Winter 1994, Volume 11.1


Wilderness and Tao

It is common knowledge that the Earth is changing. Rain forests are diminishing. Deserts are expanding. The top soil is getting thinner. The variety of plant and animal species is decreasing. The ozone layer has a hole. There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The earth is becoming warmer. Global weather patterns are shifting.

These changes are complicated and inter-related. At least this is the view that seems generally accepted by environmentalists and larger and larger segments of the scientific community. Probably the best known expression of this view from a scientific perspective is James Lovelock's work on an all-encompassing theory of evolution (Cowley 98-99).

Lovelock envisions the Earth as "one big system." To understand how Earth works, he believes, it is best to think of it as a living organism; it is best to study it as an organic entity using a process frame of reference, a holistic point of view. Lovelock's name for the living planet is Gaia, after the Greek goddess of Earth (98).

When I consider some of Lovelock's ideas, Joseph Needham's treatment of Taoism as China's proto-science comes immediately to mind. It is my impression that these early Taoists, and philosophical Taoism generally, hold to ways of viewing the Earth much in accord with the organic and holistic principles of Lovelock's Gaian theory. Consequently, the purpose of this essay is to read and interpret philosophical Taoism with the intention of highlighting an environmental ethic. The link between Lovelock and the Tao Te Ching may not be as far-fetched as it seems, but bear in mind that our purpose is not to compare the two. Lovelock's work is a present point of departure for a port of call in the past. Our task is to see what philosophical Taoism can show us about human beings and their relationship with Earth because it seems to me that this is the crux of contemporary environmental issues.

Our method is simple. We will proceed by simply looking through a translation of the major text of philosophical Taoism and selecting passages that appear to pertain to the environmental theme of this essay. Personal interpretive commentary will be provided for the passages selected. Once again, our purpose is to see what we can learn from the central work of the classical literature of philosophical Taoism about the relationship between wilderness and human beings. Typically, the classical literature of Taoism is given a political, philosophical or mystical reading. The purpose of this essay, however, is to suggest an environmental protocol with Taoist roots.

The central expression of philosophical Taoism is the Tao Te Ching, also known as the Lao Tzu. We consider here D.C. Lau's translation of this ancient classic which is thought to date from about the fourth century B.C.E. We will limit our search for passages that may be construed to pertain to environmental issues to Book I or the first 37 of 81 chapters.

Chapter III begins with these words:

Not to honor men [women] of worth will keep the people from contention; not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft; not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind. (59)

This passage suggests a quiet and simple way of life, a way of living that is not premised on notoriety. The words "not to value goods which are hard to come by" are especially relevant because environmental concerns often center on the accessibility of so-called precious commodities and raw materials. The counsel here is clear. Goods too hard to come by are better left where they are, and the reputations that can be made by taking from the Earth what is hard to get through ingenuity and cleverness are not to be coveted.

Desire unsettles the mind and perverts behavior. Displaying something precious encourages theft. Honoring people of worth promotes divisiveness. Therefore, it is better for a person sensitive to the Tao to live unobtrusively. From an environmental point of view, this means interfering with Nature as little as possible.

The last line of Chapter III reads:

Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail. (59)

Here, "taking no action" or wu-wei, the Chinese expression, means taking no unnecessary action. Again, the idea is to interfere with the natural course of events as little as possible. By behaving in this way the Tao is acknowledged and order prevails. On the other hand, behaving in a way that is insensitive to the Tao is a perversion of Nature. Perhaps this is what has occurred with regard to nuclear power plants and nuclear energy generally. The production of radioactive wastes that remain lethal to a broad spectrum of living organisms for thousands of years appears to be a perversion of the natural order. One who follows the Tao would probably consider the price of nuclear energy far too high, far too devastating environmentally, and cease all action of this kind. Radioactive waste, whether placed deep in the Earth or spewed on its surface and in its waters, is simply too "dirty"it creates radioactive wastelands which is not a way to acknowledge the Tao and preserve the wilderness.

In Chapter IX we find this passage:

There may be gold and jade to fill a hall
But there is none who can keep them.
To be overbearing when one has wealth and position
Is to bring calamity upon oneself. (65)

Clearly implied in the first two lines of this excerpt is the idea that gold and jade are to be left where they naturally occur, that to take them from the Earth is a violation of the Tao. Were this not the case then they could be kept, they could fill the halls as a way of displaying prosperity without prompting envy and thievery. In a more contemporary vein, this assertion can be extended from gold and jade to natural resources such as the oil and metal deposits so crucial to the way we live and do business today. Again, what the Tao Te Ching would counsel in this regard is that we take too much from the Earth.

The consequence of this kind of exploitation is explicitly expressed in the remainder of this passage. It is not uncommon for those who accrue wealth and position through excessive encroachment on the environment to become conspicuous in their ways and overbearing in their demeanor. According to the Tao Te Ching, personal calamity is the outcome of such behavior. More important, however, is the environmental calamity that occurs because natural resources are subjected to petty personal desires and short-sightedness.

