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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Edited by Eric Katz, Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg. Cambridge, MA & London, UK: The MIT Press (2000), viii, 328 pp.
Reviewed by J. Stan Rowe, emeritus Professor (Ecology), University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.
Ecology is the "skin-out" study of what
envelops and influences things, as compared to physiology with its focus
on "skin-in" functions--which leads to the thought that the
appropriate title for those primarily concerned with their inner soul/selves
is "Deep Physiologists." In contrast, the name Deep Ecology
(DE) suggests exploration of human ecology to its outer limits, asking
what is the reality of people's relationship to the world that envelops
them, and what ethical actions flow from that relationship? Over the last
quarter century Arne Naess has been the most influential voice of eco/philosophy
and eco/sophy (ecological wisdom) in the Western world.
Naess's thoughts and actions have been motivated by
what he sees as the appalling deterioration of planet Earth, overpopulated
and under attack by a consumer society. From this came his founding of
the Deep Ecology Movement (DEM) for social-political change, centered
on a Platform of eight Principles (composed with George Sessions) that,
in summary, calls for valuing and respecting all forms of life, for an
attitude of non-interference with natural processes and systems, for de-emphasizing
the primary significance of people and their institutions, for restructuring
society in harmony with natural processes, and for a reexamination of
the ends of human life, replacing the pursuit of material abundance with
a heightened quality of life experience.
The introductory chapter of Beneath the Surface states
that the book's primary goal is "to examine the philosophy of DE,"
a difficult task without a philosophical interpretation of the DEM Platform.
The editors propose six points as essential to the philosophy of DE. In
abbreviated form they are: (1) Rejection of strong anthropocentrism, (2)
Replacing anthropocentrism with ecocentrism (the ecosphere and ecological
systems central), (3) Identification with all forms of life, (4) The sense
that caring for the environment is part of individual human self-realization,
(5) A critique of instrumental rationality and an emphasis on alternative
modes of thinking, (6) Personal development of a total worldview prior
to social action.
Naess values the diversity of philosophical/cultural
faiths and is willing to recognize many as underpinnings of the DEM. He
conceived it as four linked levels, illustrated with the "Apron Diagram"
so-called because it flares out generously above and below the Platform-Principles
"waist." Level 1, the bust of the apron, encompasses a broad
spectrum of religions and philosophies willing to subscribe to Level 2,
where the "Platform Principles" cinch all together. Level 3
and Level 4 comprise the hips and hem of the garment, the former expressing
general consequences (such as choice of lifestyle) in harmony with the
Platform, and the latter specifying concrete situations and practical
decisions of a political nature. In Naess's words, "The DEM thus
can manifest both plurality and unity: unity at Level 2, and plurality
at the other levels."
Midway through the book editor/essayist Andrew Light
examines ethicist Callicott's arguments for a singular foundational ecophilosophy
based on Aldo Leopold's concept of people's duties to the larger biotic
communities of which they are members. Light concludes that environmental
philosophy is too young to settle on one right path, and so he too endorses
a pluralism of ecophilosophies at Level 1.
Obviously Naess does not consider his personal philosophy,
"Ecosophy T," as the only valid one, but the editors justify
particular attention to his thinking not only because he is the founding
father but also because many of the essays that the book comprises were
initially slated for publication in the journal Inquiry as a special issue
titled, "Arne Naess's Environmental Thought." Thus many of the
essays are understandable in the light of Naess's Ecosophy T, which shows
the influence of Eastern philosophies. In my view his three outstanding
According to editor/essayist Eric Katz, the pillars
of Ecosophy T (which he lists as Identification with Nature, Self-realization,
and Ontology as the basis of normative values) suffer from the fault of
anthropocentrism (homocentrism). Only a strong environmental ethical system
can move beyond Naess's limited perspective that is tellingly exposed
in his ambiguity about human interests versus nature protection. Katz
approves the Deep Green Theory of Richard Sylvan who, disagreeing with
Naess's idea of "Self," argued for an ethic based on eco-impartiality.
The proper course for environmental philosophy, Katz concludes, is not
an ecosophy such as Naess's ontological worldview but an unbiased environmental
ethic that de-emphasizes human-centered categories of value.
Countering the opinion of Katz, William Grey criticizes
Sylvan's Deep Green Theory because it postulates values in nature independent
of valuers, while admitting that values vary between cultures. Grey points
to other inconsistencies, exemplified by the wording of the Deep Green
"obligation principles," such as "Do not jeopardize the
well-being of natural objects or systems without good reason." Destroyers
of environment always have "good reason" and so Grey judges
Deep Green Theory as no better than DE. Whether Katz, Grey, and several
other contributors draw a distinction between homo/morphic and homo/centric
is unclear. All human thoughts and actions are homo/morphic (shaped by
humans) but they are not necessarily homo/centric (centered on humans),
and insofar as Naess and Sylvan center their values on other-than-human
things, they should not be accused of homocentrism.
