Deep ecology

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Deep Ecology is a philosophical perspective in environmental philosophy, originally developed by a Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss. It is an ecological egalitarianism which argues for the equal rights of all living beings. Næss called his position "deep" ecology as opposed to traditional environmentalism which he labeled as "shallow" ecology. Traditional environmentalism deals with environmental issues from an anthropocentric (human centered) perspective and aims to establish sound environmental policies for the sake of human beings. Traditionalists often approach environmentalism from a utilitarian point of view, while Deep Ecology rejects human-centered approaches.

Deep Ecologists often find an affinity with Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and Christianity's Saint Francis of Assisi, whose views include the "deep" interconnectedness of all sentient beings and the need to cultivate the spirituality of human beings. Radical environmental advocacy groups such as Earth First! often use Deep Ecology for their political ideology.




The phrase deep ecology was coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss in 1973,[1] and he helped give it a theoretical foundation. "For Arne Næss, 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 Næss would call, an ecosophy: an evolving but consistent philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world, that embodies ecological wisdom and harmony."[2]

Næss rejected the idea that beings can be ranked according to their relative value. For example, judgments on whether an animal has an eternal soul, whether it uses reason or whether it has consciousness (or indeed higher consciousness) have all been used to justify the ranking of the human animal as superior to other animals. Næss states that "the right of all forms [of life] to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species." This metaphysical idea is elucidated in Warwick Fox's claim that we and all other beings are "aspects of a single unfolding reality".[3]. As such Deep Ecology would support the view of Aldo Leopold in his book, "A Sand County Almanac" that humans are ‘plain members of the biotic community’. They also would support Leopold's "Land Ethic": "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."

Deep ecology offers a philosophical basis for environmental advocacy which may, in turn, guide human activity against perceived self-destruction. Deep ecology holds that the science of ecology shows that ecosystems can absorb only limited change by humans or other dissonant influences. Further, both hold that the actions of modern civilization threaten global ecological well-being. Ecologists have described change and stability in ecological systems in various ways, including homeostasis, dynamic equilibrium, and "flux of nature".[4] Regardless of which model is most accurate, deep ecologists contend that massive human economic activity has pushed the biosphere far from its "natural" state through reduction of biodiversity, climate change, and other influences. As a consequence, civilization is causing mass extinction. Deep ecologists hope to influence social and political change through their philosophy.


Næss and Fox do not claim to use logic or induction to derive the philosophy directly from scientific ecology[5] but rather hold that scientific ecology directly implies the metaphysics of deep ecology, including its ideas about the self and further, that deep ecology finds scientific underpinnings in the fields of ecology and system dynamics.

In their 1985 book Deep Ecology,[6] Bill Devall and George Sessions describe a series of sources of deep ecology. They include the science of ecology itself, and cite its major contribution as the rediscovery in a modern context that "everything is connected to everything else." They point out that some ecologists and natural historians, in addition to their scientific viewpoint, have developed a deep ecological consciousness—for some a political consciousness and at times a spiritual consciousness. This is a perspective beyond the strictly human viewpoint, beyond anthropocentrism. Among the scientists they mention particularly are Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Livingston, Paul R. Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, together with Frank Fraser Darling, Charles Sutherland Elton, Eugene Odum and Paul Sears.

A further scientific source for deep ecology adduced by Devall and Sessions is the "new physics," which they describe as shattering Descartes's and Newton's vision of the universe as a machine explainable in terms of simple linear cause and effect, and instead providing a view of Nature in constant flux with the idea that observers are separate an illusion. They refer to Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point for their characterization of how the new physics leads to metaphysical and ecological views of interrelatedness which according to Capra should make deep ecology a framework for future human societies.

The scientific version of the Gaia hypothesis was also an influence on the development of deep ecology.

In their book, Devall and Sessions also credit the American poet and social critic Gary Snyder—a man with commitments in Buddhism, Native American studies, the outdoors, and alternative social movements—as a major voice of wisdom in the evolution of their ideas.


