“How Deep Is Your Ecology?” by John Halstead

We continue with our April theme, Nature, with a discussion of “Deep Ecology”.

What is Deep Ecology?

In 1972, Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” to contrast with “shallow” environmentalism. At the core of deep ecology is the idea that nature is sacred, meaning it has intrinsic value apart from its usefulness to human beings. The destruction of the environment is thus perceived as a desecration (literally a de-sacred-ing). In contrast, “shallow” environmentalism is concerned only with the effects of environmental devastation on human beings. Shallow environmentalism seeks to remedy the symptoms of ecological collapse without the transformation, or even the consciousness, of the “deep-seeded” cultural assumptions that gave rise to the collapse.

Deep ecologists trace environmental desecration to a spiritual crisis, one which is rooted in the Western religious worldview that divides humans existentially from other living beings and divides the natural world from the sacred realm. Deep ecologists dispute the efficacy of the stewardship model of environmentalism advocated by Christian environmentalist, because it fails to address the root of the problem: anthropocentrism. Deep ecologists contrast an anthropocentric (or human-centered) attitude toward the environment with an eco-centeric or bio-centric one. An anthropocentric perspective values nature only in terms of its usefulness to human beings. An eco-centric or bio-centric perspective perceives that human beings are interconnected part a vast biotic community in which human beings have special responsibilities, but do not have any greater right to exist than any other form of life.

Deep ecologists argue that efforts to preserve the ecosystem will not succeed until we collectively experience a transformation of consciousness from an ecologically shallow ego-centric perspective to an ecologically deep eco-centric perspective. This transformation of consciousness is referred to as the realization of one’s “ecological self” (or “eco-self”, in contrast to “ego-self”). Arne Naess’ conception of the ecological self was inspired in part by Gandhi’s understanding of self-realization as a widening one’s concept of self to include all living beings. John Seed has described his realization of his own ecological self this way: Rather than saying “I am defending the rainforest,” Seed says, “I am the forest, recently emerged into consciousness, defending myself.”

Paul Sheperd describes this change in this way:

“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”

According to David Abram, another way to think about deep ecology, or what he calls “depth ecology”, is to contrast the “flat” perspective of conventional science which idealizes detached objectivity and which seeks to view nature from “outside”. A “deep” perspective, in contrast, recognizes that we cannot escape our carnal immersion in the more-than-human world which encompasses us, enfolds us, and permeates us. Abram writes:

“By acknowledging that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves — by affirming that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth — deep ecology opens a new (and perhaps also very old) sense of the sacred.”

Deep ecology has intellectual roots in the writings of early conservationists and environmentalists, like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, all of whom believed that human beings are part of an interconnected biotic community to which we owe an ethical obligation. Deep ecology has inspired such movements as neo-animism, bioregionalism, and ecopsychology. The term “deep ecology” is closely related to “dark green religion”, a term coined by Bron Taylor. Dark green religion or dark green spirituality encompasses a wide array of beliefs and practices, including those of atheists, religious naturalists, pantheists, Gaians, neo-animists, neo-shamans and, of course, Neo-Pagans.

Re-Earthing and the Council of All Beings

Like Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold before them, deep ecologists trace their perspective to personal experiences of connection and wholeness with wild nature. Many deep ecologists believe there is no substitute for direct experience of the wild for people to develop an ecological consciousness. Time spent in wild nature gives rise to an intuitive or affective perception of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life.

The arts and ritual can also help break through the socialization by industrial consumer culture which separates us from our authentic ecological selves. Art and ritual can reach people on an emotional or spiritual ground when rational argument cannot. For example, photographs of undespoiled landscapes, such as the photography of Ansel Adams, have been used to good effect by environmentalists.

Some activists have designed ritual processes called “re-Earthing” to deepen participants’ felt connection to nature and their concomitant political will to defend it. One such re-Earthing ritual, developed by Joanna Macy and John Seed, is known as the Council of All Beings. In the ritual, participants imaginatively set aside their human identity to speak from the perspective of an other-than-human being. Participants experience the interconnectedness of the world through process called “evolutionary remembering”. They are reminded that every cell in their bodies is descended from the first cell that emerged on earth. They then reenact the evolutionary journey of the universe, experiencing it as their own creation story. The process relies on the five senses, inner body knowing, and movement, as much as it does on words. In a process called “the Mourning”, participants are invited to feel the pain of plants, animals, and landscapes caused by human actions. Participants then give voice to grief, fear, and anger of these voiceless ones in a “Council of All Beings”. The other-than-human voices then offer to the humans present their own unique powers and knowledge to help guide and empower the humans to effect change. While the Council of All Beings might resemble a shamanic “channeling” in some ways, it is merely a calling forth of the wisdom and gifts that are latent in the human psyche.


The Deep Ecology Platform

1.  The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman 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.  Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5.  The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

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

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

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

—Arne Naess and George Sessions (1984)

This essay was originally published at Neo-Paganism.com.


The Council of All Beings

Joanna Macy’s website

Thinking Link a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings by John Seed, Joanna Macy, and Pat Fleming

Trumpeter: The Journal of Ecosophy (contains many great articles for download)

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

One Comment on ““How Deep Is Your Ecology?” by John Halstead

  1. I used to be much more of a subscriber to deep ecology than I am now, and I think this is a result of being much more informed about the condition of the world’s ecosystems. If humans were simply to “pull back” now, the result would be continued collapse of the systems that enable us to live as invasive non-natives and accelerating climate change continue the Anthropocene die-off.

    I believe humans are going to have to pro-actively act for the world’s ecological webs if we are to continue to survive–and yes, human survival is hardwired into us as a value, and I do not believe it is reasonable to expect that we will act deliberately against it and “for” the balance of nature.

    I agree that we need to pull the consumption of the world’s affluent back down to reasonable levels, but who, exactly, will be asked to make these sacrifices? Is it pragmatic to expect that the most powerful people in the world will agree to curb their excesses?

    The pollutants are already out there. The carbon is already in the atmosphere (and, with methane hydrates and permafrost melting, more will pour in even if humans stop using fossil fuels and wood entirely). If there are solutions to these challenges, they lie in development of technologies that don’t yet exist, as well as steep reductions in our footprint.

    Deep ecology’s analysis is correct, in a vacuum. But we’re not in a vacuum–we’re animals of a particular nature, and we’re in a highly complex context which does not lend itself to simple philosophical solutions. My approach is “all of the above”–resacralize the Earth, reduce consumption footprints, get off the fossil fuels, yes, but also increase the standard of living and education of the world’s most poor so they reproduce less and have alternatives to wood for an energy source; develop new technologies to replace fossil fuels; even possibly genetically modify organisms which can eat plastic and oil, uptake carbon, etc.

    It’s a kitchen sink problem; it’s going to need a kitchen sink solution which is consistent with the nature of humans as animals–meaning, recognizing that people are going to want to reproduce and live well, and working within those contexts to ease population pressures and redefine what “living well” truly means.

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