Box 21, Item 708: Letter, Arne Næss to Richard Sylvan, 19 Jul 1991 ; Draft of Taoism and deep environmental concerns: let concern spread to all the myriad things

Title

Box 21, Item 708: Letter, Arne Næss to Richard Sylvan, 19 Jul 1991 ; Draft of Taoism and deep environmental concerns: let concern spread to all the myriad things

Subject

Typed letter, handwritten notes and printout of draft. Letter on University of Oslo Centre for Development and Environment letter head and addressed to Richard Sylvan from Arne Næss, signed by Kit Fai on behalf of Næss. Næss sends feedback on Sylvan and David Bennett's paper, Utopias, Tao, and deep ecology.

Description

Letter and paper original housed together with a paper clip. Letter redacted from access file (PDF) due to copyright restrictions. One of eight papers digitised from item 708. Title in collection finding aid: RS: Taoism & Deeper Env. Concers - uncorrected ts + Ms notes.

Creator

Source

The University of Queensland's Richard Sylvan Papers UQFL291, Box 21, Item 708

Date

1991

Contributor

This item was identified for digitisation at the request of The University of Queensland's 2020 Fryer Library Fellow, Dr. N.A.J. Taylor.

Rights

For all enquiries about this work, please contact the Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.

Format

Letter, [1] leaf + [21] leaves. 44.08 MB.

Text

The following has been redacted from access file (PDF) due to copyright restrictions.
Letter, Arne Næss to Richard Sylvan, 19 Jul 1991 re feedback on Sylvan and David Bennett’s
paper, Utopias, Tao, and deep ecology. Letter is signed by Kit Fai on behalf of Næss. (1 leaf)

/V

/

7 7

.

TAOISM and DEEPER ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS
Let concern spread to aH the myriad things^

Among accredited religions, Taoism appears exceptionally environmentally friendly.
Whereas the main terrestial religions, particularly those that have gained significant
political influence, are heavily anthropocentric (indeed human chauvinistic), Taoism,
certainly as propounded in the classical texts, is not.2 It is genuinely ecocentric; in it
nature has a preeminent and fundamental place. It is throughout decidedly ecologically

oriented; a high level of ecological consciousness is built into it, a main recipe
amounting to FoZZow TVamre as the basis of practice. Thus it can provide sources for,
and inspiration for, genuine environmentalism in a way that no Western religion can
(outside some deviant minority sects), and in a way that few other Eastern religions can.

It can assume just such a source and inspirational role for contemporary deeper
environmental positions, a place it has been assigned for the most prominent of these,

Deep Ecology.
Taoism was, and remains, a radical position. It represents a severe attack on
mainstream materialist civilization, on themes of the dominant social paradigm (as the

following table shows). Like Deep Ecology, it discards or upsets many mainstream
values, and most mainstream ways of organising and doing things. It holds up instead
examples of very different lifestyles as much preferable, and offers an environmental
path, simple and modest, a middle way between insufficiency and excess.

1 The tenth thesis of Hui Shih, cited in CT.
2 Classical Taoism, or philosophical Taoism as it is sometimes distinguished, consists essentially of two
primary texts, LT and CT, and early creative commentaries upon them. The primary texts were probably
both assembled in the intellectually prolific period of the Warring States (from 403 to 221 BC), before the
deadening cover of an empire descended. The classic works were only subsequently brought together as
texts for a loosely associated religion, Daoism, that then proceeded to diverge from them, especially as
regards natural world emphases and concerns. Very many details of the cultural and physical contexts in
which the texts were written, and of those who wrote them, have vanished with passage of time. For an
outline of what is known or reasonably conjectured, see e.g. Graham. Of course in such respects Taoism
resembles other religions with shrouded origins.
Daoism radically transformed philosophical Taoism, for the worse environmentally (and
intellectually). %<? became the means to happiness, wealth, and long life, human life; and (neo-)Daoism
became mired in human chauvinism. Coupled to it under Daoism were - what were no part of classical
Taoism - belief in spirit survival, use of magical charms for the cure of illness, confession of sin and
absolution on the basis of good work, a priestly caste, and the trappings of ritual, ceremonies, and so on.
For an account of these features of Daoism, see Lagcrwey.
The present essay considers only classical Taoism, and that under a certain straightforward
interpretation.

3

1. Nature, cosmology, and the character of Tao. Taoism sketches a cosmology,
which is interestingly at variance with Western cosmologies. For the universe arises out
of nothing. Being arises in accordance with Tao, which precedes existence. Nonbeing
precedes Being. Nonbeing is ultimate (according to Chang Tzu) and comes first.
All things in the world come from being

And being comes from nonbeing^
The universe had a primeval beginning, coming into existence from nothing?

Diagram 1: Taoist cycie of return^
flourishing

growth

reversion
cycle of generated
entity
NATURE (HEAVEN AND EARTH, or\

ACTUAL UNIVERSE): Existent, Named, Temporal

(FORMING) SOURCE: Nonexistent, Nameless, Eternal

7

Every entity arises out of (material) nothingness and eventually falls back into
nothingness; all that comes to pass, that is. All things flourish, but each one returns to
its root'? The whole, the integrated natural system, is a process of becoming and decay.
But the emphasis upon process, evolution and change, upon Nature as flux and
transformation, is much enhanced in Chang Tzu, over the work of Lao Tzu, where more

stress is put upon stability, constancy and equilibrium? Overall, it is correct to say, if
not so far highly informative, that Taoism is a natural process philosophy, with a keen
sense both of c/ta/ige and of Zz'mi'Ay.