The central spiritual tenet of deep ecology is that the human species is a part of the Earth and not separate from it. A process of self-realization or "re-earthing" is used for an individual to intuitively gain an ecocentric perspective. The notion is based on the idea that the more we expand the self to identify with "others" (people, animals, ecosystems), the more we realize ourselves. Transpersonal psychology has been used by Warwick Fox to support this idea.

In relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Næss offers the following criticism: "The arrogance of stewardship [as found in the Bible] consists in the idea of superiority which underlies the thought that we exist to watch over nature like a highly respected middleman between the Creator and Creation."[7] This theme had been expounded in Lynn Townsend White, Jr.'s 1967 article "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis",[8] in which however he also offered as an alternative Christian view of man's relation to nature that of Saint Francis of Assisi, who he says spoke for the equality of all creatures, in place of the idea of man's domination over creation.


Drawing upon the Buddhist tradition is the work of Joanna Macy. Macy, working as an anti-nuclear activist in USA, found that one of the major impediments confronting the activists' cause was the presence of unresolved emotions of despair, grief, sorrow, anger and rage. The denial of these emotions led to apathy and disempowerment.

We may have intellectual understanding of our interconnectedness, but our culture, experiential deep ecologists like John Seed argue, robs us of emotional and visceral experiences of that interconnectedness which we had as small children, but which has been socialized out of us by a highly anthropocentric alienating culture.

Through "Despair and Empowerment Work" and more recently "The Work that Reconnects," Macy and others have been taking Experiential Deep Ecology into many countries including especially the USA, Europe (particularly Britain and Germany), Russia and Australia.


Proponents of deep ecology believe that the world does not exist as a resource to be freely exploited by humans. The ethics of deep ecology hold that a whole system is superior to any of its parts. They offer an eight-tier platform to elucidate their claims:

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms 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 human needs.
  4. 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.
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  7. The ideological change is 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 big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.[9]

As a Social Movement

In practice, deep ecologists support decentralization, the creation of ecoregions, the breakdown of industrialism in its current form, and an end to authoritarianism.

Deep ecology is not normally considered a distinct movement, but as part of the green movement. The deep ecological movement could be defined as those within the green movement who hold deep ecological views. Deep ecologists welcome the labels "Gaian" and "Green" (including the broader political implications of this term, e.g. commitment to peace). Deep ecology has had a broad general influence on the green movement by providing an independent ethical platform for Green parties, political ecologists and environmentalists.


The notion of intrinsic value

Some people criticize the notion that the intrinsic value of ecological systems exists independently of humanity's recognition of it. An example of this approach is that one might say that a work of art is only valuable insofar as humans perceive it to be worthwhile. Such people claim that the ecosystem's value does not reach beyond our appreciation of it. Intrinsic value is a philosophical concept which some do not accept.[10] However, intrinsic value defined as value existing separate from human thought may in this case be conflated with intrinsic value defined as natural worth existing independent of modification or application of a substance or entity, clouding the argument. This entire argument, however, assumes both the primacy and uniqueness of the ability of humans to create value, as opposed to a collection of sentient beings dependent on a perfectly ordered system for life or even a natural system devoid of sentient life being incapable of possessing inherent value.

Interests in nature

For something to require rights and protection intrinsically, it must have interests.[11] Deep ecology is criticized for presuming that plants, for example, have their own interests. Deep ecologists claim to identify with the environment, and in doing so, criticize those who claim they have no understanding what the environment's interests are. The criticism is that the interests that a deep ecologist purports to give to nature, such as growth, survival, balance are really human interests. "The earth is endowed with 'wisdom', wilderness equates with 'freedom', and life forms are said to emit 'moral' qualities."[12]

It has also been argued that species and ecosystems themselves have rights.[13] However, the overarching criticism assumes that humans, in governing their own affairs, are somehow immune from this same assumption; i.e. how can governing humans truly presume to understand the interests of the rest of humanity. While the deep ecologist critic would answer that the logical application of language and social mores would provide this justification, i.e. voting patterns etc, the deep ecologist would note that these "interests" are ultimately observable solely from the logical application of the behavior of the life form, which is the same standard used by deep ecologists to perceive the standard of interests for the natural world.


