Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 1

Part 1: George Perkins Marsh

In 1973, the Norwegian scholar and philosopher Arne Naess published the article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary” in Inquiry, an interdisciplinary journal he established to promote discourse in the social sciences and humanities.  This brief article contained the base for what Naess termed the ‘deep ecology’ philosophy, which has since grown into a powerful—albeit fringe—branch of environmentalism with influence around the world.  The radical ideology that Naess sparked has an especially large following in the United States, where several environmental groups have been inspired by the proposed ‘ecosophy,’ or philosophy of ecological equilibrium surpassing shallow goals.

The relative popularity of deep ecology may have a foundation in United States environmental literature, where the writings of George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold, among others, have distinct similarities to Naess’ claims and proposals.

What, exactly, was ‘deep ecology’ when Naess first wrote of it?  In his original seven-point survey, he described it as a belief in ecologically responsible practices that include such varied principles as complexity, diversity, and egalitarianism; a normative priority system—a life-style—that supports an ethical and humble view toward the environment.  When Naess coined the term, he made sure to also describe what it was not: ‘shallow ecology’ he described simply as the “fight against pollution and resource depletion” with the objective of increasing health and wealth in developed countries. Naess made it clear that the shallow variety was the stronger one; a more mainstream sensibility that utilized a very narrow range of ecology to solve simpler and less philosophical problems.  The question of why shallow ecology, or no ecology at all, has generally been more popular in the United States than deep ecology is a large topic unto itself, but I will discuss some potential reasons below.  I am more interested in examining the influential American literature that predated Naess’ article and exploring the failure of these deep roots to fully bear fruit even after 1973.

Man and Nature, many would argue, is the beginning. George Perkins Marsh’s text, while less well known today, was almost immediately successful when first published in 1864, and among historians has been compared to the more famous texts of Charles Darwin and Rachel Carson.  “It is no exaggeration to say that Man and Nature launched the modern conservation movement,” William Cronon enthuses in his foreword to a recent edition, a sentiment echoing Lewis Mumford’s from over seventy years earlier.  Marsh recognized the damage that humans were causing to land and its inhabitats only a couple years before the term ‘ecology’ was coined in Germany, and warned that a change in behavior was necessary should modern civilizations aim to avoid a demise akin to the Romans’.  He encouraged “reclothing the mountain slopes with forests and vegetable mould, thereby restoring the fountains which she [nature] provided to water them,” demonstrating an understanding of the interconnectedness of landscapes and the reliance that plants, animals and humans had on natural relationships that would later be reinforced by Aldo Leopold.  In his better known essay “Destructiveness of Man,” Marsh goes further and calls mankind the sole organic destructive power, more reckless and unsparing than any other animal, citing the waste of “enormous quantities of flesh, and of other parts of the animal, which are capable of valuable uses.”  He deplores a civilization that can squander so much yet not feed the starving millions in the Old World (a familiar and ever-contemporary lament), pointing out that when animals kill it is limited to their immediate appetite and also balanced by the compensations of other animal and plant life in the community.  In his final essay, “Nothing Small in Nature,” Marsh cautions that humans are never justified in assuming that their actions have no significant consequences just because they see no effects.  His advice—implicit in that the book ends after this point, with no structured summary or conclusion—is that people must look for, and then react properly (responsibly) to, the deleterious influence they can have on their environment.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Aldo Leopold


If you are interested in following up on any of the above quotations, I can provide the corresponding citation.

6 thoughts on “Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 2 « Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Ideas About Why To Hug A Tree « Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: Did Rachel And David Ever Meet? « Raxa Collective

  4. Pingback: Batons Passing, Generation To Generation « Raxa Collective

  5. Pingback: Heroes In Green Clothing « Raxa Collective

  6. Pingback: The Gift, A Gift « Raxa Collective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s