It may be that the new ‘’environmental ethic’’ toward which so many environmental philosophers aspire – an ethic that would lead us to respect and heed not only the lives of our fellow humans but also the life and well-being of the rest of nature – will come into existence not primarily through the logical elucidation of new philosophical principles and legislative strictures, but through a renewed attentiveness to this perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us – David Abram
We are deeply connected to nature; deeply entangled in the ebb and flow of nature’s rhythms and beats; deeply connected to all life on Earth; deeply connected to each other.
It seems that we have very short memories; we moderns so often see ourselves as discrete separate beings bravely making a solo journey through life. Even with family and friends around us we often consider ourselves as separate, simply having an overlapping journey with our fellow travellers. But it was not always thus.
Until quite recently were we considerably more ‘tribal’, paying greater attention to our collective well-being and destiny. Nature was part of our tribe; we did not feel any need to insulate ourselves against the realm out-with human society. It was part of our family too. We still see this in some contemporary cultures but by and large the modern narrative is one of separation from, and battle with, nature.
In the early 1970’s an idea emerged that succinctly captured our fundamental relationship to the natural world. Deep ecology was introduced by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in a short and somewhat understated academic paper. Naess wrote that our relationship with nature had become shallow, and that our attempts to attend to nature’s needs were a reflection of this. In fact, he went as far as to say that our attitude towards nature is anthropocentric, designed to fulfil human needs.
Naess called this the man-in-environment model, in which we see human society as fundamentally detached from nature; we live in the natural environment which is positioned as background, rather than as a true part of it. He contrasts this by suggesting that everything is connected at a metaphysical level. Certainly we can have connections in the physical world (other humans, the places that we spend time, all of the physical encounters we experience) but Naess contends that there is a more essential manner in which we interrelate.
This he calls the relational total field image and it is this way of seeing that is central to deep ecology. In this manner we are all knots in a biospherical net as Naess puts it; defined not just by those qualities that we tend to assume ourselves to have, but by all of our intrinsic relationships. We have myriad intrinsic relationships although we do not often pay attention to them.
For example, I cannot exist without nourishment, I need to eat. The food that I eat was grown somewhere – I’m deeply connected to that place; it was grown by someone – I’m deeply connected to that person; it grew because of the nutrients in the soil – I’m deeply connected to those; the rain fell and motivated the plants growth – I’m deeply connected to the rain; the sun’s life-giving rays landed on the plants leaves – I’m deeply connected to the sun . . . you get the point!
Continuing in this manner, can I really claim to be a discrete separate entity? Or just one expression of the interconnected web of life?
The significance of this is that if nothing exists in isolation then humanity cannot be separate from the rest of nature; rather we are deeply connected. Naess’s work is really a rediscovery of ancient wisdom; ideas put into words that we once unquestioningly lived by. But his formulation of deep ecology hints at, if it does not quite explicitly state, that to live in a deep ecological manner is not just good for nature or the right thing to do; it is also a highly satisfying way to live.
Naess stated that to implement deep ecological principles is to pursue a truer version of ourselves. He labelled the process of identifying with a larger set of lifeforms as Self-realization, where the S indicates the expanded self, in which we are defined by more than those discrete qualities we usually associate with ‘I’.
We tend to assume that living in the manner of deep ecology is a ship that has already sailed; or maybe a romantic notion being clung onto by a few pockets of indigenous cultures. It’s true that we will not abandon thousands of years of technological innovation in favour of a radically more simple life. But we must find a way to reconcile the modern world with ancient wisdom; we must find a kind of neo deep ecology.
If we are not planning to regress then what would could such a deep ecological society look like?
As we creep towards the 50th anniversary of Naess’s seminal paper on the topic can we find a way to embrace his ideas en masse and recapture the truth of our ecological existence?
Did the ideas in this article interest or inspire you? If they did and you wish to learn more check out a free preview of one of the lectures from my online course. Or check out the course overview here.