Naess's foundational ideas draw the fire of Mathew
Humphrey for privileging the intuitive over the rational. To be human
is to reason, he argues, and therefore the rational-moral should be privileged
over the beautiful. The only defensible basis for action is provided by
reasoned ethical codes, not from the intuitive realization of Self-identity
through gestalt experiences. The Humphrey/Naess difference echoes the
old Plato/Sophist controversy, unresolved after 2500 years. The question
is, which of "truth" and "beauty" should be trusted
to guide the other? Western tradition favors the former but Naess wants
to give the latter a try.
Humphrey is targeted in turn by ecofeminist Ariel Salleh
who is suspicious of current ethical systems. Everyone, not just Naess,
acts from a sense of self-identity, she argues. Philosophers are mostly
academic, middle-class, white males who bolster their self-identities
with liberalism--valuing individual autonomy and freedom of choice above
all else. But liberalism is a discredited source of ethics because it
is anthropocentric, Eurocentric, class-based, and gendered. It is a failed
political formula, socially unjust and environmentally destructive. DE
is on the right track but it needs to embrace a theory of labor, of embodied
materialism, working (as do women in production and reproduction) at the
interface of Humanity and Nature.
Like Humphrey, ethicist Val Plumwood is critical of
Naess's "ontology before ethics" and of his thesis that treats
"ethics as unnecessary" (a fairer assessment might be that Naess
treats ethics as derivative). She sides with Katz in skepticism of Naess's
stress on consciousness change and on "Self-realization" through
unity (identity) with nature. What is needed, she believes, is an ethic
of solidarity, enabling strong connections to human liberation movements
as well as to nature. The DEM should not neglect institutional change,
and a good start would be reforming the institution of property/land which,
in the Lockean formula, is valueless until "developed" by human
labor. The land, Nature, should also be recognized as a value-producing
Bron Taylor, interested primarily in the social action side of the DEM, finds many weaknesses in its philosophic underpinnings as he understands them "at the grassroots level." The problem is a set of dualisms--inherited from such thinkers as Paul Shepard, Gary Snyder, George Sessions, and Bill Devall--that he identifies as "the main conceptual tendencies found in North America's deep ecology movements." He lists a number of "good/bad" twosomes, for example:
Taylor argues that such dualistic thinking is simplistic
and counterproductive when the goal is to marshal resistance to environmental
deterioration from every culture in the world. Emphasizing his empirical
research, he reports the unsurprising discovery that people are motivated
to action by immediate threats to their well-being, not by bioregional
ideology or calls for consciousness transformation. He plumps for a new
Green social philosophy, something like the Earth Charter that sets out
principles of reverence for Earth acceptable to all religious faiths.
Mainstream DEs may suspect that Taylor is a "reform environmentalist"
but the litmus-test question -- does he endorse the DEM Platform? -- is
not answered. Had all contributors opened with a "yea" or a
"nay" on this question, their orientations would have been clarified
for the benefit of readers.
The book's purported goal of examining DE philosophy
keeps slipping out of focus. John Clark's "How Wide is Deep Ecology?"
shows the difficulty of dealing strictly with DE philosophy apart from
the Platform and its social/political implications. Clark would prefer
a more specific Platform to welcome in social ecologists and ecofeminists
by giving practical content to the DEM's call for sweeping social change.
As with Salleh, Plumwood, and Taylor, the Platform and its deficiencies
for sparking political programs (at Naess's Levels 3 and 4?) are the center
Jonathan Maskit sees personal philosophies and political
platforms necessarily evolving together. Changes in the individual and
in culture/politics go hand in hand, and either alone is a no-go. Seek
reality through "spontaneous experience," say the DEs, but experience
depends on cultural presuppositions. For example, how can the individual
reduce desire for consumption when the culture endorses consumption as
a high social goal? In Kantian terms the role of the State is to make
people act as they would voluntarily if they really were rational beings,
curbing desires by reasonable laws. The new sympathetic worldview that
the DEM urges on its members necessitates co-evolution of the cultural-ideational
medium in which all are immersed.
On the supportive side, editor/essayist David Rothenberg
explains Naess's relational thinking as "phenomenology minus the
subject," meaning that Naess's aim is to apprehend directly nature's
qualities or "concrete contents," not as (minus) an observer
but merging the subjective and objective, the human and the natural, in
spontaneous experience. Through Rothenberg's eyes, DE is viewed as an
entirely new philosophy, a new horizon, a direction for progress in ontology,
a poetic way of being in the world.
Arran Gare is also sympathetic to the DEM, which he
believes is marginalized through lack of a Grand Narrative. DE needs a
persuasive cultural myth that saves what is good in modernism (the emancipatory
agenda for the disadvantaged) and extends it to the world of nature so
that living creatures and ecosystems as well as cultural diversity may
flourish. In effect he repeats Maskit's theme that the development of
"self," in whatever form, is shaped by the stories by which
each culture defines itself--and the appearance of a compelling ecological
saga is overdue. Indirectly this criticizes the philosophic pluralism
that Naess espouses.
