Shallow Ecology

What is shallow ecology? How does it differ from deep ecology? Where does the concept of shallow ecology originate, and what are some of its controversial aspects? Shallow ecology is an environmental perspective that primarily focuses on the sustainability of the environment for the benefit of human beings. It promotes actions like pollution reduction, resource conservation, and environmental clean-up primarily because of their impact on human health and wellbeing, as opposed to the intrinsic value of the natural world itself. 

Shallow Ecology Shallow Ecology

Create learning materials about Shallow Ecology with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    This article attempts to answer these questions by taking a closer look at the concept of shallow ecology and providing an overview of its strengths and weaknesses as an environmental philosophy.

    Shallow ecology meaning

    Shallow ecology refers to the political or philosophical position within Ecologism that holds the idea that the protection and conservation of the environment should only be practised when beneficial to humans. The adherents and thinkers of shallow ecology are called 'light green' or 'shallow green' ecologists. In contrast, deep ecology adherents are called 'dark green' ecologists.

    Shallow ecology practices pragmatic and anthropocentric forms of environmentalism such as focusing on issues such as pollution control and resource conservation. Environmentalism refers to the movement that advocates for the protection of the environment.

    Shallow ecology is a branch of ecologism that holds that humans are the most important organism in the ecosystem. Therefore, any environmental decisions should primarily consider the impact on humans.

    Shallow Ecology A hand holding the Earth and giving it to another hand StudySmarterFig. 1 - Shallow ecology suggests that humans are the master organism of the Earth.

    Political ecology theory refers to studying the relationship between power relations, economics, and environmental change.

    Principles of shallow ecology

    Often referred to as the humanist perspective of ecology, shallow ecology is an anthropocentric form of ecologism. That is, human needs are still at the centre of shallow ecology, unlike Deep Ecology. The primary principles of shallow ecology are weak sustainability, limits to growth and intergenerational equity.

    Weak sustainability refers to the idea that instead of maximising the Earth's resources to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time, capitalism can be undertaken in a more environmentally friendly manner. Therefore, while the goal to increase one's wealth still remains, a slower and more sustainable path to getting richer should be undertaken. This also ties in with limited growth.

    The EU places quotas on the amount of fishing its members can do in order to sustain populations of fish and prevent overfishing. For countries that have a large fishing culture, this can cause issues, as it places limits on the financial gain one could achieve within the fishing industry. When the UK was a member of the EU, the fishing quota was a cause of contention due to the UK's vast fish population and potential for increased fishing revenue.

    Limits to growth are about recognising that continuing to exhaust the Earth's finite resources at the current rate will have disastrous effects on the ability to achieve long-term prosperity due to the negative effects of climate change, pollution, and increasing populations. Therefore, growth should be limited in order to ensure the Earth's resources can keep up with its population.

    Shallow ecology places emphasis on the importance of humans and this extends to humans that have not yet been born therefore intergenerational equity is of vital importance to shallow ecologists. Intergenerational equity refers to the duty that has been bestowed on humans to preserve and maintain the integrity of the earth's resources for generations to come.

    Check out this article on Ecologism!

    Policy approaches in shallow ecologism

    Shallow ecology has three fundamental policy approaches, these are green capitalism, managerialism and technological solutions.

    Shallow Ecology Policy Approach Definition Example
    Green Capitalism This concept refers to the use of economic and market-based approaches to tackle environmental issues.Non-renewable resources are damaging to the environment due to the greenhouse gases that are released from burning gas, oil and coal. A solution to this environmental degradation has come in the form of the increased cost of non-renewable resources, which is due to their finite nature. To avoid these high costs and depleting resources, organisations have sought to find cheaper renewable resources instead. This is both economically and environmentally beneficial
    Managerialism This refers to the involvement of international bodies and state governments in dealing with environmental issues through the provision of regulations and quotas. In 2008, the UK passed a Climate Change Act under the premiership of Gordon Brown. This act committed the UK government to achieve a number of targets in relation to reducing the effects of climate change by 2050.
    Technological Solutions This refers to the use of scientific research and developments to tackle environmental issuesScientists are currently in the process of perfecting a technological solution that involves removing the carbon dioxide that has been emitted into the atmosphere. At the moment the technology is not commercially available as it is incredibly expensive and there are limits to how many tonnes of carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere and stored, however, this is being worked on to make it more commercially viable.

    These policy approaches cause friction between shallow ecologists and deep ecologists.

    Shallow ecology movement

    Shallow ecology is a term created by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. The term was established for comparison purposes, as Arne Naess also created deep ecology.

    Deep ecology and shallow ecology are presented in opposition to one another. Shallow ecology is named as such because this branch of ecologism does not necessarily seek to gain a deeper understanding of the earth, the environment, or the ecosystem. On the contrary, it is quite superficial in its understanding of ecology, focusing solely on the environment's direct relationship or impact on humans.Shallow ecology commonly views nature in relation to its instrumental value instead of its intrinsic value. Shallow ecologists believe the value of nature is not what nature is in itself but what it can do for humans, which is its instrumental value.

    Intrinsic value refers to the value that an entity has in itself. While instrumental value is the value that is given to something because of its desired or valued end; this value always derives from something else.

    Shallow ecology examples

    Let us take a look at a couple of examples of shallow ecology.

    One example of shallow ecology could be the implementation of recycling programs in a city.

    Emphasising recycling instead of waste prevention is an example of shallow ecology because it prioritises human welfare instead of anything in the ecosystem.

