A Deeper Shade of Green

By Kari McGregor

Ecology and spirituality are fundamentally connected, because deep ecological awareness, ultimately, is spiritual awareness.

Fritjof Capra

Environmentalism – once radical and ecocentric – has mainstreamed itself into a movement of eco-pragmatists. Discourse is diluted to a paler shade of green that fits safely within the parameters of a consumption-oriented growth economy, and we chip away at the symptoms of our ecological crisis while the root remains intact.

As the movement pulls resources toward its centre of gravity the fringes are frozen out and alternative perspectives get lost. More radical perspectives are treated with disdain, and the worldviews underpinning them are not taken seriously – instead often denigrated as extremist.

But to be radical means to address an issue at its root, and it is only when we take stock of root causes that we are adequately positioned to respond to our crisis.

Biased by an anthropocentric worldview, the mainstream environment movement – albeit unconsciously – holds humans to be rightfully ‘in charge’, responsible for curating and apportioning the natural world according to human need and desire. Nature is viewed primarily as a collection of resources whose value depends on their utility to humans. This worldview poses no challenge to a materialistic, consumption-oriented growth economy, and thus is impotent in resolving our predicament. Mainstream environmentalism has become business as usual with a light green veneer.

A deeper kind of inquiry is needed, and it involves tuning in to the natural world, reconnecting with our place in the web of life, and realising that separateness is just an illusion.

Deep ecology

Deep ecology, a school of thought whose name was coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, distinguishes between deep and shallow ecological thinking. Naess believed that if people were to understand the complexity of nature then we would come to appreciate the intrinsic value of biological diversity. This, he hoped, would provide a more solid framework for conservation of the biosphere than the utilitarian, pragmatic thinking of the mainstream.

For decades western environmentalists have effectively raised awareness of the various environmental issues of their time, but they have failed to address the underlying cultural and philosophical roots of the problem. Naess argued that a failure to acknowledge and unpack the presumptions and attitudes underpinning the developed western world – the same presumptions and attitudes that had led to our environmental crisis – was holding the environment movement back.

Although today’s Deep Green activists have earned themselves a reputation for being the new radicals of the environment movement – thanks to their commitment to deep ecological sustainability and pulling our destructive system up at the roots – it is their ecocentric worldview that defines their shade of green as deep. For Deep Greens, it is the notion that humans are superior to or separate from the web of life that seems extreme. The reality that we are equal and interdependent underlies Deep Greens’ fierce protectiveness of the sanctity of nature, and their willingness to take direct action to preserve it.

Deep Greens don’t aim to tweak at the system; they aim to undermine it, disrupt it, and facilitate its eventual transformation.

Giving shape to the concept of deep ecological sustainability are three simple ethical propositions:

  1. Preservation of wilderness
  2. Human population stabilisation
  3. One-planet living

Preservation of wilderness

Humans dominate the Earth to an extent few are really aware of. Biodiversity is diminishing, and our extinction crisis is in no small part down to our clearing of ever more wilderness to further develop the human enterprise. If survival of any part of the web of life is dependent upon the whole, then we are playing a dangerous game.

Deep ecology holds that the all life – human and nonhuman – holds intrinsic value, independent of any utility for human purposes. As the richness and diversity of life are integral to the flourishing of the biosphere as a whole, it is only acceptable to disturb nature to the extent necessary to satisfy vital needs.

Allowing the natural world to slip from the perceived grasp of human control and re-wild itself requires surrender to the reality that we do not have ultimate control. Author and activist Derrick Jensen advocates for this ecocentric approach, arguing that we will need to relinquish our perceived position as superior to nature, and recognize ourselves as simply a part of it.

Jensen invites us to tune in to nature’s frequency – to observe and listen to what the natural world is telling us. Most westerners interpret the idea of listening to nature as just a metaphor, but Jensen insists that it is literal, making reference to indigenous cultures whose way of life is in tune with their landbase, who understand the world as a network of living beings with whom we can enter into a relationship. It is therefore within reach for us to genuinely commune with nature, and not just take from it.

Human population stabilization

At present, human interference with the nonhuman world is placing such strain on the environment that many bioregions are stretched to breaking point, and four of nine planetary boundaries have been breached. For nonhuman life to have the space to flourish, a substantial decrease in human population is needed so that we are not out-competing other species in the struggle for survival.

Deep ecological thinker and author Daniel Quinn – best known for his novel Ishmael – warns of population overshoot thanks to agricultural productivity. This agricultural productivity then stimulates further population growth, in turn stimulating the need for further agricultural production, hence domination of more of the Earth’s surface to sustain the human population. He refers to this as totalitarian agriculture, and suggests that we are destined for a human population crash as a result of overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Whether or not Quinn is right is less important than whether we choose to mitigate for a potential crash, or come to regret our complacency when we discover how far we have overshot – the hard way. It makes no sense to just wait and see if the consequences are as dire as predicted.

Arguably population politics should be less a matter of squeezing as many humans as possible onto an inarguably finite planet, and more a matter of pinpointing the factors that encourage humans to reproduce at replacement rate only – such as equitable wealth distribution and women’s sovereign reproductive rights and economic emancipation.

One-planet living

Derrick Jensen calls out some of the values most championed by the dominant global culture, including technological development, economic growth, and the inevitability of progress. If we are to rein in the human enterprise to the scale of a single planet we will have to make some sacrifices. One-planet living requires changes at both the personal and policy level that will affect economic, technological and ideological structures.

The ideological change required is primarily concerned with appreciating quality of life, rather than adhering to a pathway of linear development with the expectation of increasingly higher standards of living. The embrace of a simpler life – along with its benefits of more time for family, community, creativity and leisure – renders technological downshifting and economic degrowth a politically simpler task.

Because environmental degradation is gradual, the point at which we ought to respond to the crisis is indiscernible; so we accept the creeping normality of escalating degradation like boiling frogs, never quite convinced that now is the time to respond. One planet living is a purposeful way of life that is not directly tied to a crisis or a particular trigger point, and whose enactment is gradual, scalable, and immediately tangible.

Deeper, towards the root

Daniel Quinn argues that the term ‘environmentalism’ itself presents a false dichotomy – as though we are somehow separate from the environment. He labels the notion that humans are separate from and superior to nature as “the most dangerous idea in existence” – dangerous because it renders us ignorant to the effects of increased human population, consumption and domination on the rest of the web of life.

The notion that we are separate from the rest of the natural world is only one of the many stories of the dominant global culture that keep us on our current pathway. Some of the most powerful stories that underpin our way of life include the myth of human dominion over nature, the notion that there is one ‘right way’ to live, and the belief that humans are innately flawed.

Deepening our shade of green means coming to terms with the history of humankind: how we came to be a dominant force ushering in a new era – the anthropocene – from our humble origins among the countless other species that make up the web of life. Our desire for security and comfort has led us to pad our nests to the extent that we are oblivious to our connection to nature, and in denial of our own fragility when left to the mercy of the elements.

But we are not exempt from the forces that shape nature, and we are not in control. Surrendering to our own uniquely human niche in the web of life is at once humbling and liberating, and is the beginning of our return journey toward harmony.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Endgame, by Derrick Jensen
  • The Culture of Make Believe, by Derrick Jensen
  • Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
  • Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
  • The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra


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