Deep ecology

ISBN (identifier) Simple living Human impact on the environment

Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy promoting the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus a restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas.

Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the existence of organisms is dependent on the existence of others within ecosystems. It argues that human interference with or destruction of the natural world poses a threat therefore not only to humans but to all organisms constituting the natural order.

Deep ecology's core principle is the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having certain basic moral and legal rights to live and flourish, independent of its instrumental benefits for human use. Deep ecology is often framed in terms of the idea of a much broader sociality; it recognizes diverse communities of life on Earth that are composed not only through biotic factors but also, where applicable, through ethical relations, that is, the valuing of other beings as more than just resources. It is described as "deep" because it is regarded as looking more deeply into the actual reality of humanity's relationship with the natural world arriving at philosophically more profound conclusions than those of mainstream environmentalism.[1] The movement does not subscribe to anthropocentric environmentalism (which is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for human purposes), since deep ecology is grounded in a quite different set of philosophical assumptions. Deep ecology takes a holistic view of the world human beings live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that the separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole. The philosophy addresses core principles of different environmental and green movements and advocates a system of environmental ethics advocating wilderness preservation, human population control, and simple living.[2]


In his original 1973 deep ecology paper, Arne Næss states that he was inspired by ecologists – who were studying the ecosystems throughout the world. Three people in the 1960s who were considered foundational to the movement in a 2014 essay by George Sessions were author and conservationist Rachel Carson, environmentalist David Brower, and the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. He considers the publication of Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring as the beginning of the contemporary deep ecology movement.[3]

Other events in the 1960s which have been proposed as foundational to the movement are the formation of Greenpeace, and the images of the Earth floating in space taken by the Apollo astronauts.[4]


Deep ecology proposes an embracing of ecological ideas and environmental ethics (that is, proposals about how humans should relate to nature).[5] It is also a social movement based on a holistic vision of the world.[1] Deep ecologists hold that the survival of any part is dependent upon the well-being of the whole, and criticise the narrative of human supremacy, which they say has not been a feature of most cultures throughout human evolution.[4] Deep ecology presents an eco-centric (earth-centred) view, rather than the anthropocentric (human centred) view, developed in its most recent form by philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Newton, Bacon, and Descartes. Proponents of deep ecology oppose the narrative that man is separate from nature, is in charge of nature, or is the steward of nature [6], or that nature exists as a resource to be freely exploited. They cite the fact that indigenous peoples under-exploited their environment and retained a sustainable society for thousands of years, as evidence that human societies are not necessarily destructive by nature. They believe a different economic system must replace capitalism, as the commodification of nature by industrial civilization, based on the concept of economic growth, or 'progress', is critically endangering the biosphere. Deep ecologists believe that the damage to natural systems sustained since the industrial revolution now threatens social collapse and possible extinction of the species. They are striving to bring about ideological, economic and technological change. Deep ecology claims that ecosystems can absorb damage only within certain parameters, and contends that civilization endangers the biodiversity of the earth. Deep ecologists have suggested that the optimum human population on the earth, without fossil fuels, is 0.5 billion, but advocate a gradual decrease in population rather than any apocalyptic solution. [7]. Deep ecology eschews traditional left wing-right wing politics, but is viewed as radical ('Deep Green') in its opposition to capitalism, and its advocacy of an ecological paradigm. Unlike conservation, deep ecology does not advocate the controlled preservation of the landbase, but rather 'non-interference' with natural diversity except for vital needs. In citing 'humans' as being responsible for excessive environmental destruction, deep ecologists actually refer to 'humans within civilization, especially industrial civilization', accepting the fact that the vast majority of humans who have ever lived did not live in environmentally destructive societies - the excessive damage to the biosphere has been sustained mostly over the past hundred years.

In 1985 Bill Devall and George Sessions summed up their understanding of the concept of deep ecology with the following eight points:[8]


