Green Web Bulletin # 77


My Path to Left Biocentrism: Part VII                 


Notions of Self in the Age of Ecology            

                                                                                                                            David Orton  


                    “The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet - and we
                     don’t have such a mythology.”
                    Joseph Campbell, 1988, The Power of Myth, p. 22

                    “Only a fool would imagine himself as somehow exclusively a human being.”
                    Calvin Martin speaking about animistic hunter/gatherer societies In the Spirit of
the Earth, p. 18

                    “We need environmental ethics, but when people feel that they unselfishly give
up, or even sacrifice, their self-interests to show love for nature, this is probably,
in the long run, a treacherous basis for conservation. Through identification,
they may come to see that their own interests are served by conservation,
through genuine self-love, the love of a widened and deepened self.”
                    The Selected Works of Arne Naess, Volume X, p. 519


                    If we look at a picture of our planet from space, there are no national boundaries or
                visual categories differentiating the various political formations, religions, or cultural,
                ethnic or racial groups. There is ONE planet which we humans share as home, along
                with all the other species of life which need their habitat space to flourish. There are
                no in-groups or out-groups or “chosen people” from a planetary perspective. There
                are no fundamentalist believers or apostates. There are no capitalists or communists.
                There is no right wing or left wing. The planet is obviously the ultimate ground of being
                – our ultimate reference point, for all of us. (See in this regard A Manifesto for Earth
                by the late Stan Rowe and Ted Mosquin) How to change societal consciousness to a
                planetary ecological direction, in this time of ecological meltdown, is the question all
                of us, who can glimpse the future, face.

                    In the past, I have contrasted, from a deep ecology perspective, what I saw as the clash
                of strikingly different conceptions of self held by those who ride off-road vehicles like
                ATVs (all terrain vehicles) and snowmobiles, and by those of us who oppose their use
                in wild nature. At issue are competing visions of how humans relate to each other and to
                the natural world. This essay further explores what I understand by the term ‘self’ from
                a deep ecology and left biocentric perspective. This needs to be more fully articulated
                in order to counter the conceptions of ‘self’ being advanced which are compatible with
                globalization and the accompanying destruction of the planet. Environmental philosophy
                must make sense to activists, help them conceptually and assist them in their work as
                organizers with convincing arguments.

                    In Canada, the systems of belief by the informed and concerned sections of the public
                are increasingly at odds with views held by political and corporate elites. Corporate
                hucksterism overwhelms: consumption ads on TV and in the newspapers, internet spam
                and advertising, unsolicited commercial telephone calls and faxes, etc. Private space for
                contemplation becomes more and more difficult to obtain in a wired world that never
                stops expanding and intruding. Corporate elites talk global warming and “sustainability”
                but, by their actions – e.g. developing the Alberta tar sands as a US energy source, no
                matter the environmental and social costs to Canadians (we do not even have our own
                “national” energy grid in Canada), and through carbon dioxide climate change
                contributions – continue to facilitate the destruction of life as we have come to know it.
                Green halos are now obligatory for public figures, as is the language of environmentalism.


                    For example, in February of 2008 the Nova Scotia minister of the environment justified
                the killing of hundreds of grey seals at a wildlife sanctuary, Hay Island in Cape Breton, as
                done in the interests of protecting “biodiversity”, which should be translated as protecting
                commercial fish species sought by the fishing industry. These elites, firmly wedded to a
                human-dominance view of the natural world and a “growth” economy, will not
                acknowledge that people in Canada and other consumer societies have to learn to extend
                their sense of self-identity to include the well-being of the Earth and contract in a very
                major way their conspicuous consumption lifestyles. As contradictions continue to
                sharpen, for example, with climate change and the growing impact of “peak oil” on every
                aspect of industrial life, we are coming into a period of great social tension and a
                potentially revolutionary situation. Popular consciousness is becoming more enlightened
                in Canada and in other countries.

                    People will not, and should not, stand idly by in the face of a rapidly developing
                ecological and accompanying social holocaust, which intrinsically is part of the economic
                course we are on. For greens and environmentalists, this should be a time for boldness.
                It should not be a time for timidity and electoral Green Party eco-capitalist bromides,
                focused on attaining some parliamentary seats and soft-peddling the enormous changes
                we must deal with. Without some agreement on philosophical fundamentals by any
                society, it is difficult to reach agreement on important practical issues. This is my basic
                concern in this bulletin. Issues like seriously trying to contain and slay the climate
                change dragon and to make the required necessary personal lifestyle changes will
                include coming to terms with new ecological and social conceptions of ‘self.’ Deep
                ecology and left biocentrism have something to contribute to this.

                    This bulletin is part of the series of “My Path to Left Biocentrism” bulletins. I would
                like to emphasize that it is MY path, others who support left biocentrism will have
                taken other paths. This essay has as its main task to further outline and to raise into
                consciousness how I believe most left biocentrists have come to define ‘self.’ This
                concept has been discussed intermittently in other bulletins and articles by me, but
                until now has not been the central focus for an exposition.


                    Left biocentrism has been unfolding theoretically and practically within deep
                ecology since the mid 1980s. This means there is now some twenty years to draw
                upon, of working with this perspective and applying it practically to environmental
                and green issues. (See the Green Web Literature list for one summation of this work.)
                This left biocentric work includes having a number of Canadian left bios working
                within green parties both at the federal and provincial levels. It is perhaps time to
                assess such electoral work. There are now many articles outlining left biocentric
                ideas and their application to environmental and green issues, both theoretical and
                practical, available on the internet. An internet “left bio” discussion group and
                social base, drawing from a number of different countries, but with a Canadian
                predominance, has been in existence for about ten years. The discussion group has
                provided a forum for a needed critical exchange of contending ideas.


