Arne Naess: Philosopher who invented the concept of 'deep ecology'

I have learned as much from my rats as I have learned from Plato," Arne Naess informed a startled Karl Popper. Naess was the highly influential Norwegian philosopher whose ideas about ecology and humans' relationship with the environment have informed and enriched many of today's green activists and movements. His key notion of "deep ecology" is the idea that all of nature matters and deserves equal consideration, not just those parts that impinge upon humans. Among his 30 books, both technical and popular, and hundreds of papers, were such bestsellers as Life's Philosophy: reason and feeling in a deeper world (2002) which made him the man whom Norwegian teen-agers most wanted to meet. Although the environmentalist Bill McKibben called this good-humoured, ever-welcoming creator of "ecosophy" a "universal great-grandfather", Naess shied away from the idea of disciples.

Naess was born into a wealthy family outside Oslo in 1912; his father, Ragnar, died a year later. His mother, Christine, had sublimated dramatic aspirations into bringing up six children, of whom two died young, and widowhood exacerbated her over-attentiveness. Naess resisted this, becoming somewhat emotionally detached, and preferred his governess, Mina. Childhood observation of marine life-forms offered refuge, as did mountains, especially the Hallingskarvet range near Oslo, where he would later spend large portions of his adult life. At 15 he went climbing there alone and, on encountering a hermit, spent a week with him: porridge and dried bread were leavened by the fellow's violin.

Naess was adept in languages, including Sanskrit, and read Spinoza in Latin, where he warmed to the belief that "human nature is such that the sight of others' happiness releases happiness in ourselves". Spinoza guided him forever. From Oslo University, where he studied philosophy in the early Thirties, he went to Paris and then Vienna, where he spent just over a year. Here his first book – Truth as conceived by those who are not professional philosophers, based on questionnaires given to ordinary people – was published in 1938. He underwent analysis with a disciple of Freud six days a week for 14 months, after a fellow student inferred that his enjoyment of organ concerts denoted a psychological lack. He was also given the opportunity to observe mental patients – disguised in a white coat – before returning to Norway.

There, in the mid-1930s, he began retreats to a mountain hut at Trevgastein [Crossed Stones]. These did not daunt his first wife, Else, whom he had married in 1937, and with whom he had two sons. Theirs was the companionable union of friends (they had known each other since the age of seven) and Naess had various lovers, too.

In 1938 they went to Berkeley, where Naess studied behavioural science under E.C. Tolman. He digressed into observing rats' struggles within a maze – and, what's more, the scientists' behaviour, something dismissed by his fellow philosopher Popper as "zoology".

At 27 ("emotionally in my teens", as he later described himself), he became Norway's only Professor of Philosophy. With the German invasion in 1940, thought met action. Steeped in Gandhi, Naess advocated non-violent resistance rather than outright sabotage. (Indeed, the Geneva Convention decreed that any fighters had to be in uniform: the casually clothed could be summarily executed.) To begin with, the university remained open, but by 1943 things had changed. Naess, by now a discreet resistance member, received information that many students would be sent to concentration camps. He prevented the despatch of some; others were caught while debating whether the warning was a hoax. In post-war years, as well as working on democracy for Unesco in Paris, he supervised investigations into those who had never returned. He did not disclose what tactics the Norwegian resistance had used, lest they be needed after a Soviet invasion.

Adroit organisation meant that he spent much of each week in the Norwegian mountains, and climbed others around the world; he was part of the first expedition to climb Tirich Mir, in Pakistan, in 1950. By now, he and Else had separated and he married Siri, with whom he had a daughter. Visiting professorships included strife-ridden, pot-heavy Berkeley in 1968. He was there persuaded to try LSD, and later told the story of a mother telephoning shortly afterwards to explain that a son's essay would be late because he had been bitten by an animal in Mexico; Naess's reply was even more surreal. Always ready with humorous anecdotes, he once recalled Nato's Halvard Lange stating that he was essentially a pacificist; Lange's wife whispered to Naess, "then I am a virgin".

Belated reading of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) led Naess, back in Oslo, to resign from his philosophical post and pursue ecological concerns. Early protests led to a key role in Greenpeace. In 1972, in Budapest, he first spoke of "deep ecology"; that is, a whole way of self-sufficient being, amid the world's creatures and plants, rather than simply forsaking plastic carrier-bags.

He was not, however, dogmatic, and, indeed, benefited from his rich siblings' subsidy of foreign explorations, including the Hong Kong visit on which he met his third wife, Kit-Fai. (His nephew, also called Arne Naess, was a shipping tycoon who was married for some years to Diana Ross, and died in a mountaineering accident in 2004.)

Naess's Ecology, community and lifestyle (1976, translated 1989) anticipated many green concerns and tactics, such as "fifth columnists" within established political parties, while continually emphasising life's joy (as does a volume of conversations with David Rothenberg). Central from the start was that "humankind is the first species on earth with the intellectual capacity to limit its numbers consciously and live in an enduring, dynamic equilibrium with other forms of life". So integrated was his own life that he last took a holiday in his teens.

Christopher Hawtree

Arne Dekke Eide Naess, philosopher and ecologist: born Slemdal, Norway 27 January 1912; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died Oslo 12 January 2002.

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam