Deep Ecology and Process Thought
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 112-131, Vol.30, Number 1, Spring-Summer, 2001. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
I. The Encounter with Deep Ecology
Whitehead’s philosophy can be understood as a deep ecology. It affirms the intrinsic value of all things and their radical interdependence in such a way that those who follow him should be profoundly sensitive to the inherent importance of what happens to all things and to how the effects of each act ramify throughout the whole. Furthermore, the importance of what happens is by no means limited to its importance for human beings. People with such sensitivities should have been the first to become aware of the ecological crisis and the most perceptive in their response.
Unfortunately, we Whiteheadians cannot claim this kind of leadership. Some, such as Bernard Meland, Charles Hartshorne, and Charles Birch noticed the degradation of the environment and the loss of habitat for other species at an early point. But on the whole, it was not until others forced us to notice the critical nature of the destructive human impact on the biosphere that most of us were aroused. Certainly this was my experience.
Nevertheless, when my eyes were opened, the relevance of the philosophy, which had appealed to me originally on other grounds, was apparent. I did not have to struggle to overcome a dualism between the human and the natural world, since, theoretically at least, I had rejected that long since. When I read Lynn White’s critique of the anthropocentrism of Western Christianity, I saw at once that he was correct and that this had affected me as well, but I had no inclination to defend anthropocentrism. I had already rejected it theoretically and, to some extent, in my sensibility, as a theologian I began to call for a radical revision of Christian teaching.
To summarize my own experience, believing it to be somewhat typical, being a Whiteheadian had limited effects on my dominant perceptions and sensibility with respect to the nonhuman world until my attention was called to what was happening there. When I heard the criticism of dualism and anthropocentrism, I responded immediately to its correctness, and modes of sensibility and perception that had earlier been suppressed by my dualistic and anthropocentric acculturation and academic training began to affect my consciousness and my judgments. I became more fully a Whiteheadian.
From the early 1970s I was aware that among those who were newly conscientized to the destruction of life-support systems, some were concerned only with finding ways of avoiding negative consequences for human beings. I had long since been schooled to see the limits of this kind of approach within the human context. For example, an individual who acts according to enlightened self-interest will not in fact establish the relation with others needed to fulfill those interests. Similarly, a national policy based on self-interest alone does not achieve the self-interest of the nation. Only when the policy is guided by some real concern about what happens to others as well will it achieve the goals of national self-interest.
Accordingly, I argued that aiming to defend the natural environment simply for the sake of human beings would not achieve even its own ends. Those who did not care for other creatures would never perceive the real situation with sufficient clarity to recognize the seriousness of what was happening. They would not be motivated at a sufficient depth to take the actions needed. The Christian principle that those who seek to save only their own souls will lose them applies to humanity as a whole. If we aim to save only humanity, humanity will die. We will deal wisely with our problems only if we seek the well-being of the other creatures out of real concern for them.
When I first heard the terms "shallow ecology" and "deep ecology," I assumed that they described this division -- that between a narrowly anthropocentric concern and an inclusive concern for the whole of creation. The former required little revision of traditional Western thinking, only the recognition of a new set of problems calling for new technical solutions. The latter required a basic revision of traditional Western thinking toward the acceptance of the reality and intrinsic value of the natural world and the intimate interconnectedness of all things. I was, and am, wholeheartedly committed to the latter. For a Whiteheadian there is hardly any choice. I assumed, therefore, that I was a deep ecologist.
Furthermore, the eight points taken to be the essential principles of "deep ecology," which I first encountered in the book by Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology, are quite acceptable to a Whiteheadian. (Secondary questions about point 4 will be raised later in this essay.) They are as follows:
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes. (70)
II. Tensions and Convergences
Closer examination of the book, however, showed that there are tensions between Whiteheadians and those who have coined the term "deep ecology." True, Whitehead is mentioned favorably (79, 225) in quotations from two of the authors’ heroes: Paul Shepard and Arne Naess. But Whitehead and process thought are conspicuous by their absence from the groups favorably mentioned as sources and allies by Devall and Sessions. And the reason for this absence is made clear in an appendix by Sessions.
Sessions notes there, correctly, that many Whiteheadians argue that "humans have the greatest degree or highest quality of sentience or consciousness, hence humans have the highest value and the most rights in Nature" (236). He concludes, wrongly, that this position "merely reinforces existing Western anthropocentrism" (236). It fails to meet what Sessions calls "the deep ecology norm of ‘ecological egalitarianism in principle"’ (236).
For a Whiteheadian reader this principle of ecological egalitarianism is not evident in the eight-point manifesto presented above. But Devall and Sessions find it there. In their interpretation of the second of the eight points they write that this entails "the refusal to acknowledge that some life forms have greater or lesser intrinsic value than others" (71).
It is puzzling to a Whiteheadian how the fact that the diversity of life forms contribute to the value of the whole and has value in itself can be understood to require ecological egalitarianism. This absence of logical connection seems to be conceded by Arne Naess among others. Neither of the expositions of the eight points in the more recent book, Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, interprets them in this way (Naess; McLaughlin). Indeed, Naess clearly does not want egalitarianism to be a doctrine that excludes those who would otherwise be supporters. He recognizes that terms such as this function as "slogans which are often open to misinterpretation." They "can properly imply that in some respects man is only a ‘plain citizen’ (Aldo Leopold) of the planet on a par with all other species, but they are sometimes interpreted as denying that humans have any ‘extraordinary’ traits, or that, in situations involving vital interests, humans have no overriding obligations towards their own kind. But this would be a mistake: they have!" (76).
