Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Deep Ecology: Like a Norse deity wielding Mjöllnir to the face of modern life

Mjölnir the hammer of the Thunder God Thor is depicted in Norse mythology as one of the most fearsome of weapons, capable of levelling mountains. I find this appropriate because deep ecology created by the late Arne Naess is both an overwhelming attack on modern thinking that is born from deep historical and indeed mountainous roots and widely discredited in academic circles at the same time!

Arne Naess was a classical philosopher of the most stringent kind. He studied philosophy at Oslo, and then went on to do postgraduate work at Paris then Vienna. He joined the famous Vienna circle and even underwent psychoanalysis with one of Freud’s associates.

(Arnie Naess as most people knew him)

His postgraduate work “Knowledge and Scientific Behaviour,” was pure and complete analytical philosophy, grounded in the logical positivist school of thought (there is one right answer about a given question, and science (and only science!) is, in theory, capable of finding it out). He then went on to do important work on language and interpretation using set theory (a framework originally developed in mathematics to help answer questions about infinity) and founded the well respected philosophical journal Inquiry.

Deep ecology began as a personal philosophy that was never intended to be published. It was called ecosophy T, the T standing for the Tvergastein Mountain. The mountain overshadowed a small family hut that Naess liked to retreat to in order to write his works. It was originally a deeply personal affair, the growing awareness within Naess that scientific evidence, even in ecological science, could not provide the information for how we as humans should live. Naess had begun to slowly unravel his logical positivism, for when he looked within himself he found that his ethics were not based on these ideals. Rather it was his own subjective relationship with nature, including human, animal, plant and environment that informed his ethics and feelings of personal worth.

Naess went on to promote a philosophy that fundamentally attacks the dominant Western worldview, the idea that man is at the centre of creation. Even more than this he rejected the idea that we should have a human centric worldview just because of our natural human perspective. He created a philosophy that stressed inclusion, awareness, empathy and connectivity to all of nature.

It did not take him long to realise that he had reinvented the wheel! Although Naess had little contact with Eastern religion and philosophy the seeds were in place. His philosophy of personal resistance was inspired by Ghandi and hence he had contact with the principles of Ahimsa (non violence) and was inspired by close Buddhist friends. The unique contribution of Naess was to introduce these ideas and concepts to the rigorous western philosophical community in appropriate form. For which he was met with rejection and ridicule.

Naess was a philosopher of considerable reputation. He literally wrote the textbook on Communication and Argument in German. The man was the only professional philosopher working in Norway for nearly 20 years! He wrote over 30 books and single handled powered Norway’s philosophy teaching and research. The question arising is how could theories put together by such an eminent philosopher attract so much scorn and disbelief?

To answer we must look at his transition. By the time his deep ecology had been published, his views had evolved to become so different to the aggressive domineering attitude of analytic philosophers that he did not even fight them.

His philosophy was attacked by Social Ecologist Murrary Bookchin, calling his philosophy ‘eco la la’, claiming the attitude came from mostly male, white, academics, its concerns were new age occultism (and paganism) whilst also being a quasi-fascist Aryan movement. If Bookchin had actually read Naess’s early work Communication and Argument he would have found that these declarations alone would have broken 3 of Naess six rules on logical debate (Avoid tendentious; ambiguity, statements of fact and tone of presentation). Naess was more than capable of pulling this belligerent American apart, but never wrote a response.

At the same time environmental activitsts got the wrong end of the stick (as normal) when Earth First used Naess philosophy (one of peace, harmony and non violence) to justify violent action, green Luddism and campaigns to support forced sterilisation and food aid reduction in Africa.

Naess was horrified by these claims and worked hard to demonstrate the ethics of his position did not endorse such behaviour. Naess went on to do huge amounts of social work, public talking and environmental activism. Yet he never gave detailed analytical responses to his critics. Deep ecology or ecosophy T as Naess knew it was not a logical position to be analysed in detail, but a metaphilosophy to guide one’s actions and thoughts, to improve one’s life and live it more fully, indeed more completely part of nature.

Næss was appreciated, even in old age, for his exuberant, frolicsome manner. He lived and breathed his own work, taking on personal values and incorporating them into an emergent worldview. He loved to climb mountains and even published work on the ethics of mountain climbing!

He believed awareness of deep ecology was present in us all; as such he had no real blueprint for his followers. He set each one out to discover a personal worldview; in essence Ecosophy T was Ecosophy X. In each person was the capability to find their own relationship with the world through expanded awareness. He lamented the attenuation of such awareness later life through loss of contact with animals, plants and significant places.

I feel that his challenges have gone unanswered; his statements about global change and degradation incisive, his personal approach to a life philosophy free from religious overtones was visionary and that his critics have much to answer for! I will be writing a few further articles examining parts of his work in detail.

(and in his true form!)

I am also stealing this concluding quote straight from Jim Cocola on the website N+1 because I think it sums up so much about Naess’s work in a single sentence:

‘Ecosophy T...mixture one part Buddhism and one part Hinduism, one part Gandhi and one part Spinoza, one part Carnap and one part Heidegger, that strange brew finally has its roots in friluftsliv, the outdoor way of life that Norwegians revere.’

Naess is no longer with us, but his tradition is as old as humanity itself. Since the first Vedic holy man looked upon the sun and bowed, trying to place his mind outside of himself and connect to his environment, we have looked to integrate our lives with our surroundings, and a few grumpy old philosophy professors won’t stop us!

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