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

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.

consumptionomics: asia’s role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet

Consumptionomics by Chandran Nair

Last year I wrote an article for atlantic-community.org on China’s quest for ecological sustainability. The basic point that I tried to make was that China has to create its own model for development because China simply will not be able to function as a country if its nearly 1.4 billion people expand their ecological footprint to the same level as that of North American societies. I am not arguing that China must not develop its economy. Rather I am arguing that it must develop its economy in a radically new way and not slavishly copy the pattern of development that the West has established.

I’m pleased to note that a similar argument has now been made but fleshed out in much more detail, by Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a “social venture think tank.” The book has already been reviewed by the Financial Times and I’m very interested to read it. It hasn’t yet been published in North America, but I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.

According to the FT’s Hugh Carnegy,

Nair is adamant that nothing good will come to any of us if success in the new economies of the east is defined by flashy, western-style consumption. His book is a call for Asia’s developing nations to eschew consumerism and adopt a more ascetic economic model that will deliver sustainable development and save the planet from environmental disaster.

While Nair is much more interested than I am in fleshing out the policy details of what such a redesigned capitalism would look like, I am pleased to see that attempts are being made to bring about a serious debate on what kind of development the world can tolerate. Hopefully, Nair’s book can go a long way to mitigating the dreadful assumptions that lay behind last year’s New York Times Magazine article on how best to develop China’s domestic appetite for consumer products.

Nair’s vision seems to be for a Singapore-style benevolent dictatorship that will proactively guide Asian economies towards more sustainable forms of economic development. This echoes the feelings of my own students that dictatorships may be better for sustainability than democracies. But to my mind this seems to completely overlook the possibility that sustainability can be seen in a positive light, and not as some form of state-sponsored asceticism.

To my mind, sustainability has the potential to be understood not simply as an economic policy, but as something like a spiritual path, a vision that can provide hope, purpose and meaning for human beings caught in the swirling currents of global capitalism. I believe that sustainability understood in this way resonates profoundly with the deep philosophical currents that flow beneath the shiny surface of modern Asia. This gives me hope that sustainability can become embedded in Asian cultures in ways that Western policymakers may find hard to believe.

green china rising


As the trailer for this new documentary from Mandarin Films makes clear, the global environmental crisis will be solved in China, not in America, for the simple reason that China has no other option. As I noted recently in my post on ecological civilization in China, there is a widespread recognition in China that the paradigm of industrial civilization must be changed so that China can bring economic development to its people without a correspondingly large increase in its ecological footprint. (More…)

sustainability as cultural and psychological transformation

Light within all living beingsIn a fascinating article on metaphors for progressive politics, George Lakoff summarizes succinctly the message that progressives need to be communicating as regards the issue of sustainability:

The economic crisis and the ecological crisis are the same crisis. It has been caused by short-term greed.

I fully agree that the economic crisis and the ecological crisis are deeply interrelated, and that we must overcome the stupid political divide of “economy” versus “environment.” The issue here is how to overcome short-term thinking: how do you get people to think longer, deeper and further than their own immediate context? This demands a cultural revolution and a psychological revolution, because sustainability at its heart involves a different way of imagining oneself in the world. It involves:

  • Imagining oneself not as an autonomous individual but as part of an ecosystem
  • Imagining oneself to occupy a duration in time that extends deep into the grave and far into the future
  • Imagining oneself to be a world that extends deeply in space and time beyond one’s own body

Sustainability requires people to broaden the context in which they make decisions. It involves their feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate place in the world so as to consider their actions extending far and wide across the world. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate time so as to consider their actions extending deep into the future. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their body so as to consider their very being as extending widely into the world.

This is very hard, for an important psychological reason and an important cultural reason. They psychological reason is that our intuitive psychological apprehension of the world is that our “environment” is a thing outside us: the “world” is apart from us, not a part of us. That is our default intuition generated in the deep basement of our psychic apparatus. We intuitively perceive the world to be outside of us, separated from us by the skin.

The cultural reason is that the culture of modernity builds upon and reinforces this intuitive perception to create a complex civilization founded upon normative dualisms in which the thinking self is divorced from the material world.

The new sciences of evolution and ecology, however, teach us that this default intuition and its normative culture are false: that our thinking selves are the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution; and that our bodies are permeated by the worlds they inhabit and impact upon it in powerful and destructive ways.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on embedding the holistic picture that has emerged in the new sciences into the operative norms of our culture. This requires transgressing the conventional norms of modern culture and, what is harder, the intuitive psychology whereby we perceive the world as a space outside our bodies. Sustainability depends for its success on these cultural and psychological transgressions.

Is it possible that religious traditions can help us to imagine how to transgress the normative culture of modernity and the intuitive dualism of self and other? In so doing, can they point the way to fostering a culture of sustainability?

In raising these questions, I am implicitly arguing that environmentalists have not been nearly radical enough in advocating for the harmony of human beings with each other and with their biological matrix. So long as environmentalists urge people to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of our bodies, they unconsciously reinforce the default dualism that posits an absolute separation between human beings and their lived environments. What is necessary therefore is to rewrite the discourse of ecological sustainability so as no longer to perpetuate the false reification of nature as a thing outside our bodies.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on a deeper transformation in the way that people feel and perceive their place in the world. Sustainability at its deepest level is an aesthetic transformation, changing the way human beings sense, feel and cognize their location in space and time.

In Religion is Not About God, Loyal Rue proposed that we understand religions not so much as doctrines, but as effective systems for training people in the cultural habits and emotional responses that shape their experience of the world. Religions are mass cultural habits that train some people, for instance, to feel disgust at the thought of eating pork. In so doing they shape people’s perception of the world and educate them emotionally to respond to the world in certain ways.

