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The Green interview: Silver Donald Cameron speaks with David Orton.

Deep ecology is a perspective that sees all life forms--man, moose, or microbe--as having an equal right to survive and flourish. Its founding philosopher was Arne Naess, a Norwegian, and one of its leading proponents in recent years was David Orton.

But David Orton was not only an ecological philosopher and a bold thinker. He was a deeply principled man who made a remarkable effort to live in accordance with his beliefs. After working as a shipwright, a university professor, and an organizer, he spent his last twenty years minimizing his ecological footprint by subsisting on a small hill farm in Nova Scotia, which he and his wife, Helga Hoffman-Orton, deliberately allowed to become overgrown, and to return to forest. He ran for Parliament as a Green Party candidate and supported local ecological causes-but his main effort went into his Deep Green Blog, where he strove to create a philosophical position called "left biocentrism" that blended the essence of his earlier Marxism with the tenets of deep ecology.

In early 2011, David Orton was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He faced his own death with great courage and dignity, and I was fortunate enough to interview him just a couple of weeks before he died.

Silver Donald Cameron:

I wanted to start by asking you about being in The Council of All Beings. That struck me as being an absolutely fascinating experience. So you're dealing with visions and you're dealing with speaking for another life form. Can you tell me what that's like?

David Orton:

The Council of All Beings was something developed within deep ecology by Arne Naess and several other people. There's a little book out on it. My first introduction was when we went to a deep ecology workshop in Vermont. I was struggling to find a left position within deep ecology and a person called Andy McLaughlin had a very important book out on industrial society and deep ecology. He led this Council.

Basically, we sat quietly on a hilltop and people decided what life form--or it could be a river or a mountain or water-they wanted to take on. We made masks ... I am always a coyote. Being a coyote or being a river or whatever it was, people spoke with the pain of this. It was basically a way of trying to cut across this border of anthropocentrism, where everything is seen as a resource and there for humankind. It's like moving to a level where you're part of an eco-centric universe, where you're just one species among other species.


How do you feel when you are being a coyote?


You feel very emotional. Sometimes it is quite symbolic; you could have drums or flute, interspersing the people speaking. It's quite an emotional kind of experience.


In a way, it's almost like immersing yourself in the very tenets of deep ecology.


Yeah, that's right, in a practical way. Cameron:

Let's talk a little bit about deep ecology and what deep ecology is and where the boundaries of it might lie.


Well, I think the root of deep ecology is highly individual. I know for myself, when I was in British Columbia, I think that was a transforming period for myself in terms of my consciousness and I started to see things being very ridiculous, like with Macmillan Bloedel. They had a slogan, which said forests are primarily for lumber production. Then when we talked about clearcuts and the impact on raptors or woodpeckers, well, they would put up nest boxes in the clearcuts!

I think the essence of deep ecology is coming to a new relationship with the natural world. And basically that's to say that other life forms have their own intrinsic value. That value is not dependent upon them being given that value by humans. So that would be one point.

Another point would be--and I think this is very important, and of course this is where the mainstream and the radical environmental movements diverge--shallow ecology was that ecology which took for granted industrial society and tried to clean its act up. Deep ecology was seeing that the fundamental environmental problems are a product of industrial society. Basically, you had to replace industrial society if you wanted to address environmental issues. In that sense, [deep ecology] is also anti-capitalist too. Capitalism is built on growth and no ecological limits, we all know that. So if you have an economic system which doesn't recognize ecological limits, then you're going to basically get into serious trouble.

What Naess said was that it wasn't capitalism perse, or socialism, it was industrial society, and industrial society could have a capitalist or socialist face. If you read Naess, he's much more sympathetic to socialism. He would say, for example, that many of the best fighters on the environmental side come from the socialist movement. He also had the criticism of socialism and Marxism, which I have as well.


All of this leads you to be sharply critical of some of the language that's used in these things. I'm thinking for example about your attitude towards words like "resource," or "harvest," or "wind farm." Tell me about that because this has all led you to feel the need to reform language a bit.


Well, I think language reflects philosophy, basically. If you have a human-centric philosophy, which has been around for a long time, then it will be reflected in the language, and "resource" is a good example I guess. "Wind farm" it's a way of smothering over industrial turbines. It's industrializing the rural landscape, and "harvest" treats the forest like an agricultural crop. Or the question of "weed species" -that's weed species from the view of the pulp and paper industry. There are no "weed species" in Nature, you know. Someone mentioned that recently, that idea that a weed is a plant out of place, that's all.


Talk a little more about "resource," because as you've reflected in your writing, if you call it a resource, you change its character, right?


Yes, that's right. If you call something a resource, you presume that it's there for human use. At the same time, if you don't use that word, it often becomes difficult to find the language, the alternative language. That's the basic idea of "resourcism." If you talk about things as a resource, whether it's fish as a resource or trees as a resource, you presuppose that it is there for human use. It's that sort of human arrogance, that anthropocentrism again.

To see this full one-hour interview (in video, audio, or transcript), go to the website and sign up for a free one-week subscription. The site offers more than sixty in-depth interviews with environmental giants from around the world.

Silver Donald Cameron, host and executive producer at The Green Interview, is one of Canada's most respected authors and broadcasters. The Living Beach, his classic book on the ecology of shorelines, was re-issued in 2014 by Red Deer Press. -NL News and Resources
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Author:Cameron, Silver Donald
Publication:Natural Life
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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