Deep Ecology

views updated May 08 2018

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.

Deep Ecology

views updated Jun 27 2018

Deep Ecology

Deep ecology is a new religious movement that believes Western civilization's anthropocentric (humancentered) religion and philosophy is the root cause of a currently unfolding ecological catastrophe. Deep ecologists believe that for humans to live harmoniously with nature they must reject anthropocentric worldviews and resacralize their perceptions of nature as sacred, thus recognizing that nature has intrinsic value (value apart from its usefulness to humans). In the late twentieth century, pagans accurately viewed deep ecology as a kindred form of nature religion.

Deep ecology has greatly influenced grassroots environmentalism, especially in Europe, North America, and Australia. Interest in the movement has spread through road shows and ritual enactments led by touring movement advocates, through the writings of its architects (often reaching college students in environmental studies courses), and perhaps especially through the dramatic activism of the vanguard radical environmental movement Earth First! Participants in this movement probably number in the low tens of thousands.

Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber, coined the term deep ecology during a 1972 conference in Bucharest, Hungary, and soon afterward in print. He argued that nature has intrinsic value and criticized "shallow" nature philosophies that only value nature instrumentally.

Naess insisted that there are plural paths to a deep ecological perspective. Indeed, a wide range of religious perspectives, especially indigenous religions (i.e., Native American religions), Buddhism, Taoism, and neopaganism, have influenced those drawn to deep ecology. It is, however, the personal experiences of a spiritual connection with nature and related perceptions of nature's sacredness that ground deep ecological commitments; a secular rationale is almost wholly absent.

Naess's own path to deep ecology began with a mountain-oriented nature mysticism that convinced him of the sacred interrelatedness of all life. He subsequently found in Baruch Spinoza's pantheism and Mahatma Gandhi's notion of self-realization the key ideas upon which he would build his environmental philosophy.

Although Naess coined the umbrella term now used for most nonanthropocentric environmental ethics, many other individuals were contemporaneously criticizing anthropocentrism and developing the new movement's ideas. One crucial event early in deep ecology's evolution was the 1974 Rights of Non-Human Nature conference held at a college in Claremont, California. Inspired by Christopher Stone's influential 1972 law article (and 1974 book), "Should Trees Have Standing: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects," the conference attracted many of those who would become the intellectual architects of deep ecology. These included George Sessions, who, like Naess, drew on Spinoza's pantheism and who later coauthored Deep Ecology with Bill Devall (1985); the poet Gary Snyder, who in 1969 published Turtle Island, asserting the value of place-based spiritualities, indigenous cultures, and animistic perceptions, ideas that would become central to bioregional deep ecology; and Paul Shephard, who argued that people in the world's remnant foraging societies were ecologically superior and emotionally healthier than those living in agricultural societies. Shephard thereby provided radical greens with a cosmogony that explained humanity's fall from a pristine nature paradise.

By the early 1970s, these early architects of deep ecology and the thinkers they drew upon had put in place the central ideas of the deep ecological world-view. Soon additional works, some penned by early participants in Earth First!, such as the movement's cofounder Dave Foreman, Bill Devall, and Christopher Manes were added to the mix. Later works expanded and reinforced the cultural critiques and spirituality of deep ecology. Especially influential were those by Dolores LaChapelle, John Seed, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess, Warwick Fox, George Sessions, David Abram, and Freeman House.

Since the mid 1980s, deep ecology increasingly has shared ideas, myths, rituals, and personnel with pagan and bioregional groups. (Bioregionalism shares a spiritual affinity with paganism and deep ecology, but its emphasis on developing sustainable lifestyles and redrawing political boundaries to reflect the contours of differing ecosystem types gives it a distinctive name and identity.) The connections among these groups have deepened the pagan and countercultural character of the deep ecology movement. Despite its environmental apocalypticism, deep ecology entered a period of institutionalization, establishing a variety of institutes and organizations to promote its objectives. Indeed, it is its expectation of a biological meltdown that gave the movement its urgent passion to promote Earth's spirituality, a sustainable society, and environmental activism.

See alsoEcofeminism; Ecospirituality; Nature Religion; Neopaganism; New Age Spirituality; Pantheism; Religious Experience.


Devall, B. Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing DeepEcology. 1988.

Devall, B., and G. Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living As IfNature Mattered. 1985.

Drengson, A., and Y. Inoue, editors. The Deep EcologyMovement: An Introductory Anthology. 1995.

LaChapelle, D. Earth Wisdom. 1978.

Macy, J. World as Lover, World As Self. 1991.

Manes, C. Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and theUnmaking of Civilization. 1990.

Seed, J., J. Macy, P. Fleming, and A. Naess. ThinkingLike a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings. 1988.

Sessions, G., ed. Deep Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. 1995.

Shepard, P. Nature and Madness. 1982.

Shephard, P. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. 1998.

Snyder, G. Turtle Island. 1969.

Stone, C. D. Should Trees Have Standing—Toward LegalRights for Natural Objects. 1974.

Bron Taylor

Deep Ecology

views updated May 21 2018

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