One could be led by this to suppose that the question of gradations of value is open to discussion by deep ecologists among themselves, rather than an issue between Whiteheadians and deep ecologists. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that when Naess identifies the philosophical grounds for deep ecologists, he lists Whitehead alongside Spinoza (77). In general Naess wants to draw the boundaries broadly and loosely to include all those who are basically sympathetic with his platform.
Indeed, Naess is quite explicit in his desire to find unity on basic principles while drawing those principles from diverse sources. He spells this out most fully in an essay, "The Encouraging Richness and Diversity of Ultimate Premises in Environmental Philosophy." Here, he emphasizes the impossibility of settling metaphysical issues. He shows how critics rooted in one philosophical tradition typically interpret other traditions in ways that are different from the interpretations of those who inhabit those traditions. Clearly, work on the critical issues facing the Earth cannot wait for universal consensus on a metaphysical ground for interpretation and action! Instead we should rejoice that persons who are sensitive to ecological issues find support in many traditions.
Naess illustrates his general thesis with a discussion of Whitehead and Spinoza. He cites Susan Armstrong-Buck as claiming that Whitehead provides the theory we need. Nowhere does Naess question Whitehead’s contribution. But Armstrong-Buck proceeds to explain that Spinoza’s philosophy is inferior in this respect because of its deterministic monism. Naess argues that every great thinker is subject to many interpretations. He asserts that the interpretation of Armstrong-Buck is by no means the only, or the best, interpretation of Spinoza. It is certainly not the interpretation that leads him personally to draw on Spinoza as his grounding for deep ecology ("Encouraging" 55-57).
Most Whiteheadians will recognize the wisdom and truth in what Naess says. We may believe that greater creativity is required to avoid negatives in the Spinozistic tradition than in the Whiteheadian, but that all of us are engaged in selective interpretations within our own traditions, and selective interpretations of others, is surely correct. Also, those who inhabit a tradition have greater right to say what that tradition means today than those who systematize and reject it from the outside. That we can work together with those who have not studied or appropriated the philosophy we find so helpful and illuminating is important to us as well. David Griffin is demonstrating this in his work on constructive postmodern thought.
On the other hand, Naess may underestimate the tensions involved at the practical level where he hopes for cooperative work. Sometimes the different metaphysical groundings lead to different interpretations of the eight points and of how they should be applied. Fuller cooperation is often possible among those who share a common philosophical grounding than between adherents of different philosophies.
This is relevant to the issue of ecological egalitarianism. Despite Naess’s openness to Whiteheadians, the objection to any gradation in the valuation of other species is widespread among deep ecologists. His own views, so influential among deep ecologists, are opposed to the judgments of relative intrinsic value that seem inescapable to most Whiteheadians. He writes: "I have injured thousands of individuals of the tiny arctic plant, Salix herbacea, during a ten-year period of living in the high mountains of Norway, and I shall feel forced to continue stepping on them as long as I live there. But I have never felt the need to justify such behavior by thinking they have less of a right to live and blossom (or that they have less intrinsic value as living beings) than other living beings, including myself. . . . It is not meaningful to speak of degrees of intrinsic or inherent value when speaking of the right of individuals to live and blossom" ("Eight Points" 223).
The anthology that now identifies deep ecology for the next century includes no essays arguing with Whitehead’s remark that "life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals becomes acute. The robber requires justification" (105). To a Whiteheadian, it appears likely that some judgment of relative value is in fact implicit in Naess’s practice and attitude. If he really believes that each plant has an equal right to live as he, then killing thousands in order that he may enjoy living in that area seems immoral. Further, if living in the Norwegian mountains required him to cause suffering to thousands of rabbits or deer, one wonders whether he would adopt just the same attitude. The point here is not to argue the issue but simply to note the exclusion from the volume of any discussion.
No writing by a Whiteheadian is included, and there is no mention of Whiteheadian contributions in Sessions’s introductions. The only sustained discussion, one by John Rodman, is negative. Although Sessions engages in no new polemic against Whiteheadians, he cites his critical essay in the bibliography. If Whiteheadians are allowed to identify themselves as deep ecologists, it seems that we can function only as silent supporters, either criticized or ignored, not as participants in a conversation identifying and clarifying the ideas of the movement.
Hence, despite the wide-ranging agreement between Whiteheadians and deep ecologists, despite the generous inclusion of Whitehead by Naess and Shepard, and despite the importance of working together on our shared agenda, it seems better to think of two separate communities concerned to reshape the modern Western attitude and behavior toward the natural world. We can then engage in dialogue with the hope of clarifying our relationship. Do we understand one another correctly? Are the differences such as to require continued separateness? Within what range of activities can we cooperate?
III. Are Gradations of Value Anthropocentric?
One objection to asserting that some entities have greater intrinsic value than others is that human beings make the judgment. This makes it, in one sense, anthropocentric. But by this definition the judgments made by the deep ecologists are equally anthropocentric. There is value in reminding us all that our judgments may be distorted by our limited perspectives, but unless it is shown that the judgments of process thinkers are more distorted than those of deep ecologists, little more is accomplished.
A second objection is that those who make the judgments usually locate human beings as the most valuable of creatures. This too easily justifies giving priority to satisfying secondary human desires even when doing so conflicts with the critical needs of other creatures. Furthermore, the intrinsic value attributed to other creatures is typically a function of their similarity to us. Hence, critics of process thinkers do not see that our acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of other creatures removes humanity from its central position in the way that is needed if we are to move from a shallow to a deep ecology. They see process thought as a slightly modified form of anthropocentrism.
