Paper presented  by Olli Tammilehto in a seminar on eco-philosophy  May, 1989, Warsaw. Published in " Rapor nr 1, Pracowria na rzecz wazystkich istot" Bielsko-Biala 1989. Revised in June 1992. A Finnish version was published in the magazine "Suomi", issue 4-5/1989. In October, 2001 an Italian translation of the text has been published  on the Filosofia ambientale net site.

Three Approaches to Eco-philosophy

Eco-philosophy is a relatively new field of inquiry. Everywhere it is still a small undercurrent in philosophy. The literature is hard to find and translations are rare. Therefore one easily supposes ecophilosophy to be much more uniform than it really is. Also my knowledge of the literature is limited, but fortunately I have obtained a sizeable part of the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon eco-philosophical literature, and acquired some grasp of the German one.

If one only considers Norway, the pioneer country of eco-philosophy, there were already in 1970's at least four different branches of ecological thinking: Arne Næss' "økosofi" with ethics based on equality among species, Sigmund Kvaløy's "økofilosofi" emphasizing ceaseless change in societies and persons, Hjalmar Hegge's historical criticism of the scientific world-view, and Peter Zapfe's "biosofi" underscoring how humans create the way of their existence.

In the Anglo-Saxon countries, where ecophilosophy is pursued most actively at the moment, one can discern at least five main currents: environmental ethics of many writers centred around the journal with the same name, "cultural ecophilosophy" of e.g. Henryk Skolimowski and Thomas Berry, "deep ecology" of George Sessions, Bill Devall, Warwick Fox and others, "social ecology" of Murray Bookchin and other thinkers near the anarchistic tradition, and ecological feminism or ecofeminism.

From the diversity of the currents in ecophilosophy we can trace three different main lines: the ethical, ontological and social approaches. In practice they are not found in a pure form and a philosopher can represent a different approach at different times. However, it may be illuminating to discuss these as separate.


Most academic eco-philosophers tend to regard men/women primarily as beings who make value judgements. It is thought that the essential causes of human action are adopted values and norms. Thus the destruction of the environment is regarded as being an effect of wrong values.

Quite a common understanding in ecophilosophy is that the range of ethics must be widened: intrinsic or inherent value is not limited only to human beings: at least vertebrates - or in any case mammals have inherent worth. But this is where the agreement ends. According to some thinkers the range of ethics includes all animal individuals or even individuals of all organisms - but not groups of individuals. According to some others only groups and not individuals have inherent worth: namely species and ecosystems or the system of all life on earth, "Gaia". On the other hand there are thinkers who emphasize the value of lifeless entities such as rocks, mountains or other planets.

Besides difficulties in defining the range, ethical approach has many other problems. One of them is the relative values of different objects of ethics. Arne Næss and deep ecologists suggest a simple solution: all living beings are equal. This, however, excludes non-living entities and beings which are alive in an unusual sense, such as Gaia. Anyway, as Næss admits, in practice you need complicated norms which stipulate how to solve value conflicts: for example which one has the right to "self-realization": I myself, who is walking, or a minute organism that I am going to squash under my feet.

The ethical approach has another, more practical problem: what should we do with those countless people who, in spite of the validity of the environmental ethic, completely disregard it. The Western-Christian style of moral thinking makes one easily regard those people as sinners. And as we know the wages of sin is death. This kind of mixture of new and old ethics may be one explanation of the fact that some ecological thinkers have become misanthropists. From the equality of organisms they go on to regard humans as inferiors. Those who have adopted this kind of thinking don't, surprisingly, commit suicide, but find the inferior human beings elsewhere: they don't want rich countries to receive refugees and think that one should let people die in hunger in the third world. Besides ethical, this cruel thinking - which is represented for example by Pentti Linkola in Finland and David Foreman in the U.S. - has of course also sociological and psychological reasons.

I want to discuss still a third problem in the ethical approach: how to justify environmental ethics. It seems that there are more and more philosophers who find it impossible to justify the moral worth of other beings by means of ethics or ethical theory itself. They find it necessary to radically change common Western assumptions in other fields of philosophical inquiry: namely in epistemology or theory of knowledge, which studies the nature and ground of experience, belief and knowledge, and in ontology or study of being and, in particular, what fundamentally there is in the world (e.g. material objects, universals, parts, wholes etc.).

