Exploring Deep Ecology’s Strengths and Weaknesses

The enduring debate about how to best ‘manage’ environmental issues consists of a wide range of at times conflicting theories and perspectives regarding the human relationship with the natural or non-human world. The term Deep Ecology, which first emerged as a reaction to ‘Shallow Ecology’, was coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972 (Devall, 1980, p. 126). Supporters of the Deep Ecology movement critique orthodox perspectives on environmental problems and “solutions” such as resource management, technological determinism and market solutions. Deep Ecology essentially views the human relationship with the natural environment from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric perspective and attempts to move away from the traditional view that humans are somehow “above” nature. This paper will firstly, explain the principles of Deep Ecology in more detail, and then draw on some of the movement’s potential contributions, strengths and weaknesses in relation to the resolution of environmental problems.

The main platform of Deep Ecology as outlined by Naess includes ‘…a deep seated respect, or even veneration, for ways and forms of life’ (Naess, 1973, p. 95). This is the view that all life forms have an inherent and intrinsic value which is independent of human wants and needs. Naess called this ‘biological egalitarianism’ which he believed to be restricted by the current and dominant anthropocentric view of the world. Deep Ecology is predicated around an ecocentric philosophy that values all organisms and life forms seeking to promote the notion that humans are part of, and not superior to other aspects of the ecosphere. This point is aptly illustrated by the quote

‘A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty’
– Albert Einstein (Suzuki, 1997, p. 26).

Many people attribute the beginnings of deep ecological philosophy with Rachel Carson and her 1962 book Silent Spring which outlined how all living beings are interconnected by examining the effects of insect sprays and insecticides on the ecosystem. According to Carson (2002, p. 5) ‘The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings’. However, with the advent of industrialism and growing views of anthropocentrism, humans have acquired significant power to alter the biosphere leading to current environmental and social crises such as global warming, land degradation and species decline (Carson, 2002, p. 5). Biodiversity is also a key focus of supporters of Deep Ecology with the ‘ecosophy’ (ecological philosophy) maintaining that having a diverse array of species enhances the potential for survival and celebrates richness in all life forms (Naess, 1973, p. 96).

There are numerous potential benefits of adhering to the principles of Deep Ecology; and as a basic philosophy, there are many critical lessons that we can learn from this kind of thinking. These include a deep seated respect for all life forms, a non-violent egalitarian approach that values living a materially simple life and an appreciation of the intrinsic beauty of the natural world (Sessions, 1995, p. 4). In order to achieve these goals, it is clear that a general shift away from the dominant anthropocentric worldview is required. Supporters of Deep Ecology have suggested that the ecological problems that we face are set to dramatically worsen if there is not a miraculous turnaround in the way that human beings think and behave on this earth (Sessions, 1995, p. xv). As stated by Deep Ecologist George Sessions (1995, p. 4), we need to shift from a mechanic, human centric way of thinking to a more ‘…organic, ecologically interrelated, holistic systems view’.

In regards to the resolution of environmental problems, Deep Ecology can offer many potential contributions. It is Deep Ecology’s respect for the environment as a whole interrelated and connected system that will assist the alleviation of environmental issues; however this requires systemic societal change to occur (Devall, et al. 2011, p. 107). Supporters of Deep Ecology understand that we cannot continue to utilise the environment as we have done in the past. We cannot continue business as usual if we are going to solve the environmental and social problems that have been created under an anthropocentric paradigm (Devall, et al. 2011, p. 107). According to Percival (1997, p. 100), ‘There are several dangers in arguing solely from the point of view of narrow human interests’. These dangers include following what Naess (1973, p. 95) describes as ‘Shallow’ ecological lines of thought and implementing ‘Band-Aid’ solutions to environmental problems such as pollution and resource scarcity. Along with this, orthodox perspectives relating to the environment tend to reinforce entrenched existing social and cultural inequalities, catering only for the welfare and affluence of individuals in developed nations (Naess, 2008, p. 95). From a theoretical viewpoint, Deep Ecology can help to overcome these issues and create a more sustainable and socially just way of life by fundamentally questioning the current socio – political, economic and cultural structures and institutions of society (Drengson and Inoue, 1995, p. xix).

