To most Americans, environmentalism is perceived as a benevolent cultural force charged with preserving the earth’s endangered natural treasures and resources. After all, who could possibly oppose freshwater, clean air, and efforts to save fury creatures. Yet few realize there is also a dark underbelly to the growing body of thought that motivates this enthusiastic social movement, causing it to often stand in opposition to fundamental Christian assumptions regarding God, man, and the relation of each to the broader Creation. These faulty assumptions in turn end up posing a major threat to both the liberties we enjoy as Americans and the standard of living possessed by industrialized nations resulting from technological advancement.
There is more to radical brands of environmental ethics — also know as “Deep Ecology” — than the perennial dilemma between paper or plastic. To a number of the movement’s followers, such rigorous devotion to nature serves the function of a comprehensive worldview. This perspective molds understandings of theology, anthropology, and forms of cultural engagement.
Fundamental, therefore, becomes this outlook’s interpretation of ultimate reality. In one sense, Deep Ecology can be seen as an eclectic philosophical movement finding its well of inspiration from the confluence of several streams of thought.
Sociology Professor Bill Devall, who helped coin the movement’s name, is quoted in “Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism & The Unmaking Of Civilization” by Christopher Manes as saying, “We are arguing that you can start from Buddhism, you can start from Darwinism, you can work your way from Native American tradition and work your way to a Deep Ecology position….(140).” What draws these disparate starting points together is the common assumption of interconnectedness where all components of the environment are dependent upon one another and comprise a totality greater than themselves known as the ecosphere.
The systemic interconnectedness promoted by Deep Ecology exhibits considerable similarity to the religious concept of pantheism, the idea that the sum of the universe constitutes God itself. This no doubt accounts for the considerable crossover between the ranks of the New Age and radical environmentalist movements.
Deep Ecology’s affinity towards pantheistic spirituality bears much of the responsibility for the hostility that has developed between orthodox Christian belief and the more exacting brands of environmentalist thought. Though adherents are somewhat mistaken as to the philosophical justification for the ecological degradation found in the world, dedicated environmentalists are astute in recognizing the divergences between these competing conceptions of morality.
On the one hand, Deep Ecology perceives the world and its contents as a singular undifferentiated reality. Christianity, on the other hand, acknowledges the shared attributes of the created order while recognizing separate points and shades of ontological valuation along the continuum of being. In the essay “The Historical Roots Of Our Ecological Crisis”, Lynn White, Jr. argues that Christianity’s distinction between man and nature serves as the root excuse justifying the despoilment of the planet’s ecology. While White’s hypothesis may be a bit fanciful in its interpretation, his contention does highlight the stark contrast in the epistemological frameworks presented by each of these systems.
Deep Ecology descends from its pinnacle of philosophical monism to address the matters of existence in the world through the vehicle of ecocentrism, the ethical position that everything in nature possesses the same degree of intrinsic worth. Rik Scarce writes in Eco-Warriors: Understanding The Radical Environmental Movement, “Deep Ecologists argue that human-centered , or ‘anthropocentric’ worldviews grant people a privileged status… Ecology teaches that no individual or species warrants such a special status. For ethical purposes ecocentrism places humans on par with trees, blades of grass, mountain lions, and roaches (36).”
Such thinking ought to send chills down the spines of rational people everywhere. It also no doubt explains the reluctance of local governments to spray for burgeoning mosquito populations despite the increasing threat posed by the potentially deadly West Nile virus. We certainly wouldn’t want to harm those darling mosquitoes.
It is through ecocentrism that the abstractions of environmental philosophy begin to take concrete shape in the form of policies and political positions. Deep Ecology’s social outlook is centered around bioregionalism, a form of socio-political organization whereby boundaries of a territory are delineated according to an area’s ecological characteristics (Scare, 38). This is done in the hopes of bringing about the advent of a new revolutionary society.
The purpose of bioregionalism is to establish sustainable communities integrated wholly into the ecosystem in an attempt to halt the expanse of industrial society. Christopher Manes points out in Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism & The Unmaking Of Civilization that thinkers such as Heidegger and Marcuse claim that attempts by technology to totalize all aspects of existence ultimately cut the individual off