Deep Ecology and the Conservation of Nature

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By John Seed

Edited from a transcripted presentation by Martha O’Hehir
Note: In this talk, “we” and “our” often refers to people in the globally dominant socioeconomic system, not all humans.

The world is constantly cycling through us and we through it.

Deep Ecology is a philosophy of nature. The term was first coined by the late Arne Naess who was a Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University. According to him, all the symptoms underlying the environmental crisis lie in the illusion of separation between humans and the rest of the natural world. All we need to do to understand exactly what he meant is to hold our breath for five minutes while we think about it. And then we realize that however we conceptualize ourselves, we are inextricably embedded in this world. There can be no separation. The world is constantly cycling through us and we through it.

Naess said that the illusion of this separation is a result of  “Anthropocentrism,” or human-centeredness–the idea that humans are the center of everything.   We are “the crown of creation,” “the measure of all things.” We are the only thing that has intrinsic value. Everything else may have instrumental value, as a resource for us, but nothing else has intrinsic value, including the Earth itself. It’s just dirt until we transform it using our intelligence or our labor.

What we need is an ecological identity, or ecological self. 

This arrogant mistake is deeply embedded in us and stretches back at least to the Old Testament where we learn that humans are to subdue and dominate nature and nature is to be in fear and trembling of us. Naess said we won’t be able to think our way out of the mess. Every institution of our society and every strand in the fabric of our soul is corrupted by this anthropocentrism. Ecological ideas won’t be enough to save us. What we need is an ecological identity, or ecological self. 

And, in order to nourish our ecological identity, what is needed are community therapies to heal our relations with the rest of the natural world, the more-than-human world.

(Here, Seed describes how he worked with others as an activist and had a great deal of success in the 1980’s protecting rainforests in Australia. In spite of these successes, there were thousands of forests that had been lost.)

We cannot protect the planet, one forest at a time.

I learned we cannot protect the planet, one forest at a time. Unless we could clearly address the underlying psychological or spiritual disease that allows modern humans to imagine that we can profit from the destruction of our own life support systems, these actions were going to be of no particular significance so far as the future of the world was concerned.

When I met Joanna Macy in 1986, the next step in the unfolding of the community therapies that Naess had been calling for was able to proceed. I went to one of Joanna’s workshops which was then called Despair and Empowerment, and at that time, I learned from her the importance of feelings in this whole picture. She taught us how we live in a society where there is profound denial of a huge part of our humanity, that is, what we call “the bad feelings” such as rage, terror, anguish and despair. We are taught to fear these feelings, we’re taught to suppress these feelings.  We don’t understand the consequences of doing this. It turns out that these feelings are a hugely important part of our intelligence. When we look back upon our pre-human evolutionary history, we have to recognize that there is an extraordinary pedigree of success that every single generation, for four billion years, every single one of our ancestors was intelligent enough to reach the age of reproducing itself before it was consumed. 

What we call feelings inside ourselves now is what remains in us of this ancient intelligence that preceded thinking.

All of this was done without the benefit of thinking. This intelligence consisted of what we now call “feelings.” We can call it instinct, or intuition, but whatever we call it, what we call feelings inside ourselves now is what remains in us of this ancient intelligence that preceded thinking.  And, in spite of tremendous challenges and dangers that faced our ancestors in every single generation, the accuracy of these feelings to lead us out of danger, towards safety, was tested. 

So, we suppress these feelings at our peril.

The passion necessary to rise up and to take a stand is missing.

Although thinking is also very beautiful, it turns out that without the passion of feelings to support it, thinking is kind of sterile. Although we may know what it is that is happening, without that passion we are not really in a position to do anything about it.  Thus we are confronted with a world of tremendous precariousness as we watch nature disappearing around us and many of us feel utterly paralyzed and unable to respond. I suggest this is because the passion necessary to rise up and to take a stand is missing.

What I learned from Joanna is the extraordinary importance of these feelings. Because they are being pushed up by instinctual forces, an equal and opposite life force is necessary  to suppress them, and therefore a huge part of our life force is squandered by this futile struggle between instinct and social conditioning.  Then we are left feeling helpless and hopeless; “what can one person do, anyway?”

When we learn how to create a safe container that invites and honors these feelings and       allows us to metabolize and integrate them, a tremendous amount of energy that we experience as empowerment ensues. I was influenced by Joanna, and she was equally influenced by the philosophy of deep ecology. Within a week of meeting at her workshop, we were walking together through the rainforest in NSW as we constructed the Council of All Beings. This was the first of the experiential deep ecology workshops of the Work That Reconnects, which brought together the philosophy of Deep Ecology and the profound engine of personal change which she represented in the despair work that she taught. Both of us have gone on to work with this ever since.

Because the facilitator, after introducing the activity, becomes a part of the circle, this is my spiritual practice now. This is where the empowerment comes from, which I can place at the service of my continuing work in the conservation of nature.