This gives us a clue about how to deploy the techniques of religions for the benefit of training people not to feel disgust at pork, but to realize psychologically and culturally the hard truths that the new sciences are telling us: that we are implicated in a ecological matrix much bigger and more complex than we had previously imagined. In a sense, religions that train people to think about themselves sub specie aeternitatis have been doing this for a long time. But thinking of oneself from an eternal perspective is too big a deal. If only we can train people and politicians to think about themselves from the perspective of the next twenty years, that would be an enormous improvement.

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.


chinese religions and economic sustainability

image of Solar Powered Light

A solar-powered light on the road to Maoshan, Jiangsu, China.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Wayne Arnold published a column on the perennial topic “rethinking the measure of growth.” The story concerns attempts by Asian economists to come up with alternatives to GDP growth as the be-all and end-all of development. As is often the case with the New York Times, I found the most important information buried towards the end of the story, as though the editors didn’t actually think it was important!

What is needed instead, some economists say, is a wholesale re-examination of development’s goals. … Beijing, at least, appears to have gotten the message, if its investments in green technology and public transportation are anything to go by. The Communist Party has also revised the promotion criteria for officials so that environmental conditions are included along with gross domestic product.

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this type of policy measure in China. To gain official promotion in China does not simply result in greater financial  rewards or abstract “prestige” but rather access to powerful social networks that can result in very real financial, social, and personal rewards. To make this privilege conditional upon an official’s meeting environmental targets, is thus a significant way that the Chinese government is demonstrating its serious engagement with climate change. Imagine if a North American firm made its bonuses conditional upon achieving reductions in carbon footprint alongside increased sales!

This is evidence of not just an economic shift in China, but of attempting to effect a deeper cultural shift. As I have argued elsewhere, effective responses to climate change occur when there is a shift in the broader cultural background that can ground and validate policy changes and legal arguments.

Then the column then goes on to note that this involves engaging the most important cultural matrices that shape human values and behaviour, namely religon. Arnold notes:

[S]ome economists say the answer may lie in drawing on Asia’s religious traditions — Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism — with their emphasis on harmony with nature and self-denial.

Although this is a rather gross Orientalist conflation of very different cultural systems that in fact present widely different responses to the natural world, the larger point does, I think remain valid. This larger point—that religious values shape (economic) behaviour—is described by Arnold as a piece of “strange casting,” perhaps indicating that the relationship between religion and economics is not part of the received wisdom of New York Times readers. Yet the relationship between religion (and culture more broadly) and economics is part of the mainstream of social science theory, ever since Max Weber wrote about the affinity between Calvinism and capitalism. Given that the cultural validation of hard work and ascetic living helped to produce the surplus capital that led to the creation of modern financial markets, it is not so hard to imagine that the value of harmony with the natural world will be one of the most important cultural levers in fostering era of sustainability.

The alternative is to accept the inevitability of Weber’s speculation regarding the subordination of humans and nature to the mechanistic processes of production:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

I doubt that Weber considered that one day Asian economists might engage their own cultural traditions to produce a new version of this “mechanism” but he should be glad that they are doing so.

daoism’s quest for relevance

Photograph taken during the liturgy at the Templo da Transparência Sublime, Rio de Janeiro, December 2009.

In a Wall Street Journal blog today, Christopher Carothers asks, “Is Daoism is losing its way?” He writes:

Today, Buddhism is regaining its traditional place as the largest religion in Chinese society. Islam is expanding through the growth of Muslim families in the Hui and Uyghur minority ethnic groups. Protestantism and Catholicism are winning new converts all over China and shaking off the old label of “foreign religion.” Daoism, on the other hand, seems to be standing still.

Worse still, he argues, Daoism is often ridiculed by other religions, as was the case in the recent incident in Singapore, in which a Christian pastor was forced to apologize for his anti-Daoist remarks. Singapore has strict rules concerning public speech about religion, so one can only imagine what anti-Daoist sentiments are being expressed in countries without such restrictions on free speech.

Carothers offers a reason for this reported decline, quoting unnamed researchers who say “the main reasons for Daoism’s troubles are its poor social networking and the lack of available information about its teachings.” This reason deserves further explanation. It’s certainly true that Daoism is a lineage-based tradition which prizes knowledge and training that are passed on orally from teacher to student. This gives it a certain disadvantage compared to proselytising and more “democratic” traditions like protestant Christianity, where individual believers work out their own spirituality through the medium of a cheaply-distributed Bible. In a globalized world Daoism also has a disadvantage compared to transnational religions such as Buddhism, which has well-established global networks and a long history of cross-cultural adaptation. (More…)

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…)

avatar vs. confucius

What do you do, as a Chinese film board, when the Hollywood science fiction film Avatar smashes Chinese box office records in its first three weeks in theaters, when online chat sites are buzzing about the uncanny parallels between the fictional film plot of developers raping the land and forcibly evicting the people and real life in China?

As this report makes clear, Avatar vs. Confucius in China, some Chinese netizens are calling for a boycott of the Confucius biopic, arguing that the government is only promoting Confucianism in order to help suppress political dissent. In contrast Avatar is seen by Chinese people as a fable regarding the power of the state over local communities:

“What is ‘Avatar’ about?” asked one contributor on the Web site Mop. “It’s about the government’s forced evictions of people, and about them risking their lives to protest. No Chinese director dares to touch this topic.

The report goes on to note that an estimated 30 million people, that’s nearly the entire population of Canada, have been evicted or relocated during China’s rapid economic development. On top of this China has an estimated “floating population” of some 100 million migrant workers who live in poor conditions on the edge of China’s gleaming cities. It’s doubtful that James Cameron imagined that he was making a movie about China, but Avatar may well turn out to be one the most significant mythologizations of China’s economic development.

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.