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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

Perspectives in political ecology series

The aim of this series of articles is to delve into the different perspectives in political ecology. It is absolutely not the case that there is only one way to address climate change. There are, in fact, many! More technology, carbon removal, and business as usual is but one way of confronting the crisis, and this approach misses the mark in so many ways. Read on to discover what deep ecology is, who its founders were, and whether we see many deep ecology movements amongst climate activists today.


The basic definition

The term deep ecology was coined by Arne Naess in 1973, with his article, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A summary.” Naess sought to point out the difference between certain ecological movements which viewed problems in silos, and believed that each could be treated with technical fixes and economic policies; and those which sought deeper systemic or structural change in spiritual and social systems.

Shallow ecology, therefore, is a particular approach to the ecological crisis which identifies particular problems, and proposes technological or instrumental solutions to these problems. For example, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem, and we can solve this through carbon capture technologies which will be developed to take the carbon out. We don’t look at the production systems that cause this carbon dioxide to be in the atmosphere, or the other, related problems. Many of the environmental policies that we see today from governments across the world take a shallow ecology approach to the crisis: we can keep going, and keep growing, we just need small modifications to stop the worst parts of our production and consumption.

Deep ecology, on the other hand, does take all these problems as being interconnected in one large web. For Naess, deep ecology also comes with certain commitments relating to the order and structure of beings in the world, and a certain ethical view, too.

The two main traits of deep ecology are the following:

  • A belief in the fundamental importance of self-realisation. This means that each human should be able to set and achieve their goals and develop themselves as they see fit in any society. Deep ecology extends this to include all living beings, too. Therefore, all bears, birds, fish, snakes, spiders, wasps and more, should be able to flourish on earth, all at the same time as humans are.
  • The belief that human beings are not at the centre of the universe (a rejection of anthropocentrism). Ecocentrism is the position that all forms of life are important because they are alive on this planet, and this gives them the rights to live in ways that allow them to flourish. All life forms, and a diversity of life forms, are valuable in their own right. This means that human beings are no longer the masters of nature, the possessors of nature, nor do they have any divine or supreme right to the use of natural resources. The idea that human beings are at the top of the evolutionary pyramid is arbitrary, and this view poses that there is a web, a net, or a fabric of relations, in which the human being is just one part.

Deep ecology says that the reason that we are going wrong is because we have badly evaluated the place that we as human beings occupy in nature. If we are to confront the challenges we face, we have to re-evaluate this, and change our perspective on who we are as human beings in, and with, nature.

Furthermore, Naess posits that a view of cooperation, rather than competition, should be had towards species in nature. He writes, “live and let live is much better than Either you or me.” He also notes that nature, and ecological systems, are complex, but not complicated. This implies a division of labour, not a fragmentation of labour in the way beings work together. Finally, Naess advocates for decentralisation and localisation, so that structures can be developed that reflect the local landscape and ecology in which the human beings live.

The leading theoreticians of deep ecology

Already mentioned is Arne Naess (1912-2009), who was a Norwegian philosopher and writer on environmental issues. He was the youngest person to be appointed full professor at the University of Oslo in 1939, and was the only philosophy professor in the country at the time. He also was a prolific mountaineer, and engaged in several protest actions throughout his life to prevent the destruction of the environment.

Naess created an 8-point platform upon which a deep ecology movement could be founded, with fellow American environmentalist George Sessions, in 1984. These eight points are:

  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.
  2. Richness and diversity…contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  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.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed…[to] affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.…
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality…rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living.…
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Warwick Fox (b. 1954), an Australian-British environmentalist and Professor at the University of Lancashire in the UK, is another key thinker in developing the deep ecology movement from the ethical point of view. For a decade beginning in 1984, he worked to primarily on deep ecology, before shifting away from this to consider environmental ethics more globally. “Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism” is his main work on deep ecology, where he writes that deep ecology has three main ideas:

  1. The development of a non-anthropocentric or ecocentric worldview,
  2. The idea that we should ask deep questions about our relationship with the natural world, and what this means, and
  3. The importance of cultivating a wider relationship with different forms of life around us.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was another key thinker, or source of inspiration for the deep ecology movement. He is often not cited as a deep ecologist, because of some key differences in his thinking, despite their belonging to deep ecology at first glance. He was one of the ‘fathers’ of the ecological consciousness in the United States, as well as the environmental ethics movements.