Thus we have arrived at the second main branch of ecophilosophy.


Many eco-philosophers are not primarily interested in ethics. They regard humans as conscious beings whose acts are influenced by their world view. The most fundamental cause of the ecological crisis is a basic misinterpretation of the world.

Many thinkers see this misinterpretation as occurring mainly in the process of acquiring knowledge: they are more interested in epistemology than in ontology proper. Most important in this respect is the criticism of the imperialism of scientific knowledge.

The tenet that science is the only source of valid knowledge is grounded on the assumption that only quantitative properties are objective. On the other hand, objectivity is such that does not depend on the observer. With this kind of epistemology it is easy, for example, to play down our experiences in nature. Many eco-philosophers, e.g. Næss and Hegge, have thoroughly criticized scientific epistemology and shown that our experiences in nature are as objective as for example the volume of the trees in a forest.

However, some ecological thinkers, e.g. Skolimowski and Morris Berman, develop this criticism much further: they deny the existence of a reality which is independent of the observer. We would live in a "participatory universe".

Anyway epistemology tells us little about the reality itself, only about our abilities to know or to construct it. More fruitful to ecophilosophy seems to be a move from epistemology to ontology. Bookchin has even maintained that the alienation of philosophers from nature is demonstrated by the fact that "the love of wisdom" has stopped ever since Kant at our ability to know.

It is common for eco-philosophers to deny the notion that fundamentally there are two kinds of being which are completely different (the ontological dualism): mind and matter or soul and body. From this on some thinkers go further: the conception of the world as being constituted from separate beings is denied. For example, according to Næss, the cosmos is a net of relations rather than a collection of separate beings. Beings are knots in this net.

This "holistic" ontology can easily justify environmental ethics. If the self doesn't end with one's skin it is quite natural to assume responsibility for other creatures.

Also many other assumptions common in Western thinking have been criticized. Kvaløy thinks it is fundamental mistake to regard time as a dimension similar to length and height. The thought misleads us to believe that the future already exists. It is an example of a Western tendency to try "to stop the time" and discard a creative way of being in the world.

But what does the new eco-philosophical epistemology or ontology mean in practice? It is hard to believe that there are many in the near future who will even read theoretical ecophilosophy, much less adopt it. And why is it that despite at least twenty years of ecophilosophy there are very few even in the philosophy departments of universities who have ever heard about the field. Why was the prevailing ontology adopted in the first place and why does it live so stubbornly in the human minds?

These difficult questions lead us easily to the next main branch of ecophilosophy.


In Western industrial countries it is common to think that society is that what people are. However, one opinion poll after the other shows that people want something else than what the social reality supplies: for example according to a study conducted in the United States in 1982, 58 % of those questioned would have preferred to live in a society that emphasized environmental protection more than economic growth. Only 21 % preferred a society with the opposite emphasis. Similarly, in 1988 55 % of the public in the European Community preferred the protection of the environment to economic growth, and only 7 % thought that the economic growth should take precedence. Despite such figures economic growth has still an absolutely central position in these countries. These contradictions are explained away by saying that concrete behaviour tells more about humans than stated opinions.

On the other hand for a person thinking sociologically it is natural that there are contradictions between human endeavours and the aims of societal development. Humans are seen primarily as social beings. Most people are for most of the time led by society. It is essential to ask how do the present societies produce and reproduce all their absurdities, and what would a good society look like.

Ecological devastation is caused mainly by the enormous and ever increasing consumption, and production for that consumption. But what is the logic behind consumption? Perhaps Canadian scholar William Leis has given one of the most satisfactory answers: The supply of commodities doesn't correspond with human needs in any industrial society. By commodities one tries to satisfy social, symbolical and spiritual needs without ever succeeding. Because our culture directs all need satisfaction to commodities, failures don't lead us to learn but to an effort to get more commodities.

But how is this continuous deception possible? It is commonly understood that especially in western industrial societies people are free to do what they really want.