The last sentence in Chapter XIX is:

Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible. (75)

This sentence expresses two closely related ideas of philosophical Taoismthe attenuation of desire and a minimum concern for one's self. It expresses a particular way of living that has clear implications with regard to the relationship between wilderness and human beings. Minimum concern for one's self is a more modest perspective, in the larger scheme of things, than a point of view that is based on ego and personal gratification. It is much more likely for persons with a modest perspective to envision themselves "a part of" Nature rather than see themselves "apart from" the natural order. Persons who experience themselves connected to the natural world are far less likely to do violence against her than persons who believe they have dominion over the Earth and her creatures. Modern day development, whatever its form (real estate, mining, etc.), is often driven by human desire with little concern for the long-term environmental consequences. A person sensitive to the Tao does not live this way. A person sensitive to the Tao lives lightly on the Earth.

Consider this passage from Chapter XXVII:

One who excels in travelling leaves no wheel tracks;
One who excels in speech makes no slips;
One who excels in reckoning uses no counting rods;
One who excels in shutting uses no bolts yet what he [she] has shut cannot be opened;
One who excels in tying uses no cords yet what he [she] has tied cannot be undone.
Therefore the sage always excels in saving people, and so abandons no one; always excels in saving things, and so abandons nothing. (84)

The theme of this passage is living a refined life. A refined life is a life acted through by the Tao. A person sensitive to the Tao makes a way in the world that is unobtrusive, yet effective and efficient. What is done is done naturally, harmoniously, and without show. What is done is done in a way that does not pervert the nurturing relationship between human beings and wilderness. No one and no thing is abandoned.

A strong sense of reverence is present in this passage. And Schumacher's ideas of "small is beautiful" and "appropriate technology" come to mind as well. A person aware of the Tao can easily tell when the Earth has been violatedgarbage on Arctic snow, strip mine scars, the bludgeoning of baby sealsbecause she or he knows that human existence and experience issues forth from the same source. What is done to the Earth is done to each of us.

What the Tao Te Ching is suggesting here, I believe, is that when resources are "properly" used they are used in a way that leaves little if any trace of their removal from the Earthno wheel tracksand with provision for renewal. Plundering the environment is not in accord with the Tao. Instead, a participatory attitude and low profile are advised so that all of Nature can go about its business unobtrusively without cords for tying and rods for reckoning.

Here is how D.C. Lau translates the opening lines of Chapter XXIX:

Whoever takes the empire and wishes to do anything to it I see will have no respite. The empire is a sacred vessel and nothing should be done to it. Whoever does anything to it will ruin it; whoever lays hold of it will lose it. (87) The counsel given in this chapter of the Tao Te Ching is clear and straightforward. If we take the word "empire" to include not just political and social institutions but also the land and its resources and living creatures, then the message of this passage is made relevant to the issues of this essay. What it expresses, from an environmental perspective, is simple and powerfulLeave Nature alone!

All of us, it seems, pause now and then to marvel at the miracle of creation. Sometimes, we transcend ourselves and feel ourselves embedded in the larger whole of wilderness and universe. We may even, perhaps, experience ourselves being looked through and acted through by an awareness vastly greater than our own. Moments such as these confirm the conviction that separateness is an illusion, that the idea of unity and wholeness, from the very small to the very large, is a fundamental principle of existence. Furthermore, moments such as these bring with them the realization that "the empire is a sacred vessel and nothing should be done to it."

The idea that ruin is the result of "going against the Tao" is a frequent theme in the writings of philosophical Taoism. In this case, "going against the Tao" is tampering unnecessarily with the empire, the wilderness. It seems to me that human beings possess an innate sensitivity to the natural world, a fundamental connection that allows us to know when we are behaving unnaturally. But it is also true, I think, that we possess a counter-inclination to this sensitivity that allows us to loose touch with the natural world and behave in ways that degrade the environment and bring our own ruin. When we act against Nature it is because we have severed our connection with the natural order. When we act against Nature it is because we see ourselves as separate and apart from the larger scheme of things. And, according to the Tao Te Ching, there is no respite for this behavior. Whoever lays hold of the empire, the wilderness, will loose it. Whoever wishes to do anything to it will ruin it.

Chapter XXIX concludes:

Hence some things lead and some follow;
Some breathe gently and some breathe hard;
Some are strong and some are weak;
Some destroy and some are destroyed.
Therefore the sage avoids excess, extravagance, and arrogance. (87)

I hear people praise as a technical marvel the pipeline that brings oil from Alaska, but it seems to me like open heart surgery on the Earth. I listen to oil officials say that offshore drilling does not disrupt marine life or ocean currents, but they seem unconvincing to me. I watch us pave-over wildlife habitat with roads and parking lots. I see so-called land developers encroach on the ecosystem in ways that appear too extreme and excessive. I feel uneasy with the presence and continuing production of nuclear warheads on the planet. And, in the midst of all this, I also recognize that whatever occurs naturally has its place"Hence some things lead and some follow; Some breathe gently and some breathe hard; Some are strong and some are weak; Some destroy and some are destroyed." But perhaps the magnitude of our presence and influence is exceeding what the Earth can accommodate. So much of what we do, in terms of our relationship with the wild, seems out of proportion to me.

