This article provides a conceptual rationale for environmental sustainability derived from Taoist and Buddhist philosophies. Our goal as a society should be to jointly enhance the quality of human lifestyles and the natural environment, not just one or the other. Innovations in this area can have a nonlinear or exponential impact.

Chinese Philosophy for Sustainability

Thomas Alexander has written that human culture is sustained by the natural environment and argues that philosophers in the West have not usually presented satisfactory frameworks for thinking ecologically (Thomas M. Alexander, The Human Eros: Eco-Ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence, 2013).  The importance of environmental sustainability can be derived from ancient principles of east Asian philosophy that mandate living in harmony and balance with nature.

The native Chinese philosophy of Taoism (Daoism) has recovered some of its ancient popularity since the end of the Maoist era four decades ago.  Taoism has also influenced the globally popular Zen Buddhism ever since the latter’s origins in China about one-and-a-half millennia ago.  It is possible that the Taoist resurgence is having an underlying impact on China’s current expansion of renewable energy and pollution control.

The Tao, or Dao, is sometimes called the “way of nature.”  Taoism includes following principles of nature and not hurting other persons.  Live in consonance with natural cycles.  Regarding people, they should behave more cooperatively and less competitively.  One should live in such a way as to minimize adverse impacts on both the natural environment and human societies.  Taoism is therefore a holistic philosophy requiring an understanding of the ever-changing balance between human activity and the environment.

Taoists believe in achieving harmony between man and nature.  In the 21st century, however, man-nature harmony is a very dynamic proposition and is strongly influenced by external conditions such as climate change—i.e., global warming.  (Climate change is not really an “external” condition, as humans are primarily responsible for it nowadays.)

One of the greatest Taoist masters was Zhuang Zhou (Chuang-Tze, 4th-3rd century BCE).  He presented concepts that presaged the ecological thinking of modern scientists.  Zhuang Zhou believed that the natural world should be the focus of observation and learning.

Buddhist principles dovetail with Taoist holism.  There is a nurturing of awareness.  All phenomena are understood not as discrete entities but as interpenetrating—as “the coincidence of interdependent conditions” (M. Ricard and T. X. Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus, 2001.  These authors claim that there are “many ways in which science and Buddhism confirm and complement each other…”.).   Another Buddhist principle, stressed by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, is impermanence.  Nothing stays the same; change is omnipresent.

Since everything in the environment is interconnected, mastery of that environment—i.e., the Taoist goal of becoming “one” with your total environment—requires a heightened awareness of and intuitive sensitivity to this interconnectedness.  Enhanced receptivity to the organic nature of one’s environment can then serve as a stimulus to creativity.  One becomes aware of complex interrelationships and causality that had not been noticed before.

“If you use your intelligence, if you become a little more alert and start looking into the depths of things, you will be surprised—the opposites are not really opposites, but complementaries. …Tao means transcendence—transcendence of all duality, transcendence of all polarity, transcendence of all opposites.  Tao is the ultimate synthesis…” (Osho, Tao:  The State and the Art, 2004).  For the true Taoist, man and nature are not opposites subject to a mutual tradeoff.  One should not pursue a lifestyle that adversely impacts the natural environment.  But it is not adequate to simply curtail physical activities that damage the environment.  One should strive to enhance both the quality of human life and the condition of nature.  This would be the ultimate Taoist understanding of sustainability.  It can also be an impetus for innovation.


Seeking Balance with Nature

People should ideally seek harmony and balance with the natural environment in their own country.  Societies often learn this by hard experience as part of their long-term struggle to feed themselves and provide for their children.  For example, replenish nutrients in the soil every year and don’t overplant or overgraze in one area.  Groups that practice slash-and-burn agriculture rotate the tracts of forest that they cut down.  Don’t overhunt valuable species of wildlife.

Such balance between man and nature is much more difficult to achieve when two very different societies and ecosystems encounter each other, for the first time, across thousands of miles of land or ocean.  An example of the latter is the “Columbian Exchange” between the Old and New Worlds that began in 1492 (Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, 1972).  Recent scholarship has properly stressed the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange on native societies in the Americas.  Lacking natural immunity to European pathogens, Amerindian populations in many regions declined by 80 to 100 percent by 1600-1650 due to smallpox and measles epidemics.

The Columbian Exchange also led to innovations in agriculture and industry that still resonate today.  European explorers brought back potatoes, maize and tomatoes, which revolutionized Old World agriculture by the 1700s.  Rubber trees from the New World contributed to automobile tires and other inventions of the Industrial Revolution.


Potential for Nonlinear Innovation Impacts

A proper understanding of the man-nature relationship can therefore have a positive and innovative effect on human societies.  We should also consider the possibility that a combination of innovative carbon-capture and renewable energy technologies might have an exponentially restorative impact on the natural environment in some cities, especially in the Third World, that are severely blighted at present by air and water pollution.  (In the city of Delhi, India, for instance, the simple act of breathing is tantamount to smoking around 40 cigarettes daily (William T. Vollmann, No Immediate Danger, 2018.))  There could be dramatic improvements in both infant mortality and survival of the elderly as a result.  The productivity of the urban labor force would probably surge.

The relationship between man and nature is thus complex and nonlinear.  This is implied by all the interdependencies of an Asian holistic perspective.  It is also implied by the impermanence principle—i.e., everything changes.    The man-nature relationship is complex because people perform multiple activities—both consumption and economic production.  These activities, in turn, may affect multiple species as well as humans themselves.  The ecological impact may be intensified for those species that exist in a predator-prey relationship.  An adverse effect on predators, for example, may allow prey populations (e.g., certain insects) to grow exponentially.  Upsetting the latter balance may then have a strongly negative impact on the food supply (e.g., agricultural crops) of yet other species, including humans.

The nonlinear relationship between man and nature, including the potential for exponential innovation benefits, extends inward also.  The natural environment includes the organs of the human body.  An example of innovation in biotechnology is the stem cell enhancement pill.  Stem cell enhancement pills are based on the fact that adult stem cells play a fundamental systemic role in the human body.  Adult stem cells can simultaneously affect many different organs and can transform themselves into different types of tissue cells, including damaged tissue.  Stem cells within body fat, for example, can aid in repairing heart damage.  Stem cell enhancers work by reinforcing the body’s own natural renewal system.


Conclusion:  Sustainability as Policy and a Challenge for Future Innovation

Finally, as a policy example, Chinese leaders are advocating a more sustainable approach to economic growth in their country.  They plan to shift the Chinese economy toward services that are resource-light and away from manufacturing that is resource-intensive.  Increasing innovation is part of this quality-of-growth strategy (China Watch, March 29, 2018).  Long infamous for heavy air pollution, especially in Beijing, China is now using less coal and more renewable energy.  It is becoming globally ascendant in the production of renewable, “green-tech” energy equipment.  China is pursuing innovations in photovoltaic panels and wind-powered turbine engines.  In India, busses and taxicabs are replacing toxic diesel fuel with compressed natural gas.

Sustainability is all the rage today.  It may well be a key to human survival in the long run.  The origins of this societal goal, however, go back many centuries in eastern Asia.  One should work towards enhancing the quality of both human lifestyles and the natural environment.  Do not settle for a trade-off between one or the other.  Therein lies a challenge for future innovators.
By Gary W. Davis

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.

Featured image via Unsplash.