video lecture: james miller speaks on china’s green religion at the university of southern california’s us-china institute

The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

The following video was recorded at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.

china doesn’t have an “environmental” problem

From an article on China's cancer villages at

From an article on China’s cancer villages at

China doesn’t have an “environmental“ problem. The language of “environment” continues the false notion that nature constitutes an objective reality extrinsic to human subjectivity, accessible through science, transformable through engineering. This paradigm gives us the sense that the environment is something outside us that we can save or preserve through science and technology or other modes of intervention.

The reality from a Daoist perspective is that there is no such thing as an “environment” upon which humans individually or collectively act. Conversely there is no “environment” to be “saved” or “preserved.” Daoist thought posits multiple, co-creative subjectivities rather than a discourse of subjective agents who act on passive objects. This correlational agency is visualized in terms of the interdependence of landscape and  body. Each is mapped upon the other. Qi flows through the landscape just as it does through human bodies. Both are mutually implicated, and mutually co-constituting. 

This way of seeing human bodies in relation to the natural landscape opens up the possibility for an indigenously Chinese ethic of ecorelationality and new modes of discourse for framing problems of water scarcity, air pollution and food security. Furthermore, Daoist somatic praxis can support the development of a heightened aesthetic of ecological sensitivity.

Daoist thought and practice can thus support the development of an indigenous Chinese approach  to health, food and environment aesthetically, culturally, ethically and philosophically.

To learn more, please come to hear me speak in California on November 18 and 19.

china’s green religion: upcoming lecture

James MillerThe monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

You are invited to join me in California to discuss the contribution of Daoism, China’s indigenous religion, to this urgent debate.

Talks will be held at

University of California, Santa Barbara
Tuesday, November 18, 5:00-7:00pm

Humanities and Social Sciences Building room 2252
University of California, Santa Barbara
Isla Vista, CA 93117

Sponsored by the UCSB Confucius Institute

University of Southern California
Wednesday, November 19, 4:00-5:30pm

Annenberg School for Communication room G34,
3502 Watt Way
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281

Co-sponsored by the USC US-China Institute and the School of Religion

journey of the universe

At the end of June I had the privilege of speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. The topic for the week was the film Journey of the Universe, by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. If you haven’t seen it, you can read all about it on the website at

The film narrates the 14 million year epic of cosmic evolution from the big bang through to the present day. The purpose of the conference was to present responses to the film from the perspective of various world religions. Below is my 15 minute presentation on Daoism, Ecology and the Journey of the Universe.

religious diversity and ecological sustainability

For the past six months I’ve been working with Dan Smyer Yu from the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity on a conference which is finally taking place next week at Minzu University in Beijing. The title of the conference is Religious Diversity and Ecological Sustainability in China. Here’s the conference rationale that we wrote.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the health of Planet Earth is affected by human activities on both organizational and personal levels. The industrialist vision celebrating a modern cornucopia has proven itself successful in extracting and harnessing resources from the Earth as well as in producing wastes lethal to the biosphere. The worldwide project of modernization has concurrently brought blessings to human wellbeing as well as displacement of human communities and endangered myriad species. Many of us, who are either socially engaged or theoretically-oriented, have produced works critiquing the environmental consequences of modernity and its grand global material project—modernization. Meanwhile, many of us have also begun to revisit and reinterpret ancient ecological worldviews and practices that are an inherent part of native belief systems for the purpose of either exploring alternative, “green” models of modern life or radically reorienting the course of modernization the world over. Nowhere are these questions more intensely focused and their impacts more keenly felt that China, which has experienced the full brunt of industrialization, population explosion, rural to urban migration at a pace and scale un- precedented in world history.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to resist the simplistic construction of “New China” as exclusively “secular”, “modern”, or “materialistic.” The resurgence of religious expression in contemporary China, the attention paid to minority nationalities throughout China’s diverse environmental contexts, and the resuscitation of Confucius as supreme icon of Chinese culture together compel us to pay attention to the cultural and religious diversity of contemporary China. Doing so leads us to question the binary taxonomies of tradition / modernity, sacred / secular, rural / urban, religion / science that inform the ideology of mo- dernity, and to pay particular attention to the way their attendant ideologies and narratives serve to construct and authorize particular views of nature and environment.

