Conflict and Marxism in Deep Ecology                    

                A review by David Orton                         

                                        Wisdom In the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots Of  Deep Ecology 
                                    edited by Peter Reed and David Rothenberg, University of Minnesota Press,

                                         Minneapolis, 1993, 255 pages, paperback, ISBN: 0-8166-2182-9.                                                                            

        “I feel that it is impossible to reach a future that is creative and not destructive
    without social, economic, and political conflict. And I would even say that it’s not
    possible to keep appealing to everybody, for instance the whole of the Norwegian
    population, because by now a number of people are so drawn into the industrial growth
    way of life that it has become part of their personality. It is a waste of energy to try to
    pull them back to the green side of the new cultural dividing line.
        We are reaching a future through conflict - and this is not coincidental, but
    rather what has always happened at major shifts in the various events building futures
    in history... we now need to think in a model of conflict, to be prepared at every turn
    for strife. And what I have been saying here is, all of it, a product of conflict thinking.”
         Sigmund Kvaløy, “Complexity And Time: Breaking the Pyramid’s Reign”

        This anthology of essays has been out a long time (since 1993). I regret to say
    that I have only recently obtained a copy and read it. This copy was obtained because
    of a growing interest on my part, in one of the writers covered in this anthology -
    Sigmund Kvaløy. (See the defining Kvaløy essay [which seems to exist in different
    texts] “Complexity and Time: Breaking the Pyramid’s Reign”, plus the report of a
    conversation with him, “Getting Our Feet Wet”.) He is someone in the deep ecology
    tradition, speaking in a broad sense, but highly influenced by Buddhism, plus most
    importantly by Marx and Gandhi.

        Sigmund Kvaløy is a colleague of Arne Naess, and is considered extremely
    influential in Norway, both for his activism and for his theoretical ideas. (I find it
    quite strange that a 1999 collection of articles, including several by Norwegian
    writers, Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy,
    does not have anything by Kvaløy.) He speaks of moving on a yearly basis between,
    Oslo, the capital of Norway, and a summer farm. On his farm he regards the sheep
    and the cows as being part of his personality. Because Kvaløy has incorporated a
    Marxist perspective into his practical and theoretical work, this has made him of
    particular interest to me. He sees conflict as extremely important in defining how a
    society will evolve. Generally, deep ecology supporters are fending off critiques by
    writers interested in ecology who consider themselves Marxists. The main objective
    of this review about Wisdom In The Open Air: The Norwegian Roots Of  Deep
, is to make some of Sigmund Kvaløy’s ideas better known among deep
    ecology and left biocentric supporters.

        Another Norwegian thinker covered in this book is Peter Wessel Zapffe - an early
    (born in 1899) seminal, pessimistic, human die-off figure, who upholds the
    meaninglessness of our lives. According to the editors, Zapffe’s influence on
    Norwegian ecophilosophy is “nothing less than tremendous.” (p.38) He was the
    first Norwegian to outline and critique how humans relate to the environment. Zapffe
    has greatly influenced the nature writers in Norway who came after him, regarding
    “the value of cultural diversity”, “a sense of identity with nature”, and “a suspicion
    of technology.” (p.38) Other writers covered are Arne Naess, Nils Faarlund, Finn
    Alnaes, John Galtung and Erik Dammann. Most of the material in the section on
    Naess will be familiar to those who have read the 1989 text Ecology, community,
    lifestyle -  a primary book for the deep ecology philosophy, which was translated
    and edited by David Rothenberg, one of the editors of Wisdom In The Open Air.

        The two editors of this anthology, Peter Reed (1961-1987), who was killed by an
    avalanche in Norway, and David Rothenberg, are both originally from the United
    States. They took up the task of learning Norwegian, lived in Norway, and immersed
    themselves in the nature tradition of its writers. They then made their understanding
    available to others through this book. They deserve our thanks for this important
    contribution. Reed is associated in my mind with activism. I liked, and share, his
    expressed belief in an essay published after his death, that environmental philosophy
    must make sense to activists and “give them conceptual tools and arguments with
    which to fight ecological degradation.” Rothenberg is known for translating and
    editing some of the work of Arne Naess. The editors have an Introduction and
    Conclusion to this book of essays. They also give briefly their own comments on
    each of the writers whose essays are featured.

