Deep  Ecology  and  Criticism

by David Orton                             

                    Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy
                    edited by Nina Witoszek and Andrew Brennan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,
                    United States, 1999, 492 pages, paperback, ISBN: 0-8476-8929-8.

            "The movement is not mainly one of professional philosophers and other academic specialists,
             but of a large public in many countries and cultures."  (Naess, p. 166)

            "I assume that it is not a bad thing that nearly all supporters of the deep ecology movement
             are likely to believe that they have found some truths."  (Naess, p. 446)

            I first came across a reference to this book of articles several months ago, even though the book itself was
        published in 1999. It is a polemical book, interesting and worthwhile to read, for the supporters of this
        philosophy open to considering dissenting views. There are about 30 contributors to the book, and 24 of the
        55 articles are by Arne Naess himself or co-authored by him. What makes this book very interesting is that
        Naess, as well as outlining some of the basic ideas of deep ecology, also directly responds to criticisms raised
        by other essayists in Philosophical Dialogues. I find this allows Naess's all-sidedness to be well displayed in
        countering sometimes misleading interpretations of deep ecology, but it also deepens discussions. This method
        of responding brings out what he calls his "Pyrrhonic" skepticism: "You cannot ever be sure that the whole
        truth is on your side rather than that of your opponent."
(p. 445)

            I think my general unawareness about Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of
is shared by many. This review, as well as being a contribution to making the availability of this
        book more widely known, will discuss some themes of interest to the writer and the deep ecology movement
        which this book can serve to bring into consciousness. I will not therefore deal in my review with the
        contributions of most of the 30 authors to these Dialogues. These include well-known names such as Alfred
        Ayer, John Clark, Baird Callicott, Val Plumwood, Ariel Salleh, Karen Warren, Bill Devall, Richard Watson,
        Kirkpatrick Sale and Andrew McLaughlin, and other names not known to me, e.g. Fons Elders, Paul
        Feyerabend and Genevieve Lloyd.

            The book is divided into five main sections:          
            Part I.  Philosophical Systems And Systems Of Philosophy
            Part II.  Deep Ecology: Norms, Premises, And Intuitions
            Part III.  Schisms: Mountains Or Molehills?
            Part IV.  Deep Ecology And Environmental Policy
            Part V.  The Philosopher At Home

            The book has a distinctly "critical edge" feel about it. It also has a "Norwegian" ambience, with a number
        of the articles being written by those associated with Oslo University in Norway. The context of some of the
        discussions takes the intellectual culture of Naess's home country for granted. So the book, thankfully, does
        not consider the United States as the center of the deep ecology universe.

            The title of this book review, Deep Ecology and Criticism, is meant to encompass both "external criticism"
        of deep ecology by those hostile or in opposition to this philosophy, significantly represented in this book,
        e.g. social ecologist Murray Bookchin, and Ramachandra Guha who has put forth his views in the name of
        the Third World; and "internal criticism" within a broadly defined deep ecology. Internal critics are those open
        to dissenting views - they look critically but basically identify with this philosophy. One of the two editors of
        Philosophical Dialogues, Nina Witoszek, could be surprisingly seen as an external critic of deep ecology.
        She notes in the Preface to the book: "This volume, although celebratory, is not a piece of hagiography."
        But Witoszek, in her essay "Arne Naess and the Norwegian Nature Tradition", hardly falls into the
        celebratory, let alone the "sainthood" camp. I find her writing about Naess has a put-down tone:
        "...consistency is, for Naess, as for Oscar Wilde, ultimately the last refuge of the unimaginative." (p. 459)

            Internal critics of deep ecology generally would encompass the late well-known Australian forestry activist,
        deep ecologist and "Deep Green" theorist Richard Sylvan (who is not in the book) and left biocentrists like
        myself. An example of an internal critic in this book, from my perspective, would be the ecofeminist Patsy
        Hallen. She is based in Australia, and in her article "The Ecofeminism-Deep Ecology Dialogue," notes
        Naess's basic support for ecofeminism, while summarizing 18 ecofeminist criticisms of deep ecology (and
        11 deep ecology criticisms of ecofeminism). Hallen has the view "that deep ecology and ecofeminism can
        complement each other."
(p. 275)

            Personally I find that the language used in intellectual exchanges is very important. The intemperate and
        divisive language used  in this book by Murray Bookchin, in his well known 1987 essay, "Social Ecology
        versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,"
is hard to overcome. Bookchin
        correctly points out that deep ecology evades "the social roots of the ecological crisis." (p. 289) Like
        Naess, I consider both social and deep ecology theory to be revolutionary. (p. 469) When this essay first
        came out and I read it, one metaphor has permanently remained with me, where the wonderful US folk
        singer Woody Guthrie is dismissed as "a Communist Party centralist" by Bookchin. (p. 286)

            Ramachandra Guha has his well-known 1989 essay "Radical American Environmentalism and
        Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique"
also published in this volume. This essay tends to the
        Bookchin style of language use, yet deals with a very important issue for all of us who identify with ecocentrism.
        Guha is, apparently, favoured by the editors and given an unanswered "Postscript" to conclude the book,
        called "Radical American Environmentalism Revisited". The following quote is from this totally human-
        centered author, who generally misrepresents deep ecology and has no compunction in displaying his bile
        towards this philosophy. Guha falsely claims "unspoiled wilderness" as the deep ecology value (p. 314), and
        says that this philosophy "is uniquely American." (p. 314) Here is a quote taken from the Postscript article:
        "Specious nonsense about the equal rights of all species hides the plain fact that green imperialists are
        possibly as dangerous and certainly more hypocritical than their economic or religious counterparts."

