Deep Ecology in the Holistic Science programme

Deep Ecology in the Holistic Science programme

By Stephan Harding  Arne Naess
IN THE 1960s, HAVING read Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) was moved to apply his formidable philosophical skills to understanding the ecological crisis and its resolution. His approach to ecology bore the stamp of his life's experience as a philosopher in the truest sense as a lover of wisdom, and as a lover of mountains.
The word 'ecology’ originates from science, where it is used to refer to the ways in which living beings interact with each other and with their surroundings. For Naess, ecological science, concerned with facts and logic alone, cannot answer ethical questions about how we should live in relation to these facts. For this, he said, we need ecological wisdom, which Naess calls  ecosophy: an evolving personal philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world that embodies our personal experience of connection with nature. In my view, deep ecology seeks to develop this wisdom by focussing on three interconnected aspects of ‘deep’:  deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment.

DEEP EXPERIENCE is often what gets a person started along a deep ecological path. Aldo Leopold, in his book A Sand County Almanac, provides a striking example.  Leopold’s deep experience triggered a total reorientation in his life's work as a wildlife manager and ecologist. In the 1920s he had been involved in developing a scientific process for eradicating the wolf from the entire United States. The justification was that wolves competed with sport hunters for deer, so that fewer wolves would mean more deer for the hunters. As a wildlife manager of those times, Leopold adhered to the unquestioning belief that humans were superior to the rest of nature, and were thus morally justified in manipulating nature as much as was required in order to maximize human welfare.

One morning, Leopold was out with some friends on a walk in the mountains of New Mexico. They met a pack of wolves,  took up their rifles and began to shoot. Eventually an old wolf was down, and Leopold went close to gloat at her death. What met him was a fierce green fire dying in the wolf's eyes. He writes that: ''there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.'' This was a deep experience which shook Leopold to his core.

Perhaps it is possible to understand what Leopold means when he says that the wolf disagreed with such a view, but how could a lifeless, inert mountain possibly agree or disagree with anything? What could Leopold have meant by that? Clearly, he is using the word ''mountain'' as a metaphor for the wild ecosystem in which the incident took place, the ecosystem as an entirety, as a living, meaningful presence, with its deer, its wolves and other animals, its clouds, soils and streams. For the first time in his life he felt completely at one with this wide, ecological reality. He felt that it had the power and sentience to communicate its magnificence. He felt that it had its own life, its own ancient, unfolding story. He experienced the ecosystem as a great being, dignified and valuable in itself. It was a moment of tremendous expansion of consciousness, of joy and energy a truly spiritual or religious experience.. The attitude which saw nature as a dead machine, there for human use, vanished. In its place was the pristine recognition of the vast being of living nature, of what we now call Gaia.  I like to say that Leopold was ‘Gaia’ed’.

After this, he saw the world differently, and went on to develop his land ethic, in which he stated that humans are not a superior species with the right to manage and control the rest of nature, but rather that humans are ''plain members of the biotic community''. He also penned his famous dictum: ''a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.''

"Through engaging in deep questioning with each other out in the woods and fields around the college, students help each other to become aware of their personal ecosophy as a guide to their lifestyle choices."

A key aspect of deep experience is the perception of networks of relationships. We see intutively that there are no isolated objects, but that objects are nodes in a vast web of interconnections. We feel a strong sense of wide identification with what we are sensing, involving a heightened sense of empathy and an expansion of our concern with non-human life. We realize how dependent we are on the well-being of nature for our own physical and psychological well-being. As a consequence there arises a natural inclination to protect non-human life. Obligation and coercion to do so become unnecessary. We understand that other beings, ranging from microbes to multicellular life-forms to ecosystems and watersheds, to Gaia as a whole, are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potentials. Naess calls this process ‘self-realization’. For us humans, self-realization involves the development of wide identification in which the sense of self is no longer limited by the personal ego, but instead encompasses greater and greater wholes. Naess has called this expanded sense of self the ecological self. Since all beings strive in their own ways for self-realization, we recognize that all are endowed with intrinsic value, irrespective of any economic or other utilitarian value they may have for human ends. Our own human striving for self-realization is on an equal footing to the strivings of other beings. There is a fundamental equality between human and non-human life in principle. This ecocentric perspective contrasts with the mainstream anthropocentric view which ascribes intrinsic value only to humans, valuing nature only if it is useful to our own species.  Leopold’s deep experience was spontaneous and unexpected, but we can consciously encourage and cultivate the ground in which deep experiences can appear anf flourish.  On the MSc in Holistic Science we do this through a deep exploration of the phenomenological work of Henri Bortfot combined with Goethe’s sensory/intuitive approach to nature.  

We encourage our students to use this sense of belonging to an intelligent universe (revealed by deep experience) for deeply questioning their fundamental beliefs, and for translating these beliefs into personal decisions, lifestyles and actions. The emphasis on action is important. This is what makes deep ecology a movement as much as a philosophy. Through engaging in deep questioning with each other out in the woods and fields around the college, students help each other to become aware of their personal ecosophy as a guide to their lifestyle choices.

In deeply questioning society, we understands its underlying assumptions from an ecological point of view. We look at the collective psychological origins of the ecological crisis, and the related crises of peace and social justice. We look deeply into the history of the West to find the roots of our pernicious anthropocentrism as it has manifested in our science, philosophy and economics. We try to understand how the current drive for globalization of Western culture leads to the devastation of both human culture and nature.
This deep questioning of the fundamental assumptions of our culture contrasts markedly with the mainstream approach which tries to ensure the continuance of business as usual by advocating the ''greening'' of business and industry by incorporating a range of measures such as pollution prevention and the protection of biodiversity due to its monetary value as medicine or its ability to regulate climate. Although deep ecology supporters often have no option but strategically to adopt a reform approach when working with the mainstream, their own deep questioning of society goes on in the background. This may subtly influence the people with whom they interact professionally.

Finally we come to deep commitment, which is the result of combining deep experience with deep questioning. With their ecosophical journey now well under way, students act from their whole personality, giving rise to tremendous energy and commitment. Such actions are peaceful and democratic and lead towards ecological sustainability. Uncovering the ecological self gives rise to joy, which gives rise to committed, practical engagement with the world, which in turn leads to wider identification, and hence to greater commitment. This leads to ''extending care to humans and deepening care for non-humans''.  Graduates of the MSc have gone on to do amazing and important things in the world: running Myanmar’s largest NGO for protecting nature and indigenous people;  organising the 2105 Paris climate summit;  heading up Greenpeace in Colombia; creating wildlife corridors in South Africa; consulting for green business and entrepreneurship; heading Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. The list goes on and on.  There are now over 150 MSc graduates out in the world bringing ecosophy to life, spreading the seeds of truly ecological ways of living.  Will you join us?

Dr Stephan Harding is resident ecologist and Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He taught deep ecology with Arne Naess at the college in the 1990’s, and was the Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment with James Lovelock at the University of Oslo in 2007.  He is author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, and editor of Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College.

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