Skip to content

Daoism and Ecology

By: James Miller

Daoism and Ecology edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan
Daoism and Ecology edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan

Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2001. Pp. lxxiii+476

Cloth edition: US$36.95 / £24.50 / €36.95 ISBN 0-945454-29-5
Paper edition: US$24.95 / £16.50 / €24.95 ISBN 0-945454-30-9

Chinese translation Daojiao yu shengtai. Nanjing, China: Jiangsu jiaoyu chubanshe 2008.

  • Introduction
  • Table of Contents
  • Reviews

N.B. Also check out my new book, China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future.

From the Introduction

Daoism and ecology are often invoked as natural partners in contemporary discussions of environmental issues in the West. When looking to the religious and intellectual resources provided by various “world religions,” it has therefore been a commonplace assumption that the Chinese tradition conventionally known as “Daoism/Taoism” reveals an obvious and particularly compelling affinity with global ecological concerns. For most Western commentators until recently, Daoism primarily referred to the “mystical wisdom” found in several ancient “classical” texts (especially the Daode jing and Zhuangzi) and was seen to be fundamentally in tune with heightened contemporary fears about the increasingly fractured relations between humanity and the natural world. Popular testimony would even whimsically suggest that Pooh Bear and Piglet affirmed the profound ecological sensibility of the ancient Chinese Daoists.

Unfortunately there has been very little serious discussion of this beguiling equation of Daoism and ecology. Too much has been simply, and sometimes fantastically, taken for granted about what is finally quite elusive and problematic—both concerning the wonderfully ‘mysterious’ tradition known as Daoism and, in this case, the ‘natural’ confluence of Daoism and contemporary ecological concerns. Among the shelves of Western books and articles written in the past twenty-five years about the religious, ethical, and philosophical implications of a worldwide “environmental crisis,” there have been many passing allusions to a kind of Daoist ecological wisdom (often associated with native American and other tribal-aboriginal perspectives, as well as with Poohish themes and the free-floating and universalized “Suzuki-Zen” of an earlier generation). However, there is still no single work that is grounded in a scholarly understanding of the real complexities of the Daoist tradition and is also devoted to a critical exploration of the tradition’s potential for informing current ecological issues.

Even in works generally well informed about various religions and ecological issues, a certain kind of romantic infatuation with a “classically pure” and timelessly essential Daoism (embedded within one or two ancient texts and connected with a few key themes) has tended to shape the overall discussion of how this tradition can be “applied” to the problems of the contemporary world. The question remains whether there is anything to be learned beyond various vague appeals to Laozi’s enigmatic little treatise on the “Way and Its Ecological Power,” to Zhuangzi’s playfully insightful parables about “useless” trees and gourds, or to popular visions of a Yoda-like Chinese sage wandering amidst a mist-laden cosmic landscape of craggy mountains, swaying bamboo, and lofty waterfalls. Despite these ongoing reveries, Daoism is increasingly being recognized as an exceedingly rich religious tradition with an immense textual and historical lore that defies any attempt to reduce its meaning to a few ancient texts or Forrest Gump platitudes. It is clear that many popular assumptions about Daoism say less about the real significance of the tradition for ecological concerns than they say about the desire and dominion of Western regimes of both scholarly and popular understanding which, in the words of the Daode jing, tend to “see only that which they yearn for and seek” The difficult truth is that there is much that has not been named or known either about Daoism itself or about its possible contribution to recent environmental problems.

Daoists may not always be the first to act in times of crisis, nor are they likely to work out elaborate theories of engaged social action, but they have always known that it is imperative to take up a way of life that responds in a timely and imaginative fashion to the dangers of neglect, imbalance, distortion, and degradation that inevitably affect human relations with the natural and cosmic worlds. What is needed is a bodily and spiritual resurrection of what Tuan Yi-fu calls a “topophilia”—that is, an aesthetic respect and a practical love for one’s particular life-scape, a love that has general ecological import because of its rootedness in the specific topography of a lived body and local environment. Coming to the end of our journey within the confusing realms of Daoism and ecology is, then, only to be in a position to begin the work of knowing and healing again. In time and because of time, all things—including the natural world itself—require attentive cultivation and responsive care. This, after all, is the “natural” way of things. It is one of the ways—which might be called a “Daoist” or transformative way—to live gracefully, reciprocally, and responsibly within the cosmic landscape of life.

Table of Contents

daijiao yu shengtaiIntroduction: Daoism and Ecology. Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape, N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan

Prologue: The Calabash Scrolls, Stephen Field

Section I: Framing the Issues

  • “Daoism” and “Deep Ecology”: Fantasy and Potentiality, Jordan Paper
  • Ecological Questions for Daoist Thought: Contemporary Issues and Ancient Texts, Anne D. Birdwhistell .
  • “Nature” as Part of Human Culture in Daoism, Michael LaFargue .
  • Daoism and the Quest for Order, Terry F. Kleeman .
  • Sectional Discussion: What Can Daoism Contribute to Ecology?, James Miller .

