In my previous posts on philosophy, I opined that academic philosophers were missing in action from Canadian environmental issues, and offered a “Reader’s Digest” tour through some contemporary philosophical voices.
In that last post, we met angry philosophers, libertarians, and finally rational philosophy, where beliefs and intuitions are supposed to be internally and logically consistent. In this post, I will introduce you to the philosophy of the great Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912 – 2009).
Naess’s philosophy – Ecosophy-T – is also the environmental philosophy to which I subscribe. Could Ecosophy-T could be adopted by humanity, or would it imposes unrealistic standards of behaviour and morality? You decide!
Although a whole book has been written about Ecosophy-T (Naess 1989), its core precepts are simply stated:
- 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.
- Richness and diversity of life are values in themselves, and contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth.
- Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
- Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
- 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.
- Significant change of life condition for the better requires change in policies. These affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.
- 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.
- Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.
(Naess, 1989, p. 29)
Of the eight premises, 1, 2, 3, and 8 are moral premises or moral injunctions, while the remainder are empirical statements meant to bolster the philosophical argument.
The key point, of course, is that non-human life has inherent worth. Naess makes no distinction between sentient and non-sentient organisms – at the level of moral valuation, everything is equal.
Naess was not the first to articulate this view. Albert Schweizer gave it even more eloquent expression in 1923: “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: ‘I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live’ ” (quoted in Jamieson 2008, p. 145).
This is an extraordinary powerful statement that melds philosophy with core ecological principles. We accept that life’s deepest imperative is perpetuation through reproduction, and the statement “in the midst of life that wants to live” captures the web of ecological relationships in which all organisms are enmeshed, whether we realize it or not!
Another salient feature of Naess’s philosophy is that the flourishing of humanity would be promoted by its adoption. Premises 1, 2, and 7 make that clear. The idea that by helping Nature we would help ourselves goes beyond the ecological fact that this would be true. According to Canadian philosopher Alan Drengson, It is centred on Naess’s beliefs in:
“Self realization!–for all beings. The Self to be realized for humans is not the ego self (small s), but the larger ecological Self (cap S). This self/Self distinction has affinities with Mahayana Buddhism…..It is deeply influenced by Norwegian friluftsliv (a movement to experience living in the outdoors), Gandhian nonviolence, Mahayana Buddhism and Spinozan pantheism.”
OK, so it’s complicated! But flippancy aside, it is clear that Naess’s vision has precedents and that it resulted from a long period of deep thought and deep cultural knowledge.
It hardly needs stating (but here I go, doing it anyway!) that humanity is pretty far from realizing Naess’s ideal. The grumpy professor is no exception. I travel less, but I still travel by air; I am trying to eat less meat, but I probably still eat too much, what I do eat is not always organic or free range, and I have very non-Ghandaian thoughts when I think about certain politicians!
Etc and so forth – the list of my hypocrisies goes on and mocks my beliefs on a daily basis. But this raises the question, can anyone rise to this standard of behaviour?
My view is that perfection a-le-Naess may not be possible, but that it is important for people to at least move in the right direction. Considering the broader environmental movement, I think we could ask whether the missions statements or actions of our contemporary environmental groups embody any of Naess’s ideals. For example, the nascent movement towards putting an economic value on Nature has gotten some environmentalists in hot water with some commentators. I’ll be writing more about this in my next post, but at the least, economic valuation seems to fly in the face of the idea that life has inherent value.
And to put a Canadian spin on things, our discussions of stream crossings, caribou and aboriginal rights would give the current hearings into the Northern Gateway Pipeline a new dimension if the inherent worth of those affected had to be considered. Kairos, the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiative, has attempted to do just that from a religious perspective.
Finally, it’s only fair to mention that not all environmental philosophers agree with Naess. Philosophy is a divided and contentious discipline. By opening up environmental issues to philosophical debate, environmentalists may be entering a world of pain and seemingly endless debate. But as I implied in my first post on this subject, unless environmentalists engage in the debate, we run the danger of forgetting what exactly it is we are fighting for.
Jamieson, D. 2008. Ethics and the Environment: An introduction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Naess, A. 1989. Ecology, community and lifestyle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
 For example, Murray Bookchin, founder of “social ecology” claimed the philosophy “came mainly from white, male academics and their students, and that its concerns were akin to New Age occultism, with undertones of paganism, and redolent of quasi-fascist Aryan movements”.