Off-Road Vehicles and Deep Ecology         

Cultural Clash and Alienation from the Natural World            

David Orton                                 



                    This article examines the struggle over off-road vehicles from the perspective of the philosophy of deep ecology.
                Those for and those against their use have competing visions of how humans relate to each other and the natural
                world. It is, at heart, a clash between an industrial society
-generated lifestyle of human self-centeredness and an
                emerging Earth-centered, socially responsible consciousness.

            David Orton was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1934, and moved to Canada in 1957. He lives in Nova Scotia with his wife
            and daughter on an old hill farm, which has reverted to a forest. Ecological issues and green philosophy became his primary
            focus in the 1970s. He is currently involved with outlining a philosophical tendency within deep ecology, called left biocentrism.

                Deep Ecology is a philosophy that attempts to define the relationship between humans and the natural world within the context
            of the postindustrial society. An exploration of its basic tenets can help us understand the conflict between those who use and
            advocate for off-road vehicles (ORVs) and those who are opposed to their expanded use as a clash between fundamental values,
            values that ultimately determine how our societies organize themselves in relationship to the larger living Earth.
                Deep ecology was first articulated by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970s. In 1984, Naess and George
            Sessions spelled out the deep ecology platform, considered by most followers to be “the heart of deep ecology.”[i] Though fairly
            abstract, it clearly establishes that all nonhuman life forms­including landscapes, streams, and mountain ­have intrinsic value
            that is not dependent on human purpose.
                There is a tentativeness to deep ecology, an openness, a lack of any set of doctrines or specific agendas. At the same time, as
            Naess says,  “Nearly all supporters of the deep ecology movement are likely to believe they have found some truths.”[ii] Deep
            ecology sees humanity as part of nature and inseparable from it; if we ignore nature, we injure ourselves. Deep ecology is also part
            of the larger international green movement, the first social movement in history to advocate a lower material standard of living from
            the perspective of industrial consumerism.[iii] This movement understands that although social justice for all humans is important,
            the struggle to achieve it must defer to, or work in conjunction with, the well-being of the Earth and all her life forms.
                The ethics that underpin how we act in this world are based on and informed by how we view and interpret reality, including our
            concept of self. Opposing sides in the conflict about ORV use appear to have quite contrasting definitions of self. For supporters of
            deep ecology, the personal self seeks to move beyond anthropocentric consciousness until it becomes the ecological Self
            (capitalized here to convey the expansion of personal self-consciousness to an ecological Self-consciousness, which encompasses
            the well-being of the Earth), which comes to include all other beings as well as the planet itself. Within this context, in which the
            land and the creatures it supports are seen and felt as an extension of that Self, the harassment of wildlife or the scarring of bog
            lands by off-road vehicles is felt as a personal injury. Nature is not to be mastered but rather adapted to. The ecological Self is
            often experienced most readily by people who, although possibly philosophically unaware, have a strong sense of place,
            people rooted in, deeply intimate with, and fiercely protective of the local area where they live.
                For deep ecology supporters, the natural world is very real, despite the post-modernist critique of reality. The social world,
            however, which fundamentally impacts the natural world, as in the struggle over ORV use, is socially constructed, and rests on
            unquestioned assumptions. By referring to the debate over ORVs, we can begin to highlight and challenge these assumptions and
            offer a different viewpoint and ontology, and alternative definitions of self.
                                                                                        *  *  *
                You have to stand with the trees and animals if you want the trees to stand and the animals to live. And although deep ecology
            does not map out political strategies or give practical lessons in organizing, those who accept its basic concepts find it imperative
            to speak up for the Earth and defend her against all assaults. Consumer society gives a sense of false self-identity through the
            acquisition of material goods, a helpful deception in an economy that needs to continually expand and generally operates without
            any sense of ecological limits. When looked at from this perspective, the evident alienation from nature so many ORV riders
            exhibit with their belligerent embrace of speed and noise should come as no surprise.
                As we examine the underlying assumptions at the core of the debate over the use of off-road vehicles on public or any other land,
            the following basic concepts from deep ecology may prove useful for framing the deeper issues at stake:
                Nonhuman-Centeredness. Overwhelmingly, discussions about ORVs center around conflicts between humans. Although
            important, this is only one aspect of the issue. According to deep ecology, humans do not hold a privileged position on the planet.
            As a species, we are just one member of a community of beings, each of which is the result of billions of years of evolution. Deep
            ecology rejects the idea of a hierarchy of organisms with humans on top and instead explores a new and necessary relationship to
