realisation.

The new sense of belonging to an intelligent universe revealed by deep experience often leads to deep questioning, which helps to elaborate a coherent framework for elucidating fundamental beliefs, and for translating these beliefs into decisions, lifestyle and action. The emphasis on action is important. It is action that distinguishes deep ecology from other ecophilosophies. This is what makes deep ecology a movement as much as a philosophy. By deep questioning, an individual is articulating a total view of life which can guide his or her lifestyle choices.

In questioning society, one understands its underlying assumptions from an ecological point of view. One looks at the collective psychological origins of the ecological crisis, and the related crises of peace and social justice. One also looks deeply into the history of the West to find the roots of our pernicious anthropocentrism as it has manifested in our science, philosophy and economics. One tries to understand how the current drive for globalisation of Western culture and of free trade leads to the devastation of both human culture and nature.

This deep questioning of the fundamental assumptions of our culture contrasts markedly with the mainstream shallow or reform approach. This tries to ensure the continuance of business as usual by advocating the ‘greening’ of business and industry by incorporating a range of measures such as pollution prevention and the protection of biodiversity due to its monetary value as medicine or its ability to regulate climate. Although deep ecology supporters often have no option but strategically to adopt a reform approach when working with the mainstream, their own deep questioning of society goes on in the background. This may subtly influence the people with whom they interact professionally.

Ultimate norms can be very diverse. For example, a Buddhist and a Christian would disagree about the existence of God, but both would want to protect and nurture life. Thus there is a need for a set of basic views which can be broadly accepted by deep ecology supporters with widely divergent ultimate norms. For this reason Arne Naess and George Sessions devised the deep ecology platform, also known as the eight points of the deep ecology movement. They constitute Level 2 of the apron or pyramid, and are meant to act as a sort of filter for the deep questioning process. If you can largely agree with the platform statements, you fall within the umbrella of ‘the deep ecology movement’ and you can place yourself within the ranks of its supporters. The platform is not meant to be a rigid set of doctrinaire statements, but rather a set of discussion points, open to modification by people who broadly accept them.

The Deep Ecology Platform

  1. All life has value in itself, independent of its usefulness to humans.
  2. Richness and diversity contribute to life’s well-being and have value in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs in a responsible way.
  4. The impact of humans in the world is excessive and rapidly getting worse.
  5. Human lifestyles and population are key elements of this impact.
  6. The diversity of life, including cultures, can flourish only with reduced human impact.
  7. Basic ideological, political, economic and technological structures must therefore change.
  8. Those who accept the forgoing points have an obligation to participate in implementing the necessary changes and to do so peacefully and democratically.

This version of the Deep Ecology Platform has been formulated by those attending the Deep Ecology course at Schumacher College, May 1995.

In fact, the version given here was modified from the original by participants attending a deep ecology course held at Schumacher College in 1995. Some deep ecology supporters regard the platform as the outline of a comprehensive ecosophy in its own right. Here Level 1 statements of wide identification are represented by the first three points, which incorporate the ultimate norm “Intrinsic Value!” Points 4 to 7 are seen as a bridge between the ultimate norm and personal lifestyles, with point 8 relating specifically to concrete actions in the world.

Finally, we come to deep commitment, which is the result of combining deep experience with deep questioning. When an ecological world view is well developed, people act from their whole personality, giving rise to tremendous energy and commitment. Such actions are peaceful and democratic and will lead towards ecological sustainability. Uncovering the ecological self gives rise to joy, which gives rise to involvement, which in turn leads to wider identification, and hence to greater commitment. This leads to ‘extending care to humans and deepening care for non-humans’.

The article contains excerpts from ‘What is Deep Ecology?’ by Stephan Harding. The complete article is available on the Schumacher College, U.K. website. (www.schumachercollege.org.uk)
Stephan Harding is Co-ordinator of the MSc. in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He is the resident ecologist, giving talks on Gaia Theory and deep ecology to most course groups. He also worked with the late Gaian scientist James Lovelock on Gaian computer modelling.