                    The late Joseph Campbell, in his 1988 book The Power of Myth, argued that
                there are two quite different kinds of unifying mythologies. (I refer to mythology
                as a set of interconnected ideas, which purport to make sense of the world around
                us.) One kind of mythology links the individual to the natural world, the other is
                sociological, linking the individual to the social world and to a particular society.
                Civilizations normally have unifying myths. Such myths give “clues to the spiritual
                potentialities of the human life.” (p. 5) Campbell further argued that the Christian
                biblical tradition, with its doctrine of the Fall from the Garden of Eden, is a
                formerly dominant mythology which is socially oriented, where nature is essentially
                condemned. Woman in this Christian mythology is seen as corrupter, because it was
                Eve allegedly who handed Adam the apple. Moreover, “the biblical traditions of
                Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak with derogation of the so-called nature
                religions.” (p. 56) This conceptual perspective of “the Fall” is more encompassing
                than the familiar ecological critique of an anthropocentric (human-centered)
                Christianity which claims “dominion” over the Earth and all her creatures in the
                name of humankind, ultimately subordinate to a monotheistic deity.

                    Calvin Martin (see introductory quote), showed that the impact of Christianity on
                animistic indigenous cultures, which had existed for thousands of years, was to
                separate humans from all other life forms, because humans now had “souls” and
                were in a special or privileged, if subordinate, relationship to a deity. Humans
                now become the “top” species of life. The priest, as necessary part of the
                colonization of the world driven from Europe, not only goes hand-in-hand with
                the “explorer” and firearms but, more importantly, replaces the shaman as spiritual
                interpreter. In order for the Earth to become merely a collection of “resources” to
                be exploited without spiritual consent, its ‘innate’ spirituality had to be denied,
                taken away, and finally replaced by a Christianity, to bless this human-centered
                new exploitative attitude towards nature. Bringing back a new spiritual and
                animistic relationship to the Earth, where humans are not considered “superior”
                to all other life forms, is a vital component of any relevant Green politics today.
                A contemporary animism would perhaps mean seeing that all aspects of the Earth
                have self-worth and exist in their own right. This becomes, for the ecologically
                aware individual, part of her or his consciousness as a person.

                    What is needed, Campbell argues, is a mythology which identifies the individual
                with the planet: “The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the
                planet – and we don’t have such a mythology.” (p. 22). Campbell further points out,
                “You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according
                to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a
                manifestation of divinity ... (p. 99) A nature mythology should not be understood as
                seeking any kind of control over the natural world but “to help put yourself in accord
                with it.” (pp. 24-25) Campbell points out, “Animals are our equals at least, and
                sometimes our superiors.” (p. 75)

                The Self in Deep Ecology

                “The self to be realized is not the ego, but the large Self created when we identify
                    with all living creatures and ultimately with the whole universe...”
                    Arne Naess, Volume IX, Selected Works, p. 315.

                    “Academically speaking, what I am suggesting is the supremacy of environmental
                    ontology and realism over environmental ethics as a means of invigorating the
                    environmental movements in the years to come. If reality is as it is experienced by
                    the ecological self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows strict norms of
                    environmental ethics.”

                    Naess, Volume X,  Selected Works, p. 527.

                    “The supporters of the deep ecology movement are all over the world. A small
                    minority are from the universities, a tiny fraction are writing about these
                    matters, but our real strength is with those who don’t give lectures but who are
                    supporting the deep ecology movement in their lives. This movement started in
                    the early 1960s with people like Rachel Carson. Those people were not speaking
                    of cancer or of polluted air just because it was bad for humanity. They said, ‘It
                    cannot be done to the planet, it cannot be done to nature, it cannot be done to
                    the animals. It simply cannot be done.’ These pioneers had a vision of reality
                    that does not allow us to trample on natural life. Theirs was not a moral
                    impulse – and I have the feeling that moralizing is not a great force in this
                    world. So the ethics and the morals of environmentalism are of secondary
                    importance. What is important is to get people to see reality and our relation
                    to nature.”

                    Ibid, p. 16.

                    Traditionally, people defined themselves as social beings or, if religious, as having
                a self in terms of a relationship to a particular monotheistic deity as in Christianity,
                Islam and Judaism or to the more multiple gods to be found in other religions.
It was
                Arne Naess who came forward in the early 1970s to articulate that, in the age of ecology,
                individuals needed to define themselves as being part of the natural world. He called
                this an “intuition” and not something that could be logically or philosophically proven.
                This was a tremendous break through in how we think about ourselves. Naess
                developed a new vocabulary and politics for a deep ecology politics. He has a
                sophisticated economic, political and power analysis, and a class perspective. This
                was initially shown in the brief foundational article “The Shallow and the Deep,
                Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary”
which appeared in 1973. Naess
                says that humans are not the center of an ethical universe but other life forms,
                whether plant or animal, have their own intrinsic value which is not dependent upon
                humankind for validity. He explicitly stated “The earth does not belong to humans.”
                (Naess, Deep Ecology For The 21st Century, p. 74.)


                    This goes against the various human societies which have assigned “property rights”
                to the natural world. Nothing could be more subversive. Humans are just one life form
                among others, in many cultural varieties, and we are not on top of “evolution” with the
                freedom to do whatever we want with the rest of the natural world in the interest of
                our own species. But we do have the right to satisfy our “vital needs” as a species.
                So human thinking has to expand its ethical sense to become Earth-centered. As Aldo
                Leopold told us in his book of essays, The Sand County Almanac, published after his
                death in 1949, we humans have to think like mountains. Naess used the term
                “Self-realization” to convey this relationship to the natural world.

