Deep ecology: the vision of Arne Naess

Arne Naess was Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Oslo University in Norway. In 1973, he coined the term “deep ecology.” He is a renowned Spinoza scholar, and has written extensively on Spinoza, Buddhism and Gandhi,

During his life, Naess also engaged in nonviolent acts of ecological resistance. Dolores LaChapelle, in Earth Wisdom tells of an incident in which Naess, an accomplished rock climber and Himalayan mountaineer, tied himself high on the wall of a Norwegian fjord and refused to descend until authorities dropped plans to dam the fjord. The authorities backed down and Naess roped down.

Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World
~ by Arne Naess

{This essay is excerpted from the Fourth Keith Roby Memorial Lecture in Community Science delivered at Murdoch University in Murdoch, Australia, March 12, 1986.}  Text source:

For at least 2500 years, humankind has struggled with basic questions about who we are, what we are heading for, what kind of reality we are part of. Two thousand five hundred years is a short period in the lifetime of a species, and still less in the lifetime of the Earth, on whose surface we belong as mobile parts.

What I am going to say more or less in my own way, may roughly be condensed into the following six points:

1. We underestimate ourselves. I emphasize self. We tend to confuse it with the narrow ego.

2. Human nature is such that with sufficient all-sided maturity we cannot avoid “identifying” ourselves with all living beings, beautiful or ugly, big or small, sentient or not. I will elucidate my concept of identifying later.

3. Traditionally the maturity of the self develops through three stages — from ego to social self, and from social self to metaphysical self. In this conception of the process nature — our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children, and our identification with living human beings — is largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce the concept of an ecological self. We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community, but with the larger community of all living beings.

4. The joy and meaning of life is enhanced through increased self-realization, through the fulfillment of each being’s potential. Whatever the differences between beings, increased self-realization implies broadening and deepening of the self.

5. Because of an inescapable process of identification with others, with growing maturity, the self is widened and deepened. We “see our self in others”. Self-realization is hindered if the self-realization of others, with whom we identify, is hindered. Love of our self will labor to overcome this obstacle by assisting in the self-realization of others according to the formula “live and let live.” Thus, all that can be achieved by altruism — the dutiful, moral consideration of others — can be achieved — and much more — through widening and deepening our self. Following Immanuel Kant’s critique, we then act beautifully but neither morally nor immorally.

6. The challenge of today is to save the planet from further devastation which violates both the enlightened self-interest of humans and nonhumans, and decreases the potential of joyful existence for all.

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The simplest answer to who or what I am is to point to my body, using my finger. But clearly I cannot identify my self or even my ego with my body. For example, compare:

I know Mr. Smith, with My body knows Mr. Smith.
I like poetry. My body likes poetry
The only difference The only difference
between us is that between our bodies is that
you are a Presbyterian your body is Presbyterian
and I am a Baptist. whereas mine is Baptist.

In the above sentences we cannot substitute “my body” for “I” nor can we substitute “my mind” or “my mind and body” for “I.” But this of course does not tell us what the ego or self is.

Several thousand years of philosophical, psychological and social-psychological discourse has not brought us any stable conception of the “I,” ego, or the self. In modern psychotherapy these notions play an indispensable role, but the practical goal of therapy does not necessitate philosophical clarification of the terms. For our purposes, it is important to remind ourselves what strange and marvelous phenomena we are dealing with. They are extremely close to each of us. Perhaps the very nearness of these objects of reflection and discourse adds to our difficulties. I shall only offer a single sentence resembling a definition of the ecological self. The ecological self of a person is that with which this person identifies.

This key sentence (rather than definition) about the self, shifts the burden of clarification from the term self to that of identification or more accurately, the process of identification.
What would be a paradigmatic situation of identification? It is a situation in which identification elicits intense empathy. My standard example has to do with a nonhuman being I met forty years ago. I looked through an old-fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic. What was basic was the process of identification, that “I see myself in the flea.” If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing intuitively anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent. So there must be identification in order for there to be compassion and, among humans, solidarity.

One of the authors contributing admirably to clarification of the study of self is Erich Fromm:

The doctrine that love for oneself is identical with selfishness and an alternative to love for others has pervaded theology, philosophy, and popular thought; the same doctrine has been rationalized in scientific language in Freud’s theory of narcissism. Freud’s concept presupposes a fixed amount of libido. In the infant, all of the libido has the child’s own person as its objective, the stage of primary narcissism as Freud calls it. During the individual’s development, the libido is shifted from one’s own person toward other objects. If a person is blocked in his object-relationships the libido is withdrawn from the objects and returned to his or her own person; this is called secondary narcissism. According to Freud, the more love I turn toward the outside world the less love is left for myself, and vice versa. He thus describes the phenomenon of love as an impoverishment of one’s self-love because all libido is turned to an object outside oneself.1

Fromm, however, disagrees with Freud’s analysis. He concerned himself solely with love of humans, but as “ecosophers” we find the notions of “care, respect, responsibility, knowledge” applicable to living beings in the wide sense.

