Arne Naess

If you hear a phrase like 'all life is fundamentally one!', you must be open to tasting this, before asking immediately 'what does this mean?'. Being more precise does not necessarily create something that is more inspiring'.1

Since the early 1970s, when he introduced the expression 'deep ecology', Arne Naess has been the most influential of living environmental philosophers, his voice heard well beyond the confines of academic discussion. Born in Norway in 1912, Naess was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo from 1939 to 1970. During the war he was active in the Norwegian resistance, and after it became recognized as his country's leading philosopher. He was founding editor of the journal Inquiry and the central figure in the Oslo School of philosophy. In 1970 he resigned from his Chair in order to play a more active role in the environmental movement. He has spent much of his time in mountain retreats where he writes, skis and enjoys renown as a climber whose prowess belies his years. Lean, fit and with flowing white beard, Naess remains, in his eighties, an instantly recognizable and admired figure in Norwegian intellectual life and in radical environmentalist circles all over the world.

The younger Naess's writings on the philosophy of science and 'empirical semantics' provided little indication of the interest in environmental philosophy which was later to dominate his work. Indeed, his earlier enthusiasm for the natural sciences and logical positivism appears to be at odds with his later metaphysical views, influenced more by Spinoza, Romanticism and Eastern thought than by any empiricist tradition. By 1960, however, Naess's attention was turning more towards the history of philosophy and the comparative study of 'total views' of the world and humankind. The difficulty or impossibility of deciding among such views encouraged a respect, recorded in the 1968 book Scepticism, for the undogmatic sceptical stance associated with the Hellenistic philosopher, Pyrrho. The Pyrrhonians had drawn from their sceptical premises certain lessons for the conduct of life, including the adoption of a non-aggressive and tolerant attitude not dissimilar from the one later recommended by Gandhi, on whom Naess had written a book, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age (1960). By the early 1970s, Naess was already reflecting on the relevance to environmental issues of the views of Gandhi and other thinkers outside the orthodox Western traditions of science and philosophy.

The initial result of those reflections was a short, staccato, and seminal paper, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecological Movement', published in 1973. Naess characterized the shallow movement as primarily engaged in a 'fight against pollution and resource depletion', its 'central objective' being 'the health and affluence of people in the developed countries'.2 As subsequent writings show, what he means, more widely, by 'shallow ecology' is an 'anthropocentric' position which argues for responsible treatment of the environment solely on the basis of the broadly material benefits which will accrue to human beings—a position, as Naess perceives, which is adopted in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy and is apparent in the goal of 'sustainable development'. Deep ecology is not given a similarly concise characterization. To understand what Naess intends by this label, we might begin with the two words which comprise it. Deep ecology is deep because it explores the 'fundamental presuppositions' of our values and experience of the world. It is deep ecology, not because it is the empirical science of ecosystems, but because the attitudes it endorses, though inspired by several sources, receive 'rational justification' from the ecologists' demonstration of 'the intimate dependency of humanity upon decent behaviour toward the natural environment'.3

Deep ecology is best represented, perhaps, as a set of practical environmental policies underpinned by a set of normative principles which in turn are supported by a scientifically informed, but ultimately philosophical, view of reality and humankind. Among the policies advocated by Naess are radical reduction of the world's population, abandonment of the goal of economic growth in the developed world, conservation of biotic diversity, living in small, simple and self-reliant communities, and—less specifically—a commitment 'to touch the Earth lightly'. The immediate justification for these policies is to be found in normative principles such as 'Natural diversity has its own intrinsic value' and that of 'biospherical egalitarianism', which enjoins respect for 'the equal right' of life forms to 'live and blossom'. The failure to recognize these principles reveals 'racial prejudice' against non-human life.4 (Egalitarianism has its limits, however. Parents have a right, says Naess, to rid the playground of cobras—though he adds that they should have taken care, for the snakes' sake, over the siting of the playground.)

The deep ecologist's case, however, cannot rest with these moral principles. For one thing, 'ethics follow from how we experience the world', so that an adequate set of moral principles must be grounded in a proper articulation of experience of the kind that only a philosophy or religion can provide.5 Second, while a principle like 'Human beings must respect the rights of non-human life!' is fine as a rallying-call, it can also reinforce an assumption to which Naess is resolutely opposed— one which he thinks, moreover, has been largely responsible for our appalling treatment of the natural environment. This is the assumption that humans and non-humans—indeed, beings of any kind—exist independently of one another. Naess is a 'holist', arguing that, at a fundamental level, all organisms are 'intrinsically related' in a 'biospherical net or field'. To distinguish man from his environment is to think, therefore, at a 'superficial' and artificial level.6

