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Almost half a century ago, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss created the concept of deep ecology. ...
2021-10-19 09:00:00

How Arne Sowed the Seed
The Father of Deep Ecology

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
How Arne Sowed the Seed
How Arne Sowed the Seed

Arne Næss, a Norwegian philosopher, created the concept of deep ecology. Already half a century ago, he was writing that anthropocentrism had to be rejected. He proposed a better order for the world, in which all forms of life have equal rights. How did he come up with it?

Read in 13 minutes

Norway is different somehow. They learn to segregate their rubbish in school, 98% of energy comes from renewable sources and sales of electric cars outnumber those with internal combustion engines. The Norwegians aim to reach climate neutrality at the end of this decade.

Norway is also the fatherland of deep ecology: almost half a century ago, Arne Næss introduced an idea that redefined humanity’s place on Earth. Instead of the anthropocentric approach, in which everything revolves around the human, the Norwegian philosopher proposed a biocentric approach which assumes that every being has intrinsic value and has the right to live and develop.

But the thoughts of Næss, who died in 2009, went far beyond care for the natural environment. He simply believed that the world is badly organized, and asked how we can change this.

The mountain: a great, good father

“Arne Næss, a 38-year-old professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo and a member of the Norwegian Alpine Club, has been dreaming of high mountains for years,” wrote Bolesław Chwaściński in the Polish climbing magazine Taternik in 1962. “On the advice of Professor Morgenstierne, who in 1929 studied the local languages near Tirich Mir, Næss chose this peak as the destination of the Norwegian expedition, and began his preparations with reconnaissance.”

At 7708 metres, Tirich Mir is the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush, a mountain range that lies on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the highest peak outside the Himalayas and Karakorum. In Næss’s biography, reaching this peak (he was the first to do so) barely figures, but it shows his exceptional relationship with mountains. “Great feats at high altitudes are valuable not because you have to overcome various obstacles presented by the mountains, but because they allow us to appreciate their greatness and beauty,” he said in describing the expedition. “We dedicate our efforts to the mountains.”

Arne Dekke Eide Næss was born in 1912 in Slemdal, in the suburbs of Oslo. He didn’t remember his father – Ragnar Næss died of cancer before his son was a year old. But from his early childhood, the future philosopher kept in his memory the half-wild garden where he could climb a tree and observe the world from above. When he was five, his mother Christine took him to Ustaoset, a small town in the south of the country, between Oslo and Bergen, on the Hardangervidda plateau. Today most of the area is a national park. It was there that Næss came to understand what freedom is: he felt that he could go wherever he wanted, because nothing limited him. That’s also where he saw the mountain Hallingskarvet for the first time. “For most people it’s very strange, but when I was 10 or 11 years old, I went to this mountain alone,” Næss recalled. “Already then I perceived it as a great, good father.”

While still a teenager he made it to all the highest peaks in Norway, and before his 30th birthday he decided he wanted to live on the side of Hallingskarvet. He chose a place that was so high that it guaranteed a feeling of living in the mountains, and “a view out the window of most of Norway”, while also allowing the construction of a hut. That is, he believed that setting up a house at 1506 metres wouldn’t cause great difficulty. But the locals said it was a crazy idea. It ended up taking 62 trips by horse to bring the construction beams. Tvergastein (literally: ‘crossed stones’), as Næss called his beloved place, became the highest private hut in Scandinavia.

Gandhism in wartime

“Since 1931 I was influenced by Gandhi, and the war made me much more Gandhian,” he said. “From the very beginning of the war, I had a terrible feeling of living in a country where untruth was more and more accepted.”

When World War II began, Næss was already a philosophy professor (the youngest in Norway), an expert on the work of the 17th-century thinker Baruch Spinoza, with experience in Berkeley, Paris, Vienna (he belonged to the famous Vienna Circle, which brought together supporters of logical empiricism). In the French capital he met students from India, who told him about Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by these conversations, the Norwegian absorbed a biography of the Indian statesman and seized on his ideas. Not doing evil, not using violence, fighting based on civil disobedience – all of this would remain with Næss for years.

But the climate in Europe was completely different. All over the continent, radical parties were emerging that glorified violence and sought war, not peace. Norway seemed resistant to fascist ideas. In the 1930s, the Nasjonal Samling (‘National Gathering’) party could have held its conventions in a phone booth; it never got more than 2.2% of the vote. After the Nazi invasion in 1940, Nasjonal Samling leader Vidkun Quisling declared himself prime minister, and despite initial resistance he was ultimately accepted by the Third Reich. Quisling headed a puppet government, but he still needed functionaries, whom he tempted with sinecures, money, power. In a short time, Nasjonal Samling swelled to almost 50,000 members. The Statspolitiet police, founded by Quisling’s followers, fought the opposition, tortured detainees and sent them to camps in Germany, and organized transports of Jews to death camps.

