A review essay by David Orton
Earth Alive: Essays On Ecology, by Stan Rowe, NeWest Press, Edmonton, Alberta, 2006, 274 pages, paperback, ISBN: 13: 978-1-897126-03-5.
Home Place: Essays on Ecology, by Stan Rowe, NeWest Publishers Limited, Edmonton, Alberta, 1990, 253 pages, paperback, ISBN: 0-920897-78-9.
“We are Earthlings first, humans second.”
Alive, p. 21
“Neither philosophical liberalism championing liberty nor philosophical socialism championing equality will save us from ourselves. Human history will end in ecology, or nothing.” Home Place, p. 7
I recently read the book of essays Earth Alive: Essays On Ecology by the late Canadian biologist and eco-philosopher Stan Rowe (1918-2004), which was published after his death. Earth Alive contains 33 short essays or articles, seven book reviews and the “Manifesto for Earth” co-authored with Ted Mosquin. The Manifesto has become an important document for those seeking an ecocentric path, to live lightly on this planet. Many years previously, I had also read Rowe’s Home Place: Essays on Ecology, published in 1990. Home Place contains 27 essays and a 22-book bibliography, which does not include anything from Arne Naess but does include the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. After reading Earth Alive, I went back and re-read Home Place, as well as a book which earlier on had been helpful for me on forest issues – his Forest Regions of Canada. I came to believe, after thinking about it and the life’s work of Stan Rowe, that all three books should enter any attempted evaluation of his contribution to eco-philosophy. After studying Rowe, I am convinced he is an original Canadian eco-thinker to be ranked with someone like the late John Livingston, of Rogue Primate and The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation fame, and his ideas deserve to be more widely known among Greens and environmentalists. I came to also believe that it was important to try and evaluate Rowe’s attitude towards deep ecology, given the claim advanced by a few voices, and by Rowe himself in Earth Alive, that his “ecocentric” thinking was allegedly “deeper” than the “biocentrism” of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. This is a discussion which I had been engaged in for some time on the internet with Stan Rowe himself before his death and with his close collaborator Ted Mosquin. My evaluation of Rowe in this review essay is given from my own left biocentric perspective, itself situated within a basic critical acceptance of a deep ecology position.
Rowe was employed by the Canadian Forestry Service, from 1948 until 1967. What the Forestry Service does, and what Rowe says in his two books, are totally opposed to each other in philosophical orientation. As forestry service employee, in 1959 he wrote the much cited volume The Forest Regions of Canada, which was reprinted and updated in 1972. From 1968 until 1985 Rowe was employed as a professor of plant ecology at the University of Saskatchewan. He retired in 1990 and moved to New Denver in British Columbia.
After Rowe died, I found out from others that he had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War and that he had been jailed for his beliefs for several months, before being allowed out to teach the children of interned Japanese-Canadians in New Denver, British Columbia, the community to which he eventually retired. So he was a person of principle prepared to take the consequences for his beliefs.
Thanks to the internet I ‘knew’ Stan Rowe through e-mail for a few years, but I never met him in person. We both were participants in an eco-politics internet discussion list. Sometimes he wrote to me with helpful critical insights, or in support of various postings that I was responsible for, that had been distributed on the net. I was one of a number of people who commented on various drafts of the “A Manifesto for Earth” by Ted Mosquin and Stan Rowe, included in the Earth Alive book. What struck me about Stan in the e-mail exchanges I had with him, apart from his intelligence, was his kindness and his ability, perhaps like Arne Naess, to see the positive in the points of view of others that he was engaged with. I found he also was quite witty with a dry sense of self-deprecating humour, particularly welcomed when we were dealing with “hot” topics in eco-politics discussions. This wit is also well shown in some of the writings in both of the books of essays being discussed here.
“The Ecosphere (Nature) ought to be valued above people on the basis of precedence in time, evolutionary creativity and diversity and the complexity of a higher level of organization.” Home Place, p. 125
My interest is to discuss some themes in the essays pursued by Stan Rowe in his two books. Both of the books contain some very interesting, as well as some radical, ideas which need to enter popular consciousness in Canada, as elsewhere. He comes to eco-philosophy from a science background, not one of philosophy, and brings this orientation into his writings. One might even suggest he has a science hubris when he compares himself to those from a philosophical background in the deep ecology tradition. The “biological” perspective is present in many of the essays in the two books. For him, we need a new view of the Earth, not another world view. A new value system, which is Earth-centered, is being born in the current ecological crisis, and this challenges all that we have learned previously through our cultural socialization. Rowe showed me, for the first time, that it was quite false to make absolute distinctions between the organic and inorganic or between the animate and inanimate. As he says:
“What would qualify as animate, living, organic and biotic without sunlight, water, soil, air?” (Home Place, p.105)
For Rowe, living and non-living ecosystem components are not absolutely divided from each other and they claim equal importance. All the approximately 30 million organisms on our planet, cited in Earth Alive in a number of places, are ultimately born of “star dust.” The unity of body, mind and the Earth for this author has come to be understood from the “science” of ecology, to which he devoted so much of his life.
