How are we to understand the freedom of the earth? Often these discussions are riddled with the indefinites of human language and the vague conceptions of “nature”, “earth” and “freedom”. We must move beyond the indefinite and the visceral and achieve understanding, respect, and reverence if we are to at all move beyond the destruction, exterminations and oppression.
There is a rich history of analysis and critique of human interactions with the whole of natural world. Upon further examination, this body of work amounts to a study of human ecology as it relates to the larger ecological history of the planet.
For most of written human history, there has been a long and controversial discourse surrounding the meaning and value of human and nonhuman life, the ways in which human society should structure itself in relation to nature (if at all), and the duties we owe (if any) to the rest of life and why. In western history alone this dialect has existed since Pre-Socratic thought through Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Bentham, Kant, Darwin, and into contemporary sociopolitical dialogue.
In the world of academia, perhaps the most substantially influential writers have sprung up in the last century and in particular the last few decades.
In 1949, Aldo Leopold published A Sand County Almanac, a book that famously launched the field of environmental ethics and advocated for what Leopold, referred to as “the Land Ethic”. Leopold’s “Land Ethic” stated simply that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
In 1962, Murray Bookchin began his rich career of ecological writings with Our Synthetic Environment. This book outlines the dangers of industrial society and in particular its reliance on synthetic pesticides. 20 years later in 1982, Bookchin published his seminal work, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. This work is a thorough social, political, and historical analysis of the inequalities of human society as it relates to natural ecology.
The same year that Bookchin published Our Synthetic Environment, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book often credited with launching the modern western environmental movement. The book deals also deals with the problems of pollution and pesticide use.
In 1973, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” in his essay, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecological Movement”. Deep ecology is a complex and varied theory of ecological wisdom, one that is often viewed as radical for asserting the equality of all living things and promoting a dramatic restructuring of human society. Bill Devall and George Sessions further developed deep ecology with their 1985 book, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Deep ecology later became the battle cry for most radical western environmentalists, particularly with the appearance of Earth First!
Perhaps some of the most influential writings to critique human arrogance and power have been under the banner of animal rights. In 1975, Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, which provided a utilitarian critique of speciesism. In 1983, Tom Regan published The Case for Animal Rights, which outlines a defense of the notion that nonhumans can and do have rights to be respected by humans.
Perhaps best viewed as a combination of the sentiments of deep ecology and the methods of Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights, Paul Taylor developed what he refers to “biocentric egalitarianism” in his 1986 book, Respect for Nature. In it, Taylor outlines a critique of human superiority and anthropocentrism and defends the equal inherent worth of all living things, from bacteria to buffalo.
Ecology and Global Sociopolitical Relationships
Throughout this full western and academic history of environmental thought there has also been a variety of critiques and analysis put forth by ecofeminists, indigenous writers, and voices from the global south. There is a long history of ecological consciousness outside of western academia or industrial society, yet it is too often unnoticed. Writers from Islamic, African, Buddist, Hindu, and Taoist backgrounds have long recognized humanity’s relationship to nature as fundamentally flawed.
Philosopher, physicist, ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva has for years been involved in the discussion on global economic systems, food security, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism and how they contribute to ecological crisis. For decades she has been recognized as an influential environmental activist with an analysis focused on third world development issues such as genetic engineering, women’s empowerment, and capitalist infrastructure.
Publications such as Carolyn Merchant’s, “The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution” in 1980, Carol Adams’s, “The Sexual Politics of Meat” in 1990 and Janet Biehl’s, “Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics” in 1991 helped to shape and redefine the new concept of ecofeminism. The concept had expanded to include radical analysis, mysticism, globalization, and animal rights.
Examples of writers from across the globe are plentiful. Mawil Y. Izzi Deen argues that the Koran has an encoded system of environmental ethics and that Islam seeks to regard nature as something beyond a source for exploitation. Segun Ogungbemi, a Nigerian philosopher, has written on the devastating effects technological development, poverty and ignorance have had on sub-Saharan Africa. Ramachandra Guha has critiqued western environmentalism, in particular deep ecology, for failing to address root causes of global environmental devastation such as consumption by the west and militarism.