Deep Ecology and The Green Movement

                                Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered
                                by Bill Devall and George Sessions
                                Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, 1985, 266 pages
                                Hardcover, ISBN 0-87905-158-2.

                Below is a letter to the “Circles of Correspondence”, of the former B.C. publication the
New Catalyst, concerning a book review of the above deep ecology text by Devall and
                Sessions. It was published in issue Number 6, Winter 1986/87. Both authors responded to
                my comments in subsequent issues of this publication. My letter was published under the
                title “Deep Ecology and The Green Movement.”

            I was pleased to see the review of  Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered by Joel Russ in
        the Fall 1986 issue. However, unlike Joel Russ, I believe the overall impact of the book by Bill Devall
        and George Sessions on the deep ecology/green movement in North America will be basically negative.
        At a time when we should be moving towards theoretical clarity this book will promote green mushiness.
        Deep Ecology will make it that much more difficult to arm the growing green movement with the theoretical
        weapons needed to outline a concrete and understandable vision of a new, non-exploitative relationship
        with Nature which recognizes no privileged status for the human species and which can gather wide public

            Deep Ecology is also an ethnocentric book and conveys the dominant impression that deep ecology is
        mainly an American philosophical movement. There is little real sense conveyed of the world dimensions of
        the deep ecology/green movement. There is also no awareness in this book of the responsibility of capitalist
        economic structures in North America for environmental degradation. There is no awareness of the major
        imperial role that America plays on a world scale of consuming the ‘resources’ of the planet and in the process
        polluting and destroying large segments of the world’s environment.

            For those trying to organize on a deep ecology/green basis in Canada, reading this book raises a number of
        issues which need to be addressed if we are to build any serious mass-based green movement in this country
        which will come to political power. Such a movement has yet to be built, despite the pathetic electoral postures
        of various so-called Green Parties. Such ‘parties’ only serve to grotesquely parody what has occurred in West

                For myself, reading Deep Ecology raises the following issues:
                1) The position put forward is that there is a necessary religious/spiritual/mystical component to deep
        ecology which is in some way opposed to rational and scientific thinking. Arne Naess, who is seen as the
        philosophical founder of deep ecology, is quoted on several occasions in the book as making this point:
        “The main point is that deep ecology has a religious component, fundamental intuitions that everyone must
        cultivate if he or she is to have a life based on values and not function like a computer.” (p. 76) Such a position
        is ultimately inexplicable and will serve to reduce deep ecology to cult standing and political impotence.

            2) How does a focus on ‘wilderness’ deal with the kind of situation that most rural people face who live in
        nature and whose main ecological concerns often centre on combatting the activities of others who look on
        nature solely as a ‘resource’ to be exploited for economic profit? Where I live in Nova Scotia, the enemy is
        pulpwood forestry and the environmental vandalism which is a consequence: clearcutting, destruction of
        wildlife habitat, massive insecticide and herbicide use. Often interfering with the mobilisation of opposition is
        the economic power of the forest industry over people’s lives.

            3) Deep ecology as presented, is basically seen from a non-urban, wilderness-oriented perspective. This
        viewpoint doesn’t address how the greening of urban society can take place.

            4) The book quotes Naess as calling for a world population of “no more than 100 million people.” (p. 76)
        Who is to be eliminated and on what basis?

            5) While one can subscribe to bioregionalism in principle, what does it mean to promote bioregions when
        setting these up could, given the existing political, economic and military realities, lead to the disappearance
        of Canada as a political and cultural entity? For example, to look at the Bay of Fundy marine ecosystem or
        the Acadian forests on the East Coast on a bioregional basis - which can be justified ecologically - could
        only facilitate the future absorption of this part of Canada by the American colossus.

            6) What does it mean, realistically, to put forward as unquestioned the statement: “...there is one overriding
        or basic norm of ecological resisting: non-violence.” (p. 198) Is nature non-violent? Is modern India a success
        story of the use of Gandhian non-violence? It seems to me that those who often assert their non-violence are
        essentially saying to the police, “Don’t repress us, we are harmless.” Most of us would, presumably, like to be
        non-violent. But to make non-violence an act of faith, can only mean shutting your eyes to the massive
        repression which will face any real green challenge to those who uphold that the non-human world is only raw
        material dedicated to the human purpose. Deep ecology is potentially subversive to the status quo and will, if it
        becomes a political force, be considered as such by the Canadian state and be dealt with accordingly.

            7) Devall and Sessions, as academics, seem to naively believe that the power of communicated ideas is
        sufficient in itself to bring about change: “If enough citizens cultivate their own ecological consciousness and act
        through the political process to inform managers and government agencies of the principles of deep ecology,
        some significant change in the direction of wise long-range management policies can be achieved.” Yet
        governments (federal and provincial/state) and corporations basically share the same philosophy and pursue
        the same capitalist economic interests. Therefore it is usually foolish to look to governments (or the court
        system) to significantly redress environmental damage.

            In conclusion, deep ecology in North America has to be rescued from the academics, notwithstanding any
        backpacking, rock climbing or mountaineering qualifications. As Marx, who was no ecologist, noted so long
        ago, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While Deep Ecology may
        indeed chart a path to the wilderness, to move forward theoretically, the green movement needs to ignore
        many of the prescriptions advanced by Devall and Sessions.

        David Orton, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

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 Last updated: January 9, 2005