Deep ecology

Deep ecology is problematic for craft practitioners.  It is possible to believe that one should care for the earth and still be a craftsperson.  It is possible to believe that environmental issues should be an integral part of one’s practice and still be a craftsperson.  But is it really possible to see humans as equal with the rest of life and matter on earth, and still take the materials and use the processes that are integral to being a craftsperson?


In terms of ecological beliefs, there are broadly three shades of “green”.  We might define “light greens” as those who believe that ecological measures should be taken, wherever possible, and when they do not interfere with human needs or wants.  “Greens” might be defined as those who are a little more earth-centric, whose beliefs put humans more on a par with the rest of the biotic community.  And “deep greens” believe that humans are


Deep ecology is the theory that humans are no more than a part of the biotic community, no more important than any other part of the web of relationships that make up an ecology.  Satish Kumar, explaining the basic principles, puts it in this way:


          In Western science and Western philosophy, even in Western religions, we have always considered human beings as the masters of the earth.  We even think that all our natural world….(is) for us…we have to preserve them because we can use them for human benefit.  So forests are a medicine chest for humans, and so on.  So that is shallow ecology.  Deep ecology goes a bit further and says Earth is not here just for us.  There are 8.4 million species here on Earth, and they have as much intrinsic value and right to be and live undisturbed, unpolluted, uncontaminated, as human beings have right to live…when we take something from nature for our survival, that is fine, that we should take with gratitude.  Not as of right…and we reciprocate it by looking after it, by composting it, by not polluting it, and by giving respect to it.[1]


It is a challenge, from our overwhelmingly human-centric society, to even begin to see the rest of the biotic community as having equal right to the earth.  We are so conditioned to see humans as “masters” of the animal “kingdom”, as if by right, of religion, evolution, or right of superior intelligence or mastery of tools.  And like any position of privilege, it is difficult to envision giving it up.


Obviously if one only takes what is necessary for life this puts the desire for adornment or for decoration in some question.  How ethical is it to mine, to remove the plant and animal life from the surface of the earth and make a deep pit for an open cut mine, if it is to provide for human adornment?  Is it ethical to mine to make decorative wrought iron gates, or even candle holders to make what can only be (at the moment) decorative light settings from candles?  Is studio glass or ceramic ever justified when you consider how much carbon is spent during their making?


Pentti Linkola would not think so. Linkola is a Finnish environmentalist who, when looking at the conflict between humans and the environment, comes out strongly in support of the latter, to the point of destruction of the former.  He blames humans for the destruction of the environment and has promoted such ideas as genocide, forced sterilisations and abortions, and bands of eco-guerillas to control population. He strongly promotes the dismantling of capitalist and industrial systems. His ideal of society is a totalitarian dictatorship, where the majority of the population lives in a similar state to the Middle Ages, where consumption is limited only to renewable resources.  He writes,


“What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”[2]


This is a serious threat to our vision of the life we would like to live.  But Linkola is clear that material wealth has never made for happiness; all that has ever made us happy, he states, is lack and the striving to achieve.  The fact that we have made the only lack we consider a material one might plausible do with some serious rethinking, whether one agrees with genocide or not.


In 1985 Australian ecologist Val Plumwood was on a solo canoe trip in isolated bush country when she saw what she thought was a stick.  It turned out to be a crocodile which attacked her and subjected her to several “death rolls” before she escaped, badly mauled, and crawled over two miles to find help. This experience made her realise in a rather visceral way that humans are part of the food chain – a realisation we have come a long way towards protecting ourselves from in the last few centuries.  From this a great deal of her thinking and writing developed.  Her works Feminism and the Mastery of Nature  (1993)and Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason (2002) critique the views depicted by Kumar, which Plumwood describes as “the standpoint of mastery”.  These views, based on a separation between oneself and the other, are those associated with sexism, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and the abuse of nature.  She argues that this separated self, based on Cartesian dualisms (male/female, human/animal, mind/body, nature/culture) are harmful both for the planet and for humans on the planet, and argues for an ecological ethic based on empathy for the other.  She sees value in a philosophy which values and places ethical responsibilities in both the divisions and the connections between the self and the other, and between humans and the environment.


There is no real point in pretending that, for deep greens, the practice of decorative arts and crafts is mainly irrelevant and useless.  For them, the idea of studio craft is an anathema.  They might agree that it would be acceptable to use materials and carbon to make extensions of tools or functions such as eating or drinking vessels, knives, fishhooks or spades.  But decorative objects which are destructive of the natural world in the course of their manufacture would be unacceptable.


However, there is an argument that the pursuit of beauty as a human endeavour is not a pure waste of materials.  When William Blake wrote,


          The wild deer wandering here and there,

          Keeps the human soul from care[3]


he did not mean that the purpose of the deer was to make humans happy; rather, that humans need a sense and an experience of nature and wildness to maintain their souls, or perhaps more prosaically, their sense of wholeness, or even their happiness.  And Herbert Marcuse thought that art went beyond the idea of aesthetic enhancement leading to human happiness and saw art as a more explosive force that would lead to the subversion of a repressive hegemony.  When we see a piece of art that speaks of beauty in nature perhaps we become more aware of the problems we have caused in nature.  Perhaps craft can be an ecological call to arms through beauty, and in this way, along with a mindful reconstruction in the way we make things, might be reconciled to a position of integration with ideas of deep ecology.


[2]  accessed 5 January 2010

[3] Auguries of Innocence, 1803