The Ecologocal Self

September 25, 2010 at 7:15 pm 2 comments

The Ecological Self

We can enjoy a wider sense of identity than that prescribed by the Industrial Growth Society. It is both our birthright and our necessity for survival. Here are words from Arne Naess’ ground-breaking talk introducing the concept of the ecological self.

“For at least 2500 years, humankind has struggled with basic questions about who we are, what we are heading for, what kind of reality we are part of. Two thousand five hundred years is a short period in the lifetime of a species, and still less in the lifetime of the Earth, on whose surface we belong as mobile parts.

What I am going to say more or less in my own way, may roughly be condensed into the following six points:

1. We underestimate ourselves. I emphasize self. We tend to confuse it with the narrow ego.

2. Human nature is such that with sufficient all-sided maturity we cannot avoid “identifying” ourselves with all living beings, beautiful or ugly, big or small, sentient or not. I will elucidate my concept of identifying later.

3. Traditionally the maturity of the self develops through three stages–from ego to social self, and from social self to metaphysical self. In this conception of the process nature–our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children–is largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce the concept of an ecological self. We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community, but with the larger community of all living beings.

4. The joy and meaning of life is enhanced through increased self-realization, through the fulfillment of each being’s potential. Whatever the differences between beings, increased self-realization implies broadening and deepening of the self.

5. Because of an inescapable process of indentification with others, with growing maturity, the self is widened and deepened. We “see ourself in others”. Self-realization is hindered if the self-realization of others, with whom we identify, is hindered. Love of ourself will labor to overcome this obstacle by assisting in the self-realization of others according to the formula “live and let live.” Thus, all that can be achieved by altruism–the dutiful, moral consideration of others– can be achieved–and much more–through widening and deepening ourself. Following Immanuel Kant’s critique, we then act beautifully but neither morally nor immorally.

6. The challenge of today is to save the planet from further devastation which violates both the enlightened self-interest of humans and nonhumans, and decreases the potential of joyful existence for all.”


I have another important reason for inviting people to think in terms of deepening and widening their selves, starting with narrow ego gratification as the crudest, but inescapable starting point. It has to do with the notion usually placed as the opposite of egoism, namely the notion of altruism. The Latin term ego has as its opposite the alter. Altruism implies that ego sacrifices its interest in favour of the other, the alter. The motivation is primarily that of duty; it is said that we ought to love others as strongly as we love ourself.

What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or more generally from moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited. From the Renaissance to the Second World War about four hundred cruel wars have been fought by Christian nations, usually for the flimsiest of reasons. It seems to me that in the future more emphasis has to be given to the conditions which naturally widen and deepen our self. With a sufficiently wide and deep sense of self, ego and alter as opposites are eliminated stage by stage as the distinctions are transcended.

Early in life, the social self is sufficiently developed so that we do not prefer to eat a big cake alone. We share the cake with our family and friends. We identify with these people sufficiently to see our joy in their joy, and to see our disappointment in theirs. Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth by deepening our identification with all life-forms, with the ecosystems, and with Gaia, this fabulous old planet of ours.”

~ From “Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,” Thinking Life A Mountain, with John Seed, Joanna Macy & Pat Fleming, New Society, 1988.


Entry filed under: Buddhism, Habitat and environment: the evolutionary tradition, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ross Wolfe  |  March 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” “locavorism,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.

  • 2. prayerdance  |  May 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Although I agree that those who would suggest placating the unionists, workers, poor, and disenfranchised as a temporary solution to societal instability are merely revisionists/counter-revolutionaries, who merely will hold back the inevitable change that is needed (ameliorating symptoms while the causes remain untreated), I suggest that you have only a very superficial outline of what is meant by the phrase, “ecological self”. You place nature and resources into a fragmented reified box, while ignoring its vital importance as well as the purpose of any functional economic system. In short, the reductionist context, which you project is too small and superficial.

    Practical and functional analysis requires that you know the causes and conditions from where you have come from, from where “natural resources” such as water, soil, air, energy, food, and medicine emanate within an integral context. Then you can arrange for its distribution in an intelligent manner that sustains the people. It is not a matter of “natural/organic versus artificial, but rather a healthy lifestyle based on reality, versus dysfunctional theories of a death culture.

    Your premise is at best a theocratic oversimplification, which conflates “indigenous grass roots ways of life” as “elitist”. But they are not the same. You merely demean the farmer and peasants by labeling their way of producing food and shelter as “the idiocy of rural life.” You sir, are the elitist. People who are healthy in the mind do not need to reunite with nature, because they already deeply know that they are part of nature. Here, I am not addressing the peasant identity within the European context of a colonized Roman Catholic imposition, but rather indigenous people who are strongly aligned with mother nature down to the integrity of their feet.

    Since it is obvious that you are missing the experience of integrity of being part of nature, you have wrongly concluded that it is mere ideology or conceptual like your own, rather than being the recognition of the law of evolution (how we live). Any “ism” not based on solid foundation – that is not rooted in evolution or life is doomed to destroy itself. Mankind has a choice, to evolve or perish. My suggestion is to do some critical thinking ASAP. I say that because at one time, I also was good at parroting ideology, cutting to shreds my perceived ideological opponents, and displaying my “superior” intellectual prowess. Definitely a waste of energy/time. BE WELL!


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