4 LT 40.
5 SB p.202.
6 Cf. Chan, p.173, fn.2.
7 LT 16. For a detailed contemporary presentation of such a cosmological cycle, see Sylvan cs. In Neo­
Taoism, e.g. Kao Hsiang, such a cycle is disputed, on standard ontological grounds (see e.g. Chan SB,
p.335).
8 Cf. Chan, p.20, also SB p.177.

4

Tao itself is a complex item, comprising both an initial source, or program, and a
coupled direction; a planned course, with a natural (and ideal) path. (So it is
appropriately symbolised O—*-) The great or overarching Tao is a comprehensive
source of natural activity; it encapsulates, in its program, a framework of forms or
principles, principles of natural order, both metaphysical and moral. It comprises both
dynamic principles (or evolving "laws") of nature an<% axiological principles guiding
conduct. In this representation it invites comparison with Plato's structure of Forms,9 or

still better, though again neglecting the dynamism of Tao, comparison with the preSocratic Logos. But to see overarching Tao as an axiological ontology, after the pattern
of Plato's Form theory, would be to import unwarranted Western assumptions. Though
Tao is a "great form", and there is no doubt room in the generous object framework for
other (unhypostatised) forms, main Platonic forms such as Beauty, Truth and Goodness,
do not feature large in the
CTi/ng. They are distinguished, and set rather to the
side, in the final chapter. 10 Other less Platonically emphasised (or available)
environmentally friendly forms are more important, such as Simplicity, Frugality and
Non-competition, as well as Tao itself, the supreme form, also the One, which supplants

the static Good of Plato's scheme and is coupled with a dynamic path component.
Tao is intimately linked with, and concerned with, the natural, and indeed linked
with and not above the everyday. It is certainly not supernatural, and it does not
transcend natural things in the fashion of Western supernatural religions; rather Tao
both orders and reflects nature. Tao supplies the physical laws that provide physical
idealisations (i.e. ideal models) of processes. Tao in this is a process and the container

and origin of process and the laws of process. Tao is the natural way of the universe (of
Heaven and Earth), and super-Tao, also signified as Tao, is the way of the universe and
the universe. (Under a computer analogy, Tao is the program of the whole system; it is
also, as super-Tao, the program combined with the system, everything). As Great Tao it
is certainly simple, all-embracing and one. Getting the hang of its components and their
connections is not quite so simple.
The overarching Tao - grand or capital Tao, the program or recipe of Form or

whole genetic code - combines many individual ones - lesser or /ow^r-case taos within it. Such a lesser tao, of an individual, system or whatever, is what makes a thing

what it is properly, a coursed or informed source, a program directed path, a processed

output. A tao is a sourced directed object; it is thus a type of object, a dynamic item,
which can be represented by a pair comprising a recipe, program or form and a direction
or goal-orientation. Accordingly, an individual or local tao (or form) resembles one of
9 Though appropriately neutralised, in the object-theory fashion Reid urged: for details see JB.
10 LT 81.

5

Aristotle's individual forms as coupled with a
which comprises a normative
directive. For both Artistotle and Tao there is, in effect, an "invisible hand" at work.
(How did this, such convenient namra/ order come about? That is Tao. But another,
old, compatible, and more satisfactory answer is: It evolved.) When things are running
properly, the lesser, individual, taos (most conveniently) fit together and operate in
accord under the overarching program (cf. diagram 2).

If each individual runs

according to the program, then the overall program succeeds fully. However, it works
even if each individual does not run according to the overarching program, but it has a
Diagram 2: Super-Tao, or Great Tao, with components integrated

SUPER-TAO

O->

D->
unrealised

Nature, with taos in world

objectified

natural

forms

system

/

E->

a->
—Deviation line—

Defective (or fallen)
taos

from Natural Ways

6

less ideal result. If each person acts in a correct way a massive net good and great order
result.
Yet, any attempt to impose order does not bring it about, but is
counterproductive. The invisible (natural) hand guides, but the hand cannot be forced.
As to the status of principles (laws, rules), standard Western categorisations are
again exceeded. These principles are not transcendent, governing things externally, but

are, so to say, self-supplied, with things self-regulated. Undominated things are
naturally self-governing. 'Everything has its own nature and each nature is its own

ultimate ... then by whom are things produced? They produce themselves, that is all'.n
But
they proceed according to the Tao-te, the goal directed way of virtue,

autonomously.
Diagram 3: Tao-te paths, and going with the natura! fiow^

Te(los)

Tao (source)

EH----------- ?-----------

+

*

Ideal Way: Way of Virtue

2. Natural order, and the extent of Tao as agency. Tao supplies a spontaneous
natural order. Though the phrase "natural order" may seem strange, even perverse, it is
not. The reason is, in part, that the Taoist perspective is the reverse of the modern
perception of the world. In contrast to European political thought of the mainstream

Hobbes-Locke strain, where the state-of-nature is one of chaos or extreme disorder, the
Taoist state-of-nature is one of order. A main assumption of Western thought, that

political order must be imposed by regulation on an unruly state-of-nature, is
accordingly undercut. A separate imposed political order is not required; the idea that it
is rests on mistaken assumptions.

Politics can, and ideally should, follow nature.

Science and politics can be blended, not sharply separated in the typical Western

fashion, where nature is taken to exclude value.

