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Tribute: Is your ecology deep or shallow?


In 1973, Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss coined the concept of ‘deep ecology’, arguing that only a “deep” transformation of modern society could prevent ecological collapse. Næss criticized one-sided technological approaches in dealing with environmental problems, an attitude he called ‘shallow ecology’. A tribute to the visionary thinker, including a documentary-film on his life and work.

Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times

A look back at the work of Arne Naess (1912–2009), the philosopher and mountaineer who divided ecological thinking and action into deep and shallow.

William Grimes described Naess’s concept of “deep ecology” this way in The Times:

Its central tenet is the belief that all living beings have their own value and therefore, as Mr. Naess once put it, “need protection against the destruction of billions of humans.” Deep ecology, which called for population reduction, soft technology and non-interference in the natural world, was eagerly taken up by environmentalists impatient with shallow ecology — another of Mr. Naess’s coinages — which did not confront technology and economic growth. Read more…

I sought comments on Naess’s work and character from a few contacts who either knew him well or were familiar with his thinking. Did he influence you? Was he too over the top? Here are some reactions, with more to follow in the comment stream:

Paul Hawken, the author of Blessed Unrest:

He was the one who got it right and thus the person so many made wrong. I know him only by his writings and those he influenced. If there was a true north in the environmental field, it would be his work and indigenous teachings. He remained firmly centered on the core of life processes. There was never any Cartesian discursiveness. Just the unsettling truth of our existence, both its preciousness and precariousness. A good man.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, of Yale’s program on religion and ecology, just returned from a meeting in Taiwan and here adds her thoughts [UPDATE 1/19]:

When I first met Arne Naess in 1990, he was filled with humor, play, and endless teasing with George Sessions who was at the same gathering. He was a philosopher with a twinkle in his eye who loved a good joke. And yet there was more. Arne Naess was not only one of the most influential thinkers in environmental philosophy, he was a person who embodied his quest for an ever deeper ecology.

He resonated with nature in ways few people have managed to achieve in the modern world. His philosophical perception did not end with ideas in the mind but extended to the living quality of nature itself. His skin met the skin of trees, plants, flowers, water, and most of all mountains. With his many years spent in the mountainous regions of his native Norway he challenged all of us to “think like a mountain”. If this alone did not break us open from arm chair philosophizing probably nothing would. Arne’s greatest legacy may be just this radical and fresh kind of thinking into the depths of a living world.

David Rothenberg, a friend and philosopher who translated some of Naess’s works into English, send an excerpt from an earlier piece he wrote explaining how Naess’s influence extends to former Vice President Al Gore’s views in “Earth in the Balance”:

Together with George Sessions, Naess politicized deep ecology by putting forth a platform of eight points that turn his conceptual idea into an ethical manifesto: 1) The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth has intrinsic value. The value of nonhuman life forms is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes. 2) Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves. 3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. 4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening. 5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in the human population. 6) Significant change of life conditions for the better requires change in economic and technological policies. 7) Life quality should be given more primacy than a high standard of living. 8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.

This platform was specifically adopted by radical environmental groups such as Earth First! as their guiding philosophy, but deep ecology may have reached its greatest popular prominence when Senator Al Gore wrote in his 1989 book “Earth in the Balance” that, “We must change the fundamental values at the heart of our civilization” in order to solve global environmental problems. This is deep ecology in a nutshell, and by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the majority of educated people is finally going along with it, even if they may not realize where the idea came from.

Peter Singer, the ethicist focused on interspecies and human relations:

Yes, I read him. He played an important role in providing an alternative to the idea that the value of preserving the ecology lies in the benefits to humans and other sentient beings. But I don’t think he ever did much to elucidate the values at stake, or how we were to weigh the different values involved in protecting the environment. I met him when he visited Monash in 1980. He was asked to launch D.H. Monro’s book, Ethics and the Environment (Monro was my predecessor in the chair at Monash, and by then was an Emeritus). He launched the book, but did so with a stinging critique of what he regarded as its “shallow” environmentalism. Monro was somewhat taken aback, and said “Aren’t people who launch books supposed to say something positive about them?”

David Orton (a self-described “anti-industrial biocentrist”), wrote a long appreciation of Naess (pdf), from which I’ve excerpted this short interpretation of the philosopher’s distinction between deep and shallow ecology:

Naess defined the shallow ecology movement, which he says is more influential than the deep ecology movement, as “Fight against pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.” The shallow approach takes for granted beliefs in technological optimism, economic growth, and scientific management and the continuation of existing industrial societies. Naess expressed it this way: “The supporters of shallow ecology think that reforming human relations toward nature can be done within the existing structure of society.” (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 16.)

Naess defined the “deep movement”, which seeks the transformation of industrial capitalist societies who have brought about the existing environmental crisis, by putting forward seven main points. The article is only a few pages long, but profound and showing the complexity of Naess. He pointed out that biological complexity required a corresponding social and cultural complexity. Outlined is an “anti-class posture” and how anti-pollution devices can, because of increasing the “prices of life necessities” increase class differences. He stressed local autonomy and decentralization. Read more… (pdf)


Daniel B. Botkin
, an ecologist and author of many books on environmental history, told me to look at the opening chapter of “No Man’s Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature,” for his critique of Naess. I noticed it’s distilled on Wikipedia (which I don’t normally link to but will here).

John GrimYale Forum on Religion and Ecology:

I met Arne at the “Universe Story” gathering in Marin County some years back – Jamuary 1990 – at which I discussed with him his position on the role of religions in explicating his ideas about inner ecological attunement. He was open to a plurality of positions in this regard rather than the strong
Hindu-Upanishadic explication he presents in his writings. On another more personal dimension, it was obvious he had deep affection for mountain climbing and used metaphors from that activity to describe his thought. He knew how to dance… a truly playful being.