We aim to do so by weaving together three separate spheres of inquiry. The first aims towards an historical understanding of China’s traditional constructions of nature and environment and of how those constructions have been reconfigured by modern narratives of secularization, nationalism, or scientific development. The second engages an understanding of China’s diverse environmental contexts and the ways in which minority nationalities, popular culture and official religions have constructed and engaged their local ecolo gies and environments. The third analyzes contemporary urban China and the concepts of space, nature, technology and environment that inform and authorize contemporary archi- tecture, urban planning and utopian dreams of eco-cities. In these three ways we develop a comprehensive understanding of contemporary China that goes beyond the tradition / modernity dichotomy, and illuminates the diversity of narratives and worldviews that inform contemporary Chinese understandings of and engagements with nature and environment.

To generate this breadth and depth of knowledge requires a multidisciplinary approach, the first stage of which will take place by means of a workshop at Minzu University. In this workshop, both the historical studies of larger traditions and the ethnographic discussions of eco-religious communities among non-Han populations are part and parcel of the ongoing worldwide scholarly effort to discern the diverse superstructures and axiomatic roots of human ecological practices. On one hand, the workshop explores the “green” facets of religions in China, and, on the other hand, traces origins of modern ecological views, ethics, and practices from ancient times. The inclusion of ecological discourses from the non-religious sphere in China is meant to acknowledge the social reality of contemporary China, in which approximately 90% of the population is “non-religious.” This does not mean the secular society of China is constructed of social behaviors absent of belief systems and religiosity. The path of China’s modernization, despite its changing forms, bears a millenna- rianist trademark ranging from scientism to the current modernization trends, in which the vision of a “saved” China has always been projected into a not-yet-manifest future depicted as a paradise on earth with abundance, equality, and fair division of labor. This enchanted utopian trait of China’s modernity deserves an ecological reading from the perspective of religious studies as does contemporary field studies in smaller scale communities negotiating modernity and their own traditions in a globalized era. We look forward to working with a diverse body of scholars bringing fresh theoretical perspectives.

If you visit the Max Planck website  and download the conference brochure, you will see that we are bringing in a group of top-notch scholars from Europe, North America and China. I fly to Beijing on Saturday, and the conference takes place from March 6-9. After the conference I will be going on a brief lecture tour with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. I will report back with some of the highlights over the next few weeks.

religion, ecology and nationalism

Should environmentalists support conservation projects that also serve to bolster right wing nationalist agendas? This was one of the questions that was discussed last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in San Francisco. I spoke on a panel organized by the Religion and Ecology section which featured a vibrant discussion on this very issue.

One of the key points of discussion that came up was the way in which the alliance of religion and ecology is not necessarily compatible with left / liberal politics. In North America we tend to associate environmental issues with left / liberal politics, and religious organizations that advocate on behalf of environmental issues similarly tend to get associated with those similar politics. As an example of this, at the Forum on Religion and Ecology lunch just a few days earlier, it was quite evident from the conversation that scholars involved in environmental issues largely fell into the left / liberal camp. But just because this is the normative cultural expectation in North America does not necessarily make this the case everywhere else in the world.

Landsat Image of Rama's Bridge

George James from the University of North Texas, for instance, noted the way in which the right wing nationalist politics of India BJP opposed the Sethusamudram shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka not because of environmental reasons but because the proposed shipping channel would cut through the causeway known as Rama’s Bridge, which is identified in the Hindu sacred mythology of the Ramayana. Here was a case in which the alliance of religion and ecology did not conform to the typical expectation of the left-liberal North American academic.

My own paper, on the alliance of Daoist religion and ecology, similarly made the point that the state has particularly supported the conservation of Daoist sites where this has accorded with nationalist politics. This is the case at Maoshan, a designated AAAA tourism destination, which is also a red tourism site, associated with the 4th Army’s role during the 1937-45 war with Japan. It was also the case for Wudang shan during the Ming dynasty, which ordered a local garrison to prevent local deforestation, in part because of the national significance of the site to the Ming emperors.

Here were two examples, then, of the ways in which religious efforts at the conservation of sacred sites were aided by nationalist agenda rather than a green agenda. In these cases, environmental efforts were local, rather than global, and subsumed under the question of national identity.

This discussion was also continued with reference to Suzanne Armstrong’s paper on the Christian Farmer’s Federation of Ontario, which demonstrated a range of theological opinions regarding the alliance of religion and agriculture that could be classified politically anywhere from conservative to liberal. Similarly, Elizabeth Allison’s paper on “brown” environmental issues in Bhutan raised the question of whether a technocratic approach to environmentalism bolstered a statist agenda, that is, empowered the government to strengthen its control over a wide range of issues in people’s lives.

