Arne Naess (27 January 1912 – 12 January 2009)

Portrait of Arne Naess

David Rothenberg, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology, died on 12 January 2009, three weeks before his 97th birthday.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess was best known for his invention of the term “deep ecology” to describe the way in which environmental issues are fundamentally questions of ethics and philosophy beneath our science and politics. Through a combination of his ideas and his persona, Naess was probably the most influential living environmental philosopher.

In the 1930s Naess traveled to Vienna as a young student to join the Vienna Circle, working closely with Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap to develop his own take on analytic philosophy. In 1937 Naess became the youngest full professor in Norway’s history, and over subsequent decades he wrote a series of introductory logic and history of philosophy textbooks that became the foundation for reform of his nation’s university system, which required for many years that all students study a semester of philosophy before continuing on to their chosen disciplines. His first book Truth As Conceived By Those Who Are Not Themselves Professional Philosophers (1938) used a survey approach to demonstrate that ordinary people hold a range of views on truth similar to those voiced by the range of philosophers.

During World War II Naess was active in the clandestine resistance against the Nazis occupiers, and after the war he led a reconciliation project to bring war criminals together with the parents of the Norwegian soldiers they tortured and killed. In the Cold War, Naess was asked by the United Nations to lead a philosophical effort to study the worldwide uses of the term ‘democracy’. The resulting book Democracy in a World of Tensions (1951) revealed that the word could mean almost anything, and it was never reprinted, because of this disturbing conclusion.

In mainstream philosophy Naess is most known for his work in philosophy of language in Interpretation and Preciseness (1953) and Communication and Argument (1966). Other majorn theoretical works in English include Scepticism (1968), Gandhi and Group Conflict (1974), and The Pluralist and Possibilist Aspect of the Scientific Enterprise (1969). Naess had always been an accomplished mountaineer, and for a few years in the early fifties he, with his ascent of Tirich Mir, held a record for the highest mountain ever climbed. A decade later, inspired by Rachel Carson, Naess resigned from his professorship to devote his full time to environmental issues. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (in Norwegian 1976, in English 1989, translated by David Rothenberg) was his main theoretical work in environmental philosophy, where the theory of deep ecology is articulated in depth. It was an environmental philosophy, not an ethic, that encouraged each individual to think of nature as the ground of our own interest, so that the greatest sense of self-realization will encompass a “Self” of the environment, and become “Self-realization” with a capital S. We should all situate our identity and our interests in nature uniquely, developing our own “ecosophies” that build on a personal sense of place and duty of care for the Earth and fit into our immediate surroundings with greater attention and dignity.

Together with George Sessions, Naess politicized deep ecology by putting forth a platform of eight points that turn his conceptual idea into an ethical manifesto: 1) The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth has intrinsic value. The value of nonhuman life forms is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes. 2) Richness and diversity of life forms are values in themselves. 3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. 4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening. 5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in the human population. 6) Significant change of life conditions for the better require change in economic and technological policies. 7) Life quality should be given more primacy than a high standard of living. (8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.

This platform was specifically adopted by radical environmental groups such as Earth First! as their guiding philosophy, but deep ecology may have reached its greatest popular prominence when Senator Al Gore wrote in his 1989 book Earth in the Balance that “we must change the fundamental values at the heart of our civilization” in order to solve global environmental problems. This is deep ecology in a nutshell, and by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the majority of educated people are finally going along with it, even if they may not realize where the idea came from.

In 2000, at the age of eighty-eight, Naess published Life’s Philosophy, a more personal account of his own history through ideas. It became the number one bestseller in Norway, and catapulted its author to a new level of fame in his native land. In 2005 the Selected Works of Arne Naess was published in ten volumes by Kluwer, with the financial support of Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. It is perhaps the most comprehensive publication of the works of any living philosopher.

Until his death Naess continued to speak out in the name of free nature and conservation, and he always remained optimistic that humanity will be able to improve our relationship to the world around us “by the twenty-second century.” Through his works and deeds he remains an inspiration to generations of younger environmental activists and philosophers.

At the 2007 annual conference of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, President Anthony Appiah praised Naess’ early work investigating the philosophical views of ordinary people as the pioneering work in what is now the new discipline of “experimental philosophy,” an attempt to make philosophy a more empirical kind of investigation more compatible with social and natural science. So at the very end of his life, Arne Naess’ work returned back to the mainstream of the discipline.


  • Arne Naess, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle, translated by David Rothenberg. New York:
  • Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Arne Naess, with Per Ingvar Haukeland, Life’s Philosophy, translated by Roland Huntford.
  • Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
  • Andrew Brennan and Nina Witoszek, editors. Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Bill Devall: My Relationship with Arne Naess
Arne Naess, Norwegian mountain climber, philosopher, and activist, died January 12, 2009.

