Sunday, 27 May 2012

Deep green hypocrisy — can we ever be ‘green’?

More and more we see the masses crying out for the protection of the environment — whether unkempt Marxists or wealthy philanthropists, they all exclaim: ‘please, won’t somebody think of the Childers flying fox?’ I jest, of course.  But aside from ruthless stereotyping, there are some important questions as to whether or not we can truly care about the environment in the extreme sense of ‘deep ecology’, where humans should seek ‘consistency within ecosystems’, not the manipulation of nature for their own ends.  In attacking this deep ecology framework, I don’t seek to argue against caring for the environment, since humans obviously benefit from its preservation, whether through beauty, resources or for future generations, but merely to undermine the philosophical basis of deep ecology, and explain how it is impossible to be truly green.  

The quest to protect the environment for the benefits it affords humanity broadly fits within the frame of what is labelled ‘shallow’ environmentalism, whose critics, the ‘deep’ ecologists, claim by continuing to accept anthropocentrism, the shallow ecologists simply perpetuate the exploitation of nature.  At the core of deep ecology or ‘deep green thinking’ is, most simply, the rejection of any sense of anthropocentrism and instead an acceptance of humanity as a part of nature, and not above it or separate.  

Deep ecology
The conclusion deep ecology reaches is that we must protect and preserve nature: we must be green, as we are merely part of the natural world, not above it.  This of course begs the question, what do we seek to preserve? What is it to be ‘green’?  The very word itself seems loaded with meaning, aside from its political connotations; it suggests that what humans should seek to preserve is those beautiful parts of wilderness: the old growth forests of Tasmania, the crystalline fjords of northern Europe and the pristine ice sheets of the poles.  Or is it the radioactive green of low-carbon nuclear energy?  So let us test this idea of natural preservation as an end in itself.  

While various frameworks are adopted by different groups, the focus is generally in fairly amorphous constructions, such as the ‘encouragement of nature to flourish’, which though evoking beautiful tableaux of flora and fauna in readers’ minds actually mean very little in terms of real goals.  In what seems like a more specific description, some proponents support preventing acts ‘inconsistent’ with particular ecosystems.  This remains unclear — what makes something inconsistent with nature?  It could be inconsistent with its appearance, such as a bitumen car-park in a rainforest, or even a wind turbine in a field.  However let us assume that it is not motivated purely by aesthetic considerations, given that many things in ‘nature’ (always said as if humans are not part of it, seemingly contradicting the anti-anthropocentric approach) can look out of place, and given the deep ecologists’ apparent loathing for ‘shallowness’.  

Inconsistent with nature?

To decide how to protect nature we must reach one of three conclusions, as I will explain, namely:
I.         Assume we can make choices regarding what is best for nature and then act along those lines, as deep ecologists suggest;
II.         Accept that, given the integrity of nature which must be preserved, we should remove humans from the planet; or
III.         Accept that the only consistent part of nature is its process of natural selection, and thus we should act with what is best in the eyes of humans, noting that this does not necessarily exclude the protection of nature as we decide.  

I. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ — can humanity make choices about what is best for nature?
If we accept the idea of humanity as one with and not above nor divisible from nature, we cannot therefore make decisions regarding how to protect nature as an end in itself.  To make these decisions, in what I have already explained seems a value-laden process, it assumes some level of anthropocentrism, accepting that humans are in a position to make normative judgements to interfere with nature, even if the aim is its benefit.  Take climate change, for instance.  Why is nature better served by emitting less carbon dioxide and having a cooler planet?  Obviously there are human protection and lifestyle imperatives, such as rising sea levels and agricultural issues, but these are not our focus.  How is nature any less flourishing, or less consistent?  It could be the extinctions which cause the worry, however these are not inconsistent with the changes in nature which have occurred in the past.  What is the difference between extinction of a prehistoric frog as a result of natural flying predators and the extinction of a bird due to anthropogenic climate change?  The argument that such changes are differentiable seems strangely to put humans in the centre, as with anthropocentrism, or at least assign some sort of anthropo-polarity, with humans at one pole of some spectrum of nature, still distinct.  This seems contradictory to deep ecology’s stated basis.  

II. Should we kill the environmentalists?
There are some groups which propose gradual extinction or reduction of the human population, however this author dismisses the former leaving it to others to consider, and feels the latter is a discussion for another time.  Not only does it seem absurd to countenance, but is contrary to allowing nature to flourish, if, as deep ecologists say, humans are part of nature.  Again, our meta-reasoning ability as a race distinguishes us, and to use that very distinction to reason that we and nature are indistinguishable seems odd.  

III. ‘...until soft peaks form’ — is there only one way to measure consistency?

In adopting a model by which to measure consistency for the purposes of deep ecology’s aims, this author can only find one possible measure: the process of natural selection and Darwinism.  All of nature, including, as the deep ecologists wish, humanity, has developed through the process of natural selection: the random mutation of genes which then, through the ‘survival of the fittest’ leads to the prominence of optimal genetic features.  This evolution occurred and still occurs not only through survival of the fittest individual, but often the fittest groups, with much current research, for instance, about the evolutionary origins of altruism.  Whether we look at bonobos working (and sleeping) together for the benefit of the community or fish clinging to aquatic mammals in symbiotic relationships, we see that cooperation such as that of humans is not against this principle of natural selection.  So it seems that only if we interfere with that principle then we interfere with nature.  Can we ever interfere with this?  I contend that we cannot, which finally places humans as truly part of nature, equal with the other animals in our inability to modify the process.  Moreover, the conservationist tendencies of deep ecologists betray their true failures: by seeking the protection of nature as it exists now, they act antithetically to nature’s consistent, gradual development, and implicitly oppose the flourishing they wish it to undergo. 

The path ahead

So does this mean we should just go about the destruction of nature, emitting carbon dioxide as we please and hunting rhinos for their alleged aphrodisiacal properties?  Only if that is what we think is best for humans.  I certainly do not want to live in a barren, salinated wasteland at higher temperatures without exotic creatures, and neither do many, so even if we reject deep ecology we need not fear for that.  

It seems that for all its grand ambition, deep ecology fails to maintain the consistency it so prizes through its untenable basis.  Shallowness knows no bounds. 

James Rigby is a first year student completing a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Economics at the University of Queensland.  He has interests in politics and science, and intends to enjoy the best parts of Arts vicariously through his learned colleagues.  


  1. Sure, species go extinct, and ecosystems change, but it's the speed at issue here. If species go extinct too fast and are ecosystems are stressed enough, evolution doesn't have time to fill the critical niches and the ecosystem fails. Climate change could lead to losses of 30% of the world's species. You're right that it's difficult to objectively define, but surely there is something sad about a lost of whole environments.

    I'm not a big environmentalist, and I agree that the more important consequences are agricultural losses (great paper: and natural disasters, but I think you're selling the ecological arguments a little short.

    1. It certainly is sad, and if we value those ecosystems (which our sadness suggests we do), that is why we should conserve them - however not just for conservation as an end in itself: it should be a means to whatever end we value most. Some argue that there is some inherent value in a species' existence, and I think there is merit in that argument as well for the protection of biodiversity.
      I however do not agree with the justification deep ecology uses, for the reasons given.