I began to take deep ecology seriously on a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park there is a cinder cone—a small mountain of volcanic ash. The park service constructed a spiral path up to its summit which nicely complemented the shape of the cone. Sadly, some hiker, reaching the top of the cinder cone, took the short way down, and left deep scars in its side.
It seemed to me that the errant hiker had done something wrong. This is easy to explain in anthropocentric terms: He had diminished the enjoyment that future visitors would have in viewing the cone. But my sense was that the wrong he did went beyond that. I found it hard to account for this intuition, however. It makes little sense to say that he harmed the mountain. One can argue that animals are entitled to moral consideration because they are sentient, or because they have interests. But mountains do not feel pain, nor do they have goals. Can a mountain have rights? Surely not.
Perhaps what we need is a broader conception than that of a right, and we find that in the notion of deference. To defer to someone ordinarily means to submit to their wishes, but the term can take a broader significance, as it does in the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in China. To defer to someone, or something, is to refrain from asserting oneself over it. It is to allow it to do what it is already tending to do. One might defer to the flow of a river by refusing to intervene with its course, e.g. by diverting it. The possession by someone of a right— of a negative right, at least— seems to imply that some form of deference is due to them. If I have a right to walk down the street, your obligation not to impede me is a form of deference. But deference is a broader category; there may be instances of appropriate deference that do not involve rights.
Deep ecology seems to imply an imperative to defer to natural processes as much as possible.
Two questions now arise. First: Why ought we to defer to natural processes? And second: How do we determine the degree to which deference is appropriate? The imperative of deference hopefully doesn’t mean that I must allow myself to be eaten by a hungry bear.
A deep-ecologist might answer the first question by saying that the natural environment has intrinsic value. So the cinder-cone, prior to being defaced by the errant hiker, had a value that he failed to acknowledge, and this is what makes his action wrong. Those who spend much time outdoors may describe natural features as having a numinous quality. This kind of experience may be responsible for certain places taking on a sacred character in the eyes of indigenous people. So we might suppose that the value of the environment lies in the possibility of its exhibiting such a numinous quality.
I find a different approach more satisfying, however— and again I appeal to Daoist sensibilities. Rather than focusing on the value of some particular element in nature, like a mountain, we might say that it is the processes of nature generally that require our deference. But this still leaves open the question of what argument might be made for such a deep-ecological principle.
We might observe in response that fundamental moral values are difficult to argue for, and that we encounter the same difficulty with every attempt to enlarge the sphere of moral concern. It is difficult to persuade an egoist that she ought to care for others; we might also have trouble explaining to a speciesist why the welfare of animals matters. But I hope we are not stuck with this kind of impasse.
I wish now to re-introduce the possibility of a theistic approach. Theism holds that nature is an expression of divine activity, and this ought to cause the theist to show the same sort of deference to the natural environment that a Daoist would show to it. If I come upon Rembrandt in the act of painting, I will be very cautious about doing anything that might interfere with his work. In addition, understanding God as being active in nature will account for the possibility of seeing nature as the domain of the numinous.
Given its commitment to divine creation, the environmental ethic that is most consistent with theism is not anthropocentrism but deep ecology.
But what of the second problem we noticed above; hopefully the theist is not committed to complete non-interference in the workings of nature. Is there a principle which will allow us to balance our deference to nature with some degree of self-assertion? I believe there is— and it comes with the understanding that we ourselves are part of nature. Given this fact, deference to nature, as it is embodied in us, requires us to intervene in non-human processes. We must balance our deference to non-human nature with some degree of self-assertion.
What principle governs this balance? Here I can give only a brief answer: The deep ecologist, theistic or otherwise, must give careful thought to what constitutes real human welfare, and what is necessary for human beings to realize their own distinctive good. On this subject, I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle, who identified the human good with the life of reason. If Aristotle is right about this, we might shudder in horror at the difference between the degree to which we currently exploit nature, and what is truly required for the genuine well-being of humanity.