How deep is deep ecology

What, then, are deep ecology's basic philosophical commitments.? Deep ecology holds to the 'universal' aspect of nature. To amend Margaret Thatcher's dictum a little, nature cannot be bucked. However, this is nature not in its particularity and variety but in its 'universal' aspect. One of its leading exponents, George Sessions, summarises deep ecology thus: 'The crucial paradigm shift the Deep Ecology movement envisions . . . involves the move from an anthropocentric to a spiritual/ecocentric value orientation. The wild ecosystems and species on the earth have intrinsic value and the right to exist, and are also necessary for the ecological health of the planet and the ultimate well-being of humans.'14

11. Derek Wall, Earth First and the Anti-Roads Movement (London and New York: Routledge,

12. Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

13. Andrew Light, 'Bookchin as/and Social Ecology', in Andrew Light (ed.), Social Ecology after

Bookchin (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 1-23.

14. Sessions (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, p. xxi.

Yet deep ecology is no single tendency, philosophically or as a political movement. A good place to start is to ask: what is meant by 'deep'.? Although of course the adjective is contrasted with 'shallow' in its original formulation by Arne Naess15 (and subsequently partly withdrawn) and thereby has pejorative overtones,16 the principal meaning, as WarwickFox has conclusively shown, refers to a formal method of'deep questioning'.17 This method, formulated by Naess, seeks to ask questions at a profound level about environmental degradation. 'Deep' refers to the profundity of social change yet it also refers to a formal method of questioning.18

Such a formal method has been used rhetorically by its proponents to privilege, at least since 1983-4, deep ecology as the only way of reflecting seriously and rigorously on human incursions into nature. However, this is not to say that deep ecology comprises a single tendency in the political theory of nature. Both Sessions and Fox are reframing deep ecology by attention to largely neglected aspects of the work of Naess. (In the process Sessions has disavowed some of his earlier work with Bill Devall.19) Such reframing concentrates upon the theme of the philosophy of self in deep ecology largely by drawing on the philosophical commitments of Naess's own writings.20

Such a development is more ambiguous than at first appears. Naess, the originator of 'deep ecology', has stressed the importance of grasping deep ecology as a 'platform'. That is, the appeal of deep ecology can unite a range of people with differing philosophical and religious views around a common platform. Recently, Naess has stressed this point as a way of keeping the environmental movement strong: the deep ecology platform unites by abstracting its position from basic principles. (For example, Naess has his own philosophical position, which he calls

15. Arne Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements: A Summary' (1973), reprinted in Sessions (ed.), DeepEcologyfor the 21st Century, pp. 151-5.

16. Pepper, ModernEnvironmentalism, p. 37.

17. Fox, TowardaTranspersonalEcology,pp.9if.

18. Naess, 'Deepness of Questions and the Deep Ecology Movement', p. 204.

19. See Sessions (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, pp. xiii-xiv.

20. This strategy seems to be working. A recent collection of critical essays on deep ecology focuses almost exclusively on the work of Naess: Eric Katz, Andrew Light and David Rothenberg (eds.), Beneath the Surface: CriticalEssays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2000). A further development is the presentation of all ecocentric inquiries as having their home beneath the deep ecology umbrella - such a tendency can be detected in the eclectic nature of the contributions in the recent collection of essays edited by George Sessions, Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Val Plumwood, 'The Ecopolitics Debate and the Politics of Nature', in Karen J. Warren (ed.), Ecological Feminism (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 64-87, has commented interestingly on the way that focusing on deep ecology may have inhibited ecological discussion.

'Ecosophy T'.21 Yet to participate in the deep ecology movement is not necessarily to subscribe to this position.) While tactically advantageous, we shall see later that this move creates serious difficulties for the theologian.

Although it is a travesty of the position to claim that deep ecology privileges nature over humanity, the platform has moved in an ecocentric direction. Of course, the deep ecology movement has always been critical of'anthropocentrism': part of the original rationale for setting out the deep ecology position was to stress how the environmental movement is not concerned solely with *better' management of the environment. In 1973, Naess proposed seven points to describe the deep ecology position.22 In 1984, this position was amended to eight (with the notable elimination of the concept of'class').23

The 1973 platform begins with an ontological claim: the notion of humanity-placed-in-its-environment must be supplanted by 'the relational, total-field image'.24 In this context, 'relational' refers to the philosophy of internal relations in which relations are treated as mutually constitutive. Humanity is therefore constituted by its relations with its natural conditions.

