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Deep Ecology, Arne Naess

Deep Ecology Critique

Several of the points in the 'Deep Ecology Platform' are problematic and there appear to be inconsistencies within the philosophy as a whole. Because deep ecology requires everyone to formulate their own interpretation, people who claim to be part of the movement hold incompatible viewpoints from each other.

In my opinion the main problem with deep ecology is it's vagueness: In attempting to allow for openness to interpretation and personal intuition, deep ecology risks becoming vacuous. I shall outline some of the main criticisms:

Is deep ecology just inconsistent 'eco-la-la'?

Murray Bookchin, the founder of the Social Ecology movement criticizes

"...the intellectual poverty of 'the father of ecology' and the silliness of the entire deep ecology 'movement'".

'Deep Ecology and Anarchism', page 47.

Bookchin describes Deep Ecology as 'eco la-la'. He considers it to be half-baked New Age nonsense masquerading as philosophy.

Although Bookchin may be too dismissive, there are inconsistencies in deep ecology.

Principle #3 of 'Deep Ecology Platform' of deep ecology is that:

"Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs."

But what count as 'vital needs'? Deep ecologists generally count 'vital needs' as those necessary for survival or that serve the goal of self-realization. In practice this can mean eating meat, which Devall and Sessions justify because 'mutual predation is a biological fact of life' (see Paul Shepherd, 'The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game'). Many deep ecologists advocate hunting as a means of staying in touch with the natural world, while Naess asserts that human existence "necessitates some killing, exploitation and oppression" ('Shallow and Deep Ecology', p.95).

Principle #3 is based on the notion of 'biocentric equality' which is central to deep ecology: All beings have equal intrinsic value. Human beings have no greater value than any other creature, for we are just ordinary citizens in the biotic community, with no more rights than amoebae or bacteria.

Humans, however, do have duties towards other beings, which requires us to engage with the natural world in practical ways. But how much should we interfere? Naess leave this question to be decided by 'local, regional and national circumstances and cultural differences." The Trumpeter, 5, (1988), 139.

Peter Marshall not unreasonably believes that

"If that is the case, the very notion of 'biocentric equality' has little content except as a slogan'".

'Natures Web', p 421.

If all organisms are equal, then the AIDS virus has as much right to exist as any human being. The principle of 'vital need' would allow humans to destroy the virus, but it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a simple organism like a virus has a much right to exist as a complex creature like a whale or an ecosystem like the Amazon Rainforest.

Principle #2 of the deep ecology platform is that:

"Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth."

Deep ecology also holds that 'Nature knows best'.

If these premises are both true, how do we account for the fact that natural processes like volcanic eruptions have severely reduced the diversity of life on Earth? Given that the Sun will eventually destroy the Earth and all life on it, natural processes do not appear to value life or species diversity. It is more plausible to claim that these are purely human values which deep ecologists are imposing on a romanticized concept of nature.

Back to the questions

Is deep ecology misanthropic?

Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First! which claims to draw inspiration from deep ecology, has made several deeply misanthropic comments.

"It is rather painful to read about some of the positions taken by the Foreman faction in the E.F! Journal: for example, Foreman arguing that even a nuclear war would not be that damaging to the Earth and would hasten the end of industrial society... and his remarks elsewhere that we should "allow Ethiopians to starve"; Christopher Manes suggesting that one solution to overpopulation would be to dismantle the medical technology designed to save lives, and of AIDS as Nature's solution to overpopulation; and Reed Noss writing of genetic "deep ecology elite" as a "chosen people" out to save the Earth (pp. 64, 68, 83-84, 92-3,101-3).

George Sessions, Book Review: Martha Lee, Earth First!. Trumpeter: 13, 4 (1996)

Sessions adds that if such comments claim to draw on deep ecology they show a misunderstanding of its philosophy.

Murray Bookchin comments:

"They are barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones and outright social reactionaries who offer a vague, formless often self contradictory and invertebrate [movement] and a kind of crude eco-brutalism similar to Hitler's. Deep ecologists feed on human disasters, suffering and misery...[and are guilty of thinking which]...legitimates extremely regressive, primitivistic and even highly reactionary notions."

Kirkpatrick Sale, 'The cutting edge: deep ecology and its critics', The Nation, May 14, 1988 v246 n 19 p670

Deep ecology itself requires everyone to formulate their own interpretation, so it's difficult to reject one persons position because it's uncomfortably reactionary. Do Dave Foremans ideas conform to the Deep Ecology Platform? If so, he can legitimately claim to be part of the movement.

Back to the questions

Does deep ecology encourage oppressive politics?

Deep ecology has little to say about political equality, tending towards a conservative position that supports the existing social and economic status quo.

Edward Abbey is in favor of stopping all immigration into the US by strengthening border forces and Dave Foreman has called for curbing immigration from Mexico and Central America.

Such practical comments raise important issues. If the population in a particular area becomes too large according to the principles of deep ecology, who decides who must leave and who may stay? Does the decision come from within, from a sense of environmental altruism or from outside by coercion?

"The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease."

Deep Ecology Platform principle #5

Bill Devall is more specific. A reduction in the birthrate must take place, 'especially in third world nations'. ('Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology', Green Print 1990) His choice is very odd given that the ecological impact of one American child over the course of their lifetimes is equivalent to some 50 babies in Bangladesh or Namibia. America is the first place that needs to depopulate and Devall's comments are ignorant at best and racist at worst.

Devall and Sessions do not question the distribution or ownership of land. Their first principle of land management is to "encourage agencies, legislators, property owners and managers" to flow with natural processes. 'Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered' p.145

Deep ecology is not concerned with who should own land or whether land ownership is legitimate, but only with how it is treated.

At best deep ecology is apolitical, and though it claims to be beyond such distinctions, many feel deep ecology tends towards a right-wing perspective. Social ecologists and ecofeminists agree that not enough analysis is done by deep ecology of the social forces at work in the destruction of the biosphere.

Back to the questions

Would a pre-technological tribal culture be better for the Earth?

Deep ecology sometimes appears to idealize a the society of indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes, but in reality many primitive tribes are not especially ecocentric.

Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade writes:

"...many peoples past and present living close to nature have all too often been blindly destructive of their environment. While many indigenous societies have a great reverence for nature, there are also both non-Western and Western peasant and nomadic cultures that have overgrazed and overcultivated land, decimated forests, and where population pressures have been severe, killed off animals needlessly and indifferently."

Ken Wilber, 'Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution', Shambhala, Boston, 1995, p. 167

Back to the questions

related links:

Deep Ecology , Ecofeminism , Eco-Spirituality , Bioregionalism , recommended books

Some Questions About The Theoretical Foundations of W. Fox's Transpersonal Ecology and Arne Naess' Ecosophy T

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