He was given a State funeral. The Crown Prince of Norway represented the King at the funeral. The funeral was broadcast on Norwegian national TV because he was considered a national hero in Norway.

Arne Naess was my teacher, in the Buddhist meaning of that term. He guided me.

I discovered Arne Naess while cruising through academic journals in the library of Humboldt State University, Arcata, California in 1975. I participated in Earth Day, 1970, but as I became more deeply involved in conservation activism during the early 1970s, I was more and more dissatisfied with the utilitarian philosophical writings underlying conservation activism. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, but I wanted more. I found what I was looking for in an essay by Naess in an interdisciplinary academic journal that Naess founded in Norway: Inquiry. Naess’ essay was based on a talk he gave at an international conference held in Bucharest in 1972. In the essay, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary,” Naess contrasted the shallow ecology movement which is concerned with pollution and resource depletion and the deep ecology movement which is concerned with diversity, complexity, autonomy, decentralization, symbiosis, egalitarianism, and classlessness.

I began to correspond with Naess at the University of Oslo. Naess responded to my typed letters with handwritten notes written on small pieces of paper. In later years I would send him emails, and his wife, Kit Fai, would respond to me via email. During the years that Alan Drengson and I were editing The Selected Works of Arne Naess, especially Volume X, Deep Ecology of Wisdom, we had extensive email exchanges. We discussed explorations on the unities of nature and cultures based on revising various versions of Naess’ essays as his ideas evolved based on his continuing reflections on various topics. We met face to face in Australia when we attended conferences on environmental philosophy and political activism.

Naess became my teacher. When I told him I was depressed because the green movement was always on the defensive, never achieving significant political victories, he reminded me that all great social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, have many years of defeat before significant victories. When I complained about the complexity of living in industrialized societies, he gave me the koan “simple in means, rich in ends.”

I enjoyed listening to Naess talk in person. His quiet voice and his ability to reflect on his own experiences provided insights upon which I reflected. One time when Naess and I were traveling on an overnight train in Australia going from one academic conference to another, I asked him about his life in Norway during the Nazi occupation of World War II. Hitler kept about 500,000 troops in Norway throughout the war because he thought the allies would invade Europe through Norway. Naess said he wanted to be part of the resistance, but friends convinced him to remain on the faculty of the University of Oslo. He was in close contact with members of the resistance, and he said that a few times, arms passed through his office at the university. The resistance in Norway provided the allies with information on troop movements and other German activities in Norway.

After the war ended, Naess was asked to lead a group of Norwegians who were given the task of bringing together Norwegians who had been tortured during the war with Norwegians who had tortured them. The goal was to bring about reconciliation. Naess was very interested in nonviolent direct action and especially in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in the progress of society

Naess constantly from the early 1970s through the 1990s sought to develop and clarify the bases of the deep ecology movement. While camping together with philosopher George Sessions in the California desert, he wrote a ‘platform’ for the deep ecology movement. Naess suggested that many people coming from different religious and philosophical traditions could generally agree with the statements in the ‘platform’, and when they realized their common agreements they could work together for social change.

Naess asserted that he was not a philosopher, but he lived philosophy. He acted in the world and reflected on his actions in the world and actions of other people and nature. He demonstrated his approach through his actions at Tvergastein in the mountains of southern Norway. He wrote about his long relationship with the mountain in his essay “An Example of Place: Tvergastein.” He describes his intimate relationship with plants, animals, snow, and the simplicity of writing inside the hut he built on the mountain. He used minimal amounts of wood to stay warm. He developed his own ecosophy while living in the hut over the course of many years. He called his philosophy Ecosophy T after the name of the place that became his Place. He travelled the world encouraging other people to develop their own ecosophies because diversity and deep questioning were major aspects of his teaching. He knew that thinking is difficult.

I was deeply involved in activism concerning the protection of old growth forests in the Northwest region of the United States, and I was constantly helping activists ask deeper questions about Place and protection of Place based on nonviolent principles. Naess encouraged me to develop my own ecosophy. Working with the koan he had given me, I developed an expression of my ecosophy in my book Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology (1988).

Naess continued his talks and travels through the 1990s. He said he was an optimist for the 22nd century. He was especially interested in talking with young people, encouraging them to move beyond shallow environmentalism to ask deeper philosophical questions. Many college students he met were particularly depressed about climate change and the failure of national leaders. Naess encouraged young people to become leaders in the peace, social justice, andm green movements of the 21st century. He said that all people have the “intuition of deep ecology,” and spending time outdoors helps to bring forth what Rachel Carson called a “sense of wonder” that sustains and enriches our lives.

