The other night I sat down with the family and we all watched David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future’. It was, as is always the case with these productions, magnificently shot, informative and emotive. I was moved by the ‘witness statement’ given by Sir David as he took us through his life long journey exploring the wild places of the world, and described his gradual realisation that the onset of the Anthropocene has in a frighteningly short period of time all but irreversibly wrecked the gift of a world in perfect balance that was the Holocene era; an era that could have been ours to enjoy for countless generations to come. It was fantastic to hear Sir David explicitly calling for the ‘rewilding’ of our world. Even the controversial necessity for global population control was addressed intelligently in a way that left no room for knee-jerk reactions about environmentalists wanting to take away our ‘right’ to have children. After a harrowing description of what we can expect to face over the next few decades if we continue our present unsustainable way of life – nothing less than the sixth great mass extinction – Sir David left us with a ray of hope in the form of a precise set of instructions setting out exactly what we need to do to return to the beauty and security of the Holocene. As I sat and listened through Sir David’s eloquent explanation of this plan of action, my heart began to sink. Not because I didn’t agree with the plan: I most fully agreed. No, my heart sank because what Sir David spelled out was an action plan that constituted almost a carbon copy of an action plan that was offered around fifty years ago. ‘Do we have another 50 years?’ I thought to myself.
In the 1970s the philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess became the main founder of the ‘deep ecology movement’. An influential thinker and activist, Naess articulated along with George Sessions a set of principles that would heal the crisis of our dysfunctional human/non-human relationship. These principles are presented below.
1. All living beings have intrinsic value.
2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.
4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
8. Those of accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the necessary changes.
Along with this action plan, Naess also argued for a reduction in meat-based diets, if not outright vegetarianism or veganism. The parallels between the principles that make up the deep ecology movement and those spelled out by Sir David are almost one and the same. So what happened since the 70s?
Well, as Sir David pointed out, progress has been made, as illustrated by the doubling of forest cover in Costa Rica and innovations in food production taking place in the Netherlands. However, the rate of progress has not been sufficient to combat the rate of unsustainable practices, and thus we have finally arrived at the ‘tipping point’: our final chance to recover something of the Holocene, before climate change becomes something quite literally outside of our ability to influence. Sir David’s witness statement was, among other things, a witness to this final chance.
As my observation of the commonality between the principles of the deep ecology movement and those of Sir David’s latest production attest to, whether we succeed at this last chance is not down to knowing what to do, or even how to do it. Nothing in Sir David’s action plan was news to me. So what is it down to? Again, Sir David, toward the end of the programme, poses the poignant question of whether we have the will, as a species, to come together and save our own world. Sir David points out that such an endeavour is entirely in our own interests, since our indivisible connection to the rest of our living earth systems literally mean that damaging our environment equates to damaging ourselves. And this was where I felt the argument was left unfinished.
Yes, human identification with the natural world, and the consequential inclusion of nature into our self-concept, is right and healthy and a sign of psychological maturity: Naess called this our ‘ecological Self’. However, to use this as the premise for environmentalism remains, ultimately, an instrumentalist and anthropocentric approach – the very ideological stance that got us into this mess in the first place. Therefore, it is here that I would like to suggest that although the inclusion of nature into the human self-concept is good, it is more of a side effect of a much more important, and genuinely non-anthropocentric approach to our relationships with non-human life. Again, this approach was illuminated by Naess and others in various philosophical forms. I merely try to offer it here in common English.
Naess, writing in a small mountain cabin in his native Norway, argued for the need to protect nature on account of its intrinsic value, rather than simply on account of what it can offer to human life alone. But in order for this to happen, humans would have to break away from the ingrained dualistic thinking of our modern cultural and scientific traditions; traditions that see the ‘real’ world ‘out there’ as nothing more than what is described by mathematical physics, and the rich world of colour, beauty and values (our most immediate reality) as nothing more than the ‘subjectivities’ of the human mind, existing somehow separately as an exclusively human phenomenon. If we could see, argued Naess, that the mountain is in fact majestic as well as being a huge lump of rock, we would be inclined to assign the mountain with qualities that carry value intrinsic to the mountain. If we accepted our spontaneous experience of the lake as peaceful, we would see qualities in the lake that we see in each other, and therefore assign a certain personhood to the lake, which would lead to the lake sharing the values and rights that we afford our own species. Our dominant cultural and scientific assumptions tell us that we ‘project’ qualities of peacefulness onto the lake, whereas in ‘fact’ such qualities constitute only perceptions that are spatially locked into our brain’s interpretation of the ‘world-out-there’. Naess fundamentally challenges this assumption, arguing that qualities are not spatially located and isolated within the individual brain, but as much a fundamental part of reality as the abstract objects of mathematical physics: a reality of which we are a part of and are embedded within. By taking this relational approach, we humans can begin to see ourselves as truly relating to non-human life, identifying with the other-than-human in ways that elicit genuine empathy for non-human life, because we see in the non-human the same qualities that we see in ourselves, and therefore afford the non-human the same value and rights that we afford ourselves. Yes, our sense of self is expanded by this way of relating, but the important part is the recognition of the intrinsic value of the other, which is a true departure from the anthropocentric perspective. In a world where values and qualities are intrinsic only to the human imagination, argues Naess, it is no wonder that we have treated the rest of life as nothing more than a set of resources for our use. The answer, according to the deep ecology movement, is a fundamental shift in our understanding not just of ourselves in nature, but of non-human nature itself. Is this perhaps how we might finally develop the will to come together and protect the other-than-human, as the other-than-human becomes beautiful and precious for its own sake? Why don’t we find out? I will leave you with an invitation: allow yourself to develop a friendship with a tree, or have a conversation with a babbling brook, or dance with the autumn winds. Allow yourself to enter into a relationship with these things. Don’t assume you’re projecting your ’human’ feelings of friendship onto the tree; actually enter into a friendship with that tree. Don’t just assume you’re making up the sound of the brook; actually listen to its song. Don’t assume you’re really just dancing with yourself; actually dance with the wind. Connecting with nature in this way is not just a fulfilling and enriching experience – it may just be a vital basis for awakening the will to do right by all life, both human and other-than-human.
reference: Naess, A. (2008). Ecology of Wisdom. Penguin modern classics.
is a PhD candidate researching under the topic 'Understanding Behaviour Change toward Sustainability'. Damien is also a strong believer that knowledge should be freely available; a belief that motivated him to start One Beautiful Earth as a way of informing earth lovers everywhere on what behavioural scientists and social psychologists are up to and what we're finding out, all in human readable language! It's not all science though: expect a smattering of environmental ethics, philosophy, interviews and the odd opinion piece thrown in. Enjoy!