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  • Daoism and Environmental Philosophy: Nourishing Life by Eric S. Nelson
  • Anish Mishra (bio)
Daoism and Environmental Philosophy: Nourishing Life. By Eric S. Nelson. London: Routledge, 2020. Pp. viii + 148. Hardcover $160.00, isbn 978-0-367-02514-4.

In a time when the signs of a looming climate crisis have become increasingly evident, Eric Nelson’s work is a timely and relevant book. While dealing with theoretical questions, the book is also grounded in the empirical happenings of a global world order intertwined with human-induced climate change. Yet what is perhaps more significant is that it examines the way humans perceive nature, not as an atomic individualized activity but rather as envisioned and enacted through relations with the environment.

In his Introduction, Nelson contextualizes the theoretical basis of the book. He rejects the bifurcations oppose the contemplative to the purposive and the philosophical to the religious nature of Daoism. A new Daoist imagining he hopes could lead to a “critically diagnostic and therapeutic” understanding with respect to modernity and the contemporary ecological crisis. Three focal points of Daoism that Nelson examines throughout the chapters are: the “self-ordering of nature,” a “biospiritual cultivation of one’s nature along with models of attunement and action,” and finally a discussion on the “art of governing and administering society,” i.e. Daoist and other bio-politics (p. 9). The book understands nature as a “spontaneous self-generative and self-organizing autopoietic relational natural reality, that is interpreted between the poles of a fluid anarchic chaos and a hierarchically fixed and structured order” (p. 10).

Nelson covers models relating praxis and the environing world through nourishing life, attuned action, and an emptying and stilling to reach a comportment of manifesting plainness and embracing simplicity (p. 11). Many of the outlooks examined may seem utopian or even other-worldly in the context of our current world. However, Nelson highlights how it is important to consider how close we can come, to an “egalitarian community living in simplicity,” given contemporary capitalism, consumerism and population problematics (p. 14). Finally, near the conclusion, Nelson turns to the bio-politics of the Yangist, Daoist and Legalist (fajia 法家) discourses. He examines in this context a rejection of the political that may emancipate oneself, a promotion of the life of others in the context of “ecologically oriented democratic social and political structures,” and finally the problematics of an “eco-authoritarian political order” (p. 15). [End Page 1]

Chapter 2 begins by examining two tendencies of nourishing life. This includes “living responsively in accord with and echoing natural tendencies” (26), and the aspects of “augmenting life” through biospiritual practices. The Daodejing 道 德 經 “teaches nourishing life through abandoning the self-interested and self-concerned nourishing of life” (p. 29). Daodejing 7 further states: “By not nourishing themselves but things, they nourish themselves” (p. 30).

One of Nelson’s key arguments is the highlighting of a Daoist-centric model as crucial to overcoming binaries. It contests hierarchies that have been dominant in environmental discourse, such as the anthropocentric vs. biocentric, humanist vs. post-humanist distinctions. Further, Daoist models prioritize things without essentializing them, hence avoiding the problematic of claiming solely an intrinsic value of things. Another focus, examined through and shown in the Zhuangzi 莊 子 , is that of “responsive attunement by escaping into the world,” achieved through the practices of emptying (p. 35). Yet in Ch. 7 of the Zhuangzi it is shown that this responsiveness is “without possessing,” thereby establishing a basis for a non-attached attunement that works with the myriad things (p. 38).

Chapter 2 also examines a “new Daoist ecological ethics” wherein ethics is understood as “the art of existing” with the dao 道(p. 41). A Daoist ethos entails a “cultivation of the non-cultivable” (p. 41). The two key concepts of ziran 自 然and wuwei 無爲 are introduced here: ziran signifies a “natural and spontaneous self-generating self-so-ness,” and wuwei an “attuned, effortless, non-calculative, unforced responsiveness” (p. 41). Nelson expounds on the cultivation of ziran through wuwei throughout the work, describing an ecological dao as a “non-deductive pluralistic relational whole, which calls for transversing myriad perspectives as it cannot be grasped by fixating and limiting words...


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