High Waters Run Deep

In Search of the Root of Ecological Decline.

When a human experiences a personal crisis; depression, loss, burn out, divorce, addiction or illness, they often have to go deep to find a way out of the crisis. The grief for what is no longer there, the broken heart, the wounded body, the overworked or addicted mind, they need a deep approach to become healthy again. Not superficial quick fixes, but rather deep insights are what is needed. 

Could this approach also apply to the ecological crisis humanity is experiencing?

What would that look like? 

Just as a lack of connection often underlies addiction, perhaps a lack of connection with the natural world has resulted in our ecological crisis. Most of us are alienated from the natural world, and in order to reconnect with the natural world, we need to see ourselves as part of it so that alienation disappears.

Deep ecology

This is the central thought behind the ecological movement deep ecology, which holds that everything alive, regardless of its usefulness to humans, has an inherent value, and that our society should be designed in line with that understanding. Deep ecology distances itself from human-centred thinking and the predominantly Christian notion, that humans are the rulers of nature. This deep, connected way of thinking isn’t entirely new. It was already alive in the ancient nature religion, of which mainly female practitioners were accused of “witchcraft” in the days when the church still had a huge influence on daily life.

Could deep ecology and connection to the natural world help us leave the environmentally destructive path we are on? And what exactly do we mean by ‘nature’? That meadow in front of your house, the grazing sheep, the river stream, the ancient oak tree along the water’s edge, the fields of wildflowers where bees love to visit?

What is ‘nature’?

According to the dictionary, nature is “everything on earth that is not man-made: the plants, animals, mountains, etc.”

“Nature is a vague concept, especially in the Netherlands, where everything is built up and designated. Nature is often romantic,” writes philosopher Eva Meijer in the essay Vuurduin, which is about the disappearing nature in the Netherlands.

“It seems as if the concept of nature refers to something fixed in reality, something with the wild world without human interference, wild mountain peaks and primeval forests, huts on the moors, Rousseau, Thoreau or, if need be, the Dutch Wadden (The Wadden Sea is the largest tidal area in the world).”

There is also something naive and obedient about the way we think about nature. We often think of nature as an area for relaxation and walks. The dutch Wadden Sea is a unique nature area that is crucial for migratory birds. There are also the Veluwe and the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserves, which, although not as primordial, are both of enormous ecological value.

The Dutch poet J.C. Bloem wrote in the poem The Dapper Street, freely translated from Dutch to English:

Nature is for the contented or the empty. And then: what is still nature in this country? A piece of forest, the size of a newspaper. A hill with some tiny villas against it.’

Functional view

As long as we continue to think of nature as something outside of us to enjoy or profit from, or, like J.C. Bloem, to be annoyed by, we will, according to former Thinker of the Fatherland, René ten Bos, maintain a functional view of nature. 

We owe this functional view of nature mainly to the Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, who contrasted mind or interiority with body or matter. Reason versus emotion. Under his influence, European history favours culture and reason over nature and emotion. For example, Descartes viewed animals as machines that experience no feeling or emotion. And nature as something outside of ourselves.

Are we owners of the mountains, the seas, the earth? Or are we stewards? Are we partners of the animals, the plants and all that lives? Or are we part of nature? Our personal and cultural history largely determines how we answer this question.

Philosopher and ecologist, Matthijs Schouten, calls to review and, if necessary, urgently revise our attitude towards nature. In the West, we see nature primarily as a resource, as property, to do with as we please. This idea dates back to the time of Aristotle, who made a hierarchy of the natural world. At the bottom are the minerals, then the lower and higher plants, after the lower and higher animals, and finally at the very top of the hierarchy is man. The lower must serve the higher.


Later this idea found purchase in Christianity, which proclaims that nature was created to serve man, provided we take good care of it. The fact that these days we view the earth and its resources as something we can use and exploit is exactly what has led us to the present ecological crisis, Schouten believes. “we should therefore grow in the idea that we are not in this world, but of this world, that human beings are part of nature.” Human well-being and the health of nature and the planet are inseparably intertwined.

An idea of violence

Nature and culture are not opposites, bye bye Descartes!, and nature is not something for the satisfied or the empty, bye bye J.C. Bloem!, but nature is us. Our body is an ecological organism and communicates on many levels with bacteria and cells, including those outside us. Animals are sentient beings and, like humans, know emotions such as joy, pain and fear. The functional view of nature, and therefore of animals, urgently needs a major overhaul. The idea that we as humans are separate from nature is an outdated and violent idea. A more integral and deep view is needed that promotes the inherent value of all living organisms, regardless of function for human needs.

