A Deep Ecological Perspective

I recently uncovered this final paper written for a course in Deep Ecology from last spring. There are a good number of posts already that I drew on to generate this synthesis of ideas and final thoughts in a course on Deep Ecology:

The “Whiterock experience” began in preparation for a camping trip at Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa. The plan was to travel together to a secluded location alongside the Middle Racoon River where 100,000-year-old sandstone stands tall and exposed along the meandering river.The Conservancy was once a thriving and pioneering farm -Garst Farm- where experiments with hybrid corn crops and modern monoculture production provided a model of farming that added tremendous fuel to the fire of modern industrial agriculture in the Midwest. Now the vast acreage that the Garst Family holds serves multiple functions including a Nature resort for people like us who want to experience the wilderness on their segment of undeveloped acres.

Our individual experiences were partially self-guided with ample free time allotted to dive into assigned readings, hike and explore on one’s own, and spend more or less time around the camp-fire and dinner table. I personally enjoyed being woken up by the birds’ morning conversations and rising with the sun and the fresh morning dew. I spent time exploring and observing the environment each morning; my daily walk along the trail was filled with mixed emotions from the experience of contrast between the “Natural” beauty and diversity along the river and mono-cultural degradation from corn and soybean cultivation surrounding the waterway.

In the peaceful charm of the early morning hours, a deep ecological sensitivity influenced my relationship with and experience of the environment, and highlighted my transpersonal identification with the other life forms around me. While I experienced the duality of old-growth maples and knee-high cornfields on either side of the walking path I also perceived the entire landscape as a continuum of interconnected Earth-space, in which humans live together with all other life forms.

I saw the deep, contaminated and eroding river as a reflection and partial result of the clear-cut and tilled acres that no longer absorb water runoff as native prairie and wild forest once did. At times during the hike I noticed the mind’s tendency to relate to the environment in an anthropocentric way. It would’ve been easy to get lost in the “mindstuff” of a narrow, atomistic and particle-like sense of self. But the meandering presence of the river and the diversity along its banks reminded me to pay attention to the interconnected emergent properties of the life around me. For example, I noticed the patterns of succession and evolution of the plant life growing on the edge of the river. Grasses and ground-level herbs led into mid-level shrubs and small trees, which then yielded to the mature trees and pioneer species that thrived along the river bank.

An innocent awareness of the present moment enabled me to notice not only the diversity of sounds, sights and movement in the outer world of “Nature”, but the equally sensational inner “nature” including the mind and emotions. Attending to my time at Whiterock in this way helped me relate to and experience the transpersonal and deep ecological qualities of “Being” that Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Warwick Fox, and others have articulated.

In 1973 a Norwegian philosopher named Arne Naess coined the term “Deep Ecology” to refer to a complex and soulful framework for relating to the biosphere and human existence. Many now refer to his intellectual written work as a theoretical foundation for the deep ecology movement. “For Arne Næss, ecological science, concerned with facts and logic alone, cannot answer ethical questions about how we should live. For this we need ecological wisdom. Deep ecology seeks to develop this by focusing on deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment. These constitute an interconnected system. Each gives rise to and supports the other, whilst the entire system is, what Næss would call, an ecosophy: an evolving but consistent philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world, that embodies ecological wisdom and harmony” (Harding, 2002). With new paradigms and worldviews emerging in the 21st century, I see the development of deep ecological philosophies as the creation of new stories for relating to the Natural world and understanding the Universe. Because of the deep questions addressed by Naess and others, deep ecology is fundamentally about human identity and ontology.

The founders of Deep ecology have outlined and developed ecosophies that transcend the narrow particle-like conception of self and realize a fundamentally unified sense of self; this is a transpersonal sense of self that hasn’t lost the sense of personality. The paradoxical experience of personality within a transpersonal sense of self is analagous to what Naess refers to as “Self-realization,” or “the mature experience of oneness in diversity” in Verse 29 of Chapter 6 in the Bhgavad-Gita (Naess, 1973). This expanded, deeper, and more inclusive sense of self is valued by deep ecologists for its moral and ethical implications in our societies with growing ecological and humanitarian crises.

However, the environmental responsibility and care that arise from “ecological consciousness,” or “Self-realization” -expanding identification with widening layers of the biosphere and cosmos- is not the same as that which arises out of environmental ethics. In the words of Bill Devall, “Cultivating ecological consciousness precedes and pre-empts the search for an ‘environmental ethic.’” For deep ecologists, ontology precedes ethics. According to Michael Zimmerman: “Deep ecologists claim that before knowing what we ought to do, we must understand who we really are” (Fox, 1990). Naess makes the case that the most one can achieve by altruistic, moral, and dutiful considerations can also be achieved by maturing beyond the narrow, particle-like sense of self. Moral demands necessarily emphasize a self that is conceived in a narrow, atomistic, or particle-like sense. Thus, “increase of identification might achieve what moralizing cannot: beautiful actions” (Naess, 1973). Rather than try to influence people to act morally, we should encourage people to develop a personal inclination to act “benevolently” as Immanuel Kant once conceived (Fox, 1990). Beautiful action seems to be proof in the deep ecological pudding suggesting the profound value of developing the personality beyond a narrow, atomistic, particle-like sense of self.

