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Deep Ecology and Left Biocentrism: An Introduction

by Patrick Curry
July 25, 2008, revised August 15, 2008

The Roots of Deep Ecology

Left Biocentrism grew out of Deep Ecology, which itself was rooted in the growing environmental awareness and struggles of the 1970s. Its roots are thus in activism, not academia. In 1973, however, the Norwegian activist and philosopher Arne Naess tried to articulate the theory of deep ecological practice. (Interestingly, in the same year Richard Routley, later Richard Sylvan together with Val Plumwood, initiated the field of environmental ethics with another influential paper, Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?)

Naess began with an important distinction between shallow environmentalism and deep ecology. He pointed out that the former is anthropocentric, or human-centered. In a human-centric view, non-human nature has only ‘instrumental value.’ That is, it has value only insofar as it is useful to human beings or for their purposes. Deep ecology, Naess stated, is in contrast ecocentric; it recognizes the ‘intrinsic value’ of the entire natural world. That insight became the first of eight Platform Principles which Naess, together with Bill Devall and George Sessions, later formulated as the theoretical basis of Deep Ecology.

As well as the different focus, the Platform Principles advocate respecting the richness and diversity of the Earth’s life-forms and argue that human beings have no right to diminish and exploit these for trivial or selfish reasons. But that is just what is happening, so the principles also specify our obligation to reduce our impact on the Earth, particularly through a lower population, less consumption, and more appreciation of the overall quality of life as distinct from economic standard of living.

All Life on Earth

Although the principles make no explicit mention of it, the Earth is clearly the ultimate context for natural value and all life-forms. The term ‘biocentric’ is often used in this connection, although a better one (because more accurate) would be ‘ecocentric’, since inorganic elements are also integral to life. There are fruitful overlaps in this worldview with the work of Aldo Leopold on ‘thinking like a mountain’ (as opposed, in Sylvan’s words, to “thinking like like a cash register”). Both Naess and Leopold were major influences on the Earth First! movement.

Naess and Sessions also formulated an example of a Deep Ecological theory they called Ecosophy T, with two further principles. These are Self-realization and biocentric egalitarianism. Unfortunately, these two ideas have somewhat overshadowed the original ones, and there are problems with both. The emphasis on supposedly one great Self — certainly the most obvious interpretation — obscures the vital importance of relations of all kinds between different kinds of beings, and whose flourishing requires those differences to be appreciated and respected. (Ecofeminists have been acute critics on this point.) Secondly, biospheric egalitarianism seems to ask us to treat every species, without exception or attention to context, as of equal value. That assumes, implausibly, that value is parcelled out in equal units per species. It is also very difficult, if not impossible, to fully practice. Finally, the language of ‘Self’ sits oddly with Buddhism, by which Naess claims to have been influenced.

[Editor’s note] This point is contentious. Some Left-Biocentrists do not interpret Self-realisation as one great Self, but believe that Naess and Sessions simply were encouraging people to go beyond the ego; also that biocentric egalitarianism refers to the intrinsic value of all species as part of the web of Life (see Suzanne Duarte and Victor, below).

A much more promising recent offshoot of Deep Ecology and, to some extent, of Left Biocentrism, has been the Earth Manifesto developed by Stan Rowe and Ted Mosquin, and published in 2004. (Rowe also produced his own revised short-list of the DE Platform Principles.)

From The Green Web

Left Biocentrism began with the work of David Orton, growing out of his website Green Web, which combines Deep Ecology with an equally serious commitment to social justice and activism including, sometimes, politics. Members of the Left Bio online discussion group agreed a number of points in 1998 that have remained its basis. Other major early influences include Rudolph Bahro, Richard Sylvan and Judi Bari. The political philosophies of members of the Left Bio list include social democratic, liberal (in the Millsian sense), anarchist and most forms of socialist, as well as feminist orientations.

