The Ecological Self: Connecting who we are and the natural world

An introduction to the deep ecology concept of Self-Realization

The ecological self is a term introduced by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess to describe human potential to identify with other living beings, widening and deepening our sense of who we are to include everything alive upon our planet and even the Earth itself. In his essay ‘Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World’, first published in 1987, Naess sets out a powerful vision: ‘Now it is the time to share with all life on our maltreated Earth through the deepening identification with life forms and the greater units, the ecosystems, and Gaia, the fabulous, old planet of ours.’¹

Naess (b. 1912 — d. 2009) was the founder of Deep Ecology, a philosophical movement that values the flourishing of all life on Earth, considers humans an intrinsic part of nature, and recognizes the need to heal the relationship between humans and the more-than-human world. Here I summarize the main points of Naess’s article ‘Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World’, in which he sets out two crucially important ideas: widening and deepening our experience of the self, and transforming environmentalism into a joyful and powerful movement for cultural change and healing.

Widening and Deepening the Self

Naess argues that Western approaches to psychology and philosophy traditionally describe humans maturing from an individualized ego, to include a social and moral self in our understanding of who we are, commonly leaving Nature out of all consideration. This underestimates what the self is.

Naess writes: ‘We may be said to be in, of and for Nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer.’ For this reason, he presents a fourth aspect of the self, the ecological self. He defines it simply:

‘The ecological self of a person is that with which this person identifies.’

What is meant by identification? The first example Naess gives is of himself watching a flea suffer and die trapped in a drop of acid. He felt deep compassion and empathy for the flea, and considers this identification.

Another example he gives is a mother’s love for her child. His first description of this is negative. He quotes Erich Fromm on the archetypal self-sacrificing mother, whose child feels the weight of her bitterness towards life, because healthy love of others requires a strong foundation in self-love. Later in the essay, Naess refers to the Buddha teaching that ‘the human mind should embrace all living things as a mother cares for her son, her only son.’ He does not compare these two mothers, or appear to notice the recurrence of imagery. The first mother meets disapproval, the second deep approval. The difference, in the essay, is that the mother with Buddha-mind loves joyously, with vitality, and with secure self-love. It follows that there is no need for any moral exhortation or sense of difficult duty to embrace the world lovingly: it is natural and joyful. (How this may look in the practical experience of mothers is not addressed in this essay, though I think it would be relevant to consider.)

In these examples, identification is experienced in certain emotions: love, compassion, empathy, joy. Growing into wider and deeper connection with others through these states of mind is a part of self-realization.

Potential and Self-Realization

Naess suggests, however, that emotion alone and feeling a connection with others is incomplete. He argues that other people and beings of other species have their own inherent potentials that they wish to realize. Identification, then, involves careful attention to these particularities: ‘animals and plants have interests in the sense of ways of realizing inherent potentialities which we can only study interacting with them.’

Joy is experienced as we come into relation with the world and with other beings, especially in interactions with the natural world (which of course includes other human people), giving us a deepened perception of reality. Self-realization takes place when the ecological self reaches out to embrace co-existence with diverse beings, who are themselves experiencing self-realization.

Naess is careful to distinguish self-realization from an ‘ego-trip’. Using the word ‘self’ risks this misunderstanding, so he speaks directly to those who might make such a mistake:

‘You are much greater, deeper, more generous and capable of more dignity and joy than you think! A wealth of non-competitive joys is open to you!’

By using ‘self’ he invites radical change, by shifting the meaning of a word that has historically created an illusion of separation towards a radical and deeper perception of who we are.

Shifting Environmental Ethics

For Naess, ‘Joy of life and meaning of life is increased through increased self-realization.’ That means that ecological destruction ‘decreases the potential of joyful existence for all.’ Many of us feel this instinctively, because the ecological self is an essential part of who we are. At heart, activists working to fight climate change, ecological destruction and extinction, are inspired by love for this world and the diversity of life.

