“I’m not much interested in ethics or morals. I’m interested in how we experience the world.” – Arne Næss.
As a student of philosophy, I read the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss’s books about modern philosophy. He wrote in an engaging and clear style that demonstrated deep philosophical breadth and he invited the reader to think along with him.
One of his strengths as a philosopher was this inviting, almost conversational style, which was related to his intuitive approach to life. By “intuitive,” I refer to something necessary—an open approach in which you follow life wherever it takes you, because it leaves you no possibility of escape.
To some extent, Næss made philosophy available to all. Ever since, I’ve always liked the idea that all people can learn to philosophize with a little training.
Years later, I was hiking in Norway and it was here I that I really came to appreciate Næss’s work on the deep ecology movement. On an intuitive level, I experienced the harmony and co-existence with nature that he often mentioned.
I hiked with a friend for 20 days. We spent the days walking, sitting, and observing. At one point, I noticed that I shared the same rhythm with the life around me. I experienced the interconnectedness found in nature.
Becoming one with nature
Næss called his brand of philosophy “eco-philosophy,” or “ecosophy,” which fuses the words “ecology” and “philosophy.”
In his work, he expanded on the concepts of existentialism and life-philosophies. At first, this might seem banal, but he treated both concepts with scholarly depth while connecting them with real-life experiences. This is always risky, especially for philosophers, who fear nothing more than being called “shallow” or having their views labelled “pop.”
However, what Næss emphasized was, for instance, that based on solid scrutiny of some part of your life (such as your work or your partner), you can evaluate how much joy or sadness that particular aspect brings. Furthermore, we always have the choice of changing how we respond to what happens, so we have to assume some responsibility for the quality of our lives.
Næss was, among others, inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of the misuse of pesticides. The book opens dramatically with, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”
Nature was once noisy and full of life, and then came devastating silence, according to Carson—the silence of the death of nature. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves,” she said.
The challenge for Carson, and later Næss, was figuring out how to change human attitudes towards pollution and pesticides; that is, how to change our relationship with the world.
Within his “ecosophy,” Næss linked people and nature. Ecosophy is “relational thinking,” he said, emphasizing that nothing lives in isolation. “The larger world becomes part of our own interest,” he wrote in Ecology, community, and lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Thus, everything is connected.
One of Næss’s key concepts was “self-realization,” which shouldn’t be mistaken for self-centeredness or egoism. Rather, it’s more of an ongoing and respectful process of becoming one with nature.
This is what many, including myself, often experience during longer periods of engagement with the natural world. Some experience something similar during meditation as a way of fine-tuning their relationship with the world.
Everything has intrinsic value
Another key idea for Næss was that everything has intrinsic value. Therefore, we shouldn’t use nature as a means to achieving something else.
Unfortunately, many see nature as a resource to be used for our benefit, which is partly due to the instrumental thinking that seems to permeate most of our education and activity today. For example, many view nature as something “out there,” whereas nature is actually part of us.
Similarly, the destructive mantra of economic growth, which only leads to stress, has nothing in common with spiritual growth. Nurturing your spiritual growth also means nurturing the growth of all other forms of life.
For this reason, Næss tried to move our care for the environment from the sphere of ethics to the sphere of ontology. For this to be helpful, we need to re-examine how we perceive and understand our world as we gradually become one with it, and develop a participatory and compassionate understanding of our relationship with life.
Næss was not only highly skilled in the classical history of philosophy, he was also influenced by Gandhi’s thinking. His meshing of Gandhi’s thoughts and Spinoza’s ethics of joy made his philosophy rather original. He emphasized the importance of respecting alternative ways of living even when he disagreed with them.
As he said in an interview, cited in Ecology, community, and lifestyle, “I think that intellectuals might consider their intellects in a more Spinozistic way, and cultivate … a loving attitude towards what (they) have insight into … without making the terrible mistake of becoming sentimental or fanatical.”
The deep ecology movement
A good introduction to Næss and the deep ecology movement is The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss, which has an excellent preface and introduction by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (two other prominent figures within this environmental movement). As it says in the introduction, “Mindful practice brings our ecosophy alive from moment to moment. Love and care live only in the present.”
Another option is the film The Call of the Mountain: Arne Naess and the Deep Ecology Movement (1997), which offers an interesting portrait of the man, his philosophy and the movement. Filmmaker Jan van Boeckel teamed up with Arne Næss himself to capture the spirit of the philosopher in his natural habitat, the mountains of Norway.
Regardless of what medium you choose to use, studying Næss is always a good place to start when you want to awaken or reawaken your relationship with nature.
First published in The Mindful Word