In response, process thinkers can point out that grading the intrinsic value of creatures has not always placed human beings at the top. Historically, angels were placed above human beings. Today some would identify visitors from outer space as superior. Nevertheless, among the inhabitants of this planet, few who make comparative judgments dispute the assignment of the top grade of intrinsic value to human beings. Whiteheadians generally share in this judgment. Hence the point is not seriously wrong.
On the other hand, the criticism greatly underestimates the consequences of affirming that other creatures also have intrinsic value. The result is that they cannot be used only for human ends. Their own ends must be considered as well. We humans have the responsibility to work for a world in which both they and we have habitat and opportunity to flourish. This is not just a slightly modified anthropocentrism. It involves a drastic rejection of the now dominant world system.
Also, to say that similarity to human beings is the only basis of valuing other species is an exaggeration. It is true that creatures that resemble us must be acknowledged to share in the values we attribute to ourselves. But the fact that dolphins are less similar to us than monkeys does not determine that they are of lesser value.
Those who engage in estimating the relative intrinsic value of creatures attempt to clarify the criteria involved. Whitehead provides a complex theory of intrinsic value in Adventures of Ideas, but for present purposes we can single out his term, "strength of beauty," as the criterion. Human experiences have different degrees of strength of beauty, and one goal is to increase that strength. We judge that the experiences of porpoises and chimpanzees also have considerable strength of beauty. No doubt the range of their enjoyment overlaps with the range of human enjoyment, but we judge that, overall, human experience is capable of greater strength of beauty than theirs.
We can certainly imagine that there are creatures elsewhere in the universe or in a divine sphere that would vastly surpass us in this respect. On the other hand, we find it unlikely that the strength of beauty of the experience of a flea is nearly as great as that of a dog, and we act accordingly to kill fleas for the sake of the dog. But this does not deny the intrinsic value of the flea. To kill the flea is also to destroy something of value.
Third, critics do not so much dispute the details of what Whiteheadians say as object to the whole process of reflecting in this way. Practically, they are prepared, as point 3 makes explicit, to damage life systems when "vital" human needs require it. Most of them, no doubt, also kill fleas for the sake of the well-being of dogs. Some may even support efforts to save dolphins from the nets of tuna fishermen while eating the tuna. Naess damages thousands of plants with little or no compunction because it is an inescapable part of living where he wants to live. As noted, he would probably be more troubled if living there required the suffering of numerous animals. At least, a Whiteheadian would hope so.
The deeper point of the critics of process thought is that subsuming other creatures into the ethical system worked out in modernity to guide relations among people does not change us at the needed level. It may even distract us from that change, one in perception and sensibility. When Naess describes what he does, he talks about his intuitions rather than offering arguments in justification. It is the cultivation of these intuitions that interests most deep ecologists.
In this anthology, John Rodman makes these concerns explicit. In "Four Forms of Ecological Consciousness Reconsidered," he first distinguishes "resource conservation," "wilderness preservation," and "moral extensionism." He treats Whiteheadians under the third heading. Since Whiteheadians have often been drawn into the discussion in terms of the rights of nature, and since the language of rights is associated with individualistic thinking, he argues against us:
extensionist positions tend . . . to perpetuate the atomistic metaphysics that is so deeply embedded in modern culture, locating intrinsic value only or primarily in individual persons, animals, plants, etc., rather than in communities or ecosystems, since individuals are our paradigmatic entities for thinking, being conscious, and feeling pain. Yet it seems bizarre to try to account wholly for the value of a forest or a swamp by itemizing and adding up the values of all individual members. (125)
The critique is in part warranted even from a Whiteheadian perspective. Although the language of rights is not characteristic of Whitehead, I am among the Whiteheadians who have sometimes employed it in much the way Rodman describes. This has led, as he indicates, to an accent on individuals. Rodman is also correct that Whiteheadians ascribe intrinsic value only to individuals. Some of us are, no doubt, guilty of having written in such a way that Whitehead’s emphasis on the individual was separated from his equal emphasis on the social character of every individual and have thereby failed to challenge the damaging individualism of the modern era.
To whatever extent I, and others, have been guilty of treating value in too individualistic a way, we have distorted Whitehead. Although for a Whiteheadian the intrinsic value of a forest may be the sum of the value of all the individuals who make it up, the realization of value in each individual is a function of the value of the whole community of individuals. It is at least as true that the individual realizations of value are particular concrescences of the ecosystem, or some segment thereof, as that the value of the ecosystem is the mere addition of the value of individuals atomistically conceived.
From a Whiteheadian point of view, the same point must be made with respect to human societies. Intrinsic value resides in individual experiences. But those experiences are concrescences of the wider society, human and nonhuman. Individualistic theories, political and economic, require serious critique from a Whiteheadian perspective. From this perspective there is continuity between social and ecological theory. In this sense Rodman is correct in calling the Whiteheadian contribution to ecological theory extensionist. But he is one-sided in his interpretation of what is extended.
For a Whiteheadian, it is important to add that, although intrinsic value is important, extrinsic value is equally so. Extrinsic value is the value of each experience for other experiences. Here the ecosystem has many values that cannot be found in any of its individual members. Its beauty as found in the enjoyment of a human observer, for example, results from the patterns adopted by societies of individuals none of which can enjoy that particular form of beauty. This beauty, which is enhanced by diversity, contributes greatly to the intrinsic value of the experience of the observer. What is destroyed in the loss of the ecosystem, therefore, is not only the intrinsic value of myriads of individuals making up the forest community but also very important additional contributions of the forest to the intrinsic value of human experiences.
