The Tao Of Green

© William Douglas Horden. (The term "Green" has different connotations in different countries. In this article the term 'Green' does not refer to any political party or political ideology but rather to natural conservation for humanity's survival.)

Because there is simply no alternative to a fully-green lifeway for humanity, the issue at hand is not if but when. And because humanity’s very survival will hinge precisely upon just such a self-sustaining lifeway, green will eventually emerge as an over-arching philosophy rooted in a collective ethics that recognizes — and embraces — the dynamic unity of this living system we call Earth.

Such a philosophy has been articulated in times past. It recognized the patterns of human short-sightedness and rationalization. It offered a simple solution to what we can see now are the predictable crises of environmental degradation and governmental ineptness. I refer to the ancient philosophy of Taoism, which, it seems to me, offers a coherent and meaningful foundation upon which the emerging global society can build a collective future in which all enjoy peace and prospering.

Take the quote from the closing lines of the Tao Te Ching, as an example. It is difficult to imagine a simpler and more direct way to address human nature –

The wise do not accumulate.
The more they work for other people, the more they gain.
The more they share with other people, the more they receive.
The Tao followed by heaven is to do good and not to harm.
The Tao followed by the wise is to work and not to claim credit.

It is the point of philosophy, after all, to arrive at wisdom and not mere intellectual knowledge. So ancient texts like the Tao Te Ching were intended as teaching tools in which their authors poured out the results of their investigations into the subtleties of human nature and its relationship to the world. As teaching tools, their authors generally assumed the that the readers’ rationalizing and justifying mind was in full force and so presented their ideas in ways that directly confront or bypass the merely argumentative mind.

So, The wise do not accumulate: Directly confronting the socialized mind that justifies self-interest and greed, the text establishes a fixed criterion for ethical behavior. Those who understand how things really are, those who are wise, simply do not accumulate: work it around any way you want, come at from any angle, argue it forever, it doesn’t change the fact that it is not in the interest of the whole for the individual to place his wants ahead of others’ needs. This, indeed, establishes a baseline for the ethical philosophy of the emerging world culture: in a world of peers, none is more entitled than another. Those who accumulate are not wise and therefore are arrogant because they place their wants ahead of others’ needs. This lack of insight demonstrates a profound lack of compassion for one’s fellow human beings and alienates one from the human family.

The wise do not accumulate, furthermore, because if everyone accumulates, the stress placed on natural resources is unsustainable. There has to be something more important than accumulating — something more meaningful, something more rewarding. This something is intimacy: it is an ethics of relationship, of refined sensitivity to the needs of human nature and nature itself. The wise do not accumulate, after all, because accumulation is empty and meaningless in the long run. Meaningful experiences, however, based on a sense of communion with one’s fellow human beings and, just as importantly, with nature, provide a ground of shared intimacy that directly addresses the real needs of human nature: happiness and a sense of belonging.

It is for this reason that the Tao Te Ching goes on to close with these words–
The more they work for others, the more they gain.
The more they share with others, the more they receive.
The Way followed by heaven is to do good and not to harm.
The Way followed by the wise is to work and not claim credit.

This is worth considering on several levels, not the least of which is literary: here is one of the world’s most-read and most-translated books, acclaimed for a millennium or two for its wisdom and profundity, and it ends with these words, so simple and lacking in refinement that they could almost be thought anti-climatic. This is the work famous for its use of archetypal symbolism and paradox (The Way that can be spoken is not the eternal Way; Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know; and so on) and it chooses to end with this unadorned truth that strikes directly at the heart and not the head: real wisdom arrives at real happiness, which cannot be divorced from a trusting relationship with one’s community.

Modern Western readers may read all this as naive idealism, but people who have traveled and lived among other cultures know that these principles are still in play, forming the core of social interactions and personal fulfillment. In places where there is not a great deal of wealth in the first place, the emphasis is on social cooperation and survival of the group — working for others does, indeed, bring you gain and sharing with others does, indeed, mean others sharing with you. Benefiting others, harming nothing, and not seeking the elevated status that claiming credit brings — this is the personal practice that lies at the heart of the emerging social transformation.

The inevitable fully-green global society will, inevitably, be a society of self-discipline. It will require the kind of consistent and well-conceived philosophy that can be embodied with a clear conscience: it must satisfy, in other words, both the head and the heart. It will not come from government or church or corporations: it will not come from the top down, in other words, but from the bottom up. The set of self-sustaining behaviors our society will adopt won’t be dictated from the vested interests above but, rather, from within each individual’s creative nature. This reversion to a cohesive tribal worldview that encompasses all life is already being incubated through the global lines of communication afforded by the World Wide Web: a consensus is building toward accountability and social responsibility — towards a vision of "The Commons"† as the shared benefits all are entitled to enjoy and none are entitled to destroy.

Because its wisdom teaching is so closely allied with Nature, the fundamental concepts of Taoism seem to me an ideal basis upon which to construct an embodied philosophy that can help create and sustain the coming fully-green global society. As a parting example of how this organic philosophy is concretized into ethical practice, I’ll end here quoting Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching, again translated by the Taoist scholar, Chang Chung-yuan:

That which is best is similar to the water.
Water profits ten thousand things and does not oppose them.
It is always at rest in humble places that people dislike.
Thus, it is close to Tao.
Therefore, for staying, we prefer a humble place.
For minds, we prefer profundity.
For companions, we prefer the kindness.
For words, we prefer simplicity.
For government, we prefer good order.
For affairs, we prefer ability.
For actions, we prefer the right time.
Because we do not strive,
We are free from fault.

'The commons' is terminology referring to resources which are owned in common.

‘The Toltec I Ching,’ by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has been released by Larson Publications.