Ghost of Nazism or new foundation?

Wednesday, May 29, 1991

Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations For Environmentalism
By Warwick Fox
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990. 380 pp., $32.95
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Some keepers of the secular philosophical and political faiths of today give the impression that they would like to do to the ecocentric "Deep Ecologists" (and their world-subverting idea that the human species is not at the centre of the world) what the Holy Inquisition did to Galileo 360 years ago when he challenged the then dominant doctrine that the Earth was at the centre of the universe.

Warwick Fox, a philosopher at the University of Tasmania, cites one such modern guardian of the faith, the anarchist and ecologist Murray Bookchin, who calls Deep Ecology "Eco-la-la" and "an ideological toxic dump". Bookchin sees "the ghost of Nazism beginning to grimace with satisfaction" from the heart of Deep Ecology because it would restrain certain human activities ("to breed and to technologise, citify and otherwise domesticate the planet") in deference to frogs or forests.

Fox argues that Deep Ecology attracts such odium because of its challenge to the dominant world view of anthropocentrism — "the assumption of human self-importance in the world". Deep Ecology sees the human species as just one, non-privileged, part of an ecological whole which, because of our technologically destructive potential, requires some restriction of humanity's expansive momentum.

Deep Ecology maintains that even the "conservation" or "shallow" environmentalists who argue for preserving natural resources for sustained human use are anthropocentric. Although "shallow" ecology may win this battle for that ecosystem, in the long term it reinforces the underlying attitude which drives our species' selfish raids on Earth's larder.

Typically, Deep Ecologists favour preservation of undisturbed natural ecosystems "for their own sake, and for their use-value to non-human beings", limiting human population to reduce our pressure on our co-tenants, more reliance on low technology, etc.

Some opponents of Deep Ecology argue that it is anti-human or misanthropic. Fox replies that to deny the alleged superiority of humans is not the same as being anti-human. Ecological egalitarianism includes the human, too. It is just as unacceptable morally and ecologically to regard "humans as defective dolphins who lack sonar capability", says Fox, as it is to regard dolphins as inferior humans who can't contemplate the intricacies of non-Euclidean geometry or invent the wheel.

Deep Ecologists are also accused of being anti-science, but Fox argues that Deep Ecology supports science where it helps us to understand how ecosystems work, thus allowing — indeed obliging — us to adapt rather than adapting Nature to all our desires (as opposed to needs) and spoiling it for non-human life, as most applied science does now.

Political ideologies based on anthropocentrism cannot, says Fox, achieve a Deep Ecological (or "transpersonal") world view based on "our capacity to identify with the larger collective of all beings". This includes socialism, which, as Fox and indeed most socialists maintain, "has been restricted to the human realm" or at least prioritises the human. Indeed, the technological subjugation of Nature has continued to be a major feature of the historical socialist movement, whether democratic or bureaucratic.

The politics of Deep Ecology, however, are no improvement on socialism. Deep Ecology is concerned with personal transformation rather than structural political change through collective action. Fox, for example, is enthused by Zen Buddhism, amongst other quasi-religious paths to individual enlightenment.

Marxism, whilst often one-dimensional in absolving individuals from all responsibility for resource-profligate consumption, sexism etc, is right to highlight how the class (those 5% of people) in the developed countries who own half of all the wealth and who monopolise all the power, are in many cases the major environmental transgressors. Their class system also sets limits to a voluntarist effort of will by those people wanting to withdraw support from environmentally exploitative social structures.

Deep Ecology assumes that all individuals can simply walk away from all this. Deep Ecology's focus on individuals, however, can act as a stimulus to changing a world where individuals are constrained by class structures.

This role may be hindered by the fact that Fox's book began as a PhD dissertation. At times there is so much abstract discussion about the meaning of "shallow", "deep" and "transpersonal" that the terms lose all meaning in the search for it, although Fox's book is much more accessible than the works of many other "professional thinkers".

Fox's book is a worthwhile philosophical (though less so politically) corrective to a largely anthropocentric environment movement. Not all the trees that went to make this book died in vain.