Many of the central ideas he developed as an environmental philosopher are included in the anthology of his writings, Ecology of Wisdom, edited by Alan Drengson and myself (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008).

Naess encouraged dialogue and wide experience. When Alan Drengson and I worked on The Selected Works of Arne Naess, Volume X (Springer 2005) I had the opportunity to reread many of his writings and to ask him questions to clarify my understanding. Naess continued to rethink and rewrite essays based on his dialog with other people and his wide experiences.

In my estimation, Naess was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, and in a Buddhist sense he was an amazing teacher. He was my teacher, and each time I reread one of his essays I again rethink my own ecosophy and political activism.

Alan Drengson, University of Victoria
My memories of Arne Naess invariably include feelings of being blessed to have known him personally, and not just to have known his work as a philosopher, activist and scholar, which by itself is so impressive and inspiring.

Whenever I think of Arne, I reflect on his gentle and considerate way of being in the world. In all the years I knew him, in all the circumstances I shared with him, no matter how challenging, Arne was always positive and upbeat. I never once heard him bad mouth other philosophers or people with whom he might have disagreed. He believed we all deserve respect and he lived this philosophy.

He was truly a lifelong seeker (zetetic) who, like Gandhi, sought the truth but did not claim it. He considered respect for others and nature of utmost importance, and because of his vast knowledge of languages, cultures, worldviews, religions and personal lifestyles, he was never judgmental of others. He knew from his scholarly work, from his far flung travels and wartime experiences in Norway, that we can never be sure we understand each other. Our daily languages are not so precise that we can be certain we are communicating. Hence, the importance he placed in being nonviolent in our communication in all our relationships.

His first major work was on Interpretation and Preciseness, which involved not only analytic studies but also empirical studies of semantics. He never stopped doing these studies throughout his long life. He also never stopped spending time almost everyday in free nature. He lived much of his life at his beloved Tvergastein, his mountain hut in Norway. The mountains truly left their imprint upon him, as he became great by being small (modest). He attributed his long life partly to his old father, Mt. Hallingskarvet, the mountain where his hut is located. In climbing circles he showed us to be modest and never think of the mountains as something we conquer.

We all have, he believed, a sense for the world as a whole, once we are mature. He called this sense for the whole a total view meaning complete or whole. We can never adequately articulate any more than a fragment of this sense for the world as a whole. Moreover, if we are truly alive, our sense of the world and our participation in it is a work in progress. Total views, then, are not totalizing, but they are whole in the sense that we can say what we feel and think about new questions. When we share fragments of our whole views with those of others we enrich our sense of the world, our views are enlarged and changed.

We are not only our thoughts, feelings and attitudes, but also our actions and our relationships to others and the natural world. We should never put our views above respect for others, even when we think we don’t agree about something that is of critical importance to us. Philosophy should not be debate but true dialogue, an attempt to learn from each other, to clarify our own understanding and to improve our ability to articulate our values, and what we believe about the nature of the world.

As a result of his vast empirical and other studies, Arne was hopeful and had great confidence in ordinary humans to act with wisdom and insight. He found through his empirical studies that ordinary people have complex and deep views about all manner of subjects. He was a person who truly believed this and acted accordingly. We should treat each person with great respect and we should seek dialogue not debate. Whenever he was criticized in open discussion, he never responded in kind. He never belittled or put down the opposition in various political situations related to social justice, peace and ecological responsibility. He lived his philosophy of nonviolent direct action and approached each person as a potential friend and ally to work with to create a better human world at both the global and local level.

Now that Arne is no longer in contact in person, via phone or email (the latter through Kitfai), I keep seeing him in all the places we were together. He is still a friend and inspiration whose equanimity was truly amazing and whose joy in small things is inspiring. From cutting firewood, walking in the forests, climbing mountains and philosophical seminars, Arne seems to be at hand. I shall never forget spending time at Tvergastein, when he took my family of five, including our three young daughters, to the top of Mt. Hallingskarvet. As we approached his hut, he came to greet us and wanted to be sure we did not step on a number of small plants he had been looking after. He took us to the summit so we could look at the Jotunheimen, the highest mountains in Norway, even though by looking at the sky he knew they would be shrouded in clouds. When we reached the summit he suggested we visit his Eagle’s Nest, a small cabin perched on the edge of the overhanging cliffs on the southern face of Hallingskarvet. I asked him why he built it. He said that it was a dream and a vision. He wanted a hut that was like an eagle’s nest so that when you looked out you would have a feeling of awe and the need to fly. Being in the hut certainly gave me these feelings.

