Sunday, November 14, 2010

Paths to Deep Ecology

“The supporters of the deep ecology movement are all over the world. A small minority are from the universities, a tiny fraction are writing about these matters, but our real strength is with those who don’t give lectures but who are supporting the deep ecology movement in their lives.” Arne Naess, The Selected Works, Volume Ten, p.16.

“An essential aspect of the deep ecology movement is activism: from theory to practice, and from practice to theory. One may express it like this: the full meaning of a theory can only reveal itself in practice, and practice is blind without theory.” Arne Naess, The Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 87.

“A very common comment by people hearing a description of deep ecology for the first time is ‘But I’ve always thought this. I just did not have words for it.’” Naess, The Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 124.

The natural world is crumbling around us and deep ecology arose as a response to this in the early 1970s. I recently came across a quote from Aldo Leopold which places the work of Arne Naess in a context to enable us to better understand the significance of this Norwegian eco-philosopher, as it does for Leopold himself. Leopold, writing in 1948, said, “A new idea is, of course, never created by one individual alone. A prophet is one who recognizes the birth of an idea in the collective mind, and who defines and clarifies, with his life, its meanings and its implications.” (Cited in Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness, edited by David Brown and Neil Carmony, p. 229.)

Based on interacting with others who have become supporters of deep ecology, my experience is that paths to this deeper ecological awareness are highly personal. There are however some commonalities among those who end up with a consciousness that removes humans as the centre of ethical discourse; and who have come to appreciate and fight for the belief that humankind has to share the planetary living space on a basis of equality with other plant and animal species, who have as much right to flourish as us.

Most with this ecological awareness were already on a deep ecology path without ‘knowing’ it, in an intellectual sense. This was also true of me. In April 1983, prior to becoming conscious of deep ecology and Arne Naess, I gave a presentation to a public hearing of the Nova Scotia Royal Commission on Forestry dealing with the various dimensions of pulp mill forestry. This is, in part, what I said about the ecological perspective, which I was later to discover could have been lifted from any deep ecology- influenced text:
“The ecological perspective rejects man’s supposed domination over nature. This domination is referred to as the homocentric or anthropocentric viewpoint which sees the environment primarily in relationship to how it ‘benefits’ human beings…The anthropocentric viewpoint is the basis of all environmental management perspectives where the goal is the exploitation of nature in the most efficient and rational manner possible. Such a viewpoint is fully compatible with the different but existing forms of political economy, e.g. in the United States of America and the Soviet Union.” (Presentation published by the Gorsebrook Research Institute of Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, under the title “Pulpwood Forestry in Nova Scotia and the Environmental Question.”)

People who have ended up on a deep ecology path often have reputations as dissidents or ‘hard to get along with’ or as ‘difficult’ in mainstream environmental and green circles. This is because the deep ecology-influenced activist comes to oppose the conventional wisdom which permeates the discussion of environmental or green electoral issues. This conventional wisdom always accepts, at heart, the continuance and legitimacy of the industrial capitalist system and its institutions, and says nothing about ever-increasing human populations. My own experience here in Nova Scotia has meant opposing support by mainstream environmentalists for Btk spraying, seen by them as an acceptable ‘lesser evil’ to chemical biocides; opposing support for ‘sustainable development’ after the Brundtland report first appeared; opposing the embracement of Forest Stewardship Certification; and more recently, opposing the ‘regulation’ of off-highway vehicles and hence their legitimacy; opposing the ‘traditional use’ of proposed new wilderness areas by hunters, trappers, and off-highway vehicle users, which mainstream environmental organizations go along with, from the deep ecology perspective that wilderness should be primarily for non-human life, not human pleasure; opposing the rush to industrialize the rural landscape with large wind turbine ‘farms’, etc. (Articles expressing the listed perspectives are on the Green Web site.)  There is often quite a conscious attempt by mainstream environmentalists to exclude deep ecology supporters from giving their views in public discussions, and this has also been my own experience.

Part of supporting deep ecology for the activist is to apply deep ecology to theoretical AND practical environmental issues. This means, as Marx noted so long ago, to actually change the world and not only interpret it. I think that, to fully adopt deep ecology is to become an agent of social change. The shallow/deep distinction made by Naess, once grasped, shows there is much work to do for the deep ecology supporter within industrial capitalist society.

