Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Deep Ecology

"Rachel Carson went deep and questioned the premises of her society an essential difference from the argumentation pattern of the shallow ecology movement." The Selected Works of Arne Naess, Volume X, p. 89.

"The international, long-range ecological movement began roughly with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, over twenty years ago." Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle, (published in English in 1989 but in Norwegian in the mid 1970s), p. 210.

"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." Aldo Leopold, Journal of Wildlife Management, July 1948, cited in Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness, edited by David Brown and Neil Carmony, p. 229.

This blog post is an examination of the relationship, or lack of it, between Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and deep ecology, as seen by Arne Naess, but also by myself. It is something I have been thinking about for quite some time. I have always been intrigued by the claim by Naess (1912-2009), the father of deep ecology both philosophically and in a movement sense, that he did not invent the deep ecology tendency. Instead, he laid this on Carson (1907-1964), who was educated as a marine biologist, and who died of cancer and heart disease at the age of 56. Naess’s own seminal essay “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements: A Summary”, which kicked off the deep ecology trend within the environmental movement, was first published in 1973, some ten years after Silent Spring came out. While there are several brief references by Naess to Carson in his writings, I am not aware of any article by Naess looking further into Carson’s relationship to deep ecology. Linda Lear’s 1997, 600-page plus biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, does not mention or discuss deep ecology or Arne Naess. However, Lear’s 1998 book, Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, p. xiv, does curiously say:
"Carson has much to teach deep ecologists and environmental policy makers as they wrestle with the moral dilemma of whether or not to moderate their demands and conform to political reality."

In the back of my mind, I have long wondered whether or not the view of Carson’s relationship to deep ecology, as expressed in the quotations given above by Naess, were an expression of the genuine humbleness of Naess and a careful examination of Rachel Carson’s writings; or, perhaps, even a conscious political decision by Naess to assist the entry of deep ecology into North American culture. This is a culture frequently beset by a celebration of all things ‘American’, or what seems to be chauvinism to outsiders like myself. Naess, a Norwegian, was European-rooted. Did he think a Carson connection could make the deep ecology pill more palatable to a North American public? (It was, of course, George Sessions and Bill Devall, two U.S, academics, who did the early pioneering work of introducing and popularizing the writings of Naess in the United States.) Another question in assessing someone like Carson or Leopold, both giants of their own times (or anyone else for that matter), is whether the person under consideration is to be assessed “in place” at their particular historical time, or is it from today’s perspective, of what are understood to be deep ecology’s tenets by somebody like myself?

Since coming to support deep ecology in the mid 1980s, I have tried to apply this philosophy to practical and theoretical issues facing environmentalists and greens (see the web site). An eco-philosophy which says this is the theoretical way forward must be capable of demonstrating this in practice for activists, and ultimately for a concerned public. I have also tried to participate in an ongoing critical assessment of deep ecology, where this has seemed to be necessary. One result has been the development of the left biocentric theoretical tendency within deep ecology, which seeks a reconciliation of the natural and social communities, and to which a number of people have contributed. An eco-philosophy must continue to evolve as the world around us changes and also deal with its own internal tensions and contradictions. All of us, who live in industrial capitalist culture, including academics teaching in universities, are subject to powerful pressures to force us to compromise and accommodate to industrial capitalism. Resisting this, and yet continuing to take part in everyday struggles, plus projecting an oppositional path forward like deep ecology, tests all of us.

Why was Carson chosen by Naess, rather than Leopold, who was educated as a forester, and who has sometimes been called North Americas first pre-deep ecology deep ecologist? (See for example the 2004 Green Web Bulletin #76, Nova Scotia Forestry and Anti-Environmentalism) Naess had also read Leopold and cites him several times in his writings, as we can see in Volume X of The Selected Works. Leopold’s Land Ethic and the view that humans are “plain members of the biotic community” have been enormously influential among those who have organized to put the Earth first. Quotes from Leopold, e.g. “Thinking like a mountain” and, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”, are not only on many forest activist and wildlife defenders’ lips but are scattered through the ecocentric environmental literature that has come out of North America. Leopold also made an important distinction about how forestry and wildlife are seen, in his Land Ethic essay –what he called “the A-B Cleavage.” This can be seen as a precursor to the “shallow/deep” distinction made later by Naess in the early seventies. Leopold said in A Sand County Almanac:
“One group (A) regards the land as soil, and its function as commodity production; another group (B) regards the land as biota, and its function as somewhat broader.” (pp. 258-259)

In my own writings, I have frequently referenced Aldo Leopold in a deep ecology context or in forest and wildlife discussions. After reading Curt Meine’s Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, I saw that Leopold is also a role model for what has come to be called “restoration ecology.” In 1935, Leopold ‘bought’ a Wisconsin “sand county” farm which had seen much better days, and, with his family, actively engaged in ecological restoration work. This included much planting of trees, prairie grasses, shrubs and also wild flowers. Yet Leopold’s is a contested image, both within deep ecology and among that public which has an interest in land use issues. One of my deep ecology mentors, the Australian Richard Sylvan, while considering Leopold’s Land Ethic ‘subversive’, did consider this “primarily a human-centered ethical system.” This is discussed in Sylvan’s 1994 book (with David Bennett), The Greening of Ethics: From Human Chauvinism to Deep-Green Theory.

