Deep ecology, a movement launched by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972, may be contrasted to an environmentalism concerned with the depletion of resources and pollution. For one thing, deep ecology aims at nothing less than a fundamental change in religion, morality, and social institutions. The eight-point platform devised by Naess and his chief American exponent George Sessions in 1984 is “deliberately ambiguous,” according to Eric Katz, so as not to reveal its revolutionary nature. As a result, several of the key principles which Naess laid down in 1972 are not even mentioned there, though they remain the movement’s “core doctrines” and are “crucial features of the deep ecology position as it appears in almost all published discussions.”
First, deep ecologists reject anthropocentrism, according to which human beings have irreducible value because they are made in the image of God; instead they embrace ecocentrism, according to which “an endangered plant species . . . has a direct claim to moral attention” and “the culling of an overabundant mammalian species in the same ecosystem may not only be morally justifiable, but obligatory to the extent that it would serve the integrity of the biotic community.” That “overabundant” species might well be us, for deep ecologists go beyond animal advocacy and hope to resolve conflicts between man and animal with “no special consideration to the interests and lives of rational, sentient, verbal Homo sapiens.”
Second, deep ecologists demand a large population decrease worldwide. In the platform co-authored by Arne Naess and George Sessions, we find the following statement: “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease.” These two sentences alone expose the dark heart of deep ecology. Their goal is not just zero population growth, but a great decline in human population. That this point was allowed to remain in the 1984 platform shows how uncontroversial population reduction had become. Naess taught that the present environmental crisis is chiefly one of population and economics, and that the way to reduce our numbers is by a profound change in “economics, technology and science, politics, education, philosophy, and religion.” At the “heart of Naess’s deep ecology,” Jonathan Maskit explains, is the demand for both “personal change and political change”: “Policy changes are therefore needed to force even those who ‘know better’ to behave in a way commensurate with their beliefs.” Government “policies” are to serve as an “externalized will” and “force us to act as we would if we were fully realized beings.”
Note these two uses of the word force . Humans are to be coerced into doing what nature supposedly requires—that is, to bring about a substantial decrease in their numbers. But deep ecologists worry that when populations start dropping people may no longer see “environmental problems as serious.” So how low must populations fall for their satisfaction? Very low. Like Nietzsche, they see man as a disease on the earth’s skin, so they not only condemn our use of animals for food and science, but even mourn the rise of agriculture over 10,000 years ago. Deep ecologist Paul Shepard typically yearns for the Pleistocene Age, when small bands of humans roamed the earth as hunter-gatherers. They “trace the primordial fall from a foraging paradise to agriculture” or to the domestications of the Neolithic age.
Third, deep ecologists are a throwback to the 1930s. Michael Zimmerman argues persuasively that deep ecology resembles German National Socialism, which was also a “neo-pagan revival and a radical ‘green’ movement.” The Nazis too castigated Christianity as “nature-hating, life-despising, and otherworldly,” embraced a “religion of nature,” and rejected “progressive political ideologies” for carrying on, in secular form, the Christian view of a purpose in history. Nazis were precursors of deep ecology in their cry of “Blood and Soil” and their touting of “the great web of life.” Zimmerman observes that despite their use of modern technology, Nazis were “premodern” in orientation. Other scholars, too, mention Nazism’s “green dimension,” mystical neo-paganism, and draconian laws to protect wildlife. Hitler, a vegetarian, believed in the intrinsic value of the natural world and castigated the destruction of the wilderness wrought by industry.
Fourth and most alarmingly, deep ecologists promote Arne Naess’ so-called “Self-realization” as a replacement for morality. Although left out of the 1984 platform, Self-realization is the “fundamental norm” around which everything in deep ecology turns. Once we identify with the nonhuman world as our larger Self, Naess teaches, there is no need for morality, for we now “defend the planet in Self-defense, we preserve natural processes and entities as an expression of our shared interests with the rest of creation.” Such spontaneous Self-defense would carry its own justification, for as deep ecologist Bill Devall puts it, it is his “right” to defend a nature that “has become part of my body .” According to Naess, the Self will do what the Self is , so it is no longer possible for Self-realized individuals “to injure nature wantonly, as this would mean injuring an integral part of ourselves.” But Self-realization’s demonic side is plainly revealed in Val Plumwood’s shocking celebration of traitors to the human race:
Traitorous kinds of human identity involve a revised conception of the self and its relation to the nonhuman other, opposition to oppressive practices, and the relinquishment and critique of cultural allegiances to the dominance of the human species and its bonding against nonhumans, in the same way that male feminism requires abandonment and critique of male bonding as the kind of male solidarity which defines itself in opposition to the feminine or to women and of the ideology of male supremacy.
Self-realization allows one to betray the human race out of solidarity with nonhuman creatures.
One might be tempted to regard deep ecologists as a fringe group, but J.E. De Steiguer, in The Origins of Modern Environmental Thought (2007), observes that: “Since the 1970s, a number of national green political parties have been formed in the developed world with Arne Naess’ deep ecology as their foundation.” These green parties emerged first in Great Britain in 1973, then in Belgium, Australia, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the former West Germany. Even Greenpeace has adopted Arne Naess’ philosophy.
In a witty critique of ecofeminism, a branch of deep ecology, Cecile Jackson reveals that goddess-worshiping cultures, far from being peaceful as ecofeminists imagine, were usually engaged in human sacrifice. In ancient Egypt, the cult demanded that hundreds of women be buried alive—a sacrifice defended in modern times by Joseph Campbell, who argues in Masks of God, in the style of a deep ecologist, that “these sacrifices were not properly, in fact, sacrifices at all; that is to say they were not particular beings . . . . They were parts only of a larger whole; and it was only by virtue of their absolute submission to that in its unalterable categorical imperative that they were anything at all.” Note well that he says these women were not particular beings. This is how the culture of death speaks of unwanted preborn children today, and at the same time regards the rest of us too as no particular beings, but only members of an overabundant mammalian species, against which “nonhuman interests ought to prevail for the sake of a given ecosystem’s integrity.” Be prepared, then, for deep ecologists like Bill Devall, George Sessions, and Paul Shepard, all of whom believe that ecocentrism requires an “unleashing of the animality in ourselves.” If the followers of Arne Naess prevail, we can expect the “consummate embodiments of humanity” to emerge from “outside the process of civilization altogether.” Or as Revelation 13 puts it: “I saw a beast rising out of the sea. . . .”
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.