Deep ecology is criticized for its claim to be deeper than alternative theories, which by implication are shallow. However despite repeated complaints about use of the term it still enjoys wide currency; deep evidently has an attractive resonance for many who seek to establish a new ethical framework for guiding human action with respect to the natural world. It may be presumptuous to assert that one's thinking is deeper than others'. When Arne Næss coined the term deep ecology he compared it favorably with shallow environmentalism which he criticized for its utilitarian and anthropocentric attitude to nature and for its materialist and consumer-oriented outlook.[14][15] Against this is Arne Næss's own view that the "depth" of deep ecology resides in the persistence of its interrogative questioning, particularly in asking "Why?" when faced with initial answers.

Ecofeminist response

Both ecofeminism and deep ecology put forward a new conceptualization of the self. Some ecofeminists, such as Marti Kheel,[16] argue that self-realization and identification with all of nature places too much emphasis on the whole, at the expense of the independent being. Ecofeminists contend that their concept of the self (as a dynamic process consisting of relations) is superior. Ecofeminists would also place more emphasis on the problem of androcentrism rather than anthropocentrism. Androcentrism (Greek, andro-, "man, male") is the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing male human beings or the masculine point of view at the center of one's view of the world and its culture and history.

Misunderstanding scientific information

Daniel Botkin[17] has likened deep ecology to its antithesis, the wise use movement, when he says that they both "misunderstand scientific information and then arrive at conclusions based on their misunderstanding, which are in turn used as justification for their ideologies. Both begin with an ideology and are political and social in focus." Elsewhere though, he asserts that deep ecology must be taken seriously in the debate about the relationship between humans and nature because it challenges the fundamental assumptions of Western philosophy. Botkin has also criticized Næss's restatement and reliance upon the balance of nature idea and the perceived contradiction between his argument that all species are morally equal and his disparaging description of pioneering species.

"Shallow" View superior

Professor William Grey with the University of Queensland believes that developing a non-anthropocentric set of values is "a hopeless quest" He seeks an improved "shallow" view, writing, "What's wrong with shallow views is not their concern about the well-being of humans, but that they do not really consider enough in what that well-being consists. We need to develop an enriched, fortified anthropocentric notion of human interest to replace the dominant short-term, sectional and self-regarding conception."[18]

Deep ecology as not "deep" enough

Social ecologists such as Murray Bookchin[19] claim that deep ecology fails to link environmental crises with authoritarianism and hierarchy. Social ecologists believe that environmental problems are firmly rooted in the manner of human social interaction, and they protest that an ecologically sustainable society could still be socially exploitative. Deep ecologists reject the argument that ecological behavior is rooted in the social paradigm (according to their view, that is an anthropocentric fallacy), and they maintain that the converse of the social ecologists' objection is also true in that it is equally possible for a socially egalitarian society to continue to exploit the Earth.

Philosophical implications

As environmental problems became increasingly evident during the late twentieth century, major theorists approached these issues from primarily utilitarian perspectives. Many were concerned about the sustainable development of the environment and these issues were taken onto global platforms such as the United Nations. Scholars from developing nations often criticize current environmental philosophies as elitist or privileged perspectives of intellectuals in wealthy nations, which do not recognize the suffering conditions and serious needs of people in developing countries.

Environmental philosophy, which emerged only during the late twentieth century, is still in an early stage of development and many of its theories are experimental. Deep Ecology is one of these theories, and though it has its own merits, many question its realistic applicability.

Deep ecology is distinguished from other theories of ethics by its approach and philosophical framework. As they developed, modern ethical theories often rejected any substantive ontological perspective, which resulted in a failure to understand the interdependent, interfused existential status of the human being in the nexus of natural world. Modern ethical theories also excluded human interaction with nature, including the concept that a caring, loving or embracing relationship with nature is essential to the cultivation of human spirituality. The concept of “depth” of Deep Ecology is based on this existential understanding of spirituality. Various religious traditions including Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Native American hold that interactive “immersion” with nature is an essential component of the cultivation of human spirituality. Arne Næss’ philosophical background is the teachings of Spinoza, Gandhi and Buddhism. Modernist ethics presupposed the rational individual as the primary agent of moral discourse. Deep Ecology problematizes both primacy of reason and the concept of human being as isolated individual. Some theorists hold that the essence of a human being lies in non-rational faculties such feeling, and value: emotion-based virtues such as compassion and forgiveness along with reason-based virtues like equality and justice.