TRIBUTE

Excerpted from: Arne Næss – the next hundred years

Johan Galtung, Transnational.org

What was his basic theme? In one word: nonviolence, but in a broader and deeper sense than most approaching demanding idea.

Arne Næss was very sensitive to verbal violence in debates; his answer was objectivity. He identified physical violence in political struggle; his answer was Gandhian nonviolence, strongly inspired as a student in Paris early 1930s by Indian students strongly convinced that nonviolence was the way.

He identified violence against nature, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and his own closeness to nature as a mountaineer; his answer was deep ecology.

He identified violence to reality through the logico-empirical straitjacket of positivism, a philosophy he shared as a younger man but gradually left in favor of what he called possibilism, the diversity of the world inspired by Duhem-Poincaré’s thesis of theory manifold.

And he identified violence to philosophy by reducing it to Western philosophy, starting with a Geek and ending with a French or German philosopher. His answer was a world philosophy at least open to Indian and Chinese thought.

Arne Næss was very sensitive to verbal violence in debates; his answer was objectivity. He identified physical violence in political struggle; his answer was Gandhian nonviolence, strongly inspired as a student in Paris early 1930s by Indian students strongly convinced that nonviolence was the way.

He identified violence against nature, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and his own closeness to nature as a mountaineer; his answer was deep ecology.

He identified violence to reality through the logico-empirical straitjacket of positivism, a philosophy he shared as a younger man but gradually left in favor of what he called possibilism, the diversity of the world inspired by Duhem-Poincaré’s thesis of theory manifold.

And he identified violence to philosophy by reducing it to Western philosophy, starting with a Geek and ending with a French or German philosopher. His answer was a world philosophy at least open to Indian and Chinese thought.

Philosophy is pluralistic, like the world. He wanted diverse images of the world, and also many possible worlds, in symbiosis. Næss was a moralist. He expressed his ideas analytically, but also normatively, as Thou shalt.

His deep ecology was summarized in eight normative propositions:

1. That human and other forms of life unfold on earth has a value in its own right regardless of the use value for narrow human purposes;

2. The diversity and richness of all forms of life has a value in its own right;

3. Human beings have no right to reduce this diversity which in no way limits the satisfaction of their needs;

4. The complete realization of the potentials of individual human beings and the diversity of cultures is compatible with a reduction of the size of the human population; the preservation and further development of the diversity and richness of forms of life presuppose that reduction unless, alternatively, we change our style of life fundamentally, which seems improbable;

5. The human intervention in nature at the present time is indefensible and the deterioration of the situation accelerates;

6. Basic improvement presupposes fundamental change of economic, technical and ideological structures to a joyful experience of how “everything hangs together”, the so-called struggle against nature becomes meaningless;

7. The ideological change will be in terms of search for quality of life rather than standard of living, and a concern for goals rather than means for their own sake;

8. Those who accept these points have a responsibility to try to contribute directly or indirectly to create the necessary changes.

His six theses about objectivity in debates were:

1) Avoid ad hominem, characteristics of personalities and motives, stick to the issue, the arguments;

2) Avoid biased presentation of your opponent’s arguments;

3) Avoid attributing to your opponent views he has not himself expressed;

4) Avoid presentations that are untrue, incomplete, biased, withholding relevant information;

5) Avoid irony, sarcasms, negative epithets, exaggerations, threats.

6) You serve common human interest and enrich yourself by taking in the strongest argument of your opponent against your own views, not the weakest. And you may conclude that you both have valid points to offer, that neither you nor he has monopoly on truth.


RELATED

CLASSIC ESSAY: The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary (PDF)
Arne Naess, Inquiry
In this essay The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements: A Summary, published in 1973 in the journal Inquiry,  Arne Næss coined the concept deep ecology. Therein, he argued that only a “deep” transformation of modern society could prevent an ecological collapse. Næss criticized one-sided technological approaches in dealing with environmental problems, an attitude he called shallow ecology. Instead, the design of a sustainable world should be seen not only as a question of environmental technology and economy, but also as an issue of worldviews and attitudes toward life. The ideas of deep ecology soon became adopted by environmental activists and academics. Today, they play an important role in reflections on global environmental ethics.

Remembering Arne Naess (1912-2009)
David Orton
I never met personally Arne Naess, the Norwegian eco-philosopher, who, according to an Associated Press story, died on Monday January 12 . He was 96. I knew from a fairly recent contact from his wife, that he was in a nursing home and not very well. Naess – like a few others now dead, such as Aldo Leopold, Richard Sylvan, John Livingston, and Rudolf Bahro – profoundly influenced me with his ideas. His deep ecology writings helped orient my life as a green and environmental activist. His Earth-centered ideas and overall philosophy also influenced so many others.

Ecosophy from T to X (2006 essay)
Jim Cocola, n+1 magazine
How to sum up Næss’s Ecosophy T in a paragraph? For starters, he believes that we are in the midst of a grave and gathering catastrophe born of foolhardy production and consumption habits, resulting in an inequitable distribution of material wealth. Social justice, in this context, cannot be enough, for rectification by proliferation rather than by renunciation can only lead to environmental crisis and finally to collapse. Faced with such fallout, disaffected with a scientific method that proceeds in and for itself, and discontent with a pursuit of a wealth that self-propagates for its own sake, Næss looks instead to tread wisely and lightly. “Simple in means,” he sloganeers, “and rich in ends,” speaking for quality of life over and against standard of living, and celebrating the virtues of smallness and slowness in an age of scale and speed.

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