Daoism is a wisdom tradition in which humans seek to act in harmony with the Dao, or the way of nature. For Daoism, humankind is the mediating figure between heaven and earth. In this relationship between humans, heaven and earth, the responsibility of humans is to act in accordance with the Dao, rather than to disrupt or contravene the Dao. Out of this premise, might it be possible to draw some conclusions in relation to the great ethical challenges posed by climate change?
Dr Chen Xia and Dr Martin Schönfeld have written a fine article on this question: “A Daoist response to climate change,” in the Journal of Global Ethics, August 2011, pp.195-203. The article is behind a paywall so can only be accessed through a university library or similar. The authors’ ideas are deserving of a wider public and so I offer a summary and selected extracts here.
The core thesis of the article revolves around a contrast between the terms Dao and wu (translated as things, matter, or creatures), as they are used in the Tao Te Ching. The Dao is “the creative, evolutionary and emergent ground of being” (p. 198). The wu are the myriad manifestations of the Dao in the world.
Dao and wu are opposites. Wu is transient, Dao is eternal; wu is structured, Dao is shapeless; wu involves distinct objects, Dao permeates all; wu is many, Dao is one. Dao and wu are certainly different, but they are also inseparable. One can think of these opposites as poles along and evolutionary and ontogenetic continuum. They are joined in time, as a ground and its offspring, or as a creative power and its generated creatures. One can also think of these opposites as poles along an ontological continuum. In this perspective, they are joined in space, as simultaneous aspects of a unified reality. In that sense wu is like matter, Dao is like energy, and Dao is wu just like matter is energetic.One can think of this co-presence analogous to a wet cloth – Dao surges through wu just as water drenches a fabric. (p. 198)
However, the relationship between Dao and wu does not rest on a dualistic separation of essence and appearance, rather it emphasises that everything is inter-related:
Dao unfolds wu and precedes wu, but does not dwell on a transcendent plane or supernatural far side; Dao exists through the myriad things…..
The ontological bond of Dao and wu means that the force of Dao dwells in the things. This tranfer of power from the generative principle to individuated creatures, which is unlike anything in the monotheisms in the west, implies that reality is dynamic, that nature is self-organizing, and that the wu are innately active. (p.199)
Having established some basic features of Dao and wu, Xia and Schönfeld draw out some implications:
First, as wu or the things of nature absorb Dao’s power, dualistic distinctions between the secular and sacred disappear. Similar to a Western deity, Dao deserves reverence and is essentially valuable. Unlike a Western deity, Dao is natural, not supernatural, and not a personified substance, but an energy flow. The flow manifests itself as a pulse, a beat, or a rhythm. The secular and the sacred merge, and nature gains intrinsic value in all its things. Second, as things absorb the Dao’s power, and as this power is regarded as natural and good, nature’s way is already the right way, and nature’s power always finds its proper outlet. Human intervention is not needed. Leaving wu alone gives them the freedom to unfold. And finally, as wu express Dao, and as Dao deserves respect, protecting wu is our species duty, as the only type of human intervention Daoism requests. (p. 199)
The last sentence above deserves emphasis because it highlights one of the main conclusions of this article about what kind of imperative of responsibility Daoism calls forth in relation to climate change. The heaven-human-earth trinity has some ethical import for how humans interact with wu (‘things’): “The rise and fall of things partly depend on humans. For their creation, things depend on the cosmos, for their root, they depend on the Earth, and for their security, they depend on humans.” (pp. 199-200) Furthermore, anthropogenic climate change raises this dependence to a new level:
Climate change destabilizes the Earth system and ravages the biosphere. Without human emissions, these destabilizations and destructions would not have happened. The Earth system would have continued to pulse through its cycles, and the biosphere would have continued adding more biotic complexity from cycle to cycle. Anthropogenic influence on the natural flow of things is thus jarring, destructive and goes against nature’s flow. (199)
Chen and Schönfeld now hone in on the sort of human action which is compatible with Daoism:
The basic precept of Daoist ethics is that humans ought to act in accordance with the way. Just as the Dao turning into wu …. , humans should process and transform things for their use. But such an activity should not violate their original nature. What humans should do is to disclose, to bring out, to actualize potentials, and to bring forth.
Humans have the right to use, process and transform things, and the duty to follow the natural flow of events. Activities should not disrupt natural processes, not upset biospherical balances, and generally remain types of non-action. The Daoist precept of non-action or wuwei does not mean to do nothing. It can be translated as ‘effortless action’ or ‘non-calculating action’. … Non-action could be described as acting in a manner that is as gentle and non-violent as the Dao, and that is the opposite of acting in a compulsive, reckless and willful way.” (p. 200)
According to Chen and Schönfeld, Daoism offers two responsibilities for humankind:
In positive terms, Dao brings forth life and complexity, and humans should do the same. Their first responsibility in a changing climate is to learn to become stewards of the biosphere, to shepherd life, and protect complexity. In negative terms, Dao acts by non-acting; that is, by acting in harmony with the natural flow. Their second responsibility is accordingly to refrain from further disruptions of the flow, and to learn to become mitigators of climate change, to soften the impact and to calm down the waves. (p. 200)
A further practical prescription from Daoism, according to Chen and Schönfeld, is to follow a simple and frugal lifestyle. The excessive consumption in the developed world has become decoupled from any incremental increase in happiness. A voluntary return to simplicity may represent a new stage of post-consumerist civilization (p. 201).
Daoism, as a biospiritual tradition which places equal emphasis on transformation of body and mind, also offers a powerful metaphor for humankind’s relation with nature:
In a wider sense, humans and nature share the same body. This allows humans to free themselves from the constraints of individuality and meditatively fuse with the greater body of the universe. Honing the relationship between human vitality and the pulse of the cosmos is a Daoist contemplative practice. This may suggest that simplicity, as the ideal life, is a stepping stone to something even greater. But be this as it may, climate change is a visceral reminder that we are in the world; that our being is part of a larger being, and that going against the flow of nature means to run counter to our collective self-interest. (empahsis in original) (p. 202)
Chen and Schönfeld are to be commended for carefully presenting a Daoist perspective on the nature of things and the types of human action that can resonate with the Dao. There are many questions to be explored using Chen and Schönfeld’s perspective as a starting point. For example, where does modern science-based technology, a type of action which acts directly into the world at the atomic and genetic levels, stand in relation to the imperative for non-action and the voluntary return to simplicity? Obviously we are not seeking a return to the caves — although our collective failure to adequately face up to present problems may mean that we inadvertently do so. Hopefully we can reach some kind of half-way house which retains and re-shapes the best of civilization’s hard-won knowledge and techniques into a more equitable and sustainable configuration. Daoism as a mode of contemplation and practice emerged before humans had any idea of the technological power we could unleash. Daoism may yet teach us to stand in awe of that power, and to restrain it.
Interested readers may also enjoy Martin Schönfeld’s blog Blistered Orb.