Ethics, Revised Edition
Definition: Branch of environmental ethics asserting that all creatures and ecosystems have inherent rights that exist independently of the needs and judgments of humans
Date: Concept formulated in 1949; term coinced in 1972
Type of Ethics: Environmental ethics
Significance: As the world's human population expands and exerts greater demand on the planet's resources, deep ecology provides an ethical guide to how humans may coexist with other life forms. Critics see deep ecology as a misguided attempt to thwart the satisfaction of important human needs.
Although the world of nature has long commanded the attention of philosophers, it was not until the late twentieth century that they began exploring whether humans had ethical duties to the natural world. Like so many others, modern ethicists were shocked and dismayed by the persistent destruction of natural habitat, the extinction of wildlife, the pollution of air and water and the depletion of natural resources. The causes of these destructive forces were an ever-expanding industrialism and a growing human population. In fact, many thinkers predicted an ecological catastrophe was fast approaching. Out of this anguish came several "ecophilosophies" that came to frame an ongoing debate about environmental ethics. Among the most prominent and controversial of them is deep ecology.
Basics of a New Environmental Ethic
More of an intellectual movement than a specific philosophy, deep ecology is nonetheless based on a few core principles. Among them is a rejection of the "human-centered" view of nature that assumes human beings alone have ethical value and are superior to other life forms. Deep ecology also spurns the Judeo-Christian assertion that the Bible gives human beings a divine right to hold dominion over nature. To deep ecologists these beliefs form the foundation for many of the attitudes in the West that are morally indefensible, because they breed arrogance and indifference to the natural world and lead to the destruction and despoliation of living things.
Deep ecologists also argue that any opposition to environmental destruction merely because it is detrimental to human beings is morally shallow. Instead, they advocate a deeper ethic--one that holds that all living creatures and biological systems also have a right to exist. Moreover, this intrinsic value does not depend on how much pleasure or usefulness it provides human beings. Every life form is unique and exists as an end onto itself. Deep ecology holds that it is morally wrong to assume that nature exists primarily to serve as raw material for human exploitation, consumption, and over production. No one, argue deep ecologists, has the moral right to jeopardize the richness and variety of life on earth, unless to meet basic survival needs.
Origins of Deep Ecology
A Sand County Almanac (1949), a book by American forester and professor Aldo Leopold, heralded the deep ecology movement with his "land ethic." According to Leopold, humans have a moral duty to preserve the biological integrity of living things and ecosystems. Humans, says Leopold, share a biotic-community, or ecosystem, with other living creatures. Drawing upon the thinking of Ezekiel and Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible that says despoliation of nature is wrong, Leopold concludes that humans must not act as conquerors of nature. Instead, they should respect fellow living things and biotic-communities and work to preserve them.
Other thinkers found common ground with Leopold. One of them was Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the expression "deep ecology" in 1972. According to Naess, an appreciation for deep ecology develops when human beings undergo a transformation of consciousness that creates within them new "ecological selves" that provide deeper and clearer perspectives of interconnected relationships among all living things, including human beings. This consciousness, it is suggested, spawns an ethical conscience concerning the natural world.
For many deep ecologists this realization often accompanies a transcendental experience in nature. Others seek enlightenment in various religious and philosophies found in Asia, such as Buddhism, Daoism, and among the cultures of certain indigenous peoples in North America and in some nonindustrialized countries. However, some deep ecology philosophers also believe it is possible to re-interpret Judeo-Christian scripture and discover a case for revering of nature, rather than exploiting it.
Ethics by Which to Live
Deep ecology offers more than a critique of Western culture; it also offers ethical principles by which people may live. Among these principles is a call to oppose immoral acts of destruction against nature. Deep ecology also admonishes human beings to turn away from materialism and consumerism, and instead use alternative "soft" energy sources, such as those produced by solar and wind power. Such actions are ethical, suggest deep ecologists, because they help reduce human demands on nature. Deep ecology also instructs humans to live by personal codes of conduct that are more spiritual and natural than those generally demonstrated in industrialized society. Finally, it demands that elected leaders discard economic systems that measure the quality of human life solely in terms of production and consumption. In its place, should come new economic systems that consider preservation of the natural world as their highest priority.
Critics of Deep Ecology
Despite its growing influence, deep ecology faces an array of critics. For example, some environmentalists point out that concentrating on the preservation of the integrity of ecosystems at all costs is misguided. They argue that ethical concern should focus on dynamics in nature, not ecosystems. For example, these critics point out that the violent destruction of an ecosystem, such as those caused suddenly by hurricanes and forests fires, are part of larger interplay of natural forces that relentlessly restructure ecosystems, and are often essential to the survival of some species. Others argue that human intervention is often morally good, because it can, at times, preserve and conserve nature using methods that the exceeds the restorative power of nature. Some opponents also claim that deep ecology itself is ethically flawed because it is "antihuman." Moreover, they argue that a "human-centered" approach to nature is ethical because it meets the needs of human beings. Ecofeminists, on the other hand, insist that not all humans are responsible for the current environment crisis--that only those with power and money are--elite, white men.
In response, advocates of many deep ecology steadfastly insist that humans have no inalienable right willfully to destroy the natural world for their own, selfish interests. Deep ecologists also deny their ideas are antihuman. Rather, they say, they are rooted in an ethical creed that commands humans to treasure all living things--including members of their own species. They suggest that if all humanity lived by deep ecology ethics, the natural world, including human beings, might be spared from annihilation.
John M. DunnBibliography
Barnhill, David Landis, and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds. Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985.
Katz, Eric, Andrew Light, and David Rothenberg, eds. Beneath the Surface, Critical Essays in the Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.
Rolston, Homes, III. Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Conservation; Daoism; Deforestation; Ecofeminism; Ecology; Ecosystems; Endangered species; Environmental ethics; Environmental movement; Nature Conservancy Council; Nature, rights of; Rain forests; Sierra Club; Silent Spring.
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