Left Biocentrists believe that any positive ecological change must address collective social and political structures as much as personal, psychological and spiritual ones. Indeed, we see the deep connections between the two approaches. Ecological spirituality, for example, involves reverence for the Earth and the life-forms we share it with, not just for one’s supposedly own private soul. Conversely, political action will ultimately fail without an emotional and, in this sense, spiritual recognition of the Earth’’s intrinsic value. We only fight to save what, or who, we love.

From the perspective of Left Biocentrism, the greatest danger to ecological sanity — in addition to gross human over-population — is capitalism. That is, capitalist methods not only of production but also consumption as a ‘lifestyle,’ and the worship of so-called market forces as a model for every aspect of life. But traditional socialism is equally anthropocentric, and therefore ultimately no solution. (The attitude to ecology of the current governments of Brazil and Venezuala — perhaps as close to socialist as electorally possible — is more evidence of this fact, as is the perennial trumping of ecological issues by that of jobs, whether unionized or not.) Thus although commodity capitalism, having much more power, is many times more destructive, both it and socialism are variants of industrialism.

Lethal industrialism

It is the inability and/or unwillingness of industrialism to recognise the ultimate value of the Earth, upon which we all utterly depend for life, that makes it so lethal. Or rather, that plus its immense power to materially enforce its ecocidal values and views. (Philosophically speaking, Left Biocentrism tries hard to be even-handedly idealist and materialist.) For this reason, while Left Biocentrists respect the traditional concerns of the Left — gender, class and race — they are keenly aware that these all remain within the human ambit, and we forget their ecological context at our peril.

And not just our peril! Anthropocentrism in action is currently driving the sixth great mass extinction of life on Earth. Exactly like a bloated and mercenary ruling class or master race, one species among millions is consuming nearly half the energy upon which all depend, enslaving those few it finds useful or tasty, and exterminating (both directly and indirectly) literally masses of others. Furthermore, this is not just something the rich North and West does. Although industrial farming, husbandry and fishing are the worst offenders, the bush-meat industry and trade in wild animal parts, too — themselves driven by profit more than simply survival — are murderously callous. The ongoing destruction of wild habitat also takes place at all social levels, as does the consumption of industrially-produced meat.

Hitherto, from a mainstream perspective, Left Biocentrism has seemed like a romantic or idealistic dream. We certainly don’t disown idealism, but in the context of ecocrisis, however, what is increasingly apparent is its realism. Specific policy implications cannot be covered here, but the most important include:

  • recognizing the Earth as a commons, both spiritual and material, which is categorically not for sale (privatisation, commodification, etc.);
  • replacing ownership as presently defined with usufruct (the right of use, conditional upon the fulfilment of appropriate responsibilities);
  • replacing profit maximization with profit satisisation (sufficiency); and
  • replacing growth for growth’s sake (“the ideology of the cancer cell,” in Edward Abbey’s words) with genuine sustainability based on the intention to be able to satisfy the needs of all concerned (and not only humans), indefinitely.

Yet such steps, vital though they are, cannot themselves replace taking personal responsibility for one’’s effects upon all the others one affects. The individual and the collective are both important; indeed, they are inseparable.

In short, to quote David Orton, what is needed is “solidarity with all life, not just human life.” Or as Richard Sylvan put it, “the ecological community forms the ethical community.” The only sane and hopeful context for human social justice is justice for all life on Earth. But it also follows, however unpalatably for many, that when and where ecological justice conflicts with social justice — as does and will continue to happen — the latter must give way.

The recognition of these truths is what makes Left Biocentrism distinctive. As such, in the present circumstances, we feel it has a lot to offer.


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1 Suzanne Duarte { 08.01.08 at 4:09 pm }

Hi Patrick,

I agree with almost everything you say here and I thank you for this introduction to the relationship between DE and LB. However, I would like to offer an alternative, personal understanding of the concepts you criticize in Arne Naess’ Ecosophy T.

