What is flat ecology


David Rothenberg

Born in 1962, is Professor of Philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Deep ecology poses a radical question: Can we redefine our life so that what is best for nature is also best for us? David Rothenberg with an introduction.

"Bosco Verticale" project in Milan, Italy: The green high-rise is a vertical forest with trees, bushes and hedges. (& copy picture-alliance, picture agency-online / Celeste)

Deep ecology is a term used by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) from 1972. He describes environmental protection that requires fundamental changes in the way our species perceives its relationship to nature. Only then could we find a way out of the ecological crisis. Deep ecology is a normative, political philosophy. This contrasts with shallow ecology with its assumption that minor corrections to our current behavior will solve our environmental problems (Naess 1973). Deep ecology assumes that it is not enough to change our current view of nature, namely as a resource, only here and there. Nature must be recognized for its intrinsic value, the value in itself, regardless of how humans can benefit from it. With this principle as a starting point, the development of a completely new philosophy of life with nature begins. This is the political meaning of the term - and the conceptual model for several radical environmental movements. On this deep ecological basis, the following ideological principles are usually formulated:
  1. The unfolding of human and non-human life on earth has intrinsic value. The value of non-human life forms is independent of their potential use for "narrow-minded" human purposes.
  2. The wealth and diversity of life forms is a value in itself.
  3. Humans have no right to diminish this wealth and diversity except to meet vital needs.
  4. Today's human interventions in the non-human world are immense and the situation is rapidly deteriorating.
  5. Even with a significant decrease in the world population, humanity could continue to enjoy all desirable civilizational and cultural achievements. In fact, such a population decline is urgently needed so that the other forms of life can continue to develop appropriately.
  6. Changes in economic and technology policy are necessary for a profound improvement in living conditions.
  7. Quality of life should have priority over a high standard of living.
  8. Anyone who recognizes the above points also undertakes to implement the necessary changes.
These eight points were developed by Arne Naess in collaboration with George Sessions. They are regularly revised so that they do not become some kind of dogma, which would be an abomination to the movement that claims flexibility for itself. Deep ecology was used as an ideological platform by the radical American environmental group "Earth First!" which is known for nailing trees against deforestation and for dramatic protests against logging companies and the forest service. Socio-ecologists accuse deep ecology of being a policy based on a naive worship of nature and not on a careful understanding of the unequal social structures of our culture (Bookchin & Foreman 1991). Eco-feminists criticize that they do not sufficiently question the "man as hunter" ideology, in which the individual opposes the wilderness, and ecologists in developing countries have the impression that deep ecology tries to undifferentiated to promote a wilderness ethic as the newest form of colonialism. Arne Naess, on the other hand, wanted deep ecology to be an umbrella term that includes and supports other radical ecologies.

It is important to distinguish deep ecology as a philosophy from its aspect as a political manifesto. Overall, however, for Naess, individuals in their self-realization should not be neglected in favor of the self-realization of the whole (nature, universe), but that individuality can only be identified against the background of nature or life. Caring for the environment should never be opposed to caring for the self. In this way, conflicts between human and non-human "worlds" are avoided. The identification with the challenges that all life forms face is the key, and with self-realization as the fundamental value it inevitably follows (concern) care for the whole earth. This line of thought is based on the knowledge that the very term "ecology", which is used by scientists as a name for the field of biology that deals with the relationship between organisms and their habitat, has social and political roots. Because the term was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, who took science as a starting point to draw spiritual conclusions about the totalizing direction that humanity took towards the end of the last millennium. Haeckel's ideas were used after his death to create a sense of the unique value of "German" nature, combined with a willing obligation to protect it. [1] Since then, all attempts at ecological philosophizing have had to acknowledge this bogeyman and respond carefully to them. Therefore, deep ecology should not be seen as totalizing, dogmatic and excluding. It is an open invitation to become aware that a science of the totality and of the relationships in the biosphere also entails a moral pressure to both recognize and preserve the value of nature in itself and to find the best place for it to look for man in nature.

On the one hand, his politics are inspired by Spinoza and Gandhi; on the other hand, Arne Naess, as a philosopher of science, has strong roots in the analytical approaches of the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap and Wittgenstein. He himself studied in Vienna in the early 1930s and was the last surviving member of the Vienna Circle. Later he was more interested in the skepticism of the absolute certainty of science, similar to Paul Feyerabend; but the conclusions drawn by Naess are also in direct proximity to the phenomenologists, in that they give the human subject less importance and instead speak of a world of human and non-human subjects whose identity can only be developed through mutual relationship ( Naess 1998). This aspect of deep ecology has been elaborated most extensively by Abram (1996), who speaks of a need to connect with the "more-than-human world".

As a philosophy of science, deep ecology questions science selectively, but also gives it value and gives humanity a feeling of humility towards nature. It encourages us to take a moral stance and go further than simply studying the relationship between organisms and their environment and making a place for humans in such a relationship. Deep ecology argues like this: We are only one of many species. It represents a higher form of cultural evolution when one shows care for other species. And maybe that's even a requirement of our biological heritage.

