Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology

Picture of Mystical Forest

Ever since the debate between social ecology and deep ecology broke out in the summer of 1987, various individuals have taken it upon themselves to attempt to reconcile the two approaches and produce what they feel is a higher synthesis.

Social ecology and deep ecology, however, are incommensurable, for several basic reasons. Deep ecologists differ among themselves as to the content of their approach, which often renders deep ecology itself self-contradictory and amorphous. Nevertheless, based on the writings of its major theorists, its basic areas of disagreement with social ecology may be identified.


Social ecology argues that the idea of dominating nature resulted from the domination of human by human, rather than the reverse. That is, the causes of the ecological crisis are ultimately and fundamentally social in nature. The historical emergence of hierarchies, classes, states, and finally the market economy and capitalism itself are the social forces that have, both ideologically and materially, produced the present despoliation of the biosphere.

Deep ecology, by contrast, locates the origin of the ecological crisis in belief-systems, be they religions or philosophies. Most particularly, deep ecologists identify ancient near eastern religions, including those of Mesopotamia and Judea; Christianity; and the scientific worldview as fostering a mindset that seeks to ”dominate nature.” It is by ”asking deeper questions,” as Arne Naess puts it, that these origins are identified, so that the social causes of the ecological crisis are somehow relegated to the category ”shallow.”


Social ecology views the natural world as a process – and not just any process, but a development toward increasing complexity and subjectivity. This development was not predetermined from the outset and need not have occurred, but retrospectively the increasing complexity of natural evolution and the development of increasing subjectivity are impossible to miss. With the emergence of human beings, biological evolutionary processes (first nature) have continued in and been sublated by social and cultural evolutionary processes (second nature). Unlike sociobiology, which reduces the social to the biological, social ecology emphasizes the gradations between first and second nature: second nature emerged out of first nature. Yet the boundary between human and nonhuman nature is real and articulated.

Deep ecology, by contrast, views first nature, in the abstract, as a ”cosmic oneness,” which bears striking similarities to otherworldly concepts common to Asian religions. In concrete terms, it views first nature as ”wilderness,” a concept that by definition means nature essentially separated from human beings and hence ”wild.” Both notions are notable for their static and anticivilizational character. (Deep ecologists sometimes highlight the evolution of large animals strategically, as a rationale for expanding wilderness areas.) Deep ecologists emphasize an ungraded, nonevolutionary continuity between human and nonhuman nature, to the point of outright denial of a boundary between adaptive animality and innovative humanity.


Social ecology aims to reintegrate human social development with biological development, and human communities with ecocommunities, producing a rational and ecological society. The mere biological presence of humans in large numbers does not determine the type of society they will form. Even large numbers of human beings are capable of organizing society along lines that are not only not destructive of first nature but even enhance it. A sensitive combination of ecotechnics and existing technologies prudently applied constitutes the technological basis for post-scarcity, affording humans the free time to manage their social, political, and economic affairs along rational lines and fostering and restoring the ecological complexity of first nature.

Deep ecology, by contrast, does not aim to integrate humans with first nature. It regards the mere biological presence of human beings in any large numbers as intrinsically harmful to first nature, and sometimes even the basic means of human sustenance as damaging. Instead, deep ecology seeks to preserve and expand wilderness areas, excluding human beings from ever-larger tracts of land and forest. ”Subsistence agriculture,” writes George Sessions, ”which destroys tropical forests, cannot be considered long-term economic progress for the poor. The severe overpopulation in Third World countries requires that most of the poor will live in urban areas in the near future.” Of paramount importance to deep ecology is a radical and potentially ruthless scaling-down of the human population – indeed, population reduction as an issue has been named the ”litmus test” of deep ecology. Maximizing wilderness and minimizing human population, some deep ecologists look upon even farming as such with disfavor, views that have rightfully given rise to charges that deep ecology is misanthropic.


Social ecology openly asserts that human beings are potentially the most advanced life-form that natural evolution has produced, in crucial respects of intelligence, moral capacity, and dexterity – which in no way provides a license for humans to wantonly destroy first nature. Indeed, in a rational society, human beings could be nature rendered self-conscious. Clearly it is part of their evolutionary makeup to intervene in the natural world; what is not determined is whether that intervention will be ecologically benign or malign, a problem that is resolved by what kind of society they create.

