Key Theories in Environmental Philosophy: Shallow vs Deep Ecology  

There have been many suggestions over recent years as to what our world will look like in fifty years’ time. Climate modellers have issued warnings of the mass disturbances that the world’s climate, oceanic and ecological systems will experience as a result of human-induced climate change. In a worst-case scenario, events nicknamed ‘tipping points’, when a system begins a rapid and irreversible change from one state to another, may occur. An example of this could be an increase in the rate of melting of ice sheets, or the absence of  seasonal monsoon rain. There have even been suggestions of the occurrence of a domino effect, during which a tipping point in one system triggers another, and so on. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which alone would devastate parts of the Unites States, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and Bangladesh, could trigger the weakening or strengthening of the Indian summer monsoon. These are only a few of the many predictions of what climate change could mean for the planet’s future. However, these anthropocentric problems are not what environmental philosophy is necessarily concerned with. In many cases, it stretches beyond human interest, and instead concerns environmental systems and the planet as a whole.   

Arne Naess can be considered the founder of environmental philosophy. His turn to environmental issues, and his deep ties to nature, enabled him to develop a new movement that today remains influential. Upon reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which evaluated the negative effects of chemical pesticides on ecosystems, he was inspired to join the Green Party and Norwegian branch of Greenpeace. During his time as an activist in the 1970s, he spoke out for conservation and protested against the building of a dam by chaining himself to rocks beside a waterfall. More significantly, it was in the early 1970s that he developed the notion of deep ecology, an alleged solution to the ecological crisis. Deep ecology required a different approach to the crisis, which encouraged the abandoning of the conception that humans are superior to nature. This holistic vision suggested that it was in fact the relations between entities that were more important than entities themselves – that relationality was the key to the survival of organisms. Thus, there are no real differences among humans and other living organisms since we are all strongly connected to nature, and are interdependent. Naess called this personal philosophy ‘Ecophosy T’, where ‘T’ is Tvergastein, the name of his cabin in the Hallingskarvet range, and gave rise to this new movement in which humans must craft themselves inside a ‘greater self’. He describes the term in his work ‘The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement’: 

Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favour of the relational, total-field image. Organisms as knots in the biospherical net or field of intrinsic relations. An intrinsic relation between two things A and B is such that the relation belongs to the definitions or basic constitutions of A and B, so that without the relation, A and B are no longer the same things. The total-field model dissolves not only the man-in-environment concept, but every compact thing-in-milieu concept — except when talking at a superficial or preliminary level of communication. 

Thus, ecosophy here is described as a paradigm for ecological reasoning, encouraging practical action via political engagement and everyday action (both which constitute a lifestyle). Notably, there are other versions of ecosophy that were developed in the twentieth century. French semiotician Felix Guattari’s ecosophy of the 1980s was a notion that directly opposed the capitalist lifestyle, and split ecology into three strata: environmental, social and mental. Similar to Naess’ ecosophy, Guattari’s philosophy required the challenging of anthropocentric models and the assumed notion of property and dominance over species.  

Naess also introduced the term ‘shallow ecology’. While this notion also rejects anthropocentrism, shallow ecology is a principle that relies on pragmatism and focuses on policy and technology in order to reduce anthropocentrism. Supported by American philosopher Anthony Weston, this approach to countering the ecological crisis is very different from the spiritual approach of Naess. In his explanation of shallow ecology in Enabling Environmental Practice, he disagrees that organisms such as trees should be given the same rights as humans, or that an environmental ethic should exist at all. His reasoning behind this was that society is not physically prepared to visualise this kind of ethic, since the interaction of nature and humans in the modern world has become so disconnected. Instead, Weston suggests that the priority for coming decades is to begin to establish these mechanisms of interaction, and that this can only be done if we completely reinvent our ecological visions. This goes beyond the traditional mitigationist way of green thinking, which aims to reduce human impacts on the natural world. Weston, as an alternative, urges us to completely rebuild our lifestyle: “Go light, Treasure what is left, Rebuild where we can, Minimise big risks.” Only when we radically alter our way of living can we develop a positive interaction with the natural world.  

Thus, perhaps shallow and deep ecology are not as different as Naess suggested. The only fundamental difference between Weston and Naess’ philosophies is time. Naess pushes for a complete and immediate lifestyle change in combination with environmental ethic, whereas Weston suggests that humankind must first rebuild its presently precarious relationship with nature before it can truly understand the environment. This supposedly ‘shallow’ ecology seems more realistic than Naess’ ecosophy, though it is still rather far-fetched. Is it possible for us to rebuild our lifestyle? Only time will tell.  

Written By Kat Jivkova 


Brennan, Andrew., and Y. S. Lo. Understanding Environmental Philosophy / Andrew Brennan & Y.S. Lo. London: Routledge, 2014. 

Erdős, László. Green Heroes From Buddha to Leonardo DiCaprio / by László Erdős. 1st ed. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. 

Katz, Eric. “Envisioning a De-Anthropocentrised World: Critical Comments on Anthony Weston’s ‘The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher.’” Ethics, policy & environment 14, no. 1 (2011): 97–101. 

Levesque, Simon. “Two Versions of Ecosophy: Arne Næss, Félix Guattari, and Their Connection with Semiotics.” Sign systems studies 44, no. 4 (2016): 511–541. 

Seen in Green. “Deep and Shallow Ecology.” 2014. Accessed on 19 October 2021.  

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