What is ‘Deep Ecology’?
In the late 1960’s, a Norwegian philosopher called Arne Neiss, came up a revolutionary new paradigm for the science and practice of ecology that he termed ‘Deep Ecology’. This notion of depth of field perspectives towards ecology implied that the study of natural environments and eco-systems was not simply a matter of taking traditionally utilitarian or pragmatic approaches towards them but something far deeper and universal, subtle even. Nature was not simply to be ‘managed’, ‘harnessed’ or ‘controlled’ as thought fit but rather it had a reality, sovereignty, and a right, all its own independent of human interference.
This idea that nature and wilderness – wild-life – did not exist as an extension of our own needs and feelings and desires but were autonomous life-forms and one had to grant them sovereignty was quite new and radical a notion. It created a stir in the western world and shook up the fields of biology, botany, chemistry, and ecology.
Here is an excerpt from the ‘Charter’ of ‘Nature’ as proposed by Arne Neiss and George Sessions in 1978:
The eight-tier platform of ‘Deep Ecology’
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. 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 human needs.
4. 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.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. These 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 value) 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 try to implement the necessary changes.
Since their inception, these articles of the first charter of ‘deep ecology’ have become keystones of ‘green’ movements around the world. Their pertinence and value has only increased in time as we enter the era of ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ across the planet. However, a lesser known fact is that for Arne Naess, India has been a source of creative inspiration for his eco-philosophy and it is from here that he drew most of his original ideas on conservation and the autonomy of nature.
A key influence for Naess in developing ‘deep ecology’ was a study of the Vedas – especially the ‘Rig Veda’ and ‘Atharva Veda’. As well, he studied the Upanishads in great depth and detail. The main ideas he got from these ancient texts were about the nature of ‘atman’ or ‘self’ and how it pervaded all reality like a web or net – especially the natural world. The soul, or ‘self’ was not an isolated and discrete reality but a unified field of awareness. In fact, it was like a quantum field that radiated out as the natural world and also internally as awareness.
In the past century a number of new ideas and revived old ideas about physical reality were introduced by reputable physicists. The concept of atoms composed of electrical particles, which as both matter and energy are immersed in strong fields in an immense “inner” space, was difficult to accept for those steeped in the old physics of “solid” matter. Perhaps the “new” atoms were incorporeal entities — shades of the old Greek concept of the atom as a “soul,” beyond the realm of the physical, that cannot be weighed or measured in accepted ways. The resemblance of microcosmic inner space to macrocosmic “outer” space also posed a conceptual challenge.
Fortunately, pioneers like Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and more recently other scientists (e.g., Richard Feynman) helped to overcome the prejudice against revolutionary concepts. This resulted in what Capra calls “The Paradigm Shift.” Unfortunately, the words most scientists use are often not understandable without a background in mathematics and physics. Eventually, the revolutionary concepts were clarified for the common man and have become almost universally accepted in academic circles.
The new model of reality has had a tremendous impact on both the scientific and academic communities. The paradigm has affected everyone, for example, in the increasing environmental practices of recycling and conservation. Along with this are large-scale programs to control and reduce pollution of the air, water, and the earth itself. New holistic and ecological understanding has profoundly affected our social and biological outlook, which has led to what Capra calls a “cultural transformation.” Today the words environment, ecology, recycling, and conservation ar
e known to the majority of educated people in most countries (in their own language).
Whence, then, came the idea of “deep” ecology? How does it differ from “shallow” ecology? Is it too deep for the ordinary person to understand? A Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, in the early 1970s started a grass-roots movement based on what he called “deep ecology.” Capra describes the distinction between deep and shallow ecology as follows:
Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instruments, or “use,” value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans — or anything else — from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects, but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life. (p. 7.)
Here Capra introduces the idea of a “web of life” linking diverse elements in a complex world. The theosophical perspective adds that Self-conscious (thinking) beings are the key strands in this web and that other strands exist by virtue of the highest human intelligence. The consciousness of the “lower” kingdoms is linked to the intelligence of Self-conscious beings in a hierarchical relationship. Less-advanced brothers are helped in their evolutionary journey by those higher on the evolutionary ladder, whether or not aware of such help.
An ancient saying brought to our attention by H. P. Blavatsky is that “Nature unaided fails.” The help may come by way of example and “pointing out the way,” as good teachers or parents do for their pupils or children. The learners must still make choices and progress on their own. An important aspect of deep ecology that Naess makes is: “The essence of deep ecology is to ask deeper questions.” Capra continues:
This is also the essence of a paradigm shift. We need to be prepared to question every single aspect of the old paradigm. Eventually, we will need to throw everything away, but before we know that we need to be willing to question everything. So deep ecology asks profound questions about the very foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life. (p. 7-8.)
Students of the Bhagavad-Gita realize that on p. 35 Arjuna (each of us as a learner) is told by his teacher (the Higher Self in each one) that asking questions is one of four ways to seek wisdom; other ways are by doing service, strong search, and humility. To seek wisdom seriously, we must