The phrase "Deep Ecology" first appeared in a 1973 article by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss,[9]. Næss referred to 'biospherical egalitarianism-in principle', which he explained was 'an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is … anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves... The attempt to ignore our dependence and to establish a master-slave role has contributed to the alienation of man from himself.' [10] Næss added that from a deep ecology point of view "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".[11] As Bron Taylor & Michael Zimmerman have recounted, 'a key event in the development of deep ecology was the “Rights of Non-Human Nature” conference held at a college in Claremont, California in 1974 [which] drew many of those who would become the intellectual architects of deep ecology. These included George Sessions who, like Naess, drew on Spinoza’s pantheism, later co-authoring 'Deep Ecology - [Living as if Nature Mattered]' with Bill Devall; Gary Snyder, whose remarkable, Pulitzer prize-winning 'Turtle Island' proclaimed the value of place-based spiritualities, indigenous cultures, and animistic perceptions, ideas that would become central within deep ecology subcultures; and Paul Shepard, who in 'The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game', and subsequent works such as 'Nature and Madness' and … 'Coming Back to the Pleistocene', argued that foraging societies were ecologically superior to and emotionally healthier than agricultur[al societies]. Shepard and Snyder especially provided a cosmogony that explained humanity’s fall from a pristine, nature paradise. Also extremely influential was Edward Abbey’s 'Desert Solitaire', which viewed the desert as a sacred place uniquely able to evoke in people a proper, non-anthropocentric understanding of the value of nature. By the early 1970s the above figures put in place the intellectual foundations of deep ecology.'[12]



Deep ecology is an eco-philosophy derived from intuitive ethical principles. It does not claim to be a science, but is based generally on the new physics, which, in the early 20th century, undermined the reductionist approach and the notion of objectivity, demonstrating that humans are an integral part of nature - a concept always held by primal peoples [13][14] Duvall and Sessions, however, note that the work of many ecologists has encouraged the adoption of an ecological consciousness, quoting environmentalist Aldo Leopold's view that such a consciousness changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.[15] Though some detractors assert that deep ecology is based on the discredited idea of the 'balance of nature', deep ecologists have made no such claim. They do not dispute the theory that human cultures can have a benevolent effect on the landbase, only the idea of the 'control' of nature, or human supremacy, which is the central pillar of the industrial paradigm. The tenets of deep ecology state that humans have no right to interfere with natural diversity except for vital needs: the distinction between 'vital' and 'other needs' cannot be drawn precisely. [16] Deep ecologists reject any mechanical or computer model of nature, and see the earth as a living organism, which should be treated and understood accordingly.[17] The philosophical and moral framework of deep ecology is distinct from the science of Ecology, which uses a range of techniques, some of a reductionist nature, some derived from complex, systems-based models.


Arne Næss used Baruch Spinoza as a source, particularly his notion that everything that exists is part of a single reality.[18] Others have copied Næss in this, including Eccy de Jonge[19] and Brenden MacDonald.[20]


Environmental education

In 2010 Richard Kahn promoted the movement of ecopedagogy, proposing using radical environmental activism as an educational principle to teach students to support "earth democracy" which promotes the rights of animals, plants, fungi, algae and bacteria. The biologist Dr Stephan Harding has developed the concept of 'holistic science', based on principles of ecology and deep ecology. In contrast with materialist, reductionist science, holistic science studies natural systems as a living whole. 'We encourage … students to use [their] sense of belonging to an intelligent universe (revealed by deep experience),' Harding has written, 'for deeply questioning their fundamental beliefs, and for translating these beliefs into personal decisions, lifestyles and actions. The emphasis on action is important. This is what makes deep ecology a movement as much as a philosophy.'[21]


Næss criticised the Judeo-Christian tradition, stating the Bible's "arrogance of stewardship 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".[11] Næss further criticizes the reformation's view of creation as property to be put into maximum productive use.


Eurocentric bias

Guha and Martinez-Allier critique the four defining characteristics of deep ecology. First, because deep ecologists believe that environmental movements must shift from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric approach, they fail to recognize the two most fundamental ecological crises facing the world today, 1) overconsumption in the global north and 2) increasing militarization. Second, deep ecology's emphasis on wilderness provides impetus for the imperialist yearning of the West. Third, deep ecology appropriates Eastern traditions, characterizes Eastern spiritual beliefs as monolithic, and denies agency to Eastern peoples. And fourth, because deep ecology equates environmental protection with wilderness preservation its radical elements are confined within the American wilderness preservationist movement.[22] Deep ecologists, however, point to the incoherence of this discourse, not as a 'Third World Critique' but as a critique by the capitalist elites of third world countries seeking to legitimise the exploitation of local ecosystems for economic gain, in concert with the global capitalist system. An example of such exploitation is the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro.[23]

