My Path to Left Biocentrism:
Part I - The Theory
by David Orton
(Bulletins #63 and #64 are dedicated to the memory of Richard Sylvan,
the brilliant and iconoclastic Australian deep ecologist, teacher and forestry
activist, who died in 1996. I first made contact with him in 1987. Richard's
critical thinking, which he called "deep green theory", ruffled many feathers
in the deep ecology mainstream but was inspirational to me personally - and
for the conceptualization of a left biocentric position within the deep ecology
Gaining more understanding of the wonders of the natural world and practical involvement in defending the Earth, opens one's eyes to a more biocentric world view. The shift in individual consciousness from a human-centered world view to that of the non-human centered deep ecology philosophy, is always highly personal. The more the identification with Nature, the more we care what happens to it. The historic contribution of deep ecology is addressing the philosophical task of working out a new non-human centered relationship for humans with the Earth.
"My Path to Left Biocentrism" has been written as an introduction to this evolving theoretical tendency within the deep ecology movement. It reflects the collective networking experiences, the practical work and perspective of the Green Web, and also my own views. It is also indebted to the thinking of others who have explored what a left focus in deep ecology means. There are a number of Green Web bulletins, book reviews and articles which discuss various left biocentric-related theoretical questions - the focus being the relationship to deep ecology; and there are also bulletins discussing practical applications of deep ecology to particular issues, some of them sensitive, e.g. the ecological evaluation of the Left, and assessment of environmental/indigenous contradictions. (1) Left biocentrism draws from this theoretical and practical fusion.
"Left" as used in left biocentrism, means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist. Thus some left biocentrists consider themselves socialists, as I do myself, while others do not. All left biocentrists address and are concerned with social justice issues in society. They do however place such issues within a context of ecological values.
The Green Web uses the expressions "left biocentrism" or "left ecocentrism" interchangeably. Biocentrism or life-centered is a more popular movement term. Ecocentrism is more comprehensive and "scientific", in that it includes the physical earth as well as plant and animal life forms. We prefer to use left biocentrism. But we do use it in the more inclusive sense to include the physical earth.
In an earlier period I used the term "socialist biocentrism",
but I no longer use this expression. I now see "socialism" as too exclusionary
towards others who do not see themselves as socialists, and too forgiving
towards the anti-ecological characteristics of this important human-centered
The following thinkers have been particularly important for a new, left biocentric synthesis of ideas: the writings of the Norwegian founder of deep ecology Arne Naess; the Australian forestry activist, deep ecologist, and critic of the philosophical fuzziness of deep ecology, Richard Sylvan (1935- 1996); the Left German eco-philosopher and green movement activist Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997), whose life and writings show the torment and transition in his evolution from Red to Green; the radical ecocentrism of the American deep ecology philosopher, socialist and bioregionalist Andrew McLaughlin; and the young Canadian activist and thinker Ken Wu. (2)
Other key writers for a left biocentric synthesis are:
Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac); John Livingston (The Fallacy
of Wildlife Conservation and Rogue Primate); Andrew Dobson, (Green
Political Thought); Saral Sarkar (Green-Alternative Politics in West
Germany, two volumes); David Johns ("The Practical Relevance of Deep
Ecology," Wild Earth, Summer 1992) (3); and George Sessions
(Deep Ecology For The 21st Century).
The Green Web
The search for an appropriate organizational form in which to work ended in 1988, with the establishment of the Green Web. By researching and publishing bulletins through the Green Web, I eventually began writing from a left biocentric perspective. (4)
Looking back at my twenty years of involvement in the environmental movement, it seems that a primary concern has been to raise "alternative visions" as a contribution to the public debate taking place around the particular environmental issues, such as biocides, forestry, 'sustainable development', protected areas, indigenous issues, natural gas. While such visions need a detailed knowledge of an issue, to develop an alternative vision means going beyond the practical knowledge, which often the Earth destroyers have had a monopoly of. It is these alternative visions, which reject the existing taken-for-granted industrial order, that are so threatening to corporations, governments and the "wise use" groups. We have seen this by corporate and "wise use" attacks on the work of the Green Web.