        Going to the mountains, the editors say, is a theme for Norwegian nature writers.
    Struggles over trying to stop the harnessing of  hydroelectric power for industrial
    growth have been crucial for activism and theory in this country. More recently,
    North Sea oil fields have been associated with Norway. Today the country has a
    population of about 4.5 million, with 25 percent in rural areas and 75 percent in
    urban areas. In the larger centers, the population is increasingly multi-cultural.
    Norway is the birthplace of Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology, and the home
    place of the nature writers in this volume, but it also represents something else. For
    environmental activists outside the country, it is also the nation which persists in
    commercial whaling; in the annual slaughter of harp and hooded seals  (along with
    Canada); and which is an exporter of its aquaculture feedlot model to the world.
    Norway has also given us Gro Harlem Brundtland, a social democrat, who was
    chairperson of the UN World Commission On Environment And Development ,
    which then produced the text Our Common Future. This propagated the mythology
    of so-called ‘sustainable development’ (in opposition to the ecological realism of
    “limits to growth”), the false idea that economic growth can continue along with the
    protection of the environment. This “shallow” environmental cry was taken up by
    governments and the business class everywhere. Unfortunately, the slogan was also
    taken up by too many in the mainstream environmental and green movements,
    including green parties, and throughout academia.

    Ideas of Sigmund Kvaløy and Discussion
       “Yes, I am more anthropocentric than Arne, and of course we have talked about it.
    He feels closer to animals that are far away from the human universe; it fascinates
    him very much, and one of my many personalities does feel the same way. But
    although it is important to have strong feelings about nature, we have to concentrate
    on the human society and the human being, otherwise everything we cherish will be
    destroyed. We have so little time.” (p.148)

        For Kvaløy, his work is seen as both for Nature and for people. Ecophilosophy is
    total engagement. Action is the teacher, not a university seminar. Environmental
    struggles are not about winning or losing particular battles, but they are about building
    a long term social base or movement. Environmental actions must not only be
    protests but must show an alternative and be rooted in the local people. Yet he does
    not believe that the activist needs a picture of the future society because there are a
    range of possibilities.

        Many of the drawn illustrations in this book are also by Kvaløy. The drawings are
    very interesting and revealing, and illustrate key aspects of a world view which sees
    all of us as heading to ecocatastrophe. These drawings sometimes contrast two
    defining types of society for this thinker - the current dominant Industrial Growth
    Society (IGS) for producing industrial articles, which has a pyramid and mechanical
    form and self destruction as a characteristic; to its opposite the Life Necessities
    Society (LNS) - an organic, complex society which furthers ecological and cultural
    growth and human creativity. Kvaløy wants us to stop acting as part of the
    “complicated” Industrial Growth Society - modern Western societies, where people
    are obligated to competitively fight each other. For this ecophilosopher, humans
    need meaningful work like they need food.

        I find Kvaløy has a sensitized, contemporary animistic sense of self and sees this
    as something needed for the ecological activist. This animism means that our own
    beings incorporate and reflect the world around us. We actually have multiple
    personalities, but the Industrial Growth Society conditions us to monocultures of the
    mind. Kvaløy promotes a contemporary animism where the individual is at one with
    nature and expresses and reads nature as a matter of course. What is being said, is
    that what a person is surrounded with, determines their thinking to a significant
    extent. In another version of the “Complexity and Time” essay, which I have read
    elsewhere, Kvaløy gives a wonderful example of the Polynesian navigator who
    steered across the Pacific responding with his or her body or senses, to the stars,  the
    swells, ocean currents, the depth of the ocean as shown by the colour of the sea, the
    flight path of birds telling of nearby islands, how ocean swells were reflected by
    islands, etc. One of the ink drawings in the book contrasts two bedrooms (p.138) -
    his own, which is simple and austere, compared to his son’s, with all the images of
    youth consumer culture on its walls. Thus the “culture” propagated by the Industrial
    Growth Society surrounds us and helps to socialize us into accepting it, unless we
    draw some defining lines.

    Tension within deep ecology
        Left biocentrists like myself, who believe that much in Marx is valuable, have not
    tended to see Marxism as a strong contributing current to the ecological synthesis
    which we are trying to orient towards. I personally have welcomed the ongoing
    historical materialist critique of capitalist society, the human social justice
    contributions coming out of the socialist and communist social movements, and the
    focus on changing this world. However, it seems that most previous discussions
    have focussed, perhaps rightly, around how Marx and Marxists view Nature - did
    Marx recognize the intrinsic value of the natural world or did he view this world
    instrumentally, etc. By this focus, I believe we have neglected the force driving
    SOCIAL change in Marx, that is the class struggle, or more generally social conflict
    within society. Perhaps the mantra of “non violence” which runs throughout deep
    ecology, has led to an emphasis on social harmony, rather than conflict, as
    underlying social change within industrial capitalist society. But according to
    Sigmund Kvaløy, the conflict model of social change should guide ecocentric greens
    and environmentalists. As he says, “I’m all for polarization. That’s the only way we
    get deeper discussions.” (p.150) For Kvaløy, this model draws from Marx and
    Gandhi for its intellectual legitimacy. (His acceptance of “non violence” can include
    the use of dynamite to remove dams blocking rivers in Norway. This is perhaps in
    keeping with how ecotage has come to be interpreted in North America in the Earth
    First! movement.)