From his critique of moral extensionism, Rodman concludes that "there will be no revolution in ethics without a revolution in perception" (125). This is surely correct, and it is a point central to deep ecology that has not been made as vividly or consistently by Whiteheadians. Too often we are satisfied to undertake conceptual changes. But whatever our failures, this is not a reason to part ways with deep ecology. On the contrary, it is a reason to seek all the help we can get and to express appreciation for those who have worked more directly and effectively to change the way people perceive.
IV. The Value of Individuals and of Societies
Rodman describes the fourth (desirable) option as "ecological sensibility." Here he supports the intuitions of Naess and many others. But his particular way of moving to this position is interesting to a Whiteheadian who desires also to deepen ecological sensibility but resists some features of the sensibility proposed by Rodman and other leading deep ecologists.
To help the reader understand and experience the changed perception that is needed, Rodman appeals to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Leopold invites the reader along
as he follows the tracks of the skunk in the January snow; wondering where the skunk is beading and why; speculating on the different meanings of a winter thaw for the mouse whose snow burrow has collapsed and the owl who has just made dinner on the mouse; trying to understand the honking of the geese as they circle the pond; and wondering what the world must look like to a muskrat eye-deep in the swamp. By the time one reaches Leopold’s discussion of the land ethic, one has grown accustomed to thinking of different animals . . . as subjects rather than objects, as beings that have their own purposes, their own perspectives on the world, and their own goods that are differently affected by events. . . . What melts away as we become intrigued with this plurality of perspectives is the assumption that any one of them (for example, ours) is privileged. (qtd. in Rodman, 127)
This certainly should help the reader understand the Whiteheadian way of thinking! But Rodman understands himself to be pointing away from the Whiteheadian, to a different vision. To do so, he slips into his discussion at the first gap above "and (arguably), by extension, different natural entities in general." Among these he includes individual plants and forests, he does not assert that these are subjects, but he does affirm that they have tele, and that this suffices for us to perceive them as worthy of respect and as "being entitled to continue in a natural state" (127). The question of subjects other than humans, which seemed important in the exposition of Leopold, then disappears from further consideration in Rodman.
If Rodman meant that it is always wrong to destroy a plant or that humans should protect every plant from such destruction, the results would be absurd. He does not mean that. He means that we should perceive the natural world as having its own being and value so that we are sensitive to the loss when it is disturbed and are moved to act for the health of the biotic community.
The difference, therefore, between a well-formulated Whiteheadian view and what Rodman calls for is not as great as he implies. The issue is whether a plant or a forest is entitled to continue in a natural state because as a plant or a forest it has its own telos, or because it is composed of cells and/or contains numerous other subjects whose actuality is largely constituted by the way they participate in the life of the plant or the forest. For human beings, of course, the plant and the forest have also other dimensions of value that depend on their overall organization. Their beauty, their contribution to the human spirit, as well as their more practical value for human needs are neglected if we speak only of their intrinsic value. This is the value of the plant or forest for human beings, a value that contributes to the intrinsic value of human experience.
Ontologically, however, the distinction between individuals and societies is important for Whiteheadians. For us, subjectivity is a requisite for both being and value. Apart from experience there is nothing at all. To be an occasion of experience is to be an actuality, and to be an actuality is to have value in and for itself. It is also to have value for others. Some of these values can be appreciated only by human beings and are constitutive of our intrinsic value as people.
The examples Rodman derives from Leopold support the importance of multiple subjects, each experiencing the world in a different way. But Rodman wishes to erase the line between individual subjects and what Whiteheadians understand as societies of subjects on the grounds that both have tele. For us, on the other hand, to have one’s own telos is to have a subjective aim. A society of living occasions each of which has such an aim exhibits telic behavior, and the telos of each member is in large measure a function of its participation in the society. This participation is constitutive of each occasion. We can agree that for many purposes the language that in the strictest sense applies only to individual occasions can and should be applied also to societies such as plants and forests.
Nevertheless, it is an error to attribute a subjective aim to a society that is not a unified subject, however telic its behavior. It is the Whiteheadian insistence on this distinction that many deep ecologists find offensive, but Whiteheadians cannot give it up simply to diminish opposition to our view. For us, the failure to distinguish individuals and societies leads to ontological, and also ethical, confusion. On the other hand, this confusion is not as great or as troubling to us as that resulting from understanding individuals as self-enclosed entities rather than as constituted by their relations to others.
Reflection on how deep ecologists move so easily from the intrinsic value of the natural world to ecological egalitarianism suggests that the most important theoretical difference between them and Whiteheadians may be the locus of intrinsic value. For Whiteheadians this locus is subjective experience. For deep ecologists it is not. This difference should be unpacked.
In sum, for Whiteheadians there are two distinct points to be made in relation to ecological concerns. One is that every entity is constituted by its relations to other entities, and these relations involve receiving value from them. The second is that every individual entity is something for itself as well as something for others, and that its intrinsic value consists in what it is for itself. Indeed, according to our definition, an "intrinsic value" is a value that an entity has for itself without regard to how it affects others or is valued by others. Thus the recognition of the subjectivity of every actual entity, as well as its derivation of value from others, is an essential part of what would be for us "deep" ecology.