He was a Gandhian in being nonviolent, but he was not submissive or weak. He was always gentle. He loved interacting with children and was playful. He developed Gandhian boxing and tennis. He reflected on the principles of nonviolent communication. He saw that it is necessary to train vigorously and rigorously for climbing, philosophy and activism.

He had an amazing sense of humor and was always saying things that were very funny. He always had a gleam in his eyes. Once when I went to San Francisco for some meetings, I got out of the limo on a steep hillside street. When I started to cross the street to go to the offices where the meetings were held, I heard someone holler “Alan!” It was Arne coming down the hill with a pair of crutches. He was using them like ski poles to do little jumps, bounding around. He had been injured seriously in a fall and had to be on crutches for a while. I asked him why he was still using them, when it did not appear he had any disability. He said that he realized how much fun they could be once he started using them. Also they helped him to keep up his arm and hand strength. It reminded me of a time when we cut firewood in the Oslo forest. We walked to the forest from his home and carried the wood we sawed by hand in packs. He would not let me take the heaviest pack because he was recovering from a serious back injury. He said “My back loves the heavier pack.” We had a great time walking in the forest and sawing some wood quite some distance from his house. He lived a very modest and frugal lifestyle in the mountains and in the city. He gave a percentage of his modest income to charity every year.

One of my last memories of Arne was when we went walking in a hilltop park (Songnvatn) in the forest surrounding Oslo. Kit-fai took us to the park and lake in a car and let us out. We were on our own to walk and to get back to their offices at SUM. Arne and I started to go around the lake on the main trail. The whole park in the areas close to the road was filled with people of all ages, school classes, scout groups, old people, middle aged, children, and people in wheelchairs and on crutches. Arne was using two walking poles that he liked to have in the longest setting. He was trucking along in his 90s, and while we were walking he was talking and interacting with everyone. It was like a great big party. He would stop and talk with the school classes and with people in wheelchairs, everyone. Everyone was so excited and cheerful! We had a great time! When we finally got around the trail more deeply into the woods, he would stop and just stand and listen to the wind high in the trees, he would say “music!” When we gotto a small brook we also stopped for quite a while to listen to the brook’s solo. It was a wonderful walk on my last visit to Oslo before he died.

My last visit to Oslo described above was to celebrate the publication of the Selected Works of Arne Naess (SWAN), which had taken us over ten years to bring to publication. We learned when working on it, that the reason we could not find the English translations quoted from Greek, Latin and other languages in standard works, was because Arne had done the translations from the originals himself. He was a scholar of antiquities and obscure subjects as well as a logician, philosopher of science and always the mountain man and lover of being in free nature. He lived with the utmost intensity, enthusiasm and joy even in small things. All of life was an incredible adventure for him. He was never boring. He found new journeys every day. He loved diversity of every kind and delighted in learning new philosophies, music, cultures, languages and also discovering the great treasures in the world of free nature. He said that the 21st Century would be difficult, but he was very optimistic about the 22nd Century. He never wavered in his support for social justice, peace and nonviolence and the deep ecology movement. Such was Arne Naess, a mountain whose spirit lives on amongst all who were blessed to know him.

Anna Drengson, University of Victoria: Memories of Arne Naess
Arne had a peaceful presence within him, and a love for life like no other person I’ve known. After my father introduced us at Arne’s home in Oslo, Norway, Arne picked me up and put me on his knee. I was very young, but he listened to me in a way that made me feel important, and showed he cared about what I had to say. I looked up at him, and he asked me if I knew how to box. I said yes! And we began to spar. After the match, Arne took me outside to his garden and told me where the wild strawberries grew. I hunted through the weeds on my hands and knees until I found a small sparkle of red. The berries were tiny, but contained an explosion of sweet flavour.

During my family’s stay in Norway, Arne and Kit-Fai invited us to spend time with them in their mountain hut Tvergastein. While we were at Tvergastein Arne and our family went to the summit of Mt. Hallingskarvet. I will never forget how easily Arne (then 85) climbed the face of the mountain leading us on the way to his sacred Eagle’s Nest, a tiny hut high on the cliffs above Tvergastein. I hiked along behind until we reached the small hut built on the edge of the rocky cliffs. The perch looked out over mountains and valleys; a quiet sanctuary among the clouds. Although we were 76 years apart, we played together unfazed by this difference in age. Arnem always carried a mischievous smile, and his eyes glimmered with a sense of humour that was child-like and easy to relate to.

