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Book Review

Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naes

Edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall

Counterpoint: Berkeley


Reviewed by Casey Dorman


I had never heard the phrase “deep ecology” until I began searching for groups that might be interested in reading my ecologically-oriented, science fiction novel, Morality: Book Two—The Peacemaker.  According to Alan Drengson, one of the editors of Ecology of Wisdom and a leader in the deep ecology movement, “The distinguishing and original characteristics of the deep ecology movement were its recognition of the inherent value of all living beings and the use of this view in shaping environmental policies.” Additionally, the deep ecology philosophy includes the idea that human activity, both in terms of population size and the push for an ever-increasing standard of living through technological progress, threatens the diversity of life on our planet. These sentiments may sound pretty standard among environmentalists, but in the words, the practices and the life of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, they took on new meaning, which gave definition to the title deep ecology and distinguished it from other movements.


Arne Naess (1912-2009) was a Norwegian philosopher, mountaineer, educator, and environmental activist. He worked with psychologist Edward Chace Tolman at U.C. Berkeley in the 1930s, studying the behavior of the psychologists who studied rats and was a devotee of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as Spinoza. His philosophical work in the area of semantics, which built upon both Wittgenstein and Charles Ogden, led him to communicate even his most sophisticated ideas in ordinary language and consistently to argue for a multiplicity of meanings that depended upon contextual factors, a tolerance for ambiguity which translated into a  more general tolerance, influenced also by his belief in Gandhian non-violence, toward the opinions of others. His writings are characteristically inviting, undogmatic and respectful of those who disagree with him.


Naess’ efforts to civilize dialogue and to express his philosophical point of view in ideas that could be applied to real life is most evident in his “rules for serious discussion,” which he claims may be derived from Gandhi’s teachings. To quote Naess, his rules “do not consider all kinds of verbal communication, but only those in which questions are posed in a serious way and where plain, serious answers are expected.” He refers to such communication “simply as discussion.” It is probably evident that, for a philosopher, he writes like a layman. His rules include (paraphrased as needed):

Keep to the point, even if it may sometimes harm one’s own position and clever evasion would strengthen it.

Avoid characterizing another’s point of view inaccurately in order to further your own.

Resist the temptation to strengthen your case by the use of ambiguities that mislead the opponent.

Avoid giving firsthand reports that convey a distorted and unfavorable impression or give a false impression

Avoid creating a non-neutral context for a discussion by such things as using derogatory language about the speaker, or his or her associates, etc.

Do not claim that your opponent supports a conclusion you believe follows from his argument unless he or she agrees that it follows.

While Naess’ rules could apply to any discussion or debate, he is concerned about applying them to both sides of discussions dealing with ecology.  It should be readily apparent that both  environmentalists and non-environmentalists ordinarily violate many if not most of these rules in their claims about each other and their discussions with one another.


In an essay with the title, “The Basics Of The Deep Ecology Movement,” Naess gives his “tentative suggestions” as to the content of the deep ecological theoretical point of view. He refers to his formulation as a common platform of deep ecology, which he distinguishes from the philosophies and religions that might lead one to adopt such a platform.  Although he named his position deep ecology and distinguished it from what he called shallow ecology because of the level of philosophical thinking involved in the former but not the latter, he was also aware that supporters of deep ecology may derive their support from a variety of otherwise incompatible philosophical or religious bases. While he urges everyone to examine the relationship between his or her commitment to deep ecological principles and his or her own fundamental philosophy or religion, he is adamant that acceptance of deep ecology does not imply any particular underlying philosophy or religion. His platform is as follows:


  1. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  2. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  3. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  4. In view of the foregoing points, policies must be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present and make possible a more joyful experience of the connectedness of all things.
  5. 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.
  6. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Naess’ deep ecology platform is a call to action on the implementation of a vision of a smaller, simpler lifestyle, lived by a smaller population, which values the plant, animal and inanimate environment around it for its own sake. His caveat that humans have a right to do what they must to satisfy their vital needs, makes his platform one of mutual survival among the other inhabitants of the planet, not suicide for the human race.


