By David Orton
(This talk was given at a public "information session" and discussion on
deep ecology, organized
by the New Glasgow library in Nova Scotia on February 8th, 2006. I was introduced as the
National Spokesperson for Deep Ecology for the Green Party of Canada.)
What is the Green Movement?
The green movement is a movement of people who have come forward to respond
in some manner to the
worldwide ecological crisis and to make the defence of the natural world an important part of their lives.
It exists in many countries. In looking at today’s green movement, we should not forget that, in the West,
the 19th century gave rise to a vegetarian movement, an anti-vivisection movement, an animal welfare and
a naturalist movement, which were in some sense forerunners to the environmental and animal rights
movements of the 20th century. (These points were brought out in Rod Preece’s Animals and Nature:
Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities.)
For myself, I became involved in environmental work in 1977 in BC. In 1979
we moved as a family to Nova
Scotia. In 1983, I publicly stated at an anti-cruise missile rally in Halifax:: “We need a new kind of politics
and we believe the green movement, which stresses a new type of environmentally conscious society,
is the way ahead.” But I only joined the Green Party in May of 2005.
The deep green environmental movement is perhaps best known in North America
as the Earth First!
movement. The Earth First! movement in the United States, and later in England, Australia and other
countries - it has a Canadian reflection particularly on the West Coast - took up the task of defending
wilderness, old growth forests and the wildlife associated with them, as well as green spaces threatened
by so-called development. (A recent deep ecology book by Fred Bender, The Culture of Extinction:
Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology, p. 61, called real estate developers “habitat annihilators”.)
Earth Firsters! claimed deep ecology as their guiding philosophy and came to define their “community”
as not just a human-centered one but as also including the natural world. Arne Naess, the Norwegian
founder of deep ecology says that the unfolding of potentialities of animals and plants is a right:
“One exercises justice or injustice to plants and animals as well...Plants and animals also
have a right to unfolding and self-realisation. They have the right to live.”
Ecology, community and lifestyle, pp.164-165
By one of those strange coincidences, in 1973 were published three articles
which have been enormously
influential for the deep ecology and the animal liberation movements, and for moving ethics - “how one
should live and act” (Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction) - in a new revolutionary
direction, away from human-centeredness. These articles were a response to ecological destruction and,
with Peter Singer’s seminal article, to the abuse of animals. They are:
Our ethics are determined by what we ultimately value. If we see ourselves as only part of a human
community, then we will only value humans. We will only treat properly whoever or whatever we
care about. For those who put the Earth first, the ecological community forms the ethical community.
The basic distinction is made between anthropocentric ethics, where ethics are human-centered or
entirely restricted to humanity, and ecocentric ethics, which are Earth-centered.
Language, with its human-centered assumptions, where humans are seen as
the pinnacle of some
evolutionary process, frames environmental debates. Thus, for example, as Nature is seen as a
“resource”, fish or trees become “resources”, i.e. placed on this planet for human use. Fish species,
if not utilized by industrial society, are considered “under utilized”, seals eat “our” fish, etc. In
industrial forestry, insects are “pests” if they eat trees. Trees are considered “fibre” and are
spoken of as “decadent” and “over mature” if past the age for pulp mill consumption. Trees are
“weed” species if they have no industrial use. Plantations of one or two softwood species,
desired by the mills, are called forests. Fires or insect blooms are not considered part of the
normal forest ecology. Under existing industrial forestry, it seems every tree has been spoken
for, as required for human and corporate use by the forest industry and its government
It is important to see that the term anthropocentrism (or human-centeredness)
covers a vast range
of behaviours, from absolute selfishness to other humans and total disregard to the long-term
interests of the Earth, to the “seventh generation” concept from aboriginal thought. As the ecological
crisis develops, ecocentric ethics has emerged to shape a large section of green movement thinking
and has come to influence a new “ecophilosophy”. This is a revolutionary philosophical development,
because prior to the emergence of the new ecocentric thinking, where Nature is seen as ultimately
determining value, philosophy and human thought had been considered human-centered or
Aboriginal Land Ethics
“Act with the seventh generation in mind” is a saying which most of
us have heard. It means taking
a very long-term human perspective when we undertake any action. This is often held up as an example
of the kind of ecological wisdom which is 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.
However, animism, which sustained hunter-gatherer societies, was still ultimately human-centered, perhaps
a form of "deep stewardship." This did not prevent the now documented extinctions of fauna in the
Americas, Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia, as aboriginals entered these lands for the first time.
David Suzuki put it this way in his book Wisdom of the Elders about aboriginal ethics:
“Aboriginal peoples’ relationship with other life forms comes from a deep
respect that is
ultimately self-interested.” (p. xxviii)
Many deep ecology supporters have embraced the necessity for a contemporary
form of animism, for
a 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
which we face. I believe that traditional aboriginal animistic thinking has had an important positive impact
on the deep ecology movement and deeper green politics.
