Deep ecology versus ecosocialism

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Part 1. Some people believe that deep ecology is not just compatible with ecosocialism, but a way to improve it. That’s a profound misconception that ignores deep ecology’s anti-human core.


by Ian Angus

The following was first posted on the online discussion group that was set up after the founding of the Ecosocialist international Network. I have added some suggestions for further reading.

Recently, some participants in this list have argued that ecosocialism would be enriched if it incorporated the philosophy and practice known as “deep ecology.” I don’t question their dedication or sincerity, but their argument reflects a misunderstanding of ecosocialism or deep ecology – or perhaps of both.

This is clearly illustrated by the post “Pachamama and Deep Ecology” by long-time deep ecology advocate Saral Sarkar.

In the course of his superficial and condescending article about the ecological program of the Bolivian government, Sarkar writes:

“But if the Bolivian leadership really means what Morales has said … if it seriously takes the task it has given itself, namely, to protect nature against the onslaught of civilization, then it ought to press for the withdrawal of humanity from large tracts of the earth, which is now almost fully occupied by it. Then it ought to demand that such vacated tracts are allowed to again become wilderness. It ought to demand that large parts of the forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps are not changed anymore. And, above all, it ought to tell humanity that it must reduce its own numbers and immediately stop all kinds of economic growth.”

It is hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the political and moral bankruptcy of deep ecology.

Since his goal is to protect “forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps” from human depredation, the first to be expelled under Sarkar’s proposal would undoubtedly be the people who now live in such places. Indigenous people, the primary victims of capitalism and imperialism, would become the primary victims of deep ecology.

In order to create an unchanging wilderness that hasn’t existed since cyanobacteria destroyed their own environment by producing oxygen several billion years ago, the world’s poorest and most exploited people must be dispossessed.

Who will decide which human beings must leave the places where they and their ancestors have lived for millennia? Who will enforce the compulsory migrations, and how will they do it? Where will the victims be moved to? Sarkar is silent on such questions.

And, since we must also “stop all kinds of economic growth” – not just capitalist growth, not just ecologically damaging growth, but all growth – how can we possibly meet the physical, social and psychological needs of hundreds of millions of deep ecology refugees? How will they survive in their new homes? Will they even have new homes?

You can call this deep ecology: a better label is ethnic cleansing.

Then he says humans must reduce our numbers. He doesn’t say by how much, but other deep ecologists write of a return to pre-industrial levels, a goal that would treat 90% of all currently living people as dispensable. Does Sarkar favor some global version of China’s mandatory one child policy? Or perhaps a no-children policy? Once again, who will decide, and how will such draconian policies be enforced?

I have written extensively about the fallacies of populationism, and I won’t repeat those arguments here – but it important to understand that despite its claims to philosophical profundity, deep ecology is ultimately just an extreme version of populationism, the view that the world’s ills are caused by human numbers.

For deep ecologists, people as such are the world’s biggest problem. In her insightful critique of deep ecology, Janet Biehl writes:

“Deep Ecology … regards the mere biological presence of human beings in any large numbers as intrinsically harmful to first nature … Of paramount importance to deep ecology is a radical and potentially ruthless scaling-down of the human population – indeed, population reduction as an issue has been named the ‘litmus test’ of deep ecology.” (“Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology“)

As a result, whatever the illusions and desires of its advocates, deep ecology is profoundly anti-humanist, anti-humanitarian, and anti-humane.

That’s why it is incompatible with ecosocialism, and why no attempt to combine the two can succeed.


This is an ongoing discussion. The following contributions have been posted on Climate and Capitalism to date:

  1. Ian Angus: Deep ecology versus ecosocialism
  2. David Orton: Why I am not an ecosocialist
  3. Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism
  4. Franklin Dmitryev: Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus’s capitalist ideology
  5. Ian Angus: A letter to Saral Sarkar on population, wilderness, and ecosocialism
  6. Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism and the Population Question: An Open Reply to Ian’s Open Letter 


Further Reading

The founder of deep ecology was Norwegian mystic Arne Naess. His first public article on deep ecology was “The Shallow and the Deep,” published in 1973. He and George Sessions jointly drafted “A Deep Ecology Eight Point Platform” in 1984. In 1995, Sessions edited the anthology Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, which includes essays by Naess and others.

