The urgency of creating an ecologically sustainable form of human economy is plain. While Deep Ecology may appear to be a radical alternative, it fails to focus on the key question of material social relations, argues Dominic Alexander.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill brought together twin sources of our current ecological disaster: our relentless mining of the earth for the oil whose burning is heating the atmosphere, and the destruction of marine ecosystems. The oil that threatened to poison the whole ecology of the Gulf (and still may) was simply adding to the catastrophe of systematic over-fishing from factory ships. The latter has already led to the virtual extinction of the cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. This was once a tremendously fruitful resource which may now never return. We can no longer afford the day-to-day depredations our economy wreaks upon ecological resources, while the terrifying potential of single disasters has been revealed. The urgency of creating an ecologically sustainable form of human economy is plain. At the same time the economic crisis has given a greater weight to calls for green job creation.

How all this is to be achieved is, of course, the key question. For some it is a matter of abstinence, or the drastic curtailment of certain activities, such as fishing. Arne Naess, a founder of the ‘deep ecology’ tendency in the environmental movement, appears to take this position in repeatedly positing a conflict between the needs of workers and the needs of ecology.[1] Naess, and the tendency he represents, is highly influential, and if anything is gaining in recognition within the worldwide Green movement.

For Naomi Klein, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico represents ‘a kind of crash course in deep ecology’.[2] She outlines some of the key positions held by deep ecologists, saying that the Gulf Coast crisis is ‘underneath it all’ about ‘our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.’ Deep ecologists trace this hubris to the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution and such figures as Francis Bacon. It was from them that we have inherited the tendency to see nature ‘as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, [so that] its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity.’[3]

Deep Ecologists seek to restore a ‘holistic’ spirit to our understanding of nature, in the process hoping to overcome present mechanistic impulses with new values that do not privilege human desires over nature. These perspectives influence some Marxists also. Ted Benton, specifically noting Arne Naess, recently wrote that ‘deep ecological or “ecocentric” traditions of green thought and politics’, are in fact, compared to Marxist ecology, ‘more radical traditions of green thought that strive for a qualitative transformation in our subjective relation to nature – psychologically, emotionally, aesthetically, cognitively, culturally.’ [my emphasis].[4]

Arne Naess and the Problem of Labour

The solutions that Naess suggested in his writings to the ecological crisis need serious consideration. He wrote, in 1993 in relation to Norway, that previous policies for fishing ‘have been disastrous for the richness and diversity of fish in vast area’. This is undeniable, but it is the ensuing direction of the argument that is problematic. For labour leaders, ‘their duty is clear, but the unemployed fishermen are furious.’ This is indeed a problem, one would think, on a social level. For Naess, the necessity of cutting those jobs, as he himself formulates it, is obvious: ‘Richness and diversity [in nature] must be increased. This goal is so evident that to say it to oneself in words is superfluous’.[5] It’s not hard to agree on the scale of the ecological crisis here, but Naess does not even pause to consider whether there is any possible way of reconciling human and environmental imperatives.

For Naess the apparent rigid trade-off between jobs and ecology raises the question, not of social justice and ecology, but of the nature of morality. The politician’s decision to toughen quotas in face of fishermen’s anger constitutes either a moral act or beautiful act in the Kantian sense. That is to say, is it the right thing to do but against one’s inclinations (moral), or the right thing to do in harmony with one’s inclinations (beautiful). He concludes that Kantian categories are difficult to apply in this case. What I find most alarming here is the ease with which the subject engaged in ecological action becomes the elite figure, the politician, with the producer relegated as an objective factor who is merely reactively ‘angry’. There is no sense that society as a whole, or fishing communities themselves, might be capable of taking on the difficult task of restructuring their industry in order to preserve fisheries and fishing communities alike.