After the invasion Næss tried to join the opposition, but he was told he was too well-known, and his involvement would be dangerous both for him and the organization. In the end, he started to work with the Allied Secret Service, founded and managed by the Allies. And he was useful. In 1943, the Nazis decided that resistance against the occupation was springing up at the University of Oslo, and planned to close the school and transport the students to re-education camps. Næss warned them, helping save thousands of people.

After the war, he helped families that had suffered. While the Nazi camps were liberated, the sons, husbands and fathers often didn’t return home; nobody knew what had happened to them. Under the supervision of the police, Næss’s students interrogated functionaries of the former regime – anyone who could have known anything. “The Red Cross and other organizations didn’t have time to do it,” he recalled. “And the parents wanted to know what had happened to their sons. Emotionally it was a terrible burden for both the interrogators and the prisoners, but my students displayed professionalism; I saw how they matured during these conversations.”

He also tried to understand what motivated the people who during the war had chosen the wrong side of history. He invited to his seminars both those who had been active in the opposition and those who collaborated. The torturers and the tortured. “One day three of us sat down at a table: on one side the father of my tortured friend, on the other the man who was responsible for his death, and me in the middle,” he said. “We sat there, looking at each other, more or less bewildered. It was terrible. That was his only son. The torturer told us how at a certain moment in the interrogation the young man was asked ‘Who are the ones who give you orders in the resistance movement?’ When my friend didn’t answer, he was beaten. The official recalled that he suddenly ‘went red in the face. Most likely he had a cyanide pill and died in a few minutes.’ His father didn’t react at all.”

After the war, Norwegian courts sentenced 40 leading collaborators to death (Quisling was one of those executed by firing squad), imposed fines on the rank and file, and stripped them of their civil rights.

Right to life

The Mardalsfossen waterfall is impressive even in monochrome, even recorded on an antediluvian camera. In the shot we can see a rock threshold, off which water is flowing. Snow lies here and there. Then the camera pans downward; we see water falling into the abyss. After a moment, on the screen there appear activists placing a Norwegian flag between two stones, pitching tents, setting up camp. Others chain themselves to the rocks. In the next shot, the police are checking the protesters’ papers; a moment later they’re taking the activists off somewhere.

This material from Norwegian television was shot in 1970. 300 people were protesting the construction of a dam – that’s how Mardalsfossen was supposed to power the nearby Eikesdal power plant. The protest didn’t amount to anything – the dam was built. The effect is that the beauty of the waterfall can be observed only from 20th June to 20th August (i.e. in the tourist season); in the other months, the water is directed to the power plant.

Næss also chained himself to the rock. At the time, he had already been retired for a year, after deciding he wanted to live, not just function. Not long after, he created his life’s work. “The emergence of ecologists from their former relative obscurity marks a turning-point in our scientific communities,” he wrote in “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement”, published in 1973 in Inquiry magazine. “But their message is twisted and misused. A shallow, but presently rather powerful movement, and a deep, but less influential movement, compete for our attention.” It was in this article that the concept of deep ecology appeared for the first time, which today the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as an “environmental philosophy and social movement based in the belief that humans must radically change their relationship to nature from one that values nature solely for its usefulness to human beings to one that recognizes that nature has an inherent value.”

“Through deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment emerges deep ecology,” Dr Stephan Harding would write years later. In it we find echoes of what Næss lived through, what he observed and what he worked on. From Spinoza he took the conviction that everything that exists belongs to a single reality; from Gandhi, his egalitarian approach to everything that lives.

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

Deep ecology was also to a certain degree the effect of disappointment with reality. Næss recalled that in the 1960s, faith in the ability to fight for the environment within the existing system was still widespread in the ecological movement. That it was enough to make good laws and be supported by modern technologies. It was only in the 1970s that the reflection came that it wasn’t possible to achieve this – neither on the side of the Iron Curtain that relied on a planned economy, nor on the other, which believed exclusively in the free market. “The distribution of goods is key,” he would explain years later. “If we take into account exclusively economic criteria, the existence of that portion of Norway that lies above the Arctic Circle makes no sense. The climate there means growing a simple potato costs a fortune. But even so I believe people should be able to live there. Because they come from there, because they feel at home there, because they have their unique culture. We should help them, including by monetary transfers. This too is the welfare state, which I strongly support.”

Næss explained the differences between the two ways of thinking. A shallow ecologist, he argued, fights pollution because he cares about the health and prosperity of people in developed countries. An example of ‘shallow ecology’ from our time is the growing assortment of ‘ecological’ products. Buying them may make a consumer feel better about themselves, but it doesn’t have any great effect on the environment. “In deep ecology the basic thing is asking questions, problematisation, not consenting to the current image of society,” Næss said in 1992. “This leads us to the conclusion that if we don’t change something fundamental, we won’t change anything at all. I’m talking about questions like: ‘Why do we live the way we do? What’s the meaning of life? What are the highest goals in life? Which values are really essential for us, and which are only about comfort and superficial fun?’”

