The Tao of Green

10/24/2011 03:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011

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 claim credit.

-- closing words of the Tao Te Ching,
trans. Chang Chung-yuan

The inevitable transition to a fully-green society will have to overcome numerous hurdles. Vested interests in the status quo, corporate mentality placing profits above all else, and government-by-crisis-management that eschews real long-range planning, for example, are among the most obvious matters that will have to be reformed.

There are other, deeper, issues that stand in the way, however. The polarization of the political landscape in the United States, for instance, and the underlying culture war spurred by the radicalization of fundamentalism -- how is the most modernized country in the world to take a leadership role in creating a self-sustaining global community when it is paralyzed at home?

In the global arena, we face a similar problem. Trying to establish a constructive and forward-thinking consensus among all peoples is impossible without trust and mutual understanding -- a relationship that cannot exist under threat of force or economic intimidation. History now reads like a bad Shakespeare play, revenge begetting revenge begetting revenge, escalating in violence and intensity as the plot grinds excruciatingly toward the final act in which everyone kills everyone else or themselves.

So political parties no longer act for the common good and simply strive to polarize people in order to get elected. Churches no longer pull communities together but, rather, tear them apart by polarizing people in order to promote religious zealotry. Governments no longer serve the interests of their respective peoples, polarizing nations into antagonistic relationships in order to justify the existence of government.

The inevitable transition to a fully-green global society, then, stands today somewhat like a single person with a pea-shooter standing before a well-fortified castle and demanding its unconditional surrender. All the major socioeconomic forces, and the weight of history, appear pitted against it. But it has reinforcements on the way: the inevitability of the future.

Because there is simply no alternative to a fully-self-sustaining 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, of course, 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 above 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, of course, 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.

Of this individual creativity, the great Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu says --

Things in their original nature are curved without the help of arcs, straight without lines, round without compasses, and rectangular without squares. They are joined together without glue and hold together without cords. In this manner, all things create one another from their inner reality. None can tell how they come to do so.

This seems to allude to the principle that the Tao creates all things from within and, in doing so, collaborates as an individual in the co-creation of the whole. This may reflect the Buddhist concept of dependent origination and its attendant analog of Indra's Net. Regardless of the metaphysics involved, the Taoist concept of natural integrity is pointed at here, with the implication that human beings need to return to their original being, which is in perfect harmony and accord with nature. It is this process of returning to our original nature that makes up the discipline of our personal practice and that of our collective descendants. Moving away from a lifeway of insecurity, self-interest, and accumulation, we intuitively move toward a lifeway of trust, plenitude, and sharing.

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 late great 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 Toltec I Ching,' by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, has been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, "64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World," hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.

Two companion volumes, The Five Emanations, and The Spiritual Basis of Good Fortune, have recently been published that expand on carrying the practices forward in the modern world.