11 Kao Hsiang, p.328.
12 Cf. LT 53.

7

According to Taoism then, by contrast with dominant Western thought which sees

the world as extensional, mechanistic and value-neutral (except for its human cargo),
nature is both intensional and value-infused. These features extend not merely to the
whole, but to components which go into composing the greater whole. These have their
programs, or ways, which are integrated into the greater way (somewhat as, but

artificially, expert system programs may be organised into grander programs

representing super-experts).
Nature is already in order as it normally is, through a unity in diversity which

involves a normative component - a principle or recipe for how things "should" be as

well as how they are integrally. Values are build into the environment, an integral part

of the way of things. By following the values of Tao one enters and comes into contact
with the whole environment and into unity with the environment. Tao is a description
of how things are and a prescription of how to act in accord with the way they are.
Since it is normally regulated by Tao, natural order is decidedly benign, and

definitely worth emulating. As a result, natural order is the way, the recommended
way. Imposed order is counterproductive. There is reciprocal resistance to the
imposition of deviant order. This would hold even if social organisers tried to impose

Tao itself. To attempt to impose it would be to go astray. Such points help to explain
why little satisfactory detail is offered as to social and political organisation. For the
requisite organisation, such as it is, follows natural patterns and natural social structures
(whichever they are). No doubt details would be (in the style of Aristotelian ethics)

largely descriptive of what happens in cases where social affairs were functioning well.
It is deviation from the natural state that represents the problem, quite in contrast
again to European political thought, where the state-of-nature is one of extreme disorder
(lives are nasty, brutish, short, etc.). Such a state-of-nature is not at all a Taoist natural
state, which is one of satisfactory order. A strong sense of natural order, of self
organisation, of anarchy (in a positive sense), flows from classical Taoism. Like
Buddhism, Taoism assents to the maxim, "Do nothing and from unforced order greater

order results". If each being is permitted to follow its tao, then the needs of all will be
met without coercion. Following the way of Tao, nature emerges as a self-supplying

organisation. Such convenient natural organisation stands (so far as it occurs!) in need
of some further explanation, whether of an internal, evolutionary sort or of a

supernatural sort, as in Neoplatonism where God or the One accomplishes the
organisational task. Taoism undermines such latter alternatives, and points^ towards
an evolutionary explanation.

13 In CT.

8

Order occurs naturally, spontaneously (as the inertial state), without agency.
Super-agents do not feature, and would be otoise. God does not occur, and is not
needed, in the cosmology, either as an agent, to make things in the universe happen, or
as an authority, to regulate things or set moral or legal standards. If He did occur, He
would, like other directors and rulers, not be needed, though He could serve as an
example. 'But there is no indication of his existence'.^ As in the socio-political sphere,
direction by a overseer or ruler is otoise, and only exemplary. In particular, God is not
required to start or wind the universe up. 'Everything in the world creates itself without

the direction of any creator. Since things create themselves they are unconditioned.
This is the norm of the universe.'15
The Tao is not a supernatural personal agency; it is not supernatural, it is certainly

not personal, and it is only in a stretched sense "agency". If the Tao includes all-

encompassing natural order - a unity in diversity — in which the tao of each is ideally in
harmony with the whole, then there is no need to posit a super-Being. Each being

follows its course in the whole. Moreover, the appeal to a superpersonal authority,

exalted example, or the like, on the one side, or to ethics, on the other, is needed only
when people have moved away from the Tao. Everything will work well if a
community lives according to the Tao. Thus deontic features are brought in only at
disequilibrium - an interesting, if awkward, position. Then too, in formulating norms,
appeal is back to framework from which people have diverged.
There is a concealed moral purpose in Lao Tzu; a moral purpose that is central,
alongside, and inseparable from, the evident metaphysical purpose. Since axiology is a

crucial part of it - evaluations and commendations are freely and extensively offered in
the texts - Taoism is not amoral. But the treatment of deontic principles, and of rules of
conduct generally, is very different. Deontics enter only when there is a lapse or
deviation from an ideal natural state (from a proper course). 'When the Great Tao
declined, the doctrine of humanity and righteousness arose'. 16 Much depends then, on
what counts as "moral" and "amoral".

Certainly there are approved and implicitly

recommended lifestyles, though there are few "oughts", and no (Confucian-Kantian)

lists of duties. Moreover, unless preferred Taoist lifestyles
merely recommended,
not required, Taoism would fall down as insufficiently pluralistic.

3. On Taoist styles of life: an environmental lifestyle. As well as a set of regulative
propositions about how things happen, and proceed ideally, Taoism supplies a parallel
14 CT 2.
15 Kao Hsiang, CTwwze/i/ary
16 LT 18.

pp.330-331.

set of suggestions and prescriptions for how to live well. According to Lao Tzu, there
are some basic elements to living well, for instance 'three treasures'.^

1.

Deep love — which can also be taken to involve compassion, pity, commiseration,

care, concern, respect and regard, and which includes something close to empathy,
deep-penetrating empathy.
Sympathy, a main linkage of the European

"Enlightenment", does not however capture what is involved: sympathy alone
would be too egoistical and too circumscribed for Taoism, as it is for Deep

Ecology. Deep love is part of the notion of genuine relatedness, not a one-sided
"relatedness" or possessiveness (which Taoism rejects). It is certainly not confined
to fellow humans, but reaches through, around and beyond them to the myriad
things;
2.

Frugality - a renunciation of excess. That implies a renunciation of consumerism.
But frugality is not impoverishment. Needs are met adequately without deprivation

or excess. As in Deep Ecology too, richness in ends is compatible with modesty of
material means;
3.

