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How can we understand Deep Ecology?

tree of life

One afternoon, many years ago, I was walking in the Norwegian mountains with my dear friend the philosopher, activist and teacher, Per Ingvar Haukeland.

As we dodged fallen trees and granite boulders in the wild country near I asked per Ingvar ‘what is deep ecology’?

“A tree is the best way to understand it – the ecosophical tree", Per Ingvar explains as we walk upstream beside a small tumbling brook. Its lively, gurgling speech braids in and out of our conversation.

Ecosophy is a term, along with ‘deep ecology’ coined by Arne Naess, the playful yet austere mountaineering philosopher who taught at Schumacher College several times in the 1990s.

The word ecosophy is composed of two ancient Greek words: Oikos – the earth household, and Sophia – wisdom.

So ecosophy is about cultivating our own wise ways of living and relating with our planetary Oikos – with Gaia.

Arne coined the word ecosophy in part as a contrast to the word ‘ecology’ - the logical or scientific study of the earth household. Ecology on its own gives us great and interesting facts about nature, whereas the word ‘deep’ implies a connection with the realm of values.

When we place ‘deep’ in front of ‘ecology’ we get ‘deep ecology’ in which we reunite facts and values, healing the Cartesian split within ourselves and in our culture. Arne emphasised the importance of the individual and invited each person to develop their own ecosophy – their own ecological wisdom.

His own ecosophy is called ‘ecosophy T’ after his cabin in the pristine heights of the mountain Hallingskarvet in south-central Norway at the place called Tvergastein, the ‘place of crossed stones’. We walk deeper into the forest, following the stream into the high country.

“If one sees oneself as a tree, the roots are deep experiences that one has in nature. These roots uphold you in the deepness of the ground and the roots spread out and so the tree stands strong in the ground. The roots go deep into the ground and spread out seeking diversity in one's experiences of the animate Earth.” We come upon a bog and navigate carefully around it. It doesn’t pay to get stuck up to one’s knees in such places.

“So this first aspect which is connected to the roots of the ecosophical tree is our depth of experience. Arne spoke about ‘spontaneous experiences’- those meetings that we have in nature with our more than human neighbours, those deepening encounters which do something to us and make us in some ways who we are.

There is also depth of awareness or depth of consciousness of the values attached to these deep experiences. We look back on the experiences to see what kind of values grow out from them” A pair of ravens fly overhead.

They seem to call out their agreement with several deep throaty croaks. Encouraged by the birds and by the view of a huge lake deep in the pine forest far below, Per Ingvar continues: “These experiences don’t only go back in time, but also look forward into the future.

There’s something visionary about them. They give a direction to where you're going, to the choices you're making. So the depth of awareness or the depth of consciousness is what I see as part of the trunk of the tree. It’s what brings the tree together, the roots and the branches.

The trunk is a platform or a value base that one builds one's life on. Arne and his friend the American philosopher George Sessions created the deep ecology platform – Level 2 - as the apron diagram which is also the trunk of the ecosophical tree. 

We walk deeper into the forest, going ever more steeply uphill, following the stream, in and out of tangled shrubs and open stretches of moss covered rocks and low grasses.

“Now we move into the third aspect, the branches, which spread out into different areas. You sit in different branches as you explore the consequences of your deep experiences. What it is that inhibits, what enhances our visions to realize our values in action?

So you could say that the branches represent a planning stage regarding what you're doing in different aspects of your life. You explore the different branches, perhaps as a family person or perhaps as a student or a consumer or politician and so on. You have to integrate the values and visions from the roots and trunk into these different branches.”

We walk into a small valley and encounter a huge grey granite boulder the size of a house. Skirting round it, we come across a modest sized lake – tranquil – full of deep black water.

Behind the lake a humble granite mountain. We stop for the night and set up our tents. We make a campfire and drink tea as the sun begins its descent into the night. Per Ingvar stokes up the fire sending glowing orange sparks into the blackness.

“The fourth level concerns the fruits of the tree. These are concrete actions, decisions made in concrete situations in your daily lived experience. Now you're living your values and your visions.”

The firelight lights up the trees around us in a warmly flickering yellow glow. Hosts of bright stars appear in the rich velvet of the sky.

“I have nine or ten different ways of describing the ecosophical tree. We can also ponder how the tree takes nourishment from the air as well as from the ground or from the earth and soil. I look at the sap of the tree as its life stream, its creative force which is deep joy: a source of change, of inspiration in one's life that Spinoza calls ‘hilaritas’.”

Owls hoot around us and the night deepens. “This joy of being alive nourishes a deep harmony between our deep experiences and how we live our daily actions. This is the Tree of Life image applied to ecosophy.”

We cook our meal on the fire and talk softly awhile of the enfolding darkness and of the crescent moon which has just appeared over the mountain’s rim. Soon enough, tired out by our long day’s walk in the soft silences of these wild Northern lands, we find our tents and dream deeply of sheltered fjords and arctic snowstorms.

Dr Stephan Harding, Deep Ecology Fellow of Schumacher College teaches on MSc Holistic Science