Arne Næss, Ecosophy and Deep Ecology

Norwegian professor and philosopher, late Arne Næss, remains a key figure in the awakening of 20th C occidental consciousness to the real threats of the ecological-environmental crisis. I am posting this on ‘Earth Day’ to bring his (often marginalized and neglected) ideas to the fore, and also to remind us (myself included) of our inter-relatedness with, and the common fate that we share with all life forms on our planet. My first brush with Næss, quite a few years ago, was through readings about deep ecology – I thought him too ‘white-male-crisis’ for my taste then, but with distance, and time, I have come to appreciate his ideas more. His personal philosophy, which he called Ecosophy (not to be confused with Félix Guattari‘s usage of the same term,) encompasses the complexity of the relationship of humans to their natural environment, and he calls for a higher spiritual and psychological evolution of humankind, to ‘Self-realization’, a set of ideas which he formulates later as Deep Ecology. The deep ecological attitude is not only a state of ‘Self-realization’, but also a state of questioning – asking the bigger questions of life, being, society and culture, natural diversity, human instrumentality. The deep ecological attitude is also ‘longitudinal’, the ability to envision human activities and the natural world in large sweeps of time – giving rise to the ‘deep long range ecology movement.’

Entirely non-related to Næss’s non-violent beliefs and ecology movement, former UC Berkeley mathematics professor Theodore Kaczynski, now incarcerated, and often vilified as the ‘Unabomber’, presents a violent and extreme response to crisis. Kaczynski’s murderous ‘revolution’ in wanting to overthrow the industrial-technological-economic society has, I maintain, ecological-environmental crisis roots. His writings mention ‘greater damage on the natural world’ in passing, but the trigger for Kaczynski’s path to violent ‘revolution’ makes lucid his sense of utter loss and betrayal – when he discovers that a pristine plateau with ravines and waterfalls that he loved dearly, was destroyed for the sake of infrastructural development. Kaczynski was also deeply interested in pre-industrial ways of life, speaking of which, indigenous peoples worldwide, including India, have always been ‘deep ecologists’ – for whom, mountains, among other things, are not a source of wealth generating minerals but a nurturer and giver of life. In India, the Dongria Kondhs of the Niyamgiri Hills understood, much like Næss did in Norway many centuries later, that what is ‘out there’ is ‘me’ as well. Similarly, if one strips off the religious, ritualistic aspects of the Indian Bishnoi sect, their essential philosophy of the right to life of all living beings, is, at it’s core, deep ecological thinking, propounded by Næss, centuries later.

Næss, was the quintessential solitary-living-in-a-mountain-hut thinker philosopher. Not unlike the solitude seeking occidental philosophers that have come much before him, Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza, both of whom have influenced Næss considerably – Kant with his writings on ‘the beautiful act’, and Spinoza on ‘activeness.’ Eastern influences for Næss were through Gandhian thought and action (especially ‘Satyagraha‘, of direct action and non-violence,) and Buddhism, of inter-relatedness, impermanence and process. His attempts to learn the ancient Sanskrit language also marks a distinct turn towards looking at alternative ways of living and doing. Næss’s words “I am a short range pessimist, long range optimist” hints at his disillusionment with contemporary industrial-consumer societies, but not without faith in the essential goodness of man to overcome all shortcomings, and arrive at a higher state of ‘Self-realization.’ This 1997 film by Jan van Boeckel provides an introduction to Næss and his ideas. Watch.

The Call of the Mountain ~ Arne Naess and the Deep Ecology Movement (full version)


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