His writings clearly show that, first and foremost, he would describe himself as an “earthling” – part of Mother Earth – with a quite radical ecocentric vision. His is not an anti-human position, but ecospheric health does come before human welfare. Rowe asserts that social justice is supported by ecocentric ethics in the “Manifesto for Earth” but, in my opinion, this is not demonstrated in the Manifesto or in either book of essays. Politically, Rowe placed himself on the Left. Yet he opposed both socialism and capitalism ecologically, for their common anthropocentric “rapacious” views towards Earth exploitation. Both social systems express the basic problem of species selfishness. Rowe believed however that “socialism has the virtue of extending the circle of care beyond the selfish individual, at least turning our vision outward in the right direction.” (Home Place, p. 193) The relationship to the Ecosphere must be a foundational part of the “collective versus the individual” discussion which permeates all existing political parties. Some quotes from Rowe’s writings illustrate his radicalism:
“The phrase ‘good corporate citizen’ is an oxymoron, for corporations must subordinate social and environmental responsibility to their legally sanctified bottom lines: growth and exploitation.” (Earth Alive, p. 205)
“The true business of government is no longer the welfare of its citizens – provision for ‘the common good’ – but the welfare of its corporations and business people. To this end taxes must be reduced and social services trimmed.” (Ibid, p.198)
Echoing the late Rudolf Bahro from the mid 1980s, Rowe notes:
“Labour unions are no longer rebels against the future but participants in it, their primary goal to get a bigger slice of the pie.” (Ibid, p.198)
It could also be perhaps noted that Capitalism is not explicitly opposed in the “A Manifesto for Earth” in Earth Alive, although “growth ideology” is renounced. Rowe points out to those who orient to the Earth that Ned Ludd, who has come to symbolize the destruction of industrial machinery in early nineteenth century industrial England, is a better role model than Robin Hood, who merely robbed from the rich to give to the poor.
Population growth is one of the taken-for-granted “truths” of the ruling paradigm of thought, along with economic growth, city growth, consumption growth, etc. It is a major concern for Rowe, who says we should aim for a world population of humans of about one billion people, using as a guideline the population of the Earth which existed before the advent of fossil fuel use. This is the same approximate figure for world population numbers which Arne Naess has used in the past. It is not just excessive population numbers which are opposed, but also “humanity’s preoccupation with itself.” (Home Place, p.31) For this author, Canada is “vastly overpopulated”, given the consumption patterns of Canadians.
Aboriginals and Ecocentrism
Rowe’s views on aboriginals are refreshing, and while he is generally supportive, he is not uncritical. One of the points he makes is that in the past indigenous people considered themselves “part of the earth and not owners of it” (Home Place, p. 101) and this is seen very positively. This is a support for what we have come to call animism or Earth as “the life source.” (Earth Alive, p. 91) For the author, an earth-centered ecological spirituality, not other-worldly theological spirituality, is required:
“I am convinced that, for sensory humans, the tangible Earth is divinity incarnate, and all elsewhere - ideas of ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘God’ are diversions from this fount of values.” (Ibid, p. 221)
But Rowe articulates the view that we cannot take over the old ways of those indigenous cultures, which still remain in pockets “because of a fundamental cultural gap.” (Earth Alive, p. 64) We need a new way, which for the author is ecocentrism. We have to take the best from modern and postmodern cultures and put the health of the ecosphere before the welfare of humans.
