II. Deep Ecology

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Author: Alan Drengson
Editor: Bruce Jennings
Date: 2014
From: Bioethics(Vol. 2. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)

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II. Deep Ecology

People supporting the deep ecology movement have comprehensive worldviews of humans in harmony with nature. These ecosophies or ecowisdom are a response to the ecological crisis. The movement translates these worldviews into action and social reform.


Supporters of the deep ecology movement contrast their approach with “shallow,” or reform, movements. Deep ecology movement supporters hold that every living being has intrinsic or inherent value that gives it the right to flourish independent of its usefulness to humans. All life is interrelated, and living beings, humans included, depend on the ecological functions of others. Supporters of the deep ecology movement tend to oppose the degradation of nature except to satisfy vital needs. The long-range integrity and health of the ecosystems of Earth are given fundamental ethical importance.

According to deep ecology movement principles, the ecological crisis has deep roots in misguided, anthropo-centric attitudes about the dominion of humans on Earth. These exploitative, consumptive attitudes cannot be overcome without significant social changes, which include changes in the lifestyles of those who live in the rich countries. Such changes can emerge from a philosophical or a religious basis that nurtures a sense of personal responsibility not simply to persons now living but also to future human generations and to fauna and flora. The current human population is already too large Page 1007  |  Top of Articlein many countries; further population increases will lower the quality of life for both human and nonhuman forms of life. Thus a smaller human population is desirable and can be achieved by reducing birthrates over several centuries.

The deep ecology movement can be contrasted with the so-called shallow ecology movement. The shallow approach considers it unnecessary and even counterproductive to take up philosophical or religious questions to solve the ecological crisis. Its supporters agree that changes in existing practices are needed but suggest that changes of basic principles are not necessary. Those advocating the shallow approach do not find intrinsic value in nonhuman life-forms, nor do they think the consumptive economic system is problematic. In this view, humans ought to exploit nature but prudently. High standards of living are not objectionable and can be raised further by more investments in science and technology. Attempts should be made to bring less developed nations up to the Western standard.

The deep ecology movement's historic forebears in the United States include Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. Rachel Carson, also in the United States, and others elsewhere are more recent pivotal figures. In 1962 Carson's book Silent Spring set off an ecological alarm. Starting with practical issues related to pesticides, she probed the philosophical assumptions underlying this attack on pests that were believed to stand in the way of human well-being and progress.

In Europe ecological concerns joined with the peace and social justice movements to create the first wave of the “green movement.” Australians were also involved. In eastern Europe ecologists were considered hostile to state-sponsored industrial development and were banned. In the developing world long-term ecological sustainability often took second place to short-term economic survival.

The deep ecology movement supports ecological sustainability and human development that conserves the richness and diversity of life-forms on Earth. This approach is said to be biocentric (centered on life) rather than anthropocentric (centered on human life only). It includes what Leopold (1949) called “the land”: the whole community of life on the landscape—rivers, mountains, canyons, forests, grasslands, and estuaries. In this view, reforestation, for example, should not create large tree plantations only for producing timber and fiber for humans. Such plantations lack the biodiversity, complexity, health, and integrity of spontaneous natural ecosystems. They are not genuine biological communities.

Those who are advocates for deep ecology principles and the more shallow reformers can cooperate. Some strengths of each approach can be combined, some weakness of each offset. The former can sometimes become lost in Utopian visions of a “green world”; the latter may be too absorbed in ad hoc, short-range solutions. The former can press for and practice more modest standards of living and support higher prices for nonvital products. Those who are less “deep” can be more pragmatic, willing to respond to what is currently politically realizable reform. Through such cooperation the supporters of both movements may help avoid crises likely to occur if ecologically responsible policies are forced too soon on populations not prepared for them. The deep premises of argumentation can add to the utilitarian arguments, which are shallow in relation to philosophical and religious premises in need of more depth in analysis of the problems.

Discussions surrounding the deep ecology movement have implications for medical bioethics. “Rich life, simple means,” an aphorism of the deep ecology movement, suggests for medical bioethics a strengthening of preventive medicine and a reduced reliance on technically advanced treatments, especially if they require large investments of resources and energy. Medical bioethics can learn from ecological bioethics the need for a moral vision that will reorder its priorities.


Social-political movements in modern democracies unite by means of platforms with broad aims and principles. These platforms allow for diversity in life philosophies and religions as the movements' supporters pursue common goals. A unique feature of the twentieth century was the emergence of grassroots organizations dedicated to causes and aims that gained support of people from a diversity of cultures, religions, and philosophies and were discussed in international forums, such as the United Nations and later the governing bodies of the European Union. The three great movements of both global and local significance from the twentieth century are the peace movement, the social justice movement, and the environmental movement. The deep ecology movement is a more focused approach within the broader environmental movement.