                    I have met and exchanged with quite a number of people who identify themselves as
                being part of Nature, were active change agents from this perspective, but who had not
                heard of deep ecology. My own experience in giving talks on deep ecology is similar
                to that of Naess. After a talk has finished, people may approach and say “deep ecology
                describes what I feel but I never had words to explain this before.” This shows to me
                that the ideas of Naess are not an intellectual concoction but correspond with existing,
                if minority, sentiments in industrial capitalist societies on how people view themselves.


                    As Naess acknowledges, Gandhi also used the concept of self-realization in a
                “closely related” manner (Selected Works, Vol. V, lxvi), where it is more a religious
                concept. Naess shows this in quoting Gandhi: “‘What I want to achieve, – what I have
                been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years, – is self-realization, to see God
                face to face, to attain Moksha.’” Selected Works, Vol. V, p. 28.

                    The use of the capital ‘S’ in Self-realization by Naess, is to describe a Planetary or
                Earth Self as opposed to the egotistical self, spelt with a small ‘s’. If a person achieves
                this consciousness, then Naess believes their behaviour will naturally be Earth-friendly.
                With Self-realization, the individual comes to see herself/himself in the other life form
                and this then comes to mean compassion and solidarity. Naess is also saying here that
                if we can think this way, then environmental ethics become secondary – or an
                environmental regulatory regime by a political body, to achieving this consciousness.
                It does not mean that environmental ethics or an environmental regulatory regime by a
                state are not important or needed, but that it is secondary to a transformation of
                societal consciousness. This is a very important guideline for deeper environmentalists
                and greens to grasp. The late Rudolf Bahro, a founding member of the German Green
                Party, when resigning in 1985, said it was the purpose of electoral politics for Greens,
                to capture consciousness among the public, not acquire votes and get Greens elected.
                He also said to withdraw from the industrial system means withdrawal “first of all
                within ourselves.” In other words the personal “self” must withdraw its allegiance.
                Individual transformation is fundamental for Bahro.

                Here in Canada there is barely a whisper of transforming societal or individual
                consciousness by electoral greens, except by a few deep ecology-inspired members.
                There is no discussion, for example, of the necessity to decrease material living
                standards in rich countries like Canada, to redistribute material wealth globally,
                and to reduce human populations. The total emphasis is on getting greens elected
                and to do this by sticking an “eco” before capitalism and promising the voting
                public a painless “tax-shifting” and “revenue-neutral” route to a supposed
                ecologically sustainable society. The perpetual growth and increasing consumption
                orientation of capitalism in Canada is swept under the electoral rug. So what we
                will have with the eventual election of green party MPs, will be “green” tokenism
                in the House of Commons. As Naess has noted: “The supporters of shallow ecology
                think that reforming human relations toward nature can be done within the existing
                structure of society.” Naess, Selected Works, Vol. X, p. 16.

                    My own experience, corroborated by others who are influenced by deep ecology
                and who have worked within green parties in Canada at the federal or provincial
                levels, is that a number of electoral greens who support shallow ecology, or whose
                self has not moved beyond the egotistical self, continually over-post on Green Party
                discussion lists, so as to swamp and wear down by attrition those who don’t agree
                with them, including deeper greens. Such people show no self-restraint. Quite a
                number of them are driven by personal ambition and not by an ecological politics
                of serving the Earth. I have come to believe that within the federal Green Party, for
                example, there is a philosophical divide between shallow and deeper greens which
                cannot be overcome. The shallower greens orient to what they believe will be seen
                as socially acceptable by the public, at the level of consciousness which currently
                exists, to gain seats in the House of Commons. A politics of “compromise” within
                the Green Party, in trying to decide on various policies to take to the electorate, can
                only mean that, overwhelmingly, deeper theoretical positions are rejected for even
                serious discussion purposes. Deeper Greens eventually become quiet or withdraw
                in despair.

                    One implication of Self-realization has been the intellectual understanding by
                myself and others that the left-right distinction, while not unimportant, is subordinate
                to people in industrial capitalist societies coming into a new relationship with the
                natural world. The left-right distinction is therefore secondary to the anthropocentric/
                deep ecology divide. This is quite hard for the Left to understand, because
                traditionally their focus has been on human-centered social justice. Yet ecocentric
                justice for all species is much more inclusive than human justice. It is important for
                deep ecology supporters to keep in mind that as Naess has noted “Ecology has a
                social justice side.” Vol. X, Selected Works, p. 574.

                    Deep ecology supporters and left biocentrists believe that we have no responsibility
                as a species to consciously “shape” evolution as outlined by the late social ecologist
                Murray Bookchin and further shown by Joel Kovel in his book The Enemy of Nature
(1st edition). According the Kovel,
humans are apparently more privileged and have
                additional responsibilities than other species. He says we have a special responsibility
                for “improving the globe” (p. 241) and guiding evolution: “An unalienated human
                intelligence is itself capable of fostering the evolution of nature even as it itself
                evolves.” (p. 108) This is hubris.

                    I have been working with the deep ecology philosophy for about twenty years. This
                has included working with others both practically and theoretically who also follow
                this philosophy. It has always struck me how deep ecology supporters who try to put this
                philosophy into practice unite with others voluntarily on a philosophical, not
                organizational basis. This is quite different from, say, a Marxist-Leninist organization,
                where a central committee decides and members are expected to only implement a
                decision. There is no “Whip” to keep deep ecology supporters on track, as in any
                bourgeois political party in the House of Commons. Deep ecology supporters who
                aspire to “Self-realization” are self-regulated. They have grasped the meaning of the
                slogan from Naess that “the front is long”, that all who support deep ecology can find
                their own work to do, as we work collectively to change the world.