“Much can be learned from those indigenous cultures that exemplify sustainability over centuries. They can teach the fundamentals of living with one another and with Earth in ways that are relation-based rather than consumption-based, responsibility-based rather than rights-based, communal rather than individualistic.” (Ibid, p. 65)
But Rowe clearly outlines an important and unique position for contemporary ecocentric thought in his writing:
“We cannot, I believe, simply adopt traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), no matter what its face value. Only a rationale rooted in our own Western tradition can provide the needed bridge to a closer liaison with the Earth.” (Ibid, p.231)
In Earth Alive, we are shown Stan Rowe as reviewer, where his critical intelligence is on display, with reviews of a number of books which were important for him, by people like Kirkpatrick Sale, Jerry Mander, Thomas Berry, Charlene Spretnak and Ken Wilbur (who is described in considerable detail as having a “convoluted” philosophy) (p. 244). In Home Place, we are told that the modern university, often described as being on the “cutting edge of research and scholarship”, actually has an “ethical vacuum at its core.” (p. 131) Rowe has a very good critique of modernism and postmodernism. In a striking description, he says “No language of disinterest exists.” (Earth Alive, p. 158) He sees the rebirth of a “subjective relativism” or “linguistic idealism”, with the Earth being devalued:
“My thesis is that the theorists of both Modernism and Postmodernism sacrifice body to mind, the real to the ideal. They put their faith in the artifacts and abstractions of intellect while devaluing their source and support: Planet Earth.” (Earth Alive, p. 151)
The Forest Regions of Canada, by J. S. Rowe, Canadian Forestry Service, Department of the Environment, Ottawa, 1972, 172 pages, paperback, Cat. No. Fo 47-1300.
One should have a look at Rowe’s work in the Canadian Forestry Service, in any overall evaluation of his life’s contribution. His book on Canadian forests give an illustration of this forest work.
The Forest Regions of Canada was published in 1959 under Rowe’s name. A new edition came out in 1972 and this is the volume I have. It has been utilized by myself in organizing around forests and forestry issues. It is one of those books which helps elevate one’s knowledge level about forests, in my own case in order to better combat those who destroy forests. This book outlines in broad brush strokes eight forest regions of Canada: the Boreal, Subalpine, Montane, Coast, Columbia, Deciduous, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence, and Acadian. These regions in turn are subdivided into “forest sections.” For example the Boreal Forest Region, far and away the largest forested area in Canada, has 33 sections, each with its own distinctive description of vegetation and physiography. The Acadian Forest Region, where I live, has 13 forested sections carefully described in this book. The Forest Regions of Canada seems to me to be a significant example of forest scholarship by Stan Rowe. While he stands on the shoulders of others, as of course he acknowledges, this book truly displays his basic biological awareness, as it refers to the forests of Canada. (“Grateful acknowledgment” is given by the author among others “to the member companies of the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada for much general information.”)
The contradiction for anyone engaged in environmental battles around forests and forestry, is that while the The Forest Regions of Canada should be praised as a teaching tool, the record of the federal Canadian Forestry Service – Rowe’s former employer – is another matter. The Forestry Service has consistently promoted a false consciousness, paid for by taxpayers, that everything is essentially fine in the forests of Canada and that they are being “harvested” in a responsible matter. Also, that Canada has much to teach the world on forest matters through its regular practices and by exporting ideas such as the “Model Forest” concept. This, of course, is far from the truth. The destruction of forests by industrial capitalist forestry, including the “research” for this by government agencies like the Canadian Forestry Service, is justified in endless publications. Yet the practices of such a forestry, which persist to this day, emphasize corporate profit, not forest ecology, and such practices as clear cutting, simplification of forest species in favour of those species sought by the forest industry, forest biocide promotion, wildlife destruction because of habitat loss, and entrenched opposition to those forest activists across Canada who try to bring forward some ecological and social accountability for what the forest industry is all about.
The provincial governments, in “partnership” with the federal Canadian Forestry Service, are responsible under the Constitution for “resource” extraction, such as from forests. These provincial governments, like the one in Nova Scotia where I live, turn the very extensive forested lands – so-called Crown or public lands – into essentially industrial-extraction lands through very long-term, normally automatically renewable leases. The leases become part of the “assets” of a forest company even if it changes ownership, to give alleged security of tenure. This means industrial “use” of the forests becomes locked in on Crown lands, essentially preventing or making very difficult other uses, such as new parks or protected areas. Industrial lease-holders demand to be “compensated” for forested land removed from any long-term lease! Public forest lands in reality become privatized because of the leases to the forest industry. Alleged public discussions by provincial governments about the best use for crown forest lands, a fairly regular occurrence in Nova Scotia, are really futile exercises of a make-believe democracy, because the long-term industrial leases are taken as givens and not up for discussion.