The preeminent Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) first coined the term deep ecology in 1973. Naess was the youngest member of the influential Vienna Circle of philosophers in the 1930s and completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Oslo on the nature of science and the behavior of scientists. He was then awarded a postdoctoral research appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, under the direction of the great American empirical psychologist E. C. Tolman. Just before World War II, Naess returned to his native Norway to take up a full professorship and become head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oslo. He remained in that position until his Page 1008  |  Top of Articleearly retirement in 1969, leaving the academy, he said, to “live and not just function.” A strong advocate for nature, human rights, and peace, he was one of the authorities of his time in Europe on the active practice of nonviolence and direct action as taught by Mohandas Gandhi. Also a lifelong traveler and mountaineer, he was inspired by the mountains and considered Mount Halingskarvet, where he built the mountain hut he called Tvergastein, to be his “old father” (his own father died before Naess was a year old). During his lifetime Naess published over thirty books and hundreds of articles, contributed to conferences, and undertook mountaineering projects, including travel to the poles. He spoke on campuses all over the world and was on the leading edge of comparative studies of worldviews and cultures. The Canada-based Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy was inspired by his work.

Together with the environmental philosopher George Sessions, Naess in the early 1980s helped define a political program for the deep ecology movement by proposing the following platform of eight points:

  1. All living beings have intrinsic value.
  2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
  3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humankind does not have the right to reduce this diversity and this richness.
  4. It would be better for human beings if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
  5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
  6. Decisive improvement requires considerable change: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
  7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
  8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the realization of the necessary changes.

(Naess and Haukeland 2002, 107-8)

Naess and others have surveyed people's views related to these principles, and the points are supported by a wide diversity of people from around the world. Many organizations use some version of this platform, whether or not they refer to the deep ecology movement. For example, see the different versions of the Earth Charter on the web. The Earth Charter begins by explaining that the Earth's ecological and cultural diversity are under serious stress and that humans need to act in positive ways to preserve these systems. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was part of an effort begun with the Brundland Commission on sustainable development. The Earth Charter initiative grew out of the Rio summit.

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Levels Chart

The complex, changing nature of social-political movements can be characterized in a basic way by distinguishing four levels of discourse and action to articulate such movements and their support by people in diverse cultures holding different worldviews, as illustrated in Table 1. Level 1 of the chart identifies ultimate premises about the world, which include both nature-of-the-world hypotheses and ultimate value norms. Level 2 identifies platforms for social-political movements, such as for peace, social justice, and environmental responsibility. From these we develop level 3, policies, and level 4, actions (based on Drengson 1997).

Apron Diagram

The apron diagram is a more complex way to represent how different ultimate philosophies within a movement can unite by means of platform principles, which lead to different actions depending on culture, religion, ecosystem features, and so forth (Naess 2005a, 63; see Figure 1 ). Naess used the apron diagram to illustrate the logical relations between particular views and their potential connection with social movements and

Table 1. Four Levels of Discourse and Action to Articulate Deep Ecology Movements
II. Deep Ecology Level 1 Ultimate premises Taoism Christianity Ecosophy T etc. II. Deep Ecology
Level 2 Platform principles Peace movement Deep ecology movement Social movement, etc.
Level 3 Policies A B C
Level 4 Practical actions W X Y

Table 1. Four Levels of Discourse and Action to Articulate Deep Ecology Movements Table 1. Four Levels of Discourse and Action to Articulate Deep Ecology Movements

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Figure 1. Apron Diagram for Relations between Four Factor Levels in Social Movements Figure 1. Apron Diagram for Relations between Four Factor Levels in Social Movements Diagram by Arne Naess, from The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, edited by Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue, published by North Atlantic Books, Copyright © 1995 by Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

practical actions. “Logical relations” are verbally articulated connections between premises and conclusions. They move down the diagram in stages: some conclusions become premises for deriving new conclusions. In Figure 1 B represents Buddhists, C Christians, and P personal philosophies of life, such as Naess's (1989, 36) own, which he called Ecosophy T.

The long-range deep ecology movement, like other grassroots movements, has many variations and local applications, but there are broad points of general agreement at the national and international levels. Supporters of the deep ecology movement appreciate and try to understand the diversity of cultures and languages that make up human life on Earth. People in many Western societies are from a wide variety of backgrounds with different views about the nature of the world and ultimate values. In the deep ecology movement each supporter can have a complete view that comprises the four levels of articulation and application in language and action. The global movements for peace, social justice, and ecological responsibility are supported by people with a diversity of ultimate philosophies, local practices, and conditions. Each movement has its own platform principles, so, for example, the principles of the social justice and peace movements would be on level 2 of the apron diagram.


Although Naess helped give deep ecology its theoretical foundation, we should not confuse his personal view of life, the individual philosophy he called Ecosophy T, with the deep ecology movement writ large. The latter is distinguished by its international, cross-cultural characteristics and its eight platform principles. Naess did not say he was a “deep ecologist” but instead described himself as a “supporter of the deep ecology movement.” His 1973 essay in Inquiry (an influential English-language journal founded by Naess in 1958 in Norway) describes the long-range deep ecology movement. Naess was a lifelong student of worldviews and total systems, their diversity, and how they relate to global movements.

