Ethical Inspiration

Arne Næss: Good living according to deep ecology

These days, we have the option to offset our carbon, recycle our waste, buy ethically, and build sustainably. At least in theory. But consumerist society is adapting to the new terminology of change, making us, the consumers, more confident and relaxed in our consumption – so we can keep on consuming and even feel good about it. 

Terms like ‘sustainability’, ‘green’, and ‘bio’ are easily greenwashed and deployed even when they only partially fit the bill. This is what Arne Næss called “narrow”, politically acceptable economic sustainability: “the continuation of short- and long-range policies such that, most researchers agree, make ecological catastrophes affecting narrow, human interests less likely.” From this perspective, “development still means something like an increase in GNP, rather than an improvement in the quality of life.”

Who was Arne Næss?

Arne Næss (1912-2009) was a Norwegian philosopher, environmentalist, social activist, and keen mountaineer, who spent one third of his long life in an isolated wooden hut he built high in the Hallingskarvet mountains. 

He saw himself as less an academic philosopher and more a teacher attempting to inspire his students to articulate their own “ecosophy” – derived from ecology, “the study of interrelationships”, and sophia, “wisdom”. Yet, among many other things, Næss coined the term “deep ecology” – an environmental philosophy and social movement taking a holistic view of the world – and became one of the most inspirational figures in the environmental movement of the last century. 

Hallingskarvet nasjonalpark (Norway). Photo by Mathias Herheim on Unsplash

He thought that raising awareness about environmental issues was not enough; that we should also address the underlying cultural and philosophical backgrounds of these issues. It goes without saying that, at the time, many did not agree. But, more than a decade after his passing, we have a better understanding of his advocacy for a deep rather than shallow ecological thinking. 

Næss was influenced by Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work of environmental science, Silent Spring, and by the Gandhian nonviolence movement. He thought that a true understanding of the natural world would help humans appreciate and protect biological diversity, understanding that all creatures on the planet exist in a complex web of interrelation. This was seen as being at odds with the utilitarian pragmatism of not only businesses and governments, but also of some environmental organisations.

Twenty-five suggestions for lifestyle changes according to a teacher of ecosophy 

Næss compiled a list of “lifestyle trends” initially meant for supporters of the deep ecology movement, so they could “joyfully adapt their lifestyles to the movement”. In the spirit of ecology, these trends go to the root of the problem, and ask for changes that go beyond simply scratching the surface of our consumerism and disconnect from the natural world. 

These trends do not require unconscious actions to patch up problems; they require an honest look at the values that guide our lives, and a transformation that likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. This reluctance is probably one of the reasons Næss said he was optimistic for the twenty-second, rather than the twenty-first century. It’s a long-term process.

Instead of telling people to bin their garbage (never mind recycle or reuse it), he’s telling us not to produce it in the first place (“Eliminate or lessen neophilia – the love of what is new merely because it is new”). And to live “light and traceless” when in the vulnerable natural world – not turn it into an amusement park, as if it’s all ours to possess and alter (“Attempt to live in nature rather than just visiting beautiful places; avoid tourism”). 

Given the above, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find these suggestions listed in a glossy lifestyle magazine.

But, we’re reaching peak plastic, oil, pollution, and waste. The rapid extinction of wildlife, the diminishment of natural resources and a myriad other signs scream ecological collapse. Surely now is the time to pay attention to the advice of people who saw this coming, and who took the time to conceive of ways to overcome it as a species.  

Some of Næss’ trends pre-empt solutions currently circulated within the social sciences and economics: regeneration, sustainability, degrowth, and circular economies. Or the frugality, minimalism, and stoicism making a comeback in the global north, as some people begin to realize that over-consumption, commodification of nature, and other excesses preached by nature-disconnected societies, aren’t the answer to a happy (or content) existence.

Asking questions about our existence, our role, and our behaviour on this planet shouldn’t be limited to philosophers. If we truly want to make a difference as individuals, Næss’ suggestions are a good guide for the confused twenty-first century human living on a planet in crisis.

