Deep Ecology Perspectives                


            This article by David Orton appeared in Synthesis/Regeneration, a US
            magazine of Green Social Thought, issue #32, Fall 2003. It comes out of
            a number of talks in Nova Scotia, often to university students, about the
            importance of deep ecology, as well as showing some of its contradictions.

            My background is that of a Leftist, but since the late 70s environmental work has
        become my major focus in life. I worked first on forestry and wildlife issues in British
        Columbia but later moved across the country to Nova Scotia. I came to define myself
        as a “green” in 1983. For the last 20 years, I have been living with my family as simply
        as possible on an old hill farm, which has gone back to forest. From my values
        perspective, it seems to me to be a paradise, but we are surrounded by the ravages of
        industrial capitalist forestry.

            By 1985 I had accepted the philosophy of Deep Ecology and seen the importance
        of moving beyond the human-centered values of the social democratic, anarchist,
        communist, and socialist traditions, in order to express solidarity with all life, not just
        human life.

            I  began applying this philosophy in environmental and theoretical work: trying to
        understand what it means to “think like a mountain”, that is to extend one’s sense of
        self-identity so that it comes to include the well-being of the Earth. I believe Deep
        Ecology has captured what should be our relationship to the Natural world. Deep
        Ecology is part of the larger green movement -- the first social movement in history to
        advocate a lower material standard of living, from the perspective of industrial
        consumerism. Any honest presentation of this fundamental point means that green
        electoralism is a non starter.

        Left biocentrism
            My existential anguish on deep ecology comes not only from the real ambiguities
        and contradictions to be found within Deep Ecology but also from the fact that since
        the mid 80s I have been part of a theoretical tendency within Deep Ecology called
        “left biocentrism” or “left ecocentrism” (the two terms are used). Left biocentrism
        functions as a de facto “left wing” of the Deep Ecology movement, upholding its
        subversive potential and opposing any “accommodation” to industrial capitalist
        society. (See on our web site, the ten-point Left Biocentrism Primer, the end result
        of a protracted collective discussion in 1998, among a number of those who support
        left biocentrism and Deep Ecology.)

            There are others who have been on a similar left wing deep ecology path, under
        different names: for example, the “Deep Green Theory” of the late Richard Sylvan,
        the “Revolutionary Ecology” of the late Judi Bari, the “Radical Ecocentrism” of
        Andrew McLaughlin and the “Green Fundamentalism” of the late Rudolf Bahro.

             “Left” as used by left biocentrists (left bios) means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist
        but not necessarily socialist. Industrialism is seen as having a capitalist or a socialist face.
        Some left bios are socialist but others are not. All left bios support the eight-point Deep
        Ecology Platform drawn up by Arne Naess and George Sessions and see their work
        as endeavouring to strengthen the deep ecology movement. The “leftism” of left
        biocentrism is seen as a necessary concern with class issues and social justice, but this
        is subordinate to its biocentrism/ecocentrism.

             Left biocentrists oppose those who elevate social justice above the concerns of the
        Earth and all its many creatures. Animals and plants and the general ecosystem have to
        be treated on the same moral plane as humans. The labour theory of value implies that
        Nature has no value or worth, unless humans transform it through their labour. But for
        left bios, Nature has value in itself. Nature is the principal source of human wealth, not
        labour power. The positive ideas from the Left, which are still relevant, e.g. the concern
        for social justice, have to be part of the left biocentric synthesis of ideas.

            The activist and social ecology philosopher John Clark wrote in the third edition of
        the 2001 college reader, Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to
        Radical Ecology
, of what he sees as a “common ground” between social and Deep
        Ecology. Clark speaks positively of “the emergence of a ‘left biocentrism’ that
        combines a theoretical commitment to deep ecology with a radical decentralist,
        anticapitalist politics having much in common with social ecology.”

        Key deep ecology ideas
            Most people who are potentially sympathetic to Deep Ecology do not come to their
        position through “intellectual conversion”, that is through university lectures, Deep
        Ecology books, or by having some worked-out perfectly logical and consistent
        philosophical positions.

             Basically, Deep Ecology supporters identify with the Natural world and all its
        creatures; see this world is being destroyed and want to do something about it; and
        measure our own human concerns as important although fairly insignificant in comparison.
        Where Deep Ecology literature and talks can be very useful, is for those who already
        see themselves in some way as “thinking like mountains” based on their empirical

             Exposure to Deep Ecology ideas then presents a world view which suddenly makes
        sense. As one local seasoned environmental activist said several years ago, about coming
        in contact with Deep Ecology: “It’s everything I’ve ever believed in,” she replied, “but
        I never had the language before.” (Sharon Labchuk from Prince Edward Island, quoted
        in Tim Falconer’s 2001 book, Watchdogs and Gadflies: Activism From Marginal
        To Mainstream
, p.130.)

            The formulation of a provisional DE world view was first sketched out in a 1973
        document by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, “The Shallow and the Deep,
        Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary.”

