‘Simple in means, rich in ends’

We can learn a lot from the life of Arne Naess

Randy Larsen teaches environmental ethics in the Philosophy Department at Chico State University. He is the former host of EcoTalk, a nationally syndicated radio show.

I was sad to hear of the passing of Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist Arne Naess. He was known for his rigorous philosophical support of non-anthropocentrism (nonhuman centeredness). He eloquently defended his belief that the world’s ecosystems, natural processes and nonhuman species are equally as important as humankind. Naess coined the phrase “deep ecology.”

Arne Naess is a household name in Norway. He was knighted by King Harald. He received the Sonning Prize, Europe’s highest academic honor, for his contribution to European culture. He had long been considered one of Europe’s most accomplished mountain climbers.

When I think of Arne Naess, two things stand out. One is the grace with which he lived a life he described as “simple in means, rich in ends.” He is often cited as an inspiration behind the modern voluntary-simplicity movement.

During a radio interview he once said to me, in a voice peppered with enthusiasm and a thick Norwegian accent, “In a cabin, high above tree line, I have six containers of water—six, in the middle of winter! Isn’t that richness? Yes! A life with music, a life with nature, very rich life with very simple means. If you can do that, then the planet, of course, is saved.”

Naess wrote that “humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of the planet except to satisfy vital human needs.” The phrase “vital human needs” was deliberately vague. Naess believed if we focus on exploring what vital human needs are and not on accumulating more material wealth we (humans and the rest of the planet) would be better off.

Arne Naess

The other quality about Naess that touches me was his commitment to what he called a “constructive program.” He was a passionate defender of his views and was extremely respectful. He taught that when confronted by those who do not share your point of view, it is “constructive” to see things from their perspective.

Ask about the other’s idea until “it is possible to describe it completely fairly; until the other can say, ‘Yes, that is what I stand for.’ “ Then, if you are not convinced, criticize the person’s position but not the person.

It is OK, even desirable, to challenge ideas that you understand but do not agree with, but it is not constructive to disparage people or misrepresent ideas. If you do not misrepresent other persons’ positions, they will be less likely to misrepresent you. “And this,” he told me, “I think is a very good thing.”

Arne Naess lived in a brick hut he built with his own hands, high above tree line. He died in his sleep Monday night a few days short of his 97th birthday.