Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 2

My Part 1 post a couple days ago focused on George Perkins Marsh’s writings, and how they related to Arne Naess’ deep ecology. I closed with Marsh’s concluding comments in Man and Nature, which I’m including here:

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.

But is this deep ecology?  Naess emphasizes the “equal right to live and blossom” of all organisms, allowing that in practice this principle of ecological egalitarianism cannot be fully carried out.  Marsh, when asked by his publisher whether or not man was a “part of nature,” replied that his beliefs could not be further from the idea that “man is a ‘part of nature’ or that his action is controlled by the laws of nature; in fact a leading spirit of the book is to enforce the opposite opinion, and to illustrate the fact that man… is a free moral agent working independently of nature.”  To Marsh, humans were practically a force above nature, who (he refers to nature as a ‘she,’ but does not capitalize her name) “has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life.”  This view, which can be characterized as anthropocentric, might not be the same sort of anthropocentrism expressed by shallow ecology, however, since Marsh explicitly suggests the need for more careful resource consumption.  Deep ecologists often see themselves as supporters of ecocentrism or biocentrism; prominent deep ecologist John Seed describes it as, “‘I am protecting the rain forest’ develops to ‘I am part of the rain forest protecting itself’.”  With this development, the topic turns from man-and-nature to man-as-nature.

Aldo Leopold wrote extensively about the latter.  His essay “The Land Ethic,” in fact, is remarkably similar to much of Naess’ rhetoric several decades later.  At first it seems strange that Leopold is only mentioned on one page of over two hundred by Naess in a 2008 publication of his work, but Marsh receives even less than that.  Leopold does not cite Marsh in A Sand County Almanac either; novelty is clearly not always as new as it appears.  The land ethic that Leopold discusses changes the relationship from man as “conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”  Leopold writes that such an ethic should originate from “the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation,” or symbioses.  Symbiosis is also a key element of Naess’ deep ecology platform.  Through diversity, symbiosis, and ecological egalitarianism, Naess argues, the “struggle of life” becomes the ability to coexist in complex relationships, reducing exploitation of humans, species, or the land.  Leopold, like Naess and others, is surprised and disappointed that neither philosophy nor religion has taken more of a role in such symbiotic cooperation, arguing that conservation is a moral obligation; that humans’ relationship with nature must incorporate a conscience—an ecological one.

And they have reason to be dismayed.  In the two decades before A Sand County Almanac was published, the Hoover Dam was constructed, the Dust Bowl ravaged the plains, and atomic bombs were tested and used aggressively.  The years leading up to Naess’ seminary article saw very different types of events, like major oil spills, widespread DDT use, and a swelling post-war conspicuous consumption.  But if an ecological conscience “reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land” (Leopold), then perhaps the population between Leopold and Naess also began to feel these responsibilities more clearly.  The country certainly passed considerable legislation, celebrated a newly created Environmental Protection Agency, and more consistently reported ecological issues following Rachel Carson’s example.  For a while, it did seem that Leopold’s land ethic and Naess’ ecosophy, the solid (deep) belief in the inherent right of communities—plants, animals, soil, and water—to continue their natural existence, was being followed with interest by the nation.

But as environmental groups grew and became mainstream, they inevitably shifted to a shallower ecology. Part 3 will address this change and its effects.


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

3 thoughts on “Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 3 « Raxa Collective

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

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

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