Those who love wild nature and work toward a day when humankind might inhabit this abundant planet with greater wonder, humility, and compassion, mourn the loss of a great ecological visionary – Arne Naess – who died on January 12, leaving behind a legacy of environmental awareness and action.
Naess, one of the most influential philosophers of his generation, died in his sleep at the age of 96 in Oslo, Norway. The avid mountaineer founded the Deep Ecology movement, drawing inspiration from Buddhism, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and above all from nature itself. Greenpeace can be proud that he served as the first chairman of Greenpeace Norway in 1988. His personal story illuminates the path of ecology in the 21st century.
Arne Naess at the opening of the Greenpeace office in Oslo, 1988
(c) Henrik Laurvik NTB/Scanpix – used under licence
On the Mountain
Naess was born in 1912, in Slemdal, near Oslo, and his father, banker Ragnar Naess, died the next year. Naess later recalled that his mother, Christine Dekke, appeared preoccupied with raising his two older brothers, so he often wandered alone into nature for companionship.
In How My Philosophy Seemed to Develop he revealed, at the age of four, "I would stand or sit for hours … in shallow water on the coast, marvelling at the overwhelming diversity and richness of life in the sea."
At the age of 17, while climbing on Norway’s Hallingskarvet massif, he met a kind Norwegian judge, who also adored nature. This mentor advised young Arne to read Dutch Jewish philosopher Spinoza, who equated the ‘highest virtue’ with knowledge of nature. For Spinoza, Naess learned, all thinking about truth and human society begins with recognising the basic ’substance’, the diversity and magnificence of the natural world.
In his 20s, Naess built a life-long writing cabin, Tvergastein, high on this mountain. "In the mountains," Naess once said, "you are small compared to the surrounding view, so you more easily and more intensely feel that you are a part of something greater. You find that your idea of your ’self’ is more vast and deeper." This depth he felt in vast nature – mountains, sea, forests – inspired his use of the word ‘deep’ to describe his understanding of ecology.
Ecology in Action
After graduation from the University of Oslo, Naess studied in Austria where he met the famous Vienna Circle of philosophers and psychoanalysts influenced by Sigmund Freud. Although inspired by the Vienna group, Naess found their philosophy too disembodied and intellectual. He pointed out that their understanding of the ’self’ failed to include nature, and was therefore ‘dead wrong’. Based on the notion from Spinoza that all being exists wholly in nature, he expanded the Freudian idea of ’self’ and ‘ego’ to include our place in nature. Thus began one of the most influential traditions of modern ecology, Naess’ development of ‘Deep Ecology’.
Naess returned to Norway, became Oslo University’s youngest professor, and during World War II joined the Norwegian resistance, helping prevent the shipment of Norwegian students to German concentration camps. After the war, he led a UNESCO project to improve communication between the East and West by exploring how various cultures use similar words. The resulting report sold out, but UNESCO never reprinted it, according to Naess, "due to the politically dangerous character of its items." During the Cold War, listening to each other was not a high priority in Washington, Moscow, or London.
In the meantime, by learning about Buddhism and Gandhi, and by reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Naess realised that his love of nature had to be put into action if his ideas were to matter. In 1969, at the age of 57, he resigned his position at the University of Oslo and became active in environmental protection, "to live," he said, "rather than function." In 1970, he joined rural farming families near the town of Myvatn, Norway to stop a dam on the Laxá (‘Salmon’) River that threatened to flood their farms. This successful campaign, along with the Chipko movement in India, marks the beginning of environmental action that inspired the early Greenpeace movement.
The names of things
In the early 1970s, members of the nascent Greenpeace group in Vancouver, Canada began to hear about the Norwegian activist, Arne Naess, and his ideas about ‘deep ecology’. As Greenpeace evolved from peace protests to full-fledged ecological action, Naess served as one of our inspirations. We agreed with his belief that other beings in nature – whales, seals, insects or trees – had their own ‘intrinsic value’. We protected whales or seals not just to preserve the environment for human purposes, but for their own sake. This fundamental respect for nature became an important distinction in the environmental movement.
I met Arne Naess in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and later at a conference convened by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in Northern California. I discovered that the best way to engage him in conversation was to walk with him in whatever natural setting was close by. I recall his genuine sense of curiosity about species of trees, birds, or being engulfed in what he called ‘the total-field’ of nature. He never seemed intellectual, but rather spoke with a humourous, teasing quality that appeared to be always searching for some fresh, new understanding. He said his ideas were not ‘philosophy’ in the classic sense but rather ‘intuition’ gained from observation. We once pondered whether a particular sparrow was a ‘Fox’ or ‘Song’ sparrow, and I recall how he laughed that humans believe they understand something because they have named it. We talked about seeing an ‘individual’ in an animal, not simply a ’species’.
In 1988, we felt honoured when Naess agreed to serve as the first chairman of Greenpeace Norway. Upon hearing of his passing, Greenpeace Nordic’s Truls Gulowsen remarked, "Naess’ ecological philosophy is still important to Greenpeace." So, what is that philosophy?
Deep ecology starts with accepting the intrinsic value of all beings in nature and of the ecosystem itself. Naess challenged environmentalists to think beyond ‘humans in nature’ to recognise that the ecological system is not something separate that we are ‘in’. Nature made us, made our eyes to see, made our limbs, tastes, and even our thoughts. He taught ‘diversity and symbiosis’, both in nature and in human ideas. A rich culture, he said, like nature finds stability in diversity and recognises how distinct parts and points of view serve the larger whole. This did not invite, he insisted, lazy thinking, but rather required precise language to express observations and experiences.