Modesty or humility - not to dare to be ahead of the world, not to take the lead. In
Taoism there is no competitive requirement, but the opposite; such Western
desiderata lapse. Rather, one gives up trying to be on top of the pile, or even being
in a faster lane. In a Taoist society there are no conspicuous tall poppies.

Much else connects with or follows in a loose way, so it is assumed, from these
three virtues; for instance, courage from deep love, generosity from frugality, a kind of

leadership from humility. The arguments for those surprising derivations go like this:
'deep love helps one to aim in the case of attack / And to be firm in the case of
defence'. 18 Earlier^ it is taken that proper abandonment of humanistic ethics will mean
a return to (what the ethics inadmissibly substitutes for) deep love, a basic valuational
relation. But in place of frugality, goes a discarding of profit, and in place of humility
an abandonment of conscious sageliness and discarding of immodest (or conventional)

wisdom. These changes are, astonishingly, said to be rather superficial and inadequate;

so further desiderata, commonly read out of the "treasures" are adduced: 'Manifest
plainness / embrace simplicity / reduce selfishness / have few desires'. 20 Another
element, beyond the three of relatedness, frugality, and not daring to be ahead, is

17 LT 67; but different overlapping lists are presented, e.g. LT 19.
18 LT 67.
19 LT 19.
20 LT 19.

10

adaptability or spontaneity. This "fourth treasure" (which can be read off natural order)
complements the further desiderata.
Evidently main ingredients for a simple environmentally sound lifestyle are highly

commended.

Lao Tzu might almost have been writing another introduction for

Callenbach's environmental handbook, LM/ig Poor
or even for Pausacker
and Andrews' Lfwzg Po^r wft/z
In Chang Tzu, the /?Mr^ person is a deep
environmentalist:— She is a companion' of Nature and does not attempt to interfere
with it by imposing the way of man upon it'. Her goal is 'spiritual emancipation and
peace' and derivatively freedom; and her route is 'through knowing the capacity and
limitations of one's own nature and adapting it to the universal process of
transformation' and thus to the environmental
In complementary fashion, opposite "virtues", common in anti-environmental

lifestyles are condemned.
The Western drives to power, fame, competition,
possessions, excess commodities, useless (small) knowledge are rejected by Taoism
(along with "Mans Affairs"). Thus entrepreneurial activity in business, and also in
professional and academic affairs (as well as busyness itself), gets decidedly
discouraged. The good life naturally reduces ambitions and desires and avoids
competition. Competition is connected with self-assertion and aggressive action.

Taoism, while not neglecting limited natural competition, passes aspersions on both. In
place of the mainstream economic virtue of competition, inherited from the
Enlightenment and reinforced by Darwinianism, appears the 'virtue of non­
competition'.^ Competition often requires forced or artificial action; thus it violates the
doctrine of wM-wef (non-action). In competition external rival standards are imposed on
Tao. Competition is deviant, evidencing deviation from tao, and from te, virtue. In any

event, according to Taoism, there is no merit in trying to place onself above another. So
there is no value in competition. Fortunately competition can be reduced. If a person

does not compete then the world cannot compete with him.
A broad way of life is depicted, based on love, respect and compassion for all
things, attuned to what is essential, shedding what is unnecessary, where simplicity and
frugality are sought, and excess and competition avoided. This involves, in a nutshell,
voluntary simplicity of a deep sort. Simplicity is not however the impoverished life of

one who seeks escape. Taoism goes much further in disparaging scarce material means.

Do not exact the worth, so that people compete. Do not value rare treasure, so that

people do not steal. Gross wealth and prestige are rejected; they are vanities and
vexations. But not all is vanity: living well is not.
21 Chan SB p.177.
22 LT 68.

11

It is a very natural inference, then, from the account of living well to the suggestion

that Tao offers a deep form of voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity is a fuzzy
notion.23

Voluntary simplicity can initially be explained through its two obvious

components, simplicity and its voluntary adoption. Simplicity connects with, and is
often equated with frugality, as elaborated in Taoism. But whether or not simplicity is
obtained from frugality or other Taoist virtues, it plays a direct and important part in the
theory, and is in fact modelled, like its metaphysical counterpart, the unconceptualised
Whole, by the uncarved block, a central Gestalt of the theory. The block symbolises
unity, simplicity and naturalness not spoiled by artifice, metaphysically the wholeness
and unity of Tao before conceptual carving, and ethically the wholesome
straightforward non-devious life under Te, the 'simple life that is free from cunning and
cleverness, is not devoted to the pursuit of profit or marked by hypocritical humanity
and righteousness, but is characterised by plainness, tranquility, and purity'.24 As to
voluntariness, people have a c/iozce of selecting the way of Tao rather than one of the

deviant ways.

It is a choice of recipes - frugal vs. excess, relatedness vs. non-

relatedness, tall poppies vs. not daring to be ahead. But one does not attempt to force

one's way onto a correct path. To hyperactively seek the path is a deviation in itself.
Within the broad way of life depicted fall a plurality of particular lifestyles,

appropriate to various different social roles. Among more specialised lifeways on
which Taoist attention is lavished are those of the sage and the ideal ruler. A sage is
naturally one who follows Tao, who has acquired great knowledge, and so on (ideality
is built into the notion of
The sage understands the fundamentals of Tao, and
practices accordingly.
Likewise an ideal ruler is a non-interfering exemplar ruler, who observes voluntary

Ideally the people become emulators of this ruler. Effectively Taoism
redefines the notion of "ruler", equating ruler with supreme exemplar, such as the sage,
whereupon the meaning attributed to "ruler" becomes that of following Tao. The ruler
simplicity.

is one who deviates little from the Tao; this is his "power". Someone who deviates little

from the Tao is kingly, that is, to observe another subversion of terminology, he shows
an all-embracing impartiality. The sage and the "ruler" are but two important examples

of kinds of ideal lifes. Another kind is also sketched,2$ that of the best type of person

(effectively an ideal Deep Ecologist), a person 'who in his dwelling loves the earth', but
also loves humanity, and order, and competence, and profundity.

