Introduction to Deep Ecology*
Deep ecology is a new way to think about our relationship to the Earth—and thinking is a prelude to action
An Interview with Michael E. Zimmerman, by Alan Atkisson
A philosophy is, among other things, a system of thought that governs conduct. But in the original Greek it meant “love of wisdom”—and we need all the wisdom we can get to face the implications of global climate change. Several new philosophies have developed in response to the worsening environmental crisis, and among the most interesting is something called “deep ecology.” It calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of the way humans live on the Earth.
Deep ecology is not without its critics, nor its competitors. And like
any radically new way of thinking, it raises more questions than it answers. But
since every major change of direction in humanity’s recent history has been
supported—or ignited—by a new philosophy, its appearance is a very hopeful
Michael E. Zimmerman is Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University, New Orleans, and was recently named to the Chair of his department. He has written widely on technology and the environment and recently completed a second book on the work of Martin Heidegger. He also wrote articles on the distorted mythologies that drive the arms race and the new mythologies we must develop to achieve “something other than war.”
Recently Michael was in Seattle to deliver a lecture on deep ecology to
philosophy students at Seattle University. I took the opportunity to speak with
him about deep ecology, its relationship to eco-feminism, the mystery of
postmodernism, and how a philosophy might change the world.
What is “deep ecology”?
Deep ecology is an environmental movement initiated by a Norwegian philosopher,
Arnie Næss, in 1972. He wasn’t the first to dream up the idea of a
radical change in humanity’s relationship to nature, but he coined the term
“deep ecology” and helped to give it a theoretical foundation. Deep ecology
portrays itself as “deep” because it asks deeper questions about the place
of human life, who we are.
ecology is founded on two basic principles: one is a scientific insight into the
interrelatedness of all systems of life on Earth, together with the idea that anthropocentrism—human-centeredness—is
a misguided way of seeing things. Deep ecologists say that an ecocentric
attitude is more consistent with the truth about the nature of life on Earth.
Instead of regarding humans as something completely unique or chosen by God,
they see us as integral threads in the fabric of life. They believe we need to
develop a less dominating and aggressive posture towards the Earth, if we, and
the planet, are to survive.
second component of deep ecology is what Arnie Næss calls the need for
human self-realization. Instead of identifying with our egos or our immediate
families, we would learn to identify with trees and animals and plants, indeed
the whole ecosphere. This would involve a pretty radical change of
consciousness, but it would make our behavior more consistent with what science
tells us is necessary for the well-being of life on Earth. We just wouldn’t do
certain things that damage the planet, just as you wouldn’t cut off your own
How does deep ecology relate to eco-feminism? Or do they relate?
There are many eco-feminists—people like Joanna Macy for example—who would
call themselves deep ecologists, but there are some eco-feminists who’ve made
an important claim against it. They say the real problem isn’t
anthropocentrism but androcentrism—man-centeredness. They say
that 10,000 years of patriarchy is ultimately responsible for the destruction of
the biosphere and the development of authoritarian practices, both socially and
Deep ecologists concede that patriarchy has been responsible for a lot of violence against women and nature. But while they oppose the oppression of women and promote egalitarian social relations, deep ecologists also warn that getting rid of patriarchy would not necessarily cure the problem, because you can imagine a society with fairly egalitarian social relationships where nature is still used instrumentally.
And then there’s a third big player on the scene, “social ecology,”
with its own critique of deep ecology.
Right. According to social ecologist Murray Bookchin, deep ecology fails to see
that the problem of the environmental crisis is directly linked to
authoritarianism and hierarchy. Bookchin says those are the real
problems, and they’re expressed both socially and environmentally.
So social ecologists see things like homelessness as being caused by the same
mechanisms that cause rainforest devastation?