Without further ado, Arne Næss’ suggestions for deep-ecological living:

  1. Use simple means; avoid unnecessary, complicated instruments and other sorts of means. 
  2. Choose activities most directly serving values in themselves and having intrinsic value. Avoid activities that are merely auxiliary, have no intrinsic value, or are many states away from fundamental goals. 
  3. Practice anticonsumerism. This negative attitude follows from trends 1 and 2. 
  4. Try to maintain and increase the sensitivity and appreciation of goods on sufficient supply for all to enjoy. 
  5. Eliminate or lessen neophilia – the love of what is new merely because it is new.
  6. Try to dwell in situations of intrinsic value and to act rather than being busy.
  7. Appreciate ethnic and cultural differences among people; do not view the differences as threats. 
  8. Maintain concern about the situation in developing nations, and attempt to avoid a standard of living too much higher than that of the needy (maintain a global solidarity of lifestyle).
  9. Appreciate lifestyles that can be maintained universally – lifestyles that are not blatantly impossible to sustain without injustice toward fellow humans or other species. 
  10. Seek depth and richness of experience rather than intensity.
  11. Appreciate and choose, when possible, meaningful work rather than just making a living.
  12. Lead a complex, not complicated, life, trying to realize as many aspects of positive experiences as possible within each time interval.
  13. Cultivate life in community rather than in society. 
  14. Appreciate, or participate in, primary production – small-scale agriculture, forestry, fishing. 
  15. Try to satisfy vital needs rather than desires. 
  16. Attempt to live in nature rather than just visiting beautiful places; avoid tourism (but occasionally make use of tourist facilities).
  17. When in vulnerable nature, live “light and traceless”. 
  18. Appreciate all life-forms rather than merely those considered beautiful, remarkable, or narrowly useful. 
  19. Never use life-forms merely as means. Remain conscious of their intrinsic value and dignity, even when using them as resources. 
  20. When there is a conflict between the interests of dogs and cats (and other pet animals) and wild species, try to protect the wild creatures. 
  21. Try to protect local ecosystems, not only individual life-forms, and think of one’s own community as part of the ecosystem. 
  22. Beside deploring the excessive interference in nature as unnecessary unreasonable, and disrespectful, condemn it as insolent, atrocious, outrageous, and criminal – without condemning the people responsible for the interference. 
  23. Try to act resolute and without cowardice in conflicts, but remain nonviolent in words and deeds. 
  24. Take part in or support nonviolent direct action when other ways of action fail.
  25. Practice vegetarianism.

Ecosophy 2021

From the vantage point of 2021, decades later, these appeals are familiar: favoring experiences over ‘stuff’, the importance of community, the need for an ecocide law, understanding and protecting biodiversity, reducing the huge discrepancies between lifestyles around the world, embracing ethnic diversity, and the fair use of global resources.

Layered with meaning and wisdom, overall these calls are at odds with the mainstream lifestyles preached in 2021. They may seem a daunting challenge for those brought up in over-consumerist societies. They ask us not only to make radical changes to our daily habits, but to our perception of the world around us, and to understand that we are also organic matter; that we are part of nature.

Photo by Belvair Nash on Unsplash

Deep ecology is a long-range social movement encouraging people to question the purpose and meaning of existence. Yet we live in societies where living in moderation may be seen as a failure, while accumulation of material possessions is considered an achievement worthy of praise and respect.

Næss was careful to contextualise his words, and to add a social justice dimension to his trends, which can seem too cryptic and philosophical for today’s mercantilism.

As Næss pointed out, we are in for a great task, which “will require new thinking” – surely more complex than putting your waste in the right bin.

We hope these trends can help us continue – or start – a much-needed conversation about lifestyles on twenty-first century Earth.

What do you think?


Ecology of Wisdom, by Arne Næss, Penguin Modern Classics (2016)
The Call of the Mountain: Arne Naess and the Deep Ecology Movement (Jan van Boeckel, 1997)

Featured image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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