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  • Writer's pictureRita Lança

Deep Ecology

This article begins a series dedicated to Deep Ecology, one of the movements that supports and inspires the services I provide as a Transition Doula.

This first article focuses primarily on a theoretical perspective, based on the foundational concepts of Deep Ecology, intersecting with the concepts of shallow ecology, ecocentrism, and anthropocentrism.

I explain the origins, principles, and key ideas that guide the Deep Ecology movement through the writings of Arne Naess.

To illustrate this article, I’m including a rock engraving from Mauritania, a painting by Graça Morais, and a poem by Manoel de Barros.

On the Concept of Deep Ecology

In broad research, the term Deep Ecology is linked to climate change, sustainable consumption practices, and/or holistic approaches that aim to contribute to a new consciousness and praxis that recognises the interdependence and fragility of life. This perspective centres on nature and views humanity within the context of the whole.

I’m very fond of a phrase from the American podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which illustrates the perspective from which we often see ourselves and shows how distant we are from this myriad, when it refers to death: "Death is only the end if you assume the story is [just] about you" ([just] was my own addition).

Associated with the term Deep Ecology are the commonly referenced terms of shallow ecology, ecocentrism, and anthropocentrism.

The concept of Deep Ecology was coined in 1973, in an article written by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, as opposed to what he called shallow ecology.

The term shallow ecology is based on the conventional view that the environment should be preserved due to its importance to humans. This model is grounded in an anthropocentric vision, where humanity dominates nature, contributing to large-scale environmental degradation, with nature viewed as an instrument.

Inspired by Spinoza and Gandhi, Naess embodied a new approach, experiencing a transition to a lifestyle in greater proximity to nature, similar to what Henry David Thoreau had advocated in the 19th century. His approach is centred on an ecocentric perspective, where the centre is the home, understood as nature, advocating balance in the relationship between nature and humans, with humans being part of nature.

What is Deep Ecology?

Deep Ecology is considered both a philosophy and a movement that profoundly questions the reality we live in and, according to guiding principles, leads to practical recommendations. These recommendations can converge into various worldviews that uphold the maxim that our planet is a living entity and not just a resource "for short-sighted human interests" (Naess, 1989).

The concept is based on a Gestalt perspective, which conceives that each element of nature, including humanity, must be preserved and respected to ensure the balance of the biosphere system. The term was created to counter the concept of shallow ecology, also developed by Naess, commonly referred to as environmentalism. In the shallow approach, the focus is more on the consequences than the causes, making it largely hollow in political terms (Guerreiro, 2019). It addresses issues such as the depletion of natural resources and species extinction and seeks to minimise environmental impact caused by economic growth.

It is based on an extractivist view of nature, according to which, in this dominant paradigm, humans occupy a central position in relation to nature, and nature should be preserved to allow the exploitation of natural resources, which would support a capitalist model aimed towards structural competitiveness, as described by Bob Jessop.

In contrast, Deep Ecology is founded on the radical questioning and placing of major challenges at the centre of the public and political arena, in the sense of the Greek polis. It also relies on the understanding that long-term political choices that serve the biosphere also serve humanity, as they are inseparable. This is exemplified by Naess's (1989) figure of the Earth and seas.

In a shallow approach, landscapes, ecosystems, rivers, and seas are fragmented into units, treated as the property of individuals, organisations, or states. The conservation of these resources is seen from a cost-benefit analysis perspective. Impacts on wildlife, water quality, and soils are recognized, but structural and profound changes are dismissed because this model is based on the strong belief that the future lies in technological progress, relegating to the background concepts like the common heritage of humanity or future generations.

In the Deep Ecology approach, the Earth, rivers, sea, fauna, and flora do not belong to humans. Humans merely inhabit the earth, using resources to meet vital needs. The depletion of natural life is not solved solely by technological means. The arrogant approaches of industrial societies must be combated.

Principles and Key Points of Deep Ecology

Despite the eight principles that underpin Deep Ecology being proposed by Arne Naess and George Sessions, Naess (1989) emphasises that the ecological movement of the 1960s was already engaging in activism along these lines. He clarifies, however, that this movement encountered much resistance and fell silent in the public sphere, failing to take a proactive political stance.

Instead of advocating for profound and far-reaching changes, the 1960s ecological movement restricted its influence to specialised publications, which, among other things, inspired scholars like Naess but greatly frustrated people who were attentive and concerned with these issues, as they felt abandoned by the specialists.

