Defining Deep Ecology

Read these definitions of deep ecology. How do the definitions put forward by Shena Turlington and David Landis Barnill differ? How are they similar? Which conceptualization do you feel is more valuable?

Definition by Shena Turlington

Deep ecology focuses on the inherent value of the environment and all species, beyond their use to humans. This philosophy is an important foundation for thought on ecological policy, spirituality, and psychology. Deep ecologists believe that the lack of recognizing the intrinsic value of the biosphere beyond its relation to humans leads to overuse in natural resources, disrespect and destruction of natural landscapes and biological communities, and deterioration of cultures and traditions that are tightly interwoven with thriving local biodiversity.

The term was introduced in 1972 by Arne Naess, an important proponent in the environmental movement. Naess stressed the importance of respecting the intrinsic rights of all biological species in grassroots initiatives in order to influence environmental conservation policy, contributing to movement in thought away from anthropocentrism and toward species equality. Naess also emphasized the need for a change in consciousness, which should be achieved through learning to relate to trees, animals, and other elements of nature in an effort toward self-realization.


Deep ecology platform

The eight principles of deep ecology, as outlined by Arne Naess and found on the website, include:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth; intrinsic value; inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Deep ecology laid the foundation for many types of ecophilosophy, such as transpersonal ecology, ecofeminism, and ecopsychology, as well as for Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.


  • Introduction To Deep Ecology: An Interview with Michael E. Zimmerman. Atkisson, Alan. (1989)


Definition by David Landis Barnhill

Deep ecology is a contemporary school of ecological philosophy. The term was first used by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972 in his paper "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement". Naess contended that conventional environmental debates and reform efforts only skim the surface of the problems. We need instead to probe deeply, engaging fundamental worldviews that shape our ideas and practices. The central problem such probing uncovers is anthropocentrism, a view that we are separate from and superior to nature.

One formulation of deep ecology is the platform of eight principles. Devised by Naess and American philosopher George Sessions, the platform is intended as a point of unity among different philosophies and modes of activism. Those principles are:

1. Everything in the community of life has intrinsic value independent of their value to us.

2. The richness and diversity of life contribute to the realization of these values.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. The flourishing of life requires a decrease in human population.

5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is highly destructive.

6. Policies and social structures need to be changed.

7. We need to focus on the quality of life rather than material affluence.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.

More specifically, deep ecology is an ecological worldview and political stance that is distinct from others such as ecofeminism and social ecology. It has the following characteristics:

1. Ontology. Nature is seen holistically, as an organic field of being.

2. Human-nature relationship. Humans are fully a part of nature, with no ontological divide between our species and others in the community of life.

3. Self. Rather than being an autonomous individual, a person is a self-in-Self, one part of the larger web of life. On an individual level, the goal is the full realization of one's self as integrated with the whole of nature

4. Axiology. Nature has unqualified intrinsic value, with humans having no privileged place in nature's web, a view known as biocentric egalitarianism.

5. Consciousness. We can achieve an intimate communion with the natural world, which yields a deep psychological identification with the community of life.

6. Critique. The ongoing devastation of the natural world is rooted in anthropocentrism.

7. Social ideal. We need to work toward a society that lives in harmony with the natural world, with political structures that reflect ecocentrism.

8. Morality. Morality in deep ecology is a spontaneous disposition to work for the flourishing of all, rather than a rational system of normative rules.

Many of these qualities have been informed by nature-affirming spiritualities, including Buddhist and Native American. Certain Western philosophers, such as Baruch Spinoza and Martin Heidegger, have also been influential. Nature writing has also influenced and been influenced by deep ecology. Many radical activists find theoretical support for their work in deep ecology.

Deep ecology has been criticized by ecofeminists and social ecologists for neglecting social analysis that would reveal the connections between environmental and social problems. Some critics have charged that deep ecology's holistic view devalues the individual and that biocentric egalitarianism leads to ethical absurdities such as valuing a worm or shrub as much as a son or mother. In some cases, these charges are based on an extreme formulation of deep ecology that does not reflect its primary orientation. However, some of these criticisms have proved valid and led to revisions in deep ecology. In addition, some ecophilosophers have combined deep ecology and other perspectives. Gary Snyder, for instance, is considered a leader of deep ecology yet he exhibits a number of views and values found in social ecology.


Further reading

  • Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1985.
  • Naess, Arne. Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Trans. and ed. by David Rothenberg. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Sessions, George, ed. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
  • Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.

Source: The Dictionary of Ethical Politics
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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 6:40 PM