My personal experience of Self-realization, after reading Naess’ “Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,” in Thinking Like a Mountain, was that I was progressively able to identify with more and more nonhuman beings and to experience greater and greater intimacy in my encounters with them. This occurred over a period of many years. It became a kind of self-rewarding quest to hang out in the wilderness and invite contact with wild animals. As I had the good fortune to live in the wild Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I had quite a lot of these experiences. After learning to adjust my own energetic field so that the birds and mammals could see that I posed no threat, I had some very touching encounters with wild animals in which I felt something authentic was communicated between us. Yes, I talked to them, I sent love and admiration to them, and I received trust from them.

I understood these experiences in terms of Self-realization, both for the Others and for myself. We were respectfully seen by each other. My small, socially conditioned self grew through these experiences. Being a Mahayana Buddhist already, I was used to “exchanging myself for others,” and extending empathy. I simply extended this practice to nonhumans in addition to humans. In fact, I came to perceive nonhuman animals as at least as interesting (real) as most humans. Animals do have personalities and their own point of view. I regard them as my equals – as beings from whom I have something to learn. I have learned a lot about being “a plain member of the biosphere” (Leopold) by hanging out with animals both wild and domestic. Developing a “feeling for the organism” (Barbara McClintock) is how we make ourselves receptive to what a nonhuman organism has to teach us. This is what “identification” means to me. I am grateful for what I have received from the animals: insight, trust, and sometimes gratitude.

Through identification with nonhuman life, I have experienced a “broadening and deepening of the self,” as well as increased “joy and meaning of life,” as Naess says. Some of my most joyful moments have occurred in exchanges with nonhuman animals and places. But I also was an ecological activist and taught what I call “contemplative ecology,” so Naess’ idea of an “ecological Self” made a lot of sense to me. I would like to think that that these experiences have matured me, as he said they would. I know my self has been enriched by them.

I NEVER interpreted Naess’ Self-realization as “one great Self.” I always interpreted Self-realization as developing my own potential through broader and deeper identification with the living beings – the “constitutive relations” – of the Earth community. In identifying with, advocating for, and defending other species and ecosystems, my own sense of identity and my own potential were broadened and deepened. And this is what I believe Naess was getting at re: the ecological Self. By identifying with ecosystems and nonhuman beings, I was motivated to protect them.

So somewhere along the line I think there has been a misreading and misunderstanding of Naess on these concepts. He was basically advocating and encouraging people to get beyond ego (a worthwhile project in any case) by cultivating the ecological Self: “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!” And that is what he sees as the sustainable motivation for the environmental activist.

By “biospheric egalitarianism,” I believe that Naess means that from the Earth’s point of view all species are equal because they all have a place and function (or job) in the web of life, the biosphere, and thus inherent value. Therefore, humans with a biocentric or ecocentric perspective should regard the value of other species from an ecological point of view, not an anthropocentric point of view, which is concerned only with the use or convenience of other species to humans.

Actually, the Native American view expressed by some prominent elders affirms this understanding of biospheric egalitarianism. As Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons has said, “Humans live within the jurisdiction of the Earth, which transcends human laws. The law of Nature is a spiritual law. It respects all life, for all life is equal. If we transgress it, the consequences will be dark and terrible.”

Obviously, if people have never had experiences of wide and deep identification with nonhuman life, Naess’ meaning can easily be misinterpreted. This is unfortunate because I have found his ideas to be helpful and enriching for my own growth as a teacher and activist. I count myself lucky that the first spokesman for deep ecology that I met was the Australian activist John Seed, who had the experience – while defending a rainforest – that he was a part of the rainforest defending itself. This, to me, is a true expression of ecocentrism.

Very beast wishes,


2 Victor { 08.04.08 at 5:40 am }

Dear Suzanne,

I wish to thank you for your comments to Patrick’s Introduction (the latter I esteem very high), and express solidarity with your treatment of Naess’s Self-Realisation. “Thinking Like a Mountain” has had a great impact on me, as well as meeting John Seed personally in the Schumacher College in 2004. Like you, I consider myself a Buddhist, at least philosophically, although not deal with the rituals. Like you, I see myself not limited by my outward appearance. I think that conceptually and philosophically DE has much in common with Mahayana Buddhism, and that has prompted Naess to his ecocentric thinking.

