Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Eight Principles of Deep Ecology - a discussion

Revised January 21, 2000
as written by Arne Naess and George Sessions
With comments by
Robert L. Fielding
Two people discuss each principle: one is the writer, Robert Leslie Fielding (RLF), and the other is A.N. Other (ANO)
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.

RLF: I think we must go back to basics when we assert this principle – that other life forms were NOT put on this Earth to support mankind.

ANO: Yes, I think you are right. We must assert that, but many will accept that only with a great deal of reluctance. We are taught, are we not, that the beasts of the world were put here to feed and clothe us, the flowers to adorn us?

RLF: That is true, we were taught that, and perhaps that is our greatest error, though few would have the temerity to say it, so implanted as it is in our psyche that mankind is somehow placed at the top of an imaginary pyramid, with so called, lesser forms of life taking what we think is their rightful place below us.

ANO: It is backed up by what is called the food chain, is it not; giving the pyramid some quasi-scientific validity. We have the power to ‘enforce’ our end of that chain, or so we imagine.

RLF: We place ourselves at the top of it, as you say, imagining that we are invincible, when in fact, it is the planet that is invincible – even as we seem to be doing our utmost to control and use it for our own ends.

ANO: I am reminded by something someone, I forget who, said, ‘If all insect life came to an end, within fifty years, all life on Earth would perish. If all human life came to an end, within fifty years, all life would flourish.’

RLF: I think that proves a point. But we surely don’t have to face extinction, do we, in order to save what keeps us and nourishes us?

ANO: We most certainly do not, but my point is that we most surely will if we do not put a halt to our destruction of the environment – our own and every living thing’s environment. We must first realize that we are not invincible, even as it pleases us to think we are.

RLF: Especially as it pleases us to think we are.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

RLF: No one who has experienced life, its richness and its beauty can ignore the validity of that statement. The value that all life is sacrosanct – all life is sacred is borne out, not just by self-serving opinion, but by scientific fact. Giant redwoods only grow to the enormous size they do because of insect life carrying, feeding and secreting among its branches and within its bark.

ANO: Indeed, but you do not have to look that far; the human form, we are told, is 70% water, and is kept alive and well by the billions upon billions of bacteria in our organs, helping us to break-down the food we eat into digestible and usable forms that supply us with nutrition to maintain our health and our energy levels.

RLF: And it is in our language that were go wrong; calling some plants weeds, when it pleases us to do so; to call soil – that originator of all life – dirt – matter out of place, to abuse land when we think it has no value, on down to the less privileged of the world, whom we regard as having no worth, and that merely on the basis of their worldly wealth – their ability to acquire – to attain, and ultimately to squander.

ANO: Humankind lives by symbols, to which we assign value.

RLF: And this value outstrips any real, lasting value – the value of every living thing.

ANO: It is this symbolic value that is at fault.

RLF: But when did it originate?

ANO: Surely from the rise of industrialism – even in its minutest form. The making of a surplus demanded that value be placed upon artifacts where none naturally existed, and so it went on until we have reached the point where all we have is the symbol – the origins of which have long since been buried in the sands of time. It is here where we go wrong – perpetuating the myth that the making of material wealth is of the highest value.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

RLF: We do not have the right, but nevertheless we go right ahead and give ourselves the right, or rather, we totally reject the notion that we have no right to reduce richness and diversity.

ANO: And we not only give ourselves these so called rights, we laud those who do the most – those who get rich by doing it, encouraging others into the same folly.

RLF: This is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand – ignoring the reality of life on Earth – for what?

ANO: For nothing – nothing more than glorifying in our material wealth.

RLF: One must tread carefully here. The guardians of all we abhor are quick to label critics with discredit – accusations that deny us the right to criticize in any way.

ANO: We have needs though, let us not deny that.

RLF: We do, and they are many, but as many as they are, many are little more than man-made needs – not those that are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – our need for food, warmth, security and such.

ANO: And I would add only so much of what he calls ‘self-actualization’ as the world can stand – only that portion of those needs that are based, not upon man’s perception of them, but on real values centred around truth – the high ideals by which some live.

RLF: Let us then live lives that do not deny others the right to live.

ANO: Whatever those others, as you call them, happen to be. For, as we have said earlier, it is in denying life to some that we deny life to ourselves – it is as simple as that.

RLF: Yes, and it is only now, when we can see our own demise in sight, that we have come to think this way – that we do not have the right to deny life to those diverse forms the Earth is blessed with.

4. 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.

RLF: We have already said, have we not, that it is because of our insistence – our arrogance – that we award ourselves accolades that have no basis in Nature, that mankind threatens the existence of all other forms of life.

ANO: And we persist in that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

RLF: What is required to change our mindsets?

ANO: Only this – an ability to think creatively, to do that and to be strong enough to stand up for what we believe is right.

RLF: But how can we stand against vested interest – with all its might – with all its sycophantic advocates. We speak of human rights, first and foremost, and omit to even mention the rights of all other forms of life.