23 As its fullest elaboration, Elgin's very profuse account, reveals.
24 Chan, p.14.
25 Notably in LT 8.

12

4. Following Tao: non-action, cultivating Te and seeking Enlightenment. Part of
the Taoist route to an environmental lifestyle and towards enlightenment consists in
acquiring the practice of non-action, exemplified through non-assertion, non­
aggression, non-destruction, and the like.
commonly translated as 'non-action',
is thereby rendered a dialectic notion, for it does not exclude action and in a sense is

action. To avoid such dialectical overtones,
is sometimes rendered 'not acting
wilfully' or 'not acting artificially' or 'acting naturally'; it is better transcribed as 'without
forcing' or 'no forced (or coercive) action'. Construed in this fashion,
is not an
extraneous awkward addition to Taoism, but an integral part, which emerges from other
features of the theory, namely those of following natural low-action ways. For non-

action is the "activity" of letting one's tao drift or flow into line with the overall Tao (so
arrows in Diagram 2 are aligned). What is commended is, in the correct circumstances,
pacific action, of letting happen (e.g. letting die), as opposed to aggressive, extraverted
action (e.g. killing), forced action upsetting natural ways. Similarly for other No-nos;
the "no desires" directive, for instance, is a piquant shorhand for 'no impure desires',26
i.e. for no unsatisfactory or anti-te desires. Non-action accordingly does not require
literally no action, but only actions in accord with ideal nature, so ruling out actions
contrary to undisturbed Tao. It may appear that perennial problems, alleged to haunt
Taoism (and intensified in Stoicism), are induced. For example, if all is Tao, and Tao is

natural, how can there be unnatural activity? Or differently, if nothing can depart from
Tao, how can there be unspontaneous actions, or any violation of
Tao,
however, is a source which only
in an ideal, natural, direction. It does not
all individual paths, which can deviate from ideal or natural paths. Thus
deviant activity is not excluded, unspontaneous and ill-organised activity by individuals
is in no way ruled out; and forced, coercive and nature-destroying activities are all too
common. When 'all activities follow their specific principles, that is nature';27 deviation

from Nature accordingly occurs, namely when some activities do not follow their
principles. As for destruction, 'Do not let man destroy Nature'.28
Non-action as policy generally implies non-interference, when things have not
been damagingly disturbed. It implies letting things take their own natural course;

letting Being be, as Deep Ecology has it, with basically "hands off practice and
management. Unforced action in practice is well illustrated by examples of going with
the flow. One main example of going with the flow is cutting meat. The Chef does not
encounter bones. He takes the meat apart effortlessly in the same way that an athlete
26 Chan, p.13.
27 SB p.202.
28 SB p.207.

13

does things effortlessly, with little waste action. Going with the flow can however
involve a lot of activity, as with the man swimming easily in a raging torrent below the
waterfall, or as in sailing and trimming to the wind. At a personal level, non-action lies
in such things as not striving to put oneself above others, in foregoing competition, in
simplicity, frugality, and adherence to the mean. Evidently this removes a range of

normally accepted social activities. Flexibility, and suppleness, and even weakness,
belong to the centre (or mean), to the valley way. Though the ancient transcultural

doctrine of the mean, of a middle way, appears explicitly in La<9 TzM,29 that middle path
is arrived at, and taken, differently. The Taoist route is an easy no-action route, a valley

way, a non-maximising path of weakness and little resistance, in line with the broad
account of living and faring well.
Taoism, like other older non-maximising wisdoms enjoining adherence to the
Mean, is incompatible with modem maximising ideologies.
Taoism is thus
incompatible with Deep Ecology, whose supreme directive is self-realisation (again
capitalised for wider "selves"). Such Self-realisation is a European idea, a maximising
prescription applied to the aggregated interests of a separate self, inflation of a typically
egoistic concept not found in Taoism. But although such directives to Self-realisation
would be rightly queried in Taoism, there are parallel non-maximising goals to be found

in Taoism: namely, attaining enlightenment and tranquility, following Tao, and

cultivation of
and the contrast between self-realisation and Self-realisation parallels
that between
and %, great re. Since a 'main objective of the [Lao Tza] is the
cultivation of virtue or fe',3O can be seen as displacing self-realisation on the Taoist

scheme. As it works out then, Self-realisation is nicely displaced by Enlightenment.
Complementary to Tao is Te, and to tao is te. Whereas tao is the directed source of
a thing, te is the matching goaZ-bZfrc^Z
or unfolding of a thing. It is a
directed and

standard translation of

(in principle favourably) developing, value-adding; hence the
as 'virtue'. Because of its potentiality to reach a (good) goal, a

rival translation as 'power' has some currency; it is a directed force/br good (or evil).

The program of tao supplies the direction of matching te. So a thing can follow its tao

(and thereby follow Tao) by cultivating te, by practising positive virtue, by choosing a
lifestyle of deep simplicity. The directives for a good individual life are accordingly

commonly given in terms of individual te, and it is te (rather than Tao) that generally
appears invididualised.
Each being has its own tao, its own ideal naturally-programmed path of self­
development or unfolding. Correspondingly, there is an immanent telos, a te, a goal29 E.g. 77, also 29.
39 Chan, p.ll.