All the best,


3 Patrick { 08.07.08 at 9:05 am }

Hi Suzanne (& Victor). I don’t for a moment question the validity or value of the kinds of experiences you describe! Quite the opposite. What I do strongly question, however, is whether ‘Self-Realization’ is a helpful way to describe, understand or discuss them. Briefly, for 3 reasons:

1. In a Buddhist context it is singularly inappropriate for the obvious & overriding reason that no-self (AND no-Self) is as basic a Buddhist tenet as any you can find. As you know the literature well enough, I’m sure, to take my point, I won’t expand on it here except to point out that it’s simply not about ‘realizing one’s self’! If anything, it’s about realizing there is NO self, whether one’s ‘own’ or others’.

2. As a corollary, the idea of relations & relationships is much, much better. Of course, this too is problematic, insofar as there are no selves to relate or be related! But insofar as it needs to be dsicussed at all, language must be used; and that of relations is not only more ecological (!) but closer to Buddhism.

3. It also introduces the dimension of ethics – if you are in a relationship, you have responsibility for how you affect the othert party(s) – where that of Self discourages it.

4. The language of SR makes the ‘misunderstanding’ you referred to almost inevitable. This is important. It also plays into the worst (egoistic & spiritually consumerist) tendencies of the New Age movement.

So, we will have to continue to agree to disagree!

With a bow, then, P.

4 Ian Whyte { 08.07.08 at 12:31 pm }

RE: the article.

Sorry to be so long with this comment. The new, to me, way of doing things really bothers me at first, and then I find out it’s so easy and I am embarrassed!

1. Whenever I’ve seen the 8 principles, if they are signed at all, the signatures are those of Naess and Sessions. I’ve not seen Devall’s.

2. “A much more promising recent offshoot of Deep Ecology and, to some extent, Left Biocentrism, has been the ” Does this mean the Manifesto is more promising than LB? In any case, it’s unclear.

3. “Ecology with an equally serious commitment to social justice and politics. ” I’d say, if asked, that politics should be changed to “activism, including, sometimes, politics”

4. “Who fights to save what, or who, they don’t love? ” I’d prefer the positive: “One fights to save what, or who, they love.”

5. “Although industrial farming, husbandry and fishing are the worst offenders, ” Not to make a list of it, but industrial forestry, and now bio fuels need to be added.

6. RE Suzanne’s all species are equal note. Another way of looking at this is that all species are equally far from the starting point. It’s more like they are all on the surface of an ever expanding (until recently) sphere, rather than being branches and twigs on a tree. To be here at all, all are equally evolved; so how can one be of less value, to the Earth, than another?


5 Suzanne Duarte { 08.10.08 at 8:01 am }

Hi Victor, Patrick, and Ian,

Thank you all for your contemplations and comments.

Patrick, I will answer your points in turn, not necessarily to try to change your mind, but to present my own view in case it is of benefit to others.

1. The “no-self” tenet in Buddhism is the absolute truth or view, and one of the Buddha’s “three marks of existence”: impermanence, suffering and egolessness. There is also the relative truth or view that is expressed by the term “self-liberation,” which I believe is the core message of the Buddha: we humans all have the capacity to liberate ourselves from the small ego-self, and in fact, nobody else can do it for us. So I don’t think the “no-self” tenet – or as I understand it, the ultimate truth of egolessness – invalidates Naess’ meaning of “Self-realization,” which is a relative, not an absolute term. Naess is saying that we can transcend the small ego-self by realizing our interdependence – our relatedness (your 2. – relationships) – with all sentient beings. I don’t think that means Naess is implying that there is one big ecological Self (ego) that can be identified as such. And I don’t think he’s saying the Earth (or larger living system) is a self-aware being or Self.