When Arne last came to our house in Victoria, he was barley through the front door before he was on the floor rolling around wrestling with our chocolate lab puppy Hazel. I can remember later taking Arne by the hand and leading him into our back yard. I keenly wanted to show him how I could climb the thick trunk of our family’s plum tree. Before I had gotten to the top, Arne was scampering up behind me. We giggled while we imitated chipmunks among the top branches, and laughed as we traded secrets on the way down. I feel blessed to have spent time with Arne. His wisdom has touched me in many ways. He truly appreciated every thing around him. He radiated a joyful glow wherever he went. He taught me to play the piano with more emotion, how to chop kindling for the fire, and that Norwegians don’t have to eat their vegetables to be strong and live long!

Mari Lund Wright: Strange Encounter with Arne Naess
It was a lovely sunny fall day on the beach in Santa Barbara, California, in the late 1930s. A Norwegian girl, a student named Gro, and I were lying on the sand, talking about her studies in philosophy. Suddenly, a gangling guy appeared, big-nosed and buck-toothed, with a huge smile and utterly mischievous eyes. He was an older friend of Gro’s named Arne, and a university teacher from Oslo. He joined us and we talked and laughed and joked for a couple of hours. Gro had to leave for a class, but we stayed on for awhile, thoroughly enjoying each other.

When we left the beach he took me to the Art Museum. I was only 18, and not very knowledgeable about modern art, but Arne was wildly enthusiastic about it. In fact, he seemed to be that way about everything. We lingered a long time in front of one painting, “The Cat’s Whiskers” by Joan Miro. It was enormous, covering almost the whole wall. The squiggle lines of a large, beige cat head filled the painting. It had coal eyes, a red nose, and long black whiskers. I was so fascinated by this child-like image hailed as “great art” that I copied it as a signature for years—with my name trailing off the end of one of the whiskers.

After this enlightening artistic adventure with Arne, he invited me to dinner. I went home and changed, but when we met at a simple restaurant he was still in jeans and his beach shirt. We ate a hearty meal, continued our bantering and joking—the long forgotten. It was such a harmless meeting, and I was not at all attracted to this older man, though he was fun to be with for awhile.

However, he did make a shocking impression on me at the end of the meal. “Mari, I don’t have any money, could you please pay for our dinner?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was utterly shocked and discombobulated as I looked in my purse to see if I actually had enough money. Fortunately, I did. But what if I hadn’t? Would we be sent out to the kitchen to wash the dishes? Would we be thrown out on our bottoms? Or—would the police be called in?

Perhaps Arne was just kidding—to see how I would react—but that never occurred to me at the time. I was an innocent little Midwesterner staying with friends in Santa Barbara before starting university in the spring.

Arne said he would pay me back the next day, and I certainly hoped he would, as I had no extra cash. I was working in Woolworths, behind the chocolate counter, having a grand time weighing out chocolate pieces for eager, smiling kids, and sneaking a bit for myself, too. Instead of balancing the brass scale I let it sing with a clang, as the bright little faces beamed up at me— and I at them. I had been warned against this a couple of times by the store manager. On the other hand, I did bring in a lot of business, and there were always many kids and moms buying chocolate from me.

Such was the situation when Arne arrived the next morning with a big smile. I could see that all the mothers and children wondered who this creature was. He did not exactly fade into the scenery. He handed me a wad of money with the words: “I hope this is enough for last night.”

When I realized the import of his words—and saw the shocked faces of my adult customers— I blushed to high heaven, my face turning beet red. Arne just stood there grinning mischievously.

 David Orton, Green Web: Remembering Arne Naess (1912-2009)

 “By and large, it is painful to think.” — Naess

“The movement is not mainly one of professional philosophers and other academic specialists, but of a large public in many countries and cultures.” — Naess

“The earth does not belong to humans.” — Naess

I never met personally Arne Naess, the Norwegian eco-philosopher, who, according to an Associated Press story, died on Monday January 12th. He was 96. I knew from a fairly recent contact from his wife, that he was in a nursing home and not very well. Naess—like a few others now dead, such as Aldo Leopold, Richard Sylvan, John Livingston, and Rudolf Bahro— profoundly influenced me with his ideas. His deep ecology writings helped orient my life as a green and environmental activist. His Earth-centered ideas and overall philosophy also influenced so many others. His life’s work and his death will be thought about by those who have been inspired by him and now learn that he has returned to the Earth.

