Deep Ecology and the Left – Contradictions. By David Orton
“There is clearly both in capitalist and socialist politics things which can be modified and used in sane eco-politics but essentially green politics will be something deeply different.” Arne Naess, Ecology, community and lifestyle, p. 160.
“The most forceful and systematic critique of capitalism is found in socialist literature. This makes it natural for supporters of the deep ecology movement to use socialist criticisms of capitalism in their own work, and, looking at the slogans of green parties it is immediately clear that many of these slogans are also socialistic or at least compatible with some sort of socialism. As examples: no excessive aggressive individualism. Appropriation. Community, production for use, low income differentials, local production for local needs, participative involvement, solidarity. On the other hand, it is also clear that some socialist slogans still heard are not compatible: maximise production, centralization, high energy, high consumption, materialism…It is still clear that some of the most valuable workers for ecological goals come from the socialist camps. One of the basic similarities between socialist attitudes and ecological attitudes in politics is stress on social justice and stress on social costs of technology.” Naess, Ibid, p. 157.
“Deep ecology comes home as the strategy of advanced capitalist elites, for whom nature is what looks good on calendars.” Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 2002, 1st Ed., p. 172.
This blog post is an examination of the contradictions I see in the relationship between deep ecology and the Left. I contrast in this discussion the human-centered traditional Left, with the ecocentric Left which has come into a relationship with deep ecology. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Judi Bari, Andy McLaughlin, Richard Sylvan, Fred Bender, Stan Rowe, Andrew Dobson and Rudolf Bahro), the Left has been hostile to deep ecology. Why is this? Is there something intrinsic to deep ecology, which is seen as incompatible with the beliefs of a person of the Left? Arne Naess, the philosophical founder of deep ecology, had an evident sympathy towards the social justice side of socialism. The above quotes by Naess clearly show this, as does the 1973 foundational article, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary.” However, for Naess and countless others, a new ecopolitics will be “deeply different” from socialist and capitalist politics and will not be some kind of add-on to socialism. The ecological question cuts across all “isms.”
The Left, no matter what its myriad forms have been, is politically associated with social justice for the human species. This is its universal symbolism and important contribution. I am a person of the Left. Concerning human-centered politics, my main sympathies are on the communist/socialist side. Anti-communism ends up signalling an alliance with Capital. There are legions of ‘Leftists’, particularly in North America, who do not share this perspective, having had anti-communism and the Cold War pounded into them and internalized from an early age. However, I believe that the ecocentric Left has to be Earth-rooted. It can be non-communist, but not anti-communist. Ecological justice for all species and the planet must be primary. For Arne Naess, this primacy of the natural world is considered an “intuition” and not logically or philosophically derived. We are first Earthlings, in personal and social consciousness, but we must also be involved in social justice issues for our own species. As the environmental cliché says, “There can be no social justice on a dead planet.”
I consider myself as both a supporter of deep ecology and a long-time Canadian leftist. Over the years my meshed sense of being has been sorely tested by fellow leftists – as in the misleading attitude towards deep ecology, conveyed, for example, by the Joel Kovel quote above. (See my review of his book.) But my personal identity has also been tested by my own criticisms of deep ecology, made from an ecocentric Left perspective. As I have written in the past, much deep ecology writing is obscure and not particularly relevant to practical environmental or green work. Also, most deep ecology writers do not present any real political, economic or class guidelines for activists. The response of deep ecology writers to criticisms from the Left and to my own writings, has helped me work out my contribution to the left biocentric theoretical tendency within deep ecology.
As the left biocentric tendency has gathered some support (the internet discussion group “left bio”, for example, has been running for over eleven years), I have found it necessary to distance myself from a few supporters who could not ditch their anti-communism and anti-Marxism, or who have attempted to bring into contemporary ecopolitics echoes of past Left divisive battles – often, it seems, associated with Trotskyism.
This distancing has also been directed at people who could not face criticism of their social justice support, e.g. for aboriginal positions. These people are opposed to seeing Earth justice as a priority (see for one example, my recent review of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry), or are uneasy about public calls for human population reduction (as in the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform. They also see deep ecology as a reformist eco-philosophy within capitalism; and are uncomfortable with my critical, yet friendly, support for someone like the Finnish eco-philosopher Pentti Linkola (see my review of his book).
Another problem for me concerns ecocentric Leftists who are stuck on being defenders of Israel and are seemingly blind to the horrible situation of the Palestinians.
Green parties have become shallow ecology defenders of industrial capitalist society, even if Arne Naess was supportive of them. The German Green Party theoretician Rudolf Bahro resigned from the party in the early 1980s, and pointed out that green party shallow ecology is content to “brush the teeth” of industrial society. Nothing happened since Bahro made this statement which calls his observations into serious question. My limited experience with the Canadian federal Green Party reinforces Bahro’s statement.
