3 Key Ideas in Environmental Ethics

Do deep ecology, feminist, and Marxist approaches to environmental ethics intersect and diverge?

Sep 12, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
key ideas environmental ethics


What is the environment? What should we want it to be? This article tackles three influential conceptual frameworks for environmental ethics. It begins with a discussion of environmental ethics and the potential difficulty with developing philosophical approaches to such pressing real-world issues. It then moves on to discuss deep ecology, its appeal, and its problems. An account of feminist approaches to environmental ethics is developed as a counterpoint to deep ecology, before this article concludes with a discussion of Marxist approaches to the environment, with a focus on critical theory and Theodor Adorno.


The Development of Environmental Ethics

smoke rising morning
Photograph of smoke in the evening by JuergenPM, 2014, via Pixabay.


Environmental ethics, an area of philosophy that barely existed before the latter half of the 20th century, is now undoubtedly one of the most vibrant and productive areas of moral philosophy and political theory. Due to the ever-greater acceptance of the urgency with which we must address both the climate crisis as pertains to global warming, sea level rise, and other worldwide ecological problems, there is more interest now than ever before in developing philosophical responses to these problems and adjacent, more distinctly theoretical problems.


What is nature? What, if anything, separates human beings from animals, or from the natural world more broadly? The question that naturally arises is this: what, if anything, are the hopes which lie behind environmental ethics? Who are philosophers trying to speak to?


Simply saying that the point of philosophy is to figure things out for ourselves might seem basically plausible in other, more abstract fields of philosophical inquiry, but it seems an odd response in this case, given the very urgency of the problems it is trying to address. One of the main challenges facing environmental ethicists today is how to best share their work not only with fellow philosophers, but to as wide an audience as possible, without sacrificing much intellectual sophistication.


1. Deep Ecology

arne naess
Photograph of Arne Naess, Jørn H. Moen, via Open Air Philosophy

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The first idea we will focus on is that of deep ecology, an approach to the environment pioneered by a number of Norwegian theorists, of whom the most famous is Arne Naess.


Deep ecology developed out of a trip Naess and several friends took to the Himalayas, and in particular, their interactions with Sherpas—a Tibetan ethnic group known above all for their exceptional climbing and mountaineering ability. The Sherpa practice of not walking on certain mountains, on the grounds that such mountains were deemed to be sacred, was of particular interest to Naess.


Deep ecology can be seen as an attempt to extend this reverence to nature more broadly. Why ‘deep’ ecology? Is there such a thing as shallow ecology? For Naess, shallow ecology involves fighting against pollution and resource depletion that affects human life on Earth. Deep ecology, in contrast, involves adopting a principle of “biospheric egalitarianism,” in which equal regard and the appreciation of non-instrumental value are extended throughout the natural world.


If there is a single, simple insight that comes from deep ecology, it is the fact that nature does not exist simply to sustain human beings. Deep ecology also takes a stance against a certain kind of self-conception—that is, the conception of human beings as atomized, individual entities. Rather, the deep ecology view of the self is that the world is not merely a collection of clearly differentiated entities, but rather a “total field,” and particular organisms are more like knots in a vast net. This idea owes something to the work of Baruch Spinoza, and the idea that life is not to be understood in contrast to its lifeless surroundings, but is an intensification of a certain natural tendency present in all things.


sami family
Photograph of modern-day Saami people by morsan, 2005, via Wikimedia Commons.


This view tends to emphasize the relations between different living beings and constitutes an attempt to extend the self beyond any particular body, along with finding elements of the self in Nature at large. Much of Naess’ subsequent thought was inspired by observing indigenous peoples’ approach to nature—for instance, the Saami practice of attributing personhood to rivers which were of particular importance. Naess is concerned with co-opting concepts which are, to some extent, human-centric in order to constitute a wider field of ethical concern.


As promising as elements of the deep ecology project are, Naess and his fellow deep ecologists have come in for a host of criticisms.


First, there is the basic objection that deep ecology does not offer us a good enough description of the particular ethical regard we owe to plants, mollusks, and other creatures which appear not to think or to feel. It is not enough to assert that these things are due ethical regard—a more detailed theory of how regard for these creatures should be weighed against, for instance, humans’ needs seems to be a precondition of adopting the deep ecology framework.


In almost the opposite direction, another kind of criticism concerns whether the expansion of the self advocated by deep ecologists might not have many of the same problematic, domineering elements as the atomistic individual conception.


2. Feminist Approaches to Environmental Ethics

suffragist parade new york
Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade by American Press Association, 1912, via United States Library of Congress.


This is an appropriate point to introduce a different framework for doing environmental ethics, one which is explicitly concerned with breaking with the logic of environmental domination rather than extending our present conception of ourselves outwards.


One of the central claims of feminist environmentalism or environmental feminism is that the concepts by which we understand gender relations and gendered oppression can be extended to a theorization of the environment.


Sheila Collins, for instance, argues that patriarchy is supported by ecological degradation, and many feminist theorists have argued that the male dominance of women is the original form of domination, from which our permissiveness towards environmental degradation has been derived.


Key to understanding feminist approaches to the environment is the idea that there is a (potentially transferrable) logic to the way in which domination happens. That is not to say that it is “logical” in the sense that suggests domination is somehow well justified, but merely that certain patterns of thought—hierarchy, binary thinking, invocations of natural urges—can be established in one arena and then applied in another.


Feminist theorists can point out that the language which we tend to apply to nature—calling nature our “mother,” referring to unexploited land as “virgin soil”—is often loaded with gendered implications. One potential consequence of adopting the feminist approach to the environment is that it is not enough to simply say that we should act a certain way—start doing this (e.g., recycling), stop doing this (e.g., polluting). Rather, it is our way of thinking that is broken and needs to change. Another potential consequence is expanding the scope of environmental ethics beyond the environment in isolation, given the relationship between environmental injustice and other forms of injustice.


3. Critical Theory and Environmental Ethics

adorno reading music
Adorno reading music, via the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group.


The relationship between environmental injustice and other forms of injustice is also central to the way that critical theorists have approached the environment.


Theodor Adorno, one of the founding members of the Frankfurt School and a major figure in the development of critical theory, developed a distinctive form of skepticism towards the scientific and technological developments of the early to mid-20th century.


Adorno’s work was especially critical of the scientistic elements of modern culture—scientism being a (pejorative) term for irrational faith in scientific progress providing the solutions to all of humanity’s problems. Adorno’s philosophy was an updated, extended form of Marxism, and Marxists as a whole have concurred with feminists in criticizing elements of the scientific rationale which has lain behind various forms of environmental degradation.


wheatfield crows van gogh
Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh, 1890, via Van Gogh Museum.


But as much Adorno shares with environmental feminism the desire to critique a way of thinking as a whole, he also shares the deep ecological need to expand or emphasize elements of human nature as a response. Adorno stresses the ways in which our domination of “outer nature” (that is, nature) has corrupted or suppressed elements of our “inner nature” (our creativity, autonomy, and so on). There is a further affinity with deep ecology here, insofar as both Naess and Adorno conceive of environmental ethics as returning to an awareness of our real selves which has been lost (and is, for Naess, preserved only in certain, isolated communities).


Much of what later critical theorists have found to be of interest in Adorno is the way he contrasts scientific rationality with an aesthetic, sensuous way of thinking. Clearly, Adorno runs into many of the same objections leveled against deep ecology—his philosophy is human-centered, albeit only in a limited sense.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.