Social relativism, i.e., not taking a stand, was unacceptable to Naess in this age of post modernism and ecological destruction. He himself had seen the impact of fascism on Norway during the Second World War. He saw the deep ecology philosophy, with which his name has become associated, as completely anti-fascist in orientation. Speaking of “intrinsic value,” a basic component of this world view, Naess said: “This is squarely an antifascist position. It is incompatible with fascist racism and fascist nationalism, and also with the special ethical status accorded the (supreme) Leader” (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 95). Naess was an advocate of non-violence but made it clear in his writings, that if a choice had to be made, he preferred violence over cowardice. He also saw that self-respect for an individual was important, before a principled nonviolent stand could be taken and the consequences accepted.

I had received a few personal letters and communications from him, about some essays which I had written and on various theoretical points/disputes which I had raised. These letters I have kept and treasure. Arne had an ability to bring out the positive in any clash of what could seem to be contending views. His unifying personal interactive style was very different from that of the late social ecologist Murray Bookchin, whose intellectual life was marked by many rancorous arguments, as Bookchin policed the interpretations of his works.

Naess came through in his writings not only as a deep thinker—and sometimes as an obscure writer—but also as someone who was gentle, humble, and yet mischievous and playful. He told us “that the front is long,” meaning, as I interpreted this, that there are many paths to a deep ecological consciousness, many battles for participants to engage in, and that we should be tolerant and supportive of all those on the path to a new Earth consciousness—no matter the particular field of engagement. He also stressed, that for environmental activists, the views of opponents should be presented honestly and not distorted. We knew through many stories, that Arne, as well as a philosopher, was also an environmental activist, a boxer, and climbed mountains in Norway and around the world. He did much of his thinking and writing in isolation, at a self-built work hut high on a Norwegian mountain, where life’s necessities: water, food, shelter, warmth, clean air and perhaps solitude—what he called in his philosophy human “vital needs”—came into much sharper focus. (Naess advocated decreasing the material standards of living in wealthy countries.) There was quite a mystique around him. On top of all this, he was part of a privileged Norwegian shipping family and thus born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Yet, for Naess, one had to walk the talk: “Ordinary people show a great deal of skepticism toward verbally declared values that are not expressed in the lifestyle of the propagandist” (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p.110).

Naess had a way of expressing deep insights which would remain with one long after reading them. He concluded one letter to me in December 1996, about an apparent dispute I had with him on what I saw as his inconsistent views on so-called sustainable development. He wrote: “Industrial societies cannot be reformed, green societies will not be industrial, but they may of course have industries. We probably have some real disagreements, but let us get rid of ‘pseudodisagreements.’” An e-mail in 2000 commented positively about something I had written against wildlife biologists, who in the name of research, routinely subjected wildlife to various technological/electronic tracking devices, thus violating their species being and dignity: “Personally I believe that mysteries will not gradually disappear with increase of research efforts. If you throw light on an area, the boundary of darkness increases.”

Deep ecology, as conceived by Naess, made room theoretically for others to participate. A quotation which expresses this is in the 1993 book by David Rothenberg, Conversations With Arne Naess: Is It Painful To Think? (p. 98): “To be a great philosopher seems to imply that you think precisely, but do not explain all the consequences of your ideas. That’s what others will do if they have been inspired.”

In my own case I was inspired like so many others and came to critically adopt, and try to apply and propagate the deep ecology philosophy, starting in 1985. My involvement in forestry and wildlife struggles in the late 1970s and the early 1980s in British Columbia and Nova Scotia had brought me to a position which made me open to Naess and ready to critically embrace his ideas. This was quite some time after 1973, when Naess published his initial deep ecology synthesis, the now widely reprinted article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary.” This article was based on a talk he had given a year earlier. It eventually was to transform itself into the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform, but how to change this Platform so it can evolve and yet keep its movement legitimacy remains unresolved. Giving support to this Platform, which calls for significant human population reductions, has come to identify the typical follower of deep ecology. Naess, “to provoke,” had called for a world population of 100 million people (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 270).

The distinction between “shallow” and “deep” ecology made by Naess, although perhaps an invidious comparison which some have called self-serving, nevertheless became a signature and part of the language of ecophilosophy and radical environmentalism. In fairness to Naess, he saw these two terms as “argumentation patterns” and not applied to people (Philosophical Dialogues: Arne Naess and the Progress of Ecophilosophy, p. 444). What is being called for in this age of ecology is that individuals need to define their “selves” as being part of the natural world. Naess defined the shallow ecology movement, which he says is more influential than the deep ecology movement, as “Fight against pollution and resource depletion. Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.” The shallow approach takes for granted beliefs in technological optimism, economic growth, and scientific management and the continuation of existing industrial societies. Naess expressed it this way: “The supporters of shallow ecology think that reforming human relations toward nature can be done within the existing structure of society” (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 16).

