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Deep Ecology


Fritjof Capra


Shifting values will profoundly alter the ways we relate to each other and to the Earth.


It is becoming increasingly apparent that the major problems of our times cannot be understood in isolation. The threat of nuclear war, the devastation of our natural environment, the persistence of poverty along with progress even in the richest countries these are not isolated problems. They are different facets of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception.

The crisis derives from the fact that most of us and especially our large social institutions subscribe to the concepts and values of an outdated worldview, which is inadequate for dealing with the problems of our overpopulated, globally interconnected world. At the same time, researchers at the leading edge of science, various social movements, and numerous alternative networks are developing a new vision of reality that will form the basis of our future technologies, economic systems, and social institutions.

The paradigm that is now receding has dominated our culture for several hundred years. This paradigm consists of a number of ideas and values, among them the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth, and last but not least, the belief that a society in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature. In recent decades, all of these assumptions have been found to be severely limited and in need of radical revision.

New World View

The newly emerging paradigm can be described in various ways. It may be called a holistic worldview, emphasizing the whole rather than the parts. It may also be called an ecological worldview, using the term ecological in the sense of deep ecology. The distinction between shallow and deep ecology was made in the early seventies by philosopher Arne Naess and has now been widely accepted as a very useful terminology to refer to the major division within contemporary environmental thought.

Shallow ecology is anthropocentric. It views humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental or use value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans from the natural environment, nor does it separate anything else from it. It does not see the world as a collection of isolated objects but rather as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.

The ethical framework associated with the old paradigm is no longer adequate to deal with some of the major ethical problems of today, most of which involve threats to non-human forms of life. With nuclear weapons that threaten to wipe out all life on the planet, toxic substances that contaminate the environment on a large scale, new and unknown microorganisms awaiting release into the environment without knowledge of the consequences, animals tortured in the name of consumer safety with all these activities occurring, it seems most important to introduce ecologically oriented ethical standards into modern science and technology.

The reason why most old-paradigm ethics cannot deal with these problems is that, like shallow ecology, it is anthropocentric. Thus the most important task for a new school of ethics will be to develop a non-anthropocentric theory of value, a theory that would confer inherent value on non-human forms of life.

Ultimately, the recognition of value inherent in all living nature stems from the deep ecological awareness that nature and the self are one. This, however, is also the very core of spiritual awareness. Indeed, when the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence and that the new ecological ethics is grounded in spirituality.

In view of the ultimate identity of deep ecological and spiritual awareness, it is not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality is consistent with the perennial philosophy of, for example, Eastern spiritual traditions, the spirituality of Christian mystics, and the philosophy and cosmology underlying the Native American traditions.

In our contemporary culture, the spiritual essence of the deep ecological vision seems to find an ideal expression in the feminist spirituality advocated within the womens movement. Feminist spirituality is grounded in the experience of the oneness of all living forms and of their cyclical rhythms of birth and death. It is thus profoundly ecological and is close to Native American spirituality, Taoism, and other life-affirming, earth-oriented spiritual traditions.

Mechanistic Worldview

The mechanistic worldview was developed in the 17th century by Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Newton and others. Descartes based his view of nature on the fundamental division into two separate, independent realms: mind and matter. The material universe, including the human organism, was a machine that could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts. Like the Cartesian metaphor of the body as clockwork, the metaphor of the brain as a computer has been very useful, but both are now outdated. Our brain may seem to carry out computer-like functions, but it is not a computer. The brain, too, is a living organism. This difference is crucial, but it is often forgotten by computer scientists and even more by lay people. And since computer science uses expressions like intelligence, memory, or language to describe computers, we tend to think that these refer to the well-known human phenomena. This grave misunderstanding is the main reason why modern computer technology has perpetuated and even reinforced the Cartesian image of human beings as machines.

Certain tasks should never be left to computers: all those tasks that require genuine human qualities like wisdom, compassion, respect, understanding, or love. Decisions and communications that require these human qualities such as those of a judge or a general will dehumanize our lives if they are made by computers. In particular, the use of computers in military technology should not be increased but, on the contrary, should be radically reduced. It is tragic that our government and the business community have removed themselves very far from such considerations.

Another characteristic of the old world view is the obsession with domination and control. In our society, political and economic power is exerted by a hierarchically structured corporate elite.

Our science and technology are based on the belief that an understanding of nature implies domination of nature by man. I use the word man here on purpose, because I am talking about a very important connection between the mechanistic worldview in science and the patriarchal value system, the male tendency of wanting to control everything.

Before the 17th century the goals of science were wisdom, understanding of the natural order, and living in harmony with that order. Since the 17th century, the goal of science has been knowledge that can be used to control, manipulate, and exploit nature. Today, both science and technology are used predominantly for purposes that are dangerous, harmful, and anti-ecological.

Impasse of Economics

Following the same pattern, most economists fail to recognize that the economy is merely one aspect of a whole ecological and social fabric. They tend to dissociate the economy from this fabric, in which it is embedded, and to describe it in terms of simplistic and highly unrealistic models.  