I have to strain to remember, despite past involvement – like Carson in biocide issues and to a much lesser extent with marine issues – quoting her philosophically. I have used Carson’s, “In nature nothing exists alone” (Silent Spring, p. 55), which is a guide to the always unanticipated disastrous consequences of so many ‘development’ interventions, including biocide spraying. Carson is undoubtedly influential, particularly on chemical spraying matters, and in enhancing our respect for sea and marine life. Yet, I would argue that, at least on the surface of things, she does not seem to have an influence equivalent to Leopold’s in a philosophical sense within the deeper environmental and green movements which take an interest in such matters.

What has become Carson’s signature, and last, book Silent Spring, published in 1962, was singled out by Naess for reference. There is a trilogy of quite wonderful ocean-related books by Carson: Under The Sea Wind (1941), which is my favourite; The Sea Around Us (1950, and 1960 with added data); and The Edge of The Sea (1955). Naess only refers to Silent Spring in his brief comments about Carson. Perhaps he had not read her other books? If so, does this matter, as regards Carson’s relationship to deep ecology?

For background prior to writing this blog post, I re-read Silent Spring but also for the first time read the other three ocean books; plus other material on Rachel Carson’s writings, including Linda Lear’s over 600-page very helpful biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature; and the book, also edited by Lear, Lost Woods: The Undiscovered Writings of Rachel Carson. For comparison purposes, I have re-read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac – the collection of essays published after his death in 1949 – plus other biographical material, including Curt Meine’s 600-plus-page seminal, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Meine’s book was republished in 2010, with “A Reader’s Testimony” by Wendell Berry: “Of all the conservationists who have preceded us, Leopold was the most radical, the most complete, and therefore the most needed.” (p. xv)

Rachel Carson’s contributions – in furthering our understanding of marine and biocide issues, and as an interpreter of the wonders of the marine natural world for others, plus in some of her essays and speeches of alerting the public to the menace of radiation and the atomic age and nuclear war – have been enormous and are not in question here. I also believe that her own life struggle, in the cultural context of her time, clearly shows she became a feminist role model for others in what was (and still is) essentially a male-dominated world.

One distinction we need to keep in mind, is that between ideas and activism in any evaluation of Carson’s or Leopold’s relationship to deep ecology. Naess himself was not only a philosopher/theoretician but also a movement builder. We need to look at the influence of these two people from such a perspective. Thus one important question is not only whether their ideas were compatible or incompatible with basic deep ecology themes, a central concern of this blog post. But another question, and harder to definitely answer, was: did Carson and Leopold also inspire people to become involved in environmental activism? And if so, was that involvement more on a deep or a shallow basis? Here in Nova Scotia, both in “wildlife management” and forest issues, Leopold is quite often invoked to justify shallow ecological positions, as he can be invoked by deep ecology supporters. So his legacy is contested. This testifies to the utilitarian magic that can be linked with his name and the various competing and contradictory theoretical tendencies displayed in Leopold’s own life. Did Arne Naess sense such contradictions, and this is why he aligned deep ecology with Carson and not Leopold?

Both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold did not openly oppose industrial capitalism or the ‘private property’ laws imposed on the natural world in the society in which they lived. Both were reformers, not revolutionaries, and they operated within the system. Leopold, a man aware of other cultures and history, was an organizer throughout his life and involved with many different groups and wrote many articles, which were not only thoughtful but often amusing and self-deprecating. Carson, who had many scientific contacts from her work in the federal government and a vast store of knowledge and ability to get on top of complicated issues, was not by inclination a crusader, but a writer. Leopold helped co-found the Wilderness Society in 1935. Carson, although miles out in front of her contemporaries on pesticide issues and natural history writing, explicitly said in Silent Spring on a number of occasions, that she was a reformer and not an abolitionist of biocide use: “It would be unrealistic to suppose that all chemical carcinogens can or will be eliminated from the modern world.” (Silent Spring, p. 216) She was not against selective or spot spraying of “least toxic” chemicals. Carson did not oppose the testing of chemicals on animals.

