Basic Stances — Deep Ecology and the Problem of Anthropocentrism

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.

The environment has played a prominent role in the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history and will have an out-sized effect on industrialized society, but people raising awareness of problems with greenhouse emissions, fossil fuels, the arctic, dams, rain forests, and endangered species are dismissed as alarmists. We have a firm grounding in earth sciences and understand the factual dangers facing our world. Unfortunately, most scientists speak in measured tones about climate change. Climate-change deniers and other groups with vested interests in maintaining the status quo are willing to use hyperbolic language, scare tactics, and outright lies to discredit the careful words of climate scientists. We chose to set aside the measured language of science and speak from the heart: climate change is real, we are the cause, its effects are terrifying, we have passed the point of no return on global warming, and we must stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately in order to protect our grandchildren’s chance at survival.

Deep Ecology

Environmentalists are painted with a broad brush: to many, these tree-huggers seem more concerned with the lives of salamanders and polar bears than people, but the situation is more nuanced. We would like to call attention a cleft in the environmental monolith. In 1973, a Norwegian ecologist and philosopher, Arne Naess, divided the environmental movement into two halves, the shallow and the deep.i Shallow environmentalists are those interested in preserving the Earth and its creatures to create a more comfortable habitat for human beings. They would say, “Don’t pollute that water, I drink it!” In contrast, a deep environmentalist would decry the pollution because thousands of species depend on each body of water. Deep Ecologists (as they are called) recognize the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and that all organisms have an intrinsic right to exist. They champion ecological diversity and symbiosis, as well as classless, democratic, self-sufficient, small-scale, autonomous communities. Their critique of mainstream environmentalism and conservation for the benefit of humans is central to our future as inhabitants of this planet.


Anthropocentrism, or the belief that we as humans (or worse, as a specific group of humans) are special, is our biggest social problem. Buddhists and Deep Ecologists got it right: we are just bits of carbon on a little speck of real estate on the outskirts of a massive universe. Furthermore, our lives last but the blink of an eye compared to the four billion years that life has existed on this planet. We do not say this to make you feel inconsequential, but to remind you to think beyond yourself, your family, your friends and acquaintances, and even beyond everybody alive today. Although we as individuals are rather inconsequential, we must recognize that our actions affect other humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems. Humans’ ability to think and understand the world is profound, but with greater knowledge comes the responsibility to live within our resources.

i) See Naess’s (1973) original article, the essays in Sessions’s (1995) Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, and Naess’s (1989) Ecology, community and lifestyle: Outline of an ecosophy (“ecosophy” is the term he uses to describe his ecological philosophy).

3 thoughts on “Basic Stances — Deep Ecology and the Problem of Anthropocentrism

  1. Deep Ecology isn’t philosophically or morally coherent, because it has to claim that humans hold a special space in ecology (in that they have more responsibility to than other species) and that humans do not hold a special place in ecology (in that they have no increased rights).
    Following Naess’ ‘platforms’ (because he doesn’t use premises) leads to a sort of eco-moral nihilism.
    I wrote about it here, ages ago.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Allallt.

      I wouldn’t argue that humans hold a special place in ecology simply because they are humans. I’d argue that species’ responsibilities for their actions are positively correlated with their awareness of their actions and the consequences of their actions. As we are acutely aware of our actions and their consequences, we have greater responsibility. It is because of this awareness, not because we are humans, that we have that responsibility, in my opinion. I’d also ask you to define “special place.” It is a little vague and subjective. It’s hard to say if we occupy that “special place” without knowing what it is.

      I do not think humans are different than other animals other than the fact that our actions take place on a much larger scale than any others. Our actions, though, are the same. As you say on your linked page, “All species have [a]ffected their niche; they are a part of the ecosystem and changed the way it functions by their presence. This happens through predation, release of toxins, eating plants and in some cases, like ants and beavers, the actual creation of physical structures.” I’d argue that we’re just doing this on a larger scale and with greater awareness. You can call this “special” but I’d want use a more specific word: “outsized.” Humans have an outsized place in the ecosystem. That describes it more accurately and objectively, in my opinion.

      Please note, however, that as Naess defined his own eco-sophy, he invited the rest of us to come up with our own individual philosophies, thus I can’t tell you what to think about your place in the world. I really appreciate the comment.

      1. Even “outsized” seems to me to miss the mark a little. Viruses that are too virulent burn out their local environment; are they, too, outsized for their environment?
        If so, we are placing some sort of moral judgement on the mindless and mechanical actions of viruses. If not, then you must find a reason for placing that judgement on humanity, but not a virus.
        I argue that this exceptional consideration is the very definition of a special place in nature.
        It is here that we agree (although we disagree with Naess): human intelligence does give it a special (if abstract) place in the environment: it is hyper-aware of its actions (compared with other species).
        Naess does not see humans as occupying a special place, which is why he refuses any idea of rights of humans to extract from nature more heavily than is “vital”.
        (There is also a complex conversation to be had about what is ‘vital’. Is culture vital? Whose culture? Is a post-Enlightenment technological culture not worthy of protection, where indigenous cultures are?)
        Naess also begs the question by using language like ‘excessive’ and ‘worsening’. This begs the idea of moral responsibility before he has established it.

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