            nature, wherein all species of animals and plants maintain their intrinsic values, not determined by humans. The Western cosmology
            of industrial growth (equated with “progress”) includes no defense of wild nature or animals. This industrial cosmology, or
            worldview, would have difficulty understanding the wonderful words of Calvin Martin, speaking about animistic hunter/gatherer
            societies: “Only a fool would imagine himself as somehow exclusively a human being.”[iv] Industrial societies have
            disenfranchised all other beings and the natural world itself at the same time that human communication and mobility have
            exploded. Thus, deep ecology enables us to see beyond the human focus of the debate.
                Necessity for a New Spiritual Relationship to Nature. In order for industrial capitalism to commodify the Earth, it had to
            undermine the Earth’s animistic spirituality. A future Earth-centered society will need to be organized around an ecocentric
            morality that contains a spiritual or sacred dimension and is not based on economics. Suiting or gearing up for riding a
            powerful and noisy all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or snowmobile and putting on a totally enclosing helmet removes a person
            from any sense of an interdependent relationship with wild nature and with other people.
                Placing the Responsibility for the Contemporary Ecological Crisis on the Industrial Capitalist Society. A society
            oriented toward continuous economic and population growth ­consumerism without end ­where profit is the principal
            determinant of all value and where the economy controls society, cannot be sustainable in the long term. There is, at the very
            least, a thematic link between the robbing of the Earth’s natural wealth and increased ORV use. Take, for example, industrial
            forestry or pulp mill clear-cut forestry. These activities have not only destroyed the rich biodiversity of the Acadian forests in
            the Maritimes region of Canada, as elsewhere, but have, through the expansion of road and trail networks and the clear-cuts
            themselves, facilitated and effectively promoted ORV use. Another example would be the recently installed high pressure
            natural gas pipeline that snakes across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to United States markets; its construction opened up
            previously inaccessible areas to ORV use.
                Opposition to the Idea of “Private Property” in Nature. As Arne Naess has said: “The ideology of ownership of nature
            has no place in an ecosophy.”[v] (Within the philosophy of deep ecology, the term ecosophy is used to mean the personal
            code of values guiding one’s interaction with the natural world.) No one can own the Earth, whether from a state, individual,
            indigenous, or collective point of view. Actually, the Earth owns us, we are its creatures. We are holders of a usufruct rather
            than private owners of the natural world. This means that we may have the right of use, but that the terms of that use are
            ultimately governed by and accountable to some form of ecocentric governance much wider than human society. The concept
            of private property or ownership is a social convention, arrogant in its assertion that humans can “own” other species and the
            land itself.
                For example, deep ecology suggests that woodlot owners should not have the right to destroy their woodlots for economic
            reasons. Even the term woodlot is human centered and implies that the function of a forest is to produce timber for human
            consumption. If responsibility to the Earth and to future human generations is factored into ownership criteria, woodlot owners
            need to be socially accountable for their treatment of the woodlot. Such behavior cannot include allowing, for example,
            destructive forestry practices or the use of ORVs, which mutilates the environment of the woodlot. Ownership should be seen
            as a privilege attached to a set of obligations. Those who destroy or degrade their woodlots should suffer definite social and
            criminal sanctions. The model to aim for, until ecocentric governance arrives, is that of passing on the woodlot in better
            condition than it was in when one received it, bearing in mind the well-being of all the plant and animal species living there.
                Deep Ecology as Lived Philosophy. We have to live the philosophy of deep ecology to the largest extent possible. This
            means voluntary simplicity: leaving footprints instead of tire treads, minimizing consumption, and maintaining a bioregional
            focus, or “living locally.” The advertising industry creates illusory needs, which then become erroneously defined as vital
            needs that are part of an unquestioned lifestyle, in turn often taken for granted as necessary. For someone influenced by deep
            ecology, overcoming material desires and taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions is part of living as simply as
            possible. This is also part of the personal, spiritual path that prepares today’s eco-warrior to break from the seeming death
            curse of industrial society. It should also be noted that this deep ecology view of personal responsibility is opposed to the
            more traditional leftist view of explaining individual behaviors as mainly socially and historically determined.
                On the complete opposite end of the spectrum stands the “Wise Use” movement, a social response in North America to
            the rise of environmentalism, and one whose ranks are undoubtedly swelled with recreational ORV users. The view this
            movement proposes is that nature should not be “locked up” in parks or wilderness reserves and that human access to what
            they call resources must always have priority. In this context, if riding a powerful machine is a deep and integral part of an
            ORV user’s individual and cultural sense of self, then all of nature can be viewed as a resource to satisfy what has come to
            be misleadingly felt as a basic and vital need.

