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MESSERSMITH-GLAVIN, Paul. Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy
Article published on 3 January 2013
last modification on 22 December 2012

by r-c.
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Published by the Institute for Anarchist Studies

Gary Snyder is not a philosopher, nor does he “consider himself particularly a ‘Beat.’”(1) Snyder is a poet, an essayist, an outdoorsman and a practitioner of Buddhism. But despite his reluctance to identify with the Beat title, he has been an undeniable influence on the Beat generation and its writers. He was fictionalized as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums(2) , and helped initiate the San Francisco Renaissance by organizing poetry readings with his close friend Allen Ginsberg, among others, thus ushering in the Beats as a recognized social force. Although not technically a philosopher in the traditional or academic sense, his writings contain a very complex treatment of modern society’s relationship to the natural world. Snyder’s chief concerns are protecting nature from the ravages of civilization, putting humans back in touch with our “wild” selves and returning us to a sense of self-contemplation, community and embeddedness in nature.

Snyder puts his philosophical views into practice in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he has made his home since 1970. Eschewing publicity, he sits za zen every day, and is a life-long proponent of ecological thinking. Snyder also draws from Mahayana Buddhism, bioregionalism and social anarchism in developing his perspective and philosophical orientation. Snyder most clearly spells out the beliefs he conveys through his poetry and practices in his essay work and interviews.

Because Snyder’s views are so nuanced, it’s possible for various schools of thought to adopt him as their own. Despite being claimed by proponents of deep ecology, and finding his place within this school of thought, Snyder’s background, his reading of Marx and anarchism, and his philosophical and political concerns align him also with social ecology, making him an appropriate bridge between these two polarized nature philosophies. The debates between social ecology and deep ecology characterized the emergent Green movement in the 1980s and 90s, and had a tremendous influence within the Earth First! movement. They reverberate today as we face an increasingly dire ecological future. Social ecology is primarily concerned with the dialectic between forms of domination in the human world, and how this leads to the domination of nature. It is a view that emphasizes that the solution to humans’ destruction of non-human nature is a social one. Deep ecology is more concerned with changing human consciousness, drawing from religious and philosophical perspectives. Snyder acknowledges both, emphasizing the need to change consciousness, while advocating for social changes to reharmonize human’s relationship to non-human nature.

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