The one-sidedness of the argument in this passage is not balanced elsewhere.[6] In another passage, the subject is the logging industry, and the fate of jobs there, again. Here, Naess notes that ‘many branches of the social justice movement have a more complex relation to the social ecology movement’, than does the ‘peace movement’, as he saw it in 1992.[7] Once again the logic entails a trade-off between the livelihood of labour and the preservation of ecology. Labour itself appears as the problem, in isolation from any relations of exploitation or profit-making. Naess intimates in a diagram that his ‘ecosophy’ would entail a society without class, but the manner in which class structures the present political economy is otherwise absent from his analysis.[8]

Deep Ecology in general clearly advances some attractive ideas and perspectives to anyone concerned with environmental matters. It offers an apparently radical philosophical agenda, promising a total transformation of our deeply alienated civilisation. It sharply characterises the essence of western civilisation’s crisis, explaining the origins of our problems and their solution, through an apparently ethically driven agenda. Western society, dominated by the scientific rationalism of the enlightenment, in this conception, mechanistically divides the parts of the whole system from each other, thereby ignoring the vital relations between parts of the ecosystem. Overcoming this alienating, mechanistic and anthropocentric system of values is imperative in order to save the world.

This is the theory of deep ecology suspended in air, but when it comes to specific proposals for changing the world, some difficult consequences follow. It is not that easy to change the ‘values’ of a civilisation, or indeed to change its deep-rooted structures. One group of deep ecologists, Dark Mountain, simply wash their hands of industrial civilisation, proclaiming its impending demise.[9] The latter do not apparently derive their thinking directly from Naess in particular, but other groups specifically do.[10] Naess himself does not seem to have envisaged any kind of abrupt substitution of one form of society for another, but he was clear that the guiding principles of his ‘ecosophy’ must entail radical change.[11] Naess in this respect is difficult to follow, since his analysis is focused upon the structure of thinking, on the abstract philosophical values which we should be using to guide our actions, as in his discursion into Kantian ethical categories.[12]

When Naess does address the actual economic consequences of his thinking, he seems to be advocating simply the abolition of parts of the present economy, and their replacement by pre-industrial models. Naess acknowledges the concerns of loggers in a ventriloquist passage ‘But what are the consequences for you and what for us?… many of us lose our way of life, and our problems persist’. Naess’ solution to their concern appears to lie in a shortly following remark that it ‘is an embarrassing scandal that the rich industrial nations do not use the urgency of work to be done to overcome the global ecological crisis as a basis for the significant reduction of unemployment. The jobs in this area are clearly more labor-intensive than jobs in industry.’[13]

Thus Naess appears to say that employment in one sector can be replaced by employment in another more ecologically acceptable sector, although specifically what he had in mind in the passage above I’m not quite sure.[14] This, it is important to remember, is within a movement in which ‘supporters share, for instance, a strong sense of the intrinsic value of every living being and its right to live and blossom’.[15] In order for this to be a reality, human beings need to pursue a course of self-realisation within the conception of an ‘ecological self’. This sounds marvellous. But Naess is capable of speculating that even given that ‘most humans have either been exploited or suppressed most of their lives… high levels of self-realisation have been difficult but not impossible to reach under such circumstances.’[16] Ecological self-realisation for humanity does not necessarily mean being freed from exploitation then? The repeated assertions that ecological transformation is about also a beneficial human transformation begin to sound hollow after such statements.

Naess: Idealism and Alienation

There really is a conflict between the ‘social justice movement’ and the ‘deep ecological’ movement in Naess’ thinking. Thus he asks ‘What can be more urgent than the elimination of extreme poverty and suppression?’ In fact ecological problems are more urgent, and must trump the question of poverty, as ‘whereas the general costs [of poverty] are roughly constant year after year, or increase linearly, the specific character of the ecological crisis makes the cost to reach ecological sustainability increase exponentially.’[17] So there it is, the poor have to wait until the rich have solved the ecological problems of their own making.

This is very mechanistic way of thinking about human society. There is no awareness that perhaps ecological destruction and poverty are caused by the same profit-making system, or that even the deepening crisis of poverty itself creates ecological destruction. The ‘ecology’ of the non-human biosphere may be an organic unity, and can be treated as such, but in practice, human society is not treated in the same fashion. Naess explicitly derives his system from the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza whose ideas, he admits, were at least derived from mechanistic models.[18]

Naess’ failure to think about human society, in the same holistic terms that are demanded for non-human nature, lies behind his brief comments upon the jobs of fishers or loggers. His defenders might argue that these examples are simply pulled out of context, that such brief comments shouldn’t reflect upon the whole philosophy. However, they do represent a persistent lacuna in Naess which appears whenever the question of real human society is relevant. His starting point in each discussion lies in the realm of abstract states of mind, rather than actual social or ecological relations. This idealist procedure allows Naess to accept without questioning some of the deep structures of capitalist social relations which create our alienation from nature in the first place.[19]

