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A Buddhist monk at prayer. Deep Ecology, argues Skolimowski, lacks any theory as to 'ultimate ends'. It cannot therefore answer the supreme question: "What is our Destiny?"

Eco-Philosophy and Deep Ecology

by Henryk Skolimowski

The Deep Ecology Movement has made a brave stab at articulating a new 'ecological1 worldview to replace that of modernism. But, admirable as its intentions undoubtedly are, the philosophical foundations of Deep Ecology are too shallow to provide an enduring and satisfactory cosmology for our times. Deep Ecology, argues the author, uclaims too much and delivers too little1.

Philosophy is an unending process of articulating the world around us. Deep Ecology is an attempt to articulate the structure of the world as we have inherited it in the second part of the 20th century. The Ecologist has done service to us by publishing three pieces on Deep Ecology ( Vol. 14, Nos. 5/6, 1984). However the process of articulation awaiting us is of such a magnitude that it wil l take dozens of minds to determine "What is going on?", "Where we are?" and "Where should we be going?" We are only beginning to articulate the new post-industrial worldview, which is much inspired by ecology.

Since I am partial to this newly emerging world view, having published a book on the subject, Eco-Philosophy, Designing New Tactics for Living,1 let me address the issues. It has struck me that the ideas of many scholars have been too hurriedly subsumed under the umbrella of Deep Ecology. This umbrella is too vast, and it is leaking. I f we wish to move forward, we had better create a smaller but a more enduring umbrella, for Deep Ecology claims too much and delivers too little. Henryk Skolimowski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA.

Any movement which attempts to replace today's vast scientific-empiricist worldview is obliged to propose and articulate its own cosmology, its own ethics, and its own eschatology. In addition it must demonstrate that the three fit coherently into one structure, as they do in traditional worldviews where cosmology and ethics remain in a feedback relationship (see Figure 1).

Ethics follows from the general conception about how things 'are' out there: in heaven and on earth. Ethics, in turn, supports the order presupposed by cosmology. Furthermore, eschatology (or the doctrine concerning the ultimate ends) is related to both ethics and cosmology and often defined by them, i f only indirectly. The relationship is thus triangular (see Figure 2).

Now i f we examine carefully the tenets of Deep Ecology, particularly as propounded by its most vocal exponents, Devall and Sessions in their book Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered,2

then we find that the cosmology of Deep Ecology is not sufficiently articulated to be a real challenge to today's mechanistic cosmology. Neither are the ethics of Deep Ecology sufficiently developed to be a guide in our daily life. As for an eschatol­

ogy, it hardly exists within Deep Ecology.


Let me start with eschatology. One of the underlying principles of Deep Ecology is to live in harmony with the biotic community. This is wonderful. But i t does not go far enough, deep enough. It does not answer the supreme questions: What is our destiny? What are our ultimate ends? What we are here for? Without answering these questions, our quest for meaning is going to be frustrated. And i f there is no foundation to the meaning of our life, we are adrift. One of the agonizing dilemmas of our times is the dearth of meaning. The relentless march of the empiricist worldview has denuded us of meaning. We all know the causes and the consequences. The tremendous push for material progress has made our psyche numb and our heart cold. Alienation is one consequence. The value-vacuum is another.

Any large scale movement which attempts to replace empiricism must find an antidote to the gospel of material progress, must be capable of creating a new foundation for meaning. When we look deeper

The Ecologist, Vol.18, Nos 4/5, 1988 into the question we realize that unless deeper questions of human destiny are considered and answered, our quest for meaning cannot be truly satisfied.

In traditional religious worldviews, Christianity especially, all human strings are ultimately redeemed by the promise of eternal salvation. The idea of Eternal Salvation shines back on us, and infuses meaning into all our actions; redeems our quest for meaning; and it does so even i f life is found unsatisfactory in earthly terms. Thus, in religious worldviews, the eschatology of transcendent heavens pervades the sense of human life, pervades human values, and pervades human meaning.

In the materialist-scientific world view, by contrast, there is no transcendent eschatology. We would be mistaken however to think that there is no eschatology at all in the empiricist world view. True enough, the universe does not have any intrinsic meaning - nor, indeed, does human life. Thus, in this scheme of things, questions about ultimate human destiny are considered misconceived. So often, we are told by the prophets of the materialist gospel (including Jean Paul Sartre), there are no further horizons beyond those which our eyes immediately see. Material gratification is all that matters. Material fulfilment is the only form of fulfilment. The meaning of life is to be conceived in terms of material fulfilment.