Many deep ecologists, transpersonal eco-psychologists, and others interested in holistic human development view this expanding sense of self as a marker of human maturation. Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin introduces this idea in terms of an expanding personal circle of identity and sense of community from ethnocentric to worldcentric. He elaborates: “A worldcentric circle of identity corresponds to the stage of moral development that psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg refers to as ‘postconventional.’… [One is] no longer limited to or identified with one’s nation’s traditional beliefs, attitudes, and norms. One might still agree with most or even all of them, but now one possesses the critical distance necessary to transcend them when one’s expanding sense of self demands it. One has a much freer and wider field of choice. One is approaching true adulthood” (Plotkin, 2003?). With a growing number of people realizing and acknowledging the intrinsic value of people from all cultures our sense of a global community is becoming more valuable. Further, the environmental movement has been gaining momentum from growing numbers of organizations mobilizing with individuals speaking and acting out of a deep sense of value for the right for all plants and animals to live and thrive in Natural abundance and diversity.

Not all environmentalists or subscribers to deep ecology necessarily embody the qualities of “Self-realization,” that Naess describes, and it is important to be clear about the relative value of actions and the myriad value-systems that motivate social and ecologically oriented actions. Again, this is to suggest “the supremacy of environmental ontology and realism over environmental ethics as a means of invigorating the environmental movement in the years to come” (Fox, 2003).

If we are to consider the challenge of what Thomas Berry calls “The Great Work” of our time: “to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner,” I see the greatest potential in “beautiful action” as a powerful center out of which ecological and environmental movement flows. In other words, I see greater potential in “beautiful action” rather than “moral action,” as the latter necessarily proceeds from the assumption of a narrow conception of self (Fox, 216). Thus, one of the valuable aspects of deep ecology stems from the fact that “Naess at no stage attempts to prove the correctness of his views in such a way as to make this norm [or any norms he derives from is] morally binding” (Fox, 2003). Deep ecology offers various points of view or ecosophies grounded in a fundamental conception of unity in diversity, and we are encouraged to take that which we find useful and leave what we don’t.

As individuals in the 21st century faced with the challenge of this “Great Work,” it is critical that we recognize we are beyond the precipice of what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning,” “a radical and foundational shift in human culture –from a suicidal, life-destroying element to a way of life worthy of our unique human potential and of Earth’s dream for itself” (Plotkin, 2003). As we continue beyond the precipice of the Great Turning, the Great Work that is already being done in all realms of society will be calling for more participants. Plotkin believes “it is every person’s responsibility and privilege to contribute to this metamorphosis” (Plotkin, 2003). I believe that each individual’s process of maturation and growth is a first and foremost contribution; personal metamorphosis includes the creation and integration of new dreams, stories, and relationships. And I believe that as we grow beyond a fragmented egocentric sense of self to a more holistic “soulcentric” identity we will find the networks and interconnections in the Natural world ever-more informative and relevant to our process of growth.

Being (in the ontological sense) in “Nature” has been a vital part of my cognition of the unified value of humans’ relationship with the “Natural” world. In other words, receptivity to “NATURE‘s” intelligence has been a vital part of my cognition of Deep and Transpersonal Ecology. The founders of Deep ecology have outlined and developed an Eco-philosophy that transcends the narrow particle-like conception of self and realizes a fundamentally unified sense of self. Deep ecologists draw from an “ecology of values” to support their radically normative ecosophies. At the basis of this “ecology of values” is the primacy of environmental ontology over environmental ethics. Thus, I propose that as humans mature and grow up in a more “soulcentric” way, “beautiful action” will emerge as a transformative way for humans to reverse the trends of environmental and psycho-social degeneration.

It has become boldly apparent to me that the depth of each human’s relationship with Earth’s “Natural” ecology significantly impacts modern society’s trends of degrading the quality of all areas of life. I believe it is naive and foolish to disregard and devalue the new paradigm calling for humans to realize our “Great Work” in this “Turning Point” of human and ecological crises. Each of us has the choice to participate in our own unique way, and I am hopeful that the creativity of the collective Human Spirit will emerge to realize an exciting new reality.

Sources

Fox, Warwick (1990), “Toward a Transpersonal Ecology”

Harding, Stephan (2002), “What is Deep Ecology?”

Naess, Arne (1973), “The shallow and the deep, long range ecology movements: a summary.”

Plotkin, Bill (2008), “Nature and the Human Soul”

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