             “Shallow” here means thinking that the major ecological problems can be resolved
        within and with the continuation of industrial capitalist society. Another term that I use for
        shallow would be “managerial environmentalism.”

             “Sustainable development” is for me the main contemporary ideology of shallow
        ecology. In his article, Naess defines the Shallow-Ecology movement:  “Fight against
        pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people
        in the developed countries.”

             “Deep” means to ask deeper questions and not stay on the surface in discussions
        and struggles. This deep orientation understands that industrial capitalist society has
        caused the Earth-threatening ecological crisis.

             Today what has been called the “heart of Deep Ecology” (Andrew McLaughlin)
        is the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform worked out by Naess and George Sessions
        in 1984. This Platform has received widespread acceptance by supporters of this
        philosophy. It is fairly abstract and does not tell activists what to do in specific
        situations, but it requires them to think it through for themselves.

             The Platform says all non human life forms have intrinsic value, not dependent on
        human purpose. The concept of “vital needs” is introduced but not defined. Marshall
        Sahlins, in his 1972 book Stone Age Economics, said: “There are two possible
        courses to affluence. Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or
        desiring little.” Desiring little is the DE path, which also means far less control by the
        industrial capitalist system over the individual. Consumer society, part of the illusory
        permanent growth machine, has entire industries devoted to expanding an individual’s
        needs and promoting them as “vital.” The DE Platform does not mention non-violence,
        which is important to some deep ecology supporters. The Platform emphasizes
        population reduction. DE supporters stress this is to be done without personal coercion.
        There is no mechanism for changing the Platform, or for further developing it.

            Deep Ecology is by its nature difficult to pin down and conceptualize and this seems to
        have been deliberately built into the philosophy. Naess maintains that precision and
        ambiguity are needed by the philosopher. This is done in part so that the follower of
        deep ecology has herself or himself an interpretative role to play:
              “To be a great philosopher seems to imply that you think precisely, but do
              not explain all the consequences of your ideas. That's what others will do
              if they have been inspired.”
Arne Naess, Is It Painful To Think? p. 98

            Some basic questions are, unfortunately, not dealt with by the DE Platform:

             Deep Ecology does not sufficiently address the "use" of Nature by humans. How
        ought we to "use" the world? What percentage of the planet should be permanently put
        aside for other life forms to continue evolving? What percentage for humans? What
        lifestyle? How many humans?

             Another problem that Deep Ecology does not give a view on, is the type of economy,
        or how we should relate to each other in the human social world.

            At this time, there is no new political or economic vision coming from within Deep
        Ecology. This philosophy stresses too much that "change" is individual, not collective or
        social. Deep Ecology can seem to suggest that only through individual consciousness
        raising and personal change will we move to a deep ecology-influenced world.

             There is a contention of ideas within Deep Ecology, with various theoretical
        tendencies, including that of left biocentrism. What the social, economic or political
        evolution of deep ecology will eventually be is yet to be determined.

            There are three key ideas from deep ecology which need to be highlighted:
        (1) non-human centeredness; (2) the necessity for a new spiritual relationship to Nature;
         and (3) opposition to the idea of “private property” in Nature.

             Humans do not have a privileged position. For me this is the central contribution of
        DE. As a species, we are just one member of a community of all beings. There is no
        belief in a hierarchy of organisms, with humans on top. Nature is not seen as a
        “resource” for human use. We should share the planet on a basis of equality with other
        life forms. Our everyday language is taken-for-granted human-centered. Here in Nova
        Scotia, for example, trees, fish, etc. are "resources” for human use. Industrial forestry
        considers insects as "pests”. Trees are described as “decadent” and “overmature”
        when they are considered past their prime from a human-use perspective. Morality just
        concerns “humans” in a human-centered universe.

             In order to try and turn around the ecological "Armageddon" and to prevent the
        ensuing social disaster, a profound transformation is required in our relationship to the
        Earth. This will include re-sacralizing Nature, so that we as societies come to see the
        Earth as alive and part of ourselves. A future Earth-centered society will need to be
        organized around an ecocentric morality that has an essential spiritual or sacred
        dimension and is not based on economics. Re-sacralizing the Earth is seen in DE as a
        concern with spirituality, not as establishing some new institutional religion. In order for
        industrial capitalism to commodify the Earth, its spirituality had to be undermined.
        Addressing this is one part of any serious green politics in the 21st century.

            The Earth owns us, we are its creatures. One species (humans)  cannot “own” Nature.
        These are just bizarre social conventions which need to be overturned. I have written
        about "usufruct use" instead of so-called private ownership of the Natural world. This
        means that there is the "right of use," but one is ultimately responsible and accountable to
        some form of ecocentric governance much wider than human society. Nature must
        remain a Commons and not be privatized.

            Whatever its contradictions, I believe that Deep Ecology does present the basic
        philosophy, incomplete as it is, to start sketching out alternative visions to those offered
        by the defenders of industrial capitalism. There is plenty of work for all of us to take up.

        (This article is also available in Russian at      

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 Last updated: December 19, 2004