In her latest book, The Sacred Nature, Karen Armstrong demonstrates through many ancient mystics, thinkers and poets that we can look at nature — as they did — to rediscover that the divine is inseparable from nature. According to Armstrong, the vision of a sacred nature offers an escape from the current destructive path we just can’t seem to get off. Protesting and marching are not enough.

Nature is political

In addition to personal and cultural history, our political preference also plays a role in how we look at nature. If we look at the political field, we see standing up for the health of nature (and thus ourselves) as a subject of progressive and left-wing parties. Nature and  climate change are taunted as “left-wing hobbies” by the conservative — and ultra-right. That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Pretty mad that conservative parties in particular appear to consider nature and the environment of minor importance. You would expect it to be important to them that nature and habitat are also conserved. But nature should not be left or right at all, the fact that it is, seems rather miserable and sad to me.

Renewed view of humanity

A true solution to the ecological degradation and climate emergency is not just sustainability, but a renewed view of our humanity, one which is not separate from nature, but rather a part of it. Deep ecology looks deeper into the causes of the current ecological crisis and finds them in our relationship to other life forms. According to deep ecologists, man fancies himself a ruler on earth and sees the earth only as a supply of energy, which must be greedily guzzled up. The Godfather of deep ecology is Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who has further developed this movement of ecology since the 1970s. According to Naess, alienation ceases when we identify with all forms of life.

You could say that deep ecology is also a form of spirituality. It calls for a change of consciousness, a different way of seeing and being, in which the natural world is a complex of relationships and in which the existence of organisms depends on the existence of others within ecosystems. 

Humans are part of this whole. Because of this awareness, deep ecologists look at the world differently than “ordinary” ecologists, who see nature as a resource where humans play a central role.

A true solution to the ecological degradation and climate emergency is not just sustainability, but a renewed view of our humanity, one which is not separate from nature, but rather a part of it.

By attentively noticing how the mulberry tree lost its leaves in the winter and now slowly grows new leaves every day, how the freesias slowly emerged and are suddenly in full bloom, how the kale sprouted from the ground and later finds its way to my plate, and by finding out the names and uses of the wild plants in the web of life around us, we connect with the natural world. That naturally leads to an urge and commitment to take action for a healthy environment and reduce consumption.


Deep ecologists are for the preservation of wilderness, for simple living and for fewer people on earth. They advocate going back to basics. The activist movement also receives criticism. For example, there are accusations of green fundamentalism or eco-fascism. If there are deep ecologists who believe that everyone should just surrender their freedom of movement for the betterment of the whole, yes there is a chance that the political consequence of deep ecology will become authoritarian.

Instrument of change

Still, I believe that with a healthy deep ecology, we have an instrument of change to become closer to nature, and therefore to ourselves, making us want to work for a healthy environment. Doom and gloom stories make lethargic people and only foster feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. That is precisely what we don’t need.

I have a deep dark green heart, but one more fear mongering article that says we really need to take action now or it will be too late and the planet will warm by three or four degrees Celsius, doesn’t affect me anymore. And I dare say, with me many others. Not that I choose to bury my head in the sand. Absolutely not. I would suggest that we radically rethink our individual relationship to nature and think and act from that connected consciousness. Matthijs Schouten makes a very strong point by stating that the deep cause of biodiversity loss and environmental pollution is our human relationship to nature. This is also consistent with deep ecology.

Climate doom and gloom stories make lethargic people and only foster feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Alarmism kills

We can actively search for the deeper nature and meaning of our life resources and the web of life, whether we are in the city or the country. Above all, don’t get caught up in alarmist headlines, which seem somewhat superficial anyway. How many concerned posts I have seen on LinkedIn in the past week in response to the latest IPCC climate report. Understandable, but whether it helps people take action? I don’t think so. Fear and panic are not the best motivators anyway. To call it a “climate hell” won’t help at all. I expect both powerlessness and resistance to climate news will grow stronger in the near future. Isn’t it tragic that we can’t solve the ecological crisis and climate crisis, mainly because we think so differently about them?

It is time to go deeper, find connection, and possibly deep ecology can provide tools for this, such as simpler living, back to basics, connection with nature and rewilding. It may sound radical or unattainable, but it is primarily an inner consciousness process that every human being can do. This can express itself somewhere between plants in your city apartment, a strip of land, seeking the silence in a garden or further away on one of the Dutch Wadden Islands, to staying in a Norwegian mountain hut and cultivating a piece of land.

I invite you.

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Previously published in Dutch on Reporters Online


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