The use of the term intrinsic value by deep ecologists misled us into thinking there was more similarity than may in fact exist. The first point in their platform does not assert that there is intrinsic value in each of the creatures with which we share this planet. It speaks of "human and nonhuman Life on Earth" and of its "well-being and flourishing." Intrinsic value is located in this collective well-being and flourishing rather than in the experiences of the individual entities that are involved. The thought is about the biosphere as a whole and the ecosystems that make it up, not about individual creatures.
Whiteheadians certainly share this concern for the inclusive system of living things and the physical world on which they depend. But it is not in this context that we speak of intrinsic value. That is located in individuals.
For the most part, in the natural world the realization of intrinsic value by individuals and the flourishing of the system are highly correlated. This was true even with the emergence of the human species. It has only been in relatively recent times, perhaps the past ten thousand years, that on a large scale the activities designed to enhance intrinsic value among members of one species, the human, have frequently worked against the flourishing of the system as a whole. One important reason for this has been that human beings have not recognized the intrinsic value of other creatures with which they share the Earth. Accordingly, they have treated these other creatures only as means to their ends.
A second reason that humans, especially modern ones, have done so much damage is that they have not understood that their very being is constituted by relations that ultimately connect them to everything in the universe. The relations with their more immediate environments, human and nonhuman, are of primary importance for who they are. Their own intrinsic value is enhanced as all those other entities to which they are related flourish. It is impoverished when this environment of others decays.
This emphasis on interrelatedness connects Whiteheadians with the emphases of many deep ecologists. Some of the latter have emphasized that the true Self is an all-inclusive one and not the separated ego cultivated by individualism. Like Whiteheadians, they recognize a strong affinity with Buddhist teaching about the Self. But they have done more than have most Whiteheadians (feminist Whiteheadians may be an exception) to draw out the deep psychological meaning, the change in sensibility, the altered self-understanding and lifestyle, in short, the full implications of the conviction that Whiteheadians share with them.
The difference, from the Whiteheadian point of view, is that whereas these deep ecologists think we must choose between an ethical-valuational approach to other creatures and an appreciation of our unity with the whole system of nature, Whitehead shows us the truth of both. In terms of emphasis, especially in the current global ecological crisis, that of deep ecologists is correct. But this does not justify rejecting the supplementary points offered by those who are keenly sensitive to the suffering of individual creatures. If we act in terms of this sensitivity, we must make comparative judgments about these creatures and even about ourselves in relation to them.
The claim of this section (IV) is that Whitehead provides a way to affirm and undergird the positive points of deep ecology without rejecting concern for individual creatures. To clarify this, Whiteheadians must defend the gradations of value that have offended deep ecologists. We may hope that by showing that judgments of comparative value do not replace or count against the positive insights of deep ecologists, the offense may at least be reduced, and the alliance on the many points of agreement can be strengthened. Perhaps, also, Whiteheadians can contribute to overcoming the animosity that still sometimes separates deep ecologists from animal rights activists.
V. A Dialogue with Paul Shepard
Whiteheadians should gladly acknowledge that deep ecologists have pursued important lines of inquiry to which we have contributed little and that we have much to gain from what they have done. This is not a small point. There is always a danger that we will be satisfied with formal conceptual responses to problems. These may be accurate in principle and valuable for overcoming erroneous approaches. But if they do not also open us to appropriating the wisdom that others have gained through more detailed investigation and finer imagination, we remain impoverished. We have more to gain from the rich explorations of individual deep ecologists than from their formal conceptual statements and arguments.
Perhaps our indebtedness is greatest in the exploration of how the needed changes in self-understanding can come about. Deep ecologists have pressed the question of why civilized human beings, and especially those in the modern West, have become so alienated from nature. If Whiteheadians answer that it is because they have subscribed to erroneous philosophies, the question of "why?" recurs. Deep ecologists, like feminists, have been led to explorations of history, of individual psychology, and of how we raise and educate our children. All of this is extremely relevant and worthwhile from a Whiteheadian point of view, but our contributions to this discourse have been limited. We can only be grateful for the work of others.
My personal testimony to indebtedness to deep ecology has to do primarily with Paul Shepard. Shepard was editor with Daniel McKinley of The Subversive Science, a major contributor in shaping ecological thought in the early seventies. His own books included The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Thinking Animals, and Nature and Madness. Apart from my encounter with him, I doubt that I would have come to appreciate the importance of our inheritance from our hunting and gathering ancestors. Shepard points out that our species evolved in that period and thus is genetically adapted to that way of life. This point is, of course, not original with Shepard since it follows quite directly from standard evolutionary thought. Henri Bergson was aware of its importance (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). But it has been Shepard’s formulation and the conclusions he drew from it that have been of greatest importance both for deep ecologists and for me.
Merely to remind ourselves that we evolved chiefly as hunters and gatherers may startle us, but the radical implications of this fact may still not be appreciated. Shepard goes to great lengths to show the negative consequences of ordering human societies in ways that work against our genetic constitution. He argues that with the domestication of plants and animals we were forced to domesticate ourselves, and that means to train ourselves to act in unnatural ways. He shows the many stages of social change through prehistory and history and their negative consequences socially and psychologically, In short, he shows that our vaunted civilization, history, and progress have all been forms of self-destructive self-alienation.