Many activists interpret Deep Ecology simply as a political [[[ideology]] and use it to support political agendas. The philosophical implication of Deep Ecology is, however, deeply rooted in the critique of modernity, and has many other ways of being interpreted and developed.

Links with other movements

Greenpeace demonstrating against Esso Petroleum company. March 6, 2003

Parallels have been drawn between deep ecology and other movements, in particular the animal rights movement and Earth First!.

Peter Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation critiqued anthropocentrism and put the case for animals to be given moral consideration. This can be seen as a part of a process of expanding the prevailing system of ethics to wider groupings. However, Singer has disagreed with deep ecology's belief in the intrinsic value of nature separate from questions of suffering, taking a more utilitarian stance. The feminist and civil rights movements also brought about expansion of the ethical system for their particular domains. Likewise deep ecology brought the whole of nature under moral consideration.[20] The links with animal rights are perhaps the strongest, as "proponents of such ideas argue that 'All life has intrinsic value'".[21]

Many in the radical environmental direct-action movement Earth First! claim to follow deep ecology, as indicated by one of their slogans No compromise in defense of mother earth. In particular, David Foreman, the co-founder of the movement, has also been a strong advocate for deep ecology, and engaged in a public debate with Murray Bookchin on the subject.[22] Judi Bari was another prominent Earth Firster who espoused deep ecology. Many Earth First! actions have a distinct deep ecological theme; often these actions will ostensibly be to save an area of old growth forest, the habitat of a snail or an owl, even individual trees. It should however be noted that, especially in the United Kingdom, there are also strong anti-capitalist and anarchist currents in the movement, and actions are often symbolic or have other political aims. At one point Arne Næss also engaged in environmental direct action, though not under the Earth First! banner, when he tied himself to a Norwegian fjord in a protest against the building of a dam.[23]

Robert Greenway and Theodore Roszak have employed the Deep Ecology (DE) platform as a means to argue for Ecopsychology. Although Ecopsychology is a highly differentiated umbrella that encompasses many practices and perspectives, its ethos is generally consistent with Deep Ecology.

See also


  1. Arne Naess, 1973, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement.' Inquiry 16: 95-100
  2. Stephen Harding. 1997. "What Is Deep Ecology?" RESURGENCE 185: 14-17.
  3. Warwick Fox. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. (Boston: Shambhala, 1990).
  4. Daniel B. Botkin. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990. ISBN 0195074696.)
  5. Arne Naess, The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology movements A Summary. (Originally published in Inquiry (Oslo), 16 (1973) Retrieved February 15, 2009.
  6. Bill Devall and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered. (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, (1985) 2001. ISBN 0879052473), 85-88
  7. Arne Næss. 1989. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. (Cambridge University Press ISBN 0521348730), 187.
  8. Lynn Townsend White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155 (3767) (March 1967): 1203–1207. doi=10.1126/science.155.3767.1203 pmid=17847526. (HTML copy, [1] (PDF).
  9. Devall and Sessions, 70.
  10. Michael J. Zimmerman, "Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value: 3. Is There Such a Thing As Intrinsic Value At All?" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, (ed). (Fall 2004 Ed.) Retrieved February 27, 2009.
  11. Joel Feinberg, The Rights of Animals and Future Generations. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  12. Joff, 2000. [ The Possibility of an Anti-Humanist Anarchism]. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  13. E. Phil Pister, "The Rights of Species and Ecosystems." Fisheries (1995) 20 (4).
  14. Deep Ecology: Environmentalism as if all beings mattered. Minneapolis, MN: Great River Earth Institute. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  15. Ben Panaman, Animal Ethics Encyclopedia: Deep Ecology. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  16. Marti Kheel, 1990, "Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology; reflections on identity and difference."' 128-137. in Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein, (eds.), Reweaving the World; The emergence of ecofeminism. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. ISBN 0871566230)
  17. Daniel B. Botkin. 2000. No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature. (Shearwater Books. ISBN 1559634650), 42, 39.
  18. William Grey, Anthropocentrism and Deep Ecology Australiasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (4) (1993): 463-475.
  19. Murray Bookchin, 1987, Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. Green Perspectives/Anarchy Archives. Retrieved February 27, 2009.
  20. Alan AtKisson, Introduction To Deep Ecology, an interview with Michael E. Zimmerman. In Context 22 Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  21. Derek Wall. Green History. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 041507925X.
  22. Murray Bookchin, Dave Foreman, and Steve Chase. Defending the Earth: A Dialogue between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. (Boston: South End Press, 1991. ISBN 0900384670)
  23. J. Seed, J. Macy, P. Flemming, A. Næss. Thinking like a mountain: towards a council of all beings.', (1988) 2007. New Catalyst Books. ISBN 1897408005.


