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“best to be like water”: tsunamis, religion and non-human agency

By: James Miller

Image from National Geographic

It’s been three weeks since the devastating tsunami in Japan, and I am still haunted by the familiar phrase from Daode jing ch. 8:

Best to be like water,
Which benefits the ten thousand things
And does not contend.
It pools where humans disdain to dwell,
Close to the Tao.
(Trans. Addis and Lombardo, Hackett: 1993).

For those devastated by tsuanmis, floods and other water disasters, to make an analogy between goodness and water seems at the very least grotesque. In what sense can the wild and untameable powers of nature be used as an analogy for what’s best? In English, such natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God”, meaning that they are far beyond the power of humans to grasp, and essentially mysterious and unknowable. Insurance companies may refuse to cover such “acts of God” because they represent risks that are so enormous and so incalculable that they resist any attempt to bring them within a familiar economic rationality. An “act of God” is simply beyond human comprehension.

Although ancient Chinese philosophers did not, so far as I know, have any experience of the devastation brought by tsunamis, they were undoubtedly aware of the dangerous power of water. Spring floods have for millennia wrought havoc on the plains of China. To harness water’s power has been the dream of China’s rulers from ancient times to the present. Indeed it would not be going too far to suggest that the present rulers of China have staked their future on hydropower dams as the way to generate low-carbon electricity, and also to divert water from south to north.(In so doing they are providing interesting data for Karl Wittfogel’s famous “hydraulic civilization” theory of Chinese power.)

In the Daode jing, the essential quality of water is that it is fluid. The key difference between fluids and solids is that fluids have a kind of agency to them: they move and act independently of human will. Try as we might, water always runs downhill and “pools where humans disdain to dwell.” Humans fear being in low places because there they cannot see what is coming. Being in a low place threatens human agency, the ability to exert control over our situation, and to be a master of our own domain.

When the Daode jing suggests that it is “best to be like water,” it is making the counter-intuitive suggestion that human beings should relinquish some of their desire to be in control of everything. In Daoism this is known as “wuwei” variously translated as “non-action” or “non-assertive action.” Although scholars have endlessly debated the meaning of his term, my interpretation is that the Daode jing is advocating recognizing the limits to human agency: we just can’t do everything. But at the same time it is advocating recognizing the value of other non-human agencies: there is power, fluidity and dynamism to the world that is independent of human will. To be like water is thus to embrace a different kind of agency from the familiar instrumentality that would have us always “be in control.” Far from suggesting that we give up power and do nothing, it is suggesting that we recognize the existence and power of other agents in our environment, and learn to co-operate rather than contend with them.

Lately my students have been looking at James Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis—the notion that the earth is a single self-regulating organism. Such a view is shocking to conventional science because it suggests that the earth may be considered as some kind of agent: it is not simply passive matter upon which we humans act (with disastrous consequences) but has some kind of ability to regulate itself. As the healing of the ozone hole demonstrates, when left free from human interference (in the form of CFCs), the ozone layer seems to be “healing itself” quite nicely, thank you. This is a powerful and difficult message to those environmentalists who would have us “save the world” (as if we actually could!) and to those anti-environmentalists who would have us wage war upon it.

In the end, I don’t think that it is too grotesque to consider the message of the Daode jing in a time of flood and devastation. While it is our natural instinct of survival to head for the high ground, it is all the more necessary to think about the possibility that humans co-operate with, rather than fear or fight, the myriad forms of non-human agency that inflect our universe. Sometimes, fight or flight may well be necessary, but this does not have to be our only response, our only Way of action. Maybe in other situations a kind of “non-action” or co-operative engagement may be the way forward. But all of this depends on entering into a post-humanist mindset where we are comfortable in recognizing forms of non-human agency, whether the benign power of the earth to heal itself, or the cognitive and moral reasoning of non-human animals, or even the destructive power of tsunamis and earthquakes.

Categories: Blog, Opinion