Knowledge of nonhuman interests

Animal rights activists state that for an entity to require intrinsic rights, it must have interests.[24] Deep ecologists are criticised for insisting they can somehow understand the thoughts and interests of non-humans such as plants or protists, which they claim thus proves that non-human lifeforms have intelligence. For example, a single-celled bacteria might move towards a certain chemical stimulation, although such movement might be rationally explained, a deep ecologist might say that this was all invalid because according to his better understanding of the situation that the intention formulated by this particular bacteria was informed by its deep desire to succeed in life. One criticism of this belief is that the interests that a deep ecologist attributes to non-human organisms such as survival, reproduction, growth, and prosperity are really human interests. Deep ecologists counter this criticism by the assertion that intelligence is not specific to humans, but a property of the totality of the universe of which humans are a manifestation.[25]


When Arne Næss coined the term deep ecology, he compared it favourably with shallow ecology which he criticized for its utilitarian and anthropocentric attitude to nature and for its materialist and consumer-oriented outlook.[26] William D. Grey believes that developing a non-anthropocentric set of values is "a hopeless quest". He seeks an improved "shallow" view.[27] Deep ecologists point out, however, that shallow ecology - resource management conservation - is counter-productive, since it serves mainly to support capitalism - the means through which industrial civilization destroys the biosphere. The eco-centric view thus only becomes 'hopeless' within the structures and ideology of civilization. Outside it, however, a non-anthropocentric world view has characterised most 'primal' cultures since time immemorial, and, in fact, obtained in many indigenous groups until the industrial revolution and after. [28] Some cultures still hold this view today. As such, the eco-centric narrative is in not alien to humans, and may be seen as the normative ethos in human evolution.[29] Grey's view represents the reformist discourse that deep ecology has rejected from the beginning.[30]


Social ecologist Murray Bookchin interpreted deep ecology as being misanthropic, due in part to the characterization of humanity by David Foreman of Earth First!, as a pathological infestation on the Earth. Bookchin mentions that some, like Foreman, defend misanthropic measures such as organising the rapid genocide of most of humanity.[31]

In response, deep ecologists have argued that Foreman's statement clashes with the core narrative of deep ecology, the first tenet of which stresses the intrinsic value of both nonhuman and human life. Arne Naess suggested a slow decrease in human population over an extended period, not genocide.[32] Bookchin's second major criticism is that deep ecology fails to link environmental crises with authoritarianism and hierarchy. He suggests that deep ecologists fail to recognise the potential for human beings to solve environmental issues.[33]

In response, Deep Ecologists have argued that industrial civilization, with its class hierarchy, is the sole source of the ecological crisis.[34] The eco-centric worldview precludes any acceptance of social class or authority based on social status.[35] Deep ecologists believe that since ecological problems are created by industrial civilization, the only solution is the deconstruction of the culture itself.[36]


Daniel Botkin concludes that although deep ecology challenges the assumptions of western philosophy, and should be taken seriously, it derives from a misunderstanding of scientific information and conclusions based on this misunderstanding, which are in turn used as justification for its ideology. It begins with an ideology and is political and social in focus. Botkin has also criticized Næss's assertion that all species are morally equal and his disparaging description of pioneering species.[37] Deep ecologists counter this criticism by asserting that a concern with political and social values is primary, since the destruction of natural diversity stems directly from the social structure of civilization, and cannot be halted by reforms within the system. They also cite the work of environmentalists and activists such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Livingston, and others as being influential, and are occasionally critical of the way the science of ecology has been misused.[38] Naess' concept of the equality of species in principle reflects an ethical view of the disproportionate consumption of natural resources by a single species. This intuitive observation is born out by the current perilous environmental situation.[citation needed]

Links with other philosophies

Peter Singer critiques anthropocentrism and advocates for animals to be given rights. However, Singer has disagreed with deep ecology's belief in the intrinsic value of nature separate from questions of suffering.[39] Zimmerman groups deep ecology with feminism and civil rights movements.[40] Nelson contrasts it with "ecofeminism".[41] The links with animal rights are perhaps the strongest, as "proponents of such ideas argue that 'all life has intrinsic value'".[42]

David Foreman, the co-founder of the radical direct-action movement Earth First!, has said he is an advocate for deep ecology.[43][44] At one point Arne Næss also engaged in direct action when he chained himself to rocks in front of Mardalsfossen, a waterfall in a Norwegian fjord, in a successful protest against the building of a dam.[45]

Some have linked the movement to green anarchism as evidenced in a compilation of essays titled Deep Ecology & Anarchism.[46]

