Deep Ecology: Principles & Resources

Copyright © 1997/2007 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

[The following is an excerpt from the author's (someday) forthcoming book, Healing Our World; I have eliminated endnotes from the text and simply put an array of resources at the end.]

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May God help us. More to the point, may God (the Infinite I-AM Self of all selves) save us from ourselves… our terribly and often unwittingly destructive selves.... Divine Grace is apparently on the way, for a major (if under-reported) story of our day is that a badly-needed ecological awareness is finally sweeping beyond narrow eco-theological circles through the ranks of our religious leaders and adherents, even among some conservative factions. We now openly recognize that our careless behavior, rooted in alienation, ignorance and greed, has caused an unconscionable and multi-faceted ecocide or biocide.

With this realization, all over the world a simple but challenging truth is dawning: we must leave behind our destructive egotism and anthropocentrism and develop (or remember) our profound kinship with all beings.

We can no longer be selfish; we must become truly whole-ish or holistic.

For some religions, this precept has long been a part of their sensibility. For instance, the way of ahimsa or empathetic harmlessness and caring concern in solidarity with all sentient beings, was first posited by India’s Jainas 2,500 years ago, and emulated by Buddhists and Hindus. For persons influenced by the Biblical tradition in the West, this injunction on ecological harmlessness and solidarity, rooted in the kinship or servant stewardship model in preference to the dominion or dominator model, is fast becoming a veritable eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not spoil and ravage the Earth nor harm her creatures.”

Albert Einstein in 1954 stated the matter very succinctly: “When we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, we are experiencing a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task is to free ourselves from the prison by widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty....We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

Putting it differently, more and more people realize that we must live simply so that others may simply live. And the deeper implication is that, truly, there are no “others,” only the God-Self, the formless, transcendent One who, paradoxically, is manifesting as each and every one of us.

This awareness is the deepest core of the new environmentalism that has been termed deep ecology or ecosophy, “earth wisdom,” and is giving rise to potent eco-theology and eco-psychology movements.

Whereas some forms of ecology have turned into a mushy nature-mysticism or pantheism, the most enlightened, mystical type of deep ecology involves a sublimely panen-theistic reverence for the God Who is prior to creation as its Loving Source, yet paradoxically also manifest within every human and non-human creature as their real Self. This ecosophy not only opens us to Divine Spirit, it brings profound solidarity and compassionate kinship with humans both living and unborn, and with primates, dolphins, felines, canines, bears, ungulates, rodents, reptiles, birds, bugs, fungi, microbes, soil, rivers, seas, grasses, shrubs, forests, mountains and all other dear companions sharing with us this astonishing world.

The term “deep ecology” was coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972, based on earlier work and inspiration of persons such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower, et al. Deep ecology has been elaborated in numerous books and articles since then by Naess and many other voices. Naess and George Sessions articulated a deep ecology platform in 1984, reprinted in Arne Naess, “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects,” in George Sessions (Ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy & Practice of the New Environmentalism, Shambhala, 1995, p. 68.

Here are the 8 points of this deep ecology platform, as posited by Naess and Sessions:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human 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. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.

5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

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Anyone who sees our horrific and pressing environmental woes and who joins with others in the great work of educating friends, colleagues and the general public is, alas, going to have a hard time saying anything without sounding like a “grieving greenie” or “spoil-sport.” About this particular species, Theodore Roszak, a staunch ecologist and a leading voice in the eco-psychology movement, notes: “Their habitual reliance on gloom, apocalyptic panic, and the psychology of blame takes a heavy toll in public confidence.... Too often the reports are grounded in a new environmental puritanism that almost delights in castigating our sins of self-indulgence.”

Making things worse is that, due to our spiritually and psychologically unenlightened state, our own problems get to be so overwhelming that we just aren’t strong enough to handle news of ecological crises beyond our immediate concerns. When we’re having a hard time paying the bills, or a nasty illness afflicts us or our loved ones—or we’re being distracted by fun-seeking—we simply don’t want to hear about global warming, biodiversity loss, eroding top-soil, or refugees fleeing some environmental crisis. Even if a loved one is dying of cancer, and the disease is likely due to mutagenic effects from hazardous waste dumped nearby or excessive pesticide residues in our food or water, we are likely to blurt out, “I just can’t hear that right now. It’s too much!

The good news is that we can all be spiritually liberated ecosophists who live out of a tremendously joyous optimism. A profoundly mystical psychology and theology is needed for this. The acclaimed mystics of our sacred traditions and the wisest voices in the deep ecology movement invite us to experience the wondrous bliss of finding our real nature as the boundless ecological Self beyond this narrowly egoic bodymind self-sense, this “minimal self.” Our vast Self includes formless, transcendent Spirit and also the mixed community of human and myriad non-human sentient beings and ecosystems as our extended “body.” The God-Self can also include the archetypal devotional relationship between the Loving Person of God (Goddess, if you prefer) and the human soul.

