Environmental Humanities

Deep ecology

April 30, 2012, 10:16 pm
Content Cover Image


Deep ecology is one of the principal schools in contemporary environmental philosophy. The term was first used by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972 in his paper "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement." The term was intended to call for a fundamental rethinking of environmental thought that would go far beyond anthropocentric (human-centered) and reform environmentalism that sought merely to adjust environmental policy. Instead of limiting itself to the mitigation of environmental degradation and sustainability in the use of natural resources, deep ecology is self-consciously a radical philosophy that seeks to create profound changes in the way we conceive of and relate to nature.

Three meanings of the term 'deep ecology'

The term 'deep ecology' has been used in three main ways. First, it refers to a deep questioning about environmental issues. It probes the fundamental causes of environmental problems and the underlying worldview of environmental policies. In this it follows the view of historian Lynn White, who argued that environmental problems are rooted in religious worldviews and that real solutions must involve a change at that fundamental level. Assumptions about the value of nature and the relationship between humans and the natural world, for instance, shape the way we view and interact with nature. Deep ecology is “deep” because it reflects critically on those fundamental assumptions. In this sense, deep ecology refers to any environmental philosophy that critiques deep-seated worldviews and proposes a radical alternative.

Second, deep ecology refers to a platform, first formulated as eight principles by Arne Naess and George Sessions in 1984. Those principles are as follows:

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

The intent of this platform is to articulate central views and values that a variety of schools of environmental thought could agree on. Various worldviews, from Buddhism to ecosocialism, could be the foundation of these principles, and the principles could be put into practice in divergent ways. In this sense, deep ecology specifies a common philosophic core while remaining open to a pluralism of worldviews and policies.

The third and most common meaning of the term deep ecology is a philosophy of nature that are in line with this platform but are more specific in their views and values. Deep ecology in this sense refers to the views of environmental philosophers such as Arne Naess and Warwick Fox, in contrast to the views found in ecofeminism and social ecology. This restricted sense of deep ecology is characterized by the following principles:

  1. Holism. Nature is seen holistically, as an integrated system, rather than as a collection of individual things. The “oneness” of nature, however, is not monistic, denying the reality of individuals and difference. Rather, the natural world consists of an organic wholeness, a dynamic field of interaction of diverse species and their habitats. In fact, that diversity is essential to the health of the natural world.
  2. No ontological divide. Humans are fully a part of nature, and there is no ontological separation between our species and other ones.
  3. Self. Individually, each person is not an autonomous individual but rather a self-in-Self, a distinct node in the web of nature.
  4. Biocentric egalitarianism. Nature has unqualified intrinsic value, with humans having no priveleged place in nature's web. Emphasis is placed on value at holistic levels, such as populations, ecosystems, and the Earth as a whole, rather than individual entities.
  5. Intuition. A sensuous, intuitive communion with the Earth is possible, and it gives us needed insight into nature and our relationship to it. Scientific knowledge is necessary and useful, but we need a holistic science that recognizes the intrinsic value of the Earth and our interdependence with it.
  6. Environmental devastation. Nature is undergoing a cataclysmic degradation, an ecological holocaust, at the hands of human societies.
  7. Anti-anthropocentrism. This destructiveness is rooted in anthropocentrism, an arrogant view that we are separate from and superior to nature, which exists to serve our needs.
  8. An ecocentric society. The goal at a social level is a society that is based on an ecocentric view of nature and that lives in harmony with the natural tendencies and the limits of natural world.
  9. Self-realization. The goal at an individual level is to fully realize one’s identification with nature. This involves neither a sense of an independent self nor the loss of the self in the oneness of nature. Self-realization is the full awareness of the self-in-Self.
  10. Intuitive morality. The moral ideal, then, does not involve ethics in the traditional sense of a separate self rationally deriving principles of how we ought to behave. Rather, it is a realization of our identification with nature which yields a spontaneous, intuitive tendency to avoid harm and to flourish. As John Seed has said of his work on the rainforest, “I am the rainforest defending itself.”

Common characteristics of deep ecology

One of the common characteristics of deep ecology is the valorization of wilderness. Since nature is being destroyed by human exploitation and manipulation, the ideal is to be found in areas in which there has been virtually no such use and control. In wilderness areas we see how nature works without human interference, flourishing with a complex and spontaneous order. In addition, in wilderness we recognize ourselves as but a small part of the vast richness of the natural world. For some deep ecologists, this has lead to a critical attitude toward agriculture as another instance of humans manipulating the Earth for their own ends. By contrast, hunting and gathering—gathering nature’s riches rather than controlling it—has been seen by some as an ideal human use of nature.

