Can Taoism Save Us?

“Listen to your intuition about what is right and true and kind and important”–Monk Yun Rou

Impending climate disaster has never set my hair on fire. It’s not something I can easily feel in my bones. Bad news seems so far away. California. Puerto Rico. Yesterday the drought in Taiwan dominated the business section of the New York Times. It seems the available water was siphoned away from the rice paddies to the more profitable chip manufacturers. Just give the rice farmers disaster relief and go about our business as usual?

A lot of people shrug their shoulders when I mention Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid Climate Disaster. In fact, the reviews were not flattering. But as I made my way through it, it set my hair on fire. I don’t think he’s been given enough credit for making clear what is happening, but also laying out how hard it is to even begin tackling the problem. For example, Gates writes about how successful China has been in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But to raise their standard of living and provide them with adequate power, the cheapest available source is coal-based power plants. There’s no way to get around the need for cheap energy in a modern economy. And coal still generates 40% of our electricity.

The consequence of this truth is clear. The developing world will, of necessity, rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Can we deny the rest of the world a decent standard of living? It means, however, that even if the US and Europe get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, the rest of the world will continue to pour them into the atmosphere.

What is right and true and kind and important? As Monk Yun Rou says, mankind needs the Earth as the brain needs the sinews, muscle, and bone of the body. Everything is inextricably linked. As thinking and responsible human beings, we are well aware that our actions now will reverberate across generations. And yet we are locked into systems, market systems, property systems, political systems, freezing our destructive patterns in place.

Does change begin with ourselves, or do we mount a revolutionary climate insurgency? Do we even have the time to gradually evolve toward a more sustainable civilization? Taoist philosophy and practice have shown the way for thousands of years. It contrasts sharply with the Western axiom that we must dominate and subdue nature rather than work harmoniously with it. Maybe in time we will embrace such values. But by then it may be too late.

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