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The Ecological Self

A deep ecologist and rainforest defender reflects on our
greater community -- all species of the Cenozoic Age.

By John Seed

EarthLight Magazine #53, Spring 2005 -- Vol. 14, No. 4

There’s a story about one time when Jerry Brown was Governor of California in the 1970s and the eco-poet Gary Snyder was working in his administration. One day Brown, exasperated, said:

    "Gary, why is it that, whatever the issue, you are always going against the flow."

    To which Gary replied:

    "Jerry what you call ‘the flow’ is just a 16,000 year eddy. I’m going with the actual flow!"

Deep Ecology is a philosophy of nature which sees the environmental crisis as a symptom of a psychological or spiritual ailment which afflicts modern humanity. We are enveloped by the illusion of separation from nature, by anthropocentrism or human centeredness. Deep ecology critiques the idea that we are the crown of creation, the measure of all being: that the world is a pyramid with humanity rightly on top, merely a resource, and that nature has instrumental value only.



The great Californian poet Robinson Jeffers was one of the ancestors of the deep ecology movement. In "Shine, Perishing Republic," as a young man in the 1920s he wrote this prophetic poem to his two infant sons:


    While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily
    thickening to Empire,
    And protest, just a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs
    out, and the mass hardens,

    I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the
    fruit rots to make earth.
    Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness
    and decadence; and home to the mother.

    You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good,
    be it stubbornly long or suddenly
    A mortal splendour: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
    shine perishing republic.

    But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from
    the thickening center: corruption
    Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s
    feet there are left the mountains.

    And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever
    servant, insufferable master.
    There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–
    they say–God, when he walked on earth. [1]

A popular formulation of deep ecology is found in Ishmael and other books by Daniel Quinn. In a recent essay titled "The New Renaissance" which Quinn calls "a concise expression of the basic message of all my books," he argues that anthropocentrism is "the most dangerous idea in existence" because it necessitates mass extinction including our own.

"And even more than being the most dangerous idea in existence" he writes, "it’s the most dangerous thing in existence–more dangerous than all our nuclear armaments, more dangerous than biological warfare, more dangerous than all the pollutants we pump into the air, the water, and the land. All the same, it sounds pretty harmless. You can hear it and say, ‘Uh huh, yeah, so?’ It’s pretty simple too. Here it is: Humans belong to an order of being that is separate from the rest of the living community. There’s us and then there’s nature. There’s humans and then there’s the human environment." [2]

The term deep ecology was coined in the 1960s by Arne Naess, Emeritus professor of Philosophy at Oslo University. He and other deep ecology theorists have traced the historical roots of anthropocentrism,[3] while Lynn White focused particularly on the role Judeo-Christian.[4]

We live in a world where only humans were created in the image of God, only humans have a soul and, prophetically: "the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all that moveth on the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hands they are delivered."[5]

Given such deep roots in culture and psyche, little wonder that a change of concepts is not by itself sufficient to reorient ourselves, to align ourselves back with the flow. As Arne Naess pointed out, ecological ideas are not enough, we need an ecological identity, an ecological self. Ideas only engage one part of our brain, the frontal lobe, cognition. We need ecological feelings and actions as well as ideas to nurture ecological identity.

Poets have always known that in wild places too, we may expand into larger identities.

    I entered the life of the brown forest,
    And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone
    I felt the changes in the veins
    In the throat of the mountain,
        and, I was the stream,

    Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking:
        and I was the stars,

    Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one the lord of his own
        and I was the darkness

    Outside the stars, I included them, They were part of me.
        I was mankind also, a moving lichen

    On the cheek of the round stone ... they have not made words for it...

“Not Man Apart” Robinson Jeffers [6]    

Arne Naess states: "If reality is experienced by the ecological Self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics. We certainly need to hear about our ethical shortcomings from time to time, but we change more easily through encouragement and a deepened perception of reality and our own self, that is, through a deepened realism. How that is to be brought about is too large a question for me to deal with here. But it will clearly be more a question of community therapy than community science: we must find and develop therapies which heal our relations with the widest community, that of all living beings."

