Ecosophy from T to X

If, like most scientists, you tend to believe most scientists, then anthropogenic global warming has become one of the crucial challenges of our times. If, on the other hand, you believe certain august officials, then the mere notion of anthropogenic global warming remains a ludicrous figment of post-millennium panic. But no matter what or whom you believe, you may have noticed more and more voices describing climate change as the tip of a melting iceberg. Among the other dangers poised to deluge us as the iceberg melts: the precipitous decline of biodiversity, the escalating depletion of natural resources, and a human population graph with a near-vertical slope. None but the most panglossian would argue that these trends can continue for more than a troubled century or two.

What would it mean to reflect on issues of such gravity? To take pause, to question, to praise where possible, to rebuke where necessary, to agitate for change on a larger level, to effect change on a more local level—to work in such a manner is neither to assume the official’s role (announcing planetary order) nor the scientist’s role (declaring planetary knowledge) but rather to take up the mantle of philosopher (seeking planetary wisdom). It sounds grandiose when phrased that way, but there is a simpler, more personal way of putting it. To distill the tasks of seeking order, seeking knowledge, and seeking wisdom down to the household level, we have a set of words formed from Greek roots: thus oikos (household) + nomos (order) = economy; oikos (household) + logos (word) = ecology; and oikos (household) + sophia (wisdom) = ecosophy.

Only in the last few decades has ecosophy begun to assume its rightful place alongside ecology and economy, with ever greater numbers recognizing the folly in pursuing either of the latter without plenty of the former. Like the IRS agent, who, if provoked, will duly explain that ignorance of the economy is no excuse, I’m here to tell you that ignorance of ecosophy is no excuse. As it happens, you’re already an economist, and ecologist and an ecosopher, whether you realize it or not, and whether you like it or not.

Let me give you an example of my own ecosophy. On a trip to the market I notice that fresh blueberries are on sale, but I know they aren’t in season in these parts, and I tend to support local produce. Preferring a missed opportunity to a breakfast dripping with fossil fuels, I pass on the offer. Cycling through economy, ecology, and ecosophy in turn, I decide that my type of household wisdom—at least in this moment—will privilege planetary economy above personal economy. Or, perhaps, in a moment of weakness, I purchase the blueberries anyway, prioritizing my own good over the good of the world beyond me.

Having done so, blue in the tongue and red in the face, I must own myself to be both a mindless and selfish consumer. Recognizing that such behavior is not sustainable at a planetary level, my choices are: a) to remain mindless, selfish, and guilty of capitalizing on a deal redounding to my personal benefit, but at the cost of planetary desecration; b) to sever my relations with Chilean blueberries, eating plain granola until local berries come into season; or c) to turn to ecology in search of knowledge that might lead to a justification for eating fresh blueberries on a spring day in Virginia. I’m not at all sure what such a justification would look like, and that’s precisely the point—ecological ignorance should not preclude ecological investigation. But even if I manage to get right with blueberries, I must own that my ecosophy can never be complete. As a fallible individual with limited resources, I will always be implicated in planetary desecration to some degree, and as such I am obligated to seek, study, evaluate and enact an endless stream of correctives to an endless string of missteps.


Now, my blueberry problem may not match your blueberry problem precisely, but we all have blueberry problems of one sort or another, and plenty of other problems to boot. In this respect, it is incumbent upon each one of us to develop an individual ecosophy. So, at least, claims the ur-ecosopher himself, a 94-year-old Norwegian named Arne Næss, who coined the term in a 1972 lecture in Bucharest, and elaborated on the theme in his now-classic Økologi, samfunn, og livsstil (Oslo: Oslo UP, 1974), later revised and translated into several other languages—including, in English, with David Rothenberg, as Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989). In its broadest outlines, Næss’s ecosophy intends to transcend the scientific valence of ecology by developing “a philosophical world-view or system inspired by the conditions of life in the ecosphere.”

As he approaches his centennial within the ecosphere, Næss’s legend grows apace: according to one recent study, he is the person Norwegian teenagers would most like to meet—a feat unlikely to be replicated in the US, unless one considers Ashton Kutcher an intellectual. Long before Kutcher was born—heck, long before Demi Moore was born—there was Næss, scarcely beyond his own teenage years, coming of age in the rarified company of the Vienna Circle. This, a man who underwent a period of rigorous psychoanalysis with one of Freud’s associates, who served as Norway’s only professional philosopher during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and who still finds time to hone his skills as an accomplished alpinist and an amateur boxer. Closely connected to a maritime empire rivaling the Onassis and Niarchos dynasties, Næss was able to relinquish his full-time academic post in 1968, the same year that his brother Erling (a pioneer in whaling, oil-tanking, and flags of convenience) sold the family business to the Zapata Offshore Company, founded and overseen by an obscure freshman congressman named George H. W. Bush.

