Deep Ecology is thus ultimately inseparable from some form of spirituality. The contributions of philosophical Daoism which we will propose are also undergird by what amounts to a kind of spirituality. It behooves us, therefore, to consider what spirituality implies. And that, needless to say, is no easy task. Broadly speaking, it suggests that there resides within the human psyche an extra-cognitive potential for a connectedness with something other than itself or with itself as other than cognitively known. We need not and will not posit an actual “spirit” as part of a body, mind and spirit triad as some do in order to understand how this is possible. Perhaps the least “mystical” understanding of this potential spirituality can be found in Erich Fromm’s concept of biophilia, an innate love for life and other living things. It is in our nature to wish to connect with all other beings, including, we would suggest, those which are inanimate, and this is a reflection of our capacity to do so.
Thoreau also appreciates the seemingly paradoxical sense in which humanity is both of Nature and somehow transcendent of Nature. To speak of the need to renew our connectedness with Nature is naturally to imply that we are also somehow other than Nature. All that has been said and all that we will say here is because humanity is also not-one within Oneness; however much we speak of the realization of our oneness with Nature, we remain distinct, individuated beings continually at work interpreting “our” world”. This too is Nature, but it is Nature looking at itself. This relationship between oneness and not-oneness is one explored by philosophical Daoism and thus another area in which it has helpful insights to contribute.
Thoreau’s appeal to the value of communion with Nature has, as we have said, an implicit “spiritual” dimension. This he shares with the more recent proponents of eco-spirituality, the attempt, broadly speaking, to unite a scientific awareness of the interconnectedness of all things with a more immediate and experiential realization of that reality. As might be expected, the expressions of eco-spirituality are many, too many in fact for us to consider here. We might divide them roughly into a few varieties, though again we must admit that this is both artificial and reductive. Most all within the parameters of our knowledge are in some sense religious to varying degrees. Those that work within the framework of an established religious tradition are most clearly so. All such religions have their advocates for an eco-spirituality. There are many others that advocate for shamanism or a modernized version thereof. Indigenous cultures are indisputably “closer” to Nature and typically have religious beliefs and practices, as expressed in shamanism, that focus on unity with Nature rather than on gods or concepts seen as distinct from Nature. Other spiritualties of New Age stripe such as the various expressions of Green Religion and Gaianism, can tend more to a philosophical approach though all also make appeal to a spiritual dimension. Even what we might consider the most philosophical approaches, like that of Thomas Berry, must in the end make some kind of appeal to spiritual renewal to re-establish our connectedness with Nature.
There is, however, a growing realization of the inherent value of Nature quite apart from its usefulness to humanity. This is perhaps the central insight of what has come to be known as Deep Ecology. One might think this less than a monumental paradigm shift, but it is in fact so counter to the default human self-absorption that the means to its actual realization in conscious experience requires a transformative experience typically described as “spiritual”. It is here, we believe, that a new philosophical Daoism can make a significant contribution.
We have an inkling of this appreciation in a famous quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking”: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau’s concern was still principally with the preservation of humanity, however. He was concerned that “civilization” has so distorted humanity’s innate connection with Nature that it is in danger of losing itself. “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”. This sentiment is in complete harmony with a more fundamental affirmation of the value of Nature quite apart from its benefits to humanity, for it is that very self-value that makes it useful, yet it does not explicitly enunciate that insight. What it does do, is point out the inviolable interconnectness of humanity with Nature and the realization that the health of the human psyche depends on the nurture of that connectedness. Humanity is Nature. This is more than simply a statement of biological fact, important as that is, but also touches on what, in general parlance, is described as “spiritual”, or more philosophically, as metaphysical. This connectedness is organic and as such cannot be experienced cognitively. It requires some form of “mystical” experience.
This same ambiguity obtains even as we move further toward a respect for Nature for its own sake. A leading environmental motivation is that Nature provides a wonderful place for human recreation. Lakes are for fishing, boating and water skiing. Rivers are for rafting. Bays are for jet skiing. Forests are for hiking, camping and biking. Mountains are for skiing. Coastal dunes are for dune-buggy-ing. Wilderness is for inspiration. Some of these activities are certainly a step in the right direction in that they recognize that Nature offers something inherently beneficial for humanity apart from what we can extract from her bounty. Nature experienced as left to itself—as wilderness—is understood as contributing to human flourishing. However, many of these activities are destructive of the environment itself and of the beneficial ambiance Nature provides. Others render the participant oblivious to that ambiance, while destroying it for others. That recreation that takes Nature itself as its inspiration is perhaps the closest we can come to achieving a balance between respecting Nature for its own sake while still approaching it in terms of its usefulness.
Environmentalism, as suggested above, can easily be understood as encompassing the totality of environmental concern. However, we use the term here to speak of the transitional awareness between conservationism and deep ecology. This is, of course, somewhat arbitrary.