In short, the totality of our Real Identity includes the Divine, the body-mind self (“me”) and the worldwide communities of humans and non-humans.

In the ego-free, humble heart of the mature mystic-sage there shines the Divine Self-revelation to ItSelf: “I am everything and everyone, and I am formless Spirit. I am both the manifest Universe and its invisible Source.”

This paradoxical realization of the transcendent and immanent God—God beyond all and yet within all—is no mere pagan pantheism nor limited theism. This God-realization entails an enlightened theology of panentheism. Unlike pantheism (“all is God”) or theism (“God is up there beyond all”), in panentheism (“all is in God, and God is beyond all and within all”) no aspect of God’s glory is denied or excluded.

In this happy discovery of true Identity, we are inspired to spontaneously act, or sometimes to just be—alertly, receptively, prayerfully—on behalf of our fellow beings. And a major part of our empowered, responsible action is educating one another about what is going on in the world today, even if the facts bring moments of pain and shame. For the deep context is this spiritual freedom, this serenity and bliss of our real Identity in Divine Spirit.

In addition to looking further at some of the spiritual and philosophical issues underpinning the new, radical ecology or ecosophy, we will need to review in Part One [of Healing Our World] the actual status of our fragile biosphere, for five reasons.

First, big news media have not done a competent overall job in educating people about the worsening environmental crisis on its multiple fronts.

Second, certain naively cheerful futurists have continued to paint an unrealistic picture of a rosy future filled with fancy new technological tools and toys—the modern day equivalent of “fiddling while Rome burns.”

Third, a cunning backlash force of self-protecting industrial interests have, as some insiders openly admit, tried to vilify and destroy the entire environmental movement and distract or confuse the global public with misinformation. Why? So that attention will be deflected away from genuinely alarming patterns of ecological destruction and industry’s role in that destruction.

Fourth, many corporations dishonestly portray themselves as earth-friendly and eco-sensitive while continuing to pollute and plunder as usual.

And fifth, we humans, God bless us every one, can be such dullards and laggards that we need a bit of shock therapy to trigger us out of our stupor.

In short, we will explore our planet’s crucial health-parameters and outline the challenges for mature conscientious persons, organizations and nations wishing to remedy the damage that we have wrought upon our earthly home.

Nevertheless, it’s crucially important to remind ourselves at the outset that we must not let our constricting egos make a fanatic religion out of environmentalism. For instance, we need not create “us-versus-them” polarities of psychological violence, venomously attacking anti-ecological persons as wicked. Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the amazing Japanese spiritual master who created the peaceful martial art of Aikido, always taught that, once one has adopted the idea of someone or some party being “the enemy,” then authentic aikido, the way of love and harmony, has been lost. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. taught the same ideal of loving reconciliation. The Oregon chapter of the Earth First! movement years ago posited useful guidelines, the first two of which, following Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, are: “Our attitude will be one of openness, friendliness, and respect toward all people we encounter. We will use no violence, verbal or physical, toward any person.” (Yet some Earth First! chapters have utilized violence toward machines and tools, after the example of Catholic priest Dan Berrigan and his ex-priest brother, Phil, who, in their anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear-weapons peace work, have long asserted that “some forms of property do not deserve to exist.” In this, they part company from Gandhi, Dorothy Day et al., who espouse a completely nonviolent ethic.)

We must be especially careful not to become arrogant, smug and self-righteous, looking down our noses at “the ignorant.” We’re all in this, together, folks. In deep Spirit, we are each other. That’s the real meaning of solidarity.

If our ecosophy is to be mature, we also need not inwardly reify or “solid-ify” environmental problems—since one day a few billion years from now all life on earth will become extinct as the sun begins to enter its death-throes, completely incinerating earth’s biosphere. Far sooner than that, we might suddenly perish if a colossal meteor strikes our planet or global warming brings sooner than later drastic changes completely inhospitable to life. One never knows.

So, while endeavoring to rectify present troubles, we need not become heavy with tense clinging to our ideas, images, emotions and agendas. Deep ecologists know this, teaching that true ecosophy or earth wisdom blossoms in humility, openness, lightness, subtlety. This is the old Buddhist realization of emptiness (shûnyatâ) and the Taoist virtue of “non-doing” (wu-wei), not interfering with the spontaneous way of enlightened, flowing action. Christian mystics live this as kenôsis, the spacious state of being “emptied” of selfish concerns so that God’s Will prevails. Thus purified, God takes over our faculties and acts through us, taught Saint John of the Cross (1542-91), Catholicism’s most eminent mystic theologian and an ardent nature-lover (“My beloved is the mountains and lonely wooded valleys, remote islands and resounding rivers”).