When I first read these words in 1986, I couldn’t help but think of the work that Joanna Macy and I had initiated the year before. "The Council of All Beings" is a set of experiential deep ecology processes, ceremonies, and rituals that help us to expand our identification in the way that Naess describes.


"Community therapy to develop ecological self" is a good way of thinking about this work. A couple of years later I was privileged to witness a ceremony held in a Hopi village high on a mesa in the Southwest of the United States. It was so like the Council of All Beings. The masks representing plants and animals were more splendid, of course, the drums more confident. And people assured me that they had continually celebrated thus for thousands of years.

Since then I have searched in vain for a single example of an indigenous culture still connected to its traditions which didn’t have such ceremonies: Regular rituals to testify that the human family is one strand in the larger web of life, to acknowledge all our relations.

This suggests that the tendency to disconnect from the natural world might not be just a modern phenomenon as I had assumed. The fact that indigenous people invariably practice such ceremonies speaks of the human tendency to forget who we really are and wander off into socially constructed identities. Why else would we need to regularly and powerfully remind ourselves that we are part of the web of life?

Most peoples have always had cultural processes to counteract this tendency. So many solutions have been found that allow the human community to continue to cleave to the whole Earth community. This had been lost from our culture, suppressed by inquisitions and ignorance and now reemerges in a thousand ways.

Even more than "community therapy," I think that "cultural reclamation" encapsulates this work that reconnects. Deep ecology experiential processes that have been developed and extensively tested over the last twenty years are described in detail elsewhere. [7]

We work with three major processes:

–Despair and Empowerment, or work with feelings.

–Deep Time, Evolutionary Remembering, The Cosmic Walk.

–The Council of All Beings.

We circle together with our people as of old and mourn the loss of species and landscapes, remember our billion-year journey and empathize with the myriad creatures. Whenever we do so, we have found that a palpable and expanded ecological identity inevitably emerges in participants along with a profound experience of community.

However, these experiences are ephemeral. Research has shown that unless we find a way to regularly practice our deep ecology, the new and fragile consciousness fades back into the logic of the eddy and we remain trapped inside a skin encapsulated ego floating helplessly towards the abyss.[8] The ideas of interconnectedness and participation may remain, but in the absence of the experience they are sterile.

These things are explored in community. We need to find or create a "sangha" of kindred spirits (as all spiritual traditions have recognized). We need to find opportunities to meet–on solstices, equinoxes, under the full moon, in deep ecology workshops, or on-line to build these vital support systems into our lives.

In such ways, whilst swirling in the midst of the vast eddy, we may remain aligned to the flow.

John Seed and Joanna Macy will be facilitating a workshop titled "Earth, Spirit, Action" in northern California on the July 4th weekend. John will also facilitate experiential deep ecology workshops in June and July at the following locations: Hollyhock (Cortez Island, British Columbia; Portland Oregon; Cincinnati Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Asheville, North Carolina; Bloomington Indiana; Boston, Massachusetts; and Boulder Colorado. Workshop descriptions and schedules may be found at Joanna Macy’s schedule and writings may be found at

John Seed is an ecological activist who has been working for the protection of rainforests for 25 years. He will deliver a keynote address titled "Our Larger Community: All Species of the Cenozoic Era" at EarthSpirit Rising: A Conference on Ecology, Spirituality and Community at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 8-10 2005. See


1. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Tim Hunt, Stanford: Stanford University Press, Vol.l, l988.


3. See the deep ecology section at

4. "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White, 1967, Science 155: 1203-1207.

5. Genesis 9: 2.

6. Hunt, 1988.

7. / (click on "deep ecology").

8. Ph.D. thesis by Eshana (Elizabeth Bragg). For a summary of her findings see "Towards Ecological Self" at deep ecologist and rainforest defender reflects on our greater community–all species of the Cenozoic Age.

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