It is easy for Naess to refer to the need to cut jobs in the fisheries, because for him labour in itself is essentially interchangeable. The jobs cut in fisheries and logging can be replaced by the ‘labour intensive’ but ecologically preferable employment he refers to in passing. The communities devastated by the shutting down of whole industries do not warrant a reflection. Neither does Naess consider that along with specific forms of employment there is a wider context involving the reproduction of certain kinds of knowledge and skills. The extinction of human knowledge and skill is also something that can happen, and should be taken very seriously.

At one point Naess does appear to perceive something approaching this problem when he refers to the resettlement of people in the Norwegian Arctic, being moved to new ‘centres of development’. This is certainly an obnoxious policy, and Norway has not been the only government to pursue, fruitlessly, such a means of kick-starting ‘development’.[20] But for Naess the problem is not that of the forcible disruption of existing social-economic relations, but that the people, whose ‘self-respect, self-esteem, is impaired’, will now also require a higher standard of living: ‘What is adequate in the so-called periphery of the country is different from what counts at the so-called centers.’

In Naess’ eyes, the loss of a river, due to a hydroelectric project, is not a question of dispossession and rights to resources, but a demonstration that the Lapps naturally felt ‘the philosophy of the wider and deeper self’, because one referred to the river as ‘part of himself’.[21] Naess interprets this statement as representing a mystical ‘ecological self’ rather than a sense of being materially embedded in a productive social landscape. Real social relations are never the issue, only states of mind. Work and its relation to resources are not in question, and these do not appear as formative elements in what comes to be the ‘self’ which is to be transformed into an ‘ecological self’.

It is capitalism which turns socially specific labour into interchangeable units of labour-power in general. Capitalism reduces work performed in a social context to a commodity which is exchangeable for all other commodities.[22] Because Naess does not concern himself with the way actual material relationships are constituted, it is natural for him to accept unquestioningly such basic aspects of labour under capitalism. Capitalism turns labour into a commodity which is exchangeable with all other commodities. As a result the specific context of particular labour is lost: it is reified into a universal, exchangeable thing. This alienation of labour means that capitalism as a system is not able to take account of all the aspects in which actual work is embedded in wider relations, not just of production, but of the reproduction of social labour.

The idealist ecological holism Naess pursues, his attempt to reunite humanity with ecology, founders at the first hurdle because his methodology prevents him from seeing why labour under capitalism is ecologically destructive.[23] He accepts the commodity form of labour as the universal, timeless reality of human work, which must then be counterposed to ecology. Naess does not see that it is the present, historically specific, structure of production, based on the exchange value of commodities, which is so inherently destructive of the environment.

Cutting jobs is not simply cutting units of labour-power which have a certain cost or a certain ecological impact, but has much wider ramifications. It would be quite possible for the simple elimination of ecologically problematic industries to have in itself a harmful ecological impact due to the economic repercussions for communities. What is needed is an approach which takes as its starting point the analysis of capitalist social relations and attempts to find ways of re-articulating economic interaction with the environment and its resources. Precisely because Naess takes a philosophically idealist approach to the problem of ecology, he side-steps these issues as a matter of course, and finds himself over and again positing a trade off between labour, that is to say people, and ecology.

We cannot go on treating human beings as interchangeable and disposable commodities any more than we can treat ecological resources as merely the source of commodities for exchange. It is the nexus between these two exchange processes which creates ecological disaster, and that disaster cannot be solved without treating both sides of the problem. Naess would heartily object at this point that deep ecology is not anti-human, and that his ecosophy is specifically concerned with imbuing human life with an ecologically spiritual wholeness. However, the question remains what this ecosophy would actually change on a social level.

