It is fitting that philosopher Arne Naess developed the theory of deep ecology on the craggy, snow-swept face of a Norwegian mountain. From this solitary perch high above the ground, the world looked different to Naess than it does to most of us. While many of us tend to see the world through an anthropocentric lens, Naess perceived nature as a vast, unbroken plane. He sensed the continuity of a single, unifying substance and subsequently identified that the problem with our culture is our tendency to think that we exist in opposition to nature. “Ultimately,” he concluded, “all life is one: an injury to one’s opponent becomes an injury to one’s self.”
It was from this monistic premise (influenced by the teachings of Gandhi and Spinoza) that Naess developed an ecological philosophy situating humans within the “larger self” of the ecosystems that contain us. On this level plane of existence humans and nature are equal – the natural world should not be subjugated to human want nor manipulated for human gain. The flaw in “shallow” ecology, according to Naess, is its attempt to address the problems of nature within an industrialized, capitalist framework. It is not until we stop looking at the earth as a resource and come to regard it as an extension of our collective self that we will attain the “deep” understanding required for true, meaningful sustainability.
When Naess passed away earlier this year at the age of 96, he died an optimist, believing that humans were slowly beginning to see the way forward. He was often corrected by journalists when he expressed hope for “heading back in the direction of paradise” by the 23rd century. “You mean the 21st,” they would reply. “No,” Naess corrected, “I am a short-term pessimist and a long-range optimist.” He predicted that in the centuries to come, people – including those in the developed West – would suffer greatly as populations continue to swell and we stubbornly cling to our faith in technology.
It is not until we broaden our narrow conception of self to include the natural world that we will be able to perceive the scope of the chaos we have caused. For that kind of vantage point, Naess believed, we have to keep climbing. We have to slowly and painfully scale the path of truth until our ecological aesthetic changes. There, on a snow-swept summit many hundreds of years from now, when we look out at the earth, we will see only ourselves.