Conflicting Visions, Conflicting Strategies                                   

                Deep ecology can arm those who seek a deeper alternative to the industrial status quo by raising alternative visions when it
            comes to discussing specific environmental issues, such as off-road vehicle use. Unfortunately, mainstream environmentalists
            sometimes view these deeper ecological visions as counterproductive to achieving immediate goals and may seek to exclude
            them from public discussions. For example, when mainstream environmentalists are trying to impose a regulatory regime on
            ORV users rather than fundamentally challenge their right to ride, they do not particularly welcome those more radical voices,
            perhaps informed by deep ecology, who publicly raise questions about the destructive, economic-growth trajectory of industrial
            consumer capitalism, increasing human populations, and the coming end of the fossil fuel economy.  
                Must we accept, as one mainstream environmentalist put it, that good or bad, ORVs are here to stay? If so, then the focus on
            regulations becomes all-consuming. More regulations will not bring the ORV situation under control. For although a regulatory
            focus can, to some extent, minimize the costs to nature or to human society arising from the current explosion of recreational
            ORV use, it does not call into question the actual industrial capitalist system itself and its cultural assumptions. Fundamental
            assumptions, so clearly reflected in this use, remain unquestioned, such as issues of private property rights and the emerging
            concept of ecocentric governance, where animals and plants are our relatives, our brothers and sisters, and where the Earth
            itself cannot be “owned” by humans.
                Deep ecology supporters believe that, despite the good intentions of those who seek to regulate and limit the escalating use
            of ORVs, the destruction they cause will not end until there is a basic shift in values within our society. The work of contributing
            to such a shift aims to foster alternative visions of the “good” society so that such visions become part of the public discourse
            and result in fundamental changes in behavior. Some have dubbed this the work of “paradigm warriors.” And although the
            needed paradigm shifts are not within our individual grasp, our incremental work in critiquing the dominant paradigm of values
            and proposing an alternative does contribute to such shifts. To end or severely restrict ORV use is ultimately an issue of
            instigating a paradigm shift, not establishing a new set of regulations.
                All of that said, however, it is important to distinguish between those who use ORVs for recreation, and those, like many of
            my neighbors in rural Nova Scotia, who own ATVs and snowmobiles to assist them in domestic or farm chores. We must
            consider the possibility that there could be a limited and carefully circumscribed role for ORVs in a work-related capacity, even
            when there should be no role for them as recreational vehicles. It is important that activists try to socially isolate the large
            numbers of recreational riders who use such vehicles for hunting, fishing, trapping, general joy riding, and communal outings.
            They constitute the main problem, and it can be counterproductive to oppose the rural residents who uses an ATV or
            snowmobile to assist with essential chores   ­like bringing in the winter wood ­and who themselves often suffer from the
            “organized” recreational ORV use of others.

Shifting Paradigms, Changing Consciousness                                   

                In order to achieve a fundamental change in popular consciousness, we must move our definitions of self away from the
            acquisition of consumer goods and open people’s eyes to the damage done by such machines to the natural world. We
            need a fundamental change in what we could call our ecopsychology, a move to what Naess has called the ecological Self.
            The discussion about ORVs can be one more means of bringing about such a change in human consciousness. And this
            change could start by realizing that putting a down payment on an ORV (a high-end ATV can cost more than $12,000
            per unit; a snowmobile can retail for over $10,000) does not give one the right of entry to nature, let alone the right to aid
            in her destruction; that to enter the outdoors does not require a motorized vehicle. All we really need to bring to the
            outdoors is a humble and nonintrusive attitude, a sense of responsibility for one’s own safety, and the goal of returning to
            the point of entry.
                Arne Naess asserts that our lifestyles (in North America and Western Europe) should be a model for the rest of the
            world’s population, not something impossible and undesirable for them to attain. In that light, we need to look at ORVs
            as well as all the other taken-for-granted consumer goodies. Rudolf Bahro, the German green philosopher and activist,
            said in the 1980s that “development” was finished and that industrialized nations needed to reduce their impact upon the
            Earth to one-tenth of what it then was.[vi] These are the kinds of ideas that should become part of the off-road vehicle
                How does one change the right-to-ride mindset of many ORV riders? When one sees the hostility expressed toward
            the “tree hugger,” it can seem a hopeless task. The ORV debate is a cultural clash between an industrial, consumeristic,
            human-centered selfishness that essentially disregards other social and ecological interests, and a new Earth-centered
            consciousness, informed by deep ecology and considerations of social justice and equality. This new consciousness was
            spawned in the radical environmental movement and is now entering society at large. Contributing to this cultural tipping
            point is the importance of paradigm warrior work: to force an ecocentric alternative into the public consciousness. The
            ORV debate is such an arena for cultural change work, a step on the path to ending our alienation from nature and from
            each other.


            [i] Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered (Layton, UT: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.,
            1985), 70.

            [ii] Arne Naess, “Response to Peder Anker,” in Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy,
            eds. Nina Witoszek and Andrew Brennan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 446.

            [iii] Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (London and
            New York: Zed Books, 1999), 227.

            [iv] Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time (London and Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
            University Press, 1992), 18.

            [v] Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, trans. and ed. David Rothenberg (Cambridge,
            UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 175.

            [vi] Rudolf Bahro, Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation, rev. ed., trans. David Clarke
            (Bath, England: Gateway Books, 1994).

            This article appeared in Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation, editor George Wuerthner,
            published by Foundation for Deep Ecology, distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007.

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