The modern environmental movement, after decades of struggle, appears further than ever from its goal of preserving a healthy and livable planet. Millions have joined the international environmental movement since its seminal campaigns in the 1960s against the overuse of DDT and other pesticides. However, human impacts on the planet, from greenhouse gas emissions to deforestation, have become ever more damaging since then, making “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” all but inevitable (IPCC). Environmentalists have long debated how best to promote beliefs conducive to treating the environment appropriately, along with the more fundamental question of what constitutes appropriate treatment.
The work of the twentieth-century Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss addresses both questions. He distinguished two paradigms he called “shallow” and “deep ecology,” primarily on the basis of a fundamental division in environmental ethics between biocentrism, the view that non-human life deserves moral consideration, and anthropocentrism, the restriction of moral value primarily or exclusively to humans (“Environmental Ethics”). In a 1986 paper, Næss defined “deep ecology” as a group of philosophical positions adhering to a platform of eight fundamental principles (Næss 67). The first and most indicative of these principles is the rejection of anthropocentrism: “The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves […] independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes (68).” The remaining principles hold that biodiversity has intrinsic value; that only the “vital needs” of humans outweigh non-human value; that human populations must be reduced; and that we have an obligation to implement radical changes to human ideologies and economies, de-emphasizing consumerist ideals, to reduce our excessive interference with the non-human world. Næss argues that promoting a deep ecological ethic is advantageous even for “shallow” ecologists, writing that “conservation strategies are more eagerly implemented by people who love what they are conserving, and are convinced that it is intrinsically lovable” (67). Deep ecology is naturally attractive to biocentrists, but this argument extends its appeal, at least as a tactical tool, to anthropocentric environmentalists.
He [Næss] distinguished two paradigms he called “shallow” and “deep ecology,” primarily on the basis of a fundamental division in environmental ethics between biocentrism, the view that non-human life deserves moral consideration, and anthropocentrism, the restriction of moral value primarily or exclusively to humans (“Environmental Ethics”).
Books written for the general public on “green” topics could be a vehicle for proselytizing deep ecology. One of the first and most influential popular environmental books was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (published in 1962, over two decades before Næss’s paper), which warned that the widespread use of toxic chemicals like DDT endangered human health and threatened the birds and wildflowers “that most charm and fascinate all [humans] who are aware of them” (111). Silent Spring, as Al Gore wrote in a 1994 introduction, launched the modern popular environmental movement and succeeded in restricting the use of certain pesticides (xix). Over 40 years later, maverick climate scientist James Lovelock published The Revenge of Gaia (2006), describing the threats to human civilization posed by global climate change. Lovelock—famous for arguing that the entire global ecosystem should be considered as a single living “superorganism” called Gaia—writes that “our concern for Gaia must come first, because the welfare of the burgeoning masses of humanity demands a healthy planet” (1). Carson and Lovelock use different ethical frameworks: Carson usually appeals directly to anthropocentrism, while Lovelock employs “cynical anthropocentrism,” advocating biocentrism as a means to higher-level anthropocentric ends. These frameworks have different rhetorical strengths and weaknesses. According to Næss, environmentalists like Carson and Lovelock cannot fully realize their goals unless they commit to deep ecological ideas (66). I will argue that Lovelock’s criticism of Carson, on grounds similar to Næss’s, overlooks some of her most important accomplishments in legitimizing a deep ecological ethic, while Lovelock’s own endorsement of deep ecology would benefit from some of the strategies he overlooks.
Næss argues that promoting a deep ecological ethic is advantageous even for “shallow” ecologists, writing that “conservation strategies are more eagerly implemented by people who love what they are conserving, and are convinced that it is intrinsically lovable” (67).