Radical ecologist Murray Bookchin published several very effective critiques of deep ecology. See, in particular, the article “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,” and the short book Which Way for the Ecology Movement?

Other insightful critiques, each raising different concerns, are Janet Biehl’s “Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology,” George Bradford’s How Deep is Deep Ecology?, Frank Rotering’s “My Second Crack at Deep Ecology,” and Brian Morris’s “Reflections on ‘Deep Ecology’.”

Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, discusses deep ecology among other populationist currents. It will be published in October by Haymarket Books but can be pre-ordered now.

Finally, Climate and Capitalism has published many articles on populationism. Click here for a complete list.


  • Population containment? Is that the key issue? — applied to what species?

    I would have thought that the key argument advanced by Deep Ecologists was that humans were the bipedal locusts of the earth. A plague that warranted massive restrictions by limiting geographical spread. But how is that different from populationism per se?

    Isn’t the core argument that the world would be much better off if humans were not so keen to occupy its all? That humans, like rodents, are so fecundly greedy that they know no bounds to their avarice…

    The problem is that ‘socialism’ –and I would hope ‘eco socialism’ – isn’t about the tyranny of humanity but its potential to decide its own fate and that of its living partners on this earth.

    Deep Ecology is a sort of cop out approach which believes in a Utopian ecological recovery generated by human-free zones. But Carbon Emit et al, does not respect any frontier.

    Tokyo or New York can destroy in a week what ever the deepest rain forest reserve can preserve.

  • Engels long ago recognized that a socialist/communist society– and only a socialist society– might some day choose to limit population growth. I’d say that if peak oil or climate change dramatically affects our ability to produce food in the present quantities for an indefinite period it might be something that a socialist society could be trusted to implement.

  • UPDATE: Saral Sakar has submitted a reply to this article, on the EI-Network list.

    In it, he denies being a long-time advocate of for deep ecology. but then goes on: “But I have read some of the writings of this school of thought and found it convincing.” This seems to mean that his adoption of Deep Ecology is recent. If so, I accept his correction.

    He also says that he did not mean that indigenous people should be expelled from the wilderness, that by “humanity” he only meant “the civilized occupiers.” That would be a welcome (if terminologically outrageous) correction — but his response limits the term “indigenous people” to the small number of hunter-gatherer peoples who live totally outside the capitalist economy, such as the Yanomami of Brazil.

    Among the “civilized occupiers” who must be expelled to recreate wilderness he includes “rice farmers and fishermen” in Bengal, and presumably peasants, fishers, and subsistence workers elsewhere as well. I fail to see how that makes his proposal any less appalling.

    Beyond that, his response is largely a restatement of deep ecology arguments for radical population reduction. Those arguments have been refuted many times, including in the articles listed above.

  • “A given ecosystem” ? What’s that? Any ecosystem is not in balance nor is it intrinsically ecological benign. Change, like shit, happens and an urban environment is as “ecological” as any rain forest.

    How sustainable it is, of course, is another question all together.

    It always seems to me that the deep ecologists presume that there is only one ‘ecology’ on this planet worth the deference and that is one that is devoid of humans . But we could just as easily talk about grasslands without elephants or kangaroos or any herbivore — and insist that maybe we should cull their numbers too for the sake of a deeper and more intrinsic ecology.

    Even here in Australia it is hotly debated, for instance, how much indigenous fire stick usage has shaped the local flora ecology over thousands of years…just as the Indigenous Americans possibly slaughtered a few creatures into extinction during 12,000 years of occupation.

    That humans exist and have populated the planet is a fact of ecology. That we have generated a culture exploitative of the natural world is also an ecological fact — as ecological as the biomass on the forest floor. It is a false and , in the end, counter productive divide to impose a rigid separatism between the activities of human beings and those of other creatures by presuming we live by a different evolutionary ethic.