This book is filled with Arne Naess’ writings on a variety of subjects, some of which are more pertinent to his own underlying philosophy than to the deep ecology movement, per se. The sections on Methodology and Systems, for instance contain more general philosophical material, although several of the pieces related his thinking in these areas to deep ecology. Similarly, his discussions of Buddhism and of the philosophy of Spinoza seem to reflect his personal framework from which his own adherence to deep ecology is derived, but are not essential to understanding the movement. I found his thoughts on nonmilitary defense and nonmilitary resistance fascinating, although most appropriate for small nations in danger of being gobbled up by larger ones, as was Norway during World War II and the Cold War. As a nonviolent resistance leader against the Nazi occupation of his country, Naess was well aware of both the effectiveness and the dangers involved in following his approach.


The opening sections of Ecology of Wisdom include Naess’ reflections on the importance of a sense of place in developing one’s appreciation of the world and he focuses upon Tvergastein, his name for a hut he often occupied high on the side of a Norwegian mountain. His descriptions are thrilling and perceptive enough to give the reader a greater sense of the wonder of the environment around him.


This is a book filled with many messages, but perhaps the most useful takeaway messages are found in the final section, called Problems and Ways Forward. Here he discusses our views of nonindustrialized cultures and the need to appreciate how they have interacted with their environment as well  as the tendencies of their modern members to go along with the industrialized world’s  devaluation of them. His thinking is influenced by all of the philosophy he discussed in earlier parts of the book, such as the limits of thinking in subject/object dichotomies. He has comments and suggestions about education, particularly the need to focus upon bioregional and global history, rather than national history, to remove discussions that serve to elevate one culture and denigrate another and to include a history of the planet and of all life, not just human events, while not leaving out the negative effects of events caused by humans on the planet as a whole.


Perhaps the most useful discussions, for those of us looking for guidelines on what to do, are Naess’ views on how to achieve sustainability. He is explicit on what he means by the term: “There is ecological sustainability if, and only if, the richness and diversity of life-forms are sustained.” Thus, he clearly views sustainability not just in human terms. Many definitions of sustainability put forward by political or governmental groups emphasize the need to maintain a world that will support future generations of humans. While Naess agrees with such a limited goal, he does not stop there. He points out that, for instance, a plan for reforestation of decimated lands in order to provide wood for human fuel, building, goods, etc., which reforested with fast-growing trees of a limited number of species would perhaps meet the needs of humans but it would not support the biodiversity of the forest. Thus it fails to meet his criterion of ecological sustainability.


What are Naess’ reasons for valuing life forms other than humans (and in fact, he values more than life forms, including also mountain ranges, lakes deserts, etc. as valuable in their own right)? He declines to give his reasons, instead saying that some things are just intuitively obvious to him. He names several.


Every life-form has a worth of its own independent of its usefulness for human beings.


Animals have a right to exist, no less of a right than that of human beings.


Life diversity is a good thing, independent of human usefulness.


Life on earth is a value even without human beings to value it.



In the final pages of the book Naess goes back to the fourth point of his deep ecology platform:

The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.


He calls for a serious discussion of the consequences of population reduction and puts forth some interesting speculations. For instance, although  a reduction in birth rate would likely alter the ratio of young to old humans, with fewer young people supporting more elderly people, he points out that it may be as costly to support children as it is to support old people. The number of children and their cost would be reduced. He also points out that, in modern societies, the costs of supporting children are often paid for by families while the costs of supporting the elderly are paid for by societies, so there is a greater public cost to the latter, requiring greater taxes to support it. But fewer children would also cost less to school, which is also a public cost, so the actual burden is difficult to gauge and merits serious economic forecasting.


Naess’ final argument for population reduction is based upon values. He defines the ultimate goals of individuals as an increase in pleasure, which he defines sensually, an increase in happiness, which he defines as long term positive feelings not reducible to the senses, and an increase in perfection, which he defines as such things as “authenticity,” “doing one’s duty in life,” “letting God lead,” or “self-realization.”  He then goes on to posit two additional propositions:




Naess’ words are, as the title of the book suggests, wise, but they are also inspiring, although in a way that requires serious thought and analysis. But he  has coined some inspirational gems, which sprinkle not only his own works, but those of many of his followers.  I will leave you with several of my favorites:


Seek truth but do not claim it.


Be nonviolent in language, judgment, and action.


Question yourself deeply.


Every event has many descriptions and aspects.


The more diversity the better.


High quality of life does not depend on high material consumption.


Find joy in simple things.


Simple in means, rich in ends.





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