Despite the many enormous benefits of Deep Ecology regarding its role in alleviating environmental problems it is also important to note the theory’s weaknesses and limitations. Realistically, ‘radical’ environmental theories such as Deep Ecology are not likely to have much influence on mainstream cultural thought (Oelschlaeger, 1993, p. 317). We have been socialised to consider the natural environment to be a resource for our consumption and therefore, the philosophies of Deep Ecology are hard for citizens to sympathise with as they challenge the dominant anthropocentric worldview that has been ingrained in the human psyche over many years (Norton, 1994, p. 232). The suggestion that there needs to be significant individual lifestyle changes as well as dramatic long term societal changes is also hard to relate to from a political agenda which is generally focused around short term policies predicated on re-election . From a moral viewpoint, the goals of Deep Ecology regarding biological egalitarianism have the profound ability to contribute to the reduction of environmental harm. However, in order for these philosophies to be implemented and effective, Deep Ecology needs to be able to appeal to both everyday citizens and politicians so as to generate the moral and societal changes necessary to deal with the rapidly spreading ecological crisis (Norton, 1994, p. 233).

On the whole, the field of Deep Ecology which was coined by Arne Naess in the early 1970’s can offer many potential contributions to the resolution of environmental problems. The view that all life forms have an intrinsic value which is independent of human desirers presents a fresh perspective on the human relationship with the natural world and encourages people to live a more sustainable and simple life. In doing this, the field of Deep Ecology can help people to reconnect with the natural environment and thus reduce the impact of human activity. Deep Ecology is particularly useful in the fact that it provides us with an alternative way of conceptualising environmental problems and also allows us to critically question the dominant social, cultural, economic and political paradigms that inform our behaviour. Adhering to the basic principles of Deep Ecology can essentially lead to a more environmentally integrated way of life and contribute to the creation of societies that are socially, as well as ecologically equitable. Although it has many limitations and can be seen as radical, Deep Ecology offers various potential contributions to the mitigation of environmental problems and should defiantly be considered one of the most significant voices in the crucial dialogue now taking place regarding the future of the earth (Cutcliffe, 1992, p. 183).

References:

Carson, R (2002) Silent Spring, 40th Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The United States of America

Cutcliffe, S (1992) New Worlds, New Technologies, New Issues, Lehigh University Press, The United States of America

Devall, B (1980) ‘The Deep Ecology Movement’ In Natural Resources Journal, Volume 20, pp. 125 – 139

Devall, B and Drengson, A and Schroll, M (2011) ‘The Deep Ecology Movement: Origins, Development, and Future Prospects (Toward a Transpersonal Ecosophy)’ In International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 30, pp. 101 – 117

Drengson, A and Inoue, Y (1995) The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, North Atlantic Books, The United States of America

Naess, A (1973) ‘The Shallow and the Deep, Long‐range Ecology Movement. A Summary’ In Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Volume 16, pp. 95 – 100

Norton, B (1994) Toward Unity among Environmentalists, Oxford University Press, The United States of America

Oelschlaeger, M (1993) The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, Yale University Press, The United States of America

Percival, R (1997) Law and the Environment: A Multidisciplinary Reader, Temple University Press, The United States of America

Sessions, G (1995) Deep Ecology for the Twenty – First Century – Sessions, Shambhala Publications, The United States of America

Suzuki, D (1997) The Sacred Balance, Allen and Unwin, Australia

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1 Comment

  1. I found this a very interesting article to read, well done! Although Deep Ecology does present philosophies that could be deemed radical it is interesting to question whether, with the current economic turmoil being experienced around the world, populations may begin to sympathise with Naess’ stance or If they are likely to reject it?

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