    Why, because we ‘invented’ and sourced our energy other than from food?

    Ultimately vacating huge tracks of land by imposing occupation rules does not address our overall problem in the same way that declaring “a” national park does not solve our carbon offsets. We may choose to vacate land to protect it but any solution has to be broader than No Trespass signage.

    Ultimately, I think deep ecology promotes a turning away from the key day to day challenges and struggles we face through a sort of sentimental yearning for ideals that could only be managed by autocratic magic bullet solutions: cull human population/stop migration.

    I think perhaps that’s our real challenge: fostering a new ecology that is much more inclusive of the living world than the often narrow confines of a purely biological focus. So it has to be much more complex than what seems on offer from Deep Ecology. Although I think that the aspiration of Deep Ecology — the desire to live in sync with Nature rather than arrogantly rule over it — has to be our guiding principle.

    Our hope has to be that we can do that with the verve, creativity, collectivity and commitment of indigenous peoples.

  • Paul writes:
    My point is that surely Deep Ecologists are not referring to indigenous people when they call for the withdrawal of humanity from a given ecosystem?

    Are you now suggesting that “deep ecologists” don’t consider that “humanity” includes “indigenous people”?

  • Well no, I use these terms to make a distinction between peoples who exist within an ecosystem and remain in balance with it and those which have completely extricated themselves from a harmonious relationship with the ecosystem which created them.
    My use of the term ‘fauna’ does not come from the same train of thought as that of the Australians you mention. I would give indigenous people complete and unquestionable rights over their land.

    My point is that surely Deep Ecologists are not referring to indigenous people when they call for the withdrawal of humanity from a given ecosystem?

    My other point is that any analytical process which involves Ecology, must be concerned with populations,I don’t understand why you guys always go so hard on any suggestion that Humanity may have problems which relate to population ?
    I don’t suggest that they do necessarily but I don’t believe you guys know for sure that they don’t. You guys come across all evangelical about the subject and yet you are talking about changing the whole political system of the world. you should focus on the real enemy which is the machinery of Deep Capitalism? Not on dissing other movements who essentially seek a similar outcome.

  • Paul, its beyond insulting – its demhumanising – to call indigenous people “fauna”.

    It also seems William’s Cronon’s point (he’s an ecologist, who teaches in a school!) about “unthinking cultural imperialism” has made no impression on you: hence your description of non-indigenous people as “modern, civilised humanity”.

    Until the 1960s and the rise of the modern black rights movement, the “modern civilised” white Australian constitution did say Aboriginal people were fauna. Aboriginal people were legally classified as non-people. And the Australian state was founded on the legal fiction of terra nullius — that Australia was a “wilderness”, an uninhabited land.

  • It would be ridiculous to suggest that rainforest Protection would need to exclude indigenous people, who really exist as part of the Fauna which makes up the system. These people remain within the natural balance of the Ecosystem. Unfortunately, Modern Civilised humanity is organised to the extent where it will almost certainly have a negative effect on any ecosystem, and that is a numbers game.
    I find it strange that this movement is called Eco-socialism ????
    Have any of you ever studied Ecology ????
    I think you are just ‘Socialists’ who are trying to take a ride on the Ecological movement.

    First thing you learn in Ecology class is populations ! Go back to school.

  • Along with this convincing article, I’d recommend looking at Derek Wall’s recent article on the misuses of the concept of “wilderness”, which looked at the ideas of the US ecologist and historian William Cronon.

    The excerpt from Cronon below challenges Saral Sarkar’s idea that we “ought to demand that such vacated tracts are allowed to again become wilderness”.

    “Protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmentalists all too often means protecting it from the people who live there.

    “Those who seek to preserve such “wilderness” from the activities of native peoples run the risk of reproducing the same tragedy—being forceably removed from an ancient home—that befell American Indians.

    “Third World countries face massive environmental problems and deep social conflicts, but these are not likely to be solved by a cultural myth that encourages us to “preserve” peopleless landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia.

    “At its worst, as environmentalists are beginning to realize, exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism.”

    [From ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ by William Cronon