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SFSF - Schools For a Sustainable Future
Joseph Natoli, SFSF Project Director, surrounded by happy, enthusiastic children
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Hans Hoik
Deep Ecology Workshop

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Deep ecology - Asking Deep Questions

Why Deep?


Earlier this year I was teaching an Environmental Studies course at the Australian Catholic University.

Towards the end of the semester I invited Hans Foik to take the class and develop some Deep Ecology exercises as part of the course.

It was fantastic!

Activities which help people get in touch with their soul and with each other were a powerful way of starting to recognise just how close we are to each other and the natural world which we too often view with rational efficiency.

We are integral parts of the earth. We are the water, the soil the air. We ignore this reality at our peril. Deep Ecology offers the opportunity to remind us of our roots.

Joseph Natoli - Project Director
SFSF June 29th 2000


The term 'Deep Ecology' was first introduced by the Norwegian activist and philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970's when stressing the need to move beyond superficial responses to the social and ecological problems we face. He proposed that we ask 'deeper questions', looking at the 'how and why' of the way we live and seeing how this fits with our deeper beliefs, needs and values.

Asking questions like,

"How can I live in a way that is good for me,
other people and our planet?"

Deep Ecology can also be seen as part of a much wider process of questioning of the basic assumptions in our society that is leading to a new way of looking at science, politics, economics, healthcare, education, spirituality and many other areas. Because this change in the way we see things is so wide ranging, it has been called a new 'worldview'. It tends to emphasise the relationships between different areas, bringing together personal and social change, science and spirituality, economics and ecology. Deep Ecology applies this new worldview to our relationships with Earth. We move away from seeing ourselves as 'individuals', towards seeing ourselves as part of Earth. This can increase both our sense of belonging in life and our tendency to act for life.


Four Dimensions of deep Ecology;
by Chris Johnston, UK.


1. Ideas

The central idea of deep ecology is that we are part of Earth, rather than apart and separate from it. This idea is in contrast to the dominant individualism of our culture, where seeing ourselves as separate from our world makes it easier to not be bothered by what's happening in it.

This century, two key ideas have emerged from scientific thinking that support this view. The first idea comes from Systems Theory and the second idea is called the Gaia Hypothesis.

Systems Theory sees the world in terms of 'systems', where each system is a 'whole' that is more than the sum of it's parts, but also itself a 'part' of larger systems. For example, a cell is more than just a pile of molecules and itself is a part of larger systems, eg. an organ. An organ is one level a whole in itself but on another, it is part of a system called an organism, eg. a person. A family and community can both be seen as 'systems' in which the 'parts' are people.

The Gaia Hypothesis takes this idea further and applies it to the whole planet. All life on/in Earth can be seen as a whole that is more than the sum of it's parts. The whole is like a huge super-lifeform that we call ''Gaia' (after the name of the ancient Greek goddess of Earth). Living systems have a tendency to keep themselves in balance but also to adapt and evolve over time. Scientists have found that Earth also has these tendencies, with feedback mechanisms to 'keep in balance' the temperatures and oxygen levels in the atmosphere, just as our bodies maintain the temperature and oxygen levels in our blood.

The Gaia Hypothesis states that Earth is alive and that we are part of it. This is something many other cultures have known for centuries.

2. Feelings

Facing the scale of social and ecological crisis in our world can leave us feeling numbed, overwhelmed and powerless. Yet there is often little place for such feelings in conventional politics or society in general. A common response is to deny or distract ourselves from any uncomfortable feelings about the state of the world, and to carry on with 'business as usual'.

If we see ourselves as part of the world, it becomes possible to see that such uncomfortable feelings may serve a valuable function. Just as it hurts when we put our finger over a flame, 'pain for the world' alerts us to the injuries of the world and can move us to respond. Allowing ourselves to feel for the world also opens us to a source of energy and aliveness, and a strength that comes from connection to something more than just our narrow selves.

3. Spirituality

Spirituality is to do with our inner sense of connection with something larger than ourselves and with our relationship with what we see as sacred. This can give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose beyond material wealth, and special moments where we feel more deeply connected can provide an important source of strength in difficult times.

If we see ourselves as part of Gaia's 'web of life', then a Deep Ecology approach to spirituality might emphasise our relationship with this larger whole. We may look at life itself as sacred, and see the possibility of the larger force of life acting through us in our work for earth recovery. This can be an important source of inspiration when we face and respond to the problems of the world.

4. Action

When we integrate our beliefs, ideas and values into our behaviour, we bring them alive and give them power to influence the world. If we see ourselves as separate from the world, it is easy to dismiss our actions as irrelevant or unlikely to make any difference. Yet from the Deep Ecology perspective, we are part of the world will have ripples that extend beyond us. What may seem tiny and insignificant by itself always adds to a larger context, so that every time we act or life, we put our energy behind the shift toward a life sustaining culture.


The Natural world is subject as well as object. The natural world is the maternal source of our being as earthlings and life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral and religious existence. the natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. to be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.

-excerpt from
'The Dream of the Earth'
by Thomas Berry



  • 'Coming Back to life', - Joanna Macy and Molly young Brown
  • 'World as Lover, World as Self' - Joanna Macy
  • 'New World - New Mind' , - Paul Erlich and Robert Ornstien
  • 'Ecopsychology',- Edited by Theodore Roszak
  • 'The Dream of the Earth', - Thomas Berry
  • 'The Sacred Balance', - David Suzuki
  • 'Thinking like a mountain', - John seed, Joanna Macy, Patricia Fleming and Arne Naess (eds)
  • 'Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth' - James Lovelock
  • 'The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology' - Theodore Roszak
  • 'The Thought if the Heart and Soul of the World' - James Hillman
  • 'The Death of Nature' - Carolyn Merchant
  • 'Toward A Transpersonal Psychology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism' - Warwick Fox
  • 'The End of Nature' - Bill Mckibben
  • 'Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World' - Arne Naess, - 'Thinking Like a Mountain'

Internet Resources

Deep Ecology Website - go to Deep Ecology

Hans Foik
Facilitator and Trainer
Deep Ecology Processes and Programs for schools, staff and students
E-mail Hans Foik.

Deep Ecology Network
E-mail Ruth Yeatman and ask to be put on our mailing list.


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