Deep Ecology: A Radical Transformation of Consciousness
By Ruth Rosenhek
first printed in Biodiversity 5:4, November, 2004
About the Author:
Ruth Rosenhek is co-director of the Rainforest Information Centre in New South Wales, Australia. She conducts environmental and social justice campaigns, facilitates experiential deep ecology workshops, teaches on eco-psychology and compassionate action and is actively developing the Dharma Gaia Trust. See http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/ for further information.
Worldwide, the loss of biodiversity is fuelled by the large and expanding threat of habitat destruction caused by human actions. Every day environmental networks bring news of indigenous people fighting to halt oil pipelines, local communities rising up against large scale mining projects, and the dire plight of mammals such as the Great Apes who face extinction due largely to widespread clear cutting of their precious forest homes.Deep ecology is a philosophy of nature that invites us to pose deep questions to begin to understand the underlying causes of the ecological crisis we face and to pave the way towards a life-sustaining future. The term itself was coined by the Norwegian professor of philosophy and eco-activist Arne Naess, and has been taken up by academics and environmentalists worldwide -- in Europe, the US and Australia. But as Naess says, (Witoszek & Brennan 1999) deep ecology is more than a philosophy; it is a living movement. "The movement is not mainly one of professional philosophers and other academic specialists, but of a large public in many countries and cultures."
The deep ecology movement has as its primary focus the reversal of the ecological crisis. To deep ecology, the well-being and flourishing of both human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in and of themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes. Based on this principle (the first principle of the 8-principle deep ecology platform which forms the unifying principles of the deep ecology movement), deep ecology critiques the Industrial Growth Society as being fundamentally anthropocentric, or human-centred. From the standpoint of this worldview, western culture views the Earth as something outside of itself, raw materials to manipulate, shape, exploit in any way required to meet not only vital needs but also increasingly inflated desires whose satisfaction requires endless consumption.
Rather than seeing ourselves as one strand in a complex living web, western culture paints a picture of humans as the crown of all creation or the measure of all being. We see ourselves much like a spider that can tear out any strands of the web she wishes because she has the power to remake the web. Of course this is not so with the biological fabric; humankind is inextricably embedded in the Earth and the Earth community. This way of seeing ourselves as something separate is illusory and is now jeopardising not only the lives of many other species but ourselves as well.
For as we all know, we have grossly weakened the web of life not only through the tremendous loss of species but also global warming, nuclear radioactivity, loss of topsoil, genetic engineering, poisoning and scarcity of water worldwide the list goes on. While industrial culture represents itself as the only acceptable model for development, its destructive technology destroys cultural and biological diversity tooth and nail in the name of human convenience and profit. One can only wonder, at what point will this web be so weakened that it will collapse?
Social ecology and eco-feminism go a step further in the analysis of where we went wrong by looking at the long history of oppression of minority groups women, Indigenous People, people of colour - worldwide. These theories state that as long as we continue to oppress each other, we will continue to exploit the Earth, the natural community. Until we have social justice we wont have justice for the Earth. Until we halt the ongoing cycle of violence, the exploitation of peoples worldwide for the sake of greed, profit and power, we will continue to do harm to the Earth, and hence to ourselves.
However you look at it, the vast majority of people living in western society feel extremely disconnected from the natural world. We see humankind as something outside of nature. The Environment is something out there; we live in here, in our bodies and in our minds. We have replaced what Naess calls our ecological identity with a socially constructed identity that thrives on consumption of material goods, shallow short-lived pleasures, fast moving entertainment and even distaste for the natural world. Weve become increasingly fearful of the biological fabric which we are inextricably part of and utterly dependent upon! The media and social institutions encourage us to steep ourselves in technology, to look for safety and satisfaction in our homes and around machinery, computers, movies, video games. These are the creature comforts of the 21st century.
Eco-philosopher Theodore Rosak, writing in The Voice of the Earth (Simon & Schuster 1992), says that the repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. Indeed were breeding whole societies of eco-illiterate people who dont even have the chance to develop an understanding and deep connection to the earth and natural processes, which Indigenous Peoples have always had. Instead, most of us are busy creating a false sense of security by manipulating and removing nature without much thought.
Fortunately, in spite of illusions to the contrary, we humans are deeply embedded in the biosphere and it is quite simple to begin to remember this connection. Deep ecology suggests that we develop nature rituals to remind ourselves of who we really are, our true kinship with nature. In fact, indigenous cultures have always performed rituals and ceremonies to remember who they are within the web of life and to celebrate and remember the cycles of the Earth, such as the four seasons or the moon cycle. Europeans too had such cultural forms before they were savagely repressed by inquisitions and the like. We modern humans are the first people in the history of the world to have dispensed with these and as a result we face a severe environmental crisis.
In my work along with Joanna Macy, John Seed and many others, we recreate these rituals and ceremonies in ways that work for busy modern folk. Through deep ecology workshops, participants develop re-Earthing practices to connect with the Earth on an ongoing basis.
We might take a silent walk in the forest stopping to greet a large cedar or take a moment to smell the crumbling bark of a tree. We might lie on our backs on the grass as we gaze at the star lit night sky. Or perhaps we sit by a plant in our office, while we remember that the air that we breathe cycles from us and through the plant world and then back to us again, as it has for millions and millions of years.
In this way, we can begin to reclaim our ecological identity as we remember who we are at a fundamental level; We remember that our bodies are largely made out of water, that the carbon that makes up all life forms is one and the same in us as in all living beings, that the food we eat, the air we breathe, become a part of us before returning to the Earth and we are only as healthy and well as they are. It is this sort of shift in consciousness that deep ecology espouses, from a human centred perspective to an Earth community worldview one imbued with the values of respect and care.
As deep ecologist John Seed says, "Deep ecology is the search for a viable consciousness. Surely consciousness emerged and evolved according to the same laws as everything else. Molded by environmental pressures, the mind of our ancestors must time and again have been forced to transcend itself. To survive our current environmental pressures, we must consciously remember our evolutionary and ecological inheritance. We must learn to think like a mountain."
This idea of thinking like a mountain reminds us of the inspiration of well known naturalist, Aldo Leopold. Leopold, recounts a story when in his hunting days he killed an old she-wolf. As he reached the old wolf, he arrived just in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. He was a young man then, and full of what he calls trigger-itch but he thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire in the wolfs eyes die, he sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. And so he became a naturalist.
It is this sort of radical transformation of consciousness that deep ecology points us towards. While certainly vast changes are needed in the economic, social and political structures and institutions, without a shift in values and beliefs those changes that we put in place at the institutional level will not be binding. Fortunately, this transformation is not too much to ask. Were the survivors of a long slew of species that didnt survive. Over 99.9 percent of all the species that ever lived on the planet did not make it through the extinction sieves to be still living now. Only one in a thousand species have managed to survive through all previous extinctions and one of these species is us. Thats a really proud history that you and I have, that we have managed to make it. Were one of the adaptable, flexible beings that are still here. We can rest assured that its within our capacity and our intelligence to figure out what needs to happen so that we can go on. Teetering on the brink as we stand right now, this invites us to go deeper into that intelligence that has led us to be here today. To discover an Earth ethic that begins to shape a future that we are proud to pass down to our children and our childrens children.
John Seed will be conducting Councils of All Beings and other re-Earthing workshops in North America from June to August 2005. See http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/schedule.htm for schedule and workshop descriptions.
Witoszek, N. & A. Brennan 1999. (Eds.) Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., United States, 492 pages, ISBN: 0-8476-8929-8.