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Deep Ecology

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    On ‘Deep Ecology’ as a Framework For Addressing the Environmental Issue Of Anthropocentrism

    A predominant theme in environmental philosophy is the claim that we need to correct an anthropocentric bias in our attitudes to the nonhuman world, and in particular to extend moral concern across time and across species. This is the central claim of "deep ecology", which maintains that the uncritical acceptance of anthropocentric values has abetted reprehensible practices with respect to the non-human world. In the following, the benefits and the shortcomings of anthropocentrism will be examined within the framework of ‘deep ecology’. This paper will attempt to demonstrate both the value and some of the limitations of this framework with respect to the problem of anthropocentrism. This paper will begin with an analysis of the problem of anthropocentrism, and then proceed to a discussion of deep ecology as one of the more serious challenges to this environmental question.

    "Deep ecology" is a phrase coined by Arne Naess (1973) to encapsulate a perceived problem about the impact of human populations and technology on the natural environment. It was originally articulated, in Naess's words, by seven "rather vague generalizations" (Naess 1973, p. 94). Deep ecology was the name for a complex set of problems, as well as a political manifesto for change in the rather vaguely delineated directions of global harmony and ecological wisdom. Deep ecology calls for a substantial reduction of human populations, and change to our high energy consumption and profligate resource use.

    In drawing the distinction between shallow and deep, Naess laid great stress on a distinction between the short term and the long term. Shallow views are unsatisfactory because short term considerations can distract from the important longer term issues and because they incline one too much towards compromise positions. Deep ecology, in contrast to shallow positions, is concerned to treat causes, not symptoms. The attempt to articulate Naess's "vague generalizations" with greater clarity and precision has not however produced an integrated and unified conception of deep ecology, but a discordant clamor of competing conceptions. "Deep ecology" is a resonant phrase which has generated a lot of muddle. The task of tracing the complex web of alternative conceptions however is not germane to the present argument. For a critical survey of deep ecology see Richard Sylvan (1985).

    A great deal of hyperbole has been deployed in articulating the claims of deep ecology. It is common, for example, to encounter claims that destructive human activity–and in particular human technology–is threatening life on the planet; that we are disrupting the delicate fabric of the ecosphere, and driving it towards collapse. Such claims might be said to be exaggerated. There have been far more traumatic disruptions to the planet than any we can initiate. From a long-term planetary perspective, this is alarmist nonsense. However from an anthropocentric point of view such fears may be well founded.

    If the concerns for humanity and nonhuman species raised by advocates of deep ecology are expressed as concerns about the fate of the planet, then these concerns are misplaced. From a planetary perspective, we may be entering a phase of mass extinction of the magnitude of the Cretaceous. For planet earth that is just another incident in a four and a half billion year saga. Life will go on–in some guise or other. The arthropods, algae and the ubiquitous bacteria, at least, will almost certainly be around for a few billion years more. And with luck and good management, some of the more complex and interesting creatures, such as ourselves, may continue for a while longer as well. Of course our present disruptive and destructive activities are, or should be, of great concern to us all. But that is a quite properly human concern, expressing anthropocentric values from an anthropocentric perspective. Life will continue; but we should take steps to maintain and preserve our sort of living planet; one that suits us and, with a few exceptions, our biotic coexistents.

    I will illustrate the way that allegedly nonanthropocentric points of view incorporate a covert anthropocentrism with some representative examples which, I believe, reveal the inevitability of anthropocentrism and show that it is not necessarily something to be deplored. Anthropocentrism is natural and inevitable, and when properly qualified turns out to be perfectly benign. The first illustration concerns a proposal to develop a nonanthropocentric basis for value by grounding it in the naturalness of an historical process.

    Robert Goodin has proposed a "moderately deep" theory of value, according to which what imparts value to an outcome is the naturalness of the historical process through which it has come about (Goodin 1991, p. 74). Putting aside the problem, mentioned above, that the distinction between what is natural and what is cultural (or technological, or artefactual) is problematic, the deliverances of natural historical processes are not necessarily benign, nor ones which should command our approval. The traumatic disruptions to the planet brought about by natural forces far exceed anything which we have been able to effect. Consider, first, what Lovelock (1979) has called the worst atmospheric pollution incident ever: the accumulation of that toxic and corrosive gas oxygen some two billion years ago, with devastating consequences for the then predominant anaerobic life forms. Or the Cretaceous extinction 65 million years ago, which wiped out the large reptiles, the then dominant life forms. Or the Permian extinction some 225 million years ago, which eliminated an estimated 96 per cent of marine species. Like the eruption of Mt St Helens, these were natural events, but it is implausible to suppose that they are to be valued for that reason alone.