                    There are people applying the philosophical ideas in practical self-motivated work
                and perhaps linked with deep ecology fellow travellers by friendship and discussion
                lists (as with the internet left bio discussion group). This is quite subversive for
                industrial capitalist society. Each deep ecology supporter who has grasped
                Self-realization, has a strong sense of place to which they orient, and is an independent
                center for revolutionary non-human centered ideas and practice. This is also an example
                of the “radical pluralism” that is advocated by Naess. People I know who are supporters
                of deep ecology, try to embed themselves in Nature to the extent they can. The problem
                becomes, how can this be achieved in an increasingly urbanized world? How can we
                counter the socialization to the world marketplace to which all are subjected?



                Council of All Beings

                    A successful example of the use of Self-realization as a practical organizing tool in
                trying to counter the socialization to this world marketplace in favour of the Earth, is
                its application in the Councils of All Beings teaching forums set up by deep ecology


                    I see these Councils as a vehicle for demonstrating Naess's concept of Self-realization,
                that our personal self needs to become expanded to the ecological Self. These Councils
                have come out of the deep ecology movement as a method to try and transcend
                anthropocentrism. My own introduction to a Council of All Beings was participation in
                one led by Andy McLaughlin (author of the 1993 publication Regarding Nature:
                Industrialism and Deep Ecology
) in Vermont, in 1988. Two of us from Nova Scotia
                went to Vermont and used the ideas upon returning to organize a Council-inspired
                demonstration against the use of wood chipping machines to destroy a spruce/fir forest
                at Spidell Hill in Colchester County. We had a funeral procession up this steep hill with
                flowers and crosses, and symbolically planted hardwood seeds where the softwood
                trees had been massacred. (For the pulpwood industry, hardwoods are generally
                considered "trash" species, so we saw planting hardwoods as a revolutionary statement
                at that time. Whether it was strictly ecologically correct is a deeper discussion.) There
                were over 60 people present, and the speeches were moving and from the heart.


                    The Councils of All Beings generally are often described as an attempt for the
                participants to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying. Various ideas/
                rituals have come into being to try and have participants thinking like mountains, or
                animals or plants. The rituals, decided upon by Council participants themselves, try
                to show our interconnections with Nature. This is done by adopting a non-human
                persona such as that of animals, plants, rocks, rivers, mountains, etc. and speaking to
                the negative impact of humans upon the persona chosen. Sometimes masks are made
                of the aspects of the natural world that the humans in the Council are trying to speak
                for and people speak through or behind the masks. So the animal or plant, or river or
                mountain, describes the impact of humans upon it and also, importantly, what this
                experience can teach humans. The Council is an empowering mechanism to turn
                despair into action while trying to go beyond anthropocentrism. Myself and other
                left biocentrists and deep ecology supporters who have participated in or organized
                such Councils have found this experience very moving. The basic text which describes
                how a Council of All Beings might function, is Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards
                a Council of All Beings
, 1988.

                Regarding aboriginal land ethics and Self-realization

                    “Act with the seventh generation in mind” is an aboriginal saying which most of us
                have heard. Taking a very long-term human perspective when we undertake any action,
                is often held up as an example of the ecological wisdom needed in contemporary
                society. Aboriginal cultures practiced animism over thousands of years. The basic
                idea is that the Earth is alive, and that plants and animals have their own intrinsic
                spirits and values. This has, in the past, acted as a restraint on human exploitation.
                The expression “All My Relations” also conveys this sense of animism for me and
                speaks to the interrelationship between humans and other life forms, where a human,
                as Calvin Martin has said, could not describe himself solely as a human isolated
                from the community of life. However, animism, which sustained hunter/gatherer
                societies, was still ultimately human-centered, perhaps a form of “
deep stewardship.”
                It did not prevent the extinctions of fauna in the Americas, Polynesia, New Zealand
                and Australia, as aboriginals entered these lands for the first time.

                Regarding land “ownership”

                    Deep ecology supporters like myself would not agree with the position put forth in
                the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission On Aboriginal Peoples: “The origin of
                the law of Aboriginal title lies in institutions that give recognition to the near-universal
                principle that land belongs to those who have used it from time immemorial.”
                (Volume 2, Restructuring The Relationship, Part Two, p. 689, footnote 46.) Deep
                ecology opposes the idea of “private property” in Nature, that one can “own” other
                species and the land itself. Followers of deep ecology and left biocentrism have written
                about “usufruct use”, where there is the right of enjoyment and use, but one is ultimately
                responsible and accountable to some form of ecocentric governance much wider than
                human society. Usufruct “rights” are subordinate to responsibilities in an ecocentric
                community of all life forms and would revert back to such a community when a person
                dies. Original aboriginal land occupancy in any country, including Canada, should be
                given priority consideration, from a human or social justice perspective, but Nature
                itself must remain a commons and not be privatized.


                    Traditional aboriginal animistic thinking has had an important positive impact on the
                deep ecology movement and deeper green politics. It also has had this on my own
                understanding of how we can come to a new relationship with the Earth. Obviously, all
                this has to be worked through by ecocentrists, before all species really do have standing
                in newly emergent, truly sustainable societies.

                    Many deep ecology supporters have embraced the necessity for a contemporary form
                of animism for a relevant deeper green politics, that is, the need for an Earth spirituality.
                This means accepting the necessity to see the Earth as sacred and as part of ourselves,
                if we are to turn around the ecological catastrophe we all face. This then becomes part
                of a new self-definition, one of the prerequisites for exiting industrial capitalist society
                and the fossil fuel economy.   

                    Criticism of Self-Realization


                    “The politics of deep ecology have gone astray at the philosophical level mainly
                    because of its interpretation of the leading concept of solidarity in terms of a
                    unity of interests model that fails to allow adequately for difference, is unable
                    to give it institutional representation, and is unable to distinguish oppressive
                    from non oppressive concepts of unity.”