14

directed virtuous developing, for each thing. By each following its own nature, all
follow nature. Our self-development does not then interfere damagingly with your self­
development. How does this happen? Through natural (again invisible) inter­
organisation, my proper self-development cannot impede your proper self-development.
While Taoism is decidedly short on details of such mututal adjustment and harmonious
integration, it is certain that it happens naturally — as it may, for instance, through the
evolution of co-operation.3i So there is, or need be, no vacillation between following
one's own path and taking care not to interfere with the paths of others, between

individualistic and relational paths. The Taoist result is integration, a harmonious
combination of plans, without domination, by contrast with the dominant pattern of

Western relations, operating through hierarchical ordering and domination.

5. Environmental theory and practice; environmental problems and difficulties,
such as quietism and security. As on deeper environmental theories, traditional

Western models for human relations to the natural world are one and all rejected. The
dominant view, of domination, of human dominion over the earth and its other
inhabitants, is not merely roundly and soundly rejected; the metaphysical creationist
base and the superiority myths upon which it is regularly founded are also removed.

Therewith also the bases for the lesser, and rather more benign, Western models, such
as stewardship and perfectionism, are also undercut. There is no superior or greater
purpose for humans to serve, or lord to supplicate as steward. Besides stewardship, a
kind of servant-master relationship, which is both hierarchical and implicitly
patriarchical in cast, typically involves active interference in producing products. The
idea of perfecting nature also implies active interference, when however nature is more
or less in order as it is, and requires no "perfecting". Thus stewardship and perfectionist
alternatives fall along with domination and dominion.
Taoism offers instead a non-interference model for relations to nature, a letting-be

approach, with "hands off" environmental management and associated lifestyles. A
most striking feature of Taoism is its environmental depth, its strong opposition to then
prevailing (and still prevailing) humanism and human chauvinism.

31 Ong resolution of this problem can now make a useful start with Axelrod's investigations of evolving
cooperation.
Cooperation can begin with small clusters. It can thrive with rules that are nice, provocable,
and somewhat forgiving. And once established in a population, individuals using such
discriminating strategies can protect themselves from invasion. The overall level of
cooperation tends to go up and not down. In other words, the machinery for the evolution of
cooperation contains a ratchet (Axelrod p.177).

15

Heaven and earth are not humane
They regard all things as straw dogs [i.e. rather worthless strict ritual objects].
The sage is not humane [or human chauvinist].
He regards all people as straw dogs.32
Because of such tough pronouncements, reiterated and reinforced in Chang Tzu,33

Taoism is sometimes said to be predicated on anti-humanism. But it is not 'a
dehumanizing philosophy', it does not deny compassion; what transpires is that concern
and value are not confined to humans or their affairs, but
include the natural and the metaphysical. The human is no longer the criterion
of what is good or true. The traditonal idea that a supreme supernatural being
... is the ruler of the universe is replaced by the doctrine that the universe
exists and operates by itself. When [Lao Tzu] says that "Heaven and Earth are
not humane", he means in a narrow sense that they are
but in a
broader sense that Nature is no longer governed according to
... In one stroke he removes Heaven [or God] and man as the standards of
things and replaces them with Nature.34

What is rejected with the rejection of humanism and humanistic ethics is human
chauvinism.

For being "humane" means accepting the chauvinistic assumptions of

conventional society and remaining within the narrow sphere of interests of the human

species. There is no unbridgeable gulf between humans and other creatures such as
Western thought has tried to manufacture. 'Put a halter around the horse's head and put
a string through the cow's nose, that is man'.35 In place of humanism, Taoism adopts a
doctrine of impartiality. 'Embrace all things without inclining to this way or that way'. 36
He who is enlightened 'is impartial';37 'he has no partial love for anyone'38 he does not
bestow undue or special favours upon humans; he aims to be one with Nature.
Impartiality does not imply equality. Despite the received heading of chapter 2 of
the

TzM, 'the equality of all things' (the literal 'levelling all things' is nearer the

mark), and the standard inference to some Taoist doctrine of parity, no simplistic and
difficult theme of equal value of all things is ventured — nor any theme of parity for

some favoured subclass thereof such as living things. (Though there is some accent on
prime life, there is not the same stress on
in Taoism that there is in Deep Ecology,

nor the bizarre extension of "life" to include waterfalls, mountains and other striking
What is offered, instead of much in the way elucidation of
impartiality, is (again like Deeper Ecological theory) a doctrine of identification. Wide
natural objects.)

identification and wide solidarity does promote impartiality and counter chauvinism.
32 LT 5.
33 E.g. CT 2.
34 Chan, p.10, italics added; also p.107.
35 SB p.207.
36 SB p.206.
37 LT 6.
38 SB p.201.

16

Egoism, for instance, involves discounting all but oneself, humanism all but humans,
and requires a species solidarity with human things. But wider identification puts a stop
to such discounting (e.g. in favour of one's own or species's interests, as exhausting

value) and to such class-restricted solidarity.