Naess defined the “deep movement,” which seeks the transformation of industrial capitalist societies who have brought about the existing environmental crisis, by putting forward seven main points. The article is only a few pages long, but profound and showing the complexity of Naess. He pointed out that biological complexity required a corresponding social and cultural complexity. Outlined is an “anti-class posture” and how anti-pollution devices can, because of increasing the “prices of life necessities” increase class differences. He stressed local autonomy and decentralization.

Fred Bender’s 2003 book The Culture Of Extinction: Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology said that Naess, in his initial 1972 formulation of shallow and deep ecology, put forward a very progressive non-dualistic approach, which is the one most compatible with ecology, where every aspect of Nature is interrelated—“all my relations” as traditionalist aboriginals say. Naess also presented in the original essay a sophisticated understanding of cultural diversity and a class and political consciousness. If this had been retained by Naess and other deep ecology academic writers in published writings, it would have blunted all that criticism of deep ecology, much of it emanating from social ecology—that deep ecology was just focused on Nature and had no view of society.

Some supporters of deep ecology (I am among them), believe that this philosophy has “stalled.” One example of this is perhaps the elimination of the section on deep ecology in the fourth edition (2004) of the undergraduate reader, Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, senior editor Michael E. Zimmerman. This edition has totally dropped the section on Deep Ecology, edited by George Sessions, which was part of all previous editions. Naess, a European, had a positive yet critical attitude towards socialism in his writings. “It is still clear that some of the most valuable workers for ecological goals come from the socialist camps” (Ecology, community and lifestyle, p.157). Naess tried to combine revolution and reform: “The direction is revolutionary, the steps are reformatory” (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 216). Most of the academics in the universities who aligned themselves with deep ecology, however, came to terms with industrial capitalism. They did not see themselves as revolutionaries with a mandate to help usher in a NEW social formation as an alternative to industrial capitalism. The academy has tended to politically neutralize deep ecology.

The year 1973 not only marked the publication of the above seminal article by Naess, but it was a time which marked the opening of a deep crack in the paradigm of ruling ideas justifying the despoliation of the planet, and the start of a movement towards an Earth-centered ethics. Other essays and books which were published around that time included Richard Sylvan’s (then Routley’s) essay “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?,” Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” essay, and two important books: Christopher Stone’s Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights For Natural Objects and Donella Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth.

Naess was pre-eminently a teacher. At 24 he had his Ph.D. in philosophy, and by the age of 27 he was given the Norwegian University of Oslo’s chair of philosophy. There he remained until resigning at age 57 in 1969 to become the brains and soul of the emerging world-wide radical environmental movement influenced by the philosophy of deep ecology. Naess said that “The main driving force of the Deep Ecology movement, as compared with the rest of the ecological movement, is that of identification and solidarity with all life.” The primacy of the natural world is considered an “intuition” by Naess and is not logically or philosophically derived. Naess would say that “Every living being has an equal right to live and flourish, in principle.” This is not to deny that our existence as humans involves killing living beings. Living beings for Naess included individual organisms, ecosystems, mountains, rivers, and the Earth itself. The most comprehensive published overview of the philosophical work of Naess (there are said to be over 700 published and unpublished papers), can be seen in the ten-volume Selected Works Of Arne Naess which was published in 2005. (See my “Critical Appreciation” at: <;.)

Naess had a social harmony view of social change which seemed to stem from a position “that ultimately all life is one—so that the injury of one’s opponent becomes also an injury to oneself” (Selected Works, Volume Five, p. 26). I think he was wrong on this social harmony perspective. The conflict model of social change, which has its roots in Marx and has been developed, among others, by fellow Norwegian Sigmund Kvaløy is far more appropriate for combating ecocide and social injustice. From a basic social harmony position, Naess derived rules of movement conduct for activists, of literally turning the other cheek for environmental campaigns which can seem bizarre, but also dangerous, for someone like myself: “It is a central norm of the Gandhian approach to ‘maximize contact with your opponent!’” or “Do not exploit a weakness in the position of your opponent.”

The significance of Arne Naess, whatever the real or apparent contradictions, is that his nonhuman centered philosophy offers us a way forward out of the ecological and social mess that threatens to overwhelm all of humanity and wipe out many of the plants and animals which share the planet with us. It is unfortunate that environmental “stars”—for example, here in Canada David Suzuki, Elizabeth May and Alberta environmental writer Andrew Nikiforuk, or in the United States, Al Gore—have nothing to say publicly about the importance of deep ecology, and why it is crucial that activists should study Arne Naess and apply his thinking to their work for ecological and social change.