Naess (1989) acknowledges the invaluable contribution of various authors who helped in understanding and bringing forth this movement, including numerous poets and artists, Americans George Sessions and Bill Devall, as well as The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy, launched by Canadian Alan Drengson.

According to Naess (1989), the eight principles of Deep Ecology are:

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth are interdependent on their utility for human purposes and have intrinsic value in themselves.

  2. The richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves. Complexity and symbiosis maximise diversity.

  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to meet vital needs. The definition of vital needs should be read in light of differentiating conditions, related to climate, societal structures, among others.

  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires this decrease. The impact of the lifestyle and choices of materially richer countries has caused severe consequences, such as species extinction.

  5. The extent of human interference in the non-human world is excessive, and this situation is worsening. The struggle to preserve and extend wilderness or semi-wilderness areas should continue, focusing on the ecological functions of these areas. One of these functions is that large wilderness areas are necessary in the biosphere to allow the continued evolutionary specialisation of animals and plants.

  6. Recognizing the current state necessitates political action, with consequent policy changes affecting ideological, economic, and technological structures. The type of economic development pursued by industrial states is incompatible with principles 1 to 5. A paradigm shift is necessary. For example, the term “sustainable” is mostly applied in reference to people and resource scarcity, in an economic line, as a commodity. These measures must be applied on a global scale.

  7. Ideological change involves valuing the quality of life differently from high standards of living. There will be an awareness of the difference between large, associated with quantity, and optimal, a priority.

  8. Those who subscribe to the preceding principles have a direct or indirect obligation to try to implement the necessary changes. Paraphrasing Bill Devall, one of the challenges of Deep Ecology is to turn it into a lifestyle, but simultaneously, this challenge is a wealth because it gives us the opportunity to rediscover what is essential and meaningful in life.

Deep Ecology Illustrated

I leave you three invitations, three distinct forms of art, some clues for you to follow, which will allow you to dive into your inner landscape and detangle the threads of Deep Ecology in your life.

  1. I would like to illustrate this article with Maria (1982), the beautiful oil and charcoal painting on canvas by Graça Morais, displayed at the Graça Morais Contemporary Art Center in Bragança. Due to copyright issues, this is not possible. It is a fundamental work by the Portuguese visual artist, shaped by her childhood contact with the Côa Valley rock engravings, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.  I invoke the telluric painting of Graça Morais for its ability to bring the ancestral cry back to life in the present, to represent that a threat to a living being, animal, or natural, constitutes a threat to humanity, to the web of life. In the painter's words, her work is her way of fighting in this world.

  2. Palaeolithic iconography transports us to this interconnectedness and inseparability between nature and humans. Visiting the Escoural Cave in Portugal or the Cantabria Caves in Spain, among others, observing the rock engravings, awakens the imagination of how life was ritualised in deep communion with nature, how spirituality emanated from flora, fauna, and the ecosystem. I leave you with a photo of a rock engraving in the Agrour Amogjar cave, located between Chinguetti and Atar, in central Mauritania. This engraving is peculiar because the depicted giraffe attests that this area, now desert, was previously a savannah.

Rock engraving in the Agrour Amogjar cave, Mauritania
Rock engraving in the Agrour Amogjar cave, Mauritania

3. Finally, I leave you with the company of the poem Butterflies by Manoel de Barros:

Butterflies invited me over to them. 

I was drawn by the insect’s privilege of being a butterfly.

Surely, I would have a different perspective on men and things. 

I imagined that the world seen from a butterfly’s point of view would certainly be a world free to poems.

From that perspective: 

I saw that trees are more competent in dawns than men. 

I saw that herons make better use of the afternoons than men. 

I saw that waters have a greater quality for peace than men. 

I saw that swallows know more about the rains than scientists. 

I could narrate many more things that I was able to see from the perspective of a butterfly. 

In that place, even my fascination was blue. 

In the next article of the Deep Ecology series, I will share the model that inspires me the most within this movement, The Work That Reconnects, developed by Joanna Macy.


  • António Guerreiro (2019, June 21). “Ecologia Profunda e de Superfície”, Público.

  • Arne Naess (1973) “The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movement: A summary”, Inquiry, vol. 16,  pp. 95–100.

  • Arne Naess (1989). Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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