For wider identification reveals that

interests and desires, concerns and values and so forth, are not so individual or class

restricted. Many exquisite examples of identification, and the processes by which it
may be achieved, are developed, for example with a butterfly, by dream access,39 with
rivers and seas, and wider again, by the proper meditative process, with the dusty world
- 'Become one with the dusty world / This is called profound identification'40 - and

perhaps wider yet, and ultimate, with ideal Nature, and thus in complete accord with

Tao .41
No less striking than the criticism of humanism, Taoism makes similar sort of
attack on traditional education and on the accumulation of knowledge. The case against
traditional education, especially rote "learning", is straightforward; it reinforces
entrenched practices and prejudices, e.g. those of humanism. The criticism does not of
course imply that there would be no regular learning or habituation processes, in place
of those excessively encouraged traditional indoctrination methods. More perplexing is

the attack on knowledge acquisition, though in part it is of the same sort, against an
entrenched knowledge in the hands of power and professional groups. But, in an
organic society, knowledge is integrated into the community and not ratified into a
commodity held or controlled by a priesthood or a class of intellectuals or literati.
Insofar as knowledge is power, such power is removed from the control of a few by
making it a community good. In these respects Taoism goes beyond Deep Ecology, for
instance in questioning and rejecting experts.

Indeed in its criticism of schooling,

narrow expertise, and the like, Taoism resembles and anticipates the stance adopted by
Illich rather than features of Deep Ecology. The superficially anti-intellectual trend of
Taoism is really directed against other targets than pure knowledge: against power
through knowledge and control of knowledge, against slickness and cleverness, against
devious and crafty uses of knowledge ,42 against counter-productive acquiring of

knowledge or cunning, and its teaching. The puzzling situation is tidied up somewhat
in the C%<2Kg TzM, where an apposite distinction is made between

knowledge, the

castigated sorts, which is inquisitive, partial, discriminative or merely analytic, and
greaf knowledge, which is 'leisurely and at ease', comprehensive, extensive, and

39 SB p.190.
40 LT 56, also 4.
41 E.g. LT 16.
4^ LT 3.

17

synthetic .43 Even so, classical Taoism hardly seems to cater for adequate access of

information, and the removal of (perhaps debilitating) ignorance, concerning health and

welfare, careful and damaging practices, choices and alternatives.
What is environmentally significant is that the critique of small knowledge and
narrow expertise extends to encompass a critique of technology. In Taoism, technology
was assigned a very limited role at best. Certain forms of technology were, if not

rejected outright, at least strongly discouraged. 'Even if there are ships and carriages,
none will ride in them. Even if there are arrows and weapons, none will display

them'.44 More generally, while high and dangerous technology is set aside, even more
appropriate technology cannot be accepted uncritically. Lao Tzu recognised clearly that
even low impact technology may destroy conventions and practices constitutive of a
community. Nor was the connection of technology with population neglected. Given a

small country and few inhabitants, if provided with a labour-saving device he would not
use it. There are dominating and non-dominating forms of technology. What is

enjoined is avoidance of artificial wants and desires, and therewith of unnecessary
consumption, and correspondingly on the production side, shunning of a work void, of
efficiently replacing labour with nothing at all.

In these sorts of respects Taoism

exhibits a firmer grasp of some of the problems of technology, even more appropriate
labour-saving technology, than a spread of recent positions. Likewise a Taoist approach
demolishes the so-called iron law of technology, that there is no stopping technology or
its progress. Whatever the merits of the "law" (they are not so conspicuous), Taoism

reveals that such social laws are culture and community dependent, and do not
withstand transfer from the dominant social paradigm everywhere else.
Many other elements of a sensitive and sophisticated ecological position feature in

classical Taoism. There is an elaborate and sensitive account of Nature, from which it
emerges plainly that Nature is not a mere instrument or means for other ends, and not
merely a resource, but something of great value in itself. Nature is something to be

cherished in its own right, allowed to take its own course, not to be interfered with or
destroyed by humans. Indeed the dominant instrumental perspective is interestingly
reversed; value for humans is achieved above all by identification with Nature, and by
following natural ways. (Paradoxical reversal is a feature of Taoism; even castigated
Western aims, such as leadership, fame and so on, are in fact achieved, when they are,

not by direct aim, but by letting the reverse happen. So it is with what control of Nature
is required; non-intervention and non-action is the approach. Sufficient control is

gained, it is said, when assertive attempts to impose it are abandoned.) While such
43 CfChan, p.20.
44 LT 80.

18

recently fashionable ideas as bioregionalism are not encountered in explicit form in
Taoism, their bases are, as are other associated environmental ideas: living in place is

certainly present;^ doing things locally and remaining local, while being attuned to the

universe, is certainly advocated, giving some sustenance to the maxim Deep Ecology

happily borrowed, "think globally, act locally".
While there is then very much in Taoism that fits easily and revealingly with
deeper environmental theories, Taoism also induces puzzles or generates residual

problems. While some of the problems are genuine enough, that of material scarcity for
example, not all the supposed problems are genuine; and not all the puzzles are
bequeathed to contemporary theory. Illustrating both is the problem of quietism, which
is at bottom the issue of reconciling "non-action" with environmental and social
improvement and action. How, for instance, would a Taoist resistance against
depredation, a Taoist defence of environment proceed, and fare, given its apparent
emphasis on not bothering, "don't bother"? In-built harmony and quietism do not allow
sufficiently for conflict. In part there is only a problem because of misrepresentation of
Taoism, which is not committed to a "don't bother" attitude to environmental
destruction: quite to the contrary, humans should not be allowed to destroy nature.^
Furthermore, there are many Taoist tactics and techniques, using weakness to overcome

strength, letting the flow of nature demolish the forces of environmental destruction,
and the like, which can be applied in environmental resistance.^ Quietism is

accordingly a misrepresentation of the practice, and something of a misnomer (an
oppositional, not a Taoist tag).
How can Tao work in a world where there is scarcity almost everywhere? Very
simply, Taoism optimistically holds that there is no genuine problem concerning

plentitude; things are not scarce, there is an abundant outpouring from nature. There is
scarcity only because of violations of the requirements of Tao (with excessive desires,
excessive consumer demand, excessive hoarding, political mismanagement, and so on).
Tao will serve to restore plentitude/s Rather than a collection of scarce resources,

Nature is represented as an virtually infinite storehouse of boundless wealth. Nor was
there a looming problem of limits to growth, because growth (in key parameters, such
as populations) would not proceed exponentially.
Does Tao allow for the prospect and problems of too many people?