Though Næss has been free from institutional obligations in the four decades since, his scholarly output and his international profile have only increased with the passage of time. The younger generation may revere him, but despite—or perhaps because of—his personal connections, the over-thirty set trusts him too. Some have hailed him as one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century, in large part for his role in advancing the concerns of the deep ecology movement. In the US, deep ecology often gets pegged to figures like Theodore Roszak and Gary Snyder, but in fact it was Næss who originally distinguished the deep ecologists from the so-called shallow ecology movement. Per this initial distinction, deep ecology’s platform stresses ecocentrism (as opposed to the anthropocentrism of shallow ecology), asserting the intrinsic value of human and nonhuman richness and diversity, condemning human interference with the nonhuman world, calling for substantial decreases in human population and advocating substantial restructurings in economic and technological policies and structures.

Critics across the political spectrum ranging from left-wing social justice activists to liberal environmentalists to conservative wise-use advocates have dismissed the ecocentrism of deep ecology as betraying a misanthropic turn of mind. Deep ecologists counter by insisting that to focus upon humanity at the expense of the planetary is to throw out the bathwater and to discard all of the babies along with it. The crucial project of deep ecology is to redefine the very notion of self as a subject emplaced within and predicated upon its surroundings: local, global, and at every stage in between. As such, the emphasis on the ecosphere is not so much an inhumanist or anti-humanist formulation as a trans-humanist formulation, in which the “unit of survival,” as Gregory Bateson has argued, is not organism alone, but “organism plus environment.”

Næss has always had a talent for contextual thinking of this type, and among the many intellectual stages he has cycled through, the philosopher and the ecologist gradually fused to forge the persona of ecophilosopher, or ecosopher for short. While the distinction between philosopher and ecosopher might seem a difference of degree, it is actually a difference of kind: whereas the philosopher loves wisdom in the abstract and for its own sake, the ecosopher values wisdom that has a particular household valence, in both the personal and the planetary senses. For Næss, the transition from philosopher to ecosopher came via a methodology he termed empirical semantics, an intervention in the field of linguistics whereby he endeavored to study language not in an absolute sense, but strictly in particular contexts. This move, away from an epistemology predicated on the odd pairing of nominalism and universalism, and toward an ontology predicated on the equally odd pairing of realism and relativism, presaged the shift from analytic philosophy to ecophilosophy. The transition itself was wholly logical, for just as each word needed situating, so too did each speaker.

In view of this intellectual profile, it should come as little surprise that Næss’s own individual version of ecosophy springs from a very particular context. Known as Ecosophy T, and described at length in Økologi, the T stands for Tvergastein, the arctic mountain hut Næss commissioned while still in his twenties, and where he has dwelt seasonally for almost seventy years. Tvergastein is among the highest dwellings in all of Scandinavia, and sits abreast the Hallingskarvet, the chief summit of the Hardangervidda, a mountain range and national park halfway between Norway’s two largest cities, Bergen and Oslo. Hallingskarvet is Næss’s childhood landscape, and thus the man and the mountain have been on intimate terms for nearly one hundred years. Thus, if Ecosophy T functions as an idiosyncratic mixture one part Buddhism and one part Hinduism, one part Gandhi and one part Spinoza, one part Carnap and one part Heidegger, that strange brew finally has its roots in friluftsliv, the outdoor way of life that Norwegians revere, and which for Næss has always been centered around Hallingskarvet.

How to sum up Næss’s Ecosophy T in a paragraph? For starters, he believes that we are in the midst of a grave and gathering catastrophe born of foolhardy production and consumption habits, resulting in an inequitable distribution of material wealth. Social justice, in this context, cannot be enough, for rectification by proliferation rather than by renunciation can only lead to environmental crisis and finally to collapse. Faced with such fallout, disaffected with a scientific method that proceeds in and for itself, and discontent with a pursuit of a wealth that self-propagates for its own sake, Næss looks instead to tread wisely and lightly. “Simple in means,” he sloganeers, “and rich in ends,” speaking for quality of life over and against standard of living, and celebrating the virtues of smallness and slowness in an age of scale and speed.


It may sound like a philosophical re-run of That ’70s Show, and to some Næss may appear as a slightly more heterodox, slightly more mystical, slightly more Norse version of E. F. Schumacher. He may even seem like old news, at least until one remembers that the pitfalls of the 1970s—fuel shortages, epidemic pollution, internecine conflicts—have returned to us with a vengeance. In truth they never went away, and they promise to grow more profound in the years ahead. In the midst of these waking nightmares, what would it mean to take seriously the premise that all of our actions are politically relevant, right down to the tea and sugar we take (or forego) each afternoon? It’s a no-brainer to pay a premium for local and organic foodstuffs and textiles if you’re in with the shipping magnates (strange irony there), but what are the rest of us supposed to do? Each of us, according to Næss, will have a different answer to this question, and individual answers will vary over time, but out of this controversy of divergent ecosophies, a discourse might emerge to yield something resembling complex wisdom, and maybe even something resembling eco-salvation.

