Environmental Ethics: II. Deep Ecology

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Deep ecology is a comprehensive worldview of humans in harmony with nature, an "ecosophy" ("ecowisdom") that responds to ecological crisis. It is also a movement to translate this worldview into radical societal reform. Supporters of the deep ecology movement contrast their position with "shallow" reform movements, holding that every living being has intrinsic or inherent value that gives it the right to flourish, independent of its usefulness for humans. All life is interrelated, and living things, humans included, depend on the support of others. For supporters of deep ecology, who tend to oppose the degradation of nature except to satisfy vital needs, the long-range integrity and health of the ecosystems of Earth are of fundamental ethical importance.

The ecological crisis has deep roots in misguided, anthropocentric attitudes about the dominion of humans on Earth. These exploitative, consumptive attitudes, according to the position of deep ecology, cannot be overcome without significant social changes, including changes in the lifestyles of those who live in the rich countries. Such changes can emerge only from a philosophical or religious basis that nurtures a sense of personal responsibility, not simply to persons living now but also to future human generations as well as fauna and flora. The current human population is already too large in many countries; further human population increases will lower the quality of life for both humans and nonhuman forms of life. A smaller human population is desirable and can be achieved by reduced birthrates over several centuries.

The position of the deep ecology movement can be illuminated by contrasting it with the position of so-called shallow ecology. The shallow position considers it unnecessary or even counterproductive to take up philosophical or religious questions to solve the ecological crisis. Its supporters argue that reforms of existing practices are needed, but reforms of basic principles are unnecessary. Those who advocate the shallow position do not find intrinsic value in nonhuman life forms, nor do they find the consumptive economic system problematic. Humans ought to exploit nature, though prudently. High standards of living are not objectionable, and can be raised even further by concentrating on investment in science and technology. Attempts should be made to bring less-developed nations up to this standard.

The deep ecology movement's historic forebears include Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, also of the United States, are more recent pivotal figures. In 1962 Carson's book Silent Spring set off an ecological alarm. Starting with practical issues related to pesticides, Carson probed the philosophical assumptions underlying this attack on pests that stood in the way of human progress. In Europe such ecological concerns joined with the peace and social justice movements to create the first wave of the "green movement." Australians also became involved. In eastern Europe, ecologists were judged hostile to state-sponsored industrial development, and were banned. In the Third World, long-term ecological sustainability often had to take second place to short-term economic survival.

The deep ecology movement argues for ecological sustainability, human development that conserves the richness and diversity of life forms on Earth. This position, often said to be biocentric (centered on life) rather than anthropocentric (centered on human life only), includes what Leopold called "the land": the whole community of life on the landscape—rivers, mountains, canyons, forests, grasslands, and estuaries. Reforestation, for example, does not mean large tree plantations, producing timber and fiber for humans. Such plantations, which lack the biodiversity, complexity, health, and integrity of spontaneous natural ecosystems, are not genuine biological communities.

Those who advocate deep ecology and the more shallow reformers must learn to cooperate. Some strengths of each approach can be combined; some weakness of each, offset. The former sometimes become lost in utopian visions of a "green world"; the latter may be too absorbed in ad hoc, short-range solutions. The former can press for, and practice, more modest standards of living and support higher prices for nonvital products. Those who are less "deep" can be more pragmatic, willing to respond to what is currently politically realizable reform. Through such cooperation the supporters of both movements may help avoid crises likely to occur if ecologically responsible policies are forced too soon and too fast on populations that are not prepared for them. The deep premises of argumentation add to the utilitarian arguments, which are shallow in relation to philosophical and religious premises, needing more depth of analysis of the problem.

The discussions surrounding deep ecology have implications for the medical area of bioethics as well. "Rich life, simple means," an aphorism of the deep ecology movement, suggests for medical bioethics a strengthening of preventive medicine and a reduced reliance on technically advanced treatments, especially if they require large investments of resources and energy. Medical bioethics can learn from ecological bioethics the need for a moral vision that can reorder its priorities.

arne naess (1995)

SEE ALSO: Animal Welfare and Rights; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Future Generations, Obligations to; Jainism, Bioethics in; Native American Religion, Bioethics in; Population Ethics; Population Policies; Value and Valuation;Xenotransplantation and other Environmental Ethics subentries


Devall, Bill, and Sessions, George. 1985. Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith.

Fox, Warwick. 1990. Towards a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations. Boston: Shambhala.

Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press.

Naess, Arne. 1989. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, tr. and rev. David Rothenberg. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Pepper, David. 1984. The Roots of Modern Environmentalism. London: Croom Helm.

Snyder, Gary. 1974. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions.

The Trumpeter: Canadian Journal of Ecosophy. Victoria, B.C.: Author.

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Environmental Ethics: II. Deep Ecology

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Environmental Ethics: II. Deep Ecology