What Is Deep Ecology? Philosophy, Principles, and Criticism

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Deep ecology, a movement initiated by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss in 1972, posits two main ideas. The first is that there must be a shift away from human-centered anthropocentrism to ecocentrism in which every living thing is seen as having inherent value regardless of its utility. Second, that humans are part of nature rather than superior and apart from it, and therefore must protect all life on Earth as they would protect their family or self. 

Although it built on the ideas and values of earlier eras of environmentalism, deep ecology had a significant influence on the larger movement, emphasizing philosophical and ethical dimensions. Along the way, deep ecology gained its share of critics as well, but its fundamental premises remain relevant and thought-provoking today in this era of dual biodiversity and climate crises. 

The Founding of Deep Ecology

Arne Næss already had a long and distinguished career as a professor of philosophy in Norway before concentrating his intellectual energies on an emerging vision that would become the philosophy of deep ecology.

Previously, Næss’s academic work explored relationships between people and larger social and natural systems—a holistic conception that Næss credits in part to the 17th century Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, an Enlightenment thinker who explored the presence of God throughout nature. Næss also drew inspiration from the Indian human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi and from Buddhist teachings. Næss was a longtime supporter of human rights, the women’s movement, and the peace movement, all of which informed his ecological philosophy and its evolution. 

Perhaps Næss never would have been drawn to the intersection of ecology and philosophy at all if it hadn’t been for his love of the mountains. He spent significant portions of his life in the Hallingskarvet range of southern Norway, marveling at their vastness and power, and contemplating Earth’s intricate systems. An accomplished mountaineer, he also led many climbing expeditions, including the first to reach the summit of Pakistan’s Tirich Mir in 1950. 

In 1971, Næss joined two other Norwegians on what they called an “anti-expedition” to Nepal, in part to support local Sherpas protecting the sacred mountain Tseringma from mountaineer tourism. According to the philosopher Andrew Brennan, this was the moment in which Næss experienced a breakthrough that led to a new environmental philosophy, or, as Næss referred to it, “ecosophy.” 

The influences of earlier environmental advocates and philosophies are apparent in Næss’s work. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold all contributed to the ideal of a non-human-centered world, the importance of preserving nature for its own sake, and an emphasis on a return to a perceived simpler way of life, less dependent on material things that contribute to pollution and destruction of nature.

But for Næss, the crucial inspiration for deep ecology was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” for its emphasis on urgent, transformational change to stem the tide of planetary destruction. Carson’s book provided an important impetus for the advent of modern environmentalism that sought limits on the rampant destruction of the Earth’s systems, particularly those posed by intensive agriculture and other industrial technologies. Her works drew clear scientific connections between human well-being and ecosystem health, and this resonated with Næss. 

Principles of Deep Ecology

Næss conceived of two types of environmentalism. One he called the “shallow ecology movement.” This movement, he said, “is concerned with fighting against pollution and resource depletion,” but with its central objective “the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.”

Shallow ecology looked to technological fixes like recycling, innovations in intensive agriculture, and increased energy efficiency—all capable of significant impacts, but not, in Næss’s view, capable of reversing the damage that industrial systems were doing to the planet. Only by deeply questioning these systems and pursuing a complete transformation of the ways people interacted with the natural world could humans achieve just, long-term protection of ecological systems.

The other environmentalism Næss called the “long-range deep ecology movement,” a deep questioning of the causes of environmental destruction and a reimagining of human systems based on values that preserve ecological diversity and the cultural diversity they supported. Deep ecology, Næss wrote, involved an “ecological egalitarianism” in which all life on Earth had a right to exist and thrive, and assumed an “anti-class posture.” It, too, was concerned with pollution and resource depletion, but also wary of unintended social consequences, such as pollution controls causing a price rise on basic goods, thus reinforcing class differences and inequalities. 

In 1984, a little over a decade after the introduction of deep ecology, Næss and American philosopher and environmentalist George Sessions, a Spinoza scholar, went on a camping trip to Death Valley. There in the Mojave Desert, they revised Næss’s earlier articulated principles of deep ecology into a concise platform that emphasized even more than previous iterations the value of all life on Earth. They hoped this new version would achieve universal relevance and galvanize a movement.

