Deep Ecology

As humans, our relationship with nature is not always equitable. Deep ecology forces us to ask some tough questions about this inequitable relationship. For example, should human recognition of the value of nature be contingent on its usefulness to humans or should we assign equal value to all living and non-living things across the board? Deep ecologists would argue the latter to be true. But why? In this article, we'll try and answer this question as we take a closer look at deep ecology, its principles, and the importance of its role in the planet's long-term health.

Deep Ecology Deep Ecology

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Table of contents

    What is deep ecology?

    Deep ecology is a type of ecologism that calls for radical change in the relationship between humans and nature. For deep ecologists, human beings are of equal value to all other parts of nature. Nature must not be seen in regard to its utility to human beings. It is the duty of humans to help sustain nature and not the reverse. Society must restructure itself to reflect this. Deep ecology is anti-growth, ecocentric, ecologically conscious, and supports the idea of Holism.

    Holism is a concept that implies humans and their behaviour should be viewed as integrated within the universe as opposed to a separate part of the universe.

    Deep ecology principles

    To help make the deep ecology concept more digestible and accessible to all, in 1984, Arne Naess, along with fellow deep ecologists Bill Devall and George Session, developed eight fundamental principles of deep ecology. These are often referred to as the eight tenets of deep ecology. They are intrinsic value, diversity, vital needs, population, human interference, policy changes, quality of life, and obligation of action.

    Deep Ecology An illustration with a tree placed in a circular earth  StudySmarterFig. 1 - An image symbolising the protection of the Earth's environment

    Intrinsic Value

    This principle emphasises that all things in the ecosystem have value whether they are human or animal, living or non-living. In other words, the well-being and preservation of non-human life have value irrespective of its usefulness to humans.


    The richness and diversity of all forms of life help humans understand these values and that they are also values in themselves. This principle argues that diversity can emerge from the human realisation of the value of non-human life.

    Vital Needs

    This principle posits that humans have no right to reduce the diversity of non-human life except in cases where it satisfies vital human needs. For example, in deep ecology farming and consumption of meat are wrong as it disturbs the diversity of animals and is not vital to human survival. Deep ecology acknowledges the irrefutable fact that humans have already enacted damage to nature to an almost irreversible state. However, just because the damage has already occurred, does not mean it should continue. Rather we should work towards repairing the damage and stopping processes that continue this damage such as the effects of fossil fuels on the environment.


    To flourish, both humans and non-humans require a substantial decrease in the human population. This links to the principle of sustainability, which refers to the capacity of a system to endure and maintain its health in a continuous way across various domains of life without compromising the ability of future generations to have their own needs met. For living and non-living organisms to continue to flourish and thrive, the human population must not continue to grow and expand as rapidly as it has, as this has a detrimental effect on all areas of the ecosystem.

    Human Interference

    This principle argues that human interference in the natural world has already reached dangerous levels and that things are only getting worse.

    Policy Changes

    Policies must be enacted that address the current economic, technological and ideological structures. In other words, to achieve the goals of deep ecology, there must be a fundamental restructuring of society in line with deep ecologist ideals.

    Quality of Life

    The ideological change mentioned in the sixth principle should focus on an overall appreciation of the quality of life rather than adhering to an increasingly high standard of living. This is because the highest possible standard of living for one organism can lead to poor quality of life for others. For example, humans have sought to increase their standard of living, which has had adverse effects on all other organisms and has actively contributed to climate change.

    Obligation of Action

    Those that subscribe to the principles above have an obligation to help advance them and implement the changes that need to be made on behalf of deep ecology.

    Deep ecology examples

    Deep ecology has a number of main goals such as population control, living democracy and living economies. Let's take a look at these goals as well as some deep ecology examples.

    Deep Ecology Goals



    Population Control

    This concept within deep ecology was first understood to mean the rise in population is disastrous to the ecosystem but, now, refers to the idea that society must be reorganised to prevent the vast majority of land from being held by a minority of people.

    Many deep ecologists are opposed to deforestation, particularly as the purpose is often financial gain. Not only does deforestation lead to the loss of wildlife and biodiversity, but this degradation of land is undertaken at the hands of wealthy organisations for greed and financial purposes. Deep ecologists promote wildlife and land conservation such as national parks and conservatories and believe that society should be organised to stop the ability for wealthy organisations to wipe out entire ecosystems for profit.

    Living economies

    Living economies or simple living is the idea that societies should practice strong sustainability in which local communities can produce and sustain those living within them.

    In a deep ecology-based living economy, there would be no international importation of foods and goods. For example, if someone lived in a community in the UK in a climate where only apples and strawberries could be produced locally, the practice of importing mangoes, pineapples and other tropical fruit would not occur as it promotes consumerism and is not a sustainable approach nor does it encourage one to connect with the local land.

    Living Democracy

    This refers to the idea that democracy will occur at a local level and will take into account the community's social and environmental responsibilities.

    An example of living democracy could be seen in the proposed formation of decentralised bioregions, these regions would be in harmony with nature and there would be a connection between the universe/ecosystems and one's own self. This relationship with nature would serve to promote the mindset required to holistically adopt ecocentrism. This idea lends itself heavily to eco-anarchism.

    Wondering what decentralised communities could actually look like? Check out our explanations on Mutualism and Eco Anarchism!

