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The Ecological Self

We can enjoy a wider sense of identity than that prescribed by the Industrial Growth Society. It is both our birthright and our necessity for survival. Here are words from Arne Naess' ground-breaking talk introducing the concept of the ecological self.

For at least 2500 years, humankind has struggled with basic questions about who we are, what we are heading for, what kind of reality we are part of. Two thousand five hundred years is a short period in the lifetime of a species, and still less in the lifetime of the Earth, on whose surface we belong as mobile parts.

What I am going to say more or less in my own way, may roughly be condensed into the following six points:

1. We underestimate ourselves. I emphasize self. We tend to confuse it with the narrow ego.

2. Human nature is such that with sufficient all-sided maturity we cannot avoid "identifying" ourselves with all living beings, beautiful or ugly, big or small, sentient or not. I will elucidate my concept of identifying later.

3. Traditionally the maturity of the self develops through three stages--from ego to social self, and from social self to metaphysical self. In this conception of the process nature--our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children--is largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce the concept of an ecological self. We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community, but with the larger community of all living beings.

4. The joy and meaning of life is enhanced through increased self-realization, through the fulfillment of each being's potential. Whatever the differences between beings, increased self-realization implies broadening and deepening of the self.

5. Because of an inescapable process of indentification with others, with growing maturity, the self is widened and deepened. We "see ourself in others". Self-realization is hindered if the self-realization of others, with whom we identify, is hindered. Love of ourself will labor to overcome this obstacle by assisting in the self-realization of others according to the formula "live and let live." Thus, all that can be achieved by altruism--the dutiful, moral consideration of others-- can be achieved--and much more--through widening and deepening ourself. Following Immanuel Kant's critique, we then act beautifully but neither morally nor immorally.

6. The challenge of today is to save the planet from further devastation which violates both the enlightened self-interest of humans and nonhumans, and decreases the potential of joyful existence for all.
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I have another important reason for inviting people to think in terms of deepening and widening their selves, starting with narrow ego gratification as the crudest, but inescapable starting point. It has to do with the notion usually placed as the opposite of egoism, namely the notion of altruism. The Latin term ego has as its opposite the alter. Altruism implies that ego sacrifices its interest in favour of the other, the alter. The motivation is primarily that of duty; it is said that we ought to love others as strongly as we love ourself.

What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or more generally from moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited. From the Renaissance to the Second World War about four hundred cruel wars have been fought by Christian nations, usually for the flimsiest of reasons. It seems to me that in the future more emphasis has to be given to the conditions which naturally widen and deepen our self. With a sufficiently wide and deep sense of self, ego and alter as opposites are eliminated stage by stage as the distinctions are transcended.

Early in life, the social self is sufficiently developed so that we do not prefer to eat a big cake alone. We share the cake with our family and friends. We identify with these people sufficiently to see our joy in their joy, and to see our disappointment in theirs. Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth by deepening our identification with all life-forms, with the ecosystems, and with Gaia, this fabulous old planet of ours.
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From "Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World," Thinking Life A Mountain, with John Seed, Joanna Macy & Pat Fleming, New Society, 1988.