Maoist Critique of the Deep Ecology Platform

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Deep Ecology arose in the 1970s and 80s in the developed West. Ideologically it reflects the alienation between people and nature engendered under capitalism. However, it is limited in scope to a First World population which has been historically embourgeoisfied via colonial and neo-colonial rent. Thus, it is equally limited as a revolutionary ideology capable of advancing history progressively forward. That is to say, it is insufficient both as an analytic tool for understanding the current world and as a practical methodology for intervening in world history

While the actual history of the development of deep ecology is one thing entirely, the leading embourgeoisified element within deep ecology is evident in its platform, published in 1984 by Arne Naess and George Sessions:

The Deep Ecology Platform

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, 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. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. 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.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in 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 worth) 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 participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

—Arne Naess and George Sessions (1984)

For the purpose of clarifying the differences between Deep Ecology and a revolutionary Marxism, it is worth offering an examination of each point individually.

1) In its first point, the deep ecology platform defines a ‘intrinsic value’ to the well-being and flourishing of various forms of life. What this intrinsic value is based on is left unspoken, but it is simply put that it is not based on the usefulness to people.

At once, this point commits a number of errors.

First, it ideologically accepts the divorcement between nature and humanity by denying the only value they could have for each other, that of co-dependency of co-evolution.

Second, it denies the division of humanity, positing the current substance of ‘human purposes’ as humanity’s at large. This is done without noting the existing of specific ruling and ruled classes situated in a particular historical context.

Lastly, deep ecology defines an ahistorical ‘value’ to all lifeforms which is divorced from actual reality. What value does the life of a slave in the antebellum South, a factory worker in Bangladesh, or a drone strike victim in Yemen have? The answer by deep ecologists is no doubt a series of moral platitudes, which are certainly better than the ‘nuke ‘em all and let God sort them out’ outlook of some First Worlders. Yet such an outlook is liberal and fails to explain – let alone offer a solution to – the systemic abuse (and sometimes annihilation) of humans and other life-forms in the modern world.

2) The second premise is an extension of the first premise, positing that richness and diversity of life, irrespective of human utility, is a value unto itself.

Again, this is a value statement, not an explanatory statement on the current state of affairs or part of a counter-hegemonic strategy.

Though the background intent of the premise (i.e., a response to wholesale alienation from nature) is understandable, it is tantamount to acquiescing to a reification of a non-human world which is somehow separate from the human world. In reality, both are intimately related. Yet the premise that ‘richness of lifeforms is a value independent from human usefulness’ ultimately accepts the existence of a necessary division between ecological health and economic activity which is especially apparent under imperialism.

3) The third point is especially reveals deep ecology’s basic ignorance about capitalism and class divisions in the modern world. ‘Vital need’ is a fairly subjective term. Destroying the planet is vital for maintaining the rule of the imperialist bourgeoisie and its lackeys.

4) The fourth point of the deep ecology platform, while recognizing that ‘human interference in the non-human world is worsening,’ also fails to locate the cause in the present mode of production.

5) The fifth point, calling for a reduction of the human population, is particularly stark, especially considering its vagueness. It begs the question, which populations should be reduced, and how?

It is possible that some deep ecologist believe the world’s richest 20% should be eradicated (which would solve a lot of short-term environmental problems related to consumption and waste). Yet this is doubtful because deep ecology is largely a movement of people who are themselves part of that rich 20%.

Given deep ecologists’ overall lack of power, it begs the question of how to implement a program of population reduction. Withholding medicine? Denying food to the poor? Supporting inevitable imperialist wars? In this point, deep ecology, despite its professed support for the ‘flourishing of human life,’ borders on being anti-people and raises dangerous potential implications.

6) The sixth point states that ‘policies must be changed.’

For anyone concerned about the environment, this is a big no-brainer. It further states such policy changes must “affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures” and that the “resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.” This again begs the question, how?

7) The seventh point, on the ideological change deemed necessary, raises the same question.

8) The eighth point implores adherents to ‘directly or indirectly’ further the cause of the systemic realization of the preceding points. It otherwise offers no direction or leadership on the matter. It seems both everything and nothing can be done to “directly or indirectly participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.”

All that is left is a rather shallow ideological and moral high-horse. And, while offering a philosophical high ground, deep ecology does not offer anything approximating a strategy or program to implement anything resembling its ideals.

In light of the substantial deficiencies of deep ecology from a Marxist perspective, it is appropriate to put forward an alternative platform which corrects many of the former’s mistakes:

Revolutionary Ecology Platform

1: The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life are intimately related. The flourishing of non-human life is generally of direct and indirect utility to humans, and vice versa.