The conclusion we reached, I think, is that just because environmental issues are perceived as being left/liberal issues in North America does not mean that this is necessarily the case in other cultures. We should not expect environmentalists to hold the same colour of political opinions, and we should also expect that there are instances where local environmental issues will bolster conservative orthodoxies and right wing agendas. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support environmental efforts where they also serve to bolster political ideologies that we don’t agree with?

ecological civilization

Delegates at the Sino-US Forum on Ecological Civilization and Sustainable Development

I was in Beijing and Tianjin recently for a week of conferences related to “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生态文明) an important new buzzword, the precise meaning of which thought leaders and government officials are vying to define.

The first conference I attended was one on “Traditional Culture and Ecological Civilization”, held in conjunction with the Beijing branch of the Chinese society for the study of the Yijing. The conference was a curious mix of academics, Daoists, fengshui practitioners and Yijing enthusiasts. From an intellectual point of view, one of the most interesting and radical presentations came from Lu Feng 卢风, a Tsinghua University philosophy professor. His talk began with the bold claim that the era of industrial civilization was at an end, and that to usher in a new era of ecological civilization demanded nothing short of a “civilization revolution 文明革命” (in Chinese, just one character different from “cultural revolution 文化革命”). In his view, it is necessary to overhaul the intellectual foundations on which our present industrial civilization, and our model of industrial development, are based. In his analysis, ecological civilization represents not just a development of the modern industrial paradigm, but a radical transformation.


new directions in religion and nature

I was in LA last weekend to attend the Sixth Annual Conference on Daoist Studies which was organized by my former teacher, Livia Kohn, and LMU Professor Robin Wang. The conference drew the usual mix of academics and practitioners (which was itself the subject of an interesting meta-analysis by Elijah Siegler). My rationale for attending the conference, however, was that one of its focus themes was religion and ecology. I wanted to see how far the field had evolved since I co-edited the first book on this topic, Daoism and Ecology, Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, in 2001, and I’m delighted to report that there has been some excellent progress.

The majority of essays in that volume, nearly a decade old now, focussed on correlations between environmental concepts and philosophical and religious concepts in the Daoist tradition. Some focussed more on cultural practices such as fengshui or meditation, but there was generally a lack of historical detail and also theoretical innovation. But it was the first stab at creating such a field, so one can’t be too critical.

On the other hand, the papers presented at this year’s conference revealed a greater emphasis on historical detail and also a willingness to engage theoretically innovative frameworks and methods coming from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. (More…)

china’s green religion

James Miller attending the Laozi Conference in the Great Hall of the People

James Miller attending the Laozi Conference in the Great Hall of the People

I’m at the First Summit on Laozi and Daoist Culture, which is taking place this week in Beijing. The Summit is the work of Prof. Hu Fuchen, one of the leading scholars of Daoism, and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This morning, we had the opening ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall of the People. It was my first time in this magnificent building.

The purpose of the conference is basically to promote Daoism throughout China and the World. It is being funded by a wealthy donor, and has received backing at a high level from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. (More…)

china’s greatest contribution to sustainable development

This week I’m at a conference on eco-aesthetics at Shu Yen University in Hong Kong. Today we heard the opening speech from Prof. ZENG Fangren, the former president of Shandong University. He runs a research institute on aesthetics, and is one of China’s leading scholars of eco-aesthetics.

In his overview of the field of eco-aesthetics in China, the lasting impression that I received was how the government’s advocacy of “ecological civilization” has had a profound impact on the field. As a result of this leadership, more and more scholars are devoting attention to ecological issues.

What fascinated me about his talk was how fluent he was in Western scholarship regarding aesthetics and philosophy. It seems that so often dialogue between China and the west is one-sided, with all Chinese scholars mastering Western discourse and very few Western scholars mastering Chinese discourse.

As a result, in the discussions following his presentation, I asked the question of what China can contribute to the world in the areas of eco-aesthetics and sustainability.

His first answer was not what I expected. Rather than discussing Chinese wisdom, Confucian philosophy or Daoism, he made a very simple but powerful point. If China can manage its economic development without increasing too much its ecological footprint, it will have achieved something that everyone in the world can learn from.

This made me realize that the efforts to foster sustainable development will not ultimately depend upon what we in the West do or do not do. It will be developing countries like China and India that will, out of necessity, have to create ecologically sustainable forms of economic development. They will do so because they have no other choice. And when they have done so, they will be in a far more advanced position than us in the West. When that happens it will be we who learn from China and India, and not the other way round.