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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

Deep Ecology Perspectives

by David Orton, Green Web

My background is that of a leftist, but since the late 70’s environmental work has become my major focus in life. I worked first on forestry and wildlife issues in British Columbia but later moved across the country to Nova Scotia. I came to define myself as a “green” in 1983. For the last 20 years I have been living with my family as simply as possible on an old hill farm which has gone back to forest. From my values perspective, it seems to me to be a paradise, but we are surrounded by the ravages of industrial capitalist forestry.

By 1985 I had accepted the philosophy of Deep Ecology and seen the importance of moving beyond the human-centered values of the social democratic, anarchist, communist, and socialist traditions, in order to express solidarity with all life, not just human life.

I began applying this philosophy in environmental and theoretical work: trying to understand what it means to “think like a mountain,” that is, to extend one’s sense of self-identity so that it comes to include the well-being of the Earth. I believe Deep Ecology has captured what should be our relationship to the Natural world. Deep ecology is part of the larger green movement, the first social movement in history to advocate a lower material standard of living, from the perspective of industrial consumerism. Any honest presentation of this fundamental point means that green electoralism is a non-starter.

Deep ecology is part of the larger green movement, the first social movement in history to advocate a lower material standard of living…

Left biocentrism

My existential anguish on deep ecology comes not only from the real ambiguities and contradictions to be found within Deep Ecology but also from the fact that since the mid 80s I have been part of a theoretical tendency within Deep Ecology called “left biocentrism” or “left ecocentrism.” Left biocentrism functions as a de facto “left wing” of the Deep Ecology movement, upholding its subversive potential and opposing any “accommodation” to industrial capitalist society. (See on our web site, the ten-point Left Biocentrism Primer, the end result of a protracted collective discussion in 1998, among a number of those who support left biocentrism and Deep Ecology.)

There are others who have been on a similar left wing deep ecology path, under different names, for example: the “Deep Green Theory” of the late Richard Sylvan, the “Revolutionary Ecology” of the late Judi Bari, the “Radical Ecocentrism” of Andrew McLaughlin and the “Green Fundamentalism” of the late Rudolf Bahro.

“Left,” as used by left biocentrists (left bios), means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist but not necessarily socialist. Industrialism is seen as having a capitalist or a socialist face. Some left bios are socialist but others are not. All left bios support the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform drawn up by Arne Naess and George Sessions and see their work as endeavouring to strengthen the deep ecology movement. The “leftism” of left biocentrism is seen as a necessary concern with class issues and social justice, but this is subordinate to its biocentrism/ecocentrism

Left biocentrists oppose those who elevate social justice above the concerns of the Earth and all its many creatures. Animals and plants and the general ecosystem have to be treated on the same moral plane as humans. The labor theory of value implies that Nature has no value or worth, unless humans transform it through their labor. But for left bios, Nature has value in itself. Nature is the principal source of human wealth, not labor power. The positive ideas from the Left, which are still relevant, e.g. the concern for social justice, have to be part of the left biocentric synthesis of ideas.

Left biocentrists oppose those who elevate social justice above the concerns of the Earth and all its many creatures.

The activist and social ecology philosopher John Clark wrote in the third edition of the 2001 college reader, Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, of what he sees as a “common ground” between social and Deep Ecology. Clark speaks positively of “the emergence of a ‘left biocentrism’ that combines a theoretical commitment to deep ecology with a radical decentralist, anticapitalist politics having much in common with social ecology.”

Key deep ecology ideas

Most people who are potentially sympathetic to Deep Ecology do not come to their position through “intellectual conversion,” that is through university lectures, Deep Ecology books, or by having some worked-out, perfectly logical and consistent philosophical positions.

Basically, Deep Ecology supporters identify with the Natural world and all its creatures; see this world is being destroyed and want to do something about it; and measure our own human concerns as important although fairly insignificant in comparison. Where Deep Ecology literature and talks can be very useful, is for those who already see themselves in some way as “thinking like mountains” based on their empirical experiences.

Desiring little is the DE path, which also means far less control by the industrial capitalist system over the individual.

Exposure to Deep Ecology ideas then presents a world view which suddenly makes sense. As one local seasoned environmental activist said several years ago, about coming in contact with Deep Ecology: “It’s everything I’ve ever believed in, but I never had the language before.” (Sharon Labchuk from Prince Edward Island, quoted in Tim Falconer’s 2001 book, Watchdogs and Gadflies: Activism From Marginal To Mainstream, p.130.)

Deep Ecology platform

The formulation of a provisional DE world view was first sketched out in a 1973 document by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary.”

Shallow” here means thinking that the major ecological problems can be resolved within and with the continuation of industrial capitalist society. Another term that I use for shallow would be “managerial environmentalism.”

