Page prepared by Noel G. Charlton

DEEP ECOLOGY ... is both a philosophical perspective and a campaigning platform. Developed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who describes it as “a process of reflection leading to action”, it is a systemic conceptual framework for assisting personal and social decision making about matters which affect the “more than human” living world.

Its key principles are:

Suggested reading

Sessions, George, (Ed.) Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala, 1995. (An anthology of Deep Ecological writings).
Naess, Arne., Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Rothenberg, David., Is It Painful To Think?: Conversations with Arne Naess, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Fox, Warwick., Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism, Boston & London: Shambhala: 1990.

There is a ten volume edition of Arne Naess’s selected works, published in 2005.  Unfortunately, the cost is over £1300. Perhaps your university library would obtain this.

There are also many other books and papers available – see, for instance, the Amazon UK website.

Much of the material and the quotations on these pages on Deep Ecology are from seminars and lectures given by Arne Naess and colleagues at Schumacher College, Devon, England in 1995.

Arne Naess

Naess studied in Oslo, Paris and Vienna, becoming the first full Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University aged 28. Deeply influenced by Spinoza and Gandhi, he became the originator of Deep Ecology and an environmental activist, physically involved in many demonstrations and actions. A mountaineer, he was the first to climb Tirich Mir (Norway) in 1950. He built a mountain hut at 12,000 ft. in 1938 and was, aged 82, still spending several months each year living there, writing and rock climbing. Now in his mid 90’s he lives in sheltered accommodation, still giving interviews and talks.

Equal intrinsic value

implies species egalitarianism: all beings, of whatever species, have equal value in themselves for what they are. This is distinguished from any instrumental or use-value they may have to other beings. Thus, humans may only interfere with other beings “at vital need”, not just to satisfy their desires. Even non-living beings (rivers, mountains) have intrinsic value. There is no gradation of intrinsic value - it is absolute.

Deep relationship with the world

Naess distinguishes ‘deep’ from ‘shallow’ or technical fix approaches to ecological issues. We need a deep change of attitude, a spiritual change to our inner selves. We are part of nature. Responsible ways of living are more conducive to truly human goals than the present destructive lifestyles. Deep questioning is a process of examining our beliefs and then engaging with others who differ. Deep questions are about quality of living, about “feeling good”, we should “worry about essentials”. “Quality of life is nothing - absolutely nothing - to do with what you have; everything to do with how you feel about it”.

Self realisation

- “selv-realizering” in Norwegian; a continuing process of recognising that the self is not limited to the person but extends to all the intermeshed processes in the world within which our minds and bodies live. Naess: “Not saving the rain-forest, but saving that part of yourself which is the rain-forest”. Another term Naess uses is “wide identification”: one must at least extend one’s sphere of concern to non-human beings, ideally to all forms of living and non-living entities. Naess: “The focus is on single living beings. The whole has intrinsic value…. We have respect for wholes; we identify with individuals”.

Gestalt ontology

Gestalt” - looking at the inter-related whole. “Ontology” - what we perceive as “being there” in the world. Naess: “We need a gestalt ontology, to get rid of subject, object and something in between, the me-it relationship…. to see the whole set. All is one. This is about feeling rather than thinking”.

Total views

We all act as if we have a systematic total view of the world by making assumptions, having a philosophy of life, making daily decisions - but this is not consciously thought out. It is our responsibility to articulate and act out our “total view”. This will improve our decision making and make it possible to communicate to others our systematically thought out beliefs. This is a lifetime project; total views are never complete.


Each of us must think through and construct our own philosophy for living wisely in the world. We all have basic beliefs (“ultimate premises”), intuitively felt, perhaps not articulated. These may be Christian, Buddhist, Humanist, whatever. An ultimate premise might be Respect all Life!” (the ! represents an imperative in Naess' notation). We can add to this some further premises and hypotheses: “This will happen if I do that” or “This is so”. If we are deep ecologists this will lead us to endorse the points of the Deep Ecology Platform from which we will derive our personal guidelines for lifestyle and practical action in our particular situation. Naess says (frequently) “The frontier is long - there are many ways of acting for good - you cannot do everything!”.

Normative derivational system

For Naess, Deep Ecology has a four-level structure. From our most basic beliefs (see Ultimate premises and Ecosophy) are derived the “eight points” of the Deep Ecology Platform. The principles of our personal lifestyles follow from this. Appropriate practical action becomes evident. Thus the system is one of deriving from ‘norms’ (statements of what ought to be), appropriate principles and actions. This is not the same as strictly logical deduction; premises (statements of what is the case) follow, by “loose derivation” from other premises and hypotheses (statements of belief), appropriate practical consequences and actions result from these. The Deep Ecology process is a tool for enabling systematic discussion of total views, of how norms and consequences interact. Deep questioning enables value conflict (e.g. should you, from pity, kill a desperately suffering animal when you believe life to be inviolably sacred?) to be systematically discussed.

Ultimate premises

These are our basic beliefs, intuitively known, beyond which we cannot go. Also called ultimate or basic norms, they are our intuitions about how the world is. An infinite variety of basic norms is possible, one must think out and choose ones own - but the Deep Ecology Platform must be derivable from them.

Commitment to action

Naess: “We are an occupied country. A minority must stand up, talk in public, say: 'If things are so - the problems will be so - and we should do thus'. Turn discussions into the deeper questions of life". Deep Ecology is a movement as well as a philosophy. Many can agree to support the movement; the Deep Ecology Platform is a summary of points agreed by activists and thinkers holding possibly very different philosophical perspectives. Differing basic norms “sieved” through the “eight points” of the platform can result in co-operative outcomes and decisions which will only “vary a little”. The movement must collaborate with the peace movement and the movement for social justice: starvation, male domination, war are ecological evils too - we need a universalised lifestyle that can be sustained without injustice.

The Deep Ecology Platform

  1. The flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth has intrinsic value. The value of non-human life forms is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  5. 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.
  6. Significant change of life conditions for the better requires change in policies. These affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of intrinsic value) rather than adhering to a high standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the forgoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 29.

Dr. Noel Charlton can be contacted at:

His book (which also explores Deep Ecology), Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth will be published by the State University of New York Press in May, 2008.