Deep Ecology — an introduction

In 1972, Arne Næss, a norwegian philosopher, introduced the concept of Deep Ecology during a presentation at the Third World Future Research Conference in Bucharest. He juxtaposed two types of environmentalism:

  • Long-range deep ecology movement

This is the movement that questions our values, morals, systems and society practices in depth — hence the term deep ecology. Unlike what he termed the shallow ecology movement, described below, deep ecology is concerned with the core motivations of human beings: what we do, why we do it and where do we put ourselves in relationship to other beings and life in general. Næss argues for a change of this perspective into one that inserts human beings in nature instead of above it. It argues for a love of nature and of all life independently of what they can or cannot provide humans with, and that this should be the guiding principle of environmental policy-making.

  • Shallow ecology movement

This is the paradigm that is most operative in the world today. The shallow ecology movement is concerned with remedying adverse effects of the current system, e.g. through recycling and energy efficiency technologies or creation of sustainable versions of popular products. It doesn’t question our habits as a society or fundamental aspects of it like consumption patterns and production. Because of this, Næss called this movement a short-term fix for deeper problems, for nature and life continue to be seen as resources to be utilized by human beings and preservation actions are often taken on account of ecological imbalances affecting some area of human activity.

In order to better define what the Deep Ecology philosophy stands for, Næss and George Sessions (another philosopher) developed the Deep Ecology Platform, a set of 8 tenets that further describes and clarifies this body of understandings and attitudes. They are:

The Deep Ecology Platform

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, 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. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. 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.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in 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.

By Arne Næss and George Sessions (1984)

I personally felt a lot of resonance with most of these principles. It has bothered me for a long time that the principles guiding eco-policy-making are for the most part anthropocentric, so it was good to dig a little into Deep Ecology and find some examples of its applicability.

I quarantined principles 5 and 8.

Principle 5 sounded a bit too harsh for me, in the way that it was phrased at least. The “substantial decrease of the human population” segment made me feel a tinge of violence and I really disliked that. Maybe this was just a misunderstanding of mine. Overpopulation is a problem, but we must address this through family planning, public health and reproductive rights. I don’t know if this was the authors’ intentions and I haven’t read the book where they go deeper into this (yet, but I will), but maybe this was just a poor choice of words in my humble opinion.

Principle 8 carries that word obligation and I am allergic to that word. That’s about it for this one.

Anyway, in one of the courses I’m taking, they asked us to look for practical examples of more philosophical concepts such as Deep Ecology. I really liked that exercise, it helped me see the pragmatism contained in philosophy.

I chose for an example the Brazilian National Conservation Units System (established via law 9.985/2000, a policy I will still bring to the blog). In short, the Conservation Units are divided into 2 main categories: Full Protection Units and Sustainable Use Units.

In the Full Protection Units, there are 5 subcategories of Conservation Units, two of which I believe to show some Deep Ecology tenets: the Ecological Station and the Biological Reserve. Unlike other units in the system, these ones do not allow visitation (except for educational purposes and/or research, for which you need a special authorization), making access to them very restricted. Also, as a rule, they do not allow human usage of its resources.

This isn’t a perfect example — law 9.985/2000 speaks in several moments about conservation aiming for sustainable development resources for future generations. However, the two units mentioned above have aspects to them that seem to escape a little from this idea. I’ll elaborate more on this when I make the post about this policy, but it suffices to say for now that Art.2 (which defines the concepts used within the law), item II contains the passage “conservation of nature: (…) and guaranteeing the survival of living beings in general”. Small wins, right?

So here was my first take on Deep Ecology. I intend to read and ponder more about it, so I guess this understanding might be somewhat different in the future. For the time being though, it is refreshing to read and write about principles that don’t put humans above other beings and the planet. It felt really relieving to know there are people out there that have been working on trying to change it since the 1970s. We humans have a long way to go still towards self-awareness and away from ubiquitous entitlement, but the seed has been planted.


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