            It is not slighting Naess to say that Kvaløy is considered Norway’s main
    environmental activist, as the editors of Wisdom In The Open Air say. In my
    sympathetic review of Ecology, community and lifestyle (see CNS, Volume 4(4),
    Issue Sixteen, December 1993), I criticized how Naess interpreted Gandhi for
    environmental activists engaged in actual struggles. Naess stressed Gandhi as
    advocating talking with the opponent (enemy?), absolute commitment to non
    violence, embracement of legality, etc. Naess claimed: “It is a central norm of
    the Gandhian approach to ‘maximise contact with your opponent!’” I noted in
    my review that it seemed there were no enemies, only misguided people for
    Naess, and how simple-minded this approach appeared from a left wing perspective.
    Kvaløy, with his stress on conflict in social change, would not agree with this
    turn-the-other cheek interpretation of Gandhi. Kvaløy says Gandhi teaches:
    “Man’s most important source of insight and wisdom is located in social conflict
    where central human values are at stake.” (p.128)

        Others who have been influenced by Marxism are deep ecology theorists like
    Andrew McLaughlin (see his 1993 book, Regarding Nature: Industrialism and
    Deep Ecology
) and Frederick Bender (see his 2003 text, The Culture Of
    Extinction: Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology
). Rudolf Bahro, who has
    strongly influenced left biocentrism, was nurtured on Marxism. Richard Sylvan,
    the late deep ecology Australian theorist and forestry activist, an anarchist and
    anti-capitalist, also had a large influence on left biocentrism. In the 1994 book
    (with David Bennet), The Greening of Ethics, Sylvan said that all forms of existing
    socialism are anthropocentric and false alternatives and that a new socialism, which
    he said had yet to be “theoretically forged”, was needed which would cohere with
    deep ecological principles. Sylvan also noted in the same book, that “deep
    environmental groups should begin to prepare, carefully and thoroughly, for
    revolutionary action.”

        Arne Naess himself is sympathetic yet critical in his attitude towards socialism. He
    notes in Wisdom In The Open Air that: “Green politics supports the elimination of
    class differences locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.” (p.91) Naess brings a
    class perspective into his writing. Yet this “revolutionary” perspective is rarely seen
    in mainstream North American deep ecology writing. Bill Devall, for example,
    misleadingly reminds us in a published essay called “Deep Ecology and Political
that “Political revolution is not part of the vocabulary of supporters of the
    deep, long-range ecology movement.” (See Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist
, p.386.)  For those of us outside of Norway who are anti-
    capitalist and support the deep ecology philosophy, and link this to concrete action,
    the ideas of Kvaløy, who takes Marxism very seriously, deserve attention. These
    ideas can feed into an already existing deep ecology constituency or social base for
    ecocentric thinking seen in the theoretical tendency left biocentrism, which is open
    to Marxist influence where it is relevant.

        I do not consider it unfair to say that mainstream deep ecology, as interpreted by
    many of its academic proponents, has become stalled as a force in changing the
    industrial capitalist world. Those academics who mainly define it through books and
    by journal articles, seem oblivious to the practical application of deep ecology in
    actual struggles in the environmental and green movements.

        I am sure Sigmund Kvaløy would identify with the left biocentric tendency in the
    deep ecology movement. This is a tendency which sees that deep ecology must be
    applied to actual environmental issues, no matter how socially sensitive. And that
    being concerned about social justice is essential for implementing an ecocentric
    society which will be anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, what Kvaløy would
    characterize as a Life Necessities Society.

        I believe it is essential, in order to reinvigorate deep ecology, that the conflict
    perspective of social change be brought to the foreground. Also, in the green
    movement and in its electoral manifestation, it is conflict, not social harmony which
    needs to basically orient our approach to changing this world, away from the
    ecological death course which we are on. Sigmund Kvaløy has much to teach us.
    Reading Wisdom In The Open Air: The Norwegian Roots Of Deep Ecology is
    a good place to start.

    October, 2005

    Acknowledgments: Thanks to Doug Tompkins who first brought Sigmund Kvaløy to my attention
    and lobbied hard for the importance of his ideas. Thanks also to David Rothenberg who kindly sent
    me a copy of this text.


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