Section II: Ecological Readings of Daoist Texts

  • Daoist Ecology: The Inner Transformation. A Study of the Precepts of the Early Daoist Ecclesia, Kristofer Schipper .
  • The Daoist Concept of Central Harmony (zhonghe) in the Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing): Human
  • Responsibility for the Maladies of Nature, Lai Chi-tim
  • The Concept of “Mutual Stealing Among the Three Numinous Powers” in the Scripture on Unconscious Unification (Yinfu jing), Zhang Jiyu and Li Yuanguo .
  • Ingesting the Marvelous: The Daoist’s Relationship to Nature According to Ge Hong, Robert Ford Campany
  • Sectional Discussion: What Ecological Themes are Found in Daoist Texts?, James Miller, Richard G. Wang, and Ned Davis .

Section III: Daoism and Ecology in a Cultural Context

  • The Flowering Apricot: Environmental Practice, Folk Religion, and Daoism, E. N. Anderson .
  • In Search of Dragons: The Folk Ecology of Fengshui, Stephen Field
  • On Daoist Notions of Wilderness, Thomas H. Hahn .
  • Salvation in the Garden: Daoism and Ecology, Jeffrey F. Meyer .
  • Sectional Discussion: How Successfully Can We Apply the Concepts of Ecology to Daoist Cultural Contexts?, John Patterson and James Miller .

Section IV: Toward a Daoist Environmental Philosophy

  • From Reference to Deference: Daoism and the Natural World, David L. Hall .
  • The Local and the Focal in Realizing a Daoist World Roger T. Ames .
  • “Responsible Non-Action” in a Natural World: Perspectives from the NeiyeZhuangzi, andDaode jingRussell Kirkland .
  • Another View of “Responsible Non-Action”, Lisa Raphals
  • Non-Action (Wuwei) and the Environment Today: A Conceptual and Applied Study of Laozi’s Philosophy, Liu Xiaogan .
  • Sectional Discussion: What Are the Speculative Implications of Early Daoist Texts for an Ecological Ethics? James Miller and Russell B. Goodman .

Section V: Practical Ecological Concerns in Contemporary Daoism

  • Respecting the Environment. Visualizing Highest Clarity, James Miller .
  • A Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association on Global Ecology, Zhang Jiyu .
  • Change Starts Small: Daoist Practice and the Ecology of Individual Lives, Livia Kohn(compiler) with Liu Ming, Rene Navarro, Linda Varone, Vincent Chu, Daniel Seitz, and Weidong Lu .
  • Daoist Environmentalism in the West: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Reception and Transmission of Daoism, Jonathan R. Herman .
  • Sectional Discussion: How is Daoism a Vital Tradition for a Contemporary Ecological Consciousness?, James Miller .

Epilogue:Dao Song, Ursula K. Le Guin .

  • Bibliography on Daoism and Ecology, James MillerJorge Highland, and Liu Xiaogan with Zhong Hongzhi and Belle B.L. Tan
  • Index and Glossary of Chinese Characters


“Certainly the greatest accomplishment of this volume is that it initiates public dialogue involving writers of Daoism in at least three ways: They have had ot address the issue of any possible Daoist contribution to the question of environmental crisis and ecological responsibility, their eessays are directly accountable to scholars in the wider field of religious studies, and the juxtaposition of scholarly and popular writings has served to partly bridge the long-lasting impasse in which scholars degrade the popular writers and the popular writers ignore the scholars

Reading these essays was something like witnessing a hibernating bear awaken to a new horizon of spring; the challenges posed to scholars of Daoism to take account of wider themes and issues in the field of contemporary studies of religion will continue to be painful but in the end will open new vistas of cogent engagement with the academy at large; the standards of excellence set by this volume will be the measure ot assess all future contributions from the field of Daoist studies.”

Thomas Michael, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Closing the Gap between Daoist Studies and Religious Theory; Two Recent Publications.” The Journal of Religion 82.3 (July 2002), 424-426.

“The editors of this extraordinary collection of Daoist materials wisely chose to operate with a broad and inclusive understanding of Daoism, one that honors the philosophical, sociological, and religious distinctiveness of the various Daoist sectarian traditions. While some may feel that this approach begs the definitional problem of “Daoism,” the overwhelming advantage of this decision is to avoid the common reductionism of Daoism to the Lao-Zhuang tradition narrowly defined.

This work makes numerous contributions to our understanding of Daoist environmental philosophy, but there is also much offered to the reader in terms of methodology for studying and applying Daoism in general. The text makes a very important contribution to both the practitioner and academician. Strongly recommended for scholars of Daoism, individuals interested in religion and ecology, and general readers. All libraries should have this book.”

Ronnie Littlejohn, Belmont College. “Review of Daoism and Ecology.” Daoist Studies (Internet:, March 15, 2003.

Categories: Books