(At this time, Freida Nixdorf, the host, asked John, “How can we access this idea of ecological identity, of deep ecology?”)

The original intelligence returns and the whole area flourishes and expands with native plants.

[The answer is best described through] a metaphor that requires background information. There is a system of regenerative nature called the “Bradley Method of Bush Regeneration.” It (the Method) requires no heroic tree planting effort, but only that you identify the native plants from the exotic [non-native, invasive] ones. Then, all you do is remove the exotics and allow for the natives to grow when their seedlings appear, without treading on the natives. Year after year, the original intelligence returns and the whole area flourishes and expands with native plants.

 We may be tempted to begin in a horribly degraded part of the environment. Yet, if we start there, the method fails. We have to start with the fullest expression of natural intelligence and vigor. We have to start with the strongest natural area and work backwards from there, to expand it… Maybe in ten years, we will reach the degraded area.

Ecology teaches us that  we are part of the earth. So, I take the biological metaphor of the Bradley Method. Until people have begun to recognize the problem, they are like the degraded area, and we berate them or harangue them or cannot do anything for them. But if we help people who are moving in this direction, then this community grows, and maybe one day we can reach into the hearts of the executives of the oil companies and the government leaders.

(Seed continues with a description of some of his conservation of nature, especially in Ecuador, and how it feeds his work with WTR. It is great to have examples of things working well.)           

Through experiencing the Work That Reconnects, we understand intellectually that we are part of the world.

We put ourselves out in the universe to be directed to the role that is there for us to play.

Through the rituals and ceremonies and processes of WTR, we have an ever deepening experience… In the Going Forth, we have the opportunity to deliberately visualize ourselves as one cell in the body of the living earth. Depending on where we are in that body, there are many different roles that need to be played for the flourishing of the earth. Thus we put ourselves out in the universe to be directed to the role that is there for us to play, which may be very different from the role someone else is called to play.  

Just as the human body emerges from a single cell, and some cells migrate to become the brain, or others the liver, there is no “correct” answer to the question of “What is there for me to do?” Really the question is: “How do I learn to surrender in such a way that clear direction comes to me that is authentic and I can trust?” 

To me, this learning to surrender is one of the great gifts or rewards of the ceremonies of the Work That Reconnects. They help us hear those directions and allow them to actually move our life  in the direction of: “How am I to serve the earth, serve my people and future generations?”

The processes of the WTR are synchronous with, or a continuation of, the kinds of ceremonies that Indigenous peoples have practiced throughout time. Without exception, every Indigenous society which has maintained its ceremonial life, has done so through their ceremonies  which are practiced throughout the year, every year, that allow the human community to teach the children to remember and to honor the more than human world. It is only we modern humans who have forgotten this.

We all have Indigenous ancestors.

We all have Indigenous ancestors.  When we are drawn to this work, there is something tremendously familiar   it, and it feels like coming home because it is such an important part of our heritage, stretching back – at least hundreds of thousands of years — to our true heritage, only recently forgotten and eclipsed by modern illusions of separation.

We find ourselves both aligned with our ancestors and also inspired and obliged to protect those areas of Indigenous life that continue to exist. Nature is being pushed back, year after year, land is lost, languages are lost, societies are lost. It is as important to protect these as to protect nature.

(Seed goes on to describe some phenomenal examples of Councils of All Beings, especially with children and in a beautiful and moving video.  He describes a project to protect koalas, using a film called “On the Brink,” which is essentially a Council of four Australian animals, including the koala. The script was written over several Councils of all Beings in WTR workshops.)

The power of the Council of All Beings…to be an engine of much larger social and environmental change.

We used the film in the run-up to the upcoming election, and handed out leaflets for the show, provided the film and four tables at the back of the room with stationary for letter writing for protection of the habitats of these species. About 70,000 people saw the film and wrote letters.  A few weeks before the election, the Premier of NSW announced that if he was re-elected his party would protect those forests, and a month later, they were protected. This shows the power of the Council of All Beings to do more than just create the conditions for personal change, but to be an engine of much larger social and environmental change.

This article is an edited transcription of a talk given at the Gaian Gathering of the Work That Reconnects Network in November 2023.  A video of the full talk is available on the WTR Network website here.

John Seed was involved in the creation  of experiential deep ecology/the Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy in 1986 and has been facilitating the workshops that they designed together ever since. At present he is offering such workshops monthly around Australia as well as online. He is also a regular contributor to Work That Reconnects webinars as well as podcasts and other forums. He came into deep ecology via his work in protecting the world’s rainforests which started in 1979 and continues to this day. In 1995 he was awarded the OAM (Order of Australia Medal) by the Aussie Government for Services to conservation and the environment. He is an accomplished film-maker, bard and author (see )

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