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The Tao of Green: Building an Environmental Ethic with Taoist Philosophy

The Tao of Green: Building an Environmental Ethic with Taoist Philosophy

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Published by swolkwitz

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Published by: swolkwitz on May 01, 2009
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11/26/2012

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The Tao of Green: Building the Foundation for an Environmental Ethic with Taoist Philosophy
Stephen WolkwitzReligion 182 - East Asian Religion & Philosophy29 April 2009The Taoist environmental ethic that can be named is not the true Taoist environmentalethic. Can Taoism be pointed to as providing an environmental ethic? Though one should notequate Taoism with environmentalism, I argue that Taoist thought provides a basis for arelationship between man and nature, on which a modern environmental ethic can be built.Modern philosophers and environmentalists have, in the past few decades, begun to examineTaoism as a source for their environmental ethics. I will attempt to articulate the Taoist conceptof nature, and how it is affected by ontological and metaphysical elements of Taoist thought.Using this conception of nature, I will provide evidence for how Taoism suggests humans shouldrelate to the environment in a way that could form the groundwork for environmental ethics and
 
also address criticism of Taoism as environmental philosophy. I will finally review my argumentas a coherent proposal for a Taoist-inspired environmental ethic. Taoist philosophy could proveto be a key in reshaping how humans think about the physical world and how they act in it,which could help to solve the many environmental problems we are faced with today.In the modern world, environmentalism has become a powerful ideology as peoples and governments contemplate their relationship with the natural world. Many haveturned to the ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy as a source of wisdom, looking to it to advisehumanity on how to act and deal with the environment.
1
Environmentalists often see in Taoism a philosophy that encourages “oneness with the universe” and a sense of “harmony with nature.”
2
 Of the environmentalists who have examined Taoism for support, some have interpreted Taoismas naturalism, a philosophy that views the universe as subject to the “order of nature” that createsand governs all things.
3
 Others have tried to see in Taoism a separation between human andnature and a direction for humans to act in accordance with the way of the natural world.
4
Othershave tried to argue that Daoism held even more different views of nature. These moderndisagreements on how to interpret Taoist metaphysics and its human/nature relationship havelead to a serious undermining of the capability for Taoism to deliver a coherent message tocontemporary environmentalism. In what follows I hope to clarify the Taoist conception of nature and address criticism to its applicability with environmental concerns.Understanding how Taoism views nature is essential to developing any ethicalattitude towards the environment based on Taoist principles. To begin to comprehend nature in a
1
Lai, Karyn L. "Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective." Environmental Ethics 25(2003): 247-66.
2
Cooper, David E. "Is Daoism Green?" Asian Philosophy 4 (1994): 119.
3
Peerenboom, Randall P. "Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics."Environmental Ethics 13 (1991): 4-5.
4
Ibid.
 
1
 
Taoist sense one should start with the concept of the
Tao
itself. The
Tao
, which translates to “theway,”
 
is the central concept of Taoism, giving the tradition its name. The
Tao
is explained aseternal and nameless. It is the “mother of the universe,” which is in operation everywhere anddependent on nothing.
5
Taoist descriptions of the
Tao
portray it as an all-pervasive, life-sustaining, and nourishing force.
6
We must be careful not to take the
Tao
as something that cantruly be described with words, however. Lao Tzu, who wrote the
Tao Te Ching 
, the main doctrineof Taoism along with the book of Chuang Tzu, tells us “the Tao that can be told is not the trueTao.”
7
Lao Tzu refers to the
Tao
as nameless and intangible, due to its infinite nature.
8
Only finiteobjects can be assigned to a name in Taoist thought, since giving something a name serves to tieit to a definite identity.
9
Since the
Tao
“cannot be told” and has an infinite and all-pervasivenature it “rejects all names.” Lao Tzu even tells us that the only reason he refers to the
Tao
as the
Tao
is because he does “not know its name.”
The
Tao
is really the underlying pattern of the universe, or a type of cosmic law from which all thingsare derived. Everything is derived from the
Tao
and everything is a part of the
Tao
. We can readthis in the words of the
Tao Te Ching 
, which tells us “the Tao is like a well, used but never usedup.” It is also like an “eternal void, filled with infinite possibilities” and the “great mother whichgives birth to infinite worlds.”
The
Tao,
by its nature, cannot be explained or comprehendedlike any finite thing can. Instead we must recognize the infinite mystery of the
Tao
as existing in
5
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 25
6
Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 336.
7
Lao Tzu. Ibid. Chap. 1
8
Ip, Po-Keung. Ibid.
9
Ip, Po-Keung. "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 337.
10
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Frances Lincoln, 1999. Chap. 1
11
Ibid. Chap.1-14
 
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