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Deep Ecology is not Enough

by John Revington

"The philosophy of Deep Ecology provides an essential antidote to our culture's prevailing human-centred attitudes. There is nothing intrinsic to the philosophy which promotes simplistic prejudice. However, problems arise when it is misused, when it is seen as the complete explanation of everything. When there is a failure to see that Deep Ecology is not enough."

Tom Robbins' novel Skinny Legs and All has reached its climax. In a New York restaurant, a bewitching belly dancer named Salome is performing the dance of the seven veils. Watching her, among a crowd of gawking male devotees, is an artist-turned-waitress named Ellen Cherry. With the falling of each veil, Ellen Cherry experiences an insight about life, about herself or about her fellow human beings.

As the first veil drifts to the ground, Ellen Cherry realises that the Earth is a "sexual globe". Life on Earth is acting out "continual scenes whose content, whether explicit or oblique, are almost wholly sexual." Well, maybe -- let's not get into that. Among humans, her insight tells her "the male has gone to ludicrous and often violent lengths to compensate for what struck the more insecure of men as an inferior sexual role". Hence, patriarchal religion and the attempts to conceal the existence of the Great Goddess. Ecofeminism is revealed in the falling of this veil.

Another veil falls, and Ellen Cherry, in her second flash of insight, realises that "Human beings do not have dominion over plants and animals". Dance a few logical steps further, and Deep Ecology is revealed in the falling of this veil.

As the third veil falls at the dancer's feet, Ellen Cherry realises, or rather, decides, that it is "futile to work for political solutions to humanity's problems because humanity's problems are not political". Stop. Let's forget about the other four veils. Delusion is revealed in the falling of this veil. The author has got it horribly wrong and this is where I part company with Mr Robbins and his veiled insights.

The Need for Action

True, humanity's underlying problems are not political. True, working on a purely political level is futile in the long run. But that does not mean that looking for political solutions is futile; in fact, it is essential in the short run. If we fail to find political solutions in the short run, there isn't going to be any long run.

The Terania Creek rainforests are a few kilometres from where I live. They wouldn't be there, had it not been for the hundreds of people who protested their planned logging in the early 1980s. Those protests were clearly political, and they resulted in a political solution to the threat posed by the timber industry to NSW rainforests. Interestingly, this political action was for many of the protesters a deeply spiritual experience which has provided the impetus for further political action in defence of forests.

There are countless examples of natural places all over the world that would no longer exist, had human beings not engaged in political action to save them from other human beings. Without political action, there would be no more natural world to be Ecologically Deep about. And the example of Terania Creek shows that political action and a sense of reverence for the natural world can go together. They don't exclude each other; they complement each other. Political action is essential, and in many cases, it is the insights of Deep Ecology which inspire political action.

The Need for Political Understanding

Of course, many, if not most, Deep Ecologists would agree with the idea that political action is necessary. But there is a further point here: not only is political action essential, political understanding is also needed. It seems to me that many green activists assume that Deep Ecology provides a complete intellectual framework, adequate to guide their actions. It doesn't. Deep Ecology is not enough.

Here's why:

Firstly, if we undertake political action with no understanding of how power structures work in our culture, then we will not operate in the most effective way. In fact, we may unwittingly alienate those whose support we need most. And environmental struggles are seldom won by lying in front of bulldozers. That kind of protest is almost invariably just part of a wider, more protracted struggle. That wider struggle requires determination and an understanding of the affairs of human beings.

To remark, as Tom Robbins does, that the Holocaust would have been avoided if Hitler had been jeered and pelted with sausage skins, is simply not good enough. The holocaust of the Earth is now in progress. Jeers and sausage skins will not rid us of those who are presiding over the slaughter. We need to look a little more deeply than that. We need to understand how our decision makers got to be there, and what to do about it.

Secondly, it is not enough to say "no" to what is happening in our world. An alternative vision of a sustainable society is needed, and Deep Ecology cannot provide that vision. Perhaps it can provide the spiritual and ethical basis for such a vision, but it will not provide us with all the guidance we need, any more than a knowledge of Christian dogma is guidance enough to build a nuclear power station or run the World Bank.

Elites and Exploitation

In an interesting counterpoint to Margaret Mead's oft-quoted statement about small groups of committed individuals changing the world, Larry Lohmann warns: "never underestimate the ability of modern elites to work out ways of coming through a crisis with their power intact"(Lohmann p.40). The power of modern elites is based on exploitation, both of environment and people. So long as their power remains intact, they will continue to exploit, no matter how deep the ecology of the people who try to oppose them.

Look at the recent forest fires in Indonesia. Everyone knows that logging companies are largely to blame. Everyone knows that President Suharto is part of the elite which profits from the exploitation of Indonesia's dwindling forests. Everyone knows that Indonesia's ruling elite will come through the current crisis with its power intact, and by itself, no amount of Deep Ecology will change that. The only hope for change is through political action, and political action will not succeed unless it is born out of an understanding of political power and how to wield it.

At the very least, an understanding of social structures is essential if protest is to be effective. Without such an understanding, environmentalists risk alienating those who are their natural allies. When green groups align themselves with oppressed minorities, they make allies of those who are desperate for change, who are driven by the hunger in their bellies. When they ignore such groups, or view their cause as being somehow less noble than their own, then they fail to recognise the forces at work in the exploitation of the Earth. Because almost without exception, exploitation of the Earth goes hand in hand with the exploitation of those who live closest to the Earth.

Different Theories for Different Queries

As I have said, I think Deep Ecology is misused by those who appear to believe it can be employed as a yardstick to make moral and practical judgements in all situations. Part of the problem here is a failure to make distinctions about the kinds of knowledge we are dealing with. Deep Ecology and the analysis of human society are concerned with fundamentally different spheres. When the thinking used in one sphere is used to make decisions in the other, then problems arise. We need different ears for different spheres.