Love of others and love of ourselves are not alternatives. On the contrary, an attitude of love toward themselves will be found in all those who are capable of loving others. Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as the connection between objects and one’s own self is concerned. Genuine love is an expression of productiveness and implies care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. It is not an effect in the sense of being effected by somebody, but an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.2

Fromm is very instructive about unselfishness— diametrically opposite to selfishness, but still based upon alienation and a narrow perception of self. What he says applies also to persons experiencing sacrifice of themselves.

The nature of unselfishness becomes particularly apparent in its effect on others and most frequently, in our culture, in the effect the “unselfish” mother has on her children. She believes that by her unselfishness her children will experience what it means to be loved and in turn to learn what it means to love. The effect other unselfishness, however, does not at all correspond to her expectations. The children do not show the happiness of persons who are convinced that they are loved; they are anxious, tense, afraid of the mother’s disapproval, and anxious to live up to her expectations. Usually, they are affected by their mother’s hidden hostility against life, which they sense rather than recognize, and eventually become imbued with it themselves:

If one has a chance to study the effect of a mother with genuine self-love, one can see that there is nothing more conducive to giving a child the experience of what love, joy, and happiness are than being loved by a mother who loves herself.3

From the viewpoint of ecophilosophy, the point is this: We need environmental ethics, but when people feel they unselfishly give up, even sacrifice, their interest in order to show love for nature, this is probably in the long run a treacherous basis for ecology. Through broader identification, they may come to see their own interest served by environmental protection, through genuine self- love, love of a widened and deepened self.

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As a student and admirer since 1930 of Gandhi’s nonviolent direct action, I am inevitably influenced by his metaphysics which furnished him tremendously powerful motivation to keep on going until his death. His supreme aim, as he saw it, was not only India’s political liberation. He led crusades against extreme poverty, caste suppression, and against terror in the name of religion. These crusades were necessary, but the liberation of the individual human being was his highest end. Hearing Gandhi’s description of his ultimate goal may sound strange to many of us.

What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha (Liberation). I live and move and have my being in pursuit of that goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.4

This sounds individualistic to the Western mind, a common misunderstanding. If the self Gandhi is speaking about were the ego or the “narrow” self (jiva) of egocentric interest, of narrow ego gratifications, why then work for the poor? For him it is the supreme or universal Self — the atman —that is to be realized. Paradoxically, it seems, he tries to reach self-realization through selfless action, that is, through reduction of the dominance of the narrow self or ego. Through the wider Self every living being is connected intimately, and from this intimacy follows the capacity of identification and as its natural consequences, the practice of nonviolence. No moralizing is necessary, just as we do not require moralizing to make us breathe. We need to cultivate our insight, to quote Gandhi again “The rock bottom foundation of the technique for achieving the power of nonviolence is belief in the essential oneness of all life.”

Historically we have seen how ecological preservation is nonviolent at its very core. Gandhi notes:

I believe in advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spirituality, the whole world gains with him and, if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent.5

Some people might consider Gandhi extreme in his personal consideration for the self-realization of living beings other than humans. He traveled with a goat to satisfy his need for milk. This was part of a nonviolent witness against certain cruel features in the Hindu way of milking cows. Furthermore, some European companions who lived with Gandhi in his ashram were taken aback that he let snakes, scorpions and spiders move unhindered into their bedrooms—animals fulfilling their lives. He even prohibited people from having a stock of medicines against poisonous bites. He believed in the possibility of satisfactory coexistence and he proved right. There were no accidents. Ashram people would naturally look into their shoes for scorpions before putting them on. Even when moving over the floor in darkness one could easily avoid trampling on one’s fellow beings. Thus, Gandhi recognized a basic, common right to live and blossom, to self-realization applicable to any being having interests or needs. Gandhi made manifest the internal relation between self-realization, nonviolence and what is sometimes called biospherical egalitarianism.

In the environment in which I grew up, I heard that what is important in life is to be somebody -— usually implying to outdo others, to be victorious in comparison of abilities. This conception of the meaning and goal of life is especially dangerous today in the context of vast international economic competition. The law of supply and demand of separate, isolatable “goods and services” independent of real needs, must not be made to reign over increasing areas of our lives. The ability to cooperate, to work with people, to make them feel good pays of course in a fiercely individualistic society, and high positions may require it. These virtues are often subordinated to the career, to the basic norms of narrow ego fulfillment, not to a self-realization worth the name. To identify self- realization with ego indicates a vast underestimation of the human self.