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. As Arne Naess puts it, ”The ideology
of ownership of nature has no place in an ecosophy.” I have written about “usufruct use” where there
is the right of use, but where one is ultimately responsible and accountable to some form of ecocentric
governance much wider that human society. 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.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)
I want to say some words about this important green thinker, before speaking
about Arne Naess himself.
Aldo Leopold is perhaps the most important ecophilosophy influence on the North American green
and environmental movements. This would be particularly true for the United States. His land ethic has
become very influential:
"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils,
waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."
A Sand County Almanac, p. 239
Leopold, who was a hunter and a forester, moved in his own lifetime from
management” to an Earth-centered land ethic. His book of essays, published after his death, has an
essay called “Thinking Like a Mountain” which has come to symbolize this ethical shift. He describes
the shooting of a female wolf, accompanied by her pups and the “green fire” dying in the wolf’s eyes as
her life was extinguished. Through this incident he came to understand that deer and elk need predators,
if they are to thrive and not over-browse the mountains which they inhabit. One cannot remove one part
of an ecosystem to benefit what is seen as human-centered interests, i.e. “more game”, without suffering
dysfunctional consequences to the rest of the system. The death of the she-wolf taught Leopold this
fundamental lesson and though his own experience has taught countless others.
How did Leopold judge whether some action is right or wrong? To quote from his book,
Naess has said that “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.” I think what is being said
here, is that we humans are part of the natural world, not separate from it. We identify with this world,
so that its pain, for example when a forest or a wild creature is destroyed, is felt as a personal pain by
the deep ecology supporter. This philosophy accepts the primacy of the natural world, but this is
considered an “intuition” by Naess and is not logically or philosophically derived. Naess would say
that “Every living being has an equal right to live and flourish, in principle.” This is not to deny
that our existence as humans involves killing living beings. Living beings for Naess includes individual
organisms, ecosystems, mountains, rivers, and the Earth itself.
Deep ecology sees the necessity for a new philosophy and a new set of values, about
What often happens is that a person is on a road of self-discovery, because
of her or his own
environmental experiences and then comes across the philosophy of deep ecology. This is what
happened to me in the 1980s. Another example would be Sharon Labchuk of PEI. A few years
ago, after being introduced to some deep ecology readings she said: “It’s everything I’ve ever
believed in, but I never had the language before.” (Tim Falconer, Watchdogs and Gadflies:
Activism From Marginal To Mainstream, p. 130)
The 1973 article by Arne Naess, “The Shallow And The Deep, Long-Range
Movements: A Summary”, introduced this distinction which has become part of the language
of ecophilosophy and environmentalism. He defines the shallow ecology movement, which he
says is more influential than the deep ecology movement, as “Fight against pollution and
resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the
developed countries.” The shallow approach takes for granted beliefs in technological optimism,
economic growth, and scientific management.
Naess defines the “deep movement” by putting forward seven main points.
The article is only a
few pages long but quite profound, and shows the complexity of Naess. The overall perspective,
over the years, ended up eventually as the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform. In the article, for
example, Naess points out that biological complexity requires a corresponding social and cultural
complexity; outlined is an “anti-class posture” and how anti-pollution devices can, because of
increasing the “prices of life necessities” increase class differences; and he stresses local autonomy
Deep Ecology Platform
The Deep Ecology Platform was worked out in 1984 by Arne Naess and George
Sessions. It has
been called "the heart of deep ecology" and received widespread acceptance by its supporters.
Some points about the Platform:
- It is fairly abstract and does not tell activists what to do in specific situations.
- It says all non-human life forms have intrinsic value, not dependent on human purpose.
- The concept of “vital needs” is introduced but not defined. Desiring
little is the deep ecology path,
which also means far less control by the industrial capitalist system over the individual.
- The Deep Ecology Platform does not mention non-violence.
- It emphasizes population reduction, and deep ecology supporters stress
this is to be done without
- The Platform gives no view on what an ecocentric economy would look like and how to achieve this.
- There is no mechanism for changing the Platform, or for further developing
Even though I have given this kind of talk on deep ecology and the green
movement quite a few times over
the years, and to various types of audiences, I always feel inadequate in trying to convey to others what
deep ecology is all about. But deep ecology is truly a philosophy which can change one’s life, as it has
changed mine. If I have aroused your interest sufficiently to look further into it, this will be “success” for
I brought along some books for you to look at, and you each have a copy
Deep Ecology Platform
and the Left Biocentrism Primer, with four recommended books for an Earth-centered consciousness.
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac;
- Clive Ponting, A Green History Of The World;
- Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle; and
- Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction.
You can each start on the deep ecology path, should you so desire. Our
Earth needs your assistance.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org