Deep Ecology

Below is the full text of an article from I’ve just posted it to my Facebook page and I’m putting it up here because I (and many others like me), believe that we can’t save the biosphere (and our species, which depends on it), unless there is a fundamental change in the way we view ourselves and our relationship to it.

I first discovered Deep Ecology many years ago. It profoundly changed the way I think about myself and where I belong. It fostered a huge interest in ecology, evolution and especially the way the human mind works, because that is the source of all our present problems. I encourage all my readers, after reading this, to do some more searching into the history and foundations of the concept.


Deep Ecology: System Change with Head, Heart and Hand

By Christiane Kliemann, originally published by

Every day we are bombarded with frightening news. But how do we personally feel about them and how can we deal with them as society as a whole? Which future do I actually want for myself, for the world and for my children? And how are my personal feelings and motivations connected to the larger picture? What frightens me, what makes me angry and how can I transform these feelings into a source of power and energy for change? These and many other questions are at the center of what´s called “Deep Ecology” or “The Work That Reconnects”.

What is Deep Ecology?

The term Deep Ecology was coined back in the Seventies by the Norwegian philosopher and environmental activist Arne Naess. In her book Coming Back To Life American activist and system theorist Joanna Macy describes it this way: “What does it mean or matter to be interdependent with all Earthly life? In exploring this question, deep ecology arose, both as a philosophy and a movement. (…) In contrast to reform environmentalism, which treats the symptoms of ecological degradation – clean up a river here or a dump there for human benefit – Deep Ecology questions fundamental premises of the Industrial Growth Society. (…) Often expressed as biocentric, this perspective holds that we must break free from the species arrogance that threatens not only humans but all complex life-forms within reach”.

With this, Naess aimed at develeping something he called “ecological self”, a kind of wider identity which, starting from the people closest to us, draws ever widening circles until it includes the whole Earth with all its beings.

On the basis of holistic science, psychology and spiritual traditions Joanna Macy has enriched this theoretical concept with practical exercises. “The Work That Reconnects” as she calls it now, not only wants us understand, but also experience that everything is interconnected. Such experience can give us hope and empower and inspire us to courageous collective actions, as Macy has experienced with thousands of people all over the world.

The time of the “Great Turning”

Macy conciders our contemporary time the time of the “Great Turning” in which humanity faces unprecedented challenges: Threats such as climate change, biodiversity loss, the degradation of forests and soil, ocean acidification, poverty, wars and increasing social conflicts show us: the world as we knew it is coming to an end and even humanity might go extinct, if not complex life on Earth as such.

At the same time we have enough knowledge, technologies and opportunities to turn human civilization “from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society”. New insights from e.g. system theory and quantum physics disprove the mechanistic worldview and confirm old spiritual wisdom: that the world consists of a network of relationships and living systems which are all connected by flows of energy and information. A network that has developed in more than four billion years of Earth history, constantly refined over millions of years, with an immense self-regulation capacity which we can support and which supports us.

The power of shifting perspective

This is why Macy sees our current systemic crisis mainly as a crisis of consciousness: As long as we perceive ourselves as separate individuals seperated from the world and from each other, and view our life-experience only in relation to the Industrial Growth Society, we feel helpless and frightened and can hardly imagine any solution outside it. When we perceive ourselves as part of the living eco-system “Earth” though – with its billion years long history – we can see the Industrial Growth Society as what it is: only a glimpse in the timeline of evolution, despite its destructive power.

Once we experience ourselves as inseparable part of the web of life we realize that true well-being for us can only happen in harmony with the whole and all of its parts. When other humans or living beings suffer, we cannot stay untouched. This is what Arne Naess meant when calling for an “ecological self”.

Why do we know so much and do so little? Emotions as guides

According to Macy, deadening and numbing what she calls “our pain for the world” is one of the main causes for the contradiction between human knowledge and human action or, more scientifically, our cognitive dissonance. Just as body-pain is a vitally important feedback to keep us from doing damage to ourselves or others, emotional pain is an equally important type of feedback for us and the people around us. When we suppress this pain or distract ourselves from it, the whole web of life is cut-off from information vital for its self-regulation. Moverover we cut off our own creativity and vitality either, since deadening or numbing doesn´t work in one direction only but includes the whole scale of our emotions.

Deep ecology in turn opens spaces to feel and share all our inner reactions to the state of the world and to experience that they don´t break us but make us stronger. Slowly a new consciousness for the whole can emerge which makes us take on responsibility for ourselves and what is happening in the world.

Which story do I want to tell?

In order to find our own role in these times of change it can be helpful to keep asking which story I actually want to tell and pass on with my life. Story in this sense does not mean a fictional tale but the way we set our expieriences and observations in a larger context of meaning. What our imagination of the future is concerned, Macy has identified three main stories that are happening in parallel, depending on the taken perspective:

1) Business as usual

This story is the story of the Industrial Growth Society. It confirms the pleasantness of modern life and does not question that it can go on forever. Progress is measured in material consumption. We hear it from politicians, business schools, corporations, advertisement and media. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • Economic growth is a precondition for prosperity
  • Nature is mainly a source of raw materials which can be exploited by humans
  • Fostering comsumption is good for the economy
  • The main purpose in life is to get ahead
  • The problems of other people, nations and species do not concern us

2) The great unraveling

This story confirms the threats we are exposed to and focuses on looming catastrophes. It is being told by scientists and organizations concerned about the social and ecological consequences of our civilization. It mainly talks about

  • Economic decline
  • Resource depletion
  • Climate change
  • Social divide and wars
  • Mass extinction of species

These two stories contradict each other and draw totally different pictures of the world. Business as usual, however, takes us on confrontation course with reality and immediately leads to the great unraveling which feels like a horror-story that makes us feel small and powerless. But luckily, there is still a third story going on Deep Ecology wants to help unfold:

3) The great turning

This story is told by the countless groups and initiatives in various fields that are striving for a new socially just and ecologically sustainable culture. They daily increase in numbers and size, but we can only perceive them when we step back and direct our focus on them instead of getting lost in seemingly separate events around us.