2: Richness and diversity of non-human life can contribute to utility for humanity at large. Thus, it should be promoted as such.

3: Real wealth is utility or the ability to satisfy human wants and needs. The source of all wealth is two-fold: nature and human labor. It is in the long-term interest of a majority of humanity to steward biodiversity and ecological well-being (along with other elements of nature).

4: Alienation from and the subjugation of nature is in the vital interest of a small proportion of humanity: the ruling classes. Increasingly under capitalist-imperialism, less real wealth (i.e., human utility) is produced in proportion to overall economic activity and at greater cost to human and non-human life.

5: Ecologically unsustainable economic activity is inherent to capitalist-imperialism, whereby economic activity must expand even as much of it is tertiary and adds no real wealth in terms of the satisfying basic wants and needs. Abolishing such parasitic economic activity and reassigning it to restoring the natural element of wealth would aid in re-establishing the basic link between human and non-human life and provide for the flourishing of both.

6: The whole structure of society needs to be changed. Only revolution – the seizure of power away from one set of classes by another – can create the necessary conditions for such a transformation. Any such revolution, if it is to be successful, must advance the interests of the most exploited and oppressed sections of humanity, not merely the privileged subjects of neo-colonial imperialism.

7: A total ideological change of reconnection between human and non-human life will not fully take place until the basic structure of society (i.e. the mode of production) has been transformed into one of democratically producing long-term utility instead of profit. Nonetheless, the ideological sphere and subjective forces are a leading variable component where class struggle is carried out.

8: Those who adhere to the above points must get organized to make revolution possible.

Deep ecology is sometimes (though not always) well-intended and less reactionary than other prevalent First World-bound ideological perspectives. However, it is limited in its outlook and should be recognized by revolutionaries as such. In its place, Marxists must put forward alternative platforms and practicable solutions to reconcile a disunity between humanity and nature which is ever more acute under capitalist imperialism.

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6 thoughts on “Maoist Critique of the Deep Ecology Platform

  1. Okay, so your revolutionary ecology works right now, but what happens when the revolution happens and the workers, now in control of the means of production, decide to keep doing things the same way? This “Revolutionary Ecology” commodifies nature just as much as the zeitgeist does. Nature has no value in this framework besides it’s utility to humans. While it’s at least understood here that humans and nature are intertwined, inseperable, nature is still treated as something that’s only there for people to use it. Here, deep ecology’s recognition of nature’s intrinsic value reveals it’s value as a framework, applicable to many situations. Deep Ecology sets up a moral lens that anyone can use in any situation, whereas “Revolutionary Ecology” applies only to the current organization of power. While I think it’s a great set of tenets, I think that in order for a real revolution to take place, we need moral frameworks that we can apply to many situations, not just a one time plan.

  2. This is something of a non-response, a rehashing of what was already dealt with in the original critique of Deep Ecology.

    What happens when the revolution doesn’t happen, and instead capitalist-imperialist runs its course toward the ‘common ruin of all contending classes.’ Well, I assume deep ecologists will still be around. And though they are not effecting any change, I am reasonable sure they will still treat themselves as somehow above the rest of society by virtue of their effete morals.

    “Okay, so your revolutionary ecology works right now, but what happens when the revolution happens and the workers, now in control of the means of production, decide to keep doing things the same way?”

    Otherwise, this is a perfect example of liberalism. I assume you would simply prefer the world to continue as is rather than face the possibility of an imperfect revolution, one which doesn’t address all your particular concerns? ‘But, ya know, fuck starving people.’

    The whole bit about ‘deep ecology’ being a moral platform is shaky to begin with. A bunch of pastey people talking about the need to depopulate the world. Not only does it sound moral, but highly original too!

    “This “Revolutionary Ecology” commodities nature just as much as the zeitgeist does. Nature has no value in this framework besides it’s utility to humans. While it’s at least understood here that humans and nature are intertwined, inseparable, nature is still treated as something that’s only there for people to use it.”

    Again, this is the same muddle that was critiqued in the original piece. Sorry it wasn’t completely spelled out, but “revolutionary ecology” implies transition away from commodity production. But as the piece points out, in a communist society in which humans relate to the Earth based on broad utility rather commodity producing, stewardship of the natural world will itself become an economic activity..

    Moreover, I question from a society-wide stand point how else a post-capitalist humanity could relate to the natural world. The insistence that nature has an intrinsic value shields the fact that it is humans, and particularly privileged ones who are divorced from the basic masses, who champion this notion. I might ask, what is the basic element of such an intrinsic value of nature which is outside the realm of human well-being (yet nonetheless has only ever been considered or expressed by humans)?