A question that comes to mind is whether a book such as the The Forest Regions of Canada ultimately becomes a guide for the forest industry, as to what remains available for commercial exploitation. (A deep ecology-inspired critique of Canadian and US forestry practices is the well illustrated 1993 publication, Clearcut: The Tragedy Of Industrial Forestry.) Rowe himself, in Earth Alive, referred to Canada’s boreal forest as having earned the title “Lumberyard of the World.” (p. 62)
Relationship to Deep Ecology
“In the biocentric movement we are biocentric or ecocentric. For us it is the ecosphere, the whole planet, Gaia, that is the basic unit, and every living being has an intrinsic value.” (Arne Naess, The Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 18)
The 1990 book of essays Home Place has no discussion of deep ecology, but it does advance a critique of “biocentrism” as “a dangerous detour from the Way.” (p. 142) Earth Alive, published after Stan Rowe’s death, has quite a number of observations about deep ecology. I think the following quote from this book outlines how Rowe see his differences with deep ecology, and why he considers his own views “deeper” than those of Naess:
“The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess suggested that the reigning superficial view, with its trust in science/technology to cure environmental woes, be called ‘shallow environmentalism.’ In contrast to this prevalent human-centered faith Naess advocated ‘deep ecology’ based on recognizing the intrinsic values of all organic life-forms on Earth. An even deeper ecology values Nature as Earth, its land and water ecosystems, including all their dependent life-forms of which humanity is one.” (p. 204.)
Earth Alive also includes “A Manifesto for Earth” which is seen by its authors, Rowe and Ted Mosquin, as presenting a distinct position towards the deep ecology philosophy which they oppose in some sense. Overall, one draws the impression, from the main book under discussion, that Rowe has quite an ambivalent attitude towards deep ecology. While there are a number of supportive statements, Rowe feels his ecophilosophy is rooted in a “deeper” ecology than that of Arne Naess. I agree with some of the criticisms against Naess raised by Rowe, and they have been made by other deep ecology writers. For example, the criticism of the “individualism” of Naess, or that Naess seems to lack an appreciation of the strength of cultural traditions in preventing an ecocentric consciousness from emerging in society.
Despite such criticisms or pointing out various other short-comings, what is wrong with asserting that one is writing as an “authentic” deep ecology supporter? (Advice from the late Richard Sylvan to myself and also followed by himself.) This need not inhibit one’s critical faculties. Sylvan, speaking of his own deep-green theory and authentic deep ecology in his book The Greening of Ethics, said: “Both are fully ecocentric, non anthropocentric theories; that is both are green, both are deep.” (p. 153) As Marx expressed for us in a social justice context so long ago, regarding the relationship of theory or philosophy to activism: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” (Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach)
I have argued unsuccessfully in the past, on an internet discussion group, against the negative “biocentric” view of deep ecology that Stan Rowe and Ted Mosquin shared, and which I believed to be mistaken. I also urged, again unsuccessfully, that both should see their work with the Manifesto as building on, and in the deep ecology tradition, and not as somehow “unique” and in opposition in some philosophical sense to this tradition. For Rowe, as he shows in the Earth Alive Manifesto discussion, “biocentrism” – which deep ecology is tarred with in his thinking – is only a short step away from reverting to “a chauvinistic homocentrism.” (Earth Alive, p. 254) And he sees deep ecologists essentially as “Biocentric Philosophers.” (Ibid, p. 221)
The language of the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform is generally used by Rowe to make his case that deep ecology is only biocentric. Although the language in the Platform is perhaps sloppy, the reality is that most deep ecology supporters use the terms biocentric and ecocentric interchangeably. Thus, for example, Earth First! supporters, who frequently use the term “biocentric ” in articles in the Earth First! Journal, and declare a general support for deep ecology, do have as their defining slogan “Earth First!”. The theoretical tendency left biocentrism also uses biocentrism and ecocentrism interchangeably. I think Earth First! has become the slogan which best encapsulates the deep ecology philosophy.
The quotation from The Selected Works of Naess, given above, makes the point that deep ecology orients fundamentally to the Earth, or the ecosphere, and uses the term “biocentrism” in a very expansive manner. Naess uses “life ” to include both biocentrism and ecocentrism. Thus life can include landscapes, streams, mountains and wilderness. I have come to consider the biocentrism/ecocentrism discussion to be a pseudo-disagreement and not a real disagreement between Rowe’s ecophilosophy and the deep ecology advanced by Naess – although it was obviously real for Rowe and Mosquin.
I myself believe that those of us on the ecocentric path, like Stan Rowe – who has made a real contribution through the two books of essays and the kind of life he lived – need to see ourselves as inspired by, and indebted to the work of Arne Naess and acknowledge this openly. This does not mean becoming Naess’ clones and does not diminish anyone’s personal contribution. It is within the ecocentric AND biocentric path first theoretically sketched out by Naess that we can make our own unique contributions, whether theoretical or practical. (Others, of course, contributed in their own way, like Richard Routley, later Sylvan, with the 1973 article “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic” [see Proceedings of the XV World Congress of Philosophy, No. 1.], or even earlier, Aldo Leopold, with A Sand County Almanac, which was published after his death.) But we need to convey this existing theoretical/philosophical path awareness to all who are seeking theoretical guidance in matters of eco-politics. In this way, those we seek to influence can see that the theoretical way forward already exists and is called deep ecology. This existing and still evolving ecocentric path means it is not “unique” to a particular ecocentric author that we may have stumbled upon. If writers claim uniqueness, which too often seems to be the situation particularly among academic writers, when in actual fact they are part of an ecocentric tradition philosophically kick-started by Arne Naess, then this can be seen as a form of personal arrogance. It is also not helpful to building the needed eco-political movement for social change.