Deep ecology, by contrast, regards human-centeredness or anthropocentrism as the fatal feature common to belief-systems generative of the ecological crisis. It advances instead a concept of biocentrism or ”ecocentrism,” which attributes equal intrinsic moral worth to human and nonhuman life-forms and even to ecosystems. It regards various striking capacities of particular creatures as ”skills” of equal value to human capacities. In making decisions about whether humans should engage in a potentially ecologically damaging project, deep ecology upholds the ”vital needs” of life-forms against the ”nonvital needs” of humans. Which needs are vital, however, remains undefined. Invoking the ”land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, deep ecology is biased against human intervention in first nature and often appears to regard human intervention as inherently destructive. Yet insofar as deep ecology calls upon human beings to alter their behavior in the light of the ecological crisis, it tacitly acknowledges that the behavior of human beings is decisive. Thus deep ecology is inherently self-contradictory.


Social ecology, while strongly emphasizing the need for an ecological sensibility, indeed an ethic of complementarity, contends that addressing the ecological crisis requires engaging in social and political activity to confront and ultimately eliminate its objective social causes: capitalism, social hierarchy, and the nation-state. Social ecology’s political dimension, libertarian municipalism, is a program for establishing direct, face-to-face democracies and confederating them into a dual power to confront these forces. Social ecology thus places itself in the Enlightenment and revolutionary tradition.

Deep ecology, by contrast, overwhelmingly emphasizes subjective factors. Drawing on subjectivists like Lynn White, Jr., it calls upon people to develop a quasi-mystical ”ecological consciousness” by which they will feel themselves part of the natural world, as a ”self-in-Self.” Deep ecologists approach this consciousness through highly personalistic philosophies or ”ecosophies” that draw on an eclectic mix of alternative worldviews: native American, Buddhist, Taoist, pagan, and ”Pleistocene.” Regardless of whether such views are accurately understood or, in some cases, are even knowable to people today, they share the common feature of instilling submersion to a larger ”one” that, as a whole, has more value than the individual human. Deep ecology in practice is quietistic, emphasizing contemplation rather than intervention, to attain a state of awareness of the alleged absence of boundaries between human consciousness and the ”cosmic oneness.” Some deep ecologists explicitly eliminate moral imperatives from this ”ecological consciousness.” Although one deep ecologist makes the claim that attaining ”ecological consciousness” will foster political activity, deep ecology often expresses an aversion to most political activity as such as anthropocentric, apart from basic conservationism and trite liberal attempts to curtail wilderness destruction. Participation in political movements is of value, however, insofar as it may contribute to personal transformation. Most often, deep ecology urges that people make lifestyle changes that reduce their consumption.


Social ecology argues that one of humans’ distinctive features, their capacity to reason at a high level of generality, gives them the ability to potentially understand natural processes and potentially organize society along ecological and rational lines. Even as it criticizes the ubiquitous claims of a ”means-ends” rationalism that has historically instrumentalized human and nonhuman phenomena, it advances a dialectical reasoning that is appropriate for comprehending human social and natural evolutionary processes. In itself, it embodies this commitment to rationality by upholding and demonstrating coherence in social thought.

Deep ecology, by contrast, disparages and often even demonizes reason as endemic to the anthropocentric worldviews that have produced the ecological crisis. Alternatively, deep ecology advances intuition as an equal or even superior form of cognition. Through intuition, deep ecologists argue, the continuity between the human self and the ”cosmic one” may be apprehended and appreciated. As an intuitional approach, however, deep ecology is subject to the dangers represented by earlier antirational and intuitionist worldviews that, carried over into the political realm, have produced antihumanistic and even genocidal movements. Deep ecology, by its very amorphousness, makes itself amenable to use by any parts of the modern social hierarchy, depending on how needs are defined. Indeed, it is not accidental that some deep ecology theorists are devotees of the ”late” work of Heidegger, whose basic premises are socially and intellectually reactionary.


— First published in Left Green Perspectives 33 (August 1995); Republished in Communalism 8 (January 2006)