From this basic ontological claim, judgments of value follow. For Naess contends that, given such ontological commitments, all forms oflife have an equal right to live. With this view is associated the preference to maintain the maximum diversity of species. The ontological commitments support the view that diversity, and its promotion, are central to a true understanding of the myriad forms of life. Four 'lesser' principles now follow: these set out certain requirements in human behaviour. To begin, the deep ecology platform, in this earlier version, includes the overcoming of class divisions (for it is easy to see how the affirmation ofa straight diversity could include the affirmation of the 'diversity' of class). With this we are treated to principles of resistance to pollution and resource depletion and the commitment to complexity and decentralisation. These last can be seen to derive, in a loose way, from the first axiological principle: the affirmation ofthe right to life. To stress the right to live is also to proscribe the conditions which are inimical to life: among these are the depletion of resources, an overconfidence in the face of the complexity of the web of nature, and overcentralisation.

21. Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, ch. 7.

22. Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements', pp. 151-5.

23. Arne Naess, 'The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects' (1986), reprinted in Sessions (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, pp. 64-84.

24. Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements', p. 151.

The 1984 platform, concentrating on matters of value and practice, is subtly different. (Indeed, the earlier platform is not much commented upon now - their author claims that these seven points 'smacked too much of the special metaphysics of a younger Naess'.25) Much of the position is set out in the first two points: an affirmation of the well-being of forms of life which are understood as having value in their own right. With this emphasis comes again a stress on the importance of the diversity of life forms - a diversity which has value in its own right. From here, six points of practice follow: that human beings should wherever possible respect this diversity, that a smaller human population is required to respect such diversity, that human interference in nature is excessive, and that it must therefore change, that the emphasis must be upon quality oflife and that those who support the platform should act in support ofit.

Commonalities between these two versions suggest, despite subsequent changes in emphasis, that deep ecology comprises (1) a new metaphysics (embracing both cosmology and world view) and (2) a philosophy of (an expansive) self. The implications of the new metaphysics and account of self require (3) a new anthropology and (4) a new ethics, both ofwhich are 'ecocentric'. The new anthropology stresses the place of humanity in nature - 'Nature knows best', as Barry Commoner noted -and the new ethics insists on the intrinsic value of nature. Some commentators begin with the 'new' theory of value: for instance, John Rodman argues that what is distinctive about the ecological sensibility (which includes deep ecology) are the themes of value, metaphysics and ethics.261 consider that this is no longer accurate. The most recent work in the philosophy ofdeep ecology stresses metaphysical aspects - the situation of the self- in which a theory of value is grounded. I comment further on this below.

To return to the presentation ofthe two platforms in deep ecology, several differences should give us pause for thought. The omission of class in the later formulation is interesting - although its significance is difficult to assess.27 Furthermore, the second version moves away from a specific metaphysical formulation and thereby from the particular account of intrinsic value which attracted so much criticism in the first version. However, if we highlight these differences between the two different versions of the platform, the only way of addressing the tensions is by attending

25. Naess, 'The Deep Ecology "Eight Points" Revisited', p. 221.

26. Rodman, 'Four Forms of Ecological Consciousness Reconsidered', p. 126.

27. In Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, pp. 208f., there is further discussion of class.

to the philosophical basis of deep ecology. If there are difficulties or inconsistencies at the level of the political platform, the only place where these can be addressed is by attention to the philosophical basis of deep ecology which is the root and guarantor of the political platform. As we have seen, it is just this move that Naess has resisted. For, as he correctly surmises, there is less chance of agreement on the philosophical basis than on the political platform.

Despite the founder's view, other deep ecologists, primarily Warwick Fox and Freya Mathews, have stressed that what is distinctive about deep ecology is its philosophical basis.28 What is constitutive of deep ecology, for Fox, is not the platform - which is general - nor the formal method of questioning - which is false - but rather the philosophical basis. Further, Fox makes his own proposal - a 'transpersonal psychology' - as the basis for deep ecology. Freya Mathews also has pointed out that deep ecology requires a 'metaphysics of connectedness' and has as yet failed to supply one.29 (It is thus somewhat ironic that the later 1984 platform jettisons all references to metaphysics.) This development towards metaphysics within deep ecology is helpful for the theologian. For I am interested here in the ways in which deep ecology may as a metaphysics obscure or reveal the common realm of God, nature and humanity.

