A Left Biocentrism Primer – My Path to Left Biocentrism: Part 1 by David Orton
- Left biocentrism is a left focus or theoretical tendency within the deep ecology movement, which is subversive of the existing industrial society. It accepts and promotes the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform drawn up by Arne Naess and George Sessions. Left biocentrism holds up as an ideal, identification, solidarity, and compassion with all life. “Left” as used in left biocentrism, means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist. The expressions `left biocentrism’ or `left ecocentrism’ are used interchangeably.
- Left biocentrism accepts the view that the Earth belongs to no one. While raising a number of criticisms, left biocentrism is meant to strengthen, not undermine, the deep ecology movement which identifies with all life.
- Left biocentrism says that individuals must take responsibility for their actions and be socially accountable. Part of being individually responsible is to practice voluntary simplicity, so as to minimize one’s own impact upon the Earth.
- Left biocentrists are concerned with social justice and class issues, but within a context of ecology. To move to a deep ecology world, the human species must be mobilized, and a concern for social justice is a necessary part of this mobilization. Left biocentrism is for the redistribution of wealth, nationally and internationally.
- Left biocentrism opposes economic growth and consumerism. Human societies must live within ecological limits so that all other species may continue to flourish. We believe that bioregionalism, not globalism, is necessary for sustainability. The perspective of the late German Green philosopher Rudolf Bahro is accepted that, for world-wide sustainability, industrialized countries need to reduce their impact upon the Earth to about one tenth of what it is at the present time. It is also incumbent upon non-industrialized nations to become sustainable and it is necessary for industrialized nations to help on this path.
- Left biocentrism holds that individual and collective spiritual transformation is important to bring about major social change, and to break with industrial society. We need inward transformation, so that the interests of all species override the short-term self-interest of the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.
- Left biocentrism believes that deep ecology must be applied to actual environmental issues and struggles, no matter how socially sensitive, e.g. population reduction, aboriginal issues, workers’ struggles, etc.
- Social ecology, eco-feminism and eco-marxism, while raising important questions, are all human-centered and consider human-to-human relations within society to be more important and, in the final analysis, determine society’s relationship to the natural world. Left biocentrism believes that an egalitarian, non-sexist, non-discriminating society, a highly desirable goal, can still be exploitive towards the Earth.
- Left biocentrists are “movement greens” in basic orientation. They are critical of existing Green political parties, which have come to an accommodation with industrial society and have no accountability to the deep ecology movement.
- To be politically relevant, deep ecology needs to incorporate the perspective advanced by left biocentrism.
March 15, 1998
The above Primer is a result of a protracted collective discussion among a number of those who support left biocentrism and deep ecology.
Gaining more understanding of the wonders of the natural world and practical involvement in defending the Earth opens one’s eyes to a more biocentric world view. The shift in individual consciousness from a human-centered world view to that of a non-human centered deep ecology philosophy, is always highly personal. The more we identify with Nature, the more we care what happens to it. The historic contribution of deep ecology is addressing the philosophical task of working out this new non-human centered relationship for humans with the Earth.
“My Path to Left Biocentrism” has been written as an introduction to this evolving theoretical tendency within the deep ecology movement. It reflects the collective networking experiences, the practical work and perspective of the Green Web*, and also my own views. It is also indebted to the thinking of others who have explored what a left focus in deep ecology means. There are a number of Green Web bulletins, book reviews and articles which discuss various left biocentric-related theoretical questions — the focus being their relationship to deep ecology; and there are also bulletins discussing practical applications of deep ecology to particular issues, some of them sensitive, e.g. the ecological evaluation of the Left, and assessing environmental/indigenous contradictions.  Left biocentrism draws from this theoretical and practical fusion.
“Left,” as used in left biocentrism, means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist. Thus some left biocentrists consider themselves socialists, as I do myself, while others do not. All left biocentrists address and are concerned with social justice issues in society. They do however place such issues within a context of ecological values.
The Green Web uses the expressions “left biocentrism” or “left ecocentrism” interchangeably. Biocentrism (“life-centered”) is a more popular movement term, although Ecocentrism is more comprehensive and “scientific,” in that it includes the physical earth as well as plant and animal life forms. We prefer to use left biocentrism. But we do use it in the more inclusive sense to include the physical earth.
The following thinkers have been particularly important for a new, left biocentric synthesis of ideas: the writings of the Norwegian deep ecology founder Arne Naess; the Australian forestry activist, deep ecologist, and critic of the philosophical fuzziness of deep ecology, Richard Sylvan (1935-1996); the Left German eco-philosopher and green movement activist Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997), whose life and writings show the torment and transition in his evolution from Red to Green; the radical ecocentrism of the American deep ecology philosopher, socialist and bioregionalist Andrew McLaughlin; and the young Canadian activist and thinker Ken Wu. 