    A light-green ecologist would find it burdensome to encourage people to produce less waste and instead encourage them to recycle the waste they produce.

    Shallow Ecology A recycly bin StudySmarterFig. 2 - Emphasis on recycling is an example of shallow ecology.

    Another example includes implementing renewable energy. This may not be out of concern for the earth's climate system per se, but to reduce energy costs and ensure a more stable, long-term energy supply for human society.

    Shallow ecology vs deep ecology

    Shallow ecology and deep ecology are both ecological perspectives within ecologism. However, these two concepts are very different in their principles, so they are often at odds.

    The primary difference between deep and shallow ecology lies in their respective philosophies:

    • Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, meaning it centres on human needs and benefits; its main concern is maintaining the environment for the sake of human well-being.
    • In contrast, deep ecology adopts an ecocentric perspective, asserting that all forms of life and natural processes have intrinsic value, irrespective of their utility to human needs. Deep ecology promotes the idea of radical changes in societal structures and human behaviour to coexist with nature, rather than dominating it.

    Shallow Ecology Protester holding up a sign that reads ego vs eco StudySmarterFig. 3 = Shallow ecology and anthropocentrism vs deep ecology and ecocentrism

    The reasons why shallow ecology and deep ecology are perceived to have irreconcilable differences are listed in the following table.

    Shallow ecologyDeep ecology

    Instrumental value

    Intrinsic value


    Ecocentric and biocentric

    Nature is there for human use.

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

    Climate change is bad as it affects humans directly or indirectly.

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

    Other organisms should not be given the same rights as humans.

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

    Environmental ethics should not exist as society is not physically prepared to visualise this kind of ethic.

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

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

    The relations between entities are more important than the entities themselves.

    Criticisms of shallow ecology

    As mentioned earlier, Arne Naess created the term shallow ecology to distinguish its principles and beliefs from those of deep ecology. Being a deep ecologist himself, the intent behind introducing the concept of shallow ecology was not to present a viable second option within ecology but rather a partisan approach to highlight why deep ecology is the essential form of ecology. This intent has led to criticisms of shallow ecology as a selfish form of ecology, and there are negative associations with its anthropocentric stance.

    American philosopher Anthony Weston supports and advocates the concept of shallow ecology. Weston explains shallow ecology in his 1992 work Enabling Environmental Practice.

    Weston rejects this common criticism of shallow ecology by arguing that it is not selfish to claim that organisms should not have the same rights as humans, nor is it wrong to reject environmental ethics. Environmental ethics embraces a non-human-centred approach to morality and ethics. Weston argues that society is physically unable or unwilling to implement or envision an ethic that is not human-centred because the environment and humans have become distant from each other over time.

    This is not to say that people should continue to disregard the imperatives to protect and preserve the environment, but rather take a pragmatic approach. Society should strive to create structures and mechanisms that promote interaction between humans and the environment so that in the future, we can transform our society to have a positive impact on the environment. This belief underscores the idea that shallow ecology and deep ecology are not as diametrically opposed as Arne Naess would have us believe.

    The only significant difference between Naess' ideas of deep ecology and Weston's understanding and advocacy of shallow ecology is time. Deep ecology encourages total and immediate change in society consistent with environmental ethics, while shallow ecology proposes that humanity must first restore its precarious relationship with nature. Within shallow ecology, pragmatism must be embraced to reach a point where people truly understand the environment.

    Shallow ecology arguably takes a more realistic approach to the environment and focuses on policy and technology to eventually reduce anthropocentrism. On the other hand, deep ecology calls for an ecocentric view of society but does not show how to establish this ecocentric view of society among people.

    Shallow Ecology - Key takeaways

    • Shallow ecology is a branch of ecologism that holds that humans are the most important organism in the ecosystem and that the sustainability of the environment should be for the benefit of human beings.
    • Shallow ecology practices pragmatic and anthropocentric forms of environmental awareness and protection.

    • Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term shallow ecology in 1972.

    • Deep ecology and shallow ecology are oppositional, for deep ecology adopts an ecocentric perspective, asserting that all forms of life and natural processes have intrinsic value, irrespective of their utility to human needs.

    • Shallow ecology arguably takes a more realistic approach to the environment and focuses on policy and technology to eventually reduce anthropocentrism.


    1. Fig. 3 Ego vs Eco PeoplesClimate Melb ( by Takver ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Shallow Ecology

    Who advocates shallow ecology?

    Those with an anthropocentric view of the environment and the ecosystem usually advocate for shallow ecology. 

    What is the difference between shallow ecology and deep ecology?

    Shallow ecology is anthropocentric and views the environment in relation to its instrumental value for humans. There is a concern for the environment only so shallow ecology as it benefits humans. 

    Deep ecology views the environment as having intrinsic value and is ecocentric in its view. All organisms in the ecosystem are of equal value and humans should not be prioritised. 

    What do shallow ecologists believe?

    Shallow ecologists believe humans are the most essential organisms in the ecosystem. Therefore, any environmental decisions should be made considering the effects it has on humans at the forefront of these decisions.

    What is political ecology theory?

    Political ecology theory refers to the examination of the relationship between power relations, economics and environmental changes.

    What are examples of shallow ecology?

    Managerialism, green capitalism and the use of technological solutions are all examples of shallow ecology.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is shallow ecology?

    Who coined the term ‘shallow ecology’?

    What does it mean to be anthropocentric?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Shallow Ecology Teachers

    • 11 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App