I know that my life means other life must die, but I cannot believe that it is necessary to hunt just for the pleasure of the kill or to take another tree just because it interferes with the view. These may be small and individual acts but they lead, I believe, to the larger and collective violations that wantonly take life and natural resources for the sake of human convenience without concern for the consequences. When we remove ourselves from the consequences of our behavior we are able to act in inhumane and unnatural ways. It is easy to take neatly packaged pieces of dead cow or dead calf from the cooler in the supermarket if we push from our minds what agribusiness does to put it there. It is easy to drop bombs from five miles above Earth as long as all we see is a video display and don't hear the screams or smell the burnt flesh. It is easy to foul a mountain stream or ruin wildlife sanctuaries if we are only self-interested and believe we can simply walk away and be immune to the poisons that come from the wastelands we make. It is easy to behave in these and similar ways and to live obtrusively and excessively and arrogantly ignoring our place in Nature as long as we forget the Tao and think of ourselves as separate from creation. We cannot behave in these ways if we are sensitive to the Tao. This is why it is said that the sage or person who experiences the Tao "avoids excess, extravagance, and arrogance."

D.C. Lau translates Chapter XXXV of the Tao Te Ching this way:

Have in your hold the great image
And the empire will come to you.
Coming to you and meeting with no harm
It will be safe and sound.
Music and food
Will induce the wayfarer to stop.
The way in its passage through the mouth is without flavour. It cannot be seen,
It cannot be heard,
Yet it cannot be exhausted by use. (94)

What comes to mind when I read the first two lines of this passage is the idea of an "eternal perspective"a view and a way of living that extends beyond limited, personal desires and objectives. The "great image" refers to a frame of reference for interpreting experience and informing behavior that reaches beyond self-concern in a way that takes into account the larger implications of life and resources on the planet. Again, it seems to me that many of our environmental problems stem from personal ambition and short-sightedness. Without a global perspective, selfishness and a disregard for persons and wilderness are more likely. But if we have in our hold the "great image," this exploitative state of affairs can be avoided. Furthermore, once this takes place "the empire will come to [us]" because, in a very real sense, we have earned the privilege of living properly on the Earth. Consequently, without exploitation there is abundance.

According to lines three and four, if the empire comes to us and meets with no harm, then "[i]t will be safe and sound." One interpretation of the words "safe" and "sound," from an environmental perspective, suggests what might be called an "enlightened regard" for the life and resources of the planet that is premised on the interdependence of everything we experience and, consequently, encourages us to responsibly place ourselves in Nature. Then, the empire really does come to us and there is the abundance without exploitation I have already mentioned because, by living sanely in this way, we have also come to the empire, we have also come to Nature.

The remaining lines of this passage suggest that more is necessary, however, if we are to live in the enlightened and sensitive manner suggested by the Tao Te Ching. Not only must we know our place and take seriously the idea of reverence with regard to the natural world, we must also be inconspicuous and unassuming in what we do. If we attract attention with "music and food" the "wayfarer" (i.e., the opportunist) will be induced to stop, and the natural balance of life will be disturbed because the Tao has been ignored.

Two lines in Chapter XXXVI of the Tao Te Ching warrant our attention:

If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it. (95)

The idea here is obvious and simple: A person sensitive to the Tao understands that giving and receiving are the same. In a very basic sense there is no difference between what we give and what we get. The implications of this understanding are particularly potent as far as our relationship with the wilderness is concerned. We pervert this relationship if we see Nature only in terms of what she can provide for us without recognizing that we must provide for her as well. We undercut our understanding of this fundamental principle if we think only in terms of what we can get and ignore what is ours to give. Environmental destruction is often the result of this one-sided view. Better to think, instead, of how we can live with the Earth and her resources in a way that allows her to renew what she gives. Better to act in those ways that give back in equal measure the abundance of this planet. Better to forget our desires and simply be still, so that giving and getting become the same and cease to be an issue at all. Distinctions disappear. The "uncarved block" is realized.

In Chapter XXXVII we read:

The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord. (96)

This passage strikes me as a basic and powerful response to the wide-spread environmental crises we are presently facing, and it expresses an environmental ethic or protocol that has been emphasized throughout this selective exegesis of the Tao Te Ching: The empire (i.e., the wilderness and us) will be at peace of its own accord if we quiet ourselves and follow the inclinations of our hearts rather than the desires of our egos.


Cowley, G. "The Earth Is One Big System." Newsweek 7 Nov. 1988: 98-99.

Lau, D.C. Lao Tzu/Tao Te Ching. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1963.

Needham, J. Science and Civilisation in China: Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.