    There is of course an excellent reason for us to retrospectively evaluate these great planetary disruptions positively from our current position in planetary history, and that is that we can recognize their occurrence as a necessary condition for our own existence. But what could be more anthropocentric than that? However, as Gould has pointed out, mass extinctions are awful for those who are caught up in them. Suppose that astronomers detect a modest asteroid or comet, say five or ten kilometers diameter, on collision course with planet Earth. The impending collision would be perfectly natural all right, and cataclysmic enough to do to us what another one rather like it probably did to the dinosaurs.

    Such periodic disruptive events are natural all right, though they probably destroy most of the then extant large life forms. These times of renewal provide opportunities for smaller, flexible organisms to radiate opportunistically into vacated niches, and life goes on. From a biocentric or ecocentric perspective there is little doubt that our demise would provide comparable opportunities for development which we currently prevent. Should we, in such circumstances, step aside so that evolution can continue on its majestic course? I think not, and I think further that interference with the natural course of events, if it could be affected, would be no bad thing–at least from our point of view and in terms of our interests, which it is quite legitimate to promote and favor.

    Suppose again that we are entering one of the periodic epochs of reduced solar energy flux. An ice age is imminent, with massive disruptions to the agriculturally productive temperate zones. However suppose further that by carefully controlled emissions of greenhouse gases it would be possible to maintain a stable and productive agriculture. No doubt this would be to the detriment of various arctic plant and animal species, but I do not think that such interference, though "unnatural" would be therefore deplorable. Nature in and of itself is not, I suggest, something to be valued independently of human interests. It could be argued moreover that in thus modifying our natural environment, we would be following the precedent of three billion years of organic evolution, since according to the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock (1979), the atmosphere and oceans are not just biological products, but biological constructions.

    Other natural properties–such as biodiversity, beauty, harmony, stability, and integrity–have been proposed to provide a non-anthropocentric basis for value. But unless we smuggle in some anthropocentric bearings, they fare no better than the property of being the outcome of a natural process in providing an intuitively plausible ordering of better and worse states of the world. For example, if biodiversity is taken as a basic value-giving characteristic, then the state of the planet just after the Cambrian explosion (about 570 million years ago) would be rated much more highly than the world of the present, as it was far richer in terms of the range and diversity of its constituent creatures. Most biology textbooks recognize between twenty and thirty extant animal phyla–the phylum being the fundamental design plan of an organism (and the second broadest classification, following 'kingdom', in biological taxonomy). Yet the Burgess Shale, one small quarry in British Columbia dating back some 530 million years, contains the remains of fifteen to twenty organisms so unlike one another, or anything now living, as to each constitute a separate phylum (Gould 1989). In terms of basic diversity, a far greater range of radically different anatomical types existed at that epoch of evolutionary development.

    These examples disclose a serious difficulty for a view such as Goodin's which seeks a non-anthropocentric naturalistic basis for value. The fundamental problem is that we can rank preferences only given some anthropocentric bearings. An austerely ecocentric or biocentric perspective delivers no determinate answer as to which of the abundant and wonderfully various unfolding planetary biotas should be preferred. And, this qualifies as one of the more important limitations of deep ecology in relation to the problem of anthropocentrism.

    The attempt to provide a genuinely non-anthropocentric set of values, or preferences seems to be a hopeless quest. Once we eschew all human values, interests and preferences we are confronted with just too many alternatives, as we can see when we consider biological history over a billion year time scale. The problem with the various non-anthropocentric bases for value which have been proposed is that they permit too many different possibilities, not all of which are at all congenial to us. And that matters. We should be concerned to promote a rich, diverse and vibrant biosphere. Human flourishing may certainly be included as a legitimate part of such a flourishing. The preoccupations of deep ecology arise as a result of human activities which impoverish and degrade the quality of the planet's living systems. But these judgements are possible only if we assume a set of values (that is, preference rankings), based on human preferences. We need to reject not anthropocentrism, but a particularly short-term and narrow conception of human interests and concerns. What's wrong with shallow views is not their concern about the well-being of humans, but that they do not really consider enough in what that well-being consists. We need to develop an enriched, fortified anthropocentric notion of human interest to replace the dominant short-term, sectional and self-regarding conception. Find more papers at


    • Goodin, Robert. 1991. 'A Green Theory of Value', in The Humanities and the Australian Environment, (ed) D.J. Mulvaney. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, pp. 61-86
    • Gould, Stephen J. 1989. Wonderful Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    • Lovelock, James. 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Naess, Arne. 1973. 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement', Inquiry 16: 95-100.
    • Sylvan, Richard. 1985. 'A Critique of Deep Ecology', Radical Philosophy 40: 2-12 and 41: 10-22.

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