Climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly considered the core challenges of humanity in the 21st century. However, proposed solutions are manifold and designed from varying ecological paradigms that have different ideas about the way we relate to nature. Deep ecology, being one of the most radical of paradigms, might increasingly come to inform our thinking on sustainability and our relationship to nature.
In recent years, it has become consensus that anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation is becoming one of the greatest challenges of humankind in the 21st century. Most agree that measures should be taken, but there is no consensus on how to address the problem. That is because most solutions are informed by different ecological paradigms and worldviews. We can discern a range of rationales, varying from more pragmatic to more ideologically driven, corresponding to the different solutions that actors have presented to address climate change.The first is that failing to address climate change will be economically costly: climate change will disrupt value and transportation chains, extreme weather events will wreak havoc and certain areas will become uninhabitable (and some will benefit). Furthermore, being sustainable could also become a business opportunity, tapping into the greening of consumer preferences. A second rationale states in a similar sense that climate change will incur costs, but is also concerned with others sorts of harm, e.g. to our health and our wellbeing, and thus we should prevent further ecological degradation in order to protect human health and safety. A third, less pragmatic and more ideologically driven rationale is that we should not only have moral obligations towards other humans, but also to other living organisms, such as cows, horses, insects, or even plants, rivers, seas or whole ecosystems. True progress is a process that benefits all living beings in a sustainable way, as Jonas and Singer argue. Another rationale is that preventing climate change can be something of a meaningful activity in itself, because nature has intrinsic value that human beings should recognize and honor. Lastly, the most ideological rationale states that man is part of a broader natural ecosystem and that we can only be fully human when we understand ourselves and act in correspondence to the internal logic and dynamics of nature. As such, protecting the environment is a goal in itself that man has to aspire to, despite his own preferences and benefits.This last rationale forms the core of the “deep ecology” paradigm, which envisions a whole new understanding of nature, our relationship to nature, as well as our practices in science, religion, and philosophy. The “depth” of deep ecology can be described with three core principles: i) nature has intrinsic value, is a goal in itself and should be given the space to blossom, realize its own internal growth and goals, ii) man is part of nature and has no special place in the cosmos, but is a member of its ecosystems and dependent on them for his own flourishing, and iii) nature is a complex system and man his little knowledge and skill to determine and coordinate its workings. As such, deep ecology’s critique of the first two rationales is that they are actually too shallow: they adopt a utilitarian and anthropocentric attitude to nature, in which nature is not a goal in itself. Furthermore, the third rationale is insufficient as it still conceives of nature from a materialist and consumer- or human-oriented point of view that does not take into account that man is actually a part of and dependent upon nature for his own flourishing, and leaves no room for nature’s own goals and flourishing. The fourth rationale is criticized because it conceives of nature as too simple a system, one that, theoretically, can be subjected to human will and wants. Given nature’s subtle balances and the fine-grained attunement of members of an ecosystem, human intervention will very likely result in damage to its inner workings and balance. Furthermore, it is still too rationalistic, as it cannot address the question why nature has intrinsic value, and only by digging deeper into the fundamental relationship of man and nature, our “Cartesian relationship to nature”, can we know how to deal with ecological degradation and sustainability.As such, deep ecology ties in with the emerging paradigm of “transhumanism”, in which man is no longer seen as the independent, autonomous subject that relates in a rational and objective way to reality. Instead, he is part of a larger whole (ontology), and his flourishing depends on living nature and natural ecosystems. Furthermore, man does not have the skills and knowledge to intervene in natural ecosystems, which are highly complex and have a high degree of uncertainty (epistemology). The understanding of complex systems requires a holistic point of view; seeing how order and stable patterns emerge in these systems, e.g. collective human behavior, diseases, coherent human thought (such as philosophy), or even the remarkable stability and order in the observable universe. Furthermore, it ties in with a more deontological ethics that brings rights and obligations to all beings irrespective of their own wants and preferences (ethics). Instead, a kind of practical wisdom is required, green virtues so to speak, to establish a proper disposition towards nature that is both non-reductive as well as axiologically responsible with respect to nature (e.g. sustainable simple living (e.g. “consuminderen”), or combatting climate fatalism). Politically, this may require a stronger top-down approach to enforce the rules and meta-rules for sustainable socio-economic and socio-technical systems. As a result, societies could see increased limitations to their liberal way of life (i.e. doing what one wants, consuming what one prefers), in order to fight climate change. In this case, China’s vision of progress could increasingly come to be considered the most responsible or the best.