Once I became aware of the deep ecology philosophy, in the mid-80s, I saw that there was a real, hopeful, non-human centered alternative to the destructiveness of industrial capitalist society. One still required the detailed knowledge of the issues, but deep ecology helped to focus and raise the questions to ask. Many times I have been at meetings designed primarily to obtain the public's approval for an environmentally destructive project. Usually there is a "consensus" within which any controversy takes place. Someone informed by deep ecology, and with a detailed knowledge of the particular issue, can shatter the consensus and open up a real discussion. Others present can then participate in this discussion, which is subversive to the taken-for-granted industrial order.
Raising alternative ecological and social visions to
those peddled by industrial society, is of fundamental importance. Circulating
such visions within society, in any public way, is extremely difficult.
Relationship with Mainstream Environmentalists
The Canadian federal government provides government funding to the Canadian Environmental Network (CEN). Each province and territory has a provincial branch of the CEN. In our province it is called the Nova Scotia Environmental Network. Sometimes the provinces supplement in some way these federal funds. The CEN is a "non-advocacy" network as this is a condition of the funding it receives from the federal government. The CEN cannot take stands on environmental issues, but member groups of this network can. Those who work in this network mainly accept the existence of industrial society, and working with governments and capitalist industry. The participation of environmentalists through the CEN, gives an environmental legitimacy to the existing industrial situation. Alternative visions do not usually come from the ranks of the CEN, which in Naess's terms, are promoting shallow ecology. (5)
Deciding what attitude to take towards the CEN is a problem. Basically I work with individual members of the CEN on environmental issues of mutual interests, but without joining this network. While doing this, I have continued to raise the necessity for an environmental movement that is not government or corporate funded. The existence of the CEN helps inhibits the emergence of a grass-roots controlled and funded, more radical environmental movement in Canada.
Here in Nova Scotia, most people who become involved
fighting on environmental issues, are outside the CEN and rural based. They
respond to "not in my backyard" situations. This is easily the most powerful
part of the environmental opposition but it lacks staying power.
There is an internet discussion group called "left bio", where some of the ideas in this paper have been critically discussed. The term "left bio", an abbreviation for left biocentrism, is frequently used in this discussion group. As a short hand, and at the most general level, left bio as used in this group means support for an ecocentric/biocentric outlook and a concern for social justice. So left bios would support the maintenance of biodiversity, oppose economic growth and increasing consumerism, support population reduction and redistribution of wealth, etc. While generally sharing these goals, people in this internet discussion group, as in the deep ecology movement, can differ on how to achieve these ends.
Continuities of Left Biocentrism with Deep Ecology
The main driving force of the Deep Ecology movement,
as compared with the rest
of the ecological movement, is that of identification and solidarity with all life.
Arne Naess (6)
In the early 70s Arne Naess made the distinction between "deep" and "shallow" ecology, in the now famous article "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary." (7) Naess says that the publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962, roughly marks the beginning of the international long-range deep ecology movement.
Deep ecology (DE) says major ecological problems cannot be resolved within the existing capitalist or socialist industrial economic system. Shallow ecology says that these problems can be resolved within, and with the continuation of industrial society. Yet it is this industrial society that has caused the Earth-threatening ecological crisis.
The eight-point deep ecology Platform drafted by Arne Naess and George Sessions is accepted by left biocentrists as a basis of unity within the deep ecology movement. Andrew McLaughlin has called the Platform the "heart of deep ecology". DE promotes biological, cultural, and social diversity. Respect for diversity avoids dogmatism in ideas and organizational forms and the elevation of ideas above life itself. Naess speaks of a personal DE being "an intuition." By this he means it cannot be solely logically derived.