Of paramount importance, therefore, is that we give up any adversarial thinking or possessive clinging to our earthly situation. Our ecosophy must be based on a truly enlightened wisdom and compassion. Otherwise it becomes merely a thinly disguised ego-project based in ignorance of Spirit. It will then manifest as obnoxious self-righteousness. An indulgence in vicarious victimization through a narcissistic identification with a romanticized “Nature.” In short, a self-pitying pseudo-martyrdom.

Having said all that, let me also say this for balance: we who live in the industrialized nations, especially those of us in artificially insulated, overdeveloped and maldeveloped cities and suburbs, are in many ways completely out of touch with Nature and insensitive to her subtle aspects. We crucially need to develop a profound intuition of the immanent Divine presence in/as Nature.

As countless mystics have discovered in direct intuitive experience, and more and more theologians are also beginning to assert, the world is the very body of the formless God! We need to repeat that phrase several times until the truth of it really sinks in. This insight will make anyone a life-loving biophile, someone who feels solidarity with all creatures in a mature, expansive land ethic as Aldo Leopold called it, someone who feels the need to be “in service to our place of mixed community.” Such awareness, growing among numerous spiritual leaders and theologians, leads us to honor and protect as many living beings in our habitats as is realistically possible.

This awareness inspires us to spontaneously adopt what Bill McKibben has termed “the humble way of life” rather than the “deviant” path of selfish consumption and wastefulness. We adopt the beautifully eco-centric egalitarianism of deep ecology. As expressed by Australian environmental scientist Warwick Fox, this is the “attitude that, within obvious kinds of practical limits, allows all entities (including humans) the freedom to unfold in their own way unhindered by the various forms of human domination.”

In the more traditional parlance of our sacred traditions, we are moved to love God and love and serve as many beings as possible.

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Many articles on deep ecology by Naess, et al., appear in the aforementioned volume edited by George Sessions, Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy & Practice of the New Environmentalism, Shambhala, 1995. See, too, Michael Tobias (Ed.), Deep Ecology, San Diego, CA: Avant Books, 1985, which features articles by Naess and other leading voices; Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge U. Press, 1989; Bill Devall, Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology, Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1988; Bill Devall & George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, Peregrine Smith, 1985; Michael Zimmerman, Contesting Earth’s Future, Berkeley, CA: U. of Calif. Press, 1994, and Zimmerman (Ed.), Environmental Philosophy, Prentice Hall, 1993; Warwick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism, Shambhala, 1990; Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, NY: New Directions, 1974, The Practice of the Wild, SF: North Point Press, 1990; Dolores LaChapelle & Janet Bourque, Earth Festivals: Seasonal Celebrations for Everyone Young and Old, Silverton, CO: Way of the Mountain Center, 1976; Dolores LaChapelle, Earth Wisdom, Way of the Mountain Center, 1978.

Journals with a strong deep ecology sensibility include Environmental Ethics (Eugene Hargrove, Ed., Dept. of Philosophy, P.O. Box 13496, U. of North Texas, Denton, TX 76203), The Trumpeter: Canadian Journal of Ecosophy (Alan Drengson, Ed., P.O. Box 5853, Stn. B, Victoria, B.C., Canada V89 6S8), and ReVision (Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth St., NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802; see especially issues from 1995 onward).

For inspirational early works underlying the rise of deep ecology, see Aldo Leopold’s posthumously published work, A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River, Ballantine ed., 1970 (first published by Oxford U. Press, 1949); David Brower (Ed.), Not Man Apart, Lines from Robinson Jeffers, SF: Sierra Club, 1965, David Brower, For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times and David Brower, Peregrine Smith, 1990; David Brower with Steve Chapple, Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth, HarperCol-linsWest, 1995; Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, Oxford U. Press rev. ed., 1989 (originally pub. in 1951), Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, and The Sense of Wonder, HarperCollins, 1998 (originally pub. in 1965).

A field related to deep ecology is eco-feminism, which has generated a large body of literature. See, for example, two classics: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, HarperSF, 1994; and Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web, Beacon, 1986. Some eco-feminists have criticized the philosophy underlying deep ecology as a “totalizing view.” An excellent rejoinder to this critique is Warwick Fox, “The Deep Ecology-Ecofeminism Debate and Its Parallels,” in George Sessions (Ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, op. cit., pp. 269-89.

A newer field to emerge is eco-psychology. See Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp. 35-6. Other emerging works of the ecopsychology school include T. Roszak, Mary Gomes, & Allen Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Sierra Club, 1995. See the special issue of ReVision (Heldref Publ., 1319 18th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036), “Ecopsychology and Social Transformation,” Spring 1998, Vol. 20, No. 4.