According to conventional economics, only the monetary sector is accessible to  economic analysis. Everything else is called external and is excluded from the theoretical framework. Thus the basic economic concepts have been narrowly defined and are used without their wider social and ecological context. This narrow, reductionist framework has driven economics into an impasse. Most current economic concepts and models are no longer adequate to map economic phenomena in a fundamentally interdependent world, and current economic policies can no longer solve our economic problems.       

The narrow, reductionist framework of conventional economics has resulted in an orientation of economic policies that is fundamentally erroneous. The essence of these policies is the pursuit of economic growth, understood as the increase of the gross national product, i.e.     as purely quantitative in terms of maximization of production. The assumption is that all growth is good and that more growth is always better. It makes you wonder whether these economists have ever heard of cancer.           

New Paradigm

The shift to the paradigm of deep ecology is now crucial for our well being even for our survival! And, such a shift is indeed occurring. Researchers at the frontiers of science, various social movements, and numerous alternative networks are now developing a new vision of reality that will be the basis of our future technologies, economic systems, and social institutions.

All natural systems are wholes whose specific structures arise from the interactions and interdependence of their parts. Systemic properties are destroyed when a system is dissected either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. Although we can discern individual parts in any system, the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts.

The systemic or deep ecological way of thinking has many important implications not only for science and philosophy, but also for our society and our daily lives. It will influence our attitudes toward illness and health, our relationship with the natural environment, and many of our social and political structures.

The application of systems concepts to describe economic processes and activities is particularly urgent because virtually all our current economic problems are systemic problems that can no longer be understood through the fragmented approaches of Cartesian science. The systems approach to economics will make it possible to bring some order into the present conceptual chaos by giving economists an urgently needed ecological perspective. According to this systems view, the economy is a living system composed of human beings and social organizations in continual interaction with the surrounding ecosystems on which our lives depend.

Over the past ten years, such a new approach to economic problems, based on systems thinking and grounded in deep ecology, has been slowly emerging. It is not yet a fully elaborated economic theory, but its main concepts and ideas are now quite clear. The most recent and best synthesis of the new thinking in economics can be found in The Living Economy, edited by Paul Ekins and based on papers presented at The Other Economic Summit (TOES). Because of its ecological foundation, I call this new approach green economics.

The aim of the new economic thinking, Is of conventional economics, is to further economic development. However, this concept is given a different meaning. Instead of being defined as maximization of production and consumption, it is defined as maximization of human welfare. Human welfare has to do with health and human needs; with mental, emotional, and spiritual matters; with social and environmental issues.

New Values

Since many aspects of such a qualitative concept of economic development cannot be given monetary values, they will have to be implemented through the political process. The non-monetary choices to be made are political choices based on values.

The shift to a new world view and a new mode of thinking goes hand in hand with a profound change in values. What is so fascinating about these changes, to me, is a striking connection between the change of thinking and the change of values. Both can be seen as a shift from self-assertion to integration. As far as thinking is concerned, we can observe a shift from the rational to the intuitive, from analysis to synthesis, from reductionism to holism, and from linear to nonlinear thinking. I want to emphasize that the aim is not to replace one mode by the other, but rather to shift from overemphasis on one mode to a greater balance between the two.

As far as values are concerned, we observe a corresponding shift from expansion to conservation, from quantity to quality, from competition to cooperation, and from domination and control to nonviolence.

The new values, together with new attitudes and lifestyles, are now being promoted by a large number of movements: the ecology movement, the peace movement, the feminist movement, etc. Since the early eighties, several of these movements have begun to coalesce, recognizing that they represent merely different facets of the same new vision of reality. They have started to form a powerful force of social transformation. The political success of the European Green movement is the most impressive example of that process of coalescence.

I have called the newly emerging social force the rising culture, borrowing this image from Arnold Toynbees description of the patterns of rise and fall in the process of cultural evolution. In the current cultural transformation, the declining culture represented by the established political parties, the large corporations, the large academic institutions, etc. is still dominating the scene. It refuses to change, clinging ever more rigidly to its outdated ideas. However, being based on a framework of concepts and values that is no longer viable, todays dominant culture will inevitably decline and will eventually disintegrate. The cultural forces representing the new paradigm, on the other hand, will continue to rise and, eventually, will assume the leading role.

This process of transformation is now clearly visible in our society and can also be experienced by each one of us as an inner transformation. One question arises: Will there be enough time? Will the turning point be reached soon enough to save the world? As my reply, I would like to quote the late E.F.Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and prophet of the ecology movement:

Can we rely on it that a turning around will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer Yes would lead to complacency, the answer No to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.


Fritjof Capra, physicist, systems theorist and author, is the founder of the Elmwood Institute, an international organization dedicated to nurturing new ecological visions and applying them to the solution of current problems. The Elm wood Institute is a membership organization with a quarterly newsletter. P.O. Box 5805, Berkeley, CA 94705. This article is reprinted from the Earth Island Journal, Fall 1987.




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