Sustainable development” is for me the main contemporary ideology of shallow ecology. In his article, Naess defines the Shallow-Ecology movement: “Fight against pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.”

Deep” means to ask deeper questions and not stay on the surface in discussions and struggles. This deep orientation understands that industrial capitalist society has caused the Earth-threatening ecological crisis.

Today what has been called the “heart of Deep Ecology” (Andrew McLaughlin) is the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform worked out by Naess and George Sessions in 1984. This Platform has received widespread acceptance by supporters of this philosophy. It is fairly abstract and does not tell activists what to do in specific situations, but it requires them to think it through for themselves.

Deep Ecology does not sufficiently address the “use” of Nature by humans.

The Platform says all non human life forms have intrinsic value, not dependent on human purpose. The concept of “vital needs” is introduced but not defined. Marshall Sahlins, in his 1972 book Stone Age Economics, wrote: “There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or desiring little.” Desiring little is the DE path, which also means far less control by the industrial capitalist system over the individual. Consumer society, part of the illusory permanent growth machine, has entire industries devoted to expanding an individual’s needs and promoting them as “vital.” The DE Platform does not mention non-violence, which is important to some Deep Ecology supporters. The Platform emphasizes population reduction. DE supporters stress this is to be done without personal coercion. There is no mechanism for changing the Platform, or for further developing it.

Deep Ecology is by its nature difficult to pin down and conceptualize and this seems to have been deliberately built into the philosophy. Naess maintains that both precision and ambiguity are needed by the philosopher. This is done in part so that the follower of deep ecology has herself or himself an interpretative role to play. “To be a great philosopher seems to imply that you think precisely, but do not explain all the consequences of your ideas. That’s what others will do if they have been inspired.” (Arne Naess, Is It Painful To Think?, p.98.)

Some basic questions are, unfortunately, not dealt with by the DE Platform:

Deep Ecology does not sufficiently address the “use” of Nature by humans. How ought we to “use” the world? What percentage of the planet should be permanently put aside for other life forms to continue evolving? What percentage for humans? What lifestyle? How many humans?

Another problem that Deep Ecology does not give a view on is the type of economy, or how we should relate to each other in the human social world.

At this time, there is no new political or economic vision coming from within Deep Ecology. This philosophy stresses too much that “change” is individual, not collective or social. Deep Ecology can seem to suggest that only through individual consciousness raising and personal change will we move to a deep ecology-influenced world.

There is a contention of ideas within Deep Ecology, with various theoretical tendencies, including that of left biocentrism. What the social, economic or political evolution of Deep Ecology will eventually be is yet to be determined.

Three key ideas

There are three key ideas from deep ecology which need to be highlighted: (1) non-human centeredness; (2) the necessity for a new spiritual relationship to Nature; and (3) opposition to the idea of “private property” in Nature.

Humans do not have a privileged position. For me this is the central contribution of DE. As a species, we are just one member of a community of all beings. There is no belief in a hierarchy of organisms, with humans on top. Nature is not seen as a “resource” for human use. We should share the planet on a basis of equality with other life forms. Our everyday language is taken-for-granted human-centered. Here in Nova Scotia, for example, trees, fish, etc. are “resources” for human use. Industrial forestry considers insects as “pests.” Trees are described as “decadent” and “overmature” when they are considered past their prime from a human-use perspective. Morality just concerns “humans” in a human-centered universe.

Humans do not have a privileged position. For me this is the central contribution of DE.

In order to try and turn around the ecological Armageddon and to prevent the ensuing social disaster, a profound transformation is required in our relationship to the Earth. This will include re-sacralizing Nature, so that we as societies come to see the Earth as alive and part of ourselves. A future Earth-centered society will need to be organized around an ecocentric morality that has an essential spiritual or sacred dimension and is not based on economics. Re-sacralizing the Earth is seen in DE as a concern with spirituality, not as establishing some new institutional religion. In order for industrial capitalism to commodify the Earth, its spirituality had to be undermined. Addressing this is one part of any serious Green politics in the 21st century.

The Earth owns us, we are its creatures. One species (humans) cannot “own” Nature. These are just bizarre social conventions which need to be overturned. I have written about “usufruct use” instead of so-called private ownership of the Natural world. This means that there is the “right of use,” but one is ultimately responsible and accountable to some form of ecocentric governance much wider than human society. Nature must remain a Commons and not be privatized.


Whatever its contradictions, I believe that Deep Ecology does present the basic philosophy, incomplete as it is, to start sketching out alternative visions to those offered by the defenders of industrial capitalism. There is plenty of work for all of us to take up.

David Orton can be reached through: http://home.ca.inter.net/~greenweb/

[6 sep 03]

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