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Learn Ecology

An Introduction to Deep Ecology

Ideas and Goals from Many Voices





For thousands of years, humans, and not just Western humans, have carried around with them a human-centered, or
anthropocentric, view of the planet and of the cosmos. When we gave up Earth as the center of the cosmos, and entered the Copernican universe, we managed to retain our conviction of our own species’ centrality in cosmic affairs.

What we now call the Environmental Movement began without much questioning of or differing with this human-centered view …

In a single gram of earth there is an astounding number of small organisms: among other things 30,000 protozoa, 50,000 algae, 400,000 fungi and 2.5 million bacteria.


       Deep Ecology versus “Shallow Environmentalism.”  We’d all rather be deep, I think. The point is that deep ecology asks deep questions about the ecocide now taking place everywhere on Earth. Shallow Environmentalism tends not to question growth economics, human superiority, human needs and desires as always paramount, nor does it ask why we regard everything as Resources, including each other.

      Deep Ecology is a little naive at times about how we learn — but basically it is correct. Deep Ecologists put their fingers, indirectly, on what is wrong with much Environmental Education.

Following are some quotes from various Deep Ecologists , a priest, a few poets.  Read and think.

Arne Ness, often quoted below, is the Norwegian philosopher regarded as the father of Deep Ecology.

-John Caddy

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.

Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.

Presently this traditional story is dysfunctional in its larger social dimensions, even though some believe it firmly and act according to its guidance. Aware of the dysfunctional aspects of the traditional program, some persons have moved on into different, often new-age, orientations, which have consistently proved ineffective in dealing with our present life situation.…

An integral story has not emerged, and no community can exist (for long) without a unifying story.

… the remedy for this is to establish a deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of the universe as revealed through our own empirical insights into the mysteries of its functionin

— Thomas Berry


This whole is in all its parts so beautiful,and is felt by me to be so  intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it.

                     — Robinson Jeffers, Poet

In the very beginning of life, in the source of our cadence, with the first pulse of the blood in the egg then, the changes of night and day must have been there. So that in the configuration of the living, hidden in the exchanging orders of the chromosome sequences from which we have our nature, the first nature, child of deep waters and of night and day, sleeping and waking, remains.

We are, all the many expressions of living matter, grandchildren of Gaia, Earth, and Uranus, the Heavens. Late born, for the moon and ocean came Before.

The sea was our first mother and sun our father, so our sciences picture the chemistry of the living as beginning in the alembic of the primal sea quickened by rays of the sun and even, beyond, by radiations of the cosmos at large.

Tide-flow under the sun and moon of the sea, systole and diastole of the heart, these rhythms lie deep in our experience and when we let them take over our speech there is a monotonous rapture of persistent regular stresses and waves of lines breaking rhyme after rhyme. There have been poets for whom this rise and fall, the mothering swell and ebb, was all. Amoebic, dwelling in the memorial of tidal voice, they arouse in our awake minds a spell, so that we let our awareness go in the urgent wave of the verse. The rhyming lines and the repeating meters persuade us.

To evoke night and day or the ancient hypnosis of the sea is to evoke our powerful longing to fall back into periodic structure, into the inertia of uncomplicated matter. Each of us, hungry with life, rises from the cast of seed, having just this unique identity or experience created in the dance of chromosomes, and having in that identity a time; each lives and falls back into the chemistry of death.

                                                                        — Robert Duncan, poet(1965)


The new vision of reality is an ecological vision … which goes far beyond the immediate concerns with environmental protection.

To emphasize this deeper meaning of ecology, philosophers and scientists have begun to make a distinction between “deep ecology” and “shallow environmentalism.” Whereas shallow  environmentalism  is concerned with more efficient control and management of the natural environment for the benefit of “man,” the deep ecology movement recognizes that ecological balance will require profound changes in our perception of the role of human beings in the planetary ecosystem.

In short, it will require a new philosophical and religious basis.

Deep ecology is supported by modern science, and in particular by the new systems approach, but it is rooted in a perception of reality that goes beyond the scientific framework to an intuitive awareness of the oneness of all life, the interdependence of its multiple manifestations and its cycles of change and transformation.

When the concept of the human spirit is understood … as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is truly spiritual.”

        -—Fritjof Capra

They live in wisdom who see themselves in all, and all in them.
                                                                                 —Bhagavad Gita

Environmentalism does not bring into question the underlying notion of the present society that man must dominate nature; rather, it seeks to facilitate that domination by developing techniques for diminishing the hazards caused by domination.