Over the following years, he developed his idea. In 1984, Næss and George Sessions laid out eight principles of deep ecology. A decade later, he explained that the point of it was “a way of living that aside from meeting the needs of life doesn’t bring with it unnecessary destruction.” This definition on the one hand presents the essence of things in the most condensed possible way, and on the other, it perfectly describes the sensitivities of its creator.

Those who knew Næss recall that he had a devotional relationship to everything that lived. That he didn’t shy away from insects, and would walk around the campus in Oslo with rats on his shoulders or in his pockets. He tolerated mice in his hut, Tvergastein. “We don’t say that every creature has the same value as a human, but that all of them have inherent value,” Næss believed. “It has the right to live and thrive. I can kill a mosquito if it lands on the face of my child, but I’ll never say that I have a greater right to life than a mosquito does.”

We need transformation

“We must become aware that in the future, 10 billion people won’t be able to achieve a high standard of living,” Næss said in 1992. “The Earth can’t take it.” At that time, almost 5.5 billion people lived on our planet; today we’re approaching eight billion. Some say that by the end of the 21st century we’ll reach 12 billion. The Norwegian philosopher believed that 100 million people should live on the Earth, to maintain the cultural diversity that existed 100 years ago (we need to protect human cultures just as we need to protect animal species). But he never specified how to get to that number; he only said it had to be achieved “without revolution or dictatorship”. “Deep ecology is a form of concern for the world, providing care; there’s no place in it for any revolution or anything like that,” Næss said. “Here I’m talking about a long, slow process. We need transformation.”

In the 1990s, the Norwegian admitted that ‘deep ecology’ is a long-term idea; he came to terms with the idea that he wouldn’t live to see it triumph. “The 21st century will be difficult even for rich countries,” he said in 1992. “But when it comes to the 22nd century, the time of our grandchildren’s grandchildren, I’m an optimist. Still, we can’t waste a single day. The deep ecology movement has to act today, but we’ll see the effects of this action only in the 22nd century.”

He complained at the time about what could be called mainstream ways of fighting the ecological crisis. He didn’t like either the approach of the defeatists, who behaved as if nothing could be done other than whimpering, or the triflers who minimized the problem. Næss demanded a rational diagnosis that would make it possible to define the scale of the challenge, and then draw up a plan packed with fresh, unused ideas. “I’m irritated by the prophets who proclaim the end of the world and are convinced that we have a mission to shape a better future,” he said. “That’s how a member of the deep ecology movement feels today. The question is: how far will we fall before we bounce back? Where will we be if in 2101 we begin to restore ecological balance?”

Drawing up a plan with a decades-long perspective might seem, if not utopian, then at least reckless. But the Norwegian proved that he had in himself something of the visionary. “If Poland continues its current policy, expressing itself in the desire to have more and more cars, it will have more and more ecological problems, and life will become more and more complicated,” he said in 1992 at a meeting in Bielsko-Biała. In Poland at the time there were about 6.5 million passenger cars registered, and global warming hadn’t broken through to the general consciousness.

Today the climate catastrophe is one of humanity’s greatest challenges, and there are 22 million cars driving around Poland (including, anecdotally, 20,000 electric ones). In Warsaw, there are more cars than people.

Sources: Is It Painful to Think: Conversations with Arne Næss by David Rothenberg; Głębokiej ekologii Arne Næssa [Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology] by Jagody Kulasiewicz; Arne Næss – rozmowy [Arne Næss: Conversations] and O przyrodzie i człowieku. Rozmowy Dzikiego Życia [On Nature and Humanity: Conversations of a Wild Life], published by Pracownia na rzecz Wszystkich Istot.

Eight Principles of Deep Ecology

1. Inherent value

The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. As Næss said: “We stand in defence of plants, which don’t at all need to be beautiful for us, and we don’t like the attitude of people who say ‘This isn’t useful, I don’t like this plant, I can throw it out or destroy it.’”

2. Diversity

Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves. Næss: “Even though it’s difficult, we need to perceive the reality of every being, the reality of the plant; then there’s no way to reject any of them.”

3. Vital needs

Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. Næss: “People can say their life need is a car, because without it they’ll lose their job. That may be, but we don’t call this a life need, because by applying the right policy it’s easy to get to a situation where to do this job, a bicycle would suffice.”

4. Population

The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease. Næss: “It would be better for people, and much, much better for all other beings, if we stopped adding people.”

5. Human interference

The present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening. Næss: “Poor countries aren’t capable of changing this situation without the help of the rich. So the rich should help groups standing in defence of nature in poor countries.”

6. Political change

Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present. Næss: “If we look at the points mentioned above, it turns out that they indicate the need to change the social order.”

7. Quality of life

The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great. Næss: “We are inclined toward luxury, but this luxury can’t be expressed in buying new things. Our everyday life may be a luxury.”

8. Obligation of action

Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes. Næss: “Deep ecology creates people who don’t agree with the way we live, who don’t agree with the general attitude toward nature.”


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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