It is remarkable how often he takes ideas developed by those who assumed that the civilizing of humanity and the emergence of the historical consciousness are some kind of progress, agrees with them, and then shows how this has in fact been a deepening of alienation. Even the strongest affirmers of history have been aware of a price paid for what they have viewed as progress in consciousness. But the picture is usually presented as showing that this is a price worth paying. Certainly this was my custom before my encounter with Shepard. For Shepard there are virtually no redeeming features of these changes. They simply carry us deeper into the abyss.
For example, I found Shepard fully agreeing with me as to the important role of the Bible and its Christian followers in shaping and reshaping the structure of existence of Western and modern human beings, laying the groundwork for psychological self-knowledge, for historical consciousness, for science, for social ethics, for democracy, and for human rights. But whereas I had presented this as a kind of apologetic for Christian faith, Shepard saw it as displaying the enormous culpability of Christianity for the profound sickness of our time. No other criticism, even the profound analysis by feminists of the patriarchy in which we all participate, has challenged my thinking as much as this.
This understanding of the course of events beginning with the rise of herding and agriculture does not contradict Whitehead’s basic conceptuality, but it conflicts with his sensibility as with mine. Whitehead entitled Part Four of Adventures of Ideas "Civilization," and it was under this rubric that he described the supreme values of life. The depiction of civilization primarily in terms of domination and alienation and the degradation of nature is absent from his horizons. Although what he means by "process" does not entail "progress" his metaphysics led neither him nor his followers to the profound reversal of appraisals for which Shepard calls.
I have found Shepard powerfully persuasive, but I cannot follow him altogether. I cannot share his dismissal of all "gains" in the process of civilization. I am forced to acknowledge the enormous role of alienation in the rise of civilization and of what we call history, and the terrible threat to the life-support system of the Earth that now results from this, but I cannot withdraw my appreciation for many of civilization’s accomplishments.
Although Shepard has taught me a profound admiration for the personal maturity and social wholeness of primal cultures, I would not happily give up elements of contemporary consciousness that have developed through a long and tortuous history. Further, I see no way to recover what has been lost, so that our task now is to use the products of civilization to reverse its greatest evils. Part of this process involves recovering appreciation for what we have lost and learning from it, and here Shepard’s contribution is indispensable. But he can play this role only by virtue of his use of the products of civilization. If I judged my position a personal idiosyncrasy, it would be inappropriate to mention it here, but if, as I think, it reflects a Whiteheadian sensibility, it may help to clarify differences.
That civilization has brought about gains we do not want to give up can be illustrated with respect to the relation to animals, a major theme in Shepard’s work. He has written at great length about the importance of the experience of other animals to the human child. He argues that children come to understand themselves and their world only as they encounter other creatures. It is important that these others, at least some of them, be wild, and that their otherness be respected.
Shepard goes on to point out the importance of hunting for the maturation of the male and for bonding with other males. The appreciation for the specific terrain and the honing of consciousness are important aspects of this maturation. Respect for the prey is shown ceremonially. The success of the hunt is an essential part of the transition into adulthood and the expression of mature responsibility to the community.
For Shepard the sensibility we need, if we are to be saved from neurotic self-destruction as a species, is like that of our hunting and gathering ancestors. Clearly this is very different from our current cultural sensibility. Also, it would have no place for the talk of human rights and their extension to other creatures. Shepard’s insights help readers to understand the distaste in which deep ecologists hold those kinds of discourse.
On one occasion, when Shepard was speaking eloquently of the values of the hunt and of the ceremonies connected with it, I commented that all the respect shown to the prey, even when it was regarded as sacred, probably made very little difference with regard to its suffering. Shepard seemed a bit startled and commented that he had never come across any expression of concern for the animal as subject. It was what the animal meant in the experience of human beings that preoccupied him.
This lack of interest in the subjective experience of nonhuman animals seems characteristic of other deep ecologists as well. It shows up in their contempt for humane societies and animal rights activists. These are criticized in essentially the same way as process thought. Those concerned with the suffering of individual animals fail to appreciate ecological egalitarianism precisely because they take seriously the subjective experience of animals.
As noted above, where Whiteheadians affirm a both/and, deep ecologists set up an either/or. Either one accepts the basic Western ethical system of respecting other human beings as subjects and extends that respect to other creatures that are also recognized as subjects, or one asks much more fundamental questions about the assumptions of Western thought, rejects ethical thinking of this sort altogether, and develops a new sensibility more like the one Shepard finds among primal peoples.
For a Whiteheadian, any new sensibility that ignores the moral claims made on us by the reality of other subjects will entail serious loss. The emergence, in the course of history, of the ability to think of the other as another subject and to appreciate the moral demand that this lays upon one -- to treat the other as an end and not only as a means -- is an achievement of civilization that most of us are not willing to abandon. That in no way minimizes the need for a new sensibility, but it does provide one criterion for evaluating it, a criterion according to which many deep ecologists fall short.
Deep ecologists see what Rodman calls "extensionism," that is, extending moral consideration beyond the human sphere to other subjects, as fulfilling and legitimizing "the basic project of modernity -- the total conquest of nature by man" quoted with approval by Devall and Sessions (55). Thus, the thinking underlying the animal rights movement and Whiteheadian thought is taken to be anthropocentric.
From a Whiteheadian point of view, and also for animal rights theorists, it is deep ecology that seems in this respect to be anthropocentric. The focus is on human experience and how it can be changed. The flourishing of the whole system is important for those who overcome the false identification with the separated ego and recognize the True Self as uniting them with the larger whole. It is important also for those who recognize the otherness of natural systems and perceive all as deserving respect as they are. But there is little consideration of any point of view other than the human one even though the goal is so to change human perception that it will no longer attribute to itself a special position in the scheme of things.