In contrast, ecology or social ecology refers to an approach that rests on “the ecological principles of

• unity in diversity,
• spontaneity,
• the non-hierarchical nature of ecological communities."
This approach attempts to overcome the splits between society and nature, mind and body, thought and reality that mark Western images of the world.

                                                        — Murray Bookchin


Care flows naturally if the “self” is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves … Just as we need not morals to make us breathe … so if your “self” in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care … You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it—providing you have not succumbed to a neurosis of some kind, developing self-destructive tendencies, or hating yourself.

                                                                        —Arne Naess

Humanist/Environmentalist: Keep the rainforest because it contains plants that contain drugs that might cure human diseases.

Gaiaist: Through their capacity to evaporate vast volumes of water vapor through the surface of their leaves, trees serve to keep the ecosystems of the humid tropics and the planet cool by providing a sunshade of white reflecting clouds. Their replacement by cropland could precipitate a regional disaster with global consequences. 

                                                                                                       — James Lovelock, scientist


What I suggest is the supremacy of environmental realism over environmental ethics as a means of invigorating the environmental movement in the years to come.

If reality is like it is experienced by the ecological self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics …

[But] when people feel they unselfishly give up, even sacrifice their interest in order to show love for Nature, this is in the long run a treacherous basis for conservation.

Through identification, they may come to see their own interest served by conservation, through genuine self-love, love of a deepened and widened self.                                                                                                                                          —Arne Naes

People will say casually that they experience certain entities as being valuable “for their own sake” or “in and of themselves” , and others understand them when they say this.

                                               — Warwick Fox


Nature is not a place to visit, it is our home…

                              — Gary Snyder, poet

What deep ecology directs us toward is neither an environmental  ethics nor a minor reform of existing practices. It directs us to develop our own sense of self until it becomes Self, that is, until we realize through deepening ecological sensibilities that each of us forms a union with the natural world, and that protection of the natural world is protection of ourselves.

                                                                                    — Alan Drengson


Moral demands are experienced as forceful and constricting. In contrast, invitations to experience a more expansive  sense of self are experienced from the beginning as non-forceful and potentially liberating. 

Such invitations are doors or gates that have been opened. Can we resist taking a stroll outside?    

                                                                                             — Warwick Fox

It all depends on you and me. If we see the world as a living organism of which we are a part—not the owner, nor the tenant; not even a passenger—we could have a long time ahead of us and our species might survive for its “allotted span.” It is up to us to act personally in a way that is constructive. The present frenzy of agriculture and forestry is a global ecocide as foolish as it would be to act on the notion that our brains are supreme and the cells of other organs expendable. Would we drill wells through our skins to take the blood for its nutrients?       

                                                        — James Lovelock, scientist

Arne Naes discusses the philosopher Kant’s distinction between:

• Benevolent actions performed out of inclination and
• Benevolent actions performed out of duty …

One may speak of “beautiful” and of “moral” action. Moral actions are motivated by acceptance of a moral law, and manifest themselves clearly when acting against inclination.

A person acts beautifully when acting benevolently from inclination.

Assuming that we wish benevolent action to flourish, some of us

• stress the need for teaching about the moral law, others
• stress the need for more understanding of the condition under which people get to be benevolent and well-informed through natural inclination.

I take this process to be one of maturation as much as one of learning. If the conditions for maturation are bad, the process of identification is inhibited and egotisms of various sorts stiffen into permanent traits.

Isn’t Spinoza’s philosophy one of generosity, fortitude, and love rather than of morals?  …We need not say that today man’s relation to the non-human world is immoral. It is enough to say that it lacks generosity, fortitude, and love. 

                                                                             — Arne Naess

I shall speak up in defense of certain ways of thinking and talking among plain people … among people who are not heavily influenced by certain philosophical or juridical terminology, it is common to be concerned about animals regardless of sentience, and for flowers, patches of landscapes, ecosystems, for their own sake. Often people would say they are beautiful, but also they defend their presence because they “belong there,” “are part of the whole,” etc.

                                   —Arne Naess

The search for an environmental ethics, in the conventional modern sense, seems wrong-headed and fruitless … [Some] think“an environmental ethics can be as tough, practical, rational and secular as prevailing Western ethics.”  I find this neither desirable nor necessary, and perhaps not possible. …

         The search … is not for environmental ethics but for ecological consciousness.

         The attempt to solve these ecophilosophical problems on purely logical or conceptual grounds is to fail to realize that this approach is itself part of the old paradigm which needs to be replaced.