The soul of deep ecology is the belief that there has
to be a fundamental change in consciousness for humans, in how they relate
to the natural world. This requires a change from a human-centered to an
ecocentric perspective, meaning humans as a species have no superior status
in Nature. All other species have a right to exist, irrespective of their
usefulness to the human species or human societies. Humans cannot presume
dominance over all non-human species, and see Nature as a "resource" for
human and corporate utilization.
Discontinuities of Left Biocentrism with Deep Ecology
The deep ecology movement carries an excessive amount
of rubbish with it (in
contravention, so to say, of its own platform). That does not imply that there is
not a clean sound position to be discerned when the often inessential rubbish is
removed... Richard Sylvan (8)
Discontinuities illustrate theoretical differences and criticisms, which differentiate left biocentrism from some views within mainstream deep ecology.
Richard Sylvan, in his daring 1985 article "A Critique Of Deep Ecology", spoke of deep ecology as being a "conceptual bog" that was "well on the way to becoming all things to all interested parties." Thankfully there is now the eight-point deep ecology Platform as a relatively uncomplicated basis of unity. However, real life is rather more complicated. Other ideas of Naess, such as self-realization and the non-violence/Gandhian approach to organizing, become stressed as crucial components, by some who have appointed themselves as deep ecology interpreters or gatekeepers.
How does a philosophy or theoretical outlook remain an evolving life force and not be reduced to a Platform catechism? What is the room for variance? How do deep ecology ideas evolve? Who "owns" the eight-point Platform, originally drafted by Naess and the U.S. deep ecologist George Sessions, after it becomes embedded in the radical environmental movement? How can future changes to the Platform come about? What can one reject or accept in deep ecology and still be considered a follower of this philosophical position? Is acceptance, say of Gandhi's non-violence, which is part of Naess' thinking (but is not in the Platform), necessary to be considered a deep ecology supporter? How do we avoid contributing to 'sainthood' and 'slavishness' within deep ecology?
All the above are important questions for supporters of deep ecology. I find Naess sophisticated and illuminating in his thinking. But he is also often ambiguous, difficult to understand and sometimes wrong in his prescriptions for the way forward. Naess, who is now in his 80s, is often a diluter of the deep ecology position, whenever a conflict in the actual world arises.
The content of deep ecology is open to different interpretations, and ambiguity seems almost built in. There is an unwillingness, or extreme reluctance by many deep ecology thinkers/writers, to publicly discuss contradictory or confusing views which have been put forth within deep ecology. Also there is an unwillingness to apply the deep ecology philosophy to controversial issues in order to provide some guidelines for activists in dealing with such issues.
An example of ambiguity on a fundamental issue, is that
Naess has promoted sustainable development in several articles (9), yet in
correspondence to me (10), he has denied endorsing it. He has also argued
forcefully against an economic philosophy of zero growth: "There is no economic
philosophy of zero growth." (11) There are other deep ecology writers who
have written against sustainable development. But because of the writings
of Naess on sustainable development, there is quite a lot of ambiguity.
A good example of this ambiguity and confusion in deep ecology, is the Australian Warwick Fox, with his 1990 book Toward A Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations For Environmentalism. (12) Fox argues in his search for "New Foundations," that deep ecology should now be renamed and refocused as "transpersonal ecology". For him self-realization, the expansion of personal consciousness to include the well-being of the Earth, is the essence of deep ecology.
But it is difficult to see the place of collective activism with Fox's "New Foundations." Also, self- realization is not part of the eight-point Platform, even though it is given prominence in Naess's own writings.
Left biocentrism considers self-realization an important
concept in deep ecology. Expanding one's sense of self so that it comes to
encompass the natural world also provides a needed spiritual root for radical
activism. Identification with the natural world is of enormous importance
and self-realization addresses this. However, Fox puts self-realization forward
as a kind of litmus test, of who is and who is not a deep ecologist. This
undermines the unifying nature of the eight-point deep ecology Platform, as
a common reference for movement activists.