Naess shows a remarkable misunderstanding of capitalism and its forms altogether. He comments on the dangerous conception of the goal in a person’s life being ‘to get to be somebody’. This is undesirable because of the ‘vast, international economic competition’ which exists today. So he writes: ‘Free market, perhaps, yes, but the law of supply and demand of separate, isolatable “goods and services”, independent of needs, must not be made to reign over increasing other areas of our life’.[24] The free market is precisely that ‘law’ and its consequences. It is characteristic of Naess that a casual judgement on economics is prompted by concern with a psychological value, which for him, prompts, controls and defines all human action in itself. The implication is that growing-up with a different motivating ideal would prevent the ‘law of supply and demand’ from dominating in the way that it does presently.

Elsewhere when the question of the market returns, Naess is unable to suggest any other type of solution than ‘a free market within a framework that permits fairly strong rules governing the operation of the market.’[25] From being a fundamental refashioning of human society, deep ecology suddenly looks like quite moderate reformism.

Ecologism and Pre-industrial Culture and Spirit

Naess’ intention was to discover a new way of thinking about our environment and ourselves that would provide a code and way of being, enabling us to live ecologically. He took as his inspiration particular pre-industrial societies, or rather the philosophies he saw embedded in them.[26] That, fundamentally, Naess considers the ecological problem to be located in individual consciousness rather than in social relations is exemplified by the lesson he draws from Buddhism for example: ‘What insight meditation might bring about is a sudden, fundamental change of the general conscious, abstract conception of the world and the ego [original emphasis]’ This alteration in the ego is essential for the ecological self-realisation Naess puts at the heart of his ecosophy.
Naess abstracts out what he perceives as the essential ‘thought’ of eastern societies, without investigating the various real social relations in which they were and are embedded. As a result the lessons he draws become merely assertions of virtuous ways of thinking about the world, or ways of acting that are only open to the already privileged. A suggestion for how a supporter of deep ecology should act is: ‘Attempt to live in nature rather than just visiting beautiful places; avoid tourism (but occasionally make use of tourist facilities)’.[27] Are you still a deep ecologist due to your inner ecological self, arrived at through meditation perhaps, when ‘making use of tourist facilities’? Interestingly, a recent statistic shows a high correlation between long-haul flights and membership of environmental organisations.[28] This may be indicating something about class, but is nonetheless a warning of the value of purely subjective shifts in ecological awareness.

Or take this suggestion: ‘Appreciate, or participate in, primary production – small scale agriculture, forestry, fishing.’ Most people in capitalist societies have no option to participate in such production. Our ecological problems stem from profit-making economic structures over which most people have no real control. As a result, ‘appreciating’ small scale rural labour seems a curiously abstract way of ecologically transforming society. But Naess was thinking of his own life; half his time spent as a leading university professor in Norway, and the rest in his simple mountain retreat. If it were even possible for everyone in the developed world to pursue such a lifestyle, in order to fulfil their own ‘ecosophy’, I submit that the remaining wildernesses of Europe at least would be in grave peril.

In any case, it is not possible to declare the need for a new philosophy of life, and imagine that the system of ideas itself will transform human society. Attitudes towards nature and the ecological nature of a ‘self’ are formed by the real social relations in which people live. Pre-industrial societies could be profoundly destructive of their ecologies also. The Mayan civilisation is now suspected of having collapsed due to ecological crisis.[29] The Roman Empire created ecological destruction in its drive to extract more and more surplus from agricultural communities; one Roman era village has been characterised as being ‘at war with nature’.[30] Other such examples in pre-industrial civilisations can easily be found.[31] Evidently, Naess is not thinking of these societies when he praises pre-industrial attitudes. But it does beg the question, in which circumstances did pre-industrial societies in fact live up to Naess’ ecological ideals?[32]

Once in Nepal, apparently, ‘the forest was respected and no living trees were cut down for fuel. Each tree was looked upon as something that had its own life, its own interest, its own dignity. With the breakdown of customs, the deep ecology attitude vanished.’ In pre-industrial societies, Neass tells us, ‘if a big mountain precipice may be spontaneously experienced as dark and evil, it is, in an important sense, dark and evil.’[33] This is an ‘anthropomorphism’ of which Naess approves as it represents the valuing of ecology. Now it is certainly true that a fundamental problem of capitalist economics is its inability to ‘value’ the ‘free gifts’ of nature, so that it creates the metabolic rift which both supports commodity production and destroys our environment.[34] It is also the case that it is crucial to pursue the study of ‘human relation to nature and subsistence, through the development of property forms, over the great span of ethnological time,’ as John Bellamy Foster has argued.[35] But this project is precisely not what Naess was engaged in, and is not where his thinking would lead.