As the Industrial Age gave rise to an awareness of the need to protect natural resources for the sake of their sustainability for human consumption, so too did it spawn the realization that our environmental impacts were killing us. This was especially in England where the extensive burning of dirty coal had so polluted the air that by the mid-19th Century laws were passed to minimize its use. Both policies evince an anthropocentric bias; impacts on other creatures and on the ecological biosphere in general were not the primary concern. There were, of course, those who were so concerned, but they remained outliers, just as they unfortunately do today.
More ambiguous, perhaps transitional, concerns are seen in the passage of laws establishing hunting seasons and bag limits prompted by a decline in bird populations. Was this to ensure that birds were allowed to flourish for their own sake, or was it to ensure there would always be birds to kill? Does Ducks Unlimited work for the preservation of ducks for their beauty, or so they will continue to provide “sport”? Advocates for this kind of conservationism make the point that it kills two birds with one stone (sort of speak); the birds are protected for human recreational use and the environment is protected. It is difficult to disagree; compromise is always necessary. As previously suggested, the flourishing of any species will necessarily impact the flourishing of every other. To exist is to kill and consume. Even Jains who do all that they can to avoid harming other creatures take antibiotics and inadvertently step on ants. Ecology recognizes the necessary and continually shifting balance between all species within their specific environments. This balance is as much about killing and eating and territorial security as it is about a more romantic concept of harmony. Nature is truly and unavoidably “red in tooth and claw”.
Nevertheless, hunting as a human recreational activity might not be the best example of attaining such a balance. Indigenous peoples who continue to hunt for their sustenance provide a better example, and their impact is typically within the boundaries of ecological harmony and is exercised with sustainability in mind. Recreational hunting is not a necessary activity.
A further first commandment from the Creator is for the first man, Adam,—before the creation of Eve—to give names to all the animals. Without names they have no value, for without names they cannot be adequately objectified in the human consciousness so as to be properly relegated to their inferior status as there for human beings. Without names our communion with other creatures would have to be more one of equality and mutual commensurability. Yet, even with names, or perhaps because of them, the animals did not provide Adam with a sense of belonging; he was unable to commune with and feel at home among them. He was lonely. God therefore took one of Adam’s ribs and created Eve to be his “helpmeet”, the help. And thus is Eve derivative of and secondary to Adam. Her value is derived from his. Like Mother Earth, she too is there for man’s use and pleasure.
This is the root Judaeo-Christian-Islamic myth that has underpinned Western civilization for millennia. But can we really say that it is the cause of its abuse of the planet and of women? We think not. In the concrete world, civilizations with very different origin myths, with the partial exception of many indigenous shamanistic cultures, have been similarly abusive of both. There are, as we suggested early on in the Introduction, other much more primal forces at work. All species seek to flourish, and in this, necessarily at the expense of others. All species that are able evince male competition for domination over and possession of the female. This philosophy and others are but the justifying myths for pre-existing conditions. They are the creation of humanity, not the other way around.
This does not obviate the need to understand and deconstruct these myths, however. Though in their original creation they reflected the prevailing subconscious values, their continued dominance retards the expression and adoption of new, more helpful paradigms. For humanity has, we believe, made some cognitive progress toward a healthier interface with the world and with itself. It is time for significant paradigm shifts. It is time for us to adopt new myths. For we agree with Zhuangzi that all points of view are ultimately myths; but we also agree with him that they are unavoidable. What is most important is to recognize them for the myths that they are, and to thereby be enabled to choose those that prove most helpful.
With the growth of human population and the commencement of the Industrial Age came an awareness of the need to conserve the resources that were already being rapidly depleted. This was especially in the case of forestry. Europeans had already decimated their own forests and North Americans were well on their way to doing the same. In the case of the former, it was seen that the exploitation of these resources in the colonies should be better managed to insure sustainability.
This was certainly a necessary and positive first step. It does, however, clearly demonstrate an anthropocentric perspective that sees humanity as fundamentally separate from Nature, and Nature as there for humanity. Nature is a resource and as such has no inherent value apart from its usefulness for humanity. This point of view, as we shall later argue, is fundamental to the trajectory of environmental exploitation to the point of the possible destruction of the entire biosphere. We can trace its philosophical roots all the way back to the Book of Genesis where God, having newly created human beings, instructs them to “go out into the world and subdue it”. Humanity is unique in God’s creation having been created in “His image”, and just as God lords it over His creation, so too are humans to act in a similar manner as His deputies. To do otherwise would be to disobey His commandment. The act of creation itself connotes manipulation through power, domination and possession. The gravest sin possible is the confusion of the Creator with His creation. The only true value resides in the Creator; all other value is contingent and derived. As God’s special representatives, human beings have an inherently greater value than all else in creation and can therefore make use of it as they see fit.
