By Akber Ayub
A system of environmental ethics, deep ecology says that the living environment too has the right to live and flourish
Deep ecology is a relatively new ecological philosophy that recognises the deep interconnection and interdependence of human and non-human life forms on earth. It is a new system of environmental ethics, which holds the core belief that like humanity, the living environment too has the right to live and flourish – a radical shift in humanity’s relationship to nature. Why deep ecology? Because it persistently asks deeper, fundamental and philosophical questions about the world we live in, and our place in it. It takes a holistic view, not a narrow view, of ecology concerned with conservation of the environment only. It is an eco-centric attitude rather than human-centric – an attitude born of deep scientific insights and considered more consistent with the nature of life on earth.
Deep ecology is an environmental movement conceived and initiated by a Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, in 1972. While a professor at the University of Oslo, he coined the term ‘deep ecology’ and developed its theoretical foundation based on two core principles – the interrelatedness of all systems of life on earth, and the idea that a human-centric attitude is flawed and untenable. The proponents of deep ecology hold the view that it is wrong to regard humans alone as unique creations of God. We are only an integral thread in the fabric of life. If we and the planet are to survive, we need to adopt a less dominating and aggressive posture towards earth, at the same time respecting nature and the inherent worth of other life forms. Admittedly, this requires a radical change in our consciousness itself. We need to look beyond our restrictive, individual egos, our immediate family and concerns of daily living, to the well-being of the whole ecosphere, encompassing the plants, animals and the whole of the planet. Just as we wouldn’t harm ourselves, we cannot harm the planet either. Because in a very real sense, we all form a close-knit ecological community living together and interacting on this specific habitat called Earth. This is sound ecological wisdom that answers ethical questions about how we could live harmoniously on this planet and preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of this larger planetary community. Heeding to this voice of wisdom, ecologists and natural historians, would engender not just deep ecological consciousness, but a spiritual consciousness. Because identifying with the central tenet of deep ecology is seen to bring about a process of spiritual self-realisation even as it generates an intuitive eco-centric perspective. This is supported by the axiom that the more we expand the self to identify with ‘others’ – not just people but animals, plants and the ecosystem – the more we realise ourselves. When we are alert to the injuries of our world and allow ourselves to feel for our world we open ourselves to a source of energy and aliveness, and a strength that comes from connection to something more than just our narrow selves. Spirituality, after all, has to do with our inner sense of connection with something larger than ourselves, and in realising our link to what we see as sacred.
Born out of a deep concern with the worsening environmental crisis, and in heralding the new planetary spiritual renaissance that is slowly emerging from the environmental havoc wrought by our civilisation, deep ecology calls for nothing less than a complete revamp of the way humans live on the planet, and our current view of the world. Arne Naess later introduced the term ‘Ecosophy’ to describe this evolving philosophy of ecological harmony and equilibrium – to which others like Felix Guattari added the concept of three interacting and interdependent ecologies of mind, society, and environment. This goes to the very heart of deep ecology, which supports the development of our relationship with the world as an involved participant, feeling connected with and part of the world around us; of moving from a narrow, destructive version of the self, to a wider identification with all beings; and recognition of one’s part in a greater whole.
Yet others like Warwick Fox maintain that we and all other beings are “aspects of a single unfolding reality”. Naess buttresses that metaphysical idea with an ecological point of view stating, “The right of all forms [of life] to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.” Naess vehemently opposes the view of mankind as authoritarian guardians of the environment, as stewards of the world, offering this pithy criticism: “The arrogance of stewardship consists in the idea of superiority, which underlies the thought that we exist to watch over nature like a highly respected middleman between the Creator and creation.” Others on the forefront of deep ecology like Fritjof Capra talk of a ‘new physics’ that combines metaphysical and ecological views of interrelatedness – that everything is connected to everything else – and predict that deep ecology would become a framework for future human societies. Striking a cautionary note however, deep ecologists like John Seed argue, “We may have intellectual understanding of our interconnectedness, but our culture robs us of emotional and visceral experience of that interconnectedness, which we had as small children, but it has been socialised out of us by a highly alienating culture.”
Deep ecology also holds the view that ecosystems can absorb only limited change, by humans or other discordant influences, and that the actions of modern civilisation threaten, at times irrevocably, planetary well-being – a view consistent with scientific ecology. Ecologists worldwide hold that unbridled human economic activity has not just resulted in large-scale environmental degradation, in terms of reduced biodiversity, mass extinctions, rainforest devastation and climate change, but also pushed the biosphere far from its ‘natural’ state. Faced with such stark realities, deep ecologists hope to usher in worldwide social and political changes, affecting our economic, technological and ideological structures, through their cogent and compelling philosophy.
Right to life
The ethics of this philosophy hold that ‘a whole system is superior to any of its parts’, and that the world does not exist as a resource to be freely exploited by humans. The flourishing of non-human life forms on earth has as intrinsic a value as the well-being of humans on earth, and the value of non-human life forms is not to be measured in terms only of their usefulness to humans (which is the domain of what can be called shallow ecology that merely attends to how conservation of nature is required in order to serve humans better.) Richness and diversity of all life forms have an inherent value in themselves and need to be appreciated equally – an empowering perception availed by direct, respectful engagement with the natural world. Proponents of deep ecology firmly believe that those who resonate with these truths have an obligation to not just spread it in the world, but directly or indirectly implement the necessary changes in whichever way they can.
Deep ecology is also criticised for its presumptuous view that its thinking is deeper than conventional ‘shallow’ environmentalism. Arne Naess responds to this with the view that the depth of deep ecology resides in the persistence of its interrogative questioning of social paradigm, and its challenging of fundamental but flawed assumptions. Deep ecologists maintain that the prevailing system of ethics needs to be expanded to include new perspectives covering all life forms. Critics also argue that deep ecology called for rather draconian measures to save the planet from destruction at the hands of humans, fearing a collapse of the industrial world and a new kind of totalitarianism, a world government that would compel people to change their social behaviour to make it consistent with the demands of a life totally tied to the rhythms of the earth. Deep ecologists respond with a corpus of answers, the need for decentralisation, judicial industrialisation eliminating production methods that are inefficient and destructive, developing new technologies born out of awareness that the planet is really hurting and a social system attuned to nature. And at a deeper level, deep ecologists envisage an end to authoritarian regimes everywhere. The doctrine of equality, the concept that each individual is deserving of respect, consideration and right treatment, that no human should ever be exploited – these powerful ideas need to be preserved and upheld worldwide. As Michael Zimmerman, Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University, New Orleans says, “We cannot expect to treat the natural world appropriately if we don’t even treat other human beings appropriately.”
Akber Ayub is a mechanical engineer by profession, an ex-marine engineer, ex-industrialist, member of a college faculty, and finally, following his heart, now a writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on Deep Ecology workshops, Contact The Institute for Deep Ecology, 36, Broomfield Lane, Palmers Green, London N13 4HH.
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