    “While I think it’s a great set of tenets, I think that in order for a real revolution to take place, we need moral frameworks that we can apply to many situations, not just a one time plan.”

    This confuses what morality is and makes the classical liberal mistake of historicizing particular ideological trends which are present today. Moreover, ideas do not drive history forward. Rather, ideas are the product of society, especially of the productive forces and the relations of production. But I’m sure that while you are not busy moralizing and indugling in self-righteous lifestyle politics and philosophizing, you’ve spent a great deal of time studying the actual history of actual revolutions.

  3. Have you read Bookchin’s *Ecology of Freedom*? As long as you overlook his social anarchism and anti-marxism, he spends the entire introduction making a similar critique of Deep Ecology. He goes into more depth about the history of Deep Ecology and its troubling superstitious elements as well. In fact the whole book is worth a read. Even though the foundational anarchist framework is flawed, it is an influential book about radical ecology and has a lot in it that can and should intersect with a marxist approach to ecology.

  4. Nikolai

    I am somewhat taken aback by your response to Sean who in fact raises many key issues. As a regular visitor to RAIM, I am disappointed that you have descended to using swearing and insults which would cause personal insult to other readers on this site to deal with quite an intelligent set of thoughts whereas you can usually respond in a much more civilised way. As Mao said of Marxism; it is not a set of pre-conclusions, rather a methodological analysis, and as such, Sean is quite right in pointing out that Deep Ecology is to be used in a similar fashion, so as not to be bogged down in the heres and nows of a one time plan.

    What then, is the worth of your drone victims etc…?

    The fundamental goal of Marxism is the establishment of a world where one societal class does not have mastery over another. Is this perhaps because Marxists accept the intrinsic value of human life and do not base their usefulness on usefulness to oneself? If so, and we accept then that humans are a part of nature, why then would we stratify nature into one class who are entitled to utilise anything they like without due consideration for others (albeit under the guise of “ecology” – something the DEs would label this “Shallow Ecology)? This attitude can be likened to the bourgeois/petite-bourgeois attitude of “entitlement” prevalent in First World countries, and introducing more stratification would further reinforce separation/alienation of humans from nature, rather than demonstrating unity. The Deep Ecologist platform is thus an extension to central Marxist thought designed to incorporate the entire planet, and therefore contributes positively to revolutionary and scientific theory, and rejection of it revisionist.

    The insistence that nature does NOT have an intrinsic value is one born out of Euro-Amerikkkan/Christian philosophy, and as such is the prevalent ecological view in the First World. As for your reference to “lifestyle politics” – you do Maoists around the globe discredit with such a throw-away and loaded comment. Our stoic beliefs that “a revolution is not a dinner party”, and in “plain living and arduous struggle” have been the foundation of all successful revolutionary movements for the last 70 years. Full credit is deserved to those who actively search for alternate means of subsistence to monopoly-capitalism/imperialism. To throw these qualities which separate real from phony, and international from reactionary revolutionaries out of the window is completely unacceptable in the name of building a mass-movement. If Deep Ecologists (or Deep Greens as they are sometimes known) are only prevalent in the First World, the fact they are contributing both theoretically and practically to undermine the Imperialist cores (remembering that First World proletarians are overwhelmingly embourgeoisfied and are themselves much the source of ecological calamity), means they are much more ideologically aligned with the mass interests of the global south, given their understanding of the relation between humans and nature, and dedication to halting some of the most threatening by-products of Imperialism and global inequality – environmental degradation and resource scarcity.

  5. Comrade Elliot,

    While my tone was off, the general message presented is correct. Marxism is not simply a moral appeal regarding victims of modern imperialism, but is a guide to action, so to speak. Deep ecology is too broad, moralistic, liberal, and ahistoric to make bridge this gap, as was pointed out in the original article.

    Obviously Marxism has a moralistic element to it and ultimately seeks to create primarily through class struggle a new sort of proletarian humanism. But this is secondary to the ability to actually effect revolution in the first place.

    Lifestyle politics can not substitute for organized struggle and the building of dual power institutions. I am dismayed that making this distinction is somehow a cause for concern.

    I don’t think the original article discounted the progressive element of Deep Ecology. Ironically, others criticized the article for not tackling with greater resolution the strange obsession by deep ecologists regarding the need for depopulation yet their basic silence on the need for proletarian revolution.

    In this regard, I find the claim that DE is an extension of Marxism to be strange, considering it violates a few basic elements of the Marxist methodology. Perhaps elements of DE can be incorporated into the new cultures and moralities which spawn from revolutionary class struggles. I for one hope people no longer torture and murder animals in the future. But this won’t be accomplished alone by the moralistic finger waving and socially-isolated lifestyle politics of deep ecology.

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