This story empowers us, especially when we keep in mind that many little changes can interact with each other to set in motion unpredictable groundbreaking transformations. One recent example for such disruptive change is the fall of the Berlin wall back in 1989 which nobody had expected.

What is my story?

Which story do I personally feel associated with? Do I always act accordingly or do I follow different stories, depending on the situation I am actually in? Am I conscious about these contradictions and can I do more to further identify with the story of the great turning?

Deep Ecology wants to empower people to become part of this story and find their individual role in it with their personal talents, dreams and other strengths. It is neither an ideology or dogma, nor does it hold readymade solutions. Just like the degrowth-movement, it rather encourages people to join the collective quest for the good life for all on a healthy planet.

To close with the words of Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of the whole called by us “Universe”… a part limited in time and space. He experiences his thoughts and feelings as separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his own consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”

6 Responses to “Deep Ecology”

  1. narf7 Says:

    Excellent share Bev. Peeling away the shackles of consumerism is just the start. We can each minimise our impact on the environment but there are tens of thousands of people still consuming away regardless. It’s finding places where we can connect and raise our voices with like minded people where we can actually start making enough noise to be heard. Doing our bit via our blogs is a good start. Learning how to reduce, recycle, repurpose etc. is an ongoing series of life lessons that everyone has to take up and move with. I just downloaded a couple of plans for how to make your own off grid washing machine (effectively a bucket with a hole in the lid and a plunger with holes cut into it). Steve and I do so little washing now that this would be a completely viable option for us. I also found a camping composting loo that might be the best place to get Steve comfortable enough to poop in a bucket. I will have to clean it but you always have to start somewhere by confronting your own opinions, habits and whether or not what you are doing is sustainable in the end (in this case, quite literally! 😉 ). There is a wild joy in attaining a life that is as close to that which nature intended. There are so many challenges but finding the solutions gives you the deepest sense of satisfaction that a human being can attain. living a good and decent life is so far away from what we have been led to believe it is by society where we are conditioned from the crib to buy, to own, and to repeat ad hoc.

    It’s easy to get so terrified that you just switch off and carry on regardless and this is playing right into the hands (and pockets) of big business. They own governments, industry and processes via their large moneybag waving lobby groups and it’s up to society en mass to see their corruption for what it is. I saw that Mr tRUMP was reopening space exploration. The only reason he ever does anything is to line his own pocket. I am guessing he is looking for somewhere to ship his vast family and fortune off to when he completely fu#$s up this planet. Desperate times call for desperate measures!


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Fran, I’m glad you liked it. The way most people think is the source of all our problems, and those assumptions have to be rigorously examined if we are not to destroy the biosphere and ourselves with it.

      Our present culture assumes that “the World belongs to Man and Man’s job is to dominate and rule it”. This idea was first put forward in a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which blew me away when I first read it. I had thought that humans were simply a flawed species, but I couldn’t reconcile that with the knowledge that evolution doesn’t produce flawed species….flaws get selected out and don’t persist. Quinn’s book was the first notion I had that it was culture that is the problem and that all we have to do is change minds.

      I found it isn’t as easy as it seems. People are resistant to new ideas and in denial that humans could ever be the problem.

      I want to put more ‘thinking’ stuff like this up on the blog and since there’s not much happening in the garden at the moment, that’s why you’re seeing it. So far, comments have been minimal; not unexpectedly. People don’t like their assumptions being challenged. They’ll either get angry or ignore the post completely.

      Liked by 1 person

      • narf7 Says:

        Yeah, having your entire way of life challenged is not something that most people want to even contemplate. The culture of consumerism has roots that are deep seated in our psyche and that hone in on our need to be all inclusive and to not stand out from the crowd lest we be picked off by lions. A lot of thought has gone into getting us to be mindless herds of consumers and some very clever people are making us all dance like puppets to their tunes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Says:

    I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately, to “what is my story”, even though I’m not familiar with Deep Ecology. Fixing my blog at the moment, caused me to read a lot of my stories. Contemplating the new direction, John Michael Greer is going lately, helped cement it for me too.

    Being biologically, part indigenous, and part English, puts me on the precipice of environmental and industrial spirituality. It’s a fine line, but ultimately, both can lead to destruction. Because even if you do align yourself with nature, you can be torn apart (your entire family and everything you believe in the earth) by the interests of ignorant outsiders.

    Possessing an ecological viewpoint, is better than not. So that’s a step in the right direction. 🙂


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Thanks Chris. I’m interested too, in the new direction of JMG’s blog. I suspect that developing agriculture and the civilised (living in cities/permanent settlements) way of life that resulted from it, has been the single fact that divorced humans from their connections to the natural world. I’m not sure what sort of worldview hunter-gatherer societies would have had, but I suspect it would have been vastly different to the present one.


      • Chris Says:

        Much has changed for the descendants of indigenous, hunter-gatherer societies. But the environmental filter, is still incredibly strong.

        That is why indigenous artists, continue to represent the natural environment in their work, today. They may be forced to live in an industrial backdrop, but they continue to resonate their personal lens, through the expressions of the land.

        Recent research, puts aboriginal ancestry, at 75,000 years ago, when they first left Africa. The past few hundred years of industrial culture, is just a blip, in comparison. 😉 I expect the decline will see healthy indigenous Australians, adapt very quickly. As they still practice their personal lens in the landscape.


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