                    Val Plumwood, “Deep Ecology, Deep Pockets, and Deep Problems: A Feminist
                    Ecosocialist Analysis”
in Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy
                    of Deep Ecology
, p. 59.

                    There have been criticisms raised of the concept of Self-realization. This concept is
                the central idea for Naess, for what he called his own ecosophy – or ecosophy T. –
                named after his mountain hut in Norway. Ecosophy means the personal code of values
                guiding a person’s interactions with the natural world. Some of these criticisms have
                been raised by myself in past articles and book reviews.


                    I make a distinction between those who have criticized Self-realization from a
                position of overall support for the contribution deep ecology has made, i.e. who are
                on our side of the barricades, and those who are basically hostile to deep ecology,
                accusing it for example of fascist tendencies. Those who are overall supporters, but
                critics of Self-realization, include theorists like Richard Sylvan and Val Plumwood,
                unfortunately now both deceased, and also Patrick Curry, who, in his book
                Ecological Ethics: An Introduction
, has a very negative view of this concept. Unlike
                the three persons mentioned here, I believe there is much that is positive in
                Self-realization. However, the negative tendencies which are also potentially present
                must be kept in mind and struggled against by activists. Self-realization does not have
                to be linked to a social harmony model of social change, as seems to be the position
                of Arne Naess.


                    One criticism about Self-realization has been that it downplays individuality and
                that it has fascist overtones, in that the individual becomes absorbed into a holistic
                concept of Nature in a similar manner to which fascists have absorbed the individual
                to the defense of the Fatherland or Motherland, whereas capitalist societies stress
                 “individuality.” I have never accepted the justness of this criticism. Those who follow
                and apply deep ecology need a strong sense of self
to advance ecocentric politics on
                environmental issues, where such politics often face considerable hostility.
                concern with population reduction by deep ecology has also fed the fascist charge.)


                    Naess says of intrinsic value, a key component for all life forms in the eight-point
                Deep Ecology Platform, including humans, that: “This is squarely an antifascist
                position. It is incompatible with fascist racism and fascist nationalism, and also with
                the special ethical status accorded the (supreme) Leader.” (Selected Works,
                Vol. X, p. 95.)

                    Another criticism I have seen raised is that Self-realization overlooks the importance
                of place. Yet bioregionalism is a significant focus for most who follow deep ecology.
                We know that place is extremely important for traditional aboriginal societies, which
                often have Creation myths that are quite geographically specific and important from an
                Earth-preservation perspective. As I have written previously:
                    “Prior to European contact in North America, sovereign indigenous societies
                    exercised control over this land mass and they were dispossessed. Each aboriginal
                    society had a Creation story (myth) which basically said that the specific aboriginal
                    nation had been entrusted with looking after the plants, animals, rocks, waters, etc.
                    in a particular area. The sacred duty was to preserve this for the unborn. This was
                    not “ownership” either collectively or individually. In Canada, this becomes
                    ownership today because land “claims” became transposed into a European-
                    derived (mainly British but also French) legal system. This legal system is also
                    essentially a social fiction with historical roots in imposed military/colonial power.
                    “Ownership” then is not in keeping with traditional aboriginal teachings.”
                    (Green Web Bulletin #71)

                    My own experience is that the deep ecology activists I know are usually rooted in,
                or orient to, a particular place which they are passionate about defending. So an Earth,
                or planetary, orientation and the defense of what is seen as one’s own backyard, seem
                to be complementary positions. Being rooted in place is crucial for sustained activism.
                What a person is surrounded with determines their thinking to a significant extent.


                    Many who are rooted “in place” are initially mobilized for environmental activism to
                defend the integrity of where they live from various forms of industrial destruction such
                as clear-cutting, gas pipelines, quarries, forest spraying, open-pit coal mines, uranium
                exploration and mining, etc. The “developers”, if they even concede that some issue is
                involved, usually think it is a question of the amount of compensation and find it hard to
                grasp the importance of “place”, for how people define themselves and that money is not
                the main issue, or even perhaps an issue at all.

                    A further criticism, which I myself have raised in the past, and which was also raised
                by Richard Sylvan of Australia, is that Self-realization can feed into the self-help, or
                self-cultivation, movement. It can lead away from organizing collectively to change the
                world. I believe this is a tendency which activists need to be aware of, since it can
                co-exist with industrial capitalism. This is what I wrote when reviewing Ecology,
                Community and Lifestyle
in 1993:

                    “While personal transformation is necessary and important, there are many people
                    writing articles on deep ecology, who have become focused on the psychological
                    path to ‘transpersonal ecology’. This has meant a fixation on the important concept
                    of Self-realization and away from engagement in changing the world.”


                    There is an interesting dilemma, for those on the Left within the deep ecology
                movement, with the concept of Self-realization as developed by Naess. Normally
                state regulations on the environment, regulating industry and the citizenry in the
                existing world, would be seen as important to put in place as a priority. But Naess
                says changing the selves of persons within society in how they relate to the natural
                world should take priority, i.e. that we come to have ecological selves. Thus,
                changing consciousness is the priority, not a regulatory environmental ethics, if we
                follow Naess on Self-realization. More generally, Self-realization has to come to
                terms, both with the autonomous self, but also with a self that is part of a much larger
                collective identity of others working together for the Earth. A person’s self-identity,
                as an activist influenced by deep ecology, comes from learning how to handle these
                two tendencies: self movement and collective identity.