It is the activists organizing in the name of deep ecology who have to defend the various texts. Another book that activists were forced to defend was Deep Ecology by Devall and Sessions, which came out in 1985. For several years this was the basic anthology of deep ecology writings. A belated confession by one of the authors, George Sessions in his 1995 anthology, Deep Ecology For The 21st Century, says the earlier book "had serious flaws, both substantive and stylistic, from its inception and is now theoretically out of date in many respects." A footnote to this statement, points out that this book was produced in a rush over a two- week period because of a publisher's demands to beat out another book with the same title. What a betrayal of everything that deep ecology stands for! (13)
There is no accountability by deep ecology academics for what they write, to movement activists in the trenches. There is no accountability for proposed changes in the eight-point deep ecology Platform to the deep ecology movement. For example, David Rothenberg who has been a translator and interpreter of Naess, claimed in his book Conversations with Arne Naess: Is It Painful to Think?, that Naess had wanted to include support for sustainable development in the eight-point Platform. (14)
Anthologies of deep ecology writings reflect an academic bias, in their selection of authors for printing. Also such anthologies show very few practical applications of deep ecology to real environmental problems.
A fundamental assumption which seems to permeate mainstream
deep ecology, is that ideas are enough to bring about social change in our
relationship to Nature. This can be called the "educational fallacy". It
completely fails to deal with class and power relationships in industrial
capitalist society. We must not forget the role of society in creating lifestyles
and ecological destruction.
Ecology, Community and Lifestyle is at present the best single introduction to the ideas of Arne Naess. (15) In this book, Naess comes through as sympathetic to socialism. Naess considers class restrictions as limitations for the possibilities of self-realization by individuals. He notes that Green politics wants the elimination of class differences locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
However, with a few exceptions, deep ecology writers,
including Naess, have paid little attention to defining a relationship to
the Left. This has been part of the work taken up by left biocentrists. Writers
like Rudolf Bahro and Andrew McLaughlin have made important theoretical contributions
to understanding this relationship.
Social Ecology, Eco-Feminism and Eco-Marxism
These three positions have in common that they are all human-centered and consider human-to- human relations within society to be more important and, in the final analysis, determine society's relationship to the natural world. Therefore the priorities for organizers from either of these three positions are social, not environmental, relationships. Left biocentrism believe that an egalitarian, non-sexist, non-discriminating society, which is a highly desirable goal, can still be exploitive towards the Earth. There is nothing inherently sexist, or racist within the inclusiveness of deep ecology. This inclusiveness holds up as an ideal the identification and the solidarity with all life.
It has been easy to pin a right wing label on deep ecology.
This is partly because of not defining a relationship to the Left and minimal
attention paid to social justice issues, as well as anti-Left bashing by
some deep ecology writers. Social ecology particularly benefited from this.
To be a "left green" was to be a supporter of social ecology! However, in
social ecology while there are social concerns, there is little ecology and
no awareness of the needed ecocentric consciousness change for a radical
Naess's position is that there is a necessary separation of the peace, social justice and ecology movements, but they are united under a Green movement umbrella. I believe this is wrong, further isolates the radical deep ecology movement and feeds a right wing image. This position contributes to making deep ecology seem uncaring about human issues. The view of the necessary separation of the movements, has been adopted by George Sessions, for example. He has been at the center of the deep ecology debate in North America.
I do not believe that the three movements listed have necessarily to be separate movements united under a green movement banner. Ecology must be primary, and if it is, one can be involved in peace/anti-war and social justice issues. Left biocentrism says that you must be involved in social justice issues as an environmental activist, but ecology is primary. At the same time, we must not turn ecological issues into social justice issues as is widely done in the environmental movement. Left biocentrists call such a position "social environmentalism". It is particularly prevalent in the context of environmental-indigenous relationships. (16)
(Printed in Feral: A Journal Towards Wildness, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1999.)
Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
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