The alienating structures of capitalist productive relations are not an unremarked part of social experience. Awareness of ecological alienation is surely at the heart of all the various environmental or ecological movements and cultural tendencies of the last two centuries, from Wordsworth to the Wandervogel, to the various strands of modern environmentalism. Nor is Naess’ idealist approach to the problem unusual as a response. It is in fact common to suppose that a meaningful connection with nature is something that modern society has lost, and that returning to the ideas and mentality of pre-industrial society would successfully overcome the lack. This approach can lead in all sorts of dangerous directions, from a passive sentimentality about the ‘natural’ that merely preserves human separation from it, to the horrors of Nazi ‘blood and soil’ ideology. There is another specific tendency which is closest to Naess’ own ideas, however.

Christian Ecology?

It is neither uncommon or new to find Christians referring to medieval spirituality as an antidote to modern utilitarian and instrumentalist conceptions of nature.[36] Christian ‘Creation’ provides its own ‘holistic’ vision in which all things great and small are valued, within a patriarchal hierarchy. Early Christian literature provides abundant stories of saints despairing of human sin, but finding companionship and willing obedience to holy authority among animals. Ideologically, the natural world was fully a part of the Church’s social hierarchy. Nature could be portrayed as more perfectly obedient than humans, who were cursed with a sinful propensity to resist class domination.[37] The Church did much to reconstitute class structures after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and was centrally concerned with the maintenance of patriarchal feudal power thereafter.

What is remarkable, from the point of view of Naess’ admiration for Hindu and Buddhist spirituality, are the wide range of stereotypical animal stories that medieval Western saints share with holy men from the Indian sub-continent.[38] I am not qualified to comment upon the origins of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in their ancient and medieval pasts. Nonetheless, it would be surprising if these religions were not found to be embedded in very broadly comparable class relations as can be found in the Western Christian middle ages. The comparison at least puts into some perspective the radical-ecological claims of ideas abstracted from eastern societies by western elite intellectuals.

The hierarchical nature of the orthodox Christian past has led others to suppose that it is in fact Christianity which is uniquely instrumentalist and domineering in regard to nature, and is at the root of Western society’s destructiveness. This is untenable in itself, since it requires the revival of a Weberian link between Christianity and capitalism’s metabolic rift. It also doesn’t explain the highly uneven advance into industrialisation of various Christian societies. It is striking even so that where Naess wants to blame Bacon and Descartes, others would blame Augustine and Aquinas. Some are now finding similar problems with Confucius.[39] It is surely only a matter of time before an ecocidal worldview is found in the Mahabharata.

The Lost Balance: A Celtic Ecology?

Many people seek for both the origins of our ecological problems and an ecologically sound solution in historical systems of ideas rather than in the material relations of economic development across the centuries. It remains an interesting symptom of capitalism’s alienating productive relations that alternatives are consistently sought in the imagined wholeness of another society. Thus, ‘Celtic’ culture is sometimes held up as a lost alternative to a problematic Western Christianity.[40] This approach, in a methodological move of the same type as Naess uses on Buddhism, reifies the literature of early Irish society and removes it from its context in the social relations of early medieval Ireland.

It is possible to see early medieval Irish stories of saints, for example, as evidence of a different kind of ecological ‘thinking’ than took place elsewhere in the Christian world. Early medieval Irish culture shows a difference not, however, because of a special feeling for nature that nearby cultures did not share, but because seventh and eighth-century Ireland was not a fully formed class society. It contained substantial inequalities of wealth and power, as well as complex status differentiations, but aristocratic property relations were weakly developed at best. Communal peasant structures and social power remained in existence, and this is reflected in the relationship of communities with their environment.

