Deep Ecology Essay

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Norwegian ph i losopher Ar ne Naess coined the term deep ecology in the short essay “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary” (1973). As the title of the paper suggests, this was at once a positive formulation of a new, deep ecology and a critique of what he disparagingly termed shallow ecology. These divergent “ecologies” were not divisions within scientific ecology, but branches of the environmental movement. Consumed with the search for piecemeal solutions to particular issues such as pollution and resource depletion, shallow ecology failed to ask deeper questions about the causes of ecological problems and therefore could never hope to solve the ecological crisis itself. Deep ecology, on the other hand, offered a wholesale normative critique of human society, and particularly the human relationship with nonhuman nature.

The bookends of Naess’s philosophy of deep ecology are self-realization and ecocentrism. These two ideas are interrelated and arise out of the (scientific) ecological understanding of the living (and nonliving) world as comprised of interrelated, interdependent, and mutually constitutive beings. The philosophy of deep ecology is thus at once naturalistic in that it is derived from ecological science, and holistic as it appeals to the relationships between all beings, constituting a whole, living earth. Deep ecology offers a corrective against the (related) dominant Western, modern views that the human species is separate from nonhuman nature and that human individuals are in any sense separate from other living beings (other humans included). “Selfrealization,” for Naess, is the logical conclusion of any truly deep ecological questioning-when we realize the interconnectedness of all things, it becomes evident that any concept of the self must expand beyond the individual to include all things. Promoting Naess’s ideal of self-realization, Fox states that: “When we realize we are related to the whole, alienation drops away and we identify more widely with the world of which we are a part. Another way of expressing this is to say that we realize a larger sense of self; our own unfolding becomes more bound up with the unfolding of other entities”.

So while deep ecology purports to offer a planetary-scale solution to the ecological crisis, the locus of normative change is the human individual.


Ecocentrism, the second key component of Naess’s deep ecology, is a logical derivation of self-realization. Once an individual realizes that he or she is not a narrow, enclosed self and properly identifies with all of nature, anthropocentric (human-centered) thought or action becomes illogical.

Although Naess never writes in a polemical tone, the rhetoric of deep ecology is incontrovertibly divisive and dualistic. The most prominent example is the binary ecocentric/anthropocentric division, which maps directly onto the deep/shallow ecology division. Environmentally-sensitive individuals either possess deep ecological understanding or they do not; they either practice deep ecology or they do not.

Deep ecology was relatively unheard of in North America until 1985, with the publication of Devall’s and Session’s Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, which presents a platform for the deep ecology movement. Unlike Naess’s earlier work, the platform was intended to be less an ecophilosophy and more a set of principles that deep ecologists could rally around, regardless of philosophical or religious positions. The platform was based on the fundamental tenet that nature has “intrinsic value … independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.” Beyond this fiat of intrinsic value, which is basically a restatement of the deep ecology commitment to nonanthropocentrism, the platform called for a reduction in human population, a decrease in human interference in the natural world, a change in policies, and a personal “obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.” So the deep ecology platform at once codified a new grounding for many American environmentalists (ecocentrism) and recalled resonant themes within the movement (overpopulation, leaving “nature” to its own devices, and direct political action).

Although summarizing Naess’s early writing on deep ecology is a relatively straightforward task, the same cannot be said of its American derivatives. Once deep ecology took root in North American literature, it quickly erupted into a diverse and rather amorphous catchphrase, summoned by different writers to mean quite different things. Although it is impossible to say exactly where it has had the strongest influence, deep ecology has made an indelible mark on the contemporary North American wilderness preservation movement.

Mick Smith argues that American deep ecologists rely on increasingly “scientistic routes” to arrive at their normative proposals, employing biologically determinist explanations of human behavior. This is due largely to the influence of Paul Shepard, who over the course of three decades wrote volumes of work speculating on the biological basis for human attitudes and behaviors toward nature. Sessions approvingly paraphrases Shepard’s thesis: “Humans are genetically programmed for wild environments, and…modern urban humans who have not bonded with wild nature are ontogenetically stuck, remaining in some ways in an adolescent stage of human development”.

Smith finds that a culture of hubris and unreflexive scientism has inhibited the growth of a self-critical, pluralistic politics within the deep ecology movement.

Problematic as it may be, the North American variety may be truer to the spirit of Naess’s intent than the more scholarly European deep ecology. As Katz, Light, and Rothenberg observe, “Naess has often stressed that he is more interested in deep ecology as a political and social movement than as a philosophy.”


  1. Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (G.M. Smith, 1985);
  2. Warwick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology (Shambhala, 1990);
  3. Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” in J. B. Callicott and Michael Nelson (eds), The Great New Wilderness Debate (University of Georgia, 1999);
  4. Eric Katz, Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg (eds), Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology (MIT Press, 2000);
  5. Andrew McLaughlin, “For a Radical Ecocentrism,” in Andrew and Yuichi Inoue, , The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology (North Atlantic, 1995);
  6. Arne Naess, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary,” Inquiry (v.16, 1973);
  7. George Sessions, “Postmodernism, Environmental Justice and the Demise of the Ecology Movement?” Wild Duck Review (v.5, 1995);
  8. Mick Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory (State University of New York, 2001);
  9. Peter Van Wyck, Primitives in the Wilderness: Deep Ecology and the Missing Human Subject (State University of New York, 1997).

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