Other key writers for a left biocentric synthesis are: Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac); John Livingston (The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation and Rogue Primate); Andrew Dobson, (Green Political Thought); Saral Sarkar (Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany, two volumes); David Johns (“The Practical Relevance of Deep Ecology,” Wild Earth, Summer 1992) ; and George Sessions (Deep Ecology For The 21st Century).
Looking back at my twenty years of involvement in the environmental movement , it seems that a primary concern has been to raise “alternative visions” as a contribution to the public debate taking place around the particular environmental issues, such as biocides, forestry, `sustainable development,’ protected areas, indigenous issues, or natural gas. While raising such visions requires a detailed knowledge of an issue, to develop an alternative vision means going beyond practical knowledge, of which Earth destroyers have often had a monopoly. It is these alternative visions, which reject the existing industrial order, that are so threatening to corporations, governments and “wise use” groups. We have seen this first hand from corporate and “wise use” attacks on the work of the Green Web. Once I became aware of deep ecology philosophy in the mid-1980s, I saw that there was a real, hopeful, non-human centered alternative to the destructiveness of industrial capitalist society. It still required a detailed knowledge of the issues, but deep ecology helped to focus and raise the questions to ask. Many times I have been at meetings designed primarily to obtain the public’s approval for an environmentally destructive project. Usually there is a “consensus” within which any controversy takes place. Someone informed by deep ecology, and with a detailed knowledge of the particular issue, can shatter the consensus and open up a real discussion. Others present can then participate in this discussion, which is subversive to the taken-for-granted industrial order.
Raising ecological and social visions alternative to those peddled by industrial society is of fundamental importance. Circulating such visions within society, in any public way, is extremely difficult.
The Canadian federal government provides government funding to the Canadian Environmental Network (CEN). Each province and territory has a provincial branch of the CEN. In our province it is called the Nova Scotia Environmental Network. The CEN is a “non-advocacy” network as this is a condition of the funding it receives from the federal government. The CEN cannot take stands on environmental issues, but member groups of this network can. Those who work in this network mainly accept the existence of industrial society, and working with governments and capitalist industry. The participation of environmentalists through the CEN gives an environmental legitimacy to the existing industrial situation. Alternative visions do not usually come from the ranks of the CEN, which in Naess’s terms, are promoting shallow ecology.  Deciding what attitude to take towards the CEN is a problem. Basically I work with individual members of the CEN on environmental issues of mutual interest, but without joining this network. While doing this, I have continued to argue the necessity of an environmental movement that is neither government nor corporate funded. In Nova Scotia, most people who become involved in fighting on environmental issues are outside the CEN and rural based. They respond to “not in my backyard” situations. This sector is easily the most powerful part of the environmental opposition but it lacks staying power, and the existence of the CEN helps inhibits the emergence of a grass-roots controlled and funded, more radical environmental movement in Canada.
The main driving force of the Deep Ecology movement, as compared with the rest of the ecological movement, is that of identification and solidarity with all life.  In the early 70s Arne Naess made the distinction between “deep” and “shallow” ecology, in the now famous article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary.”  Naess says that the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, roughly marks the beginning of the international long-range deep ecology movement.
Deep ecology (DE) says major ecological problems cannot be resolved within the existing capitalist or socialist industrial economic system. Shallow ecology says that these problems can be resolved within, and with the continuation of industrial society. Yet it is this industrial society that has caused the Earth-threatening ecological crisis.
The eight-point deep ecology Platform drafted by Arne Naess and George Sessions is accepted by left biocentrists as a basis of unity within the deep ecology movement. Andrew McLaughlin has called the Platform the “heart of deep ecology”. DE promotes biological, cultural, and social diversity. Respect for diversity avoids dogmatism in ideas and organizational forms and the elevation of ideas above life itself. Naess speaks of a personal DE being “an intuition.” By this he means it cannot be solely logically derived. The soul of deep ecology is the belief that there has to be a fundamental change in consciousness for humans, in how they relate to the natural world. This requires a change from a human-centered to an ecocentric perspective, meaning humans as a species have no superior status in nature. All other species have a right to exist, irrespective of their usefulness to the human species or human societies. Humans cannot presume dominance over all non-human species, and see nature as a “resource” for human and corporate utilization.
The deep ecology movement carries an excessive amount of rubbish with it (in contravention, so to say, of its own platform). That does not imply that there is not a clean sound position to be discerned when the often inessential rubbish is removed… Discontinuities illustrate theoretical differences and criticisms, which differentiate left biocentrism from some views within mainstream deep ecology. Richard Sylvan, in his daring 1985 article “A Critique Of Deep Ecology”, spoke of deep ecology as being a “conceptual bog” that was “well on the way to becoming all things to all interested parties.” Thankfully there is now the eight-point deep ecology Platform as a relatively uncomplicated basis of unity. However, real life is rather more complicated. Other ideas of Naess’, such as self-realization and the non-violence/ Gandhian approach to organizing, become stressed as crucial components by some who have appointed themselves as deep ecology interpreters or gatekeepers.