ANO: Did we ere in our thoughts, even from our ancestors – ancient Greeks, from whom Western thought grew?

RLF: I am sure that we did, years. But, and I am not acting as an apologist here – those modes of thought we hold with such reverence were conceived in a time so far removed from the present, both in chronological time, and in terms of cultural development, that they deserve to be subjected to a radical re-thinking if we are to survive, and by ‘we’ I mean all forms of life.

ANO: But let us not forget that there are people walking the Earth who either do not hold with the principles upon which much of Western thought is based, or else have not benefited from some of their admittedly benevolent tenets. What of them? What of people who live under a rule that denies them even those basic values that we so unceasingly squander? What of them? Shall we go back a thousand years to a time before our present modes of thought were created?

RLF: Your point is a good one, and it is analogous to the Western nations admonishing poorer nations for endangering their own environment, even as they watch us squander and abuse ours.

ANO: New modes of thought must encompass all if they are to have any benefit to all. We cannot ask for sacrifices to be made by some and remain stolid in our defence of our own liberty to use and abuse the world’s resources.

5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

RLF: This has been so since man learnt to produce a surplus and use it to trade in commodities he could well have done without.

ANO: It is as we have said; man lives by the meaning of symbols – to his own detriment.

RLF: But our detractors would chastise us for our seemingly apparent wish to return to the Stone Age – living in the freezing dark night of eternity. Where should it all have stopped? Can you understand my question; at what point in our history – our pre-history, almost, did we begin to sew the seeds of our own demise? Was it in moving away from the fields that gave us wheat, gave us bread to eat and live by?

ANO: I can see your point. Was our beginning inevitable?

RLF: That is my point exactly. Do we have to return to that age and try to start over again, because if you say we do, I tell you we are doomed to failure.

ANO: Let me be clear here; no one is suggesting that we return to those ages of man distinguished by a life, nasty brutish and short. Rather, we need to limit our needs to those that can be sustained for all time, for that is what we must do if we are not to emulate the success of the dinosaurs.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies will affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be very different from the present.

RLF: What is required is nothing less than a radical change in our attitude to life, but more importantly, in our attitude to ourselves; this fallacy that this Earth is there for us and us alone, is at the very heart of our folly, and it will be at the heart of our undoing too.

ANO: But how can we begin to unravel the knot we find ourselves it. Will we have to cut through it, as Alexander the Great is said to have cut the ropes in the Gordian Knot?

RLF: That is a good example of what we need to accomplish – no less that a severing of this Gordian knot of our own making.

ANO: But this knot has been tied by the hands of the multitude – how can it now be untied?

RLF: Not without a great deal of suffering, that is clear. For as you have contributed to the tying of that knot, so shall you have to deny yourself those things that define you.

ANO: I can see no alternative than starting with the young – who, as we all know, have amazing capabilities for change. And for a very good reason.

RLF: Which is?

ANO: Which is that being young, children know no tethers on their critical faculties, nor on their imagination that so tie us adults. Our hope is in our children – after all, they will see a future that we will not live to see. They have a much greater need than we do, and having the greater need, have the greater right to be heard.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

RLF: What is at the heart of this ideological change is nothing less than an answer to the question: What constitutes living?

ANO: And by that, you mean, I suppose, the difference between a sort of life of sensitivity, a life of reflection, versus the headlong pursuit of the variety of pleasure that is short lived and without any lasting meaning – that sort of life. Am I right?

RLF: You are exactly right. While we live a life in which reflection plays little or no part, we are prone, by this self-deceit, to continue our rampaging way through our surroundings in pursuit of something as utterly ephemeral and transparently vacuous as this Great Pleasure Principle.

ANO: That might be so, but you cannot deny the hold it has over the vast majority of people alive today.

RLF: Can I re-define that; the vast majority of people, of which you speak – being adult. Children are yet, by definition, sufficiently immature not to be totally taken in by this.

ANO: So we return to the same point; that our salvation is in the hands of the young.

RLF: Exactly so. The new born child knows nothing of so called sophisticated tastes – she only knows those needs which all are born with; she has no layers of false consciousness to weigh her down.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

RLF: In a sense, a very real sense, we each of us have or perhaps I should say ought to have a keen interest in implementing the changes necessary to save us.

ANO: But there will inevitably be those who utterly deny that such changes can or should be implemented.

RLF: And, unfortunately for mankind, those with the most ability to thwart any such changes, are those in positions of power within our various societies. Those with real power of financial and political might, goading people with much less into believing that their interests correspond.

ANO: Shall we not then adopt a sort of Fabian approach – attacking gradually, until walls are broken down?

RLF: We may. These walls of which you speak are of a metaphorical nature, are they not?

ANO: They are; the walls of prejudice, of folly, of insensitivity and unawareness and ignorance – those are the walls refer to.
Robert L. Fielding


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