Seen in this way, in addition to its influence on environmental activists, deep ecology has also stimulated biologists to develop the new field of conservation biology. In the past, biologists were overly cautious and had a bad feeling about calling biodiversity a good in and of itself. They were content with researching them and collecting more and more data. In the time when nature is only (descriptively) explored, more and more species are disappearing. The moral imperative of deep ecology requires that scientists use their discipline and information to protect what they are researching, because these entities all have value in themselves for the planet. (Wilson, 2002)

So deep ecology respects the contributions of science, but claims that they are insufficient to preserve the life-giving properties of our biosphere. A change in human values ​​is therefore also necessary. This view has an advocate in the former American Vice President Al Gore, who in his book Earth in Balance (1992) explains that the ecological crisis can only be averted by "changing the fundamental values ​​at the roots of our civilization". With this book, Al Gore introduced his ecological position to the American people and it probably also helped him to be elected Vice President. During his tenure with Bill Clinton, he was barely able to push through important environmental initiatives, but after leaving the White House, his films "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) and "An Inconvenient Sequel" (2017) made him one of the most important campaigners against the man-made climate change.

Climate change is a threat to our planet that could result in humanity changing the way we see ourselves in relation to nature. In recent years, the global warming challenge that affects us all has "grabbed" the attention of philosophers. They broadened the earlier demands for recognition of the intrinsic value of nature and went further than the simple idea that human society could be made 'more sustainable' by reducing energy consumption and reducing the difficult-to-control population growth. Every year more evidence emerges that we are transforming our planet in ever more momentous ways. This new era is called the Anthropocene by some and is linked to the assertion that there is no such thing as an independent earth without human modification. It is almost like entering a new geological era and we have to change our behavior accordingly.

Deep ecologists usually dislike such a view, because there is a human hubris attached to it, namely the idea that people are far more powerful than they actually are. Deep ecology, on the other hand, assumes that nature will outlast any damage that man inflicts on the planet, even if a large number of species on earth were to be exterminated, which among other things. also known as the "Sixth Great Extinction" (the last was caused by a meteor impact on the earth, in which, among other things, the dinosaurs were wiped out). Seen over millions of years, life on earth will recover again.

So the reason we protect the planet might rightly not be nature, but ourselves: so that our own species can survive our inherent tendency to destroy and overload the planet. Deep ecology teaches to be humble and to fit into this world instead of devastating it. The rewilding is one of the deep ecological answers to the concept of the Anthropocene. The aim here is to make the planet wilder rather than less wild, by "wilding" areas without wilderness again, for example in the Netherlands and also in Germany, where wolves can spread because they are better protected.

The amount of damage humanity appears to be doing to the planet may seem enormous, threatening, and ominously dangerous. The climate problem can seem too big to us to fully grasp, and the more we learn about its powerful impact on environmental tragedies, the less we believe we can do anything. Timothy Morton has given the name "hyperobjects" to such enormous emerging threats as the climate problem. He describes them as too big to be explored precisely and bigger than any single concern. Climate change, this all-encompassing ecological threat, is greater than we can understand, but it is also evident in detail, e.g. B. as the "Lucifer" heat wave and the "Superstorm Sandy". The mere question of whether the catastrophe is imminent (Morton, 2013) is a symptom of the current changes in the climate. But the philosophy of deep ecology is not just theory, as some of the people who have been influenced by their uncompromising ideas about humanity and the earth are now practically working on issues of global environmental policy. One of the negotiating partners for the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) was Andrew Light, a philosopher who had been sent by the US and who has been working on deep ecological ideas for many years and who always takes the view that pragmatism, an American branch of philosophy in the tradition of Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey, with whom deep ecology must be merged in order to transform ecological, environmental thinking into something that can work. He left the government shortly before the end of Barack Obama's term in office.

Deep ecology began as a radical idea that makes ecology personal by linking it to our own self-actualization, and also as a list of points that establishes a new line of thought. In a way, it has seeped into our general acceptance of the importance of fighting climate change. But it still calls for something radical: Can we redefine our lives so that what is best for nature is also best for us? Can we really fit into this planet, this comprehensive ecosystem, in such a way that the world is better off with us than without us? This is the biggest, all-encompassing, hyper-ecological challenge that deep ecology wants to draw attention to.


Abram, David. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. New York: Pantheon.

Bookchin, Murray, and Dave Foreman. (1991) Defending the Earth, ed. Steve Chase. Boston: South End Press.

Gore, Al, (1992) Earth in the Balance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Katz, Eric, Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg, eds. (1998) Critical Essays in Deep Ecology. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction. New York: Henry Holt.

McKibben, Bill (2011) Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Henry Holt.

Monbiot, George, (2013) Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. London: Penguin Books.

Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Naess, Arne (1973). The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movements: A summary. Inquiry 16: 95-100.

Naess, Arne (1989) Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, trans. and ed. David Rothenberg. New York: Cambridge University Press. [German: The future in our hands (2013), Wuppertal: Peter Hammer.]

Naess, Arne (2016) Ecology of Wisdom. London: Penguin.

Naess, Arne (2005) The Selected Works of Arne Naess [10 volumes], ed. Harold Glasser. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Rothenberg, David (2002) Always the Mountains. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Sessions, George, ed. (1995) Deep Ecology for the 21st Century Boston: Shambhala.

Wilson, Edward O. (2002) The Future of Life. New York: button.