What is Deep Ecology?
By Chris Johnstone
Deep Ecology is a holistic approach to facing world problems that brings together thinking, feeling, spirituality and action. It involves moving beyond the individualism of Western culture towards also seeing ourselves as part of the earth. This leads to a deeper connection with life, where Ecology is not just seen as something ‘out there’, but something we are part of and have a role to play in.
Two Approaches to Ecology
1.) Scientific Ecology – the study of the inter-relationships between species and their environment.
In this approach, the relationship is of a detached observer separate from the object of study. The focus is on measurable data ‘out there’, collectedby experts who know their ‘facts and figures’.
2.) Deep Ecology – Experiencing ourselves as part of the living earth and finding our role in protecting the planet.
In this approach, the relationship is more of an involved participant, who feels connected with and part of the world around them. This is for everybody, not just experts, each being moved by our values, experiences and feelings to do our bit for the world around us.
The Four Drections of Deep Ecology – Ideas, Feelings, Spirituality, Action
The central idea of Deep Ecology is that we are part of the earth, rather than apart and separate from it.
This idea is in contrast to the dominant individualism of our culture, where seeing ourselves as separate from our world makes it easier not to be bothered by what’s happening in it.
This century, two key ideas have emerged out of scientific thinking that support the view of ourselves as part of the earth. The first idea comes from Systems Theory and the second idea is called Gaia Theory.
Systems Theory sees our world in terms of ‘systems’, where each system is a ‘whole’ that is more than the sum of its parts, but also itself a ‘part’ of larger systems. For example, a cell is more than just a pile of molecules and itself is a part of larger systems eg. an organ. An organ is on one level a whole in itself, but on another, it is a part of a system at the level of an individual person. A family and a community can both be seen as ‘systems’ where the ‘parts’ are people.
Gaia Theory takes this idea further and applies it to the whole planet. All of life on earth can be seen as whole that is more than the sum of its parts, this whole being like a huge super-organism that we call ‘Gaia’ (after the name for the ancient Greek goddess of the earth). Living systems have a tendency to keep themselves in balance but also to adapt and evolve over time. Scientists have found that the earth also has these tendencies, with feedback mechanisms to ‘keep in balance’ the temperature and oxygen levels of the atmosphere, just as our bodies maintain the temperature and oxygen levels in our arteries.
Gaia Theory is simply stating that the earth is alive and that we are part of it. This is something that many cultures have known for centuries.
“We are part of the earth and it is part of us”
From Chief Seattle’s speech, possibly spoken in North America, 1854.
Facing the scale of social and ecological crisis in our world can leave us feeling numbed, overwhelmed and powerless. Yet there is often little place for such feelings in conventional politics or in our society at large. The dominant response is to deny or distract ourselves from any uncomfortable feelings about the state of the world, and to carry on with ‘business as usual’.
If we see ourselves as part of the world, it becomes possible to see that such uncomfortable feelings may serve a valuable function. Just as it hurts when we put our finger over a flame, ‘pain for the world’ alerts us to the injuries of our world and can move us to respond. Allowing ourselves to feelfor our world also opens us to a source of energy and aliveness, and a strength that comes from connection to something more than just our narrow selves.
Spirituality is to do with our inner sense of connection with something larger than ourselves and with our relationship with what we see as sacred.
This can give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose beyond material success and those special moments where we feel that connection more deeply can provide an important source of strength in difficult times.
If we see ourselves as part of the ‘Tree of Life’ – the interconnected web of beings we call Gaia, then a Deep Ecological approach to spirituality might emphasise our relationship with this larger whole. We may look at life itself as being sacred, and see the possibility of the larger force of life acting through us in our work for earth recovery. This ‘life-centred spirituality’ can be an important source of inspiration to face and respond to the problems of our world.
When we integrate our beliefs, ideas and values into our behaviour, we bring them alive and give them the power to influence our world. If we see ourselves as separate from the world, it is easy to dismiss our actions as irrelevant or unlikely to make any difference. Yet from the Deep Ecology perspective, we are part of the world and every choice we make will have ripples that extend beyond us. What may seem tiny and insignificant by itself always adds to a larger context, so that every time we act for life, we put our weight behind the shift towards a life-sustaining culture.
The term ‘Deep Ecology’ was first introduced by the Norwegian activist and philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970’s, when stressing the need to move beyond superficial responses to the social and ecological problems we face.
He proposed that we ask ‘deeper questions’, looking at the ‘why and how’ of the way we live and seeing how this fits with our deeper beliefs, needs and values. Asking questions like “How can I live in a way that is good for me, other people and our planet?” may lead us to make deep changes in the way we live.
Deep Ecology can also be seen as part of a much wider process of questioning of basic assumptions in our society that is leading to a new way of looking at science, politics, healthcare, education, spirituality and many other areas. Because this change in the way we see things is so wide ranging, it has been called a new ‘worldview’. It tends to emphasise the relationships between different areas, bringing together personal and social change, science and spirituality, economics and ecology. Deep Ecology applies this new worldview to our relationship with the earth.
In doing this, it challenges deep-seated assumptions about the way we see ourselves, moving from just seeing ourselves as ‘individuals’ towards also seeing ourselves as part of the earth. This can increase both our sense of belonging in life and our tendency to act for life.