                                                               —  George Sessions

We must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings. We must try not to be stingy, or to exploit others. There will be enough pain in the world as it is.

— Gary Snyder, Poet

As we discover our ecological self we will joyfully defend and interact with that with which we identify; and instead of imposing environmental ethics on people, we will naturally respect, love, honor and protect that which is of our self :

Extending awareness and receptivity with other animals and mountains and rivers encourages identification and engenders respect for and solidarity with the field of identification. This does not mean there will never be conflicts between some humans and some other animals in specific situations, but it does mean that a basis for “good actions” or “right livelihood” is not based alone on abstract moralism, self-denial, or sacrifice…

We need to be reminded of our moral duties occasionally, but we change our behavior more simply with richer ends through encouragement. Deeper perception of reality and deeper and broader perception of self is what I call ecological realism…                                         

—Bill Devall

This shift [to an emphasis on our “capacity to identify with the larger collective of all beings”] is essential to our survival …precisely because it can serve in lieu of morality and because moralizing is ineffective.

         Sermons seldom hinder us from pursuing our self-interest, so we need to be a little more enlightened about what our self-interest is.     

         It would not occur to me, for example, to exhort you to refrain from cutting off your leg. That wouldn’t occur to me or to you, because your leg is part of you.

         Well, so are the trees in the Amazon Basin; they are our external lungs. We are just beginning to wake up to that. We are gradually discovering that we are our world.

                                                                      — Joanna Macy


How do we develop a wider self? … Our Self is that with which we identify. The question then reads: How do we widen identification?

Self-realization cannot develop far without sharing joys and sorrows with others, or more fundamentally, without the development of the narrow ego of the small child into the comprehensive structure of a Self that comprises all human beings. The deep ecology movement takes this a step further and asks for a development such that there is a deep identification of individuals with all life.

… the Self in question is a symbol of identification with an absolutely maximum range of beings.

The ecosophical outlook is developed through an identification so deep that one’s own self is no longer adequately delimited by the personal ego or the organism. One experiences oneself to be a genuine part of all life…

We are not outside the rest of nature and therefore cannot do with it as we please without changing ourselves … we are a part of the ecosphere just as intimately as we are a part of our own society … Paleontology reveals that the development of life on earth is an integrated process, despite the steadily increasing diversity and complexity. “Life is fundamentally one.”

My concern here is the human capability of identification, the human joy in the identification with the salmon on its way to its spawning grounds, and the sorrow felt upon the thoughtless reduction of the access to such important places. … When solidarity and loyalty are solidly anchored in identification, they are not experienced as moral demands; they come of themselves.”        

                                                        —Arne Naess


Exploring ecological self is part of the transforming process
required to heal ourselves in the world.

Practicing means breathing the air with renewed awareness of the winds.

When we drink water we trace it to its sources:

• a spring or mountain stream in our bioregion
• and contemplate the cycles of energy as part of our body.

The “living waters” and “living mountains” enter our body.

We are part of the evolutionary journey and contain within our bodies
connections with our Pleistocene ancestors.

                                          — Bill Devall


Rather than dealing with moral injunctions, transpersonal ecologists are inclined far more to experiential invitations: readers or listeners are invited to experience themselves as intimately bound up with the world around them, bound up to such an extent that it becomes more or less impossible to refrain from wider identification.   

                                                                       — Warwick Fox


The image of leaves on the tree of life captures the fact that all that exists has arisen from a single seed
that has grown into an infinitely larger and infinitely more differentiated entity over time.

The Leaves image suggests increasing size, increasing differentiation, and a passage of life through time.

The Leaves image suggests the existence of an entity that must be nurtured in all its aspects if all its aspects are to flourish.

All leaves are interconnected but are relatively autonomous

All leaves are impermanent.



Q:  How does one realize, in a this-worldly sense, as expansive a sense of self as possible?

A:  Through the process of identification.

Q:  How, then, does one realize a way of being that sustains the widest and deepest possible identification?

A:  Read on. There are three bases for identification. The first seems to occur with all humans (and some pets).

1) Personal identification: through direct personal involvement with other entities. Commonest usage. Family, friends, sports teams, etc. Nationalism.

