logo


Deep ecologists and ecofeminists share far more in common than where they differ.  However, scholars within both perspectives have tended to exaggerate inevitable differences in terminology and traditions of analysis into supposedly significant differences in kind.  Some ecofeminists criticize deep ecologists as having subtly imported masculine models of domination into their criticisms of modernity’s approach to nature.  The late Val Plumwood, whom I consider among the most insightful of ecological philosophers, argued Arne Naess did “not question the structures of possessive egoism and self-interest; rather [Deep Ecology] tries to allow for a wider net of interests by an expansion of the self.”[1]

In response, some deep ecologists cautioned against ecofeminists’ attempt to base an environmental perspective on models of care and relationship that do not apply to much of the other-than-human world.  For example, how does ‘relationship’ apply to the Grand Canyon?  What can it possibly mean to enter into a caring relationship with it?[2] Plumwood offered a feminist critique of deep ecology: the masculine self incorporates others but remains distinct.   Michael Zimmerman in turn provided a deep ecological critique of  eco-feminism: the feminine quest for relationship ignores the reality of limits.

At the level of scholarly analysis such criticisms are valuable, assisting scholars in perfecting their arguments and better understanding unexpected implications arising from their positions.  But these disputes often mask the more fundamental point that both groups agree on the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world, and both are seeking to make the case for such a position within the Western intellectual tradition.  Both groups are well aware they are breaking new ground within an intellectual tradition that long prided itself over its assumptions denying the realities deep ecologists and ecofeminists are trying to identify and explain.  As Carol Christ observed, “The idea that we are interdependent in the web of life is open to scientific investigation, but the experience of deep connection to all the beings in the web of life, which plays such an important role in my understanding of the human place in the world, is not.”[3]

Because there are many deep ecological and ecofeminist writers, with individually diverse approaches towards broadly similar conclusions, I will not provide a detailed analysis of their debates.[4]  Instead I will rely on Arne Naess and Val Plumwood to demonstrate their mutual compatibility within both traditions, and as offering a more balanced account of our relation to the other than human world than some critics suggest.

Naess writes[5]

“What would be a paradigm situation of identification? It is a situation in which identification elicits intense empathy. My standard example has to do with a non-human being I met 40 years ago. I looked through an old-fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic, it was the process of identification, that `l see myself in the flea’. If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing intuitively anything even resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent. So there must be identification in order for there to be compassion and, among humans, solidarity.”

This passage is about as far from masculine egoism and domination as one can get.

Val Plumwood was among a small group of people to have been attacked by a saltwater crocodile and lived. The attack occurred when she had been out birding.  While boating alone Plumwood was seized, escaped, seized again, again escaped, and remarkably, lived to recount the story. In her account of the attack and its aftermath, she wrote

“An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.

“Thus the story of the crocodile encounter now has, for me, a significance quite the opposite of that conveyed in the master/monster narrative. It is a humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability.”

Plumwood cannot be justly criticized for ignoring that aspect of Nature that is inaccessible to relationship in any human sense of the term.

Either of these passages could have been written by the other author.  In both cases when the authors turn to the concrete and specific, the kinds of misunderstandings that easily arise in abstract arguments dissipate.[6] In her For Love of Matter and The Ecological Self Freya Matthews, another Australian philosopher, has done impressive work uniting insights common to both deep ecology and ecofeminism.  In Matthews’ work even the meaning of a relationship with the Grand Canyon finds its place.[7]

Let me make one more comparison between a broadly deep ecological viewpoint and an ecofeminist one.  Aldo Leopold wrote as a man, Terry Tempest Williams writes as a woman.  One uses the masculine image of citizenship balanced by a feminine openness to the world on its own terms, the other the feminine image of lover, balanced by the clarity and rationality of a keen and subtle observer.   Their writing represents two ways of balancing healthy masculinity and healthy femininity, united in love of the wild, and of life. Both deep ecology and ecofeminism demonstrate in complementary ways the transformative power arising from integrating these ways of understanding



[1] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1993), 179.

[2] Michael Zimmerman, Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 299-300.

[3] Carol P. Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1997), 39.

[4] For a good discussion of these debates see Diehm, Christian. Arne Naess, Val Plumwood, and Deep Ecological Subjectivity: A Contribution to the “Deep Ecology-Ecofeminism Debate” Ethics & the Environment, 7:1, Spring 2002, 24-38

[5] Arne Naess, Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World, The Deep Ecology Movememt: An Introductory Anthology, Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue, eds., (North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, 1995), 15-16.

[6] Diehm, Christian. Arne Naess, Val Plumwood, and Deep Ecological Subjectivity: A Contribution to the “Deep Ecology-Ecofeminism Debate” Ethics & the Environment, 7:1, Spring 2002, 24-38

[7] Freya Matthews, The Ecological Self, (Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1991); For Love of matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism, (Albany: State University of New York, 2003).