For Whiteheadians, those animal rights theorists who deal only with moral responsibilities to individual animals are limiting their concern and their understanding disastrously. To care chiefly about individual animals when the loss of habitat threatens whole species seems a misdirection of primary energy. But this does not mean that one should not care about individuals and their suffering. Far from it! We do not want a new sensibility that undercuts our sensitivity to suffering, and this suffering is always individual. To overcome anthropocentrism is precisely to recognize that other creatures also have their points of view, which are just as valid as ours, that their suffering is just as real as ours.
VI. The Importance of Ethics for Policy
The lack of attention by deep ecologists to the relations of human beings to individual nonhuman subjects is connected with their distaste for ethics as usually understood. To develop ethical guidelines for our treatment of domesticated animals, for example, we must try to consider the kind of effects our actions have on them subjectively. Nothing in either volume on deep ecology suggests that this is an appropriate reflection for deep ecologists. Furthermore, efforts to balance the effects of certain actions on human beings and on other creatures would appear distasteful to them. From the point of view of a Whiteheadian, on the other hand, these are inescapable decisions on which those concerned with the whole natural world should try to give some guidance.
Arne Naess himself is not oblivious to the concerns I have raised from my Whiteheadian perspective. In an article not included in either of the two volumes on deep ecology on which I have chiefly relied, he calls for further operationalizing of the "fundamental ethical norms we attempt to use in the ecological crisis" ("Encouraging" 54). In connection with a controversy about reintroducing wolves into some parts of Norway, he states: "Of the relatively deep norms implied are some concerning suffering. We take the sufferings of sheep more seriously than most of those who write strongly in favor of introduction of wolves" ("Encouraging" 53-54). This suggests that the criticism of animal rights advocates may not be as much a matter of shared principle among deep ecologists as I have supposed.
In his brief discussion of ethical decision-making, the way Naess introduces human beings is also interesting and significant. He does not try to balance the suffering and gains of human beings in relation to one another or in relation to other creatures. On the other hand, he does weight their "rights." "We also take more seriously the right of the small sheep-owners in big forests to continue to live ‘where they belong’ on a traditional level as ecologically on a higher level than their urban critics" ("Encouraging" 54). These comments suggest that Naess is personally open to entering ethical discussions in a relatively traditional way, If other deep ecologists follow him, the gap between them and Whiteheadians will narrow Meanwhile, however, this opening on the part of Naess cannot be taken to characterize the movement as a whole.
The dangers of resistance to ethical thinking come out at another of the eight points in the manifesto, point 4. This calls for the reduction of human population so that other populations may flourish. That the world would be a better place if human population were smaller is a point on which I, as a Whiteheadian, strongly agree; so the issue is a different one. Given the present population and its continuing growth, what should be our goal? During a period when it is extremely difficult to slow population growth, is a call for population reduction wise?
The only Whiteheadian writer actually cited in the 1995 anthology thinks not. Jay McDaniel is not pleased that the vision of a world in which a much smaller population shares space and resources generously with other species has become unrealistic. But he believes that human dominion is now a fait accompli and irreversible for the foreseeable future. The best option, given this situation is
(1) to accept the ambiguity of such a high number of humans on the planet; (2) to stabilize that population as much as possible, and then (3) to find ways of allowing six to eleven billion people to live on the planet in ways that are ecologically wise. In the best scenarios, we are doomed to dominion. (qtd. in Sessions, 305)
Sessions argues that McDaniel ignores the "possibility of promoting vigorous but humane long-range programs of steady low birthrates throughout the world"(305). He is correct that we must hope in the very long run that human population will decline by such means. But one may wonder about the present relevance of that hope.
Unless now, in a world whose destiny is controlled by human purposes, we concentrate on finding ways in which an excessive human population can survive without destroying everything else and therefore also itself by the time population begins to fail from, say, the ten billion that cannot be avoided except by catastrophes, there will be little left to recover. It seems that even if our ultimate goal is a world in which we will not have dominion, we must for the foreseeable future so exercise dominion as to preserve other species and some areas of wildness in which they can survive.
Calling now for the reduction of human population could be dangerous, if it is not accompanied by an acknowledgment that global population will grow considerably larger before any humane means of reduction stop this growth. It could lead to neglecting the question of how we are to act during the period of human overpopulation. It could lead to complacency about catastrophes in which large numbers of people perish. It could even lead to support of profoundly inhumane policies and laws.
Certainly these dangers are not intended. The comment on this plank in the platform by Devall and Sessions simply reports on efforts to curb population growth of which most of us are fully supportive. Also, Arne Naess, elsewhere in the book, makes it clear that population is to be reduced "without revolution or dictatorship" ("Ecological" 75-76). His further statements on the topic in the more recent anthology are very moderate.
But the sense of naivete and unreality, and also of danger, are enhanced when we End Naess stating that by benign means global population should be reduced to one hundred million people! ("Ecological" 76). This would be a return to population levels of the hunting and gathering period and would no doubt make possible the recovery of many other species of living things, as well as whole ecosystems, from the devastation they have suffered at human hands.
In Naess’s vision we see a possible implication of the call for ecological egalitarianism. If we do not attribute any special status to the human race, then the goal should be for it to diminish in size to the point where the planet can support it alongside other species without discrimination. It makes sense, but it also highlights the difference between thoroughgoing adherence to egalitarianism and the affirmation that human beings are particularly valuable.
