Arne Naess: at the roots of deep ecology

Summary

“Deep ecology” is a concept that was forged by Norwegian ecologist and philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. Forty years later, this uncompromising and controversial approach still feeds our reflection on the environmental crisis.

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Arne Naess was born in 1912. In 1939, he became the youngest professor to be appointed at the University of Oslo and, up until 1954, was the only professor of philosophy in the country. This specificity certainly contributed to his wide popularity in Norway, where he was soon considered as one of the most renowned and admired philosophers. But this specialist of Spinoza and Gandhi also gained international fame through his pacifist actions in the 1940s and 1950s, and even more widely during the 1970s, when the world came to know him as the father of “deep ecology”, a radical new vision of environmental defence.

From “shallow” to “deep”

In 1972, Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology”, which he contrasted with “shallow ecology”: to him, “present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening” and all the answers that had been found at the time were superficial and anthropocentric. They addressed the symptoms rather than the causes, and aimed to perpetuate the human race’s domination of the earth– the environment and the living species that populate it. Naess, on the other hand, fought the idea that resolving the environmental crisis was simply a question of technology, and advocated a change of policy, in terms of “economic, technological and ideological structures”. This notably meant a mindset shift, from “Man-in-his-environment” to “Man-connected-to-nature”: we must be aware that we do not only interact with the ecosystem, but that we are part of it. Whatever harm we do to the delicate and fragile balance of life, we do to ourselves. We are a tiny portion of a whole. This idea was supported, in other terms, by James Lovelock, a British biologist who elaborated the Gaia hypothesis. Naess thus defended the equal right of all living things to thrive, claiming that other living creatures cannot be considered only in terms of their utility to the human race. In the eight-tier platform* that he developed to support his concept’s claims, he pushed that idea a bit further by writing that

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.

A product of his time?

Naess’ work appeared at a time of raising concern over environmental issues. In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring, a book that denounced the effects of pesticides on biodiversity and the ecosystem – and which had immediately received a wide and positive public reception, launching the environmental movement. It was also a major influence on Arne Naess’ reflections. During the 1970s, this ecological awareness met the idea that people, collectively, were putting too much pressure on the planet, and the idea that the human race was already more numerous than the Earth could bear spread. Disaster movies, notably, depicted a future where men and women had no other choice than to drastically control their fertility to protect the planet (Zero Population Growth, Soylent Green, The Last Child). Naess’ assertions can therefore be seen as a “product of their time”, but it would be fairer to say that he was among those who imposed these new, radical ideas on the public. Naess did not wish to protect the environment within the limits allowed by population growth and the pursuit of human comfort. He wrote:

The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

He did not stop halfway: his life-long struggle was in favour of our planet above being in favour of mankind. “Deep” versus “shallow”.

Controversies and legacy

His stance did not spare him polemics and controversies. Arne Naess’ vision of ecology was widely discussed and debated. He was mainly accused of being a misanthropist, a Malthusian who considered man as a parasite on Earth. At the very least, his approach was one of radical relativism, but Naess refuted this criticism, writing: “We don’t say that every living being has the same value as a human, but that it has an intrinsic value which is not quantifiable. It is not equal or unequal. It has a right to live and blossom. I may kill a mosquito if it is on the face of my baby but I will never say I have a higher right to life than a mosquito.” His calls for a reduction in human population were indeed those of a radical ecologist who put the planet’s well-being above human considerations. But this pacifist activist advocated autoregulation, and was extremely embarrassed when extremist groups such as Earth First referred to him to justify “violent action, green Luddism, and a campaign to enforce sterilisation and end food aid to developing nations”, as Walter Schwartz from The Guardian wrote in Naess’ obituary, in 2009.

In spite of these controversies, Arne Naess has left an important legacy for environmental activists. Praised by downshifters for his most radical ideas, he was also recognized by many others as a main figure of ecology at the time of his death, in 2009.

In fact, his work durably imposed the idea that working on the causes of pollution, on our means of production and of consumption, was key to curbing the ecological crisis. And, as a philosopher who was steeped in Oriental spirituality, he also left the message that we must reconnect to our being if we want to achieve that. In the words of downshifter French philosopher Fabrice Flipo, Naess has taught us that “as long as man perceives himself as being disconnected from nature, he will continue to destroy it without realising that he is destroying himself. We are destroying nature because we are not at ease with ourselves. The deep reason for the crisis lies inside us.” Find the cause and you will find the solution, they say.

Arne Naess’ main publications

Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (1990), Spinoza and the Deep Ecology Movement (1992), Life’s Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World (2002), Ecology of Wisdom (2008).

* The eight-tier platform

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. 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 human 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 value) 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 try to implement the necessary changes.

(Photo from http://themoose.no/)