Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Arne Næss, Deep Ecology


Arne Næss (pronounced ‘Ness’) was born in Slemdal, near Oslo, Norway in 1912. He studied philosophy, with an initial focus on the vagueness/preciseness of language. He became a professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo in 1939 but left academia in 1969 to pursue his environmental passions. Næss took part in a protest in 1970 against the building of a dam in a Norwegian fjord. During the protest he chained himself to the rocks of a waterfall and was removed by police, but succeeding in stopping the development.

In 1973 he published the first description of deep ecology, the branch of green thinking with which he will always be associated. He believed that eco-philosophy was personal and developed his own which he called Ecosophy T.
Outside philosophy, Næss’ great passion was for mountaineering and he took part in a number of significant expeditions. The love of mountains was influential in his work – the ‘T’ of ‘Ecosophy T’ stands for the Tvergastein mountain hut in the Hallingskarvet massif where he spent much of his time contemplating nature. He has also stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Norwegian Green Party.

He was knighted by King Harald in 2005 and made a commander with star of the Royal Norwegian order of St Olav First Class. He died in 2009 at the age of 96.


Arne Næss invented the concept of deep ecology. The basic difference between deep and shallow ecology is that the latter takes an anthropocentric (human-centred) view of the world, whereas deep ecology is eco-centric, placing equal value on non-human organisms and, indeed, physical features. A shallow ecologist would tell us to respect biodiversity as we might find the cure to cancer deep in the rainforest, whereas a deep ecologist would argue that protecting biodiversity is a moral imperative - full stop.

"[we should] not only protect the planet for the sake of humans, but also, for the sake of the planet itself, to keep ecosystems healthy for their own sake".

In 1973, Næss published the eight basic principles 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.

Næss was fundamentally a philosopher and his work draws heavily on the teachings of Spinoza and Gandhi. To explain in detail his personal eco-philosophy, Ecosophy T, is impossible here. But essentially the core element is the aim of Self-realisation where the capital ‘S’ on ‘Self’ refers to our position in the wider world (the ‘ecospheric whole’) rather than an ego-driven, internal ‘self’. Acting in a way which will harm the wider world, or if we do not know whether it will harm the wider world, breaches the idea of Ecosophy T.

Three important principles (or ‘norms’) of Ecosophy T are the natural principles of complexity, diversity and symbiosis. These are supported by a secondary level of norms of decentralisation, autonomy and self-sufficiency. In turn, a third level of political principles are no exploitation, no subjection, no class societies and self determination.

Intuition is also an important element of Ecosophy T. Like EF Schumacher, Næss believed that our use of science is too often blind to the limitations of that science – we have to be aware of what cannot be quantified or otherwise measured. Intuition must fill in the gaps. In the introduction to Næss’s most important book, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, the editor describes Næss breaking off from an hour long lecture to pluck a leaf from a potted plant. He held it up and told the audience “You can spend a lifetime contemplating this. It is enough. Thank you.”

Næss was clear that Ecosophy T was his own personal eco-philosopy. The use of the T qualifier gives space for others to develop Ecosophy A, B, C, P, Q or R (presumably he chose ‘T’ as it is more outward looking than ‘A’ or ‘N’ – more Self than self.)

As a guru, Næss invented the whole idea of ‘deep ecology’ which underpins much of the thinking of environmental protest groups. However, the extreme fringes of the movement like Earth First! and the animal rights movement have used the equal rights for non-human species principle as an excuse for sometimes violent direct action, conveniently ignoring Næss’s Gandhian non-violent principles.

Deep ecology has variously been dismissed as ‘inconsistent rubbish’ and ‘eco la-la’, but to me it is a valid world view, if one which is more eco-centric than my own. I agree with the moral right for a species to exist (although as a meat eater I do not extend this right to individual organisms) and I strongly believe in Næss’ theory that not only are we are part of nature, but that nature is a part of us. You only have to stand at the lip of the Grand Canyon or watch a whale breaching from the sea to experience our spiritual affinity with the natural world.

On a practical level, whether you agree with deep ecology or not, it does exist. Those in Government and industry who take an anthropocentric world-view would benefit from an understanding of an eco-centric viewpoint to help avoid or defuse conflicts with the environmental movement. And if you want to understand it, the teachings of the master are the best place to start.

© 2009 Terra Infirma all rights reserved

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At October 19, 2009 at 8:09 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative; can't find much information on this online.

At March 4, 2011 at 7:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was really helpful.


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