These are the eight principles as they were published the following year by Sessions and sociologist Bill Devall in the book "Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered." 

  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 in 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, and ideological 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 Movement

As a philosophy, deep ecology asserts that there are no boundaries between self and other; therefore, all living things are interrelated parts of a larger self. As a movement, the Deep Ecology Platform provides a framework that has inspired adherents all over the world. 

However, Næss also emphasized that supporters of deep ecology weren’t obligated to follow a strict doctrine, but could find their own ways to apply the principles within their lives and communities. Næss wanted the deep ecology movement to appeal to diverse religious, cultural, sociological, and personal backgrounds who could come together and embrace certain broad principles and courses of action. 

While this open, inclusive approach made it easy for many people to connect with the principles of deep ecology, critics have faulted the platform for lacking a strategic plan and being so intentionally broad and ambiguous that it failed to achieve a cohesive movement. This, they say, made deep ecology vulnerable to co-optation by an ideologically diverse array of groups and individuals that used extremist and sometimes xenophobic arguments and tactics about how best to reverse human damage to the planet. 


By the late 1980s, deep ecology had attracted both a popular following and a number of critics. One group that brought both energy and scrutiny to deep ecology was Earth First!, a radical, decentralized resistance movement born in 1979 out of frustration with the ineffectiveness of mainstream environmentalism and a passionate dedication to protecting wild places. Earth First! practiced effective civil disobedience actions such as tree-sitting and road blockades, and occupation of logging sites to protect old-growth forests. 

But some Earth First! campaigns also employed more aggressive tactics, including acts of sabotage, such as tree spiking to stop logging and other forms of environmental destruction.

Another controversial environmental organization called the Earth Liberation Front, whose loosely affiliated members have conducted sabotage, including arson, in support of environmental protection also supports principles of deep ecology. The tactics of some activists associated with these groups provided fuel for anti-environmental politicians and organizations to denounce them along with deep ecology, though there was never absolute alignment between the deep ecology movement and any single group.

Should Ecocentrism Be the Goal?

Another critique of deep ecology came from scholars and adherents of social ecology. Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology, persistently rejected deep ecology’s biocentric orientation that regards humans as an outsized threat to non-human life on the planet. Bookchin, among others, considered this a misanthropic view. He and other social ecology supporters maintained that it is capitalism and class differences, not human beings categorically, that pose the fundamental threat to the planet. Thus, mitigating the ecological crisis requires a transformation of class-based, hierarchical, patriarchal societies from which environmental destruction stems.

Other prominent critics also question deep ecology’s vision of pristine wilderness, challenging this as utopian and even undesirable. Some consider it a western, preservationist perspective harmful to the poor, the marginalized, and to Indigenous peoples and others whose material and cultural survival is closely tied to the land.

In 1989, the Indian historian and ecologist Ramachandra Guha published an influential critique of deep ecology in the journal Environmental Ethics. In it, he analyzed the role of deep ecology in shifting U.S. wilderness advocacy in particular toward a more radical platform and scrutinized its misappropriation of Eastern religious traditions.

Guha argued that this misappropriation had arisen in part from a desire to present deep ecology as universal when it was in fact distinctly western, with notably imperialist qualities. He warned of the potential damage associated with applying the ideology of wilderness preservation in developing countries without considering the impacts particularly on poor people who directly depended on the environment for subsistence.

Similarly, ecofeminist critics of deep ecology have raised concerns about deep ecology’s emphasis on setting aside pristine wilderness, which they contend may lead to social injustice, including displacement, for women and other groups with less decision-making power. Ecofeminism, which arose as a roughly contemporaneous movement in the 1970s, draws connections between the exploitation, commodification, and degradation of nature and that of women in a patriarchal society, according to the scholar Mary Mellor in her 1998 book “Feminism and Ecology.”

Although the two movements have much in common, ecofeminists have criticized deep ecology for failing to make explicit connections between men’s domination of nature and domination of women and other marginalized groups, and how gender inequality contributes to environmental destruction. 