        (p. 477)

            Naess denies and repudiates Guha's argument. He points out that deep ecology supporters have to also be
        concerned about what he calls "free nature":
            "In Europe the term ‘free nature' is more important than ‘wilderness' and it is increasingly used
            when discussing very large parts of the Third World. The difference between the two terms is that
            ‘free nature' is compatible with human habitation, provided that this habitation is in no way
(p. 327)

            As one can see, this has nothing to do with evicting people from the lands they occupy, to create parks or
        wilderness areas. "Extended compassion" towards all species, including humans, motivates deep ecology
        supporters. Naess explicitly says that to use coercion is a form of "neo-colonialism." (pp. 327-332)  Naess
        also goes on to outline the important concept of "mixed community" which seems to have been defined out
        of experiences in Norway with shepherds, sheep, wolves and bears and, for Naess, is applicable to the
        Third World. He also makes the profound observation, in discussing a reduction of consumption in Norway
        and North America, how our own ecological lifestyles must be regarded as models for everyone:
            "We must live at a level that we seriously can wish others to attain, not at a level that requires the
        bulk of humanity NOT to reach."
(p. 224)

            While one can identify with the basic sentiment and radicalism expressed by some critics, I find negative
        put-down language makes it often hard to pay attention to what is being said. It always seems to me to be
        an attempt to show the particular writer using such language as some kind of superior being. This occurs
        with the writings of some social ecologists and some ecofeminists. Naess himself brings a tolerance towards
        others in his writings which has rubbed off to some extent on other deep ecology supporters. These
        supporters interpret the slogan "the front is long" rightly as an inclusive call, that all of us have contributions
        to make. But this same slogan can curiously serve as a damper to needed criticism within the ranks of deep
        ecology supporters, helping the toleration of nonsense.

            Two examples of negative language, both by ecofeminists from the book are given below:
            "...if deep ecologists failed to shrug off their conditioning as white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-
        professional property holders..."
(Salleh, p. 240)
            "Those activities most often associated with Earth First! in the United States, such as tree-spiking,
         are indeed the expressions of male-gender, middle-or upper-class, typically white and Western
(Warren, p. 258)

        Academic bias
            This book has the usual deep ecology "academic" bias. This bias, familiar in books and academic journals
        which discuss deep ecology, for example the Canadian journal The Trumpeter, seem to work from the
        assumption that deep ecology is overwhelmingly confined to the academy. This is contrary to the spirit of
        Arne Naess himself, as can be seen by one of the quotations above given with the basic book information.
        (This despite the reference by Naess to the "15-20 theorists of deep ecology" [p. 273] which helps convey,
        I believe, a misleading elitist image of the development of this theory.)

            This book of essays raises once again a fundamental question that I have sought an answer to since first
        embracing deep ecology in the mid 80s: "How should deep ecology theory/philosophy critically develop or
        unfold, as it becomes an influential component of the environmental and green movements for social change?"
        How, for example, can the well-known and influential eight-point Deep Ecology Platform, drawn up by
        Naess and George Sessions, collectively change, now that it has become embedded in the consciousness of
        so many people? The Platform has moved far beyond any alleged ‘proprietary' responsibility for its evolution.
        These are important concerns, responding to the second quotation given with the book information, for
        supporters of deep ecology, who truly believe, like myself, that within this ecophilosophy "they have found
        some truths." Peter Reed, who died in an avalanche in Norway, notes in his essay:
            "If environmental philosophy is going to be useful in the environmental movement, it has to make
        sense to activists; it must give them conceptual tools and arguments with which to fight ecological
(p. 194)

            Or in the words of Naess himself:
            "Environmentalism is a form of activism, passionately concerned not only with life conditions today,
        but with the state of the planet several generations from now."
(p. 98)

            Deep ecology publications, both journals and books, need to be much more biased towards meeting the
        theoretical concerns of movement activists, and not towards academic concerns, with their "peer reviews"
        and the legitimacy and respectability (and funding demands) of the academy. The theoretical tendency of left
        biocentrism, with which I am involved, and which functions somewhat as a left wing within the deep ecology
        movement, has had a lively and critical internet discussion forum for over six years now. This internet
        community brings together both academics and non academics, women and men. A basic guideline is respect
        towards each other and no flaming.

            There is something very wrong when a small group of deep ecology theorists, closely tied to the academy,
        and booksellers producing ecophilosophy texts for the undergraduate market, decide which issues are to be
        raised, discussed, and published. Deep ecology has become influential in the environmental and green
        movements. But there seem to be few forums where the concerns of these movements and their activists can
        be raised within a context of applying deep ecology philosophy. This is, I believe, what is urgently needed for
        real progress in ecophilosophy. It will also serve to live up to Naess's belief that deep ecology should not be a
        sect. (p. 146)

October 2, 2003                       

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