Photograph by Magdalena Wosinska / Trunk Archive

Going Deeper

words by willow defebaugh

Deep ecology advocates for a societal shift from a worldview that places humans at the center to one that sees us as equal in importance to all life on Earth—one strand in the web of life.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Rachel Carson

By this stage, you have likely heard me reference deep ecology. It’s the foundation of this newsletter—an ecophilosophy that weaves together science and spirituality, despite how ingrained it is in us that these should be separate. The phrase was introduced to Western cultures in 1972 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, but Indigenous peoples have been practicing it for much longer. And while Næss created his own pillars of deep ecology, it has since evolved to take many forms. Today, I’m taking you through what I consider to be its core principles. 


The first principle of deep ecology I’ll offer speaks most directly to its goal: healing. Healing is the mending of a wound—a separation—and a wound cannot be healed until it’s first acknowledged. This philosophy seeks to heal the wound of separation between humans and the rest of nature, a divide that was driven by colonization. There is, of course, another wound to be healed: the damage that corporate greed, government complicity, and decades-long public apathy have authored on this planet. So, how do we enable this healing?


The approach that deep ecology takes is to invite a sense of reverence—a word that perfectly bridges the divide between science and spirituality. Similar yet distinct from wonder, emotions researcher Brené Brown describes reverence as “a deeper form of admiration or respect that is often combined with a sense of meaningful connection with something greater than ourselves.” This is why I focus on a different awe-inspiring aspect of nature each week; the more incredible we find this world, the more affinity we feel with it, the more we are moved to protect it.


In familiarizing ourselves with Earthly phenomena, we begin to understand how connected it all is. Which brings us to our next pillar, symbiosis: the relationship between organisms. Symbiosis can be mutualistic, benefiting both parties; neutral, benefiting neither; or it can be parasitic or predatory, benefiting one at the expense of the other. It’s both an invitation to re-examine the threads that connect all of us in the web of life, and a reminder of our greatest tool in repatterning them: each other. In practice, this can be leaning on our relationships for support, community organizing, and overcoming competition for the sake of a common cause.


Of course, a web is more than any individual strand—it’s also the balance they create. Ecosystems are dependent upon such delicate balances in order to thrive. And so, deep ecology advocates for a biocentric worldview over an anthropocentric one, understanding that all human and non-human life is of equal importance. That’s what we mean when we say social and ecological justice are one in the same. There’s no stopping ecocide without stopping white supremacy, without stopping disaster capitalism, without stopping gun violence, and so on. Because without justice, there can be no balance.


We can understand these concepts, but what does it matter if we aren’t putting them into action? We can decry recent mass shootings, but if our legislators don’t change policy, what good does it do? And so, in many ways, our final principle is our most imperative: evolution. While those in power cling to the past, nature is an engine of change, teaching that anything that doesn’t adapt will eventually perish. Deep ecology encourages all of us to act on behalf of this planet, each in our own way. We must be unafraid to make mistakes and think differently, for mutation can often be the start of something new.


Changing our world will require us to change our worldview, which is to say our spiritual outlook. By embracing deep ecology and its principles—healing, reverence, symbiosis, balance, and evolution—I believe that we can do just that. Spirituality serves an important role in shaping our individual and societal lives, so I have chosen to center mine around science. After all, if science is the study of life and spirituality is the study of the sacred, aren’t they one in the same?

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