Naess saw a tendency for pre-industrial society to ‘anthropomorphise’ the natural, and this can be detected in Irish traditions of this period. While the Irish thus could be shoehorned into Naess’ conception of pre-industrial ‘deep ecological’ thinking, to do this would be to miss the point. Some Irish stories show a personification of animals, and other elements of the natural world, as dangerous but potentially helpful ‘Otherworldly’ forces, that is to say, fairies or elves. This element of culture reflects aspects of material reality. The delicacies of reciprocal exchange relations and other negotiations between largely autonomous peasant communities was the form in which interactions with other forces were understood. Peasant communities were very vulnerable to the sometimes destructive vagaries of the natural world, which could yet be enormously fruitful for them. Their sense of the possibility of controlling nature, and other people, and of the unpredictability of both, is projected outwards into the mythological realm of violently unpredictable underworld powers and the saints themselves.[41]

Naess’ seems blind to the material realities at the basis of historic ‘deep ecological’ attitudes (if so they can be characterised). Naess admits ‘there is “no way back” in general, but it is important to remember… that for a wide variety of stable cultures, our planet was a tremendously big, rich, eminently hospitable, and benign world.’[42] Benign? Neolithic subsistence peasants might not have agreed. However, the key issue is that material relations, within society and between humans and their environment, are what determine particular forms of ecological practice and awareness. It is not possible to overcome the problem of the ‘sacrifices’ Naess wants us to make by ‘increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life’ which is created ‘if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves’.[43] The structures of material life need to be changed if anything like this were to happen.

Conclusion: The Limits of Deep Ecology

We cannot solve the ecological problems of modern capitalism by appealing to the mental realm of a past society, certainly not when its conceptions are divorced from their material context. We cannot hypostatise a Buddhist ‘ecologism’ and attempt to apply it to the conditions of late capitalism any more than we could apply the ‘deep ecological’ thinking of Irish saints’ legends to our present problems.

Attention to the historical processes which produce certain types of reactions to nature provide some additional difficult questions for anyone who focuses on mentalities and ideas in isolation from their material context. Christianity’s most famous ‘nature’ saint was Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis, who died in 1226, preached to flocks of birds, wrote a canticle to the ‘Brother Sun’ and rescued lambs from the marketplace. For some, Saint Francis represents a remarkable mystical apprehension of nature which, if we learnt from it, could transform our relationship with our environment.[44] Many are struck by his habit of referring to animals and aspects of nature as ‘brother’, while few realise the importance of Francis’ dislike of ‘Brother Fly’, his euphemism for money.

In fact, this saint’s mentality was born of the ongoing transformation of a subsistence-based society to one where exchange relations (if not exactly capitalist exchange) were increasingly prominent. Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the most economically advanced area within western European feudalism. The Saint’s praise of a symbolic natural Creation was a reaction against an essentially urban social experience defined through money and markets. The latter appear as sources of sin, and non-human nature can be praised as separate from a fallen humanity and truer to God.[45] That is to say, Francis did not discover a real nature, or re-negotiate human ecological relations, he rejected human society as sinful, and sought a heavenly reflection of a sinless world in a symbolic nature.

There is a considerable qualitative difference between the complex commercial economy of a maturing feudal society, and an actually capitalist economy. Nonetheless, it is in such a context that the ultimate origin of capitalism’s metabolic rift lies. It was the apparent dominance of markets and money in Italy around 1200 which led to a kind of ‘deep ecology’ in the person of Saint Francis. His spirituality is not something we could learn from in order to achieve an ecological ‘self-realisation’. In fact his attitude was the product of, or a reaction to, the very problem we need to solve. Of course, consciousness is not a mere mechanical reflection of underlying structures. That consciousness can act upon its circumstances to transform them is at the heart of a revolutionary perspective. However such a consciousness must focus on material social relations in their historical unfolding.

The approach of ‘deep ecology’ leads away from such a focus, ultimately to a self-directed ‘spirituality’ that does not seek to transform the world materially. The most detailed impression of the practical contents of a life of ecological ‘self-realisation’ comes in the introduction to The Ecology of Wisdom. Here the editors describe Naess himself. After detailing the extent of his political and environmental activities, the astonishing range of his intellectual and scientific pursuits, and his contributions to ‘charitable organisations’, the passage culminates with the remark that ‘at ninety-two, he still cut wood for his stove with a handsaw and carried it home in his backpack.’[46]

‘Deep Ecology’ does have the appearance of a very radical and committed approach to the environmental crisis. Equally, Saint Francis’ rejection of his father’s mercantile life appeared as a sharp rebuke to the merchant elites of 13th century Italian towns. But the Franciscan Order was ultimately to be an institution of great value to the medieval ruling class, like so many monastic movements before it. New monastic orders typically began with an uncompromising commitment to ascetic values in contrast to the violence, greed and sin of existing society. Deep Ecology seems very reminiscent of these medieval movements, which comparison is not intended as insulting by any means. Deep Ecology does however, in my view, represent a dead end in terms of actually changing society, and developing an ecological economy that could really gain the support of humanity at large.