SOME LEFT CONTRADICTIONS
Why is the Left so negative about deep ecology? And why is it misleadingly alleged by ecosocialist Joel Kovel that, “Like many deep greens, however, Orton hates socialism and considers it doomed to remain in its twentieth-century form”? (Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 2nd ed., p. 302)
For the traditional Left, human interests have priority, not the health of ecosystems and their non-human inhabitants. There is a basic reductionism – “we have the answers” – in the thinking of the Left. I have found an intrinsic conservatism towards new ideas among the Left. This has always puzzled me, given that socialists want a new society, allegedly different from capitalism. Shouldn’t the Left be open to and embrace new ideas? The Left has to fundamentally move beyond its traditional human-centered thinking, to see what contemporary Earth-centered ecopolitics is about. Left reductionism takes various forms, but the current eco-Marxist variant claims that Marx really is an ecologist, if only we understand him correctly and therefore he is a (or the) role model for ecological work today. The 1988 proposal for a “Left Green Network”, inspired by Murray Bookchin and the ideas of social ecology, took the position that, to be a Green and also on the Left, could only mean to be a supporter of social ecology: “Left Greens are social ecologists.” There was no room at this network inn for left deep ecology supporters. (As a Canadian, one has to also note that the network proposal reflected the imperial nature of U.S. society, with Canada being considered an appendage for signing-on purposes.)
There is arrogance among socialists who think that they should be leading the ecological movement, because they have a “class analysis” and are anti-capitalist. What comes across is that the Left believes it is entitled to intellectual hegemony in the green and environmental movements, by virtue of prior knowledge. The Left does not seem to be able to absorb the pluralism of green and environmental politics – as Naess informed us, “the front is long” – let alone accept the earned leadership of others by virtue of their practical or theoretical work. Ed Abbey noted, through the character Doc Sarvis in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the importance of practical involvement in actual environmental struggles: “Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence.” (p. 68) The idea that deeper environmentalists and greens can come to an anti-capitalist critique based on their own experiences, without studying Marxism or social ecology, but based on field experience, seems, apparently, difficult to grasp for the Left.
A contemporary manifestation of this Left arrogance, is their desire to define a future post-industrial-capitalist society as “ecosocialist”, and not as something being struggled over by countless environmental and green activists. By using this name, ecosocialists imply that they have the answers and know the path forward. Yet there are lots of tentative ideas about the shape of future post-industrial-capitalist societies. These are being widely discussed, experimented with, and written about, but it is a work in progress. There is no “ecosocialist society” on the horizon to which we all can rally.
Ecosocialists traditionally attack the ecocentric Left around population, aboriginal issues and about being critically supportive of theorists like Pentti Linkola. (This Finnish thinker has been called an eco-fascist. I do not believe this to be true, as my review of his recent book makes clear. In my next blog post I will further examine what “eco-fascism” is all about. I have recently become aware that those sympathetic to national socialism are not adverse to “borrowing” analysis from deep ecology to further their own ends.)
Other fault lines between the “ecosocialist” and ecocentric Left concern:
a) The ecosocialist hostility toward the spiritual component of social change as well as the promotion of a animistic spiritual/psychological transformation, so that the interests of all species override the self-interest of the individual, the family, the community and the nation.
b) Ecosocialists deny the role of individual responsibility in destructive ecological and social actions. They don’t recognize the necessity to practice voluntary simplicity so as to minimize one’s personal impact on the Earth.
c) A disagreement that it is not capitalism per se, but industrial societies that create the social formation at the heart of our dilemmas. The ecocentric Left believes that these societies can have a capitalist or socialist face.
Left doctrines in the past have focussed on the human condition, not on the well-being of other species and of Nature itself. From a Left perspective, nature and other species have been viewed as “resources” for human consumption. Deep ecology has zeroed in on this. John Livingston, the late Canadian eco-philosopher, who was not a person of the Left but who was a supporter of deep ecology – really Canada’s Arne Naess – has laid out in his writings the implications of “resourcism” for planetary health. (See “John Livingston – An Appreciation”. The benefits from this focus on human kind have been enormous for a number of us but deadly for the planet.
DEEP ECOLOGY CONTRADICTIONS
“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…” Richard Sylvan
“Personally, I agree with almost everything you say in the Left Biocentric Primer…It’s a real shame that the Green parties came under the influence of Bookchin and not your version of Left Biocentrism – it’s obvious that’s where they need to head. So, I have no necessary bones to pick with your idea of a Left wing of the Deep Ecology movement, more power to you and your colleagues. I wonder if the word ‘Left’ is the appropriate one to use (as opposed to social justice).” Extract taken from a personal letter written by deep ecologist George Sessions to me, and also copied to Arne Naess, Bill Devall, Andrew McLaughlin and Howard Glasser, dated 4/19/1998.