One interesting possible “difference” that Rowe has with deep ecology is his view that ecocentrism does not mean that “all organisms have equivalent value.” (Earth Alive, p. 68) This position does not seem to be further developed, although Rowe does say elsewhere in this book that deep ecologists “wrongly” argue that the needed social reforms would be brought about, irrespective of faith differences, if people believed that “all organisms are inherently valuable.” (pp. 115-116) He also uses the term “resource” in a way which seems to imply a nature banquet solely spread out for humans, when he defines ecological sustainability as:
“Harmonizing humans and their lifestyles with the resources of the ecological regions where they live – which seems to me the only reasonable long-term definition of ecological sustainability.” (Ibid, p. 73)
Rowe says deep ecology has “ethics by extension”, that is, Naess comes to an ecological ethic working from the individual outwards to an Earth consciousness, the whole concern being with Self-realization. In opposition, what Rowe proposes as a superior preference, is “ethics by inclusion” where the Earth is acknowledged as the main reality in which humanity is to be situated. (See Earth Alive, p. 171-172) Rowe feels this ethics by extension is not a sufficient basis for an ecocentric ethic, because it can easily relapse back to human-centeredness.
Aldo Leopold also had, with his Land Ethic, ethics by extension (noted by the late Richard Sylvan). Leopold has had an enormous impact in North America and brought large numbers to come to understand what it means to “think like a mountain.” He is seen by some as the first US deep ecologist, even though this term did not exist when he was alive.
The use by deep ecology supporters of “Councils of All Beings” is perhaps another successful use of ethics by extension as a teaching tool. Another example is someone in my local area in Nova Scotia who has a young people’s camp focused on Nature bonding, which has been operating for many years and to which schools organize visits. The camp speaks in its literature of including deep ecology among its influences. It successfully uses “totem” animals or plants for the individual children to adopt. Through adopting these totems, the camp seeks to bring the campers to an understanding of the interconnections of the natural world, and humanity’s subordinate place in it, which Rowe and deep ecology supporters equally seek for our society. I think one could argue that Rowe’s ecocentrism is more scientifically correct than an organism’s perspective, although it is also more abstract. (I do not accept, as I have argued here, that prioritizing organisms over the ecosphere is the position of deep ecology and Naess.) But eco-politics is not just about science but also about mobilizing others. The use of totems was central to past animistic societies for conveying a needed respectful spiritual identity towards the Earth. It has also been successful in the Nova Scotia camp situation, for youth to bond with the natural world. Clearly, ethics of extension and ethics of inclusion, as defined here, both have a place in the much needed work to change personal and societal consciousness in an ecocentric direction.
I have tried to show that Stan Rowe was at the forefront of Canadian ecocentric thinking. He is a treasure, like the late John Livingston, and both have helped so many of us come to see the importance of being Earth-centered and what this really means. Rowe used his own life experiences in the essays in Home Place and Earth Alive so as to deepen the readers’ appreciation of the natural world. He was also sympathetic and supportive of the orientation of the left biocentric theoretical tendency, which seeks to reconcile ecocentrism and social justice. I am full of admiration for the contribution, both ecocentric and political, that Rowe made. He was a person of the Left who saw the importance of social justice, even if this was not yet perhaps satisfactorily integrated with his ecocentric philosophy.
My main criticism of Stan Rowe in this review is that he did not see himself as writing in the deep ecology tradition established by Arne Naess but in some way saw his own ideas as in opposition to those of Naess. He saw his own ecocentric ideas as “deeper” than those of Naess. I have argued in this essay that Rowe was quite mistaken in ascribing biocentrism, as he understood this, as an overall adequate description of the deep ecology philosophy.
Stan Rowe was someone who can be an ecocentric (and social justice) role model for those trying to come into a sustainable relationship with the Earth. This notwithstanding the critical comments raised in my essay, about his understanding of and his relationship to the philosophy of deep ecology. I urge those on a deeper ecological path to read the two books of essays. They are not generally hard to read. They are thoughtful, illustrate the ecocentric perspective, show how attuned he was to the natural world around him and also show the consistent pro-feminism to which he subscribed.
Last updated: September 09, 2012