In Silent Spring, Carson writes of her “deep love for the beauty” (70) of nature, and endorses several of the points which Næss later incorporated into his deep ecology platform. She praises biodiversity, admiring the natural “variety” of birds and plant communities (2,10), and criticizes excessive human interference, particularly “reckless large-scale treatment” with chemicals to kill pest insects or weeds (156). Nevertheless, Silent Spring pointedly avoids relying on biocentric arguments. Two of Carson’s main points, that chemical use endangers human health (chapters 11-14) and is inefficient or counterproductive (chapters 15-16), are exclusively anthropocentric. Even when mourning the direct damage wreaked on nature by pesticide overuse, Carson grounds her arguments in “the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes” (Næss 68), even if she has to extend the definition of “human purposes” to do so. In one example, Carson describes as “pitiful” the corpses of birds killed by spraying, but is careful not to claim that the animals are morally important in their own right. Instead, she appeals to human goods (127): “Who has the right to decide for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world […] ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?” Carson conjures up these “legions” of bird lovers to avoid having to appeal directly to the value of bird populations. But humans’ interest in seeing birds seems to be a minor quality-of-life issue, while the birds’ right to escape an agonizing death would be among the strongest moral claims they could make, if they could make any. To achieve her goals, Carson chooses to seek to broaden conventional ideas about what constitutes a human good. Accordingly, Carson’s arguments for biodiversity and against excessive human interference rest on various human interests. Preserving biodiversity promotes natural pest control by “checks and balances” (10), widespread spraying poses secondary risks to food and livestock (156), and both affect humans’ right to enjoy the aesthetic value of nature (72). Eradicating wildlife, Carson shows, is problematic even anthropocentrically: think of “the bird watcher, the suburbanite who derives joy from birds in his garden, the hunter, the fisherman” (86). In exchange for the broad persuasiveness this approach grants, Carson’s concession that human interests trump others prevents her from advocating a radical restructuring of agriculture or civilization. The “other road” Carson advocates in Silent Spring’s final chapter to supplant conventional chemical use recommends a wide range of more nature-friendly biological pest controls, but never questions the premise that industrial monoculture farming can somehow be practiced “in harmony with its surroundings” (1). In Næss’s terms, the environmentalism Silent Spring propounds is “shallow.”
According to Næss, this is a problem for Carson’s argument; he claims that “even the more modest aims of shallow environmentalism have a need for deep ecology” (66). James Lovelock, in his 2006 book on climate change, articulates this or a similar critique while discussing Carson and the mainstream “green” political movement. Lovelock minimizes Carson’s concerns by characterizing her as merely “bothered” (108) by pesticides, arguing that, with the “danger of [human] extinction” (109) looming, there are more important factors to consider. Lovelock describes the damage wreaked by unchecked human exploitation and emissions on the global environment, showing that this is the outcome of the unquestioned “dogma” of “unceasing economic growth” (78), and warns of the resulting dangers of anthropocentric climate change. Lovelock criticizes the green movement for failing to do enough to stop this “imminent danger” (105), describing how the movement promotes so-called “sustainable development” without challenging the “belief that further development is possible” (3). Green politicians, and by extension Carson, do not question the system deeply enough for Lovelock. As Lovelock presents it, the ironic failure of human-centered environmentalism to forestall an existential threat to humanity illustrates Arne Næss’s anti-anthropocentric warning that “arguing solely from the point of view of narrow human interests” risks sacrificing “the objectives of deeper argument” (Næss 75). While Silent Spring succeeded in restricting the use of several chemicals, it implicitly endorsed land use and resource extraction practices which, Lovelock shows, have produced even greater problems. Næss maintains that this conservatism is precisely the problem with “shallow” environmentalism: it lacks deep ecology’s radical “willingness to question […] every political and economic policy” (75).