Both Carson and Leopold were life-long naturalists, with Carson mainly oriented to the sea (in this sense Silent Spring was out of character) and Leopold to forests, wildlife, and wilderness. Leopold, unlike Carson, has to be seen as a philosopher based on his writings. Carson wrote from a non human-centered viewpoint. Speaking of her first published book. Under the Sea-Wind, she said:
“In writing the book I was successively a sandpiper, a crab, a mackerel, an eel, and half a dozen other animals…I very soon realized that the central character of the book was the ocean itself.” (Linda Lear, Lost Woods, p.56.)

Carson conveys through her nature writings, that true understanding of the natural world is not about “naming” something one is contemplating, but requires an “intuitive understanding of the whole life of the creature.”  (See Preface, The Edge of the Sea, no pagination.) This is fundamental deep ecology.

One significant difference between Carson and Leopold, was that Leopold (and his family), killed an amazing amount of wildlife during his career. Curt Meine’s biography really brings this point home, which I had not grasped before. The biography also notes that Carson criticized Leopold for his hunting focus. (p. 525) Before reading Meine, I had been completely seduced for many years by the wolf-killing, “green fire” transformed Leopold, as depicted in the “Thinking Like a Mountain” essay. I was therefore astonished to learn that as late as 1945, in a discussion of deer politics in Wisconsin, wolf killing was still on: “Leopold voted in favor of a re-enacted bounty on predators.” (p. 468) It is important to see that Leopold, despite his philosophical contributions, never rose above seeing hunters as a social base with which he identified. His very real ethical progression over his lifetime, and his concern for conservation and the establishment of wilderness areas, must not overlook that he remained a gunner, and later a bow hunter. As someone who has hunted in the past but no longer does, I think that, as primary consideration for the deep ecology supporter, wildlife must be valued in its own right, and not as a ‘resource’ for humans. Any bowing to the hunting community must be very secondary to this. Today this often means opposing those who want to hunt or fish the remnant wildlife in industrial society. In Nova Scotia, as elsewhere in Canada, wildlife is ‘managed’ for the shooting, fishing and trapping crowd – thankfully a diminishing minority of the population.

Those who read between the lines of this blog post will see that I am quite conflicted about evaluating the relationship of Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to deep ecology, and to which of these persons I give priority. Although I identify personally more with Carson’s life and work, I feel Leopold has been much more influential philosophically, and, although this is a more subjective call, that Leopold also is more influential from a movement-building perspective. However – and despite bringing out some of the contradictions in their lives, which seem to eat away at a hundred percent ecocentric consciousness – I am quite prepared to accept both these two amazing people as advance scouts of the deep ecology movement in North America. However, biocide use is worse than ever in the United States and Canada since Carson’s time, and predators, long after Leopold’s death and all the celebratory literature, are still being eliminated today if they are seen as threats to human-desired ‘game’ or even, as here in Nova Scotia with coyotes, as a ‘danger’ to humans in the woods. The deep ecology worldview is needed more than ever, if we are to truly aspire to Aldo Leopold’s goal of living off the land without abusing, spoiling, or destroying it.


  1. David, I appreciate your comments on Leopold as a movement-builder. I teach movement building through ASU's nonprofit program, and I teach my students that, within ethical and legal bounds, they must think about how to move society from the present point to the desired point. They have to think beyond traditional tools of advocacy to whatever influencers can make that difference. You seem to have hit upon this very idea - associating Deep Ecology with Carson would provide the idea with more traction than associating it with himself.

  2. Why no mention of John Muir? (1838 - 1914) - surely more of a godfather type figure to deep-ecological thinking than either Carson and Leopold - both merely followed him.
    There are so many wonderful pieces in his writings and life; as is reflected in the many writings concerning them.

    John Gale

  3. I found your article very clearly illustrated that both Carson and Leopold were in fact "advance scouts" not actually members of the deep ecology movement as a result of "both ... did not openly oppose industrial capitalism or the "private property" laws imposed on the natural world in the society in which they lived." I think there have been many who have done as much in terms of how they lived their lives, even if they never wrote a word about their efforts. As well many have worked actively to end industrial capitalism without a deep ecology outlook. I am not surprised by the comment by John Gale above as I am sure there are for many others, many, who could also be seen as "advance scouts" of deep ecology. I do however believe that to actually be a part of the deep ecology movement, as I understand it, one must embrace both principles of - do no harm to the earth and - do whatever is required to change the industrial capitalist system of government. As to the comments by Sandy Price, also above, I note that regarding "... how to move society from the present point to the desired point." It must be done "... within ethical and legal bounds." I wonder if we follow these ethical/legal precepts if in fact this makes success for the deep ecology movement impossible.