David Orton: Why I am not an ecosocialist

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Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 2: A prominent left-wing environmentalist explains why, as a supporter of deep ecology, he cannot endorse a basic statement of ecosocialist principles.

By Ian Angus

As I said in Part One of what seems likely to be a continuing series on this subject, some participants in the Ecosocialist International Network (EIN) discussion list claim that the philosophy and practice known as “deep ecology” is not just compatible with ecosocialism, but a way to improve it. As I should have expected, my contrary argument didn’t convince them: in fact the debate on the EI-Network list became so heated that we decided to terminate it.

This post offers a different perspective – a statement from a prominent left-wing advocate of deep ecology, explaining why he could not sign the EIN’s basic statement of principles.

The author of this statement is David Orton, a long-time Canadian environmental activist who passed away earlier this year. Orton was the principal spokesperson for “Left Biocentrism,” which he described as a “tendency within the deep ecology movement.” Left Biocentrism accepts and promotes the Deep Ecology Eight Point Platform, adding an “anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist” perspective and a concern with “social and class issues.” (For more information, see the Left Biocentrism Primer which members of the “Left Bio” list adopted as a basic statement in 1999,  and many articles on Orton’s blog, Deep Green Web.)

Orton has been criticized for his refusal to dissociate himself from some right-wing supporters of deep ecology,  but no one familiar with his life and work would question his  deep commitment to progressive social causes, above all to protecting the environment.

At its founding meeting in Paris in 2007, the Ecosocialist International Network established a committee (Michael Löwy, Joel Kovel, and me) to draft a statement of ecosocialist principles, to be discussed internationally and submitted to a subsequent international meeting in Belém, Brazil in January 2009. Our draft was extensively discussed online and elsewhere during 2008. In the late fall, we invited participants in those discussions to sign what had come to be called the Belém Ecosocialist Declaration. The Declaration was then discussed at the Brazil meeting, and was subsequently signed by ecosocialists in 37 countries.

David Orton did not sign. He posted his explanation on the EIN’s discussion list on December 21, 2008.

While declaring his sympathy with the EIN, Orton argued that ecosocialism as summarized in the Belem Declaration was fundamentally incompatible with deep ecology. Among other things, he stresses the Declaration’s failure to mention wilderness protection or the need for a “new Earth-centered ethics,” its focus on capitalism rather than industrialism as the key problem, and the absence of a call for population reduction, which he says should be a priority.

For Orton, who devoted decades of his life to deep ecology, and who worked closely with its most respected theoreticians, these weren’t side issues to be set aside for further discussion. These were fundamental principles that separated deep ecology from ecosocialism.

In my opinion, looking at the discussion from the ecosocialist side, each of the points he identifies is a real and important disagreement. Taken together, they summarize the fundamental incompatibility of deep ecology and the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration. I, for one, could not have signed a Declaration that embodied the changes he thought essential, and I believe that’s true of most people who signed it.

I disagreed with David Orton, but I admired his willingness to think these issues through and state his conclusions forthrightly. Ecosocialists and advocates of deep ecology should work together whenever possible, but it will not help to hide our real disagreements on fundamental issues.

David Orton’s statement on the Belém Declaration should be viewed as an important contribution to the ongoing discussion.


David Orton on Deep Ecology and Ecosocialism

[This message was posted on the EI-Network yahoogroup on December 21, 2008. To make reading easier, I have divided several long paragraphs, but otherwise the text is unchanged. The original is here.]

Greetings ecosocialists and deep green fellow travelers:

I would like to sign on to the Belém Ecosocialist Declaration (see http://www.ecosocialistnetwork.org/), whose spirit I am very sympathetic to, but unfortunately I cannot. There is much I agree with, as for example the critique of the market assumptions of the climate change debate (unfortunately embraced by the Green Party in Canada and Elizabeth May, the current leader). Several people who I respect, because of their work for the natural world and for social justice, including some left biocentrists, have signed on to the Declaration.