As Lovelock presents it, the ironic failure of human-centered environmentalism to forestall an existential threat to humanity illustrates Arne Næss’s anti-anthropocentric warning that “arguing solely from the point of view of narrow human interests” risks sacrificing “the objectives of deeper argument” (Næss 75)
This critique is not entirely fair insofar as it addresses Carson, who was writing several decades before Næss at a time when, as Gore puts it, “‘environment’ was not even an entry in the dictionary of public policy” (xv). When Carson “put [this] issue on the national agenda” in the face of powerful opposition (xix), she made caring for nature seem respectable, creating space in public discourse to challenge the orthodoxy of “man’s dominion over nature” (xvii). This revolutionary accomplishment allowed for greater discussion and acceptance of the ideas underlying deep ecology, the ideas that Næss argues are ultimately necessary. The environmental challenges Carson faced were less extreme, endangering individuals and species rather than the entire biosphere, and as a result radical positions like Næss’s were less attractive. Nonetheless, Carson herself does “plant the seeds” for biocentric ideas in two ways. First, she makes pragmatic arguments which promote a more positive, collaborative relationship with nature. She recommends a range of practical techniques, such as encouraging beneficial insect populations, which replace chemical spraying by “cautiously seeking to guide” an array of “natural relations” and “life forces” (296), using ecology to achieve better outcomes for humans and the environment alike. In doing so, she begins the process of persuading skeptics to show at least attention and care, if not love, toward the environment. As Næss himself acknowledges, this kind of detailed pragmatism is a necessary complement to rhetorical environmentalist slogans like “‘nature knows best’” (76). Second, and more subtly, Carson’s expansive definition of human interests (as in her defense of avian victims of spraying) functions implicitly to validate and encourage deeper forms of environmentalism. In taking for granted that “countless legions of people” (127) have a serious interest in admiring birds, Carson legitimizes this interest, reassuring her readers that love for nature is indeed a “valid point of view” (86). Given the unsympathetic orthodoxy of her time, establishing a collaborative relationship with nature and validating concern for nonhumans are valuable contributions to the environmental movement.
When Carson “put [this] issue on the national agenda” in the face of powerful opposition (xix), she made caring for nature seem respectable, creating space in public discourse to challenge the orthodoxy of “man’s dominion over nature” (xvii).
Given the unsympathetic orthodoxy of her time, establishing a collaborative relationship with nature and validating concern for nonhumans are valuable contributions to the environmental movement.
Whatever the contemporary merits of Carson’s strategy in the 1960s, however, Lovelock shows that the current environmental situation is such that continuing “business as usual” today is a recipe for “global disaster” (135). To tackle this, Lovelock follows Næss’s advice to use deep ecological ideas to augment the effectiveness of mainstream environmentalism. Lovelock explicitly tells us that he is “moved by the ideas of deep ecology” (142), and praises deep ecologists for recognizing “the magnitude of the change of mind needed to bring us back into peace with Gaia, the living Earth” (154). Correspondingly, The Revenge of Gaia adheres closely to Næss’s deep ecology platform. Lovelock opens with the assertion that “our concern for [a healthy Earth] must come first” (1), and later condemns “the false belief that we own the Earth” (135), endorsing Næss’s biocentric idea of natural value that outranks human utility. Getting down to specifics, Lovelock argues for a greatly reduced “population of half to one billion,” (141) for leaving vast areas of land “without interference or management,” (133) and for a shift in cultural values on the order of “a new Sermon on the Mount” (137). He even calls openly for “love and empathy for nature” (8), going beyond Carson’s cautious suggestions. These positions adhere closely to Næss’s deep ecology platform. Despite all this, Lovelock does not commit to using biocentrism as a strategy in persuasive argument. The central argument of The Revenge of Gaia remains anthropocentric, resting on the threat of environmental collapse, mass human die-offs, and “a torrid [human] society ruled by warlords on a hostile and disabled planet” (151). In fact, Lovelock insists he does not endorse a non-anthropocentric ethics: although we must “think of Gaia first,” “in no way does this make us inhuman or uncaring; our survival as a species is wholly dependent on Gaia” (143). Lovelock, like Carson, tacitly concedes that biocentrism is not an adequate or convincing worldview.