                    Ecology, Community and Lifestyle illustrated positions by Naess on how
                environmentalists should conduct campaigns. He stressed talking with the opponent,
                absolute commitment to non-violence, embracement of legality, etc.: “
It is a
                central norm of the Gandhian approach to ‘
maximize contact with your opponent!’
                (p. 148) One often feels that for Naess there are no enemies, but merely misguided
                people. For a person from the Left, or any experienced radical environmental
                campaigner, Naess can seem to be dangerously simple-minded. I believe his views
                here come out of a model of change based on social harmony and the “oneness” of
                life. An injury to an opponent is therefore an injury to oneself from this perspective.
                But it is a social conflict model, with Marxian roots illustrated by a fellow
                Norwegian philosopher and environmental activist Sigmund Kvaløy, as discussed
                below, which is far more appropriate for bringing about fundamental change and
                which deep ecology-inspired and left biocentric activists need to embrace.



                A Conflict Model of Social Change


                    “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...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”, in
                    Wisdom In the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology
, 1993, edited
                    by Peter Reed and David Rothenberg, pp. 136-137.


                    The conflict model of social change, which Sigmund Kvaløy supports, draws from the
                theoretical legacy of Marx and Marxism, along with Gandhi and the deep ecology
                tradition, plus Buddhism for its intellectual legitimacy. He is a colleague of Arne Naess
                and influential in Norway, both for his activism and his theoretical ideas. Kvaløy sees us
                as heading for eco-catastrophe. He has a sensitized animistic sense of self and believes
                this is important for the ecological activist, so that the individual is at one with the
                natural world and is capable of reading the natural world as a matter of course. An
                illustration of this animistic sense of self is conveyed in the example Kvaløy uses, of
                the Polynesian navigator steering across the Pacific, responding to the stars, ocean
                currents, the depth of the ocean as shown by the colour of the sea, the flight path of
                birds indicating nearby islands, the reflection of ocean swells by islands, etc.


                    Left biocentrists like myself, and those like Sigmund Kvaløy, believe in a conflict
                model of social and ecological change. The anti-capitalist orientation within deep
                ecology is being expressed within the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism. This
                anti-capitalism goes back not only to Naess himself, but also to people like Richard
                Sylvan, Andrew McLaughlin, Rudolf Bahro, Judi Bari, Fred Bender and other left
                biocentrists, including myself. Social evolution is a result of struggle within a
                society. This is perhaps a difference with the overall orientation of Arne Naess,
                who seems more in tune with a social harmony view of the world. The mantra of
                non-violence, which permeates deep ecology and the green movement, has led to
                an emphasis on social harmony, rather than conflict, as underlying social change
                within industrial capitalist society. But non-violence does not have to exclude
                conflict, as Gandhi clearly showed. In my experience, the conflict model
                corresponds with the field realities of activists, who are fighting against those
                who destroy habitats and other species in the name of “development” or of
                earning a living. Those who have economic interests in the way things are, or
                who believe that there is no other economic model than one of continual
                economic growth, always resist the critique of their activities on ecological
                or social justice grounds.


                    Here is one example. I moved to Nova Scotia in 1979. Many forestry
                activists, including myself, have been opposing industrial capitalist forestry,
                raising the issues of clear cutting, forest spraying, and the narrowing of the
                species diversity of the Acadian forest to promote a handful of tree species
                that the pulp and paper industry desire, and the consequent destruction of
                wildlife which accompanies this “pulp mill forestry.” Some 25 years later,
                nothing has basically changed today. All the mentioned forestry-related
                activities continue. Yet the obvious is continually denied by both the industry
                and politicians. There is no common ground, only antagonism, between the
                biocentric forest activist and the industry representatives and their supporters.
                (Of course, as elsewhere,
there is a mainstream, or shallow, tendency within
                the environmental movement in Nova Scotia. Their advocates continue to
                promote “dialogue” with the industry and their government partners – basically
                a social harmony model of social change, while ecological destruction continues.)


                    Left biocentrism, as I see it, believes that incorporating the conflict perspective
                of social change, corresponds with existing historical realities. It is necessary for
                implementing a society which will be anti-capitalist and anti-industrial, but rooted
                in ecocentric justice for all species and social justice for the human species. Left
                biocentrism advocates a self where one is much more autonomous and responsible
                for one’s personal actions, than how a person is traditionally viewed by the Left.
                The Left sees the individual as mainly socially pre-conditioned by society and the
                class position occupied, with limited free choice or independent action possibilities.
                There is a strong sense of “all is foretold” in what often seems a Marxist
                reductionism. This world view of Marx, while important for the critique of capitalism,
                is firmly embedded in the economic growth paradigm. Overall, the main thrust of
                Marx’s analysis is not to consider nature or the ecology as having intrinsic value,
                although this is disputed by some “reinterpretations” of Marx.


                    For left biocentrists or the ecocentric Left, the activist not only has personal
                responsibility for the life path chosen but must also live as lightly as possible in
                terms of ecological footprint, in order to have moral integrity. As Gandhi put it:
                “Each of us must be the change we wish to see in this world.” More generally,
                the ecocentric Left has made the fundamental shift in consciousness from
                anthropocentrism to ecocentrism and has absorbed the lessons of deep ecology
                as initially unfolded by Arne Naess. There is much that an open-minded Left
                consciousness can contribute to the green and environmental movements, but it
                is wrong for some on the Left to invoke the name of “eco-socialism” as the
                ecological alternative to industrial capitalist society. The nature of this
                alternative is not yet known, but the discussion is ongoing. There are no
                existing ecological and social justice models, as the eco-socialist name seems
                to imply, which we merely need to adjust to. This new world which has to
                evolve is in the process of being born.



                    Secular Mythology: Globalization and ‘Self’


                    “Without increasing consumption, capital can have no increasing value.”
                    Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History Of North
                    America And Its Peoples
, p. 353.


                    “Most people turn out to be as society wishes them so that they can be
                    successful. Society fabricates types of people just as it fabricates styles
                    of shoes or of clothes or of automobiles, that is, as goods that are in
                    demand. A person learns already as a child what type is in demand.”

