Friday, 5 March 2010

What Tao Te Ching Says to Conservationists

Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text on philosophy written around 6th century BC. I enjoy reading it over and over again and attempting to apply its lines to various aspects of the modern world, such as biodiversity conservation.

[from Chapter 1]
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
"Tao" means "way," or the process of the universe.
The real way cannot be put into words.
This is like how an ecosystem works. Human has been observing nature for millenia, and we still don't know how an ecosystem operates. So many times has it ended in disaster when technology tries to usurp nature's job. Take out the grazers and then maintain grassland by mowing--you then have the soil nutrient depleted and fossil fuel-driven machines inducing climate change. Introduce an exotic species to control another exotic species, and the new one becomes uncontrollable as well. Every solution with an engineering mindset brings more problems. On contrast, nature functions perfectly and we can't quite put our finger on why it does.

[from Chapter 3]
"Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place."
When conservationists in China argue for the hands-off approach, this is what they often cite. Look at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and see how 60 years of human absence has healed the land. I feel that Oxford, or the UK in general, is quite pro-extensive management. But even today, in the face of massive land use conversions and climate change, I still hold that nature knows better about maintaining itself than we do. I'm not suggesting abandonning all conservation efforts; instead I call for preparing the condition for healing and letting nature do the rest.

[from Chapter 5]
"The universe does not take sides; everything is as good as a grass or a dog."
Nature does not "value" anything; everything's treated equally. But we apparently can't do it. In Otmoor we want lapwings, not foxes. In Arne we want heathers, not pines.

[from Chapter 23]
"A violent wind does not last all morning; a sudden rain does not last all day. Who does these things? The universe. The universe does not remain the same, much less man."
How long can Otmoor continue with its mowing, draining, water-edge sculpturing, predator control, feeding, and all that? What would happen when they stop? Would its target wading birds be able to take care of themselves after all these years of being babied? Or would they have lost the ability to adjust to a dynamic landscape, to protect themselves against predators, and to look for other habitats when food becomes scarce?

Tao Te Ching is a fertile text that can be interpreted many different ways, definitely worth a read. Here are two different translations (Advice: always read multiple translations at the same time)--

Kai Zhang


  1. Good stuff Kai. I think it is always important for us, and by us I mean students in a highly applied field dealing with matters we consider of great urgency, to reflect on knowledge which has been in existence for millennia. More often than not "novel ideas" are recycled, recapitulated and refashioned from existing wisdom. The practice of only referencing scientific articles five years old or less only exacerbates the problem.

  2. I agree with both you, Kai, and Jared. Often times it is easy to become unconsciously inundated with the prevailing methos of one's academic or intellectual or occupational pursuits, thereby building an ideological barrier between criticism or alternative perceptions resulting in a knee-jerk defensive or dismissive reaction to any opinion conflicting with one's own. Occasionally taking pause to withdraw from one's sphere of involvement and re-evaluate current actions and trajectories from a separate point of view, in this case one founded on prodigously valuable ancient Eastern wisdom, can generate novel and beneficial solutions to current problems. I believe we see this quite a bit in the field of modern conservation practice as stakeholders in the management end of the conservation spectrum constantly offer the same explanations or solutions to the world's biggest environmental problems. This fundamental disconnect is even prevalent within somewhat intuitively linked fields, such as palaeo- or long term ecology and strategic conservation planners. Basing planning on narrow ecological time-frames can ensure failure from the onset in some situations. The moral of the story is,to be as cliched as possible, think outside the box, incorporate as many opinions and idoelogical frameworks as possible when evaluating a situation or attempting to solve a problem. What goes for biodiversity and ecology goes for conservation management, heterogeneity is a good thing.