It is important to realise that there is a//r between cosmology, values and eschatology within the empiricist worldview. We may not be inspired by its values - indeed, we are not - and for this reason we invariably ask ourselves: Is it all there is to human life? Should we not, must we not, demand more? Where is the outlet for our higher needs, higher aspirations, and more sublime ends? In evolving 'higher needs' and 'more sublime ends' we are ipso facto postulating an eschatology which goes beyond the merely materialist: we are subconsciously gravitating toward a transcendent realm, toward spiritual values.

How does Deep Ecology respond to these deeper questions? It appears to me that it does not respond at all. My hypothesis is that, at heart, deep ecologists are secular humanists. They avoid the discussion of eschatology, perhaps because they do not have much to offer; but also because deep down they think that eschatology is to be limited to the life here on earth "in decent terms", "in being in harmony with the biotic community." This is in many ways admirable, but not deep enough.

Deep Ecology does not seem to wish to

The Ecologist, Vol.18, Nos 4/5, 1988

go beyond the earth. And why? Is not the living earth - Gaia - part of the living universe? I f so, is not the process which has brought about the living earth and the living universe (namely, Evolution) not to be cherished and recognized? It has struck me over and again that Deep Ecology is limited to the here and NOW. But in order to know where we are now, we must know where we have been; we must be able to answer at least tentatively the ultimate question - "Why are we here?" We are back to eschatological questions.

In contrast to the shallowness of Deep Ecology (as far as eschatology is concerned) Eco-philosophy, as I have developed it , does not avoid spiritual questions, and attempts to provide the rudiment of a new eschatology. As I see it, we are a part of the evolutionary unfolding, and in realizing evolution, we are actualizing our own potential. This perspective does not deny the rights of others. On the contrary, it is precisely because of the level of our consciousness that we have evolved moral codes,as well as the idea of our obligations towards others. We have tempered our selfishness by the awareness that other forms of life have the right to live as well as ourselves. This awareness is a part of our higher consciousness. The principle of the "Great Compassion", particularly emphasized by Tibetan Buddhists, is a supreme crystalization of human consciousness. This principle tells us that because no life wants to suffer, (and because we are fully aware of this fact) we must try to help all sentient beings. The principle of compassion is a great evolutionary attainment.

Eschatological questions are bound, sooner or later, to lead us to the realm of theology. A far reaching ecological conception of the world is incomplete without some form of eco-theology. As Rene Dubos puts it: "A truly ecological view of the world has religious overtones." Equally aware of the gravity of the problem was E.F. Schumacher who postulated that the most important task of our times is to provide a metaphysical and a religious reconstruction. Any thorough-going metaphysical reconstruction must find some answers to the deepest problems that have always fascinated and troubled the human mind - and these are the problems of human destiny, a dilemma which is ultimately religious in nature. For this reason my notion of Eco-Philosophy has been extended in recent years and has begotten eco-Theology. In 1985, I published a booklet on the subject. Eco-Theology, Toward Religion for Our Times? To outline a new religion is a gigantic task. No-

Figure 1 The relationship between Ethics and Cosmology in a

Traditional Worldview

\ f

cosmology ethics

A i

Figure 2 The Relationship between Eschatology, Cosmology , and

Ethics Eschatology

Cosmology Ethics

one would claim that we can articulate fully an ecological religion fitting at our times in our first attempt. The most we can do is to attempt to examine ultimate eschatological questions within an ecological framework. This is what my Eco-Theology has tried to do.


One of the structural weaknesses of Deep Ecology is its inherently ambiguous attitude toward evolution. Deep Ecology does not want to deny evolution, nor does it not want to affirm it. There is a fear of the idea of evolution which pervades the ranks of deep ecologists. Like every fear, this one is partly justified; but only partly.

I f evolution is conceived within the straitjacket of Social Darwinism, then i t is to be avoided, for, as such, it is only a form of ideology, justifying inequities and injustices, under the banner of the survival of the fittest. Secondly, i f evolution means the glorification of one species at the expense of other species, i f it becomes the basis of narrow anthropocentrism (with the attendant short-changing of other species) then, again, it is to be avoided.

The philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin