New  Age  Deep  Ecology

                                                                            A book review by David Orton

                                              Toward A Transpersonal Ecology:
                            Developing New Foundations For Environmentalism

                                            by Warwick Fox, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1990,
                                                paperback, 380 pages, ISBN 0-87773-533-6.

            This book is based on the Ph.D. dissertation of Warwick Fox, an Australian. He is someone who has
        written extensively on deep ecology which, according to the author, should now be renamed and refocused
        as “transpersonal ecology.” Any book which holds out the promise of “new foundations” - and hence the
        elimination of presently used foundations/concepts/language etc, - for the environmental movement, should
        be carefully and critically, looked at. This is the case especially for radical environmentalists who consider
        themselves supporters of deep ecology, e.g. the eight-point “platform”, as elaborated by Arne Naess, with
        George Sessions. I believe the sub-title of this book is, in a sense, misleading because the book is primarily
        about what, in Fox’s eyes, differentiates deep ecologists from other ecophilosophers and what makes someone
        a genuine deep ecologist or, what are the required qualifications for entrance to the transpersonal ecology
        guild. But in elaborating these qualifications, the practical deep ecology movement which has emerged, is being
        signalled the direction to go and what its priorities and theoretical base should be.

            The basic question which this book does not raise, but which all of us must face, is how does radical
        environmental theory develop - and how does it change? Does this theory come out of the heads of philosophers
        like Arne Naess, and Warwick Fox? If it does, what role does practical activism play in this theoretical
        elaboration, for Naess, and for those who come forward as the “interpreters” of deep ecology? (Fox defines his
        view of ecophilosophy as “theoretically oriented activism”, and stresses the role of a handful of academics.)
        When does a theory gain a life of its own and is not subject to embellishment or reinterpretation by the original
        prophet or by those who have come forward as disciples? What is the relationship between philosophers/
        theoreticians, activists and the movement? Who should decide, and on what basis, when foundations are
        acceptable, or should be changed, and why? Who decides when alleged theoretical clarity should override the
        use of existing terminology which has already been popularly embraced in the practical deep ecology movement,
        e.g. biocentric to be replaced by ecocentric, shallow to be replaced by reform, and now deep ecology by
        transpersonal ecology?

            The contribution of this book is to make the reader think hard. It is also an erudite presentation, although
        rather know-it-all in tone. The “main writers”, according to the author, are Naess, Devall, Sessions, Fox,
        Drengson, and Zimmerman. A secondary group includes La Chapelle, Aitken, Snyder, Seed, Macy, Hayward,
        Evernden, Livingston, McLaughlin, Matthews, Rodman, Rothenberg and Wittbecker. So excluded is a person
        like Richard Sylvan, who is a supporter of deep ecology (accepting the famous eight-point platform), but who
        is a critic of the transpersonal ecology associated with Fox. Yet it is Sylvan, according to Fox, who has the
        “most comprehensive philosophical critique of deep ecology that has been written to date.” (See the 1985
        publication by Sylvan, A Critique Of Deep Ecology, published in the discussion papers in environmental
        philosophy series, of The Australian National University; the recent, so far unpublished manuscript, A Critique
        of (Wild) Western Deep Ecology
; and the important 1974 book, with Val Routley, The Fight for the
        Forests: The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry

            Before trying to present what seems to me to be the essence of this book, one should make the caution that
        critics, are usually admonished for “not understanding.” For example, Sylvan, according to Fox, has mistaken
        the main emphases of deep ecology. All of us should strive to understand before criticizing. However, if
        understanding requires a leap of faith that only a handful of the initiated and doctrinally committed can take
        (a knowledge of Eastern religions seeming to be a prerequisite), then only the true believers in a particular
        explication, are qualified to comment.

            Fox presents in Towards A Transpersonal Ecology, that Naess gives three meanings to the perspective
        of deep ecology. One has to do with the anthropocentric/non anthropocentric distinction. This is a popular
        sense of deep ecology, from which the eight-point platform is derived. Fox wants to use the term ecocentric
        ecology, and refer to the anthropocentric and ecocentric ecology movements, not to the shallow and deep
        ecology (or biocentric) movements.

            The second meaning, according to the author, has to do with a distinctive method, used by Naess, of asking
        deeper questions, used to characterize deep ecology, as opposed to shallow ecology. Deep ecology is thus
        derived from fundamentals, while shallow ecology is not. Fox shows to my satisfaction, that this position cannot
        be upheld, because a shallow position can also be derived from fundamentals. However, I do not accept his
        further view, that this invalidates the use of the term deep ecology.

            The third meaning concerns the concept of Self-realization, which Fox sees as the most significant and the
        distinctive philosophical sense of deep ecology, and what distinguishes it from other ecophilosophies. A
        commitment to Self-realization defines a transpersonal ecologist and the business of the transpersonal philosopher.
        (For the Earth First! activist, the concept of Self-realization from Naess, concerns expanding the sense of
        self-identity so it comes to include the well-being of the Earth, and organizing to bring this about on as large a
        scale as possible.) Fox says, “Naess’s philosophical sense of deep ecology refers to the this-worldly
        realization of as expansive a sense of self as possible in a world in which selves and things-in-the-world
        are conceived as processes. Since this approach is one that involves the realization of a sense of self
        that extends beyond (or that is trans-) one’s egoic, biographical, or personal sense of self, the clearest,
        most accurate, and most informative term for this sense of deep ecology is, in my view, transpersonal
Recent developments in psychology are drawn upon - transpersonal psychology - to make distinctions
        between the psychological-personal, the psychological-ontological, and the psychological-cosmological, as three
        bases of identification. Fox says that the transpersonal concern with Self-realization, renders morality and ethics,
        the concern with “oughts”, as redundant, and the main writers on deep ecology share this position.

            I believe that Warwick Fox, and a number of his transpersonal associates, are trying to move deep ecology
        away from being a philosophy to change the world, to a “theory” which will justify self-contemplation and
        individual passivity. The direction of focusing on Self-realization leads to a New Age agenda. The concern with
        expanding self-identity is important, but it does not exhaust the concerns of deep ecology. The Canadian
        publication The Trumpeter seems to epitomize the perspective advocated by Fox, and it is essentially irrelevant
        to ecological struggles. In my view the eight-point platform for deep ecology, which contains no mention of
        Self-realization, while fairly abstract, does provide a theoretical orientation that can be used for organizing. The
        pressing theoretical work is to concretize deep ecology in terms of actual environmental issues.

                                                                                                                                                March 14, 1991

        (This review appeared in an edited form in Canadian Dimension, September 1991.)

      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 16, 2005