According to a usual translation of Pali or Sanskrit, Buddha taught his disciples that the human mind should embrace all living things as a mother cares for her son, her only son. For some it is not meaningful or possible for a human self to embrace all living things, then the usual translation can remain. We ask only that your mind embrace all living beings, and that you maintain an intention to care, feel and act with compassion.

If the Sanskrit word atman is translated into English, it is instructive to note that this term has the basic meaning of self rather than mind or spirit, as you see in translations. The superiority of the translation using the word self stems from the consideration that if your self in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care. You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it—unless you have succumbed to a neurosis of some kind, developed self-destructive tendencies, or hate yourself.

The Australian ecological feminist Patsy Hallen uses a formula close to that of Buddha: “we are here to embrace rather than conquer the world.” Notice that the term world is used here rather than living beings. I suspect that our thinking need not proceed from the notion of living being to that of the world. If we can conceive of reality or the world we live in as alive in a wide, not easily defined sense then there will be no non-living beings to care for!
If “self-realization” today is associated with life-long narrow ego gratification, isn’t it inaccurate to use this term for self-realization in the widely different sense of Gandhi, or less religiously loaded, as a term for the widening and deepening of the self so it embraces all life forms? Perhaps it is. But I think the very popularity of the term makes people listen for a moment and feel safe. In that moment the notion of a greater Self can be introduced, contending that if people equate self-realization with narrow ego fulfillment, they seriously underestimate themselves. We are much greater, deeper, more generous and capable of dignity and joy than we think! A wealth of non-competitive joys is open to us!

I have another important reason for inviting people to think in terms of deepening and widening their selves, starting with narrow ego gratification as the crudest, but inescapable starting point. It has to do with the notion usually placed as the opposite of egoism, namely the notion of altruism. The Latin term ego has as its opposite the alter. Altruism implies that ego sacrifices its interest in favour of the other, the alter. The motivation is primarily that of duty; it is said that we ought to love others as strongly as we love our self.

What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or more generally from moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited. From the Renaissance to the Second World War about four hundred cruel wars have been fought by Christian nations, usually for the flimsiest of reasons. It seems to me that in the future more emphasis has to be given to the conditions which naturally widen and deepen our self. With a sufficiently wide and deep sense of self, ego and alter as opposites are eliminated stage by stage as the distinctions are transcended.

Early in life, the social self is sufficiently developed so that we do not prefer to eat a big cake alone. We share the cake with our family and friends. We identify with these people sufficiently to see our joy in their joy, and to see our disappointment in theirs. Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth by deepening our identification with all life-forms, with the ecosystems, and with Gaia, this fabulous, old planet of ours.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced a pair of contrasting concepts which deserve extensive use in our effort to live harmoniously in, for and of nature: the concept of moral act and that of beautiful act. Moral acts are acts motivated by the intention to follow moral laws, at whatever cost, that is, to do our moral duty solely out of respect for that duty. Therefore, the supreme indication of our success in performing a pure, moral act is that we do it completely against our inclination, that we hate to do it, but are compelled by our respect for moral law. Kant was deeply awed by two phenomena, “the heaven with its stars above me and the moral law within me.”

If we do something we should because of a moral law, but do it out of inclination and with pleasure—what then? If we do what is right because of positive inclination, then, according to Kant, we perform a beautiful act. My point is that in environmental affairs we should primarily try to influence people toward beautiful acts by finding ways to work on their inclinations rather than their morals. Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals. As I see it we need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes. We all can contribute to this individually, and it is also a question of politics, local and global. Part of the joy stems from the consciousness of our intimate relation to something bigger than our own ego, something which has endured for millions of years and is worth continued life for millions of years. The requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.

We need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes.

What I am suggesting is the supremacy of ecological ontology and a higher realism over environmental ethics as a means of invigorating the ecology movement in the years to come. If reality is experienced by the ecological Self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics. We certainly need to hear about our ethical shortcomings from time to time, but we change more easily through encouragement and a deepened perception of reality and our own self, that is, through a deepened realism. How that is to be brought about is too large a question for me to deal with here. But it will clearly be more a question of community therapy than community science: we must find and develop therapies which heal our relations with the widest community, that of all living beings.


  1. Erich Fromm, “Selfishness, Self-love, and Self-interest,” in The Self: Explorations in Personal Growth, edited by Clark E. Moustakas (New York, NY: Harper, 1956), page 58.
  2. Ibid., page 59.
  3. Gandhi quotations are taken from Arne Naess, Gandhi and Group Conflict (Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlager, 1974), page 35 where the metaphysics of self-realization are treated more thoroughly in that work.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

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