Another characteristic of deep ecology is a tendency to draw on the religions of other cultures. Buddhism and Native American spirituality have been particularly strong influences on deep ecology. Daoism and Hinduism have also been influential. In addition, certain Western philosophers, such as Baruch Spinoza and Martin Heidegger, have played an important role in the development of deep ecology. Also central to deep ecology have been certain poets and nature writers, such as John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, and Gary Snyder. In fact, deep ecology can be seen as a contemporary development of the preservationism first espoused by Muir. The holistic and biocentric environmental philosophy of Aldo Leopld has also been influential, and deep ecology accepts Leopold's famous statement in "The Land Ethic": “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Debating deep ecology

Deep ecology began as a critique of the “shallow ecology” of anthropocentric conservationism, epitomized by Gifford Pinchot, who saw the Earth as a set of natural resources that need to be managed for present and future generations of humans. Deep ecologists also tend to criticize the reformist environmentalism exemplified by large, mainstream environmental organizations that work within the political system to gain policy victories without challenging society’s main assumptions and values that are the ultimate cause of environmental degradation. Some deep ecologists also have criticized the animal rights movement as maintaining an implicitly anthropocentric view that extends human rights to at least some animals, and in so doing upholding a hierarchical view of nature (animals are more important than plants). They also object to the individualist approach common among animal liberationists, which they believe neglects the importance of whole systems.

There has been a vigorous, and at times shrill, debate between proponents of deep ecology and other schools of radical environmental thought. Ecofeminism has criticized deep ecology for neglecting the close ties between environmental thought and social ideology, especially the long-standing tendency to associate nature with the female and then devaluing and oppressing both. Similarly, it has criticized deep ecology’s general neglect of social problems that are caused by the logic of domination, in which some social groups are assumed to have more value and have the right to control and use others, the same logic of domination that fuels environmental destruction. In addition, ecofeminists have argued that a biocentric philosophy that ignores social injustice is not acceptable. There has also been a deep suspicion of deep ecology’s accounts of self-realization and oneness with nature, which have seemed to some ecofeminists as a metaphysical aggrandizement of the male ego as well as a holism that diminishes the value of the individual and relationships. Some of these criticisms have been based on representing deep ecology with extreme positions that are not emblematic of the central thrust of deep ecology. However, many of the criticisms have been powerful and resulted in clarifications and refinements in deep ecology philosophy. Many contemporary deep ecologists are deeply concerned about these social issues and have articulated a holism that does not diminish the reality or value of individuals and their relationships.

Social ecologists and ecosocialists have made similar critiques of deep ecology's neglect of the social dimension of environmental problems. They have in particular accused deep ecologists of neglecting issues of class and race. In addition, they have argued that deep ecology overlooks the significance of authoritarianism, hierarchy, and the nation-state as causes of environmental and social problems. Merely focusing on changing worldviews and living lightly on the land leaves the structures of power free to ravage the planet and oppress human society. Some have also been suspicious of deep ecology spirituality, which they see as irrational, superficial, and inauthentic. In turn, deep ecologists have expressed concern that the emphasis on human society by ecofeminists, social ecologists, and ecosocialists can signal a regression to anthropocentrism. And they point out that it is quite possible to have a society that exhibits social justice while devaluing and abusing the environment. However, as in the case of ecofeminism, some of the criticisms by social ecologists and ecosocialists have exposed important weaknesses in deep ecology and lead to a more comprehensive view.

In some cases, these debates have been unnecessarily antagonistic, reflecting an unbending sectarianism that fails to recognize the possibility of bringing together insights from various schools of thought. Other writers, on the other hand, have shown how different approaches can be enriched by being open to each other’s views. Roger S. Gottlieb has persuasively argued that deep ecology spirituality is compatible with keen social analysis and pragmatic political activism. John Clark has shown that social ecology and deep ecology can learn from each other. Stephanie Kaza has demonstrated that there can be a deep ecological ecofeminism. And Gary Snyder, often considered an icon of deep ecology, has significant elements of social ecology and ecofeminism in his writings.

Further Reading

  • Barnhill, David Landis, and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds. Deep Ecology and World Religion: New Essays on Sacred Ground. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1985.
  • Drengson, Alan, and Yuichi Inoue, eds. The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995.
  • Fox, Warwick. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.
  • Katz, Eric, Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg, eds. Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2000.
  • Naess, Arne. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Trans. and ed. by David Rothenberg. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Sessions, George, ed. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
  • Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
  • Zimmerman, Michael E. Contesting Earth's Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


Barnhill, D. (2012). Deep ecology. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/151670


To add a comment, please Log In.