Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle

by Arne Naess
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 109

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

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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

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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 century was that primary qualities, such as size, exist in nature, but secondary qualities, such as color or warmth, are names for sensations produced in perceivers by objects. Tertiary qualities, such as beauty, exist in people and are projected onto objects. Naess maintains, however, that it makes no sense to talk about minds and objects as separate entities. They are parts of a single field of relations; therefore, qualities are types of relations in the field. Size, color, and beauty are relationships among objects, emotions, and people. Seeing how all parts fit together into a single whole, or gestalt (a term in psychology taken from a German word meaning “an overall form”), is gestalt thinking.

Naess argues that from the perspective of gestalt thinking, it is a mistake to criticize the ecological movement as an emotional reaction against scientific rationality. Emotion is a part of the relational field; it is a source of basic values that people use to evaluate a situation. Emotion therefore is related both to ethics, the area of philosophy that deals with what people ought to do, and to ontology, the area of philosophy that deals with the nature of what exists. An emotional objection to the severance of humanity from nature can lead to the recognition of nature as a set of relations that includes humans and to claims that people ought to act to restore the balance to the relations.


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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

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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 capitalists, and the “reds,” or welfare state proponents. The greens share with the blues an emphasis on personal responsibility and on opposition to bureaucracy. They share with the reds a commitment to social responsibility and an opposition to inequality. Recognizing these overlapping areas can help ecologically active groups move other political parties in a green direction.

Establishing societies that can live in balance with the nonhuman world, according to Naess, means achieving a large reduction in population and emphasizing small-scale, local communities. Green communities will tend to make decisions using direct democracy, show little inequality in wealth, and be highly self-reliant.

Following the teachings of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, Naess maintains that political action to bring ecologically viable communities and desirable policies into existence should base itself on norms of nonviolence. The political struggle should involve few illegal acts, and ecologists should act outside the law only when necessary. When it is necessary to break the law, activists should attempt to make personal contact with their opponents and to gently turn their opponents into supporters.

In international politics, Naess believes that the ability of poor countries to reverse environmental degradation is weakened by the exploitation of poor countries by richer ones. This exploitation is rooted in the rich countries’ addiction to excessive production and consumption that uses up the raw materials of the poor and makes the poor countries dumping grounds for waste. Naess argues that transformation of the economies of the developed nations must be accompanied by shifting relations with the rest of the world from a basis of exploitation to one of mutual aid.

Naess sees green utopias, the ideal societies envisioned by radical ecologists, as statements of goals for the deep ecology movement. The alternative to moving toward these goals, in his view, is environmental devastation.

The Spread of Deep Ecology

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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.


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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.

Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as If Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985. This book provides a description of deep ecology by two close collaborators of Naess.

Fox, Warwick. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology. Boston: Shambhala, 1990. Fox, an Australian proponent of deep ecology, examines the concept of ecosophy. He maintains that most deep ecologists share the worldview of Naess and claims that the norm of self-realization, as described by Naess, is the distinctive characteristic of deep ecology.

Milbrath, Lester. Environmentalists: Vanguard for a New Society. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Milbrath provides an examination of the radical ecological movement and argues that it provides models for restructuring human society.

Reed, Peter, and David Rothenberg, eds. Wisdom and the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. This collection of writings by Norwegian environmentalists demonstrates the range of environmental thinking in Norway. It also shows the influence of Naess on contemporary Norwegian environmental thought.

Rothenberg, David. Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. A good introduction to the life and thought of Naess, this book consists of taped conversations between Naess and the author, many of them held in Naess’s mountain cabin. Each conversation is prefaced with a short biographical essay; in combination, these essays provide a view of the development of the philosopher’s thought over the course of his lifetime.

Tobias, Michael, ed. Deep Ecology. San Diego, Calif.: Avant Books, 1985. This collection of writings by some of the most important figures in the deep ecology movement includes an essay by Naess as well as essays inspired by him.

Zimmerman, Michael. Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Written by an American philosopher greatly influenced by deep ecology, this book provides a detailed consideration of deep ecology and of Naess’s thinking. It compares deep ecology with other radical approaches to ecology, such as social ecology and ecofeminism, and attempts to find common ground among the different approaches.

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