Deep Ecology can appear radical by claiming to represent a total rejection of existing society, but if this rejection can only be fulfilled by a few extraordinary people, or those with particular opportunities in existing economic structures, then it is not an alternative. Rather it is the creation of a new moral elite of ecological saints.


1. Arne Naess, The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess, eds. Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (Berkeley 2008), see for example pp. 100-2, 113 and 138, and compare to 141, #14-15.
3. ibid.
4.; for an important debate between Ted Benton and Paul Burkett on Marx and ecology see Historical Materialism 8 (2001).
5. Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 138.
6. The Ecology of Wisdom is only a selection of Naess’ ecological writings across his lifetime, but it is the selection that his editors judged to be representative of his thinking. The collection presumably thus reflects the priorities and emphases that seem most important to ecologists on the part of these guardians of his legacy.
7. Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 100.
8. ibid. p. 169.
9. See George Monbiot,, and the Dark Mountain response,; also see
10. See for example, the Foundation for Deep Ecology,
11. For example, Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 169.
12. ibid. pp. 92-4, but crucially for his system see ‘The World of Concrete Contents’, pp. 70-80.
13. ibid. p. 101.
14. It may be that he is thinking of a sector like the subsidised family farms of Norway, ibid. pp. 287-8, although one wonders how far such a sector could be expanded to absorb all the fishermen and loggers without becoming ecologically problematic in its own right.
15. ibid. p. 102.
16. ibid. p. 102.
17. ibid. p. 100.
18. ibid. p. 128.
19. Naess’ chief inspiration was the system of the 17th century philosopher Spinoza; ibid. pp. 230-79.
20. The provincial government of Newfoundland did the same between the 1950s and the 1970s;
21. Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 87.
22. Karl Marx, Capital (Moscow 1961), Vol. I, pp. 60-7, 71-2 in particular.
23. On his idealist methodology see Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, pp. 77-80 for example.
24. ibid. p. 91.
25. ibid. p. 288.
26. ibid. pp. 195-203, and pp. 257-9, pp. 270-272.
27. ibid. p. 141.
28. Brian Graham, ‘UK air travel: taking off for growth?’ in Traffic Jam: Ten Years of ‘Sustainable’ Transport in the UK, eds. Iain Docherty and Jon Shaw (Bristol 2008), pp. 139-160; p. 143.
29. Michael D. Coe, The Maya (fifth edition, London 1993), pp. 127-8.
30. Neil Faulkner, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Stroud, Glos. 2000), p. 203.
31. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York 2000), p. 237.
32. Of course, places like Nepal were losing their ecological credentials in Naess’ eyes, Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 282.
33. ibid. pp. 282-3.
34. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, pp. 141-58, 163-4, and especially 167-9.
35. ibid. p. 221.
36. For a characteristic example of the later 20th century, see Rosalind Hill, Both Small and Great Beasts (London 1953).
37. See Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2008), pp. 38-57.
38. See R. S. Loomis, White Magic: An introduction to the Folklore of Christian Legend (Cambridge Mass. 1948), pp. 8-14.
39. See Kerry Brown, review of Jonathan Watts, When a Billion Chinese Jump (Faber and Faber 2010), Times Higher Education 8th July 2010, pp. 48-9: ‘Confucianism set the template for this mindset’ of Chinese ecological carelessness.
40. See for example, Mary Low, ‘The natural world in early Irish Christianity: an ecological footnote’, in Celts and Christians, ed. Mark Atherton (Cardiff 2002), pp. 169-203.
41. Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, pp. 57-84.
42. Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 290.
43. ibid. p. 93.
44. See Roger D. Sorrell, Saint Francis and Nature; Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes to the Environment (Oxford 1988).
45. Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, pp. 169-80.
46. Naess, Ecology of Wisdom, p. 12.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).