Green Ethics        

            This posting is not a book review, but presents some ideas from the book which interest me, some
        quotations, plus some comments. This is an important book for understanding the thinking of the
        Australian deep ecologist Richard Sylvan, his contribution to a socially conscious ecocentric theory,
        and his critique of deep ecology. Richard had quite an influence on me. Sylvan died unexpectedly in
        1996. David Bennett, the co-author, presently works as an environmental officer with the Aboriginal
        and Torres Strait Islander Commission in Canberra.
                                                                                                                                David Orton, May 1998


                    The Greening of Ethics: From Human Chauvinism to Deep-Green Theory
                        by Richard Sylvan and David Bennett, 1994, White Horse Press, Cambridge, England;
                                    co-published  by the University of Arizona Press, Tucson, USA

            This book takes as its main theme the greening of ethics. Under types of ethics the authors differentiate
        between "non ethics", which means really unrestrained exploitation of the environment for whatever human
        purpose is deemed desirable; "shallow"; "intermediate" and "deep" ethics. This is how deep positions are
                Deep positions are characterized by the rejection of the notion that humans and human projects
                are the sole items of value, and further by the rejection of the notion that humans and human
                projects are always more valuable than all other things in the world.

            An extremely influential example of the intermediate position would be the thinking of Aldo Leopold as
        expressed in his famous "Land Ethic". The book points out that Leopold presented two basic ideas. That items
        in the natural environment had value in themselves and an extension of ethical considerations to what Leopold
        called the Land: soils, waters, plants, and animals. The authors still see this as a human-centered position which
        is extended, although Leopold's ideas are seen as subversive.

                "Humans need other species more than other species need them." p.91

                The authors say that for Arne Naess, deep ecology seems to cover almost the entire ecocentric field,
        whereas for some other deep ecologists, for example Warwick Fox, deep ecology "forms a quite exclusive
        club, within ecocentrism."

            Naess himself has suggested a maximum human population for the Earth of about one hundred million.

            I disagree with the following view on non violence:
                "Although not stated as a principle, non-violence is an implicit norm common to most Deep
            This is also Sylvan's view.

            No alternative vision or clear directives within deep ecology on institutional change:
                There is no new political vision forthcoming from Deep Ecology or ecosophy. Similarly for
                any accompanying economic vision. Present arrangements are highly incompatible with
                Deep Ecology, yet no alternatives are really offered.

            The authors say that deep ecology promotes "change" as occurring individually through individual
        consciousness raising and personal change. Somehow these changes will work their way through political and
        economic structures using existing political "democratic" means. (p.122 ) The authors are critical of the
        focus on self-realization and its growing importance in the deep ecology movement. They see its fusion with
        the personal growth and improvement movement in North America. Deep ecopolitics has to be much more
        than this.

            No delivery on green politics by Naess: The authors say that major reasons for this are that Naess is committed
        "to a strong central state, to democratic voting arrangements and mixed capitalism." p.123 They point out
        that representative democracy has not threatened the dominant industrial ideology and the interests of the major
        power holders. Also, that Naess helps himself to green political material "as if this suffices for Deep Ecology
        and ecosophy."

            Two major deficiencies in deep ecology: Any activist encounters two conspicuous deficiencies in Deep
        Ecology: no explicit political ideology, ideas to guide political action, and no satisfactory action theory,
        indicating how to put the ideas and evaluations into practice.

            Deep ecology has no critique of capitalism. All forms of socialism are considered anthropocentric. Socialism
        is considered a false alternative:
                Only a new socialism (more a 'communalism' than a 'socialism', to adapt one of Naess's hints),
                a new form yet to be theoretically forged, will cohere with Deep Ecological principles.

            Sylvan calls his own theoretical perspective "Deep-Green Theory" (DGT). It was initiated also in the early 70s.
        One of the bibliographical references clearly shows this. The authors say that:
                A main difference between Deep Ecology and deep-green theory is that the former is a movement
                with philosophical and religious underpinnings, while the latter is emphatically a philosophical
                approach to environmental problems and issues.

            DGT accepts the 8-point Platform but seems anxious to distance itself from the personal deep ecology of
        Naess, by not accepting extreme holism, biospherical egalitarianism, or maximizing Self-realization. pp.137-138
        DGT is anti-spiritual. Basically I do not find that DGT is so distinctive from deep ecology. The strength of this
        book is the critique of deep ecology, not really in outlining a DGT alternative to deep ecology. Also the practical
        ideas on implementation are weak and not convincing.

            How to organize: The book advocates not "dilution", but "working within a much wider green coalition,
        with deep green thinking as a force, perhaps the vanguard, within that wider amalgamation."
What is
        Called "authentic" Deep Ecology also endorses such a position. p.152 Non-violence, pacifism and organized
        anarchism are not pre-requisites for DGT but these are adopted by Sylvan.

                "Theory informs and guides practice, practice confirms and modifies theory." p.175

                "Deep environmental groups should begin to prepare, carefully and thoroughly, for
                revolutionary action."

            The authors say Naess "has vacillated" over whether or not he supports sustainable development. p.240

            A basic problem for deep ecology is the "obscure and lax admission criteria" and the "excessively
        exclusive list of recognized Deep Ecologists."
p. 244

      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
         Green Web Book Reviews
     Last updated: January 20, 2005