Origins of Deep Ecology

Deep Ecology originated as an eco-political movement founded by philosophers Arne Naess, George Sessions, and Bill Devall. Although these authors wrote on the subject throughout the 1970s, it ultimately took almost 35 years for their ideas to find a wider audience. The breakthrough occurred with the now-famous journal The Trumpeter in 1986, in which Naess and Sessions condemned humanity’s anthropocentric attitude towards the natural environment. They challenged the inability of Enlightenment theories of modernity to appreciate Nature’s intrinsic value, which they contend exists independently of human valuing subjects. For Naess:

The well-being of non-human life on Earth has value in itself. This value is independent of any instrumental usefulness for limited human purposes.

(Naess, 1973, p. 266. See also Naess, 1973, pp. 85-100)

Further to this, Callicott, a contemporary writer and philosopher on environmental ethics said:

Ecology represents living Nature as a biotic community, i.e., as a society of plants, animals, minerals, fluids, and gases. This is a genuinely novel conception of Nature. Prior to the emergence of the science of ecology, when natural history was largely a matter of taxonomy, Nature was perceived more as a mere collection of objects, like a room full of furniture, the parts of which were incidentally and externally related. Natural things, thus, had either an indifferent value, a positive utilitarian resource value, or a negative value (as pests, weeds, vermin, and so on).

(Callicott, 1982, p. 173)

Devall and Sessions (1985) published a book called Deep Ecology which is regarded as a seminal work on the subject and developed the axiom that the natural environment possesses intrinsic value. They outlined eight core principles of the Deep Ecology manifesto, under which humanity was expected to live. They include:

  • 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 worth) 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 participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes (Sessions & Naess, 1986, p. 14).

These eight principles demonstrate a commitment to an eco-centric world view, romanticising pre-industrial and subsistence lifestyles where humanity and the natural environment reflect an inter-connected organic relationship. Its strong political message is that Nature’s intrinsic value should always be the principal focus in decision-making. Accordingly, Deep Ecology is critical of grand narratives which broadly assume that humanity can control the world and scientifically shape it in its image for human economic benefit. Devall and Sessions argued that for deep ecologists, it is easier to express fundamental values, a fundamental view of what’s meaningful in life, what’s worth maintaining. They continue:

The material standard of living should be drastically reduced and the quality of life, in the sense of basic satisfaction in the depths of one’s heart or soul, should be maintained or increased ... There is a basic intuition in deep ecology that we have no right to destroy other living beings without sufficient reason. Another norm is that, with maturity, human beings will experience joy when other life forms experience joy and sorrow when other life forms experience sorrow.

(Devall & Sessions, 1985, p. 75)

Of critical importance was the need to explore how modernity has created a technical stance towards different cultures and how this stance has led to a vision of the world where accumulation and control held sway.

One may perhaps differentiate between what has been called ‘Deep Ecology’ (with capitals) and ‘deep ecology’ (in lower case).1 The former refers to an ecological manifesto for humanity to reform the way it lives on the planet, placing environmental interests first and foremost above human interests. This is the purer, and some would say extreme, version of Deep Ecology from which radical activists have arguably drawn their inspiration. The latter version of deep ecology still maintains that the natural environment as having intrinsic value but emphasises the development of a political democratic system which nurtures commonalities, as opposed to provoking radical environmentalism and politics. Accordingly, it allows deeper engagement with other philosophies concerning humanity’s being in the world, as well as the ways through which environmental and human interests connect.

In this more moderate strand of deep ecology, we are beings in interaction with the world. Therefore, we do not operate with stark dualisms, but we do try to work out compromises that enable the furthering of the interests of both. Following Leopold, we question the modernist dualisms on which our communities are based, and search for the common values between people and the environment. In part, the ideas developed from Hegel (1970), Heidegger (1971), and Taylor (1989) provide a means to temper the extreme anthropocentricism which exists within the dominant assumptions of modernity. Nevertheless, Deep Ecologists such as Naess (1987), Capra, and Westra (1985) aim to provide a way to transform humanity’s consciousness away from the mechanistic paradigms of Enlightenment modernity. One is never sure, however, what their concrete action programme would look like.

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