See also


  1. ^ a b Smith, Mick (2014). "Deep Ecology: What is Said and (to be) Done?". The Trumpeter. 30 (2): 141–156. ISSN 0832-6193. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  2. ^ John Barry; E. Gene Frankland (2002). International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics. Routledge. p. 161. ISBN 9780415202855.
  3. ^ Sessions, George (2014). "Deep Ecology, New Conservation, and the Anthropocene Worldview". The Trumpeter. 30 (2): 106–114. ISSN 0832-6193. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b Drengson, Alan; Devall, Bill; Schroll, Mark A. (2011). "The Deep Ecology Movement: Origins, Development, and Future Prospects (Toward a Transpersonal Ecosophy)". International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. 30 (1–2): 101–117. doi:10.24972/ijts.2011.30.1-2.101.
  5. ^ 'For Naess, ecological science, concerned with facts and logic alone, cannot answer ethical questions about how we should live in relation to these facts. For this, he said, we need ecological wisdom, which Naess calls ecosophy: an evolving personal philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world that embodies our personal experience of connection with nature.' Stephan Harding 'Deep Ecology in the Holistic Science Programme' Schumacher College.
  6. ^ 'The idea that we are 'stewards of the Earth' is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body's physical processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough keep all systems in operation?' Lynn Margulis 'Animate Earth'
  7. ^ 'This does not imply misanthropy or cruelty to presently existing humans' Deep Ecology for the 21st Century Ed. George Sessions p.88
  8. ^ Devall, Bill; Sessions, George (1985). Deep Ecology. Gibbs M. Smith. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-87905-247-8.
  9. ^ Næss, Arne (1973). "The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movements. A summary" (PDF). Inquiry. 16 (1–4): 95–100. doi:10.1080/00201747308601682. ISSN 0020-174X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-10. Retrieved 2020-06-20.
  10. ^ Arne Naess 'The Shallow and the Deep Long Range Ecology Movements' 1973
  11. ^ a b Næss, Arne (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle: outline of an ecosophy Translated by D. Rothenberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 166, 187. ISBN 0521344069. LCCN 88005068.
  12. ^ Taylor, B. and M. Zimmerman. 2005. Deep Ecology" in B. Taylor, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, v 1, pp. 456–60, London: Continuum International.
  13. ^ both the mystical traditions and the 'new physics' serve to generate … 'ecological awareness' that is, the fundamental relatedness of all things - or more accurately, all events. From The Intuition of Deep Ecology by Warwick Fox, quoted in 'Deep Ecology' by Duvall/Sessions 1985 p.90
  14. ^ instead of saying 'an observer looks at an object' we can say, 'Observation is going on in an undivided moment involving those abstractions customarily called 'the human being' and 'the object he is looking at.' From Wholeness & The Implicate Order by David Bohm 1980 p.37
  15. ^ we are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution, Aldo Leopold quoted in 'Deep Ecology' by Duvall/Sessions 1985 p.85
  16. ^ The distinction is denied by the consumerism inherent in industrialism. To lose sight of it is to become trapped within an endlessly repeating cycle of deprivation and temporary satiation Making the distinction opens to the possibility of more enduring forms of happiness and joy. Of course the distinction cannot be drawn precisely, since what may be a vital need in one context may be a trivial want in another. There is a real difference between an eskimo wearing the skin of a seal and one worn for social status in an affluent society.' Andrew McLaughlin 'The Heart of Deep Ecology' in 'Deep Ecology for the 21st Century' ed. George Sessions p87)
  17. ^ There are no shortcuts to direct organic experiencing Morris Berman, quoted in Deep Ecology by Bill Devall and George Sessions 1985 p.89
  18. ^ Naess, A. (1977). "Spinoza and ecology". Philosophia. 7: 45–54. doi:10.1007/BF02379991.
  19. ^ de Jonge, Eccy (April 28, 2004). Spinoza and Deep Ecology: Challenging Traditional Approaches to Environmentalism (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Philosophy). Routledge. ISBN 978-0754633273.
  20. ^ MacDonald, Brenden James (2012-05-14). "Spinoza, Deep Ecology, and Human Diversity -- Schizophrenics and Others Who Could Heal the Earth If Society Realized Eco-Literacy". Trumpeter. 28 (1): 89–101. ISSN 1705-9429.
  21. ^ Stephan Harding 'Deep Ecology in the Holistic Science Programme' Schumacher College (undated)
  22. ^ Guha, R., and J. Martinez-Allier. 1997. Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South, pp. 92-108
