Deep Ecology for the 22nd Century

by Arne Naess

This is not my title! Why did my friends insist on that title? Because of many conversations of this kind:

NN: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
AN: An optimist!
NN: (Astonished) Really?
AN: Yes, a convinced optimist; that is, when it comes to the twenty-second century.
NN: You mean of course the twenty-first?
AN: No, I mean the twenty-second; the life of the grandchildren of our grandchildren! Are you not interested in the world of those children?
NN: In other words, we can relax because we have a lot of time available to overcome the ecological crisis?
AN: Not at all; every week counts. How terrible and shamefully bad conditions will be in the twenty-first century, or how far down we have to start on the way up, depends on what you, and others do today and tomorrow. There is not a single day to be lost. We need the highest levels of activism immediately.

The answer that I am an optimist is a reaction against the so-called doomsday prophets, people who talk as if they think nothing can be done to set things straight. They are very few, but people in power heavily exploit them. They say soothingly that the task ahead is not very great and that government policies will turn the tide to make things better. A telling example is the cover of the almighty Newsweek magazine, which just before the Rio Conference used the headline ”The End is not Near!”. In the article, there was no pep talk, not even an admission that we are in for a huge task that will require new thinking. Their banner was the very opposite of a slogan used when a big corporation is in the red: new thinking and greater effort is called for, new leadership. It was no slogan like those of Churchill in 1940: Of course we will win, but there will be many tears and much sweat to be shed.

In short, there is no time for those overly pessimistic utterances so readily exploited by the passive, the dangerous pacifiers.

The realization of what we call broad ecological sustainability of the human enterprise on this unique planet of ours may take a long time, but the more we increase unsustainability this year and in the years to come the longer it will take. The message is simple and well enough known: The recovery from our illness will take time, and for every day we neglect to try seriously to stop the illness from getting worse, the recovery will take that much longer. The healing policies offered today are not serious. The deep ecology movement is meant for today, but the definitive victories can scarcely be realized before the twenty-second century.

Roughly, I call ecological sustainability broad if and only if the change or development of life conditions on the planet is such that it ensures full richness, abundance, and diversity of life-forms, to the extent that humans alone can ensure this. Every key word of this criterion, of course, needs clarification, but it makes deep ecology sustainability obviously different from what is increasingly accepted politically, that is, narrow economic sustainability advocating the continuation of short- and long-range policies so that, most researchers would agree, ecological catastrophes affecting our narrow human interests are less likely. This narrow view of sustainability is politically acceptable today as a goal for global development. But broad ecological sustainability centers on all ecological conditions, not only those of humanity, and the dangerous concept of development is avoided. In the narrow view, development still means something like growth rates and the increase of GNP, rather than an improvement in the quality of life.

So the big, open question is: How low are we going to sink before we start heading upward in the year 2101? How far down are we going to sink before there is a clear trend of decreasing regional and global ecological unsustainability? It may be useful to consider some scenarios for a moment:

(1) No major change of ecological policies and of the extent of poverty. An ecological catastrophe occurs because of the slowly accumulating effects of a century of ecological folly. The dramatic situation forces new ecologically strict policies, perhaps through undemocratic, even brutal dictatorial military means instigated by the rich countries.

(2) The same development except for a major change in the poor countries: considerable economic growth of the Western kind. Five times as many people live unsustainably. A breakdown follows very soon, and harsh measures are applied to fight chaos and to start a decrease of unsustainability.

(3) A couple of similar developments, ending in catastrophic and chaotic conditions and subsequent harsh, brutal policies implemented by the most powerful states. There is a turn towards sustainability, but only after enormous devastation.

(4) Ecological enlightenment, a realistic appreciation of the drastic reduction of life quality, an increased influence of deep ecological attitude, a slow decrease of the sum total of unsustainability. The planet follows a trend of decreasing unsustainability, discernable in the year 2101.

Our hope, naturally, is for scenario 4, the rational one that guarantees the least strenuous way towards sustainability by the year 2101.

Perhaps some words are appropriate here on three great contemporary worldwide movements that are calling for grassroots activism.  The peace movement is the oldest.  Then there are the many movements I lump together under the name social justice movements. It includes feminism and parts of the social ecology movement. The third we might somewhat vaguely call radical environmentalism, as if use of the specific terminology of deep ecology could sooner or later elicit boredom and aggression. But the word environmentalism smacks of the old, anthropocentric metaphor suggesting humanity surrounded by something outside, an environment for and of humans; it does not start with deep ecological concepts. It will take a long time before radicalism loses its connections with traditional political alliances. Broad ecological sustainability may be compatible with a variety of social and political structures. Unfortunately, there is a strong belief in Europe and a growing belief in the developing world that political and economic policies must participate in the free market, before society can think of becoming green.

It is not easy to be personally active in more than one of the three grassroots movements, but cooperation among the movements is essential. The ecological threat is not only from wars but also from the immense military operations and connected industrial activity in peacetime. For a long time, cooperation has been excellent. It has taken a longer time to establish close cooperation with all the social justice movements. But because care of all living beings and capacity to identify with them are so prominent in the deep ecology movement, injustice is taken seriously.