There have been instances when rabbits have become so numerous in a particular region that they have endangered the food supply of other species. Persons concerned for the ecosystem have supported drastic reductions of rabbit populations by whatever means necessary. The rabbit population must be kept in some balance with others. If we view the human species in the same way, then we will rightly conclude that its numbers should be drastically reduced. Even though the promulgators of this vision do not favor violent means, and they emphasize that reduction should take place gradually over an extended period of time, the teaching against privileging the human could lead others to draw dangerous conclusions.
This point should not be pressed. Deep ecologists are not in favor of drastic action to implement the goal of population reduction. Most of them probably would not commit themselves to the goal of one hundred million people. Gary Snyder proposes the more moderate goal of half or less of the 1974 world population (142). Paul Shepard once took a very different tack, proposing, somewhat playfully, that in the United States the entire population be moved to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, housed in arcologies, and fed by high tech means from algae. The center of the continent would revert to wilderness in which the men could hunt.
My argument is not against the intentions and actual sensibility of leading deep ecologists. Nor should any position be rejected because of possible misinterpretation. The issue is, instead, whether drawing the conclusions I have suggested from ecological egalitarianism depends on a misunderstanding of the doctrine or might instead be its most consistent implication. The fact that no deep ecologist would draw the conclusions today is partially, but not fully, reassuring. It seems likely that the intuitions that prevent them from doing so are humanistic ones whose perpetuation is not an explicit part of their program.
Furthermore, the proposals of deep ecologists illustrate the far too direct move from a new sensibility to policy recommendations that results from the depreciation of ethical reflection. Whereas Whiteheadians can rightly be faulted for failing to probe the sensibility that leads to acceptance of false philosophies and the historical and psychological origins of this sensibility, deep ecologists can be faulted for failing to provide practical proposals for slowing and finally stopping the human destruction of life-support systems without causing even worse evils. Telling us that we will change appropriately only as we are inwardly converted to the understanding and sensibility they advocate does little to challenge the actual hegemony of corporations whose commitments are quite different. To a theologian, their position sometimes seems analogous to that of Christian pietists who argue that individual conversions will ultimately solve all problems of social evil. In this respect Whiteheadians have done somewhat better.
One response to this criticism is that of Arne Naess. He points out that deep ecology is not an all-encompassing position. It makes a contribution to a larger position, such as that of the Greens. Presumably he means by this that it is for the Greens to think through the relation of the contributions of deep ecology to those of social, political, and economic analysis, feminists, and liberationists.
If this is indeed the meaning of deep ecology, then there will be fewer objections. Surely it makes an important contribution. But I would still fault it in two ways. First, in many of its expressions it does not make the limitations of its claims clear. It leads the reader to think that entering into the sensibility of deep ecology \vill provide the adequate perspective for all reflection and action. Second, it polemically excludes ideas that may be needed in order to develop the full Green position to which it contributes.
There is a third concern from a Whiteheadian perspective. The isolation of the ecological commitment from the concerns of their partners in the larger coalition can lead to formulating programs in ways that are highly divisive (see Sessions’s open letter to Sierra Magazine). Of course, there are times when this may be inescapable. But Whiteheadians press toward turning oppositions into contrasts. That means that we seek a formulation that does justice to the insights and convictions of diverse groups but is quite different from any of them. Sessions sees, perhaps rightly, that those environmentalists who have sought alliance with ethnic minorities have lost sight of the most important ecological goals. In Sessions’s view, finding common ground reduces the efforts of all to what they have in common. The Whiteheadian goal is to develop policies that will help to meet the goals of both ethnic minorities and ecologists simultaneously in mutually supportive ways.
This may sound politically naive and hopelessly committed to reason rather than to power struggles. But on the issue that is chiefly in view in Sessions’s letter, there are real possibilities. Ethnic minorities are not necessarily less concerned for nature than the Anglo majority. With respect to opposing large-scale immigration, the interests of recent immigrants often coincide with those of deep ecologists. Both need to realize that their problems stem from the globalization of the economy controlled by transnational corporations. When immigration, procreation, and the degradation of the environment are all placed in a wider horizon, new alliances can be forged that deal more realistically with our world. Moving in this direction may be less naive than attempting to fight it out among the perceived immediate interests of ethnic minorities and deep ecologists.
Nevertheless, regardless of occasional overstatements and sometimes misdirected polemics, deep ecology’s contribution has been enormous. Although we Whiteheadians must dispute some of its negations, we can enthusiastically support and learn from many of its affirmations. It has much to teach us.
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Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
McDaniel, Jay. "The Garden of Eden, the Fall, and Life in Christ: A Christian Approach to Ecology" World Views and Ecology. Ed. Mary Tucker, and John Grim. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1993. 71-82
McLaughlin, Andrew "The Heart of Deep Ecology" Sessions 85-93.
Naess, Arne. "Politics and the Ecological Crisis: An Introductory Note." Sessions 445-53.
____"The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects." Sessions. 64-84.
____The Deep Ecology ‘Eight Points’ Revisited." Sessions 213-21.
____The Encouraging Richness and Diversity of Ultimate Premises in Environmental Philosophy" The Trumpeter 9 (1992): 53-60.
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____Open Letter to Sierra Magazine, Nov. 12, 1997.
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____Nature and Madness. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1998.
____The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York: Scribner, 1973.
____Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1998.
Snyder, Gary. "Four Changes." Sessions 141-50.
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