I think he’s saying that each of us as individual human beings has the potential to realize our existence/being as much larger than our ego-self. This potential is ‘realized’ by identifying with, or having an empathetic relationship with, the other living beings that comprise the larger living system we are a part of and depend upon. He also stresses that this ‘realization’ can only occur by having a nonviolent or non-harming, respectful relationship with the other living beings, human and nonhuman. As he says, “live and let live.” (your 3. – ethics) In other words, letting the nonhumans in the wild realize their own potential according to their own kind, without interference, helps us as humans to realize our own potential as an ecologically realized (interdependent) Self: my self or being is composed of, constituted by, my relationships with all the sentient beings whose activities enable me to exist, breathe, eat, etc. This is ‘realizing’ the “ecological Self.” I do not exist without them, thus they are part of me. I am ultimately egoless and so are they, but we all do exist as individual, particular beings on a relative level, and this is what makes Life possible.

So, Patrick, although I can see your point in #4 about semantics, I don’t think that it justifies dismissing or misinterpreting Naess’ meaning of Self-realization (I believe he capitalizes the S but not the r). Our ego-centric, spiritually materialistic consumer culture can twist anything, and usually does. So what? Beside, I have not noticed the New Agers trying to appropriate deep ecology. I think it might be too deep for them.

In Buddhist practice, the more egoless our realization, the more ‘realized’ we become as a practitioner. We don’t disappear as an individual self (at least until we achieve the “rainbow body”), but we actually become more ourselves, more defined and often more eccentric and accomplished. We could say that Bodhisattvas are egoless Selves working for the benefit of all sentient beings, and I believe that this is what Naess was getting at.

Anyway, that’s my view. I don’t see any conflict between Naess and Buddhism, or any ethical shortcomings in his formulation of Self-realization.



6 Victor { 08.21.08 at 1:11 am }

Hi Patrick and Suzanne,

Again, I appreciate Suzanne’s comments which are surprisingly mine!

In Naess’ Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World I could not find any implication about “One Great Self” that supposedly “obscures the vital importance of relations of all kinds between different kinds of beings, and whose flourishing requires those differences to be appreciated and respected”. The issue is archi important (for DE) so that I can’t help citing Naess’ points:

1. We underestimate ourselves. We tend to confuse it with 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 no. [ Extremely important antidote to all sorts of chauvinism, nationalism, fascism, racism, human exclusiveness, etc]

3. Ecological self. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in constitutive relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community but with the larger community of all loving beings. [By that principle, left bios differ from social ecology].

4. The joy and meaning of life [and I would add: poetry] is enhanced thru increased Self-realization, thru the fulfillment of each beings’s potential. Whatever the differences between beings, increased self-realization implies broadening and deepening of self. [Just imagine, how our life would have enhanced if we could “feel the world” like birds, or fish, or other creatures !]

5. Self-realization is hindered if we hinder self-realization of others. Love of others will labor to overcome this obstacle by assisting in the self-realization of others according to the formula “live and let live”.

[Note: we must love other creatures (not only humans) not because of some abstract (and dubious) Christian principle “love your enemies”, but because only thus we can expand ourselves into others].

In this respect, let me quote from Bhagavad Gita that – obviously – served as a blueprint for Naess:


Knowing which, not again to bewilderment

In this manner shalt thou go, son of Pandu;

Whereby all beings without exception

Thou shalt see in thyself, and also in Me.


Disciplined in discipline, with purified self,

Self-subdued, with senses overcome,

His self become (one with) the self of all beings,

Even acting, he is not stained.


Himself as in all beings,

And all beings in himself,

Sees he whose self is disciplined in discipline,

Who sees the same in all things.

I don’t think that this is a call for erasing the difference between beings. As I noted elsewhere (Poetic Paradigm), this can be taken as Ultimate Truth. Along with it, there are innumerable truths (differences) which makes the world “poetic”(there is no other explanation why it should be this way), and this enigma is beyond human understanding.

Buddhistically yours,