Yet a dominant perception of ‘environmentalism’ is that it is about giving things up, and constraining ourselves not to live as we please. As Naess writes, ‘Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within environmentalism has given the public the false impression that we primarily ask them to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, better morals.’

Naess proposes a shift in environmental ethics from sacrifice, to identification.

At first this may look similar to the kind of ‘shallow ecology’ that deep ecology criticizes, where ‘nature’ is to be preserved because it is important to humans. However, the argument is not that we must protect nature for our own survival (although that is true). It is about stepping into a way of existing that is larger and more vibrant, in ‘intimate relation to something bigger than our ego, something which has endured through millions of years and is worth continued life for millions of years.’

I have seen a shift towards this approach within ecological activism, even as the extinction crisis escalates and our ecosystems unravel at a faster pace. It is a way of thinking at the heart of many indigenous cultures and ancient wisdom traditions, who are being more clearly heard within the dominant culture today, through the work of diverse activists and writers. To make a list here feels reductive, because there is so much diversity within the field, but I am thinking of the work of writers such as Pat McCabe, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Bayo Akomolafe, Sherri Mitchell; and activists, such as those bravely protesting in Brazil’s Amazonia, at Standing Rock, and against the Keystone XL pipeline.

In his work, Naess refers to Ghandi and the Buddha, noting that within non-dualist traditions the concept of self is universal, from which the practice of non-violence follows naturally, without exhortation. Again, this language has become familiar within the eco-conversation. For example, millions are inspired by Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and his teaching of ‘interbeing’, our radical connection with all that is, taking this as inspiration to act for healing in the world.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to shift dominant culture from a story of the separate self, engaged in a competitive struggle for survival, to a culture of reunion and interbeing (to use the terms Charles Eisenstein has popularized in his books).


In ‘Self-Realization’ Naess does not discuss how to make this shift. He says it is the work of another paper, but he does refer to the need for ‘community therapy’: ‘Healing our relations to the widest community, that of all living beings’. The remark is a valuable gesture to the way in which acts of care, large and small, are an essential part of making this cultural shift.

There is an intriguing moment in the essay where Naess acknowledges that the process of identification is not always reciprocal. He gives the example of a place, such as a river. A person may feel the place is important to them, and therefore a part of them. If the place is damaged or destroyed, the person is no longer the same. But if the person dies, the place is unchanged. Anyone who has been involved in ecological campaigns and actions will have come across statements that suggest the Earth and other living species would be better off without humans, so it might be tempting to think the place would actually be better off without the person. But that is not the spirit of what Naess is saying. His emphasis upon the value of self-love at the start of the essay underlines this. Instead, perhaps there is the possibility of reciprocity between human and more-than-human. This is the goal and ideal with which the essay concludes: ‘we are the first kind of living beings we know of which have the potentialities of living in community with all other living beings. It is our hope that all those potentialities will be realized.’

Today’s ecological crises are more intense and threatening than when this essay was written, and escalating in severity. Yet the crises are also a summons, calling our attention to what has been happening for centuries: the tragic suppression of the ecological self. Every practice that awakens, grows and strengthens that self in interbeing is an act of healing, and through healing self-realization becomes far more than an ego-trip. It has the potential to be a joyful and reciprocal unfolding.

  1. 1. Quotations are from Arne Naess, ‘Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World’, The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy 4.3 (1987), available online.


This summary-essay was written following a discussion in the Deep Ecology Study-Action Group. Thank you to everyone who contributed to the conversation. If you would like learn more, you are welcome to join our online group on Facebook.

There are many ways of strengthening the ecological self. Start here for more practices, or with this introduction to exploring interbeing.



These essays explore the philosophical movement, Deep Ecology, to share and develop ideas for cultural change towards valuing and healing life on Earth, human and more-than-human.

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Kat Palti

Kat Palti writes about connecting with nature, meditation, deep ecology and yoga.