I describe myself as someone on the socialist/communist side of the political spectrum. But I am also someone who has embraced the philosophy of deep ecology, first outlined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. This is the understanding that humans have to come into a fundamentally new ecocentric relationship with the natural world, which rejects a supposed human domination over nature. Nonhuman life and the Earth itself are to be valued independently of their usefulness for human purposes. Also, in order to thrive, human and nonhuman life need “a substantial decrease of the human population”, as the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform outlines.

This does not mean that I and other deep greens “hate socialism” as one of the signers of the declaration has alleged (Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, second edition, p. 302). It does mean, however, that a socialist/communist perspective fundamentally influenced by deep ecology does not share some of the assumptions of this Ecosocialist Declaration.

What are some of these assumptions?

— I think the use of the term “ecosocialism” excludes options and implies that post-industrial societal models of sustainability (based on the socialist/communist tradition) already exist and can be adopted and modified. This is foolish and unfortunate Left arrogance, given the historical record. The environmental legacies of “actually existing” socialist and communist societies are quite negative. (The possible exception here would be Cuba, which has shown leadership, by example, in small plot intensive urban gardens and in developing alternatives to fossil fuel-based rural agriculture, and in the protection of the island’s natural biodiversity.)

It seems to me that “socialism” or “ecosocialism”, as a description of a future deep ecology-inspired and socially just post-capitalist society, is not adequate or inspirational. The type of future ecocentric and socially just social formations is up for discussion. There are no worked out social models that can be simply adopted. Socialism is in many ways an expression of the industrial proletariat, and while its legacy of social justice remains valid, and indeed needed for a future ecocentric society, it is not correct to say that “ecosocialism” will describe the future post-industrial ecocentric society. The features of such a society are a work in progress for all of us to engage with.

I am sympathetic to the view expressed by Saral Sarkar in his book Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism? that “There is no contradiction between socialism and a truly ecological economy if the former can be conceived of as a non-industrial society…” (p. 5)

— Stan Rowe (1918-2004), a Canadian eco-philosopher, was also a socialist. But he noted in his writings that we are first Earthlings, part of mother Earth, and only in second place human beings. For Stan, both capitalism and socialism as social systems express the basic problem of species selfishness. As he pointed out in his first book of essays Home Place, “Neither philosophical liberalism championing liberty nor philosophical socialism championing equality will save us from ourselves. Human history will end in ecology, or nothing.” (p. 7)

The Belém Declaration is unfortunately people-centered, not Earth-centered. Where is the advocacy for wilderness preservation and other species? Nonhuman species appear to be an afterthought. Social justice for humans is of course necessary, but it must be subordinate to Earth justice for all species. As Rowe has said, although socialism and capitalism share a common “rapacious” anthropocentric view towards Earth exploitation, “socialism has the virtue of extending the circle of care beyond the selfish individual, at least turning our vision outward in the right direction.” (p. 193) But social justice for humans cannot be at the expense of the ecology. “Community” has to include not just humans but other animals, plants and the Earth itself.

— There is no mention of population reduction in the Declaration. This should be a priority for an ecocentric socially just society. It is not only wrong from a human-welfare perspective ­ there are far too many of us ­ but it shows that the habitat needs of other life forms are not considered important.

— The Declaration assumes that it is capitalism, not industrialism, which is the main problem. Left biocentrists see industrial society’s social and technological formation as the main problem, and it can have a capitalist or a socialist face.

— The Declaration assumes “full employment for all” in the new ecosocialist society. This statement conveys that the transition will be painless, and implies that production and consumption will continue. Nothing could be further from the truth. To live sustainably will mean living with much less, along with serious redistribution of wealth to those who are economically marginalized. As has been said, the ecology movement is the first social movement in history to promise a lower material standard of living.

— I feel that generally the Declaration underplays the primary contribution of the environmental and green movements, which have not, in the main, been driven by a socialist consciousness. Socialists have mainly been in the wings, not in the activist vanguard.

— The Declaration says nothing about the need for a new Earth-centered ethics, as part of a green politics, which ends the spiritual separation of most people from the natural world.

— I think that an “Anti-Capitalist Belém Declaration” would be a more appropriate and encompassing name. The endless growth and consumerism of capitalism has no respect for the ecological limits of the Earth or concern for fundamental social justice for all citizens. This could be a banner to rally a wide variety of opposition forces, and it could allow the needed discussion about the nature of a future Earth-friendly and socially just world society. This discussion is pre-empted by using the term “ecosocialist”.

The above should not convey that I am hostile to the Belém Ecosocialist Declaration, because I am not. I regard this Declaration as a positive development and wish to maintain a dialogue with those who sign the Declaration. There is not just one path forward for the Ecocentric Left. As Naess has said, “the front is long.” Perhaps the Declaration will be modified in a more Earth-centered direction at the forthcoming January 2009 meeting in Brazil, a vast country with a rich diversity of plant and animal life, as well as peoples from many ethnic and racial backgrounds.

For the Earth,
David Orton


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 


1 Comment

  • I am reading this discussion and commenting in order. There are a few points I would like to comment on here.

    One problem we might all have, is a need to completely define all problems and decide on the final answer to these problems, before we actually get to work or before we try to convince others that we have the answers and that everyone should “see the light” and follow our “declaration” as opposed to someone else’s “declaration.”

    I agree with much that David Orton has noticed about Ecosocialism and I believe in the end that we will find that the Deep Ecology viewpoint will provide important insights about what action will be necessary to save the planet AND human civilization as well.

    At this point both philosophies need to get the rest of humanity to wake up and pay attention to ANYTHING either group is trying to communicate. Deep Ecology is probably too extreme for your average person to face, but then again, Socialism is a word that causes many Americans to run for the hills. It is going to be difficult to get any serious consideration for important facts and ideas.

    I believe science is beginning to show that the functioning of any ecosystem including the total earth system is so finely tuned and balanced, although resilient, that we cannot disregard any small element of any ecosystem. Humans imagine they can design ways to use their surroundings such that this balance won’t be disrupted but since humans are not at this time capable of understanding exactly how many of these systems function together as a whole, mankind acts pretty much like the proverbial “Bull in the China Closet.” If we don’t learn to understand and respect these systems, we will in the long run, with our growing population and desire for lifestyles based on massive energy use, damage this complex web of relationships and the planet will undergo one of it’s mass die offs and then “re-boot” so to speak, creating new, functioning systems, most likely including “life.” Humans in the end, will be just another cataclysm such as a large meteor, atmospheric fluctuation or a “snowball earth” period. The earth itself, not to mention the entire known universe will be completely indifferent and there will be no one to pass judgement.

    On the other hand, it seems to some that the Deep Ecology movement would choose to get rid of humans all together rather than change the planetary ecosystem that has developed to this point. It won’t be the first time the system underwent massive change. We are, after all, just another result or effect of the current ecosystem. We never have been separate from this particular web of life we are embedded in. Deep Ecologists may however, be responsible for discovery that living a simpler life in balance with the ecosystem can be a rewarding and satisfying lifestyle rather than a sacrifice.

    Like human beings tend to do, both groups see the problems through a species focused viewpoint in which mankind has the right, indeed, the responsibility to make decisions about what is right and good for the planet based on our human values and interests. Truth is, this is the only way any species can see and act on their environment.

    Given our concerns we must start somewhere! Our ideas, opinions and knowledge will evolve as we learn from experience and bump into unforeseen limitations and complications. We aren’t at a point where these differences in viewpoint cause problems except between egos. (A possible species characteristic.) As Orton points out, there is no reason why we can’t work together now. It is important that we continue the conversation as more information, experience and science become available. The “declarations” of both groups will by necessity, change over time.