Unintended Consequences

Deep ecology also sparked controversy for its call to substantially decrease the global population to address humanity’s voracious natural resource consumption, which damages the environment and leads to social inequality, conflict, and human suffering. This raised concerns about the potential for human rights abuses if draconian controls like forced abortion and sterilization were imposed to reduce global population. The deep ecology platform itself did not endorse such extreme measures; Næss emphatically pointed to the first principle of deep ecology—respect for all life—as evidence of this. But the call for population control was a lightning rod. 

Earth First! drew ire in the 1980s for publishing (though not necessarily endorsing) arguments suggesting that famine and disease could be effective at reducing the global population. Bookchin and others publicly denounced such views as eco-fascism. In addition, Bookchin and others forcefully countered xenophobic arguments by Edward Abbey, celebrated nature writer and author of “The Monkeywrench Gang,” that Latin American immigration to the United States posed environmental threats. 

In the 2019 book “The Far Right and the Environment,” social ecology scholar Blair Taylor described how overpopulation and immigration from the global south have long been anxieties of right-wing extremists as well. Over time, he wrote, some from the so-called alternative right have come to embrace deep ecology and other environmental ideologies to justify xenophobia and white supremacy. 

Environmentalism has become a more prominent theme in right-wing immigration rhetoric. A recent Arizona lawsuit advocates for a more restrictive immigration policy, claiming the immigrant population is contributing to climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. And an analysis of far-right parties in Europe identified an emerging discourse that blames immigration for environmental damage rather than wealthy industrialized nations that are by far the largest contributors to the current ecological crisis. 

None of these ideas are part of the deep ecology platform. Indeed, in a 2019 article for The Conversation, University of Michigan historian and author Alexandra Minna Stern traced ecofascism to the early 20th century, described the long history of white anxieties about overpopulation and immigration, and wrote how right-wing extremists have tried to assert environmental protection as the exclusive domain of white men. “Jettisoning Næss’ belief in the value of biological diversity,” she wrote, “far-right thinkers have perverted deep ecology, imagining that the world is intrinsically unequal and that racial and gender hierarchies are part of nature’s design.” 

In Stern’s recent book, "Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate," she explains how a white nationalist version of deep ecology has served as inspiration for violence, including the 2019 shootings at two New Zealand mosques and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Both shooters referenced environmental concerns in justifying their murderous rampages. “Their crusade to save white people from erasure through multiculturalism and immigration mirrors their crusade to preserve nature from environmental destruction and overpopulation,” Stern explained in The Conversation. 

The Legacy of Deep Ecology

Do the criticisms and shortcomings of deep ecology mean that it has run its course and failed as a movement?

It has certainly failed to avoid unintended consequences and interpretations. But at a moment when humanity faces unprecedented impacts of unchecked resource exploitation and ecosystem degradation, there is undoubtedly value in urging people to deeply question existing beliefs and confront the drastic changes necessary to sustain life as we know it on the planet. 

By calling for a reorientation of humanity’s relationship with other living beings and systems, deep ecology has had an enduring influence on the environmental movement. In the five decades since Arne Næss coined the term and initiated a movement, both adherents and critics of deep ecology have contributed to a more inclusive, expansive understanding of what it would mean for humanity to truly respect all life on Earth and achieve just solutions to our current environmental crises. The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Key Takeaways

  • Deep ecology is a philosophy and a movement initiated by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss in 1972 that profoundly influenced the larger environmental movement, particularly in the latter 20th century.
  • It argues for a shift toward a philosophy of ecocentrism in which every living thing has inherent value, and asserts that humans are part of nature rather than superior and separate from it.
  • Critics have by turns faulted the deep ecology platform for being utopian, exclusive, and overly broad, making it vulnerable to co-optation by a diverse array of groups and individuals, some of whom have made extremist and sometimes xenophobic arguments about how best to protect the environment.
  • Despite criticisms and unintended consequences, deep ecology's call for a transformation of our relationship with nature remains relevant as the world confronts unprecedented environmental challenges.
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