Both Kvaløy and German Detlef Hartmann explain the illusion of freedom by the architecture of our "prisons": it is not a block of cells but an enormous piping. One can move freely along the pipes but real life (Hartmann) or complex activity without industrial complications (Kvaløy) is possible only by leaving the piping, and if one tries that one experiences open coercion.

Another important aspect of social ecophilosophy is to ask about the origin of our terrible situation. How has this terrible social system come into being, system which threatens to take the whole biosphere to its own grave?

The classical theory of the development of our civilization believes that everything is an effect of the aspiration to increase human welfare. However, for an environmentally conscious observer it is clear that human welfare hasn't increased - at least not in recent times. Additionally, according to anthropological knowledge it seems evident that life in many hunter-gatherer and small agricultural societies has been better and even more civilized than life in centralized agricultural or industrial societies.

Bookchin and many ecofeminists think the development was driven forward - or, as a matter of fact, decline was driven backward - by the logic of ever increasing hierarchy. The very origin of hierarchy is necessarily obscure. However, according to Bookchin, the starting point was the unclear and unimportant position of old men in early organic societies. Making an alliance with the shamans, the old men succeeded in making young hunters use their strength and weapons to subdue other young men and women. This was the beginning of the triumphal march of the growth of hierarchies: one people subjugated other peoples, one social class other classes and human beings other creatures.

But what then? How can we change this hierarchical industrial world-system? If we regard humans as social beings, doesn't it follow that changing society consciously is impossible?

If our societies were totally integrated wholes this might be true. But in fact many parts, groups and individuals, of a society fail for some reason or another to function as good "cogs". Among these "defective" parts develop subcultures with discourses which are not in harmony with the dominant ways of speaking and thinking.

But if most of the people are integrated, can these divergent discourses have more than a marginal influence? So sad it would be if people were only social beings. But fortunately humans are also judging and conscious beings. When minorities can argue convincingly and appeal to widely cherished values and unfulfilled needs their discourses and views can spread among most of the people. In some situations this certainly has a profound influence on social change. The ideology which has legitimized the status quo (for example the idea that people are generally faring well in Western societies) may collapse and continuation of prevailing social practice may become impossible.

On the other hand humans are capable for "double-thinking": they may support alternative views in their free time but in their job act, speak and also think like the best champions of the establishment. This phenomena is well-known from the former Eastern Block but also the opinion polls mentioned above imply the same thing: supporters of environmental protection are often speaking for environmentally destructive economic growth in their workplaces.

If activities of daily life of a "double-thinker" support only his devastating thinking, how can his ecological thinking be maintained, let alone be developed? Indeed divergent patterns of thought are normally not maintained. For their continuation and consolidation divergent acting is needed, too. Even though society at large curbs our possibilities to act it is possible to do many things which concretize alternative thinking, change daily life of some groups and even influence the society as a whole. When a small number of people are taking part to such activities we speak about an action group, when the number gets bigger we have a social movement.

Social movements strengthen divergent discourses and these for their part reinforce movements. This mutually supporting process has been and probably will be the key in social change.

Participation in a movement is a most challenging activity which demands all human abilities. At its best philosophy and movement activity form a seamless whole. In this respect many ecological thinkers are inspired by Mohandas Gandhi and the independence movement of India.

But how can movements and alternative discourses become strong enough in countries where there are effective mass communications and integration mechanisms? How can they really change power structures and the operational logic of a society?

I think a crisis is the answer. We can learn from history that crises in an imperial state have been decisive for many independence movements. For example the recent upheavals in Eastern Europe were made possible by the deep economic crisis in the Soviet Union. In the same way a crisis in one country or in the whole industrial system can bring a unique chance for ecological consciousness and movements. And the irrationalities and the contradictions of the system will make sure that we shall certainly experience crises, as they have been experienced in the past: economic and raw-material crises, environmental catastrophes, huge industrial accidents, food poisonings and so on.

The most serious misunderstanding of the statement above is to think that it is enough just to wait or hope for a crisis. The positive chances of a disaster can be utilized only if before the crisis there has been enough dissident thinking and acting.

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