Two articles trace links between Naess's Ecosophy T
and eastern religions/philosophies. Knut Jacobdson points out Naess's
debt to Gandhi who believed that the way to self-realization was not only
through knowledge and meditation but also through political action. He
notes ironically that DE reverses the Hindu aim of freeing the self from
bondage to the material world, seeking instead to integrate humans into
the natural Earth cycles of birth, growth, and death.
Dean Curtin explains Naess's ties to Buddhism through
the philosophy of Dogen, whose thought goes beyond DE from Self-realization
to Cosmic Co-realization. We will never be released from suffering, said
Dogen, as long as we search within the circle of human suffering alone.
Thus the advice to Naess to advance beyond biocentrism with its focus
on living things, and be released into the "coming and going of all
things." This appears to be a call for ecocentrism as Earth-centerdness.
Paradoxically, the sympathetic glue that "binds together all things,"
amoebas and crystals, humans and mountains, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems,
is their impermanency.
Finally, and farthest off the mark, Michael Zimmerman's
essay -- "Possible Political Problems of Earth-based Religiosity"
-- expresses fears that a theology of Earth linked with the DEM might
be coopted and used as the Nazis used their nationalistic "blood
and soil" motif to justify totalitarian programs of suppression and
extermination. In view of the known history of humanity in the West over
the last several thousand years, with its frequent "ethnic cleansings"
under the aegis of a transcendental male God, the thought that belief
in a supra-national divine mother Earth would do worse seems a long shot.
Zimmerman devotes much of his article to the philosophy of Ken Wilber,
who initially explained humanity's assault on nature as due to "death
anxiety" but now as a second guess locates the fault in "retro-romantics"
(including followers of Earth-based religions). Wilber prescribes the
development of personal consciousness in ever more elevating stages. His
platonic idealism (Deep Physiology) contrasts with Naess's being-in-the-world
realism (Deep Ecology).
Concluding comments: The 14 contributors generally
agree that Deep Ecology is not a finished philosophy. It is still finding
its roots below and expanding its "greenness" above. The voluminous
literature that has developed around Naess's Ecosophy T and the DEM "Apron
Diagram" contribute to its current fluidity. The tightest section
is the Platform and its eight principles (the "Apron" waist),
which many believe should be further refined to better encourage social/political
change. Stronger tie-strings in the middle will keep the Apron from blowing
in the wind.
Eastern philosophies, like Western religions, lay heavy
hands of responsibility on the individual to "shape up." This
idea is apparent in Naess's philosophy. But few can bootstrap their own
conversion from "self" to "Self" without cultural
assistance. On this important point Bowers (1995, see especially p. 169
for note on Naesss individualism) has criticized Naess for accenting
the authority of individual judgment while ignoring culture as the primary
source of influence on thought and behavior. The needed "ecological
worldview" is unlikely to result from everyone concentrating on developing
her/his own ecosophy.
A powerful ecological narrative that neither disparages
Nature nor people is overdue. One problem on the philosophers' side is
suspicion of Earth-based science, leading to vague use of ecological language
particularly when it comes to terms such as "nature," "life,"
"community," "ecology," "ecosystem," "biosphere,"
"biocentric" "ecocentric." An example is pinning the
adjective "ecocentric" indiscriminately on social ecology, ecofeminism,
bioregionalism, and deep ecology (e.g., McLaughlin (1995) uses "ecocentrism"
broadly and indefinitely for all viewpoints that are not anthropocentric,
when a correct usage of the word according to its etymology is "home-centered,"
i.e. ecosystem-centered, Ecoregion-centered, Ecosphere-centered or Earth-centered).
Ecological terminology, freely used but imperfectly understood, needs
to be sorted out and defined in Earthly terms if people are to accept
a narrative that identifies humans as dependent Earthlings. Such a compelling
story/myth is a necessary counterpart of and support for the experiential
ways of knowing championed, for example, by Naess and Rothenberg.
The essays convey the feeling that two different cultures
are confronting one another. Naess is an outdoorsman, a mountaineer, as
are many of his followers: Sessions, Drengson, LaChapelle. These people,
like naturalists of the ilk of Muir and Thoreau, have been "touched"
by oceanic nature-experiences, intuitions of unity with Earth. They are
impelled to formulate a philosophical rationale for their Wordsworthian
epiphanies, borrowing eclectically from the scriptures of Lao Tsu, Protagoras,
Dogen, Spinoza, Bergson, Husserl. Facing them somewhat incredulously is
a majority of rationalist academics, city-born and bred, who have never
been touched by Earth, never climbed mountains, never wandered in a wilderness,
never hugged a tree. Ethical rules are their meat, not spontaneous experiences.
The mind-sets of two such different groups of people are far apart, and
the Ecological Narrative that pulls them together will richly deserve
the title "Grand."
Bowers, C.A. 1995. Educating for an Ecologically
Sustainable Culture: Rethinking Moral Education, Creativity, Intelligence,
and Other Modern Orthodoxies. Albany: SUNY Press.
McLaughlin, Andrew. 1995. "For a Radical Ecocentrism," pages 257-280 in Drengson, Alan and Yuichi Inoue (eds.), The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.