Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle Analysis

Arne Naess


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Arne Naess was Norway’s most prominent philosopher when he became convinced, in the late 1960’s, that the earth was facing an imminent ecological crisis. Naess had been a mountain climber since his youth and had a profound appreciation for nature. He also was an admirer of seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that God and nature were identical and that nature was an intricate system of interrelated parts. Pessimistic about the future of the planet but inspired by his love of nature and by Spinozistic philosophy, Naess retired from his position as professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo in 1969 to concentrate on ecological problems.

A New Approach to Ecology

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In his mountain cabin named Tvergastein, meaning “crossed stones,” Naess developed an ecological philosophy that he called “deep ecology.” Deep ecology, in his view, is a matter of seeing the complex web of relations that connect all life-forms, objects, and events. In 1973, Naess published an article titled “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements: A Summary” in the journal Inquiry, which he edited. In that article, Naess distinguished deep ecology from shallow ecology, an approach to ecological issues that concentrated only on specific issues, such as lowering levels of air pollution or saving particular species. Whereas shallow ecology seeks solutions to economic problems through technological fixes, deep ecology insists on fundamental economic, political, and cultural changes.

The Norwegian version of Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle was an effort to present the ideas of deep ecology in a comprehensive fashion. Boston University philosopher David Rothenberg worked with Naess on an updated, revised English translation in a number of isolated retreats in Norway, including Tvergastein, whenever Naess was not on one of his frequent trips to distant countries.

Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle describes the character of the ecological crisis, introduces the ecological philosophy of “ecosophy,” discusses the implications of this philosophy for human ways of life, and considers the economic and political implications of the philosophy. Naess identifies “ecophilosophy” as the linking of ecology and philosophy. This linkage gives rise to deep ecology, the perception of the connections among all elements of the ecological system, including human beings. It also gives rise to “ecosophy,” a point of view concerning how humanity and nature are related. Naess refers to his own ecosophy as “Ecosophy T.” Most commentators on the book have suggested that the “T” refers to Tvergastein, the cabin where Naess worked out many of his ideas.

Philosophical Pluralism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The distinction between deep ecology as a social movement guided by fundamental principles and Ecosophy T as the personal worldview of Naess is consistent with Naess’s philosophical pluralism. Given a general basis of agreement, Naess maintains, there still can be a variety of approaches to shared goals. Naess presents his own ecosophy, his own worldview, as a guide rather than as a set of prescriptions. He wants readers to use his ecosophy to develop their own.

Establishing a set of general principles for deep ecology led Naess and ecologist George Sessions to write a deep ecology platform in 1984. A version of this platform is included in the English-language edition of Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle. The points of the platform maintain that nonhuman life and the diversity of nonhuman life have intrinsic value, that human beings are interfering excessively with the diversity of life, and that lessening this interference requires decreasing the human population and making extensive economic, technological, and ideological changes in human civilization.

Naess uses the ancient philosophical problem of qualities to illustrate his ideas of the “relational field” and of gestalt thinking. One of the classic questions of philosophy is whether qualities, such as size, color, or beauty, exist in things perceived in nature or in the mind of the person perceiving the things. The answer that became widely accepted during the seventeenth...

(The entire section is 462 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Statements about the character of the world, such as the statement that the world is best understood as a relational field, are hypotheses. Statements about the kinds of attitudes and behavior people should adopt based on these hypotheses are norms. Some norms are purely instrumental in character; they have no value in themselves and serve only to fulfill a more basic norm. Genuine norms are ultimate norms, norms that are independent of means/goals relations. Thus, the norm that nonhuman life-forms should be treated as having intrinsic value is a genuine norm, because it is an end in itself and not a means to an end.

The ultimate norm in Ecosophy T’s normative system is that of self-realization. Naess acknowledges that “self-realization” is a vague and ambiguous term. It is a starting point, however, for becoming more specific, or for “precisation,” as Naess calls the process. The norm of self-realization, at the first level of becoming more precise, refers to individualistic ego-realization, or norms of individual self-interest and self-expression. Taking a note from Spinoza, Naess argues that one’s own self-preservation cannot be achieved without other people. There is, therefore, a self-realization beyond mere ego-realization, one that includes other people. Deep ecology takes this norm one step further and maintains that people’s selves are not simply social selves but are embedded in the interconnection of all life-forms. The final level of Self-realization (for which Naess uses a capital “S”), then, is one of identification with all life-forms. This final type of self-realization is similar to what various philosophical and religious traditions have termed “the universal self” or “the absolute,” or to what Hinduism refers to as the atman.

A Program for Change

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Accepting the ultimate norm of Self-realization, according to Naess, implies changes in generally accepted lifestyles. In particular, the economic definition of happiness as continually improving standards of living should shift to a definition of happiness as quality of life. Meeting the basic needs of a population and promoting healthful lives should replace maximizing production and consumption as economic goals. In particular, the Gross National Product (GNP) should be abandoned as a measure of public welfare. GNP, from the point of view of deep ecology, emphasizes the quantity of production and consumption rather than popular well-being. Maximization of production and consumption favors meeting wants rather than needs, gives preference to environmentally destructive “hard” technologies rather than “soft” technologies, and encourages pollution and depletion of natural resources.

Changes consistent with the goals of deep ecology require political action as well as cultural transformation. According to Naess, those in the ecological movement should learn about the major sources of power in their countries so as to understand the forces that favor or oppose change. They also should try to keep conservation issues within the political arena. Naess suggests that ecologists, or “greens,” should try to recognize and make use of their points of similarity with the two other major political poles of modern society, the “blues,” or free-market...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

The Spread of Deep Ecology

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle has provided the most complete statement available of the philosophical views of the deep ecology movement. The original Norwegian version of the book was widely read in Norway, going through five revisions during the 1970’s. Outside Norway, Naess was well known to ecologically concerned individuals for his short articles on deep ecology. The English translation of this book provided international readers with the first major work on deep ecology by the movement’s intellectual leader.

Some critics see the book as inconsistent, excessively mystical, and lacking in specific programs to address environmental problems. Others have objected to its utopian character, accusing Naess of being unrealistic. Admirers, however, believe that the book provides environmental activists with a sound philosophical basis for thinking about global problems in terms of the interrelations of humanity and nature. The book helped to establish Naess’s reputation as the world’s foremost visionary of ecological salvation.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bookchin, Murray. Remaking Society. Boston: South End Press, 1990. Bookchin is the founder of the social ecology movement, an ecological movement that tends to be more human-centered than deep ecology. In addition to discussing his own philosophy, Bookchin criticizes deep ecology as excessively spiritualistic and mystical. He also maintains that deep ecology is misanthropic—that it promotes a low view of human beings and values only the nonhuman world. Bookchin also claims that deep ecology is a “wilderness cult” of the economically privileged and that it does not contribute to the struggle of oppressed people....

(The entire section is 440 words.)