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Deep Ecology

Deep Ecology

The term deep ecology was coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (b. 1912) in 1973 to contrast two different approaches to environmental concerns. Whereas shallow ecology merely seeks to avoid excessive pollution and resource depletion, deep ecology advocates the need for fundamental shifts in perception, values, and lifestyles. Its basic premises are the intrinsic value of nature, the critique of industrial materialism and technology, and the application of ecological principles to human moral evaluations and actions. The word deep refers to the level at which human purposes and values are questioned. The goal of deep ecology is to clarify value priorities when establishing policies and practices.

Naess, influenced by Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza and Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi, advocates a philosophy of ecological harmony and equilibrium (ecosophy ) through four levels of questioning: (1) ultimate premises based on a person's worldview, for example, a particular religion or philosophy; (2) eight "Platform Principles" as common core principles independent of worldview; (3) general consequences derived from the platform; and (4) concrete decisions chosen by individuals and groups. Deep ecology challenges religions to respond to the concerns of environmental philosophy and so encourages the interconnection between religious and philosophical worldviews, scientific and empathetic studies of nature, and public policy and ethics. Deep ecology has been criticized for insufficient attention to gender issues, biocentric egalitarianism, and not adequately addressing economical and political injustices.

See also Ecofeminism; Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Gaia Hypothesis


devall, bill, and sessions, george. deep ecology: living as if nature mattered. salt lake city, utah: gibbs smith, 1985.

naess, arne. "the shallow and the deep: long-range ecology movements." inquiry 16 (1973): 95100.

naess, arne. ecology, community and lifestyle, trans. and ed. david rothenberg. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1989.

reed, peter, and rothenberg, david. wisdom in the open air: the norwegian roots of deep ecology. minneapolis, minn.: university of minnesota press, 1993.

rothenberg, david. is it painful to think? conversations with arne naess. minneapolis, minn.: university of minnesota press, 1993.

sessions, george, ed. deep ecology for the twenty-first century. boston and london: shambala, 1995.

roald e. kristiansen

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Deep Ecology

Deep ecology

The term "deep ecology' was coined by the Norwegian environmental philosopher Arne Naess in 1973. Naess drew a distinction between "shallow" and "deep" ecology . The former perspective stresses the desirability of conserving natural resources , reducing levels of air and water pollution , and other policies primarily for promoting the health and welfare of human beings. Deep ecologists maintain that shallow ecology simply accepts, uncritically and without reflection, the homocentric, or human-centered, view that humans are, or ought to be, if not the masters of nature , then at least the managers of nature for human ends or purposes.

Defenders of deep ecology, by contrast, claim that shallow environmentalism is defective in placing human interests above those of animals and ecosystems. Human beings, like all lower creatures, exist within complex webs of interaction and interdependency. If people insist on conquering, dominating, or merely managing nature for their own benefit or amusement, if people fail to recognize and appreciate the complex webs that hold and sustain them, they will degrade and eventually destroy the natural environment that sustains all life.

But, deep ecologists say, if people are to protect the environment for all species , now and in the future, they must challenge and change long-held basic beliefs and attitudes about our species place in nature. For example, people must recognize that animals, plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them have intrinsic valuethat is, are valuable in and of themselvesquite apart from any use or instrumental value they might have for human beings. The genetic diversity found in insects and plants in tropical rain forests is to be protected not (only or merely) because it might one day yield a drug for curing cancer , but also and more importantly because such biodiversity is valuable in its own right. Likewise, rivers and lakes should contain clean water not just because humans need uncontaminated water for swimming and drinking, but also because fish do. Like Gandhi, to whom they often refer, deep ecologists teach respect for all forms of life and the conditions that sustain them.

Critics complain that deep ecologists do not sufficiently respect human life and the conditions that promote prosperity and other human interests. Some go so far as to claim that they believe in the moral equivalence of human and all other life-forms. Thus, say the critics, deep ecologists would assign equal value to the life of a disease-bearing mosquito and the child it is about to bite. No human has the right to swat or spray an insect, to kill pests or predators, and so on. But in fact this is a caricature of the stance taken by deep ecology. All creatures, including humans, have the right to protect themselves from harm, even if that means depriving a mosquito of a meal or even eliminating it altogether. Competition within and among species is normal, natural, and inevitable. Bats eat mosquitoes; bigger fish eat smaller fish; humans eat big fish; and so on. But for one species to dominate or destroy all others is neither natural nor sustainable. Yet human beings have, through technology, an ever-increasing power to destroy entire ecosystems and the life that they sustain. Deep ecologists hold that this power has corrupted human beings and has led them to thinkquite mistakenlythat human purposes are paramount and that human interests take precedence over those of lower or lesser species. Human beings cannot exist independently from, but only interdependently with nature's myriad species. Once people recognize the depth and degree of this interdependence, deep ecologists say, they will learn humility and respect. The human species' proper place is not on top, but within nature and with nature's creatures and the conditions that nurture all.

Some cultures and religions have long taught these lessons. Zen Buddhism, Native American religions, and other nature-centered belief systems of belief have counseled humility toward, and respect for, nature and nonhuman creatures. But the dominant Western reaction is to dismiss these teachings as primitive or mystical. Deep ecologists, by contrast, contend that considerable wisdom is to be found in these native and non-Western perspectives.

Deep ecology is at present a philosophical perspective within the environmental movement, and not a movement in itself. This perspective does, however, inform and influence the actions of some radical environmentalists. Organizations such as Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are highly critical of moderate shallow environmental groups which are prepared to compromise with loggers, developers, dam builders, strip miners, and oil companies, thus putting the economic interests of some human beings ahead of all others. Such development destroys habitat , endangers entire species of animals and plants, and proceeds on the assumption that nature has no intrinsic value , but only instrumental value for human beings. It is this assumption, and the actions that proceed from it, that deep ecology is questioning and attempting to change.

See also Ecosophy; Environmental ethics; Foreman, Dave; Green politics; Greens; Strip mining

[Terence Ball ]



Devall, B., and G. Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs M. Smith, 1985.

Foreman, D. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Fox, Warwick. Toward a transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Seed, J., J. Macy, P. Fleming, and A. Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1988.


Naess, A. "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement," Inquiry 16 (1973): 95-100.

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"Deep Ecology." Environmental Encyclopedia. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Deep Ecology." Environmental Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from