                    Eric Fromm, The Essential Fromm: Life Between Having and Being, p. 25.


                    “It is generally agreed that present-day industrial societies are ecologically
                    unsustainable. Any future industrial society would be unsustainable. To try
                    to ‘repair’ present-day industrial societies would only make them survive a
                    little longer. Sets of technologies, if any, presupposing that the society as a
                    whole is industrial are therefore to be avoided.”

                    Arne Naess, Selected Works, Vol. X, p. 83.


                    I believe the dominant current mythology in the world is secular and economic –
                or sociological in Joseph Campbell’s terms. It is a mythology which perhaps can be
                said to support the inevitability of globalization or world trade. All are supposedly
                required to conform and bring their societies into line with, what are seen as its
                prerequisites. The global economy determines to a very large extent the nature of
                world society and what parameters must be accepted.


                    With globalization:


                    - Nature becomes a set of “resources” or commodities for human and corporate
                consumption and for trading in the world marketplace. There is no restraint, if the
                price is right. There is no intrinsic value, independent of human valuation, for the
                natural world.


                    - Education becomes a training ground for the market place for most people. The
                cultivation of the mind, or the pursuit of a subject for its own sake in the university
                becomes dysfunctional, as does the deeper contemplative life. The universities are
                no longer funded mainly from the public purse but must seek “partnerships” with the
                corporate world. Students now have to take on large debt loads to graduate from
                university. Such debt ties someone to the existing economic system and acts to muffle
                critical voices. Debts must be repaid. To get ahead in this global consumer culture,
                one needs to get along, so social harmony, not social conflict, is favoured. Eric
                Fromm speaks of a “marketing character” or self-image, where one sees oneself as
                a commodity with exchange value, not use value. One’s personality becomes part of
                this. One must sell oneself, not only one’s skills, to be a valued employee. Every
                grocery shopper in Canada is familiar with the supermarket clerk with their smile
                and the patter “How are you today? Did you get everything you needed?” as part of
                their job.


                    - Consumer goods come to define how people see themselves. As Tim Flannery notes,
                Capital needs increasing consumerism to increase in value. The inherent logic of an
                expansionary capitalist industrial system structurally requires it.
This is totally against
                any acceptance of ecological limits. It is also against any sense of permanent self-worth
                for individuals, because of the sociological phenomenon of “relative deprivation,”
                whereby one’s own consumer well-being is judged against the consumer goods that
                others have acquired. There is permanent dissatisfaction or deprivation relative to others,
                as new goods come on the market and can be acquired by those with the purchasing
                power. This is how self-worth and consumerism are linked together in a globalized
                consumer culture. In this consumption climate, profligate, not frugal lifestyles become
                taken for granted by those living in wealthier societies, like Canada, the United States
                and Western Europe. Advertising, which is everywhere, stresses excess, not restraint.
                News, whether print or TV, are always packaged in advertising of more consumer goods
                that one supposedly needs to have, to lead the “good” self-absorbed consumer life.


                    The above is clearly not a culture where needs – what Naess referred to as human
                 “vital needs” – can be satisfied from the natural world, as they are subject to open-ended
                expansion. Thus having a cell phone or a blackberry becomes an alleged vital need for
                many people. This is a culture which will lead us to eco-catastrophe unless it can be
                reversed. Will climate change and peak oil eventually break the secular mythology of



                What is to be done?


                    “The ability to govern without overt coercion depends largely on the ability of those
                    in power to exploit systems of belief that the larger population shares.”

                    Gramsci (as quoted by Richard Sylvan in Anarchism, see A Companion to
                    Contemporary Political Philosophy,
p. 236)


                    “What we propose is not a shift of caring away from human beings and toward
                    nonhuman beings, but rather an extension and deepening of overall caring.”

                    Arne Naess, Selected Works, Volume X, p. 614.


                    “A green society, in my terminology, is one that to some extent not only has solved
                     the problem of reaching ecological sustainability, but has also ensured peace and
                    a large measure of social justice. I do not see why so many people find reasons for
                    despair. I am confident that human beings have what is demanded to turn things
                    around and achieve green societies.”

                    Arne Naess, Selected Works
, Volume X, p. 616.



                    I believe there is presently a small, but growing, minority in Canada, which defines its
                self-identity as in some way encompassing the natural world, and who realizes that it is
                humankind which is propelling us towards the wrecking of planetary life. This is probably
                also true for other wealthy societies based on fossil fuel economies. This more
                environmentally enlightened minority has various shades of green within its ranks, but
                such people have become aware of the importance of climate change and global warming
                as a very major threat to the continuation of life on Earth for ourselves and other species.
                The federal Canadian Green Party, which now polls around ten per cent of popular
                support, is perhaps a reflection of this minority. Another indication are the actions of a
                more discerning environmentally aware public.


                    For example, here in Nova Scotia, the public is increasingly starting to repudiate
                so-called environmental assessments which mostly give the go-ahead to the
                “developments” and accompanying ecological destruction, that a capitalist growth
                economy continually requires. Yet mainstream society, led by corporate and government
                elites, have not in any way deviated from pursuing “more of the same” economic growth
                and consumerism. Feeding climate change through selling fossil fuels to the US is big
                business in Canada. In Gramsci’s terms, this existing industrial capitalist society is
                losing its legitimacy for a more educated and environmentally aware citizenry. This
                citizenry will eventually come to realize that the existing course of societal direction
                is criminal and cannot to be tolerated. This direction has no Earth legitimacy, even if
                condoned by a majority through periodic elections,  concerned essentially with
                superficialities. How can we permit others to lead us to destruction?