Also racism, sexism, third world exploitation, mistreatment of other
marginalized groups—they’re all phenomena on the same spectrum. By
supposedly not recognizing the social roots of the environmental crisis, deep
ecologists invite themselves to be accused of nature mysticism. Social
ecologists say we need to change our social structure, and that the
elimination of authoritarianism and hierarchy in human society will end the
ecologists say there’s no certainty that would happen. Again, you can imagine
a case where social hierarchy is eliminated and yet the new egalitarian society
dominates nature just as badly. The problem is that anthropocentrism can take on
So what’s their political agenda? What, in practicality, do deep ecologists
That’s an interesting question, because I don’t think anyone knows what the
best political vehicle is for this new way of thinking. Certainly the old
ideologies of left and right are pretty bankrupt, in terms of their ability to
address these issues.
have latched onto the fact that, on one or two occasions, certain deep
ecologists have called for very Draconian measures to save the planet
from destruction at the hands of human beings. The danger that social ecologists
and others see is that what these deep ecologists envision will become a new
kind of a totalitarianism or “eco-fascism”—in other words, some kind of
world government which would compel people to change their social practices and
totally control their behavior to make it consistent with the demands of the
most deep ecologists talk about the need for decentralization, bioregions, the
breakdown of the totalizing impulse of industrialism, an end to
authoritarianism, and the development of a much more fragmented society with new
kinds of relationships. This seems far closer to the truth about deep ecology,
and none of it seems consistent with the possibility of totalitarianism.
The fact that you’re lecturing about deep ecology indicates that it’s
entered mainstream academic world to some extent. How do you interpret that?
That the modern academic world is being taken over by people who were raised in
the 1960s, and many of these people have now developed the theoretical language
and insights to bring their critiques of racism, sexism, industrialism,
authoritarianism, and other “isms,” into the academic marketplace. They make
use of the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger and other
postmodern theorists who have criticized the whole of western history since
Plato as being a series of hidden power trips. The ecological nightmare is
supposedly just the latest manifestation of the consequences of those power
What’s a short definition of “postmodernism”?
Postmodernism is a complex phenomenon. It’s a movement that looks for
alternatives to the basic political, social, epistemological, metaphysical,
scientific and gender-oriented categories of modernity. Now, what is
“modernity?” Well, you might say it’s the Enlightenment and its
consequences. It’s the assertion of a universal conception of what it means to
be human, and this conception turns out to have the same characteristics as
educated, white European men.
postmodernism rejects that conception. It rejects the belief that there’s only
one kind of rationality, called “analytical scientific” rationality. It
rejects anthropocentrism to some extent, and certainly ethnocentrism, as well as
sexism and patriarchy. It rejects the belief that we have absolute foundations
both for our scientific and our political claims. Postmodernism is about the
world that we have lived in since the 1960s, where authority of all kinds has
In the popular culture, where the term gets thrown around most cavalierly, it
seems also to refer to pluralism and a rejection of the linear model of time and
Exactly. I just heard a talk by Daniel Dennet, the author of Brainstorms
and The Intentional Stance. He’s a well-known contemporary philosopher,
and he said that neurophysiologists are learning to live with the possibility
that there is no “central processing unit” in the brain that controls and
filters everything, and that there are parallel temporal sequences going on
there. For example, when you’re dreaming a dream that ends up blending into
the sound of the alarm clock, how does that happen? It may be that the sound of
the alarm clock triggers off a dream sequence in reverse, but we reorder
it in our consciousness so it’s dreamt the right way.
this sounds to me like another instance in which scientific discovery parallels
changes in political and social views. It’s possible that the brain has many
different centers which interact—and it works. So we can imagine a
society which is similarly decentralized, and it can work. We don’t have to
worry about holding it all together with a centralized, global control system.
important postmodernist idea is that modernity is organized by totalizing
narratives, or “metanarratives,” such as “the triumph of the
proletariat” or “the conquest of nature by man.” These narratives make a
claim to universality and objectivity, but in fact they express some kind of
ideological and power-oriented perspective which needs to be deconstructed and
This sounds more and more like the anatomy of a shift in consciousness. You
know it’s serious if it’s even reached into the university.
But many of these university people have not yet moved beyond the level of
critique. It’s much more difficult for them to formulate a vision or say what
they want the world to look like, possibly because they’re afraid of making a
new totalizing statement. Also, the role models aren’t there in the academic
world yet. Foucault and Derrida and so on haven’t said many positive things
about the future.
that’s starting to change. The Center for a Post-modern World, David Ray
Griffin’s group in California, is a step in that positive direction.