Can the

greater Tao keep pace with the requirements of many too many individual taos, even if
45 LT 80.
46 See CT.
47 Use of the power of water affords a prime example; cf LT 15. No-action adaptations of old Chinese
martial arts and strategies presumably offer more direct methods of defence and resistance.
48 LT 77.

19

those individual requirements are in line with the greater Tao? No doubt in those times,
and most historical times when epidemics and plagues were almost as regular as
droughts, when evolution still operated overtly on human species, there was little more
than a hypothetical or remote future problem concerning population. It seems plain

however that Taoism did not face the environmental problems such as those of too
many people and incremental resource and ecosystem degradation. While the texts do
address, forcefully, two of the three main components of the standard environmental

impact equation, namely consumption and technology, the important third, human
population, is not considered at all, still less statisfactorily therefore. It is much the
same for other significant environmental issues. The prime texts say little about soil
degradation and deforestation, long major environmental problems in China, as in other
centres of civilisation. Nor does Taoism have much to offer directly on main
contemporary issues of animal liberation, species loss, urban disgustification, and so
forth, though several of the problems are hardly new (and some are recognised in early

commentaries). Historic Taoism too was a product of its times, adjusted to what were
seen as problems.
There is no reason at all, however, why classical Taoism should not be updated,

more than two millenia, to take account of contemporary environmental problems.

Because of its compatibility with deeper environmentalism, Taoism admits such an
extension in a way that main modem religions do not.49

49 Such an extension of Taoism, entitled Neo-Daoism, is brashly sketched in UTD, from which much of
the present exercise is adapted. Such Neo-Daoism diverges sharply from contemporary Daoism. But it is
very congenial to contemporary deep environmental theory.

20

REFERENCES
Ames, R.T. (1986), 'Taoism and the nature of nature', E/zvzronm^nfaZ P/zz7o^op/zy 8:317350.
Axelrod, R. (1984), T/ze Evo/zmon of Cooperarzo/z, Basic Books, New York.
Chan, W.T. (1963), A .Source BooZr zTz C/zzzz^ E/zzZosop/zy, Princeton University Press,
Princeton [referred to as SB].
Chan, W.T. (1963), 77ze 1Toy of Loo Tza (Too-re c/zzzzg), Bobbs-Merill, New York
[introduction referred to as Chan, translation referred to as LT].

Devall, B. and Sessions, G. (1985), Deep EcoZogy: Lzvzng os y zzomre Moffered, Gibbs
M. Smith, Layton, Utah.
Elgin, D. (1981), VoZa/zfary .SzmpZzczzy, Murrow, New York [for a better briefer account,
see D. Elgin and A. Mitchell, 'Voluntary Simplicity', Co-EvoZafz'on gzzorrerZy 14
(Summer 1977)].
Elgin, D. and Mitchell, A. (1977), 'Voluntary Simplicity', Co-EvoZaaozz QaarferZy 14
(Summer 1977).
Fox, W. (1990), Toward o TroHspersoKo/ EcoZogy, Shambhala, Boston.

Graham, A.C. (1989), Dz'sporers ofr/ze Too, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois.
Illicit, I. (1974), 7oo/sfor CozzvzvzaZzzy, Calder and Boyars, London.

Lagerwey, J. (1987), 7oozsrEz'rooZ z'/z C/zz/zese ^ocze/y, Macmillan, New York.
Naess, A. (with D. Rothenberg) (1989), EcoZogy, Co/w/za/zzZy ozzzZLz/esZy/e, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.
Routley, R. (1980), ExpZorzzzg Mez/zozzg's Jzz/zgZe a/z^Z BeyornZ, Research School of
Social Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra [referred to as JB].

Routley, V. and Routley, R. (1980), 'Social theories, self management and
environmental problems', in D. Mannison cf aZ. (eds), Ezzvz'rozzmc/zro/ E^/zzc^, The
Australian National University, Canberra [referred to as EE].
Sylvan, R. (1985-86), 'Towards an improved cosmological synthesis', Grazer
P/zzZo^op/zz'jc/zg 57a<7z^/z 25/26:135-178 [referred to as CS].
Sylvan, R. and Bennett, D. (1990), Df Ufopza.?, Tao azzefDeep EcoZogy, Green Series
No. 19, Research School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University,
Canberra [referred to as UTD].
Wang Pi (1979), 'Commentary on the Lao Tzu', transl. A. Rump and W.J. Chan,
University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
Watson, B. (1964), T/zc Co/zzpZcrc WorE? of C/za/zg Tza, Columbia University Press,
New York [referred to as CT].

Collection

Citation

Richard Sylvan, “Box 21, Item 708: Letter, Arne Næss to Richard Sylvan, 19 Jul 1991 ; Draft of Taoism and deep environmental concerns: let concern spread to all the myriad things,” Antipodean Antinuclearism, accessed April 23, 2024, https://antipodean-antinuclearism.org/items/show/166.

Output Formats