Næss’s emphasis on such a thoroughgoing relativism—a product of his apostasy from logical positivism, along a similar trajectory to Wittgenstein—is perhaps the most perplexing characteristic of his philosophy. Given its counterintuitive reliance upon intuition, it is hardly surprising that one of the only other major figures to consider ecosophy at length has been Félix Guattari, the late French psychotherapist and the celebrant of chaosmosis, micropolitics, heterogenesis, and schizoanalysis. What both Guattari and Næss demand is that we act in a manner at once ecocentric and egocentric, in the best interests of the planet, but also as we happen to see fit—allowing, of course, for continual challenge, chastening, and change.

Keep the planet in mind, they insist, but and don’t wait for an overarching consensus or a perfect system to do so. A rural ecosophy and an urban ecosophy will necessarily diverge—to attempt a forced rural migration, like Mao Zedong did in China, or to attempt a forced urban migration, like Robert McNamara did in Vietnam and Indonesia, is to effect short-term economic gains for the few at the cost of the many, and at the expense of the central ecosophical precept of “self-realization for all living beings.” While some may find an unsatisfying paradox in the dual injunction to honor the ecosphere and the ego sphere, others may find a satisfying convergence—or at the very least a set of contradictions preferable to the clarities of an unbridled capitalism and/or an uncompromising authoritarianism.

Of all the other influential thinkers who have arisen since the industrial revolution, it is hard to think of one with a looser grip on his system of thought than Næss. One struggles to picture Marx, Freud or Lacan endorsing a world which contained many different types of Marxists, Freudians, or Lacanians, though, inevitably, this is precisely the world that has come to pass. Here is one of Næss’s greatest gifts to thought, for while there is plenty of Næss, there is no Næssicism. Yes, there is deep ecology, and yes, there is Ecosophy T, but beyond them lie a host of other ecosophies awaiting elucidation. Call each of them Ecosophy X, for the moment, and fill in the blank at your own bidding, bringing to bear the concerns that seem to you most relevant. Tarry not, though—for you tarry not only at your own peril, but also at our collective peril. As Næss explains, and as I second, “we are not all in the same boat, but in several different boats, all of them charting a course for catastrophe.”


Though Næss has spoken proscriptively about deep ecology, he has been more sparing in his categorical pronouncements about ecosophy. Of these few categorical maxims, the most notable may be that “the ideology of ownership has no place in an ecosophy.” How disappointing, then, to register chagrin at what should be a cause for celebration: the recent publication of a ten volume set titled The Selected Works of Arne Næss (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005). Covering a wide variety of Næss’s published and unpublished works, from early manuscripts to articles first appearing in his venerated journal Inquiry to scattered essays of much more recent provenance, SWAN (as it is labeled for short) runs to 3650 pages and retails at the shocking sticker price of $2300. It has no sales ranking on amazon.com, presumably because no one has purchased it through that channel, free SuperSaver shipping notwithstanding. Even its institutional buyers have been few and far between.

Shame on Næss—and shame on editors Harold Glasser and Alan Drengson—for fostering this shallow, myopic publishing arrangement, which all but ensures the marginalization of a set of texts crucial to the deep ecology movement. Shame in particular on series editor Glasser, a Senior Fellow with the University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, whose mission statement aims to ensure that “the critical activities of a higher education institution are (at a minimum) ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable, and that they will continue to be so for future generations.” Publishing the work of a landmark philosopher behind the bars of copyright, codex, and charge card can be neither sound nor just, nor viable, nor sustainable. You might be practicing sound ecosophy by trading your used car for The Selected Works of Arne Næss, but there should be many other roads to his fount of wisdom.

How much the better if SWAN had followed the model established by associate editor Drengson, whose brainchild The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy, has evolved under the watch of Bruce Morito from a local DIY newsletter to a global forum whose archives are freely available to all (at http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/). The Trumpeter exists to promote the principles of deep ecology as articulated by Næss (its most recent volumes, 21 and 22, present a useful introduction to Næss’s life and work)—surely it or some similar outlet could have been utilized to distribute SWAN more equitably and widely.

So concludes my review of a set of books that I have not yet had the good fortune to read. I can praise them abstractly, but my knowledge of them remains scant. In the years to come, few will purchase them, and fewer still will read them—and yet how differently it might have happened. The good news is that Næss’s Ecosophy T is not the alpha and the omega, for there are innumerable versions of Ecosophy X—indeed, there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Arne Næss, than are dreamed of in your ecosophy. And so, to each of us I implore: ecosopher, know thyself.

No—scratch that. Ecosopher, know thy world, and seek wisdom about thy relationship to it, for there will be no other.

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