                    What is to be done, for people who are interested in the discussion of what is the
                appropriate notion of self today? Surely it means a notion of self where we as humans
                must fundamentally re-orient to the planet as our governing mythology? This mythology
                does not mean untruth, but something which organizes and gives legitimacy to people’s
                lives. For those who have come on board to embracing a nature-centered mythology,
                we obviously have to call it as it is. We need to build a critical mass of supporters who
                are prepared to do what it takes to bring the changes needed for industrial capitalist
                societies on to the public agenda. This is no longer time for tokenism. It must mean
                agitating to end the capitalist growth economy and consumerism; reduce existing
                industrial lifestyles in wealthy countries like Canada and agree on a basic world
                lifestyle satisfying real vital needs, which can be realistically attainable by all and
                transfer the wealth from the powerful to the poor to do this; reduce population
                numbers in a major way, so other species can live in their habitats unpolluted by
                human detritus, and so that humans themselves can unfold their potentials; those
                who call themselves Greens in an  electoral sense have to stop advocating tokenism
                and fostering illusions and present the true scale of what social changes are needed;
                exit the fossil fuel economy; and finally, but most importantly, come into a new
                relationship with the natural world which is not rooted in human dominance and
                looking at the Earth as “resource.”





                    This essay “Notions of Self in the Age of Ecology” has examined the concept of “self”
                and Self-realization as advanced by Arne Naess. While this concept of Self-realization is
                important for Naess, it is interesting that it is not part of the eight-point Deep Ecology
                Platform. The Platform is the basic summation of what it means to consider oneself a
                supporter of the deep ecology movement. In this essay, I have attempted to bring out the
                meaning of Self-realization and explore the various dimensions of self within deep
                ecology and left biocentrism. I have also looked at the various criticisms raised around
                the use of Self-realization, and assessed whether or not this concept is useful for activists
                in the green and environmental movements. My conclusion is that it is useful and indeed
                necessary, not only for activists, but for society at large. The analysis here has drawn
                from my own experience and from that of working with others theoretically and practically
                over a long period of time.


                    The concern with self is important, but this needs to be defined in an Earth-centered
                context or mythology, necessary for any significant move forward on the ecological front.
                We have to cultivate an animistic sensitivity. I have also examined something that was
                previously quite puzzling to me, the stress by Naess on Self-realization – a fundamental
                change of consciousness – as more important than environmental ethics or environmental
                regulations. I have come to see that it is this change of consciousness to a planetary
                self-awareness which guides left biocentric activists in their work and which makes
                unnecessary organizational directives. Activists are self-motivated after they come to
                terms with Self-realization, either through encountering the deep ecology philosophy or
                independently, based on their own experience in trying to combat ecological destruction
                and identifying or bonding with nature as part of their true being. But ultimately, of
                course, we need to be organized to change the world.


                    I have also stressed that deep ecology-inspired activists should embrace a conflict,
                not social harmony model of ecological and social change. This accords with our everyday
                reality in environmental and green movement work. The criticism of Self-realization raised
                by Val Plumwood, accords also with my own critique. Naess uses Self-realization to arrive
                at a harmony social change model. This is what Plumwood called “a unity of interests
                model that fails to allow adequately for difference.”


                    We should oppose and fight against the current inevitability of globalization mythology
                which, because of its demands, socially transforms millions into anti-ecological agents.
                Part of this opposition is fighting consumerism through explaining and combating the
                influence of “relative deprivation” in people’s lives. This deprivation undermines any
                sense of true self-worth for a person, by building into social relationships invidious
                comparisons that make for permanent consumer envy, which is necessary for a capitalist
                economy. We must remember that, for most in contemporary society who have no real
                experience of interacting with nature, society implants an unreal picture through the
                socialization of values reflecting human dominance. If the mythology of globalization’s
                inevitability teaches, as it does, dominance and anthropocentric arrogance towards nature,
                then this needs to be replaced by an Earth-centered attitude of humility and respect. Belief
                systems and what they express are important.


                    We humans, as a society, must make peace with nature to avoid eco-catastrophe. The
                time ahead will be one of increasing social conflict. As deep ecology and left biocentric
                supporters, we need to cast aside illusions to prepare ourselves for the coming battles.
                Seeing how we view our “self” is part of this.



                March, 2008

                                    Selected Bibliography

                1. Rudolf Bahro, Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World
, 1994.

                2. Rudolf Bahro, “Statement on My Resignation From The Greens” in Building
                    The Green Movement
, 1986.

                3. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1988.

                4. Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction, 2006.

                5. Sigmund Kvaløy, “Complexity and Time: Breaking the Pyramid’s Reign”
                    in The Norwegian Roots Of Deep Ecology, 1993.

                6. Aldo Leopold, The Sand County Almanac, 1966.

                7. Calvin Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth, 1992.

                8. Ted Mosquin and Stan Rowe, “A Manifesto for Earth” in Earth Alive:
                    Essays On Ecology
, 2006.

                9. Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle, 1989.

                10. Arne Naess, The Selected Works, Volumes V, IX, and X, 2005.

                11. Arne Naess, “Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the
in Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings,

                12. Arne Naess, “The Shallow and the Deep Long Range Ecology Movement.
                    A Summary”
in Inquiry, 1973.

                13. Val Plumwood, “Deep Ecology, Deep Pockets, and Deep Problems: A
                    Feminist Ecosocialist Analysis”
in Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays
                    in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology
, 2000.

                14. George Sessions, Deep Ecology For The 21st Century, 1995.

                15. Richard Sylvan and David Bennett, The Greening of Ethics: From Human
                    Chauvinism to Deep-Green Theory
, 1994.


                                To obtain any of the Green Web publications,  write to us at:

Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
E-mail us at:

                             Back to                                                      
                            The Green Web
                            A Taste of Green Web Writings and Left Biocentrism

                            Last updated: September 09, 2012