Then there are two kinds of identification which go beyond the self, transcend the self::

2) Ontological identification: deep-seated realization that things are. Sense of the specialness or privileged nature of all that exists. Things are! Amazing! The best course of ‘action’ is to let beings be, to let them take care of themselves in accord with their own natures.  cf. Zen, Heidegger, consciousness disciplines

3) Cosmological identification: deep realization that we and all other entities are aspects of a single unfolding reality. Can be brought about through the empathic incorporation of any cosmology (i.e.. any fairly comprehensive account of how the world is) that sees the world as a single unfolding process—as a “unity in process,” to employ Theodore Roszak’s splendid phrase. Can happen through mythological, religious, speculative philosophical, or scientific cosmologies—each is capable of provoking the deep realization that we and all other entities are aspects of a single unfolding reality. cf. Native American world views, Taoism, Spinoza.

• Recent physics versus pragmatic views of science as prediction, manipulation, control. 
Modern science is providing an increasingly detailed account of the physical and biological evolution of the universe that compels us to view reality as a single unfolding process.

• Cosmologically based identification means having a lived sense of an overall scheme of things such that one comes to feel a sense of commonality with all other entities—as leaves on the same tree would feel a sense of commonality with each and every other leaf… 

• Summary: personally based identification proceeds from the person—and those entities that are psychologically, and often physically, closest to the person—and works outward to a sense of commonality with other entities. In contrast, Cosmologically based identification proceeds from a sense of the cosmos, such as that provided by the image of the tree of life, and works inward to each individual’s sense of commonality with other entities. The first travels inside out, the second travels from the outside in.                               

— based on Warwick Fox, in his Toward a Transpersonal Ecology


…one tends to identify with my self first, followed by my family, then my friends and more distant relations, my cultural or ethnic grouping next, my species, and so on—more or less what the sociobiologists say we are genetically predisposed to do.

The problem with this is that, while extending love, care, and friendship to one’s nearest and dearest is laudable in and of itself, the other side of emphasizing a purely personal basis for identification is that its practical upshot would seem to have far more to do with the cause of possessiveness, greed, exploitation, war and ecological destruction than with the solution to these seemingly intractable problems.

Personally based identification slips so easily into attachment and proprietorship.
Although the positive aspects of personally based identification are praiseworthy and fundamental to human development, the negative aspects that go with exclusive or primary reliance upon this form of identification are costing us the earth.
They underlie the egoisms, attachments, and exclusivities that find personal, corporate, national and international expression in possessiveness, greed, exploitation, war, and ecocide.

—Warwick Fox


The ocean is comprised of drops of water; each drop is an entity and yet it is a part of the whole; ‘the one and the many.’ In this ocean of life, we are little drops. My doctrine means that I must identify myself with life, with everything that lives…              

— Gandhi

For Spinoza, the highest end to which humans could aspire consists in “knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.”                             

— Warwick Fox


We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow beings of the splendor and travail of the earth.

                            — Harry Beston

The last three thousand years of mankind have been an excursion into ideals, bodilessness, and tragedy and now the excursion is over…We have to go back, a long way, before the idealist conceptions began, before Plato, before the tragic idea of life arose, to get onto our feet again. For the gospel of salvation through the ideals and escape from the body coincided with the tragic conception of life. Salvation and tragedy are the same thing, and they are now both beside the point.

--D.H. Lawrence


You cannot go back. You cannot turn the clock back. You cannot become primitive people—that’s all behind us.

We have to face the modern world in its own terms—existentialism and all that—angst and all that western philosophy has given us.

But, that’s only true if we’re talking about culture—culture which is always created.

It cannot be true if an organism is involved. If we are talking about human needs, rather than needs generated by a particular ideological view, then you can’t go back, because you haven’t left. You aren’t going back to something primitive. You are recovering an essential process which should take place within the person…at sixteen years or whatever stage of the life cycle.

                                   — Paul Shepherd

The human body evolved on this planet in close contact with the earth. Breaking these bonds with the earth leads to peculiar types of insanities found in cities. Breaking the bonds with the earth causes the ‘paper reality’ of civilization to encroach upon one’s consciousness to a point where one believes that the paper reality is real, rather than a convenient construction of man.

              — John Lilly

The problem may be more difficult to understand than it is to solve. Beneath the veneer of civilization, to paraphrase the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and animal, but the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich nonhuman environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history, juvenile tasks with simple tools. the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small group life and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship.

There is a secret person undamaged in every individual, aware of the validity of these, sensitive to their right moments in our lives.   

                                        — Paul Shepard

The material above is indebted to Warwick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology, James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, and Thomas Berry, A Dream of the Earth, and too many more to list here.

Copyright © Morning Earth 2005-7