Deep Ecology is about values, about fundamental beliefs and ways of looking at the world. It does what religion tries -- and, for more and more people, fails -- to do. It touches the heart rather than the intellect. It offers answers to questions like "Who am I?" and "What matters?". It offers a way of understanding the world which gives human beings a sense of purpose beyond themselves and connection with the all the other species in the world..

Social and political analysis, on the other hand, is primarily about how to operate in the world. It has basic values as well, usually about social justice and the betterment of people's lives, but mostly it is not about values. It tells us "this is how people operate" rather than "this is what matters".

So if I use the tenets of Deep Ecology as the sole basis on which to run a campaign to protect a forest against logging, I won't do a very good job. I would be using the wrong tool, like using a violin to sweep the floor. Deep Ecology may be the inspiration for my campaign, and it may be used as a source of arguments to inspire others, but it won't tell me how to issue a press release, promote social justice, form alliances with other groups or run a meeting on strategies.

So it is inappropriate to use theories about ethical value as one's only guide in practical situations. It is also inappropriate to use ostensibly "factual" and "value free" analysis as the sole basis for practical decision making. This is also a case of using the wrong tool for the job. Economic rationalism, with its pseudo-scientific approach, and its failure to acknowledge its own implicit values, is an example of this. But that's another story.

Deep Ecology in a Social Context

Deep Ecology may seem like a philosophy unsullied by human trappings, but it is a product of a particular culture, at a particular point in its history. As the president of the Earth Island Institute observed:

Deep Ecology is in touch with something, but the desire of a tiny fraction of middle- and upper-middle-class Europeans to hear the voice of the Earth could be in part a strategy by people in these social classes to amplify their own inner voice at a time when they feel threatened, not only by the destruction of the planet, but also by the legitimate claims of multicultural human communities clamouring to be heard. (Anthony p.265)

It is no coincidence that this statement was made by Carl Anthony, one of the few black people to rise to prominence in mainstream environmentalism. Why are there so few black environmentalists? Why are so few women in positions of power in mainstream groups? Can Deep Ecology answer such questions? Would it even think to ask them?

Edward Abbey and the "Wogs of Hindustan"

Deep Ecology, uninformed by a social awareness, risks entrenching the exploitation and prejudice that is currently directed against minorities in our culture. Sexism and racism will not go away unless confronted directly, and sexism and racism help keep our exploitative power structures intact. Edward Abbey, the American author of the environmental classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, cared deeply about wilderness but proudly proclaimed his lack of interest in the fate of "all the Wogs of Hindustan" (Abbey p.84). I wonder if he ever made a connection between his country's assault on the Earth and its exploitation of the Third World. So long as he thought of the poor in Third World countries as "Wogs", Abbey was not likely to see that their liberation, and the liberation of the Earth, are completely dependent on each other.

No organisation has been more influenced by Deep Ecology than Earth First!, and Abbey enjoyed a guru-like status among Earth First!ers in the United States. Abbey appeared to enjoy portraying himself as being cantankerous, narrow-minded and intolerant. "Am I not only a fascist, a racist, a cultural chauvinist" he asks, "but -- God forbid -- a male sexist pig as well?" (quoted in Seager p.227) -- hardly the kind of attitude that is likely to promote the unification of diverse groups in a struggle against exploitation and injustice. The fact that so much respect is given to Abbey does not say much for Earth First!'s commitment to social justice.

I am convinced that for some people, Deep Ecology is attractive because it seems to provide a justification for their hatred of the human race -- a hatred that is ultimately self-hatred. This can result in a blanket condemnation of the human race, and a disdain for delving into the affairs of humanity. Can we ever understand something we hate? Can we ever change for the better something we fail to understand?

As Joni Seager points out, "the generalisations of deep ecologists blur distinctions not only of gender, but of race, class, and nationality too" (Seager p.231). Such an approach, says Seager,

... lacks social perspective -- it is analytically unsound to make no distinctions among peoples, nations or cultures in assigning accountability for ecological destruction. Humanity is not an undifferentiated whole, and it is not credible to lay equal "blame" for environmental degradation on elites and minorities, women and men, the Third World and the First, the poor and the rich, the colonized and the colonizers [ibid p.231].

In Conclusion

The blurring of distinctions and disregard for issues of social justice were not evident in the writings of Arne Naess, the founder of Deep Ecology. In fact, Naess's writings express concern about inequalities within nations and between nations (Naess p.92). It appears that his thought has been distorted by the prejudices of some of his followers. It is not the philosophy of Deep Ecology that is to blame here. There is nothing intrinsic to the philosophy which promotes simplistic prejudices. The problem arises when that philosophy is misused, when it is seen as the complete explanation of everything. When there is a failure to see that Deep Ecology is not enough.



Abbey, E., 1989, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, St Martin's Press, New York

Anthony, C., "Ecopsychology and the Deconstruction of Whiteness" in Roszak, T., Gomes, M., and Kanner, A., (eds), 1995, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Sierra Books, San Francisco.

Lohmann. L., "Whose Common Future?" in The Ecologist, May/June 1990, Ecosystems Ltd, Sturminster Newton

Naess, A., 1973, "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement" in Dobson, A., (ed)., 1991, The Green Reader, Andre Deutsch, London

Robbins, T., 1990, Skinny Legs and All, Bantam, New York

Seager, J., 1993, Earth Follies: Feminism, politics and the environment, Earthscan.

John Revington is a volunteer with the Rainforest Information Centre.

I welcome your thoughts on this article. Please email them to: If there is enough interest, I will post them here. - John Revington