The small minority of deep ecology supporters who write in periodicals, speak in public, and organize conferences will sometimes meet those who are skeptical about their ethics: are they not more fond of animals than of humans? The answer is that, whatever the intensity of their fight for animals or wilderness, deep ecology recognizes the special obligations we have towards our fellow humans. What we look for is not a shift of care away from humans toward nonhumans, but an extension and deepening of care. It is unwarranted to assume that the human potential of care is constant and finite and that any increase of care for some creatures necessarily reduces care for others. The twenty-first century will see a general increase of care if the eco-feminists are even partially right.

I suspect that the societies of the twenty-second century, at the earliest, will not all look like the green societies envisioned since the 1960s. They will have more traits in common with what we have today. Conspicuous consumption?  Of course! But what is conspicuous, what will secure prestige and wonder in that century, will have required moderate physical energy. Several tremendously important things might change: There would be no political support of greed and un-ecological production. The tolerance for grave social injustice based on differing levels of consumption would disappear.

To fight the dominance of something should be distinguished from trying to eliminate something. We shall always need people who insist that their main goal in life has not been to amass money, but to create something useful in a world in which money is a measure of success and creative power.

In sociology, we often talk about entrepreneurs in a wide, important sense of socially highly energetic, creative, influential people. Their work is often controversial, sometimes clearly destructive, but they are required in any dynamic society.

I envisage big, but not dominating, centers of commerce, learning, and the arts: big buildings, vast machinery for continued exploration in physics and cosmology. But in order to do something analogous to driving long distances in a conspicuous, luxury car, a family would have to work hard through long years and renounce many goods other people can afford. Most of the family’s “Gaia-gift” would be spent on traveling in their prestigious car.

Rich people who work in the world of business, but are supporters of the deep ecology movement, ask in all seriousness whether the green utopian societies must look so dreary. Why portray a society, which seemingly needs no big entrepreneurs, only organic farmers, humble artists, and meek naturalists. A capitalist society is in a certain sense a wild society. We need some degree of wildness, but not exactly the capitalist sort. The usual utopian green societies seem so sober and tame.  We shall need enthusiasts of the extravagant, the luxuriant, and the big. So long as they do not dominate!

In short, I do not envisage the necessity of any dramatic, sudden revolution or about-face in social and political variables, when I envisage things from the limited point of view of overcoming the still increasing ecological crisis. But as mature human beings – I imagine that some of us are mature or on the way to being mature – we are concerned also about nonviolence and about social justice. And I see the value of expressing our ideas of how one’s own ideal green societies may look, however vague they might be at this juncture. A green society is one that has to some extent solved not only the problem of reaching ecological sustainability, but has also ensured peace and a large measure of nonviolent social justice. I don’t see why so many people find reason to despair. I am confident that humans have what is demanded.

So, this is how I, a supporter of the deep ecology movement, feel today: impatient with the doomsday prophets and confident that we have a mission, however modest, in shaping a better future that is not so far away after all; just a hundred years or so.


The expression long range movement, and my insistence that we have time to carefully choose priorities to make plans that will take a lifetime to carry out, has sometimes left the impression that what I was saying was  ”Lean back, take it easy. We have plenty of time.” To counteract this impression, let me say that when we talk in terms of decades or centuries, as, for example, when considering human population reduction, it is important to bear in mind that what you –you!- do today and tomorrow is important for how bad conditions will be in centuries to come.

Immediate action, yes, but the formidable size and vast diversity of things that must be done, “the length of the frontier”, the very limited resources of people and funds today available for determined actions – all this indicates the importance both of a general long range perspective and, of course, a careful consideration of what should be done more or less immediately.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: We are posting here our own edited version of an essay that appears in The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings of Arne Naess, edited by Alan DRENGSON and Bill DEVALL.  Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (pp. 308-315). We are grateful to Counterpoint Press and to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2012 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. Alan Drengson has also provided invaluable advice and support.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) was one of the foremost environmental thinkers of the 20th century, and is often referred to as “the father of deep ecology”. He was critical of environmentalists who did not seek to address the institutional causes of environmental degradation, or seek to change them. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) made a deep impact on him. And in the late 1960s he undertook a thorough study of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent active resistance.  In satyagraha Naess found the answer to his quest for a strategy to address the ecological crisis: Gandhian nonviolent active resistance could be synthesized with deep ecology. This Gandhian side of Naess’s thinking is acknowledged but not well enough known. He was a major interpreter and theoretician of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent active resistance, on a par with, if not subtler than, either Joan Bondurant or Krishnalal Shridharani. In this work, his reinterpretation of the meaning of Gandhian strategy remains one of the most trenchant discussions of Gandhian philosophy thus far written.

Naess’s philosophical work was in the area of linguistic analysis, applying mathematical set theory to the problem of interpreting language and statements we make to each other. Every statement can have several interpretations, or sets and subsets. How do we evaluate these? He was also concerned about creating a new language for his environmental thinking, coining the term ecosophy, from the Greek words for environment and wisdom, to describe his belief that every living being, whether plant, animal, or person, has the right to live and blossom, to self-realization.

WEB REFERENCES: A useful critical appreciation has been written by David Orton of the Springer 10 volume set. The article serves as a useful guide also to the contents of the volumes. The main site for articles on ecosophy, is The Trumpter, Journal of Ecosophy. Alan Drengson is one of the main interpreters of Arne Naess, and an executor of the Naess estate. His beautiful and useful ecostery foundation website is well worth visiting.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi