What Is Deep Ecology in Environmental Ethics?

Environmental ethics is a field of study focused on understanding the human relationship with nature and how we can act morally when it comes to the environment.

Deep ecology is an environmental ethical philosophy (also known as an “ecosophy”) that argues that non-human life has inherent value, regardless of whether or not it is useful to humans. It aims to extend respect to all parts of nature, not just resources that provide value to humans.

In this article, we’ll review what deep ecology is and how it relates to environmental ethics, the principles of deep ecology, and the main criticisms of deep ecology.

Background Information: What Is Environmental Ethics?

What Is Deep Ecology?

The philosophy of deep ecology was first theorized by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. Deep ecology argues that we must value nature for its intrinsic value, rather than for the resources or other value it provides to humans. Put most simply, deep ecology says that the entire environment has the right to exist and flourish just as humans do.

Arne naess- deep ecology environmental ethics
Caption: Arne Naess, Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Deep ecology is an ecocentric philosophy; it focuses on extending moral consideration to all parts of an ecosystem, rather than just humans. In other words, in order for any decision to be ethical we must also consider the wellbeing of animals, plants, and non-living (abiotic) things, such as land or water. The philosophy notes that because all parts of an ecosystem must function as a whole, with any part of an ecosystem dependent on another, we should seek to protect all parts of an ecosystem from harm, and allow each being to pursue what is in its own best interest.

Deep ecologists contrast themselves with “shallow ecologists,” or ecologists who believe that nature is only valuable because it serves the interests of humans. This is often referred to as an “instrumental” value of nature, rather than an intrinsic value. Unlike deep ecology, shallow ecology is an anthropocentric viewpoint, as it places the needs of humans above other parts of the ecosystem.

Deep Ecology and Preservation

Under deep ecology’s principles, we have a moral obligation to preserve nature in order to preserve its inherent value, rather than exploit it for human use. Some deep ecologists describe this as an obligation to help all aspects of nature pursue their own interests.

Naess referred to deep ecology as a movement, not a philosophy, as he believed that deep ecology’s principles should be used to inspire a revolutionary restructuring of societal values. Naess argued that we must restructure our societies based on these ideas in order to reduce the threats humans currently pose to the environment. Because humans view themselves as “apart” from nature, Naess argued, they feel morally justified in exploiting nature. In order to conserve the environment, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of the self as part of nature. Only after this realization of the “ecological self” can we begin to work in harmony with nature, rather than in opposition.

Principles of Deep Ecology

In 1984, while on a camping trip in the natural wonder of Death Valley, Arne Naess and fellow philosopher George Sessions created a list of 8 of the basic principles of deep ecology. Many of these principles are purposefully vague and can be left up to your own interpretation, and the interpretations of philosophers following Naess and Sessions.

1. Inherent value: The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Here, Naess and Sessions establish the founding principle of deep ecology: all parts of an ecosystem have value outside of their value to humans. It’s important to note that in other writings, Naess clearly defines “nonhuman life” as any nonhuman part of the ecosystem, including abiotic parts like land or water. Thus, despite conventional understandings of the word “life,” this principle is saying that the well-being of human and nonhuman entities (not just living organisms) have intrinsic value.

2. Diversity: Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves. 

This point emphasizes the fact that all parts of an ecosystem, even those seen as lower life forms like worms or bacteria, contribute to the wellbeing of the rest of the ecosystem and to the richness and diversity of the world. All parts of an ecosystem thus have value in themselves. Biological diversity also promotes healthy ecosystems.

3. Vital Needs: Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

If humans are part of nature, and have the same amount of inherent value as all other parts of the ecosystem, they have no inherent right to harm nature. Naess and Sessions do acknowledge that some human needs are vital, and thus, it’s okay to use nature to fulfill these needs. However, the exact definition of what constitutes “vital needs” is left up to interpretation.

4. Population: 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. 

Concerns about overpopulation began to come to the forefront in 1984 after the UN Fund for Population Activities released their State of World Population Report, which stated that increasing populations were “diminishing the quality of life” for people around the world. Naess and Sessions argue that human quality of life will only improve when human populations decrease.

5. Human Interference: The present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening. 

While Naess and Sessions are not necessarily advocating for non-interference with the natural world, they do argue, correctly, that overuse of natural resources and other forms of interference is causing extreme damage to the environment.

6. Policy Change: Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present. 

This principle argues for policy change in order to reverse how we value nature and how we treat it. A shift to valuing nature for its inherent value, rather than its instrumental value, can come about in part due to government or NGO policies. For example, today, we value things mainly due to instrumental commodity values. Economic structures will shift if we begin assigning value in a different way.

7. Quality of Life: The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great. 

This point argues that we live in a consumerist society that assigns value to the wrong things. Rather than attempting to attain ever higher standards of living, we should focus on attaining quality, rather than increasing quantity through more consumption. In this way, Naess and Sessions argue, we can attain increased happiness. It’s important to note that they don’t define “life quality,” and rather leave that up to the reader.

8. Obligation of Action: Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

This point is quite simple: if you believe in the principles of deep ecology, you have an obligation to carry out changes that will lead to a more ethical valuing of nature (and more fulfilling lifestyles for humans). This point raises many questions, as it leaves much up to the interpretation of the reader about what changes are “necessary” to bring deep ecology’s principles to fruition.

Criticisms of Deep Ecology

One criticism of deep ecology is simply that it’s either too vague or too idealistic. If there is no practical outline for how we can achieve a restructuring of society around deep ecology’s values, is it truly a useful philosophy? Are humans capable of this rethinking of our relationship to nature, and if so, how can this actually be brought about? 

Some critics like Jonathan Bate go so far as to describe deep ecology as a “utopian” belief system, arguing that the world Naess describes, a so-called “state of nature,” cannot practically exist. Bate also argues that if humans are part of nature, then the industrial world we’ve built is also part of nature. Therefore, the industrial world is just as deserving of protection as what we traditionally call “nature.”

A more practical criticism is that humans cannot know the true interests of nature, and thus, cannot actually protect these interests (or help nature pursue those interests). How can a human understand what a bacterium desires without understanding it through a human lens, based on what humans need and desire? These critics argue that we can’t necessarily protect every aspect of the ecosystem’s interests from human interference simply because we don’t actually know what these interests may be. However, deep ecologists respond that we can safely assume survival, reproduction, growth, and flourishing are among the chief interests of every part of an ecosystem.

Another critique of deep ecology, primarily espoused by ecologists Guha and Martinez-Allier, is that it could push us to ignore human problems like war, overconsumption, or racism. Finally, some have argued that deep ecology’s fourth principle, which argues that human overpopulation must be stopped, leads to genocidal beliefs. However, deep ecologists argue that Naess was not advocating for extreme measures to reduce human populations, and rather, recommended a slow decrease in human population sizes over time.


To learn more about deep ecology through the work of its founder, Arne Naess, we recommend these articles:

  • Basic Principles of Deep Ecology” by Arne Naess and George Sessions. This very short 1984 essay lays out the 8 primary principles of deep ecology.
  • The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, by Arne Naess, collection edited by Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue. This collection of essays brings together Arne Naess’ writings on deep ecology with the writings of other environmental thinkers responding to the theory. This is a helpful resource for understanding how deep ecology is linked to other social, technological and institutional issues.

Read more about related environmental philosophies: