Deep ecology

Professor  Bron Taylor, Florida University                                                        2000

Deep ecology is a semi-religious movement that believes Western Civilization’s anthropocentric (human-centered) religion and philosophy is the root cause of a currently unfolding ecological catastrophe.  Deep ecologists believe that for humans to halt this apocalypse and live harmoniously with nature they must reject anthropocentric worldviews and resacralize their perceptions of nature, recognizing that nature has intrinsic value (value apart from its usefulness to humans).  Contemporary pagans accurately view deep ecology as a kindred form of nature religion

Deep ecology has greatly influenced grassroots environmentalism, especially in Europe, North America, and Australia .  It has spread through “road shows” and ritual processes led by touring movement advocates, through the writings of its architects (often reaching college students in environmental studies courses) and perhaps especially by the dramatic activism of its radical environmental vanguard, Earth First!

Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber, coined the term deep ecology during a 1972 conference in Bucharest and soon afterward in print (Naess 1973).  He argued that nature has intrinsic value and criticized “shallow” nature philosophies that only value nature instrumentally.

Naess insisted that there are plural paths to a deep ecological perspective.  Indeed, a wide range of religious perspectives, especially Native American and other indigenous religions, Buddhism, Taoism, and Neo-Paganism have influenced those drawn to deep ecology (Taylor 1991, 1995).  It is, however, personal experiences of a spiritual connection with nature, and related perceptions of nature’s sacrality, that ground deep ecological commitments; a secular rationale is almost wholly absent. 

Naess’s own path to deep ecology began with mountain-oriented nature mysticism that convinced him of the sacred interrelatedness of all life.  He subsequently found in Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism and Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of self-realization the key ideas upon which he would build his environmental philosophy.

Although Naess coined the umbrella term now used for most non-anthropocentric environmental ethics, many other individuals were contemporaneously criticizing anthropocentrism and developing the new movement’s ideas.  One crucial event early in deep ecology’s evolution was the 1974 “Rights of Non-Human Nature” conference held at a college in Claremont California .  Inspired by Christopher Stone’s influential 1972 law article (and 1974 book) “Should Trees Have Standing–Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects” the conference drew many of those who would become the intellectual architects of deep ecology.  These included George Sessions who, like Naess, drew on Spinoza’s pantheism, later co-authoring Deep Ecology with Bill Devall (1985); Gary Snyder, who in 1969 published Turtle Island, asserting the value of place-based spiritualities, indigenous cultures, and animistic perceptions, ideas that would become central to deep ecology (also Snyder 1990); Paul Shephard, who argued that people in the world’s remnant foraging societies were ecologically superior to and emotionally healthier than those living in agricultures.  Shephard thereby provided radical greens a cosmogony that explained humanity’s fall from a pristine, nature paradise (Shephard 1973, 1982, 1998).

By the early 1970s, these and the thinkers they drew upon had put in place the central ideas of the deep ecological worldview.  Soon additional works, some penned by early participants in Earth First!, such as the movement’s co-founder Dave Foreman (1987, 1990), professor Bill Devall (1988), and Christopher Manes (1990) were added to mix.  Other works expanded and reinforced the cultural critiques and spirituality of deep ecology.  Especially influential were those by Dolores LaChapelle (1978, 1988), John Seed, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess and others (1988), Arne Naess (1989), Joanna Macy (1991), Warwick Fox (1991), George Sessions (1995), David Abram (1996), and Freeman House (1999). 

Since the mid 1980s, deep ecology increasingly shared ideas, myths, rituals and personnel with neo-pagan and bioregional groups.  (Bioregionalism shares a spiritual affinity with paganism and deep ecology, but its emphasis on developing sustainable lifestyles, and redrawing political boundaries to reflect the contours of differing ecosystem types, gives it a distinctive name and identity.)  The connections among these groups deepened the pagan and countercultural character of the deep ecology movement.  Despite its apocalypticism (the world as we know it is imperiled) deep ecology has entered a period of institutionalization, establishing a variety of institutes and organizations to promote its objectives.  Indeed, it is its expectation of a biological meltdown that gives the movement its urgent passion to promote earthen spirituality, sustainable living, and environmental activism.


Abram, D. 1996. Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York : Pantheon.

  Devall, B. 1988. Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City , UT : Peregrine Smith.

  Devall, B., and G. Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City , UT : Peregrine Smith.

  Drengson, A., and Y. Inoue, editors. 1995. The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. Berkeley , California : North Atlantic .

  Foreman, D. 1991. Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York : Harmony Books.

  Foreman, D., and B. Haywood, editors. 1987. Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. 2 ed., trans. Haywood is pseudonym.Ned Ludd: 1985. Reprint.  Tucson , Arizona : Ned Ludd.

  Fox, W. 1991. Toward a Transpersonal Ecology. Boston : Shambhala.

  House, F. 1999. Totem Salmon. Boston : Beacon.

  LaChapelle, D. 1978. Earth Wisdom. Silverton , Colorado : Finn Hill Arts.

  LaChapelle, D. 1988. Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep. Silverton , Colorado : Finn Hill Arts.

 Macy, J. 1991. World As Lover, World As Self. Berkeley , CA : Parallax Press.

  Manes, C. 1990. Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization. Boston : Little, Brown and Company.

  Naess, A. 1973. The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary. Inquiry 16: 95-100.

  Naess, A. 1989. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, ed. D. Rothenberg, trans. D. Rothenberg. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

  Seed, J., J. Macy, P. Fleming, and A. Naess. 1988. Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings. Philadelphia , Pennsylvania : New Society.

  Sessions, G., editor. 1995. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston : Shambhala Publications.

  Shepard, P. 1973. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York : Scribners.

  Shepard, P. 1982. Nature and Madness. San Francisco : Sierra Club Books.

  Shephard, P. 1998. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. San Francisco : Island Press.

  Snyder, G. 1969. Turtle Island . New York : New Directions.

  Snyder, G. 1990. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco : North Point Press.

  Stone, C. D. 1974. Should Trees Have Standing-Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos , California : William Kaufmann.

  Taylor , B. 1991. The Religion and Politics of Earth First! The Ecologist 21(6 [November/December]): 258-66.

  Taylor, B., editor. 1995. Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism. Albany , New York : State University of New York Press.

Source: accessed 9/9/05.