In 2007, a group of prominent environmentalists gathered in Aspen, Colorado, to discuss how to redesign the environmental movement to combat the linked environmental, social, and spiritual crises facing humanity. The group concluded that humanity needs a “new consciousness,” new stories, new values—including an “ethics of reverence for the Earth” and a sense of intergenerational responsibility. And that to spread these, the movement will need to redevelop its grassroots potential, diversify its sources of funding, and use a variety of innovative strategies like embedding environmental education into schools’ core curricula, doing a better job using media programming to spark environmental awareness, and establishing a Peace Corps–like effort that could help restore ecosystems and tackle global environmental challenges.10
The idea of deepening humanity’s environmental consciousness and redesigning the movement to help do this is certainly not new. In 1973 Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term deep ecology, criticizing the “shallow” anthropocentric approach to environmentalism and instead advocating an ecocentric ecological philosophy to guide individuals and the movement. One of his main conclusions was that we need a set of principles to guide our behavior and to reinforce our commitment to help our planet flourish. His hope was that each of us would make a personal “ecosophy” (ecological philosophy) stemming from these principles that would shape our broader values and lives—from what we buy and eat and how many children we have to how we spend our time. Naess, with deep ecology, was perhaps the first to propose making environmentalism a fully lived philosophy.11
But deep ecology and its critique have remained marginal ideas in the broader movement, with environmentalists continuing to focus instead on short-term or shallow campaign goals. So it is not surprising, then, that environmental groups continue to engage their members in shallow ways—asking for donations, signatures on petitions, support of a specific political candidate, perhaps participation in a local protest. Yet within the movement, rare are the deeper opportunities to engage—community potlucks, for instance, or weekly meetings filled with stories of celebration or hope.
Defensive advocacy remains the environmental movement’s primary role. As theologian and environmentalist Martin Palmer notes, “Environmentalists have stolen fear, guilt and sin from religion, but they have left behind celebration, hope and redemption.” The problem is that fear without hope, guilt without celebration, and sin without redemption is a model that fails to inspire or motivate.12
Environmentalists must create a more comprehensive philosophy—complete with an ethics, cosmology, even stories of redemption—that could deeply affect people and change the way they live. Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and political leader, once asked, “What could change the direction of today’s civilization?” He answered that “we must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behavior and a new set of values for the planet.”13
This, naturally, should be the starting point of any philosophy, ecological or otherwise. Why are we here? and What is our purpose? are questions as old as human beings. And while religions have offered one set of explanations, and science another, neither have proved up to the task of answering in a way that enables humanity to live within the bounds of Earth.
The first principle of deep ecology points out that “the flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth has inherent value. The value of nonhuman life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.” This ecocentric view of the planet offers a possible answer. Humanity’s purpose may be as straightforward as helping the earth to flourish—and certainly not impeding its ability to do so.14
The ethics of an effective eco-philosophy must be grounded, completely and fully, in Earth’s ecological realities and should facilitate humanity’s Earth-nurturing purpose. As conservationist Aldo Leopold noted over 60 years ago, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This simple rule could serve as a foundation for a broader ecological ethics.15
Granted, this will not be an easy ethical code to follow. As the fourth principle of deep ecology notes, “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.” Decreases in both human population size and its impact (as much an outcome of how we consume as our total numbers) may raise some uncomfortable questions, such as, Can we have a sustainable civilization while fully respecting people’s freedom to reproduce or consume without limits? However, not wrestling with these limits may prove much more perilous. And perhaps over time, norms around optimal family size and consumption levels will evolve, facilitating the transition to cultures in balance with a flourishing Earth.16
In order for this philosophy to attract people, it will also need to answer broader philosophical questions like Where did we come from? (cosmology) and Why do we suffer? (theodicy)—an essential component of any comprehensive philosophy, and one that will be especially necessary in getting through the difficult centuries to come.
Of course, other elements will have to emerge as well. Stories, exemplars, ways to cultivate fellowship among adherents, and ways to celebrate life’s rites of passage—birth, coming of age, marriage, and death—and other cycles of life like the advent of a new year. Together, these elements could add up to a robust, holistic ecological philosophy that could inspire people across cultures to follow a new ecocentric way of life and encourage others to join them. For that to happen, however, environmentalists must build the mechanisms to cultivate community among members and to spread this philosophy to new populations. In other words, for the environmental movement to succeed it will have to learn from something it often ignores or even keeps its distance from—religion, and specifically missionary religions, which have proved incredibly successful in orienting how people interpret the world for millennia, effectively navigating across radically different eras and geographies. - Erik Assadourian