Relatedly, Lovelock does not engage “deeply,” in Næss’s radical sense, with ethical questions. Lovelock addresses environmental ethics in a brief chapter late in his book, whose title, “A Personal View of Environmentalism,” sets the stage for a cautious and defensive discussion of one scientist’s “personal” opinions, rather than a strong ethical argument. In this chapter, Lovelock uses an unquestioned ethical framework of material pragmatism, postulating that the purpose of philosophy and religion is to provide practical advice which maximizes adherents’ evolutionary fitness: “The success of […] religious backgrounds is measured by their persistence” (137). He uses this controversial assertion, along with his usual anthropocentric threat that “we cannot survive without Gaia” (134), to support a call to show quasi-religious devotion to the Earth, to “make Gaia an instinctive belief,” (136) on the grounds that doing so would be a stable and practically beneficial belief system. Oddly for a primarily scientific author, he supports this idea by praising its “ineffability” and non-falsifiability (138, 139). Lovelock’s most substantive discussion of deep ecology consists of uncharitable criticism: he asserts that “the deep ecologists, from their humanist origins, scorn modern technology and would prefer alternative technology and medicine and would let Nature take its course” (142). This definition of deep ecology does not match Næss’s—for example, Næss notes (78) that many deep ecologists have Christian or Buddhist, not “humanist”, origins—and fails to account for the fundamental characteristic of “question[ing] deeply” (Næss 75). Lovelock’s caginess toward deep ecology sometimes threatens to undermine his own argument. At one point, Lovelock suggests that morally weighing non-humans against humans is “inhuman and uncaring” (143), and criticizes “ecofascists, [who] would like to see most other humans eliminated in genocide” (139). Yet this allegation, and the label “ecofascist,” have been applied to deep ecology and “its Eco-la-la,” as when social ecologist Murray Bookchin derided the very human population goal, 500 million, that Lovelock proposes (Lovelock 141, Bookchin 6). This inconsistency indicates that there are weaknesses in Revenge of Gaia’s ethical discussions which would benefit from a more substantive articulation and defense of Lovelock’s system of environmental ethics.
Carson’s Silent Spring suggests how appeals to ethical arguments could strengthen Lovelock’s case. Although environmental ethics barely existed as a formal discipline when Carson was writing (“Environmental Ethics”), Carson cites the ethics literature then available on several occasions. She quotes the “humane and perceptive” Justice William Douglas (72) arguing for the existence of a natural right to enjoy the value inherent in nature, a line of argument supported by widely-held and well-defended ethical theories about the nature of rights. Carson cites Albert Schweitzer, one of the first philosophers to defend the moral value of nature, to make the point that the negative effects of human ingenuity have not been fully accounted for (6). In citing these authors, Carson establishes a supportive context for her modest ethical claims, commensurate with the modest environmental philosophy available at the time, and lays the groundwork for more biocentric authors. Since the publication of Silent Spring, an extensive corpus of environmental ethics literature has been developed (“Environmental Ethics”). By situating his argument within the context of a rigorously-defended ethical system from this corpus, Lovelock could reassure his readers that his ethic of “love and empathy for nature” (8) is more than unscientific sentimentalism. In demonstrating the rigorous defensibility of his “Gaia ethic,” Lovelock could repeat and extend Carson’s accomplishments, moving further toward publicly legitimizing deep ecology.
By situating his argument within the context of a rigorously-defended ethical system from this corpus, Lovelock could reassure his readers that his ethic of “love and empathy for nature” (8) is more than unscientific sentimentalism.
Rachel Carson is rightly celebrated for her role in bringing environmental issues to public attention. However, her pattern of making arguments based on human interests, temptingly effective in short-term policy debates, is ultimately limited in the scale of the changes it can recommend—a limitation of crucial import in the face of anthropogenic climate change. Carson’s subtler successes in presenting environmentalism as a respectable worldview may ultimately be her most important accomplishment. James Lovelock has incorporated the conclusion that environmental challenges demand paradigm shifts into his writing, understanding “the magnitude of the change of mind needed” (154). Still, the deep ecological philosophy Lovelock praises calls on environmental writers like him to go even further in advancing the project Carson began. Lovelock’s sketch of his “personal view of environmentalism” in one of his later chapters does some of this work, but his efforts could be strengthened by connecting to more rigorous systems of environmental ethics. The above discussions suggest that the arguments of Næss and his philosophical inheritors deserve continued consideration, and that they can be persuasively transmitted using Carson’s techniques of appealing to and normalizing ideas from ethical literature. As environmentalist authors seek to inspire a range of urgent shifts in public attitudes toward the environment, deep ecology still promises a distinctly powerful and resilient motivational strategy.
As environmentalist authors seek to inspire a range of urgent shifts in public attitudes toward the environment, deep ecology still promises a distinctly powerful and resilient motivational strategy.
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