When personal life philosophies seek harmony with nature, we call their views ecosophies, a term Naess coined in 1973. He used his own philosophy, Ecosophy T (the T presumed to come from the name of his mountain hut, Page 1010  |  Top of ArticleTvergastein), as an example for how we can formulate a personal philosophy of life. Mature persons, argued Naess, can say where they stand with respect to their ultimate values, the nature of the world, and their aims in life. We can articulate life philosophies aiming for ecological responsibility that are based on different sets of ultimate norms and hypotheses about the world.

Ultimate norms are value axioms. An ultimate norm in Naess's Ecosophy T, for example, is “Self-Realization for all beings!” (Naess 2008). By articulating our ultimate norms and nature-of-the-world hypotheses, we can systematize our total or complete view. From a personal life philosophy, then, we will lend support to compatible grassroots movements. We will work with others to put various policies in place in our home areas and to do things that support our values and beliefs. This back-and-forth questioning, articulation, and action is described by the four levels in the levels chart (see Table 1) and the apron diagram (see Figure 1 ).

In his original article on the deep ecology movement, Naess wrote:

By an ecosophy I mean a philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium. A philosophy as a kind of sofia (or) wisdom, is openly normative, it contains both norms, rules, postulates, value priority announcements and hypotheses concerning the states of affairs in our universe. Wisdom is policy wisdom, prescription, not only scientific description and prediction.

The details of an ecosophy will show many variations due to significant differences concerning not only the “facts” of pollution, resources, population, etc., but also value priorities. (Naess 1973, 99)

He elaborates on this account in a later work:

We study ecophilosophy, but to approach practical situations involving ourselves, we aim to develop our own ecosophies. In this book I introduce one ecosophy, arbitrarily called Ecosophy T. You are not expected to agree with all of its values and paths of derivation, but to learn the means for developing your own systems or guides, say, Ecosophies X, Y, or Z. Saying “your own” does not imply that the ecosophy is in any way an original creation by yourself. It is enough that it is a kind of total view which you feel at home with, “where you philosophically belong.” Along with one's own life, it is always changing….

Etymologically, the word “ecosophy” combines oikos and sophia, “household” and “wisdom.” As in “ecology,” “eco-” has an appreciably broader meaning than the immediate family, household, and community. “Earth household” is closer to the mark. So an ecosophy becomes a philosophicalworld-view or system inspired by the conditions of life in the ecosphere. It should then be able to serve as an individual's philosophical grounding for an acceptance of the principles or platform of deep ecology as outlined. (Naess 1989, 36-37)

Naess here distinguishes between (1) ultimate philosophies or worldviews, (2) platform principles that unite people with different ultimate views, (3) policy formulations applied in specific national or jurisdictional contexts, and (4) practical actions taken by specific individuals in local places. The three-dimensional apron diagram (see Figure 1 ) helps show these levels, although the complex and changing nature of life in modern cultures and their social-political movements means that the elements of the levels in the diagram are always changing.

The Australian philosopher and ethicist Warwick Fox (1990) suggests that those, including Naess, whose ultimate premises call for an extended sense of identification with an ecological self be called transpersonal ecologists, but Naess would say that they have transpersonal ecosophies. Fox says that the emphasis on self-realization leads to exploring all levels of awareness, from the pre-personal (sentient and reactive) to the personal (cognitive and deliberative) to the transpersonal (wise and reciprocally responsive). In extending our sense of identification and care and in opening our capacity to love, we flourish and realize ourselves in harmony with others. We come to understand, as Naess says, that our own self-realization is interconnected with the self-realization of others, including other beings. We cannot flourish and realize our own selves if we destroy the homes of other living beings and interfere with their possibilities for self-realization.

In technology-dominated cities and towns everywhere in the world, increasing numbers of humans lack regular contact with the natural world. This is especially critical in educating children. Designing wild forest, meadow, and pond ecosophies is a way to deeply connect with nature. Visit local meadows, ponds, woods, and forests to explore how the beings therein live their ecosophies. What, for example, is the ecological wisdom of cedars, alders, flowers, butterflies, ants, and frogs? Each has its own story and lives an ecosophy of its kind. How can we live and act respectfully in special forest or meadow places in ecological harmony and also give something back to our local forest and meadow communities? They give us many gifts, what can we give to them? Go with children to the ponds, meadows, and forests so we can learn from nature firsthand. Ask children what we can do to benefit the forests. Invite them to create their own ecosophies for harmony with nature. If we give back more than we receive, we “act beautifully,” as Naess (2008, 139) observed.

This is a revised and expanded version of the entry first written by Arne Naess in 1995.

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Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith.

Drengson, Alan. 1997. “An Ecophilosophy Approach, the Deep Ecology Movement, and Diverse Ecosophies.” Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy 14 (3): 110–11.

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Naess, Arne. 2008. The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Naess, Arne, with Per Ingvar Haukeland. 2002. Life “s Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World. Translated by Roland Huntford. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Pepper, David. 1984. The Roots of Modern Environmentalism. London: Croom Helm.

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Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy. Victoria, BC. 1983–. Accessed March 21, 2013. http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/index

Alan Drengson
Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727400211