Leopold believed that instead of each individual being able to realise his or her own goals in life, the community or group was more important. The community was prioritised over the individual, and should be so in our thinking and policy decisions regarding our relationship to nature.

Leopold also fought for the idea that we do not only have rights to certain resources, but also responsibilities towards nature. He believed that we shouldn’t be giving people money to fulfill their responsibilities towards the natural world; rather, their mere existence on this planet meant that they have the duty to fulfill these obligations.

Central to the thinking of all these people is an idea of egalitarianism amongst all living beings. Human beings cease to be the master species on earth, and instead, all forms of life have equal value and importance on earth. Likewise, they all encourage us to reflect on our relationship with nature, and propose that we should relate more to nature, sometimes in a spiritual way, other times in a metaphorical way.

Earth First, founded by David Foreman (1946-2022) and some of his friends in the southwestern United States, is perhaps the most radical example of a deep ecology movement. Their widely referenced belief was that human beings are parasites on the planet, and should be placed last, rather than first, in the hierarchy of species. This anti-human thinking was too much for many humans who believe in the human race at least to some degree. These radical ecologists refuse to go to commissions or talk to politicians, instead preferring eco-terrorism, protests, blockages, and other radical means to stop environmental destruction. There are now chapters of Earth First in many countries across the globe.

Image: the Earth First! logo.

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Critiques of the deep ecology movement

On a theoretical level, one of the main problems with deep ecology is that we always end up back in an anthropocentric worldview, no matter how hard we try.

Take for example, the belief that all life has value on earth, and all species are intrinsically important. This idea of value requires an evaluator – someone or thing who can decide what has value on Earth and what does not. This evaluator could only be a human being, because value is a human concept. Despite all life being equally important, there is still one species who is deciding this fact and enacting its consequences.

Furthermore, deep ecology is often charged with being anti-humanist, or worse, anti-human. Humanism is the view that the human being is at the centre of thought in the world, and values the development of human qualities, the love of humanity, the fight against oppression, and more. Humanism constructs a vision of the ideal human, and, by definition, this human is not-nature. Humanism implies anthropocentrism, one of the main things that deep ecology seeks to challenge. Therefore, many deep ecologists are do not mind being anti-humanist, because it is this very thinking, they believe, that has caused the problems in the first place.

Deep-ecology is also sometimes referred to as being fascist, which is a mistaken view, but does have some truth to it. Critiques often talk about the fact that the Nazis in Germany liked writing about nature, and fantasised about their relationship with nature, and therefore that the deep ecology movement is somehow related to National Socialism in Germany. This is incorrect. However, what deep ecology could lead to is a form of ecological totalitarianism, whereby the efficiency of the ecosystem, or the rights of all beings, are taken administratively to be the highest goal, with other things such as human needs, or culture, becoming unimportant to a particular politician. This is not inherent to the deep ecology view; rather a possible manifestation of deep ecology that should be avoided. Arne Naess is rather anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian: he asks that each human being search for the meaning of their own life, and that the possibilities be afforded to them to be able to do so.

Deep ecologists also sometimes discuss the problem of population and the overconsumption of resources. Each year, human beings consume more and more resources, at a faster rate, and therefore consume more than one planet’s worth of resources per year to meet their supposed needs. Deep ecologists like Naess as well as other ecologists such as James Lovelock (the Gaia theorist) have supported a reduction of the human population. The optimal human population, according to them, sits somewhere between 100 million and 500 million. The problem with this, however, is that there is no ethical or morally justifiable way of reducing the human population without imposing some kind of rule on who can, and who cannot, have children.

Finally, the deep ecology perspective is often situated in religious or ideological contexts. People such as American Joanna Macey mix Buddhism and deep ecology to advocate for a return to nature and the natural world. There is something spiritual about the deep ecology movement, and the changing relationship that this movement advocates between humans and nature often forces us to think in spiritual or somewhat imaginary ways. For some, this approach works and is necessary; for others more scientistic in nature, this is another criticism of deep ecology.

In summary

The deep ecology perspective, and the movement that accompanies it, seeks to challenge the position of the human being in nature. Instead of being on top of the hierarchy, or standing outside of nature, human beings are embedded in the natural fabric that makes up nature, and are but one species in this fabric. Rights to resources are to be accorded to all living beings, and not just to human beings.

Deep ecology has challenged how we relate with nature, and has promoted an awareness of all other life forms on the planet. It proposes radical political changes, like giving rights to all living beings, which in practice seem, at least at this stage, quite difficult to implement.

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