How do these kinds of developments in philosophy and other academic
disciplines filter their way out into actual social change?
That’s a very good question, and it’s an unfortunate response I have to
give. I think that philosophy has made itself socially useless. No one cares
what philosophers say. Now, that wasn’t true before World War II. Dewey and
other American pragmatists had an enormous impact on American education and
social reflection. But after the war, philosophers, with their interest in
analytic philosophy and epistemology, made their questions and their research
not relevant to the larger public. They engaged in much less reflection upon the
categories and presuppositions of culture, and their reflection became so
rarefied that they just took themselves out of the ball game.
But now we see deep ecologist philosophers and others actually energizing
social movements, like the Greens or the Earth First!ers.
Right. These changes come about peripherally. When Peter Singer wrote his famous
book Animal Liberation in the middle 1970s, he legitimized—because of
his status as a philosopher—an area of discourse called “animal rights.”
This has now burgeoned into an enormous amount of writing in the ethics journals
about the moral considerability of non-human beings, which wasn’t there
before. That was the wedge which cracked the door of anthropocentrism open.
Feminism and the civil rights movement also cracked open the door, because they
revealed that our ethical systems and our assumptions about selfhood were rather
narrow and in need of expanding. Now deep ecology is able to attack
anthropocentrism more directly.
A critique I hear often is that deep ecologists want to return to a way of
life that’s totally tied to the rhythms of the Earth, but at this point we
have so disturbed those rhythms that we can’t even consider going back. To
retreat to a pre-technological state would in fact be dooming the Earth to
destruction, whereas what we need now is to be more engaged in trying to repair
the damage. How would a deep ecologist respond?
I think deep ecologists have mixed emotions about that, but I would agree with
that critique. For example, if we stopped our development at the current level,
it would be a catastrophe, because our production methods are so dirty and
inefficient and destructive that if we keep this up, we’re really in trouble.
deep ecologists say that it would be all for the best if the industrial world
were just to collapse, despite all the human suffering that would entail. If
such a thing ever occurs, some people have suggested, we could never revive
industrialization again because the raw materials are no longer easily
accessible. I hope that doesn’t happen, and yet it may happen.
social ecologists say that deep ecologists flirt with fascism when they talk
about returning to an “organic” social system that is “attuned to
nature.” They note that reactionary thinkers often contrast the supposedly
“natural” way of life—which to them means social Darwinism and
authoritarian social systems—with “modernity,” which in political terms
means progressive social movements like liberalism and Marxism. But deep
ecologists recognize this danger. They call not for a regression to collective
authoritarianism, but for the evolution of a mode of awareness that
doesn’t lend itself to authoritarianism of any kind.
think the only thing we can do is to move forward. We need to develop our
efficiency and production methods so that we’ll be able to take some of the
pressure off the environment. We also need to develop increasing wealth for the
highly populated countries so their populations will go down.**
a necessity for new technology. The question is, can it be made consistent with
our growing awareness that the planet is really hurting?
And will it be developed in time?
Well, in time for what? It may not happen in time to save America’s supremacy
as an industrial power, for instance! A lot
of horrible stuff may happen in the next twenty years, and there may be
tremendous political fallout. The 1990s are going to be really weird, because of
millennial thinking as the year 2000 approaches. Some people are going to become
increasingly frightened as economic, political and natural events become more
problematic. There may be a lot of mass movements, some of them regressive and
reactionary. But it may be that those will be the last gasp of an old way of
being. That’s how some people view Reagan, as the last stand of a dying
Will the new ideology be deep ecology?