Since coming to support deep ecology in the mid-1980s, I have tried to maintain a critical, yet supportive, stance towards it and, where it seemed appropriate, have given my dissenting views publicly. Richard Sylvan, the late “deep green” Australian philosopher and forest activist, was an early role model for me on this. In the past, I have raised various issues, for example:
a) I examined the criticisms that are raised about the key concept of Self-realization within deep ecology, e.g. that it ignores the importance of “place.” I emphasized that Self-realization must avoid feeding the self-help, self-cultivation, or personal transformation movement, at the expense of collective change. (See the My Path to Left Biocentrism document, “Notions of Self in the Age of Ecology”.)
b) I explored the confused views of Naess on ‘sustainable development’.
c) I disagreed with the view (by Naess and others within deep ecology) on the separation of the peace, social justice and ecology movements. I argued that this can feed a right-wing image and makes deep ecology supporters seem uncaring about human issues.
d) I criticized the anti-communist and anti-China attitudes of some Buddhist Tibetan supporters of deep ecology (including some left biocentrists) like Joanna Macy, past CIA employee (see my review of her autobiography Widening Circles: A Memoir.)
e) I exposed the self-absorption of some deep ecology-inspired academics – whose writings dominate journals like The Trumpeter – because the articles lack relevance to problems faced by movement activists which need deep ecology insights and analysis.
f) I supported the work of George Sessions and Bill Devall, in introducing and popularizing the thought of Arne Naess at an early stage in North America. Sessions and Devall are not of the Left and this was reflected in how they handled, or did not handle, criticisms (some justified) and attacks from Left-leaning critics of deep ecology. Note in this regard, Sessions’s uneasiness with the term “Left”, in the quote above; and Devall’s eagerness to state that the environmental movement was a “loyal opposition” and that “Political revolution is not part of the vocabulary of supporters of the deep, long-range ecology movement.” (See Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, p. 386)
There are two important contradictions within deep ecology, which need to be resolved so that this eco-philosophy can further unfold its revolutionary potential:
1. Deep ecology presents a dominant ‘social harmony’ view of social change. This can smother over contradictions in industrial capitalist societies, whereas a ‘social conflict’ view (which Left Biocentrism takes), which has historical roots in Marx and Marxism, is needed to combat ecocide and social injustice. The social harmony perspective undermines the necessity to mentally prepare for the coming social strife associated with working for ecological and major social change.
Naess’s social harmony view (“Ultimately all life is one – so that the injury of one’s opponent becomes also an injury to oneself.” Selected Works, Volume Five, p. 26) produced some guidelines for activists which seem to be out to lunch. For example, “It is a central norm of the Gandhian approach to ‘maximize contact with your opponent!’”; or “Do not exploit a weakness in the position of your opponent.” I think this social harmony view has given an entry to those who have tried to smear deep ecology as being linked to fascism. In my tribute to Naess on his death, I quoted him as saying, when speaking of “intrinsic value” – a fundamental component of his philosophy – “This is squarely an antifascist position. It is incompatible with fascist racism and fascist nationalism, and also with the special ethical status accorded the (supreme) Leader.” (See “Remembering Arne Naess, 1912-2009”) While I unequivocally believe that deep ecology is not “fascist”, yet it does seem to me that a social harmony view of the natural world and the place of humans within this can be used by reactionaries in a fascist manner. Thus the “fatherland” or the “motherland” can be upheld as the supreme good to which the citizen must subordinate herself or himself.
2. A key belief in the philosophy of Naess is that “The ideology of ownership of nature has no place in an ecosophy.” (Ecology, community and lifestyle, p. 175) This is a powerful weapon to undermine the “private property” legitimacy of bourgeois society and its view towards the natural world, that our species has the ‘right’ to decide life and death over other species. Yet not many deep ecology writers in North America are articulating this belief, nor is the US-based Foundation for Deep Ecology promoting it. The now defunct magazine Wild Earth, subsidized by the Foundation, had a number of articles trying to uphold the ecological nature of private property ownership, in an American context. Today the Foundation, through its publications, celebrates “private lands philanthropy”, in North and South America – that is, using and hence reinforcing, the private property laws of bourgeois society to acquire lands for restoration ecology purposes. They never mention the basic deep ecology position of Arne Naess about land ‘ownership’.
I myself have joined with others to contribute funds to buy forest land here in Nova Scotia, in order to prevent its destruction from industrial forestry. But in my writings about this project I have pointed out the contradictions of buying land, resulting from the basic tenet of deep ecology that humans cannot ‘own’ Nature. (See “Community Lands and Deep Ecology”) Industrial capitalist societies are not ecologically or socially sustainable and have to be replaced. This must be said in all our restoration work. Restoration work has no long term future, if the dictatorship of industrial capital is not finally overthrown and replaced by an ecocentric society, which upholds the welfare of all species and is also socially just for humankind.
Perhaps it needs to be emphasized that whatever the contradictions within deep ecology, the thinking of Arne Naess, as I noted in my tribute to him when he died in 2009, “has presented a needed pathway for coming into a new, yet pre-industrial old, animistic and spiritual relationship to the Earth, which is respectful for all species and not just humans”. This is the needed message for our time. For left biocentrists, the left-right distinction is subordinate to the anthropocentric-deep ecology divide. Coming into a new relationship with the natural world is primary, and social justice for humans must keep this in mind. The Left can have a meaningful contributory role in a future ecologically focused and socially just post-industrial society, if it accepts and is transformed by the contribution of deep ecology and comes to see itself, in theory and in practice, as an ecocentric Left.
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