Before moving to the theological analysis of the philosophical basis, I wish to note the significance of this shift of attention from deep ecology's political platform to its philosophical basis. Some commentators have suggested that deep ecology is becoming less amenable to Christian restatement.30 At one point, in which there was agreement that deep ecology was above all a political platform, a Christian version of deep ecology was presented as a genuine possibility. Thus deep ecology, suggest Devall and Sessions, 'attempts to articulate a comprehensive religious and philosophical world view'.31 Later they proposed Francis of Assisi and Giordano Bruno as Christian sources for the development of deep ecology. Naess has also accepted that there could be a variety of normative philosophical and/or religious systems which form the philosophical basis of the political platform.32

28. Fox, Toward aTranspersonalEcology, part3.

29. Freya Mathews, The Ecological Self (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 148.

30. I think that this is part of the point made by Katherine Dell, 'Green Ideas in the Wisdom

Tradition', Scottish Journal of Theology 47:4 (1994), 423-51 (423-5).

31. Devall and Sessions, Deep Ecology, p. 65.

32. Naess, 'The Deep Ecological Movement', p. 79. See also, for a discussion of the biblical themes, Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, pp. 183-9.

The more recent development - which explicitly seeks to articulate the philosophical basis of the movement - is clearly more precise regarding the presuppositions of deep ecology. In the sense that a certain looseness' seems to be disappearing from the theory of deep ecology, the theologian will find it more difficult to affirm deep ecology. Or, more carefully, the resources being employed by deep ecologists towards the formulation of the philosophical basis, are not, I think, amenable to theology. The theoretical substructure of the platform, we might say, is being politicised. In the name oftheoretical clarity and distinctiveness, deep ecology is seeking to present itself as a political philosophy as well as a political platform.33

Given that the formal method of questioning is to be rejected, as Fox recommends, I see no logical reason why the Christian theologian cannot engage with deep ecology in a discussion over philosophical fundamentals. Of course, deep ecologists are now proposing philosophical bases that are not Christian. But I do not see that this rules out - as a matter of method - a Christian basis.34 Indeed, for the purposes of the current inquiry, it is easier to engage with the movement: the understanding of nature, rather than the environmental platform, is now privileged. However, even allowing for the possibility of a Christian metaphysics as the basis for deep ecology,35 the dominant tendency in the political philosophy of deep ecology is - in my view - towards the development of a metaphysics ofselfwhich is not tractable to theological interpretation.

We are now in a position to note the structure of deep ecology: for Naess, it comprises four levels and a method. The method of deep questioning has been rejected by Warwick Fox as distinctive of deep ecology. That leaves the levels. One of the levels is the political platform of deep ecology which is preceded by the level of the philosophical basis of deep ecology. 'Above' the platform are two further levels - which do not concern my argument - of'general normative principles' and 'particular rules and

33. Naess's political philosophy is subjected to sustained scrutiny in Katz, Light and Rothenberg (eds.), Beneath the Surface.

34. Here Dell, 'Green Ideas in the Wisdom Tradition', confuses levels: she considers that the philosophical basis of the later deep ecology is both given and inimical to Christianity. If the first point is granted, the second is certainly true. However, I dispute that the movement has in fact settled on a philosophical basis. Indeed, even if it did so, there remains no logical reason why the basis has to be accepted. If it were the case that the philosophical basis was arrived at by a process of logical deduction from the (agreed) platform, then Dell would be right. But, in fact, deep ecology does not move by way of logical deduction. Instead, it seeks weaker congruencies between the platform and the philosophical basis.

35. Should it come as any surprise here that deep ecology discusses - even if it cannot accept -the metaphysics of process theology? See, inter alia, Fox, Toward a TranspersonalPsychology, pp. i79f.

decisions adapted to particular situations'.36 For Fox, although he notes the platform, and rejects the method, deep ecology is fundamentally an ecological philosophy. Hence Fox concentrates on the first level: the philosophical basis. What then is 'nature', in this view.? What is the 'place' of humanity.?

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  • Phillipp
    Is deep ecology apolitical?
    4 years ago

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