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‘The Deep Ecology Movement’, Bill Devall (1980)

Forty-two years on from its publication, Bill Devall’s paper and its clear critique – now realised in the predicted failure of the movement to make change – deserves a much greater audience.

‘A Book in Five Minutes’ No.7 Podcast:

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As philosopher Mark Fisher said, “people are more willing to think about the end of the world than the end of ‘capitalism’”. The fact is, though, the failure of ecosystems will directly cause the collapse of capitalism. The stark facts are that both cannot exist together indefinitely.

Image of Bill Devall
Bill Devall,
academic & deep ecologist.
2nd December 1938 – 26th June 2009.

‘The Deep Ecology Movement’, Journal of Natural Resources, vol.20 no.2 pp.299-322, April 1980.

A PDF copy of the paper is available free-of-charge here.

Environmentalism, too, is facing a crisis. For all the evidence they throw at decision-makers, they still fail to make any significant change. They believe they just need better facts, or more support, but neither seems to make any difference.

After thirty years of suppressing criticism, recently these failures have manifested in a series of critical works:

In 2020, there was, ‘Planet of the Humans’ – which led to wails of complaint from the movement, and an organised effort to get the film taken-down.

In 2021, the book, ‘Bright Green Lies’ was published; followed shortly after by the ‘film of the book’. Again, complaints, but little introspection from those to whom it was addressed.

Though some saw these criticism as malevolent, or organised by their ‘enemies’, they were in fact foretold over forty years ago – because they are the result of structural flaws in the movement itself:

Bill Devall was an American sociologist, a leading ecological thinker of the 1960s and 1970s, and one of the founders of the philosophy of ‘Deep Ecology’.

In 1980, Devall wrote a paper for the Journal of Natural Resources. This was one of the first instances where the philosophy of ‘deep ecology’ was defined; not just in terms of its own values, but in contrast to the structural weaknesses at the heart of the environmental lobby.

Devall begins his essay by contrasting these approaches:

“There are two great streams of environmentalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. One stream is reformist, attempting to control some of the worst of the air and water pollution and inefficient land use practices in industrialized nations and to save a few of the remaining pieces of wildlands as ‘designated wilderness areas.’ The other stream supports many of the reformist goals but is revolutionary, seeking a new metaphysics, epistemology, cosmology, and environmental ethics of person/planet. This paper is an intellectual archaeology of the second of these streams of environmentalism, which I will call ‘deep ecology’.”

These criticisms had been at the heart of the movement since the 1960s. By the late 1980s, when figures in North America and Europe sought to professionalise the movement, to work within the mainstream of politics and economics, these criticism were effectively extinguished.

The Ecology Party in Britain, for example, labelled its ‘deep green’ adherents as, “fundos”; and under the leadership of Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, they were marginalised as the party transformed itself into ‘The Green Party’.

Devall continues his analysis:

“I contend that both streams of environmentalism are reactions to the successes and excesses of the implementation of the dominant social paradigm. Although reformist environmentalism treats some of the symptoms of the environmental crisis and challenges some of the assumptions of the dominant social paradigm (such as growth of the economy at any cost), deep ecology questions the fundamental premises of the dominant social paradigm. In the future, as the limits of reform are reached and environmental problems become more serious, the reform environmental movement will have to come to terms with deep ecology.”

As the human system reaches its ecological limits, and the biosphere begins to break down, clearly we’ve reached the point Devall identifies. ‘Reform’ is no longer an option. We must now talk in terms of ‘radical’ change.

Devall explores that when he says:

“Deep ecology, unlike reform environmentalism, is not just a pragmatic, short-term social movement with a goal like stopping nuclear power or cleaning up the waterways. Deep ecology first attempts to question and present alternatives to conventional ways of thinking in the modern West. Deep ecology understands that some of the ‘solutions’ of reform environmentalism are counter-productive. Deep ecology seeks transformation of values and social organisation.”

Those ‘counter-productive’ arguments from the environmental lobby, which have been the subject of over 30 years of academic study, are what ‘Planet of the Humans’ and ‘Bright Green Lies’ seized upon to make their criticism.

What Devall is making explicit is that Deep Ecology does not function from an external imposition of change; the result of governments enacting environmental policies. It proceeds from the change within our conception of ourselves, and collectively as a society, as we rediscover our place in the natural world as living beings.

As he states:

“In sum, then, the role of deep ecology in contemporary society is liberating, transforming, questing. There is Utopia in deep ecology, a Utopia based not on man's continued and intensified conquest or domination of non-human nature but based on a questing for self-realisation.”

Someone needs to say this; not in terms of a stand-alone statement, but with extensive reference to the work of Bill Devall, George Sessions, Arne Naess, and of course the technical observations of academic research which defines why simple ‘reform’ cannot work.

If the environmental movement is failing that’s not because it lacks better evidence or public support. It’s failing because its methods and structures take the world ‘as it is’, rather than basing their calls for change upon a measured, empirical analysis of ‘what is necessary’.

Deep Ecology is a window into the types of change we need to make in the world. Yes, as Devall says, it is ‘utopian’. But just as mathematics simplifies the world with numbers so we can quantify it, the role of utopian philosophy is to be a framework for comprehending the world – and from that, creating a new way to organise it.

Forty-two years on from its publication, Devall’s paper and its clear critique – now realised in the predicted failure of the movement to make change – deserves a much greater audience. To make meaningful change, we must realise the world within the viewpoint outlined by deep ecological ideas.