A true defining star is not undermined by acknowledging those who have gone before and from whom we need to learn. Thus Naess acknowledged the importance of those who have gone before and influenced him, like Rachel Carson, Gandhi and Spinoza. (Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring was, for Naess, the beginning of the international deep ecology movement, although he invented the name as well as provided the philosophical framework.)

Ultimately the significance of the life of Arne Naess is that his philosophy has presented a needed pathway for coming into a new, yet pre-industrial old, animistic and spiritual relationship to the Earth, which is respectful for all species and not just humans. This is the needed message for our time, that the Earth is not just a “resource” for humankind and corporations to exploit.

I would like to close by expressing my personal condolences to Arne’s wife Kit-Fai Naess, as well as to the family and close friends. Arne Naess has impacted many lives and shown the necessary direction to significantly change societal consciousness away from humancenteredness and towards Earth-centeredness. Deep Ecology expresses what should be our relationship to the natural world in the 21st century. This is a wonderful and lasting achievement for a person’s life. January 14, 2009

Morten Tønnessen, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia: An Ageing Giant
It is hard to summarize what Arne Næss has meant to me—first of all because he has been so decisive in forming me as a practicing philosopher. For years I had difficulties seeing where, at all, I would disagree with him (a problem I have now to some extent overcome). I was early on inspired by his interpretation of Gandhi’s political ethics—that’s how I made the leap from activist to student of philosophy. As is the case for so many Norwegians, it was his work that introduced me to philosophy. A course in deep ecology at Åkerøya in Norway in the late 1990s was central in giving me a more solid basis for eco-philosophical reasoning (a couple years later Knut Olav Fossestøl, another course participant, and I founded the “Eco-philosophical colloquium” at the University of Oslo). By then Arne was already a familiar face for me as a philosophy student—30 years after he retired as professor, he was still around offering public lectures. In 2001 and 2003, I arranged public events with him myself. By 2003, however, it was clear that this brilliant mind struggled to remain intellectually alert and coherent. A request to partake in a proposal (concerning the Norwegian Petro-fund) from the Green Party of Norway, for which I was the national secretary at the time, was therefore revoked.

I interviewed him a couple of times. After the Åkerøya seminar I sent him my first booklong philosophical manuscript, Dialog. He had agreed to comment it, but now I got it returned, with an exact explanation: “372 pages!” I never knew whether to call him Arne or Næss. Despite having met him around a dozen times, he never appeared—with certainty—to recognize me (I wish he had). Today I have the fortune of being in contact with some of his closest colleagues at the eco-scene. The last time I was in contact with him (through Kit-Fai) was in 2006, when I was conducting a survey of attitudes in the Norwegian environmentalist establishment—partly inspired by his own little survey on attitudes to nature among Norwegian bureaucrats and others carried out a generation or so earlier. As I heard the news of his death, I pondered home to our house in Magé, Brazil, where we were at the time, and stepped into our outdoor swimming pool, as the day darkened. A couple of bats joined me. I retreated to a corner, offering the two nocturnal creatures (ecological!) space enough to rejoice undisturbed in their playful bath.

Lisa Kretz, Dalhousie University
My exposure to Arne Naess’ genius is through his work in Environmental Philosophy. His writing is provocatively insightful, and his vision is perpetually inspiring. He manages— seemingly effortlessly—to write with clarity on overwhelmingly complex issues, all the while infusing his work with humour and poetry.

Naess’ introduction of the concept of the ecological self to Western philosophical discourse was nothing short of revolutionary. He recognized that humans’ very selves are constituted ecologically (Naess 1987, 35). Through conceiving of the human self as necessarily ecologically formed and necessarily implicated in relations with other ecological entities Naess fundamentally revised the moral landscape. His legacy will live on through the ecologically sound ways of being he advocates, through the activism his work motivates, and through the continued development of his research projects. He inspired me not only to be a better philosopher, but a better person. Naess, Arne. 1987. “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World.” Trumpeter 4: 35-42.

Joe Rasmussen, Long Beach City College
When I first learned about Deep Ecology and Ecosophy T, I knew that my world would be changed forever. Arne Naess blended some of the philosophical beliefs that are most near and dear to my heart into a comprehensive, radical new paradigm of thought regarding humanity and our relationship with the rest of the universe. The extreme notion of biocentrism, for me, is the paradigm shift that we need to strive toward in order to reach the higher level goals we have as a global human society. Although people are clearly not ready for this paradigm shift, it takes genius pioneers like Arne Naess to pave the way toward the future. As with many people, his ideas will hopefully become even more popular now that he has moved on to the next adventure. We owe him much gratitude and respect for his profound insights into the human experience.

One thought on “Arne Naess (27 January 1912 – 12 January 2009)

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