Since the purpose of this study is to explore ways in which a new philosophical Daoism can inform, inspire and assist both those already engaged in the environmental movement and especially those who see the situation as too hopeless to make such a commitment, we might best begin with an overview of environmentalism generally. It will not be our purpose here to provide a detailed history of environmentalism or to discuss its many modern expressions; we will assume our reader is not only well informed of the need for environmental concern, but also of many of its expressions. We will rather paint with a broad brush with a view to highlighting those pivotal areas of evolving emphases to which philosophical Daoism has, in our view, a significant contribution to make. As ideas, these are in reality relatively few and simple and are already widely espoused by many. Our intention is not so much to introduce new ideas as to provide those already entertained with a deeper philosophical rationale and a framework for their realization in practice. This latter is the hinge upon which any significant contribution by philosophical Daoism must turn. Earlier, we made brief mention of the need for a transformation in consciousness as a likely requirement for humanity to turn the tide on its own self-destructive trajectory. By this we do not mean some form of traditional or New Age religious practice with the promise of an “awakening”, but rather a much more prosaic, and to our thinking realistic, growing approximation of new and healthier perspectives.
Under the overarching rubric “Environmentalism” we will consider three broad expressions: Conservationism, Environmentalism, and Deep Ecology. This is convenient to our purposes, but it should be noted that the philosophies of each bleed over into those of the others and our representations of them will be an oversimplification. And while we see the first as progressively evolving toward the last, and take Deep Ecology as offering the best hope for the preservation of the environment, we recognize the value of each in its time. However, since the other two are still widely subscribed to within the larger movement, we will make the case for a shift toward the latter facilitated in part by the contributions of philosophical Daoism.
As I attempt to write this next book I am constantly challenged by my sense of inadequacy, just as I have been with every previous similar endeavor. I am, quite frankly, not really up to the task. I lack the scholarship, the intellectual capacity, and the will to do the very hard work that attempting to at least partially overcome these deficiencies would require. I am an amateur. Yet I continue nevertheless. For the most part, this is because this is how I teach myself. The idea that any of what I write will be of genuine use to you the reader is secondary, if for no other reason than that even the best of writing would probably fail of that goal in any case. Perhaps I’ve set the bar too high, but I really don’t see much point in writing, except as pertains to one’s own edification, if it makes no real difference in the world.
Still, I believe I have something to contribute. Though I lack the courage to even peruse my own copy of ALL IS WELL IN THE GREAT MESS, I believe there are significant insights within it that might at least suggest new lines of inquiry among scholars and inspire my peers to pursue their own philosophy of life along similar, though necessarily divergent, lines.
I do find some encouragement in the madman Jieyu’s contributions to classical Chinese philosophy. He is twice mentioned in the Inner Chapters, first as one who relates a fantastic vision of a sage, and then as singing a derisive song to Confucius. In the first, his credulity becomes an occasion for a critique of its twin sister, incredulity—belief and disbelief being of the same genus and their transcendence being a matter of the spirit. The second is a parody of the story as it appears in the Analects (18:5) and criticizes Confucius for his political ambitions and the inflexibility of his path. We might profitably ask why his ridicule was included in the Analects, a book devoted to the exaltation of Confucius. We are told that it has to do with Confucius’ virtue of timeliness (which Zhuangzi disputes) and as a means to answering the criticisms of an emerging Daoist challenge. But whatever the specific reasons we find Jieyu here or in the Zhuangzi I would suggest that it is because even in his madness he had a contribution to make.
In a world where nothing can ever be fully and comprehensively understood–which amounts to not really being understood at all, even the stammerings of an amateur might have something helpful to say.
We maintain, therefore, that for philosophical Daoism ideas can indeed be a useful tool for the realization of what must go well beyond ideas. We are where we are today largely because of the power of ideas. Rationalism and speciesism are ideas deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and they have contributed significantly to the behaviors that have brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Only a philosophy that fails to understand the prevailing cultural world-views as philosophy would suggest that philosophy does not practically impact our being in the world. True, there are other still more powerful forces at work, but to dismiss philosophy—ideas—as an important means of gaining transformative egress into what motivates our behaviors is to miss the point of doing philosophy altogether.
Finally, we must take still other liberties if we are to proceed without endless qualifications. Because we do not represent our take on philosophical Daoism as a correct understanding of the texts, we can also make convenient assumptions about their authorship and dates without undermining our takeaway. We will thus refer to Zhuangzi as the single author of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, assume that they present a single vision, and that they are in many ways distinct from the other portions of the anthology. All these assumptions are widely disputed by scholars and often dismissed by many. This need not concern us. This is our philosophy and we will profitable mine these resources without concern for their geological genesis.