Who knows? Deep ecology claims we need a wider identification with nature. Now,
why would we even hope for such a transformation? To hope for it means to
believe in the possibility of human evolution, and that, I think, is
where deep ecology comes into connection with the Enlightenment and with social
all its problems, there was a liberatory dimension to the Enlightenment, which
is part of the American experience, and I think American environmentalists need
to tap into that. We don’t need to reject science and the Enlightenment and
American political values. We need to understand more deeply what the roots of
those values are. The ideal of freedom is a radically important idea in
human history. The idea that each individual person is deserving of respect, is
deserving of right treatment, is deserving of consideration, should not be made
a slave, should not be exploited—these are incredibly novel ideas in
human history. These ideas have to be preserved if we’re to take any further
steps. We can’t happily expect to treat the natural world appropriately if we
don’t even treat other human beings appropriately.
have to finish the job of human liberation—and this is where social
ecology is right—at the same time that we have to tackle the problem of the
domination of nature. You can’t take care of the environment while people in
the Sudan or Nicaragua are being cut up by imperialistic practices, east or
west. It’s all connected together. Deep ecology hasn’t articulated this view
very well because it’s afraid we’ll fall back into anthropocentrism.
humanity is part of nature too, and the development of our awareness and our
human freedom is an important step in ending the environmental crisis. I would
say that deep ecology is part of the great liberation movement that culminated
in the Enlightenment and now is trying to move beyond the Enlightenment’s
limitations. It’s not just about freeing white men from the control of the
king, and it’s not just about freeing women or blacks anymore. It’s about
freeing all beings from unnecessary kinds of control and exploitation.
There are certain schools of psychotherapy which say, in essence, that you
have to love yourself first. You have to build self-esteem in the individual
before you can worry about tackling the individual’s relationship to others.
Yet there’s an element of human self-loathing to some aspects of deep ecology
that strikes me as unhealthy.
That’s an important point, because people tend to forget that we—our
bodies—are nature. The way we control and repress our own bodies and feelings
is reflected, I think, in our treatment of all other life. Statements from some
of the Earth First!ers would give you the impression that the whole species is
screwed up; but again, I think this is a minority dimension. Warwick Fox, a deep
ecology theorist in Australia, says we have to distinguish between being misanthropic—hating
humanity—and being anti-anthropocentric. There’s a difference between
saying we want to get rid of all human beings, and saying that humans aren’t
the most important species on the planet.
My sense is that these competing environmental views are all in the same
boat, and they’re just arguing over which side of the boat to sit on.
Our paranoia and our “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality are
reflected in the arguments you hear among deep ecologists and social ecologists
and eco-feminists and whatever. We’re not really transformed yet. We would
like to be, but our behavior shows that we’re not. We’re groping for an
alternative way of having conversation.
got a long way to go, and I don’t despair about it. The other day I saw a TV
program about the burning of the Amazon rainforest, and I felt terrible. I
became anxious and I felt this tremendous sadness, a sense of irreparable loss.
I thought, this is what a child must feel when his home is being destroyed. The
planet we’ve grown up on is being changed. It’s a real loss for us and for
the other species that are being killed. And yet, who knows what this means?
Ninety-five percent of the species that ever lived are dead. Why? Evolution
isn’t sentimental—it does what it does.
like to stop the burning of the rainforests right now, but that’s not going to
happen. Some of it will get saved, but you know, we cut down a forest that
stretched from New York to the Mississippi River and from the Gulf coast into
Canada in just a century or two. We don’t miss it because we never saw it. We
see the Brazilian rainforest burning and we miss it. And it’s a threat to
us—there’s a lot of self-interest in our concern about that.
increasingly trying to acknowledge the mourning I have and to say, “I don’t
know what this environmental crisis really means. I can’t control it, I
can’t stop it, and I don’t know where it’s headed.” At the same time I
do my best to try to develop the awareness, the economic and political
practices, the new attitudes and so on, which can contribute to preserving the
biosphere. That’s as much as I can hope for.
what you might call a Buddhist Roman Catholic, and at mass I hear the priest now
talking about the need to heal our relationship to the Earth. The idea of a
personal salvation—that I can be saved but the rest of creation
can’t—isn’t understandable to me anymore. So I’m also hopeful that as
our crisis deepens there will be an alternative Judeo-Christian theology
available to people, one which calls for the affirmation of life, for taking
care of the Earth, and for fostering the sisterhood and brotherhood of all other
One of the
articles in Global
Climate Change (IC#22) Summer 1989, p. 24, Copyright
(c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute.
** Ed. Note:
See Lappé and Schurman, “The Population Puzzle,” in IC #21.