Chapter 1. Religion, Modernity and Ecology

Previous scholarship has approached the relationship of religions and ecology by examining how those traditions might be relevant to addressing environmental problems. Instead, a decolonial approach to the study of Daoism leads to insights that challenge the very framework of modern categories of religion and nature. These insights, teased out over the course of the book, inspire a practical alternative to the framework of modernity, one that can help produce the optimal flourishing of human life on earth.

Chapter 2. The Subjectivity of Nature

Daoism proposes a radical reversal of the way that modern human beings think about the natural world. Rather than understanding human beings as “subject” who observe the “objective” world of nature, Daoism proposes that subjectivity is grounded in the Dao or Way, understood as the wellspring of cosmic creativity for a world of constant transformation. As a result the Daoist goal of “obtaining the Dao” offers insights into the ecological quest to transcend the modern, Cartesian bifurcation of subject and object, self and world. From this follows an ideal of human action not as the projection of agency onto an neutral, objective backdrop but as a transaction or mediation between self and world.

Chapter 3. Liquid Ecology

The Chinese term qi denotes flow of life through the cosmos, landscapes and bodies. Daoist metaphysics is not based on an understanding of things as solid substances. Confucian traditions emphasize the genealogical flow of life from one generation to the next. Daoist traditions emphasize the contextual flow of life between the body and the world understood as a complex, fluid process formed by the circulation of qi in a binary (yinyang) pattern of ebb and flow. Just as water flows in and through mountains, so also qi flows in and through human bodies, connecting the liquid vitality of the body to the liquid vitality of the landscapes it inhabits.

Chapter 4. The Porosity of the Body

Daoist visualization meditations offer an insight into how the divide between body and world can be overcome. They evoke an intimate, even erotic, connection between the inner landscape of the body and the outer landscape of mountains and rivers. This connection is captured by the Daoist term “pervasion” which denotes the fundamental connective process by which the cosmos floods into the body and the body into the cosmos.

Chapter 5. The Locative Imagination

Schools of Daoist practice have traditionally been formed around specific mountain sites in China partly because Daoists value the experience of particular configurations of qi flowing through the unique topography of each location. This suggests that nature should not be understood as a generic, universal resource that is more or less the same everywhere. Rather Daoists have valued nature in particular ways in particular places for particular reasons. A problem in environmental ethics is whether to consider the “environment” as a cosmological universal, or as the sum of specific, local issues and practical problems. Daoism emphasizes the local, but as the way to approach the universal.

Chapter 6. The Political Ecology of the Daoist Body

The Daoist experience of the world in the body and the body in the world is fundamentally an aesthetic experience, but one that must be trained through disciplines of body cultivation. Daoist body cultivation traditions are thus relevant for the task of overcoming the bifurcation between body and world, and mind and body, two insights that are explored in relation to the contemporary phenomenology and embodied cognitive science respectively. The Daoist aesthetic experience is connected to community ethics based on the principle of producing the optimal flourishing of the body and the world.

Chapter 7. From Modernity to Sustainability

Modernity tends to frame religion as private spirituality and nature as objective materiality, each divorced from the other. Sinological scholarship on Daoism has tended to work within this framework and as a result has produced understandings of Daoism based on the categories of religion, philosophy, nature and culture that are external to the tradition itself. An alternative to the ordering framework of modern scholarship on China and Chinese religions is scholarship produced from a paradigm of sustainability.

Chapter 8. From Sustainability to Flourishing

An ecological civilization is one in which the social, cultural, and political order is rooted in the capacity of nature to promote the flourishing of the human species. The Daoist tradition offers four insights that can help promote this: (1) an aesthetics of flourishing founded on the practical experience of the world in the body; (2) an ethic of flourishing founded on the mutual porosity and vulnerability of the world and the body; (3) a politics of flourishing founded on a democracy of local contexts; (4) a spirituality of flourishing founded on religious themes of consumption, violence, death, and transcendence. Altogether this produces a vision of flourishing based on overcoming the modern dichotomies of self and world, matter and spirit, nature and culture.