China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

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As the world reaches a population of nearly 10 billion people in 2050, as climate change provokes unexpected transformations in weather patterns, as sea levels rise, and as water and food security become paramount concerns for nations, the question of how China manages these challenges are ones that have serious implications across the world. No one wants China’s vast economic, political and environmental experiment to fail. At the same time, it is evident that the way that contemporary Western and Chinese societies are structured together in a system of global finance, trade and economic exploitation is ultimately unsustainable and will lead to the drastic reordering of the fundamental relationships between the planetary biosphere and the species that inhabit it.

The source of this unsustainability is the inability of modern neoliberal ideology and its attendant cultural forms to conceptualize and operationalize a way of being in the world that inscribes human prosperity within the prosperity of planetary life. Rather we have come to conceptualize human prosperity in a way that is alienated from the ecological systems that make such prosperity possible. As a result, the modes by which we pursue human prosperity serve only to diminish its long term viability by destroying the ultimate foundations for prosperity, that of the capacity of the natural order to produce of its own accord the creative vitality that can support the flourishing and wellbeing of all species. Such a capacity I term the subjectivity of nature. By denying nature’s subjectivity and arrogating subjectivity and agency to itself alone, modern human culture has sowed the seeds of its own destruction.



China’s Green Religion develops a normative critique of this aspect of modernity from an ecocritical analysis of ideas and values found within Daoism, China’s indigenous religious tradition. It also aims to produce an alternative vision for a culture of sustainability that is of relevance to China and the world in the mid twenty-first century.

Daoism offers four key insights into how to do this. It offers:

  • a vision of nature not as an object that lies outside human bodies and experience, but as a subjective power that indwells and informs human life;
  • an anthropology of the porous body based on the sense of qi flowing through landscapes and bodies;
  • a tradition of knowing founded on the experience of transformative power in specific landscapes and topographies;
  • an aesthetic and moral sensibility based on the affective experience of the world pervading the body and the body pervading the world.

These insights are relevant to three groups of people.

  • They are relevant to contemporary environmentalists, because of the broad failure of the environmental movement based on a quasi-Christian concept of “saving the earth.” Instead environmentalists should promote the idea of how the earth indwells and supports human life and livelihood.
  • They are relevant to those interested in China, because of China’s current quest to create an “ecological civilization” that does not depend on Western forms of culture and politics and at the same time transcends the problems of industrial modernity.
  • They are relevant to those interested in religion, because the book promotes a method of seeing religion not from the standard framework of tradition versus modernity, but from the perspective of a paradigm of sustainability.

Together these insights offer an aesthetics, ethics, politics and spirituality of flourishing that can re-integrate nature and culture and lay the foundations for a sustainable future.