It is this holistic vision which, for Naess, grounds the normative principles and policies of deep ecology—or, as he prefers to call it in later writings, 'Ecosophy T', in order to distinguish his particular position from neighbouring ones. An increasingly central component in this vision is Naess's conception of Self, inspiration for which comes partly from Spinoza's thesis of a single substance, describable as God or Nature, but more especially from the Hindu notion of Atman (Self). Naess approvingly cites VI.29 of the Bhagavad Gita: 'He whose self is disciplined by yoga sees the Self abiding in all beings and all beings in Self. He does not think, however, that we require 'mystical union' to conclude that individual selves are, so to speak, artificial abstractions from a 'comprehensive Self' in which all beings are integrally bound. It is sufficient to reflect on how the identity of each of us is utterly dependent on relations with others and with the world at large, and properly to attend to natural feelings of empathy and sympathy which presuppose that 'one experiences something [as] similar or identical with oneself'.7

This conception of a 'comprehensive Self' supports the moral imperatives of deep ecology in two ways. First, someone who genuinely internalizes it will be naturally drawn to a universal 'altruism', since he or she no longer recognizes what is presupposed by 'egoism'—the existence, at a basic level, of independent individual selves. Second, it follows from this conception that 'self-realization' requires sympathetic identification with the good of the whole. 'We seek what is best for ourselves, but through the extension of the self, our "own" best is also that of others', and 'when we harm others, we also harm ourselves'.8 Deep ecologists are sometimes criticized for elevating the good of environment over human interests: but, for Naess, appreciation of the 'comprehensive Self' implies that this contrast is illusory.

Naess's critics come from several directions. For the most radical Greens and spokespersons for 'animal rights', he does not go far enough, since he accepts that human beings, in virtue of their 'nearness' to one another, are sometimes justified in lending greater moral weight to human wellbeing than to that of non-human life. For more traditional thinkers, his principle of 'biospherical egalitarianism' goes too far, and indeed is belied by his demanding of human beings a degree of self-sacrifice and altruism which it would be absurd to demand of animals.9 For yet others, Naess's notion of 'self-realization', with its Indian roots, is far too romantic and 'mystical' to provide a foundation for hard-headed environmental policy. This is a charge which Naess, in my opening citation, is rejecting:

that a notion cannot be made precise does not mean that we are unable to 'taste' it and be inspired to action by it.

Despite his many critics, Naess's influence has been immense. As a successor to his Chair at the University of Oslo states: 'philosophy's place in Norwegian academic life, as in the society at large, is due in large measure to Naess'.10 Not the least of his contributions to society at large has been to environmental education. The Norwegian 'core curriculum' and the Norwegian-Latvian Project in Environmental Education, with their emphasis on, for example, self-awareness and the environment, bear the unmistakable stamp of Naess's ideas.11 On a broader front, Naess's legacy to the deep ecological tendency in contemporary environmental thought and activism is not simply the name of that tendency. As its most distinguished spokesman among professional philosophers, Naess has provided it with a theoretical foundation at which earlier writers of similar sympathies, such as Aldo Leopold, only hinted.


1 Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, p. 8.

2 Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecological Movement', in L.Pojman (ed.), Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, Boston, MA: Jones & Bartlett, p. 102, 1994.

3 Naess, 'Ecosophy T: Deep versus Shallow Ecology', in Pojman, op. cit., pp. 105-10.

5 Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, p. 20, original emphasis.

6 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecological Movement', p. 103.

7 'Ecosophy T: Deep versus Shallow Ecology', p. 108.

8 Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, pp. 174-5.

9 See R.Watson, 'A Critique of Anti-anthropocentric Biocentrism', in Pojman, op. cit., pp. 117-22.

10 A.Hannay, 'Norwegian Philosophy', in Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 627, 1995.

11 See J.A.Palmer, Environmental Education in the 21st Century, London: Routledge, pp. 159-63, 244-8, 1998.

See also in this book Gandhi, Leopold, Spinoza

Naess's major writings

Interpretation and Preciseness: A Contribution to the Theory of Communication, Oslo: Det Norske Videnskapsakademi, 1953.

Scepticism, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecological Movement', Inquiry, 16, pp. 95-100, 1973.

Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, 1976, trans. and ed. D.Rothenberg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

'The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects', in S. Armstrong and R.Botzler (eds), Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Further reading

Devall, B. and Sessions, G., Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985.

Mathews, F., The Ecological Self, London: Routledge, 1991.

Witoszak, N. and Brennan, A. (eds), Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy, Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.


Was this article helpful?

0 0
Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?

Get My Free Ebook


  • ricky
    Does arne naess deep ecology talk about carbon?
    8 months ago
  • semhar
    What did arne naess to help the environment?
    6 months ago

Post a comment