Defense of Arne Naess.
In this age of global warming, overpopulation, overfishing, overconsumption, rainforest depletion and general defilation of the environment, environmentalists are striving to provide the most comprehensive theory possible to conserve the environment. The topic of environmentalism, being such a vast subject lends itself to many different theories for environmental protection. Writers such as Arne Naess stress holistic environmental theories in which the self is to be expanded to encompass as much of nature as possible in an attempt to become an expanded Self. The theory Naess argues, Deep Ecology, accomplishes the assimilation of one’s self with others namely by identification with other beings: be they animal, mineral, or vegetation. Deep ecology comes under fire from critics for three main reasons, its failure to differentiate between the three main accounts of self, its expansion of self by egotistical means, and its failure to differentiate between individual entities; thus leaving it inflexible and negligent of the needs of individual members of the ecosphere. A leading critic of Deep Ecology, Val Plumwood, makes claims against Naess’ identification theory, while failing to grasp the overall concepts
A leading charge against Deep Ecology is its proposed egotistical nature, arising from the expansion of self for the purpose of a less harmful pursuit of what is in one’s self interest. As Plumwood explains “But this expanded self is not the result of a critique of egoism…it is an enlargement and an extension of egoism….motivation for the expansion of self is to allow for a wider set of concerns while continuing to allow the self to operate on the fuel of self-interest….” The argument claims that those seeking to expand the self are doing so to for personal gain, or in essence doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Being Homo Sapiens, or “knowing humans”, humans have a biological instinct deeply rooted to the survival mechanism of the organism which keeps us rationally interested in our self-interest.
The essence of human nature is the minimizing of self-interest for the greater good: an expansion of identification with others. While much can be done to expand the self and ultimately identify with the environment and the entire ecosphere some shadow of self interest will still remain, influencing the way we protect and perceive the environment.
Stating that expansion of self is rooted purely in egoism (not the purging of egoism) is like suggesting that the attempt to rid oneself of dualisms is rooted in pretentious piousness. We as a species, even if we devote ourselves to it, will never be able to separate ourselves from bias: it is rooted in our psyche. The labeling of identification and expansion of self as “egotistical” leaves the reader with an absurd task, to detach the egotistical nature of oneself in an effort to fully practice the holistic Deep Ecology, or mend a flaw in basic human thinking, dualism. Why is this task so absurd, one may ask? The very mechanism that makes humans egotistical (no matter how altruistic one may be) is the one that gives each a unique view on the world, and inevitably leads to bias or dualism.
The danger in expansion of self, Plumwood thinks, is in its selfishly altruistic nature: expansion of self allows for a greater “self defense” of the environment, and of the person. The expansion of self, according to Plumwood, does not address the causes of egoism, but instead focuses on allowing one to empathize with other entities. Deep ecology is not an excuse for egoism, while claiming altruism. Deep ecology is an attempt to realize that “Newton’s laws were made by Newton, but stones fall without him.” Realizing that the earth is not anthropocentric is a step that deep ecologists make towards altruistic, holistic thinking. Empathy is being able to put yourself in one’s shoes; deep ecology is the realization that shoes are a human invention: deep ecologists re-integrate themselves back into the ecosphere.
Because humans cannot ultimately exterminate the causes of dualistic thinking and bias, Deep Ecology does the next best thing: Deep Ecology preaches humbleness to nature, and involves the patron in an effort to try to identify with something he cannot fully understand. In fact, the framework that deep ecology rests on, primarily Kant’s statement “You shall never use another person only as a means”, and the rejection of the means-ends stance people take on the environment, transitively rejects the masculine-feminine means-ends dualism associated with feminist thinkers. Above all Deep ecology stresses the identification with others and seeks to minimize egoism while at the same time increasing our understanding of the identification we can share with other creatures, thus combating dualism.
Deep ecology along with being criticized for a perceived lack of addressing of dualistic thinking in regard to environmentalism also is attacked for its theory of indistinguishability. The indistinguishability theory of deep ecology states that the needs of the ecosphere are the needs of our own; we are intertwined in the “biotic web” of the environment. We should strive for solidarity with nature and to keep its values indivisible from ours. Val Plumwood argues that “…once one has realized that one is indistinguishable from the rainforest, its needs would become one’s own…nothing to guarantee this- one could equally well take one’s own needs for its.” If one is truly indistinguishable from nature then self-interest, truly would be for the interest of the entire ecosphere. A Chinese proverb states “To know and not to do is not to know.” This is taken to mean that the true measure of knowledge is action; knowledge of indistinguishability without action is not knowledge of indistinguishability. Plumwood seems to mix up means/ends thinking, in which a personal (not Self) motive is present, in the situation of indistinguishability the self is the Self; the personal becomes the group. Plumwood is correct in assuming that people will never be able to be truly indistinguishable from nature, and will always hold differences, and view nature with at least some amount of egoism. This is not to say though that we can “play” at it, in a sense exploring nature, in relation to ours, to attempt to assimilate ourselves with it.
Naess argues that play or Friluftsliv (a light treading) of nature is important to our understanding of nature, and how we view ourselves as part of nature. By exploring nature in a positive, respectful, leave no trace manner we can expand our views of how we associate with nature. Exploring in nature can then be seen to be neither feminine or masculine, a love and respect of nature dissolves bonds of dualistic thinking. In an essence a large part of deep ecology is playful rejection of root causes of dualism and biased thinking.
What a writer such as Naess seeks to achieve is to enlighten the reader by showing an imperfect human the model of perfection, a complete unification and solidarity of human and nature. Although not said explicitly, it is foolish and misleading to assume that Naess believes that we, as expanding our selves we would ever achieve complete holism.
The ascetic cannot renounce all objects, the Zen Buddhist still feels human emotions contrary to Zen teachings, feminists still hold dualities.
The idea of holistic thinking is to try to see a different way of being, and to ultimately respect oneself place in nature. Therefore the goal of a complete indistinguishability between selves and nature is not too strong of a stance, the extreme is given knowing that people will not be able to accommodate such a lofty expectation. Extremes are used by every author, even Plumwood. “One key aspect of the Western view of nature, which the ethical stance neglects completely, is the view of nature as sharply discontinuous….” Not only are some Western ethicists concerned with the discontinuity of nature, but Plumwood even fails to realize that the Native Americans that have inhabited our continent far before we did, do not have any distinction between the human reason sphere and that of nature. In this case Western was taken to mean a school of thought in keeping with that of the Western European ancestors of those that illegally immigrated to the US. Naess might have a slightly less literal meaning for the words identification and indistinguishability.
1. “‘Nature, Self, and Gender Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism’” Environmental Ethics. Oxford Univeristy P. 155-64.
2. “Identification, Oneness, wholenses and self-realization.” Economy, Community and Lifestyle. Cambridge UP. 171-81.