How does a philosophy or theoretical outlook remain an evolving life force and not be reduced to a Platform catechism? What is the room for variance? How do deep ecology ideas evolve? Who “owns” the eight-point Platform, originally drafted by Naess and the US deep ecologist George Sessions, after it becomes embedded in the radical environmental movement? How can future changes to the Platform come about? What can one reject or accept in deep ecology and still be considered a follower of this philosophical position? Is acceptance, say of Gandhi’s non-violence, which is part of Naess’ thinking (but is not in the Platform), necessary to be considered a deep ecology supporter? How do we avoid contributing to `sainthood’ and `slavishness’ within deep ecology?
All the above are important questions for supporters of deep ecology. I find Naess sophisticated and illuminating in his thinking. But he is also often ambiguous, difficult to understand and sometimes wrong in his prescriptions for the way forward. Naess, who is now in his 80s, is often a diluter of the deep ecology position, whenever a conflict in the actual world arises.
The content of deep ecology is open to different interpretations, and ambiguity seems almost built in. There is an unwillingness, or extreme reluctance by many deep ecology thinkers/writers, to publicly discuss contradictory or confusing views which have been put forth within deep ecology. Also there is an unwillingness to apply the deep ecology philosophy to controversial issues in order to provide some guidelines for activists in dealing with such issues. An example of ambiguity on a fundamental issue is that Naess has promoted sustainable development in several articles , yet in correspondence to me , he has denied endorsing it. He has also argued forcefully against an economic philosophy of zero growth: “There is no economic philosophy of zero growth.”  There are other deep ecology writers who have written against sustainable development. But because of the writings of Naess on sustainable development, there is quite a lot of ambiguity.
A good example of this ambiguity and confusion in deep ecology, is the Australian Warwick Fox, with his 1990 book “Toward A Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations For Environmentalism.”  Fox argues in his search for “New Foundations,” that deep ecology should now be renamed and refocused as “transpersonal ecology”. For him self- realization, the expansion of personal consciousness to include the well-being of the Earth, is the essence of deep ecology.
But it is difficult to see the place of collective activism with Fox’s “New Foundations.” Also, self-realization is not part of the eight-point Platform, even though it is given prominence in Naess’s own writings.
Left biocentrism considers self-realization an important concept in deep ecology. Expanding one’s sense of self so that it comes to encompass the natural world also provides a needed spiritual root for radical activism. Identification with the natural world is of enormous importance and self-realization addresses this. However, Fox puts self-realization forward as a kind of litmus test, of who is and who is not a deep ecologist. This undermines the unifying nature of the eight-point deep ecology Platform, as a common reference for movement activists.
It is the activists organizing in the name of deep ecology who have to defend the various texts. Another book that activists were forced to defend was Deep Ecology by Devall and Sessions, which came out in 1985. For several years this was the basic anthology of deep ecology writings. A belated confession by one of the authors, George Sessions in his 1995 anthology, Deep Ecology For The 21st Century, says the earlier book “had serious flaws, both substantive and stylistic, from its inception and is now theoretically out of date in many respects.” A footnote to this statement, points out that this book was produced in a rush over a two-week period because of a publisher’s demands to beat out another book with the same title. What a betrayal of everything that deep ecology stands for! 
There is no accountability by deep ecology academics for what they write to movement activists in the trenches. There is no accountability for proposed changes in the eight-point deep ecology Platform to the deep ecology movement. For example, David Rothenberg, who has been a translator and interpreter of Naess, claimed in his book Conversations with Arne Naess: Is It Painful to Think?, that Naess had wanted to include support for sustainable development in the eight-point Platform. 
Anthologies of deep ecology writings reflect an academic bias in their selection of authors for printing. Also such anthologies show very few practical applications of deep ecology to real environmental problems.
A fundamental assumption which seems to permeate mainstream deep ecology, is that ideas are enough to bring about social change in our relationship to Nature. This can be called the “educational fallacy”. It completely fails to deal with class and power relationships in industrial capitalist society. We must not forget the role of society in creating lifestyles and ecological destruction.
Ecology, Community and Lifestyle is at present the best single introduction to the ideas of Arne Naess.  In this book, Naess comes through as sympathetic to socialism. Naess considers class restrictions as limitations for the possibilities of self-realization by individuals. He notes that Green politics wants the elimination of class differences locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
However, with a few exceptions, deep ecology writers, including Naess, have paid little attention to defining a relationship to the Left. This has been part of the work taken up by left biocentrists. Writers like Rudolf Bahro and Andrew McLaughlin have made important theoretical contributions to understanding this relationship.