Naess believed that humanity has no right to reduce the richness and diversity of nature except to meet vital needs of health and survival. He taught that our current impact on the world was excessive, perhaps obvious today, but a radical idea in the 1960s. He believed that the human population was too large, and that we should stabilise population growth and eventually allow human population to decrease. He believed this might take a century or more, but he believed humanity could eventually achieve a state in which our technology was non-invasive and "children could grow up in nature".
"Then," he said, "we are back in the direction of paradise."
Some environmentalists and human rights activists thought Naess’s ideas were ‘anti-human’, but his compassion remained universal. "Appreciating a forest or mountain does not diminish anything humans do," he said. "We don’t say that every living being has the same value as a human, but that it has an intrinsic value … it has a right to live and blossom."
He challenged the common psychological notion that the ’self’ develops from childish ‘ego’ to an adult social-awareness and finally to spiritual awareness. "Nature is left out of this formula," he noticed. "Humanism displays a certain arrogance, as if we are somehow separate or superior to nature." He believed that with enough attention to the world around us, "we cannot help but identify our self with all living beings; beautiful or ugly, big or small, sentient or not."
He insisted that through this sort of maturity, we will discover that genuine quality of life has very little to do with consumption, wealth, and power. He summarised this in a proverb for the ages, and certainly for our time, about living lightly on the earth:
"Simpler means, richer ends."
rw. February 2009
What a great tribute to an inspiring human being.
My heart breaks thinking it might be too late to achieve his dream, but his life inspires me to keep working. Maybe future generations will come to the senses we’ve abandoned.
Silly, arrogant humans! Even the so-called “humanists” that Naess talks about, who mean well, sometimes have their heads in the clouds, dreaming of transcending to a “higher” consciousness, when the answers are all right here in the dirt, on dear mother Earth.
Thank you for this beautiful account of Arne Naess, someone I am only beginning to learn about now and have so much to learn from. This story makes me think of one of my own few experiences of walking alone – alone from humans – in nature.
Walking in a small mountain town in last winter, I found myself surrounded by small hills, both majestic, and quirky “tree-house” temples, personally crafted by the individuals who lived near by.
It was cold and quiet and I felt radically alone in a dignified place I had not yet earned a rhythm with. I also felt met by the simple and ancient presence of the snow, hills, and delicately trodden terrain.
Up a road, there was a temple which seemed impossible to climb to the top of. It was wedged in a hill. I found a side route of old tiny stairs and climbed up. Close to the top I realized that there was a path leading behind the temple up the hill, with small temples drawing one further upwards. Each one had been somehow personally marked and had its own charm or magnetism, each one a brief stopping point. The hill was steep but I felt compelled to keep climbing on old, tiny stairs.
At the top of this hill was a larger temple up an even steeper slope, this temple was serious, dignified. As I reached the top, the slope of the hill drew my eyes upward – the temple lead to an opening simply revealing the forest.
The silence, smell, and depth of the wood was the most profound moment of my journey. It felt so sacred that I did not want to enter. The stillness marked a moment that at once filled me with a strong feeling of reverence, peace, and also a firm boundary.
It said: this forest is not you, not yours, it is the ultimate.
I was only able to stay for a moment before it felt best to return to the somewhat burrowed realm of the town.
I carefully retraced my steps down the mountain.
I don’t have a logic to put to this experience other than to say that I encountered a boundary – a real identity in the forest that I did not fully understand. I was at once convinced of the profound autonomy of nature, and yet comforted at the same time, clearly the people who had walked this path for 1000s of years had learned many things.
It’s inspiring to me that Naess lived and articulated a sensibility that now helps me make sense of my own experience, one I have difficulty finding words for. I hope it will root some humility into my often unconscious humanism – and humanizing of the land.
Coming to recognize nature is truly facing the edge of our own human abilities. This beautiful source is our edge. We must admit that we don’t understand… that we are small. This radically unspoken world constantly in creation is the real source of our life, insight, and creativity.
Thank you for this moving tribute to a pioneering philosopher and outstanding human being. I first became aware of the contributions of Arne Naess through the work of his acolyte and friend, American deep ecologist George Sessions of Sierra College in California. The example of Naess’ incrediblly rich life is one to which we can all aspire.
Rex, I only belatedly came across your Sept. 2008 post on overpopulation. Thanks for broaching an issue that has all too often evoked only uncomfortable silence among elites (if not rank-and-file) in the Environmental Establishment. I stopped donating to Greenpeace perhaps 20 years ago after reading a piece in its members magazine which claimed that since most population growth in the world now took place among “people of color” in the Global South, ergo, for a white person in the Global North to be concerned about its environmental implications was in essence racist. As 1) a former Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, where the ruinous effects of rapid population growth were blatantly obvious, and 2) one who married a Honduran and thus has 2 kids who are “people of color,” I took umbrage at this. I sent a letter to Greenpeace telling them I would never donate again, which I have not, and saying that apparently they would rather see the Earth destroyed by need rather than greed, which is what overpouplation will ensure.
I’m glad too that you cited my colleague Al Bartlett’s video “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: The Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis” which is a MUST SEE for all environmentalists interested in approaching their cause with a basis in MATHEMATICAL AND PHYSICAL REALITY rather than wishful thinking.
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