    Importance of deep ecology

    The importance of deep ecology is rooted in its rejection of anthropocentrism which refers to human-centred approaches. According to deep ecologists, ecology and anthropocentrism are opposed to one another. Within deep ecology, nature is viewed as a source of morality and good. Therefore, nature has intrinsic value. Intrinsic value refers to the value and importance that an entity has in itself. This means that nature should not be seen in an anthropocentric or human-centred light. Making nature's value contingent on its usefulness to humans runs counter to the beliefs of deep ecology.

    For more on anthropocentrism in Ecologism check out our article on Shallow Ecology!

    Anthropocentrism, also referred to as human exceptionalism and importance, refers to the belief that human beings are the most critically important component of the universe. In fact, anthropocentrism believes that humans are superior to nature.

    Deep Ecology Protestors holding up a sign that reads ego vs eco StudySmarterFig. 2 - Comparison of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism

    Deep ecology and Ecofeminism

    Ecofeminism is a movement that addresses both environmental and feminist concerns, believing both to be the result of societal dominance by men. There are many similarities between ecofeminism and deep ecology. These similarities include focusing on the relationship between humans and nature and critiques of the existing human relationship with nature.

    There is a tendency for deep ecology to have a male-centred perspective, as many of its leading voices are men. Deep ecologists blame humanity for nature's degradation as they view mankind's anthropocentric approach as being the chief problem. Ecofeminists, on the other hand, see androcentrism as the root of environmental problems. Androcentrism refers to male-centred domination in analyses and perspectives. However, from the ecofeminist perspective, patriarchy and unjust dominance are the problems. Ecofeminists argue that environmental injustice can only be adequately addressed once human injustice is resolved. Ecofeminists hold that an environmental ethic should be developed out of a broader ethic that focuses first on justice.

    Furthermore, ecofeminists deem deep equality inadequate because it fails to acknowledge that dominance of nature by humans occurs within an oppressive and patriarchal framework. However, deep ecologists criticise the aims of ecofeminism, arguing that these aims are distorted due to their focus on power and domination in terms of sex alongside the fact that the ecofeminist movement has difficulty achieving a unified voice due to the movement’s desire to be inclusive.

    The Patriarchy is a societal structure in which men hold power and women are subordinate and often excluded.

    Deep Ecology Symbol for Ecofeminism StudySmarterFig. 3 - Symbol for Ecofeminism

    Deep Ecology vs Shallow Ecology

    Deep ecology is often contrasted against shallow ecology (also a term coined by Arne Naess) to distinguish between Naess's visions for ecologism and the existing views. Deep ecology and shallow ecology are both ecological perspectives within ecologism. However, the tenets of both of these concepts are in opposition to one another. The table below shows why deep ecology and shallow ecology have irreconcilable differences.

    Deep Ecology

    Shallow Ecology

    Intrinsic value

    Instrumental value

    Ecocentric and biocentric


    If we harm nature we are harming ourselves as we are a part of nature

    Nature is there for human use

    Climate change is bad as it affects all living things and ecosystems

    Climate change is bad as it affects humans directly or indirectly

    There are no real differences between humans and other organisms as we are all interconnected and interdependent

    Other organisms should not be given the same rights as humans

    Environmental ethics is key as it encompasses a non-human-centred approach to morality and ethics

    Other organisms should not be given the same rights as humans

    It is the relations between entities that of most importance rather than the entities themselves

    The survival and needs of human beings are of the utmost importance

    Deep ecology criticism

    Some aspects of deep ecology have been targets of criticism. For example, deep ecology's call for human population control is regarded by some within the ecology field as being too radical and damaging to the global population. Some critics have even argued that the idea of population control is even misanthropic.

    Another criticism of deep ecologists is their claim to understand the interests of non-human organisms. Critics argue that the interests that deep ecologists assign to nature (growth and survival) are in reality just human interests.

    Finally, social ecologists, many of whom believe that environmental crises are closely intertwined with human social interaction, argue that deep ecology fails to link these environmental crises with things like authoritarianism and hierarchy.

    Deep Ecology - Key takeaways

    • Deep ecology is a type of ecologism that calls for a radical change in the relationship between humans and nature.

    • Deep ecology is anti-growth, ecocentric, ecologically conscious, and supports the idea of holism.

    • Deep ecology is a term created by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. It is referred to as deep ecology as it constantly asks why or how things come about or why something is the way it is.

    • Deep ecology and shallow ecology are both ecological perspectives within ecologism. However, the tenets of both of these concepts are in diametric opposition to one another.

    • Ecofeminism is a movement that addresses both environmental and feminist concerns, believing both to be the result of societal dominance by men.


    1. Fig. 2 Ego vs Eco ( by Takver ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Deep Ecology

    What is an example of deep ecology?

    National parks and conservatories formed for the conservation of endangered species are excellent examples of deep ecology.

    What is the principle of deep ecology?

    There are 8 core principles of deep ecology that explain the beliefs and ideas of deep ecologists, namely that humans should not centre themselves in their view of ecosystems and that all organisms have value. 

    What is the difference between deep ecology and social ecology?

    Social ecology aims to integrate human communities with eco-communities.  Deep ecology seeks to preserve and expand wilderness areas and exclude human beings from them.

    Why is it called "deep ecology?"

    Deep ecology is referred to as "deep"  as it asks deeper questions such as ‘why’ and ‘how’ and is concerned with questions about the impacts of human life as part of the ecosphere.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who coined the term deep ecology?

    Which of these is an element of shallow ecology?

    How many tenets of deep ecology are there?


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