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David Orton, environmental activist, philosopher, dies at 77

Pictou County activist espoused deep ecology

by Bruce Wark

David Orton at home in Pictou Co.
David Orton at home in Pictou Co.

Writer, philosopher and longtime "deep green" environmental activist, David Orton died at his home in Watervale, Pictou County on Thursday. He was 77. Orton had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in March.

During his lifetime, Orton fought many battles against what he saw as destructive environmental practices. He campaigned vigorously, for example, against the widespread use of off-road, all-terrain vehicles; against forestry practices such as clear cutting; against the installation of industrial wind turbines, against the slaughter of seals and against uranium mining. Underpinning his activism was a belief in deep ecology a movement with a platform that says all forms of life have inherent value and that human beings have no right to reduce the “richness and diversity” of other life forms “except to satisfy vital needs.”

Orton’s main contribution to deep ecology was his work in helping to develop what he called "left biocentrism," a philosophical approach that blends environmental ethics with left-wing causes such as the fight for social justice. Left biocentrism opposes capitalism, economic growth and consumerism.

“An industrial capitalist society, that does not recognize ecological limits but only perpetual economic expansion and has the profit motive as driver, will eventually consume and destroy itself,” Orton wrote. “But we will all be taken down with it.”

Voluntary simplicity

Left biocentrism also advocates a simple style of life, something that Orton himself practised on his 130-acre farm where he lived for the last 27 years with his wife and frequent co-author, Helga Hoffmann-Orton. Over the years, the farm has gradually reverted to forest and habitat for the wildlife that Orton loved to observe.

In an essay entitled How We Live, he wrote, “The house is over 100 years old. It is small, but has two levels.” He goes on to report that he removed an oil stove when he first moved in, but the wood stove keeps the well-insulated house warm. “There is no indoor toilet,” he adds cheerfully, “but we have an outhouse a short distance from the house.”

David Keith Orton was born into a working-class family on January 6, 1934 in the industrial city of Portsmouth, England.  In 1957, he emigrated to Canada, where he attended Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), earning a Bachelor's degree in 1963.  In 1965, he received an MA from the New School for Social Research in New York City and studied for a Ph.D, but did not complete his thesis. He returned to teach at Sir George Williams from 1967 to 1969, but partly because he had not completed his Ph.D thesis, the university did not renew his teaching contract.

In an autobiographical essay, Orton added that the university was also put off by his political activism as part of a faculty/student group called Movement for Socialist Liberation.

“We opposed the recruitment of students on campus for war-related industries,” Orton wrote. “I remember being involved...in disrupting a visit by a corporate spokesperson who was coming to campus to recruit engineering students. This disruption quite upset some of the movers and shakers in the university, who saw it as a violation of academic freedom.”

Orton wrote that he went on to become an organizer with the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), running in two federal elections in Montreal. But he eventually resigned from the party because of its lack of “internal democracy.”

Nature's rhythms

In 1977, Orton moved to the Queen Charlotte Islands in B.C., where he worked for a fish-packing company. “Moving to the Charlottes greatly stoked my interest in environmental issues,” he wrote. “I decided to re-focus my organizing work on environmental issues.”

He realized that the big B.C. logging companies saw the forest simply as a “resource” for human exploitation. A month-long kayak trip with Helga heightened his sensitivity to environmental issues such as the campaign to preserve the wilderness on South Moresby Island.

“We mainly lived off edible plants and the fish we caught from the kayak,” he wrote. “It was a pretty unplanned trip, with no life jackets or signalling gear, just a compass and a map. This forced us to confront and adjust to some extreme weather, plus the natural rhythms of the oceans...The South Moresby kayak trip showed me that, for survival on that trip, it was necessary to understand Nature’s rhythms and to adjust to them.”

Nova Scotia activism

In 1979, Orton and Helga moved to Nova Scotia where they have been active in a wide variety of environmental causes. In the 2006 federal election, Orton ran unsuccessfully for the Green Party in Peter MacKay’s riding of Central Nova. However, his involvement with the party did not prevent him from criticizing it for adopting positions that he saw as accepting capitalist, industrial society. In an e-mail last year, for example, he criticized Green Party leader Elizabeth May for supporting the installation of wind turbines on Dalhousie Mountain, noting that he could see 20 of the giant turbines from his farm.

"Strong winds are now considered 'resources' to be exploited," Orton wrote. "What this means for the particular local ecology, where the winds will be put to industrial use, is unknown. But there will be an ecological, as well as a social, price to pay. Also, mountain ridges or other elevated natural areas, where wind turbines can be placed, will now be looked at as 'resources' to be exploited, in the name of sustainable energy. John Livingston, who first introduced the critique of 'resourcism' in his 1981 book Arctic Oil, got it brilliantly right: 'A 'resource' is anything that can be put to human use...It is the concept of 'resource' that allows us to perceive nature as our subsidiary.'"

In his last blogpost on April 30th, Orton thanked all those who had encouraged his contributions to deep ecology. “We all eventually return to the Earth,” the post ends. “Goodbye and keep fighting.”

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Topics: Environment
965 words


He'll be missed

I didn't agree with everything David Orton said, but  we did see eye to eye on many issues. I admired David for the strength of his convictions and his willingness - no, call that solid determination -  to act upon them.

I learned a lot from him - about deep ecology and also having the courage to state your case even when it may be unpopular.

He was faithful in alerting people to the latest trends towards environmental destruction, and frequently stabbed at our complacency. Good for him. 

He'll be missed.


Sorry to hear this

I knew David in Montreal in the late 1960s and have often thought of his English-accented pronunciation of comRADES.

Condolences to his family-members and friends.

David Orton

David set a high standard among environmentalists, calling into question many times the shallow green environmental movement who believe that we can still move forward within the current  system that is based on endless industrial growth. Given the token success of mainstream environmentalism over the past years the Deep Ecology world view that we must come into a new relationship with the Earth if we are to stop the demise of the planet still remains as important as ever.

David certainly walked the talk, living simply but deeply throughout his years in Pictou County. It was interesting at the funeral to listen to good people from the NSWOOA speak up and tell everyone in attendance that Davids views on industrial forestry were radical a few years back, but that he has been proven correct as time has passed as we continue to see the unabated destruction of the Acadian Forest by forestry corporations.

He was years ahead in his thinking. I would imagine some industrial foresters, including Government DNR folks,  who found David to be a thorn in their side will secretly be glad to see him return to the earth so they can get on with the business of destryong eco-systems for profit, you never did truly listen but he had the guts to face you.

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