  23. ^ Environmentalists have warned that Bolsonaro’s strong support for development in the Amazon, and criticism of the country’s environmental enforcement agency for handing out too many fines, would embolden loggers and ranchers seeking to profit from deforestation. Bolsonaro has aggravated the situation, said Paulo Barreto, a researcher at Brazilian non-governmental organization Imazon. This increased deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is putting Brazil and its president under a great deal of pressure abroad. The Guardian,
  24. ^ Feinberg, Joel. "The Rights of Animals and Future Generations". Retrieved 2006-04-25.
  25. ^ 'Intelligence and material process have ... a single origin, which is ultimately the unknown totality of the universal flux.' From 'Wholeness and the Implicate Order' by David Bohm P67 'Intelligence is ... a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own .. intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.' from 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abram P262
  26. ^ Devall, Bill; Sessions, George. Deep Ecology: Environmentalism as if all beings mattered. Retrieved 2006-04-25.
  27. ^ Anthropocentrism and Deep Ecology by William Grey
  28. ^ 'long-established indigenous cultures often display a remarkable solidarity with the lands that they inhabit, as well as a basic respect, or even reverence, for the other species that inhabit those lands. Such cultures, much smaller in scale... than modern Western civilization, seem to have maintained a relatively homeostatic or equilibrial relation with [the landbase] From The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams.
  29. ^ For the primal mind there is no sharp break between humans and the rest of Nature. Many deep ecologists feel sympathetic to the rhythm and ways of being experienced by primal peoples. From Deep Ecology by Duvall/Sessions 1985 p.97
  30. ^ by 'reformist' we mean attempts to address some of the environmental problems in this society without challenging the main contradictions and assumptions of the prevailing worldview from Deep Ecology by Duvall/Sessions 1985 p.52
  31. ^ name="Bookchin 1987"
  32. ^ Deep Ecology for the 21st Century Ed. George Sessions 1995 p.88
  33. ^ Bookchin, Murray (1987). "Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement". Green Perspectives/Anarchy Archives.
  34. ^ Endgame by Derrick Jensen, Vol 2, 2006 p.18
  35. ^ Anti-class posture. Diversity of human ways of life is in part due to … exploitation and suppression on the part of certain groups... The principles of ecological egalitarianism and of symbiosis support the same anti-class posture. The ecological attitude favors the extension of [these] principles to any group conflicts, including those ... between developing and developed nations. The … principles also favor extreme caution toward any over-all plans for the future, except those consistent with wide and widening classless diversity, Arne Naess The Shallow and the Deep Long Range Ecology Movement. 1973
  36. ^ If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and degrade the planet until it … collapses. from Endgame by Derrick Jensen, Vol 2, 2006
  37. ^ Botkin, Daniel B. (2000). No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature. Shearwater Books. pp. 42 42, 39]. ISBN 978-1-55963-465-6.
  38. ^ The emergence of ecologists from their former relative obscurity marks a turning point in our scientific communities. But their message is twisted and misused. A shallow, but presently rather powerful movement, and a deep, but less influential movement, compete for our attention. From The Shallow and the Deep Long Range Ecology Movement by Arne Naess, 1973
  39. ^ Kendall, Gillian (May 2011). The Greater Good: Peter Singer On How To Live An Ethical Life. Sun Magazine, The Sun Interview, Issue 425. Retrieved on: 2011-12-02
  40. ^ Alan AtKisson. "Introduction To Deep Ecology, an interview with Michael E. Zimmerman". In Context (22). Retrieved 2006-05-04.
  41. ^ Nelson, C. 2006. Ecofeminism vs. Deep Ecology, Dialogue, San Antonio, TX: Saint Mary's University Dept. of Philosophy
  42. ^ Wall, Derek (1994). Green History. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-07925-9.
  43. ^ David Levine, ed. (1991). Defending the Earth: a dialogue between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman.
  44. ^ Bookchin, Murray; Graham Purchase; Brian Morris; Rodney Aitchtey; Robert Hart; Chris Wilbert (1993). Deep Ecology and Anarchism. Freedom Press. ISBN 978-0-900384-67-7.
  45. ^ J. Seed, J. Macy, P. Flemming, A. Næss, Thinking like a mountain: towards a council of all beings, Heretic Books (1988), ISBN 0-946097-26-7, ISBN 0-86571-133-X.
  46. ^ Deep Ecology & Anarchism. Freedom Press. 1993.