These three positions have in common that they are all human-centered and consider human-to-human relations within society to be more important and, in the final analysis, determine society’s relationship to the natural world. Therefore the priorities for organizers from either of these three positions are social, not environmental, relationships. Left biocentrists believe that an egalitarian, non-sexist, non-discriminating society, which is a highly desirable goal, can still be exploitive towards the Earth. There is nothing inherently sexist, or racist within the inclusiveness of deep ecology. This inclusiveness holds up as an ideal identification and solidarity with all life.
It has been easy to pin a right-wing label on deep ecology. This is partly because of not defining a relationship to the Left and minimal attention paid to social justice issues, as well as anti-Left bashing by some deep ecology writers. Social ecology particularly benefited from this. To be a “left green” was to be a supporter of social ecology! However, in social ecology while there are social concerns, there is little ecology and no awareness of the needed ecocentric consciousness change for a radical ecological politics.
Naess’s position is that there is a necessary separation of the peace, social justice and ecology movements, but they are united under a Green movement umbrella. I believe this is wrong, further isolates the radical deep ecology movement and feeds a right-wing image. This position contributes to making deep ecology seem uncaring about human issues. The view of the necessary separation of the movements, has been adopted by George Sessions, for example. He has been at the center of the deep ecology debate in North America. I do not believe that the three movements listed have necessarily to be separate movements united under a green movement banner. Ecology must be primary, and if it is, one can be involved in peace/anti-war and social justice issues. Left biocentrism says that you must be involved in social justice issues as an environmental activist, but ecology is primary. At the same time, we must not turn ecological issues into social justice issues as is widely done in the environmental movement. Left biocentrists call such a position “social environmentalism”. It is particularly prevalent in the context of environmental-indigenous relationships. 
^ Rilke, Maria. “A Man Watching,” in News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. Robert Bly, ed. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980, pp. 121-122.
^ See “Green Web Literature” (1998), an annotated list of publications.
^ Ken Wu believes that Robyn Eckersley, Warwick Fox and Judi Bari have all contributed to left ecocentrism.
^ See also Green Web Bulletin #34 (1992).
^ I came to Canada from England in 1957. My involvement in environmental work started in 1977 in British Columbia. I was a member of naturalist organizations, and active environmentally as a representative for the BC Federation of Naturalists. This experience taught me that naturalizing does not necessarily lead to environmental activism. Naturalist organizations do not normally see the active defense of Nature as part of their mandate.
Prior to this environmental involvement, I was active in the anti-war and social justice movements. (My background in England was working class, and I served a five-year industrial apprenticeship as a shipwright in Portsmouth Dockyard.) Also important for my pre-environmental awareness, were a number of years of involvement in student movement and university politics, both in Canada and the United States, up to 1969. I was an organizer for a Marxist-Leninist party from 1968 to 1975.
In 1979 I moved with my family to Nova Scotia. I worked in several environmental groups (the last three I helped bring into existence): the Uranium Committee of the Ecology Action Center (EAC), the Socialist Environmental Protection and Occupational Health Group (SEPOHG, founded in 1981), the North Shore Environmental Web (NSEW, founded in 1986) and the Green Web (GW, founded in 1988). We moved to a rural forested area in 1984, where we still live. Our area is now largely deforested from industrial forestry operations. I have considered myself part of the green movement since 1983, and have been promoting deep ecology since 1985.
^ D. Orton, “Two environmental tendencies,” Canadian Dimension, 24:5 (1990), p. 41.
^ Arne Naess, “Politics And The Ecological Crisis,” (1991) in George Session’s anthology, Deep Ecology For The 21st Century (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995), pp. 445-53.
^ Inquiry 16 (1973), pp. 95-100.
^ A Critique of Deep Ecology, (Canberra: Australian National University, 1985), p.47.
^ For example, “Sustainable Development and the Deep Long-Range Ecology Movement”, The Trumpeter, 5:4, (1988).
^ Letters of December 2, 1996 and January 10, 1997.
^ Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p.114.
^ See my review of Fox’s book, “New Age Deep Ecology” in Canadian Dimension, 25:6 (1991), p. 35.
^ See my criticism of the original Deep Ecology text, in a letter to the editor “Deep Ecology and the Green Movement,” in the New Catalyst, 6 (Winter 1986/87) and the authors’ replies in subsequent issues.
^ D. Orton, “Revised deep ecology platform surprising and disheartening”, Alternatives, 20:4 (1994) pp. 40-1, and the letter by Rothenberg, 21:2 (1995).
^ See my review of this book in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 4:4, (1993), pp. 131-33.
^ Green Web Bulletin #50, “Social Environmentalism and Native Relations” (1996).
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