Access to the natural world is important, it seems, at a crucial time in one's life, usually when one is young, for people who end up as deep ecology supporters. This was clearly so for Arne Naess himself, as he so described hours on the seashore as a child looking at creatures in tide pools, and for Green deep ecology theorist John Livingston as a boy exploring the ‘undeveloped’ ravines in Toronto. When one reads biographical material for two United States ecological thinkers – Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson – one sees that both spent hours pursuing nature education in their youth. These two are seen by some, including myself, as ‘pre-deep ecology’ deep ecologists. (Naess himself assigned an important role to Carson, regarding the origins of deep ecology in the United States but not for Aldo Leopold. Yet I have come to believe that, philosophically, Leopold came to have a greater influence than the author of Silent Spring.)

Early access to a tamed nature in an English context was important for me. We lived in an area of Portsmouth called Copnor. A large pond – Baffin’s Pond – opposite our house, had many kinds of waterfowl, including swans, and us locals fished there for eels and carp. The pond had reed beds, an island, and quite a number of trees – weeping willows around the edges – and park benches for people to sit on. When my father retired from working ‘on the bench’ at a local aircraft factory, he became known as “The Birdman of Baffin’s Pond” for his work in looking out for the well-being of the waterfowl and was so eulogized in the local paper when he died in 1984. A short walk away from our home was Langstone Harbour, a vast tidal expanse of exposed mud flats. I remember going ‘cockling’ when the tide was out. A longer walk, but suitable for a day excursion, was to Farlington Marshes, where one could walk along a sea wall and see many different kinds of geese and ducks. One could also feed off the blackberry bushes which grew in impenetrable clumps on the marshes. The war meant that Porstmouth, as a naval port, was sometimes bombed, so children were evacuated to the countryside. This gave me more opportunities to explore what remained of the natural world in an industrialized, highly populated, society.

The influence of teachers or a ‘significant other’ often seems important for those on the eventual deep ecology path. The teacher influence is, at an early stage, either family, e.g. a parent, or later, a school teacher. I attended a technical school which basically prepared students for industrial apprenticeships. It was the wrong school for me, but I still remember with fondness the teacher who led the field club of which I was a member. Later, as a shipwright apprentice in the Portsmouth dockyard (starting in 1949), there was a foreman who had served overseas and brought an appreciation of eastern religions back with him. He helped me to see that my future did not necessarily mean a life in Portsmouth as a dockyard ‘matey’. An additional influence for nature awareness was joining a saltwater rowing club, which introduced me to boats and the sea. Club members rowed in races all along the South Coast at various regattas. We also camped out some weekends by rowing across to the Isle of Wight in larger clinker-built boats, which we called galleys.

Deep ecology influence can be acquired through ‘intellectual conversion’, that is, when one reads significant books for the first time. Livingston’s Rogue Primate and The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, and writings by Naess like Ecology, community and lifestyle were important books in my own theoretical journey. Coming across the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform seems to have impacted many who gravitate to deep ecology. Intellectual conversion can involve coming in contact, in one’s adult life, with someone who is a deep ecology proselytizer. Here a personal journey meshes with deep ecology philosophy. A new language becomes apparent which helps the activist to separate her- or himself from the dominant thought processes of industrial capitalist society. Converts come to see that, as Arne Naess notes, there is an eco-philosophy which makes sense of one’s own life experiences in combating human-centeredness – there is now a community of like-minded people and the knowledge that one is not alone in sharing the ‘madness’ of deep ecology. Very importantly, the new convert is inspired to see that there is indeed a common path forward, to which others can be introduced to and rallied to support. One’s own work needs to relate to and acknowledge this common path. This is a denial of the individualism so promoted by industrial capitalist culture – and cultivated by so many authors who write about environmental issues, as if they alone have a unique wisdom.

Many people come to a deep ecology awareness based on their own practical and emotional experiences of identifying with the natural world in their personal lives, and getting engaged in various fights with the habitat annihilators and in defence of wildlife under attack. There are several activists I know of, who have spent years of their lives struggling to apply deep ecology-type ideas and only much later come to realize that there was actually a philosophy which now gave them the language to more fully articulate and express their self-taught beliefs.

My experience is that it is relatively easy to have a basic unity of thinking and consequent actions relating to Nature, among those who have embarked on a deep ecology path. Once there is agreement about the basic philosophy, people become self-motivated change agents, and organizational structures are minimal. But, whereas opposing human-centeredness seems to be a great unifier, actually getting agreement on political, economic and cultural issues and on how to bring about the termination of industrial capitalist society, seems rather more difficult to achieve. To address this, a Left focus has emerged within deep ecology – a theoretical tendency called Left Biocentrism. Thinkers like Richard Sylvan, Andrew McLaughlin, John Livingston, Stan Rowe, Judi Bari, Rudolf Bahro, Andrew Dodson, Fred Bender, and the left bio internet discussion group, have all contributed to this tendency, which is still evolving.

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