How “deep” is deep ecology?

Depicted above is one of the worst carbon-emitting nightmares of the 21st century – the Baogang steel plant in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. China, while flaunting efforts to make more “efficient” its bloated steel industry by centralizing output in these carbon-spewing titans, has shown unnerving rates of industrial growth lately. Goal: meet domestic consumption needs. Perk: exports. Closing down smaller plants in favor of larger plants may be more “efficient” in terms of production, but not in terms of the Kyoto Protocol (of which China is a signatory). Though China also boasts large solar and wind industries, it has recently surpassed the United States in how many millions of tons of CO2 it emits per year (approx. 7,000 mill). Check out this handy-dandy global emissions atlas for the most recent figures.

Now I’m not naive. China is obviously not crazy about signing onto international governmental agreements that would even mildly “threaten” its sovereignty (see: Syrian conflict). But they are also leading the host of emerging economies that are hell-bent on pursuing industrial development, even in the midst of international calls for more “sustainable development”. Even after the Western model has proved faulty. But its difficult to convince China without looking like an asshole (“We did it, but you can’t.”) Now, this rant isn’t supposed to make American consumers feel better about themselves, or point fingers at China (“now the Chinese are the worst emitters!”). In fact, the US still far outpaces the Chinese on per capita emissions. But it does show that we’re not making much headway where climate change legislation is concerned.  Or newer development models. Every discussion following the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 – COP 15, 16, 17… – seems more and more like an empty gesture, performed annually to appease relevant NGOs. Nothing extensive or internationally binding has been agreed upon. Participating states are at their leisure to casually implement carbon-emission reduction targets, or throw around legislation that would install some flimsy carbon-credit trading scheme. While catering to corporate lobbyists that want nothing to do with it. But what does this say about the character of what we’ll call the “global world order” as we know it? And why is it in the control of a series of competing governments and corporations, who cannot seem to coordinate efforts to fight climate change, address economic inequalities, etc?

This would be the perspective of “deep ecologists.”

And me, when I’m having a particularly glum day.

But civil society, NGOs, and eco-movements of a wide variety are still picking at the system, pushing for reform in the public and private sectors. And addressing the society proper. Cop 16 engendered REDD+, or a formula for ending deforestation in developing states, along with a “global climate fund” of $100 billion to fund sustainable and innovative green industries in the developing world.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess would call most of these efforts “shallow ecology.” And maybe he’s right. Focusing strictly on halting or “cutting back” on resource depletion and carbon emissions may well be catastrophic. And only short-term effects seem to be calculated. Naess asserts that pointing fingers at particular governments or industries is useless; we must go much further. Our world is deeply relational and certain assumptions seem to dictate these relations, assumptions that we would oft not question. Our feuding governments are operating by the same ideological organizing principle: modern industrial society. See, “deep ecologists” assert that it is our entire civilizational system, with its drive for “progress”, “efficiency”, and relentless consumerism, is entirely at fault. This claim renders the causes of climate change wholly philosophical. Because we automatically assume our right – no, our destiny – as humans is to have conquest over the earth, it is impossible to stop something like climate change without radically changing our ideological and economic structures. And removing human views and human concerns from the center. A “deep movement” is concerned with deep questioning. And if the underpinnings of our global system are not changed – that is, the idea that we can endlessly procreate and use up the earth’s resources to our hearts’ content – how will we come to truly value the earth and take the necessary, immediate precautions in protecting it?

Do the values of advanced market civilization contradict the values of nature? Perhaps. Look at it another way. The “deep” adherents suggest that humans are part of nature, constituted by its elements, dependent on the earthly material structure for life-support, and were wrong to ever suggest that we are “above” or “separate” from it and can thus rightfully do whatever we please with it. Ethical value lies equally with all parts of the biological community; responsibility for the earth lies equally with all humans. It’s a compelling assertion. And seems true enough, if somewhat abstract.

But “deep ecologists” take a fairly hard-lined stance on issues of over-population and climate change as they relate to humans. They do not differentiate between different groups, regions, countries, or any political entity proper. They place responsibility for current environmental crises in all hands, across the board. Where there is death from disease, poverty, or famine, the “deeps” say – let it happen. Bring the population down, doesn’t matter where. If disease has to get the job done, so be it.

It’s a very ahistorical approach, allegedly buttressed by Eastern thought but advanced mostly by American activists, and ignores the North-South, West-Rest binaries. That is, it ignores the fact that the rich states emit and the poor pay for it, environmentally and economically. Access to healthcare, reproductive health services, and education is uneven. I’ve already written about overpopulation in a past post. And  I can’t help but to think that it’s romantically misguided to call on individuals across societies to engage in “self-realization” and re-assess our dominant philosophical assumptions, to force the developing world to give up prospects for, well, development. Ignoring the sheer fact that only a handful of countries have profited from the global capitalist system and enjoy privilege within it as industrialized emitters leading relatively grandiose lifestyles (compared to most in the global South), is folly at best. And truly offensive.

Now, I do think Southeast Asian, African, and Latin American states can become leaders in the green industry. But the problem with REDD+ and the World Bank’s control of the “climate finance fund” is that it focuses exclusively on the developing world, where the US, China, Russia, India, and Germany have made no binding agreements whatsoever. Considering that global emissions atlas, it seems pretty ridiculous to be focusing reform on regions that emit 5 times less than one country (US). Giving the developing world the burden (not new). But I still think “deep” has its limits. Progress on climate change will require working from within and outside the system – with so-called “shallow” and “deep” approaches that challenge structures while trying transform them from within. Philosophical questioning has an irreplaceable role, insofar as our conclusions do not demonize all of humanity, a reprimand undeserved by billions.


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