Volume 35, Issue 4, Winter 2013
Rethinking Environmental Issues in a Daoist Context
Why Daoism Is and Is Not Environmentalism
As the extent our impact on the environment becomes ever more clear, the search for ways to limit or even remedy some negative effects of our actions broadens. From science to religion, scholars in almost every field have been working hard to try to contribute to a healthier relationship between human beings and the natural world. In the humanities the issue is somewhat difficult. Because the topic is relatively new, there are few thinkers or traditions that deal with relevant environmental problems. One of the traditions that has been popularly associated with discussions of environmentally friendly philosophies is Daoism. In fact, the word Daoism, or dao jia (道家) in Chinese, takes dao (道) as central for its philosophy. In the daodejing (道德经), dao is given an ontological priority that makes it sound something like “nature” and would thereby provide an early Chinese model for environmentalism. The difficulty is, however, that dao can never be separated from anything in the world, including humans, which means that it cannot be understood as a nature that may provide ethical or moral guides for how one should behave. Strictly speaking, there is no classical Chinese equivalent to the nature of modern ecology. But this does not result in a dead end for environmentalist readings of Daoist texts. In fact, viewed from the perspective of using things, and how people interact with tools and consider profits, it is precisely because the Daoist have no conception of “nature” that they have so much to offer environmentalism.