  • Bender, F. L. The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003. ISBN 1591020557
  • Bookchin, Murray, and Graham Purchace, Brian Morris, Rodney Aitchtey, Robert Hart, Chris Wilbert. Deep Ecology and Anarchism. Freedom Press, 1993. ISBN 0900384670
  • Bookchin, Murray, Dave Foreman, and Steve Chase. Defending the Earth: A Dialogue between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991. ISBN 0900384670
  • Botkin, Daniel B. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990. ISBN 0195074696
  • de Steiguer, J.E. The Origins of Modern Environmental Thought. The University of Arizona Press, 2006. ISBN 0816524610
  • Devall, Bill and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 2001 (original 1985). ISBN 0879052473
  • Drengson, Alan. The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. North Atlantic Books, 1995. ISBN 1556431988
  • __________. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, Translated by D. Rothenberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (original 1989). ISBN 0521348730
  • Fox, Warwick. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Boston: Shambhala, 1990. ISBN 978-0877735335
  • Glasser, Harold, ed. The Selected Works of Arne Næss, Volumes 1-10. Springer, 2005. ISBN 1402037279
  • Harding, S. "What Is Deep Ecology?" RESURGENCE London, Naern Road. 185 (1997): 14-17.
  • Katz, E., A. Light, et al. Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. ISBN 026261149X
  • Keulartz, Jozef. Struggle for nature: a critique of radical ecology. (Environmental Philosophies Series) London: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0415180937
  • Kheel, Marti. "Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology; reflections on identity and difference" 128-137, in Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein, eds. Reweaving the World; The emergence of ecofeminism. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. ISBN 0871566230
  • Naess, Arne, and Harold Glasser. The Selected Works of Arne Naess. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005. ISBN 978-1402037276
  • Passmore, John Arthur. Man’s Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions. London: Duckworth, 1974. ISBN 0023917504
  • Seed, J., J. Macy, P. Flemming, A. Naess. Thinking like a mountain: towards a council of all beings. 2007 (original 1988). New Catalyst Books. ISBN 1897408005
  • Sessions, George. Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Shambhala, 1994. ISBN 1570620490
  • Taylor, B., and M. Zimmerman. "Deep Ecology." In B. Taylor, et al. eds., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. v 1, 456-460. London: Continuum International, 2008 (original 2005). ISBN 1847062733
  • __________. "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement." Inquiry 16 (1973): 95-100
  • Tobias, Michael, ed., Deep Ecology. Avant Books, 1988 (original 1984). ISBN 0932238130
  • Turner, Jack. The Abstract Wild. Tucson: Univ of Arizona Press, 1996. ISBN 0816516995
  • Wall, Derek. Green History. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 041507925X
  • White, Jr., Lynn Townsend. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155(3767) (March 1967): 1203–1207. doi=10.1126/science.155.3767.1203 pmid=17847526
  • __________. 2000. No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books. ISBN 1559634650

External links

All links retrieved January 28, 2024.


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