The Role of Daoism for Sustainable Environmental Management 

Wang Shuwei


This paper aims to outline environmental management in the light of Daoism. Throughout this study, I will analyze the religious and socio-cultural implications of Daoist philosophy on the way of ecologically sustainable development society, as environmental protection has become a prime concern around the world. This paper pays attention to emphasizing the teachings of Daoism for lessening man-made disasters worldwide. Therefore, this study attempts to show how Daoism can assist the government and other stakeholders protect the environment and socio-economic development. Indeed, the role of religious models, especially Daoism, is very urgent in this age by which it can assist and contribute to minimizing environmental problems through cultivating social norms.

Keywords: Environmental management, Daoism, social development, cultural values.


Environmental management has become a crucial issue in today’s contemporary world and has been discussed almost in every form of a global platform. While many foci on technological solutions to environmental problems, the rest, on the other hand, indicate cultural and religious discourses as a remedy for it. Religious leaders are not also beyond this discussion. Since ancient times, religious leaders have come forward to promote and support the preservation and nurturing of the planet earth. It is undeniable that today’s world is facing serious problems of environmental destruction. Most forests, trees, and plants are being destroyed due to indiscriminate behavior against nature. Smoke and dust from the chimney of industry and other industrial wastages are causing air, soil, and water pollution. Therefore, the protection of nature is an essential aspect of heavily industrialized countries like China, India, and others for their socio-economic developments. Being stewards of the earth, it is the responsibility of humans to care for nature proactively and ensure sustainable development. The religious and ethical perspective of Daoism to protect nature reflects a positive image and tells how Daoism embraces every matter that humans face on earth. The attitudes of Daoism toward the conservation of nature and natural resources are not only based on the prohibition of over-exploitation but also on sustainable development. To ensure a sustainable world, it is urgent to properly observe the principle of ‘equilibrium’. This equilibrium is only possible by connecting humans and nature and taking good care of our nature by changing our outlook.


 Daoism was founded in the 6th Century BCE with the hand of Laozi (老子laozi meaning ‘Old Master’) as a reaction to the Chinese religion and philosophy i.e. Confucianism of the time. Being an ancient and vibrant religious tradition that has influenced Chinese thought, society, and culture for millennia, Daoism has a large body of philosophical works that can be drawn upon to support or oppose a wide variety of different perspectives in ecology and otherwise (Epple, 2009a) . The impact of Daoism on Chinese culture is immense, despite its downgrade in modern times for several reasons. Since religion is one of the greatest human motivators; therefore, it is imperative to know how people view the environment, and it is religion that can change or control people’s behaviors in many aspects. It is, however, most mainstream environmental ethicists have pretty much agreed that most religions motivate people best within their own cultures (Epple, 2009b). It is undeniable that technological innovations can reduce environmental problems but cannot solve them entirely. Besides, scientific and technological knowledge, a collaboration of socio-cultural and religions, particularly the philosophy of Daoism, is highly needed for ecologically sustainable development and to resolve environmental problems. From the time of the Ming Dynasty until the present, there were two leading schools of Daoism, the Heavenly Masters School (Zhengyi) and the Complete Perfection School (Quanzhen) (Lai, 2003), which played a vital role in Chinese culture and people. Another popular school of Daoism is (道教dao jiao), a religion practiced by many lay Chinese which manifests itself in the worship of many deities, sages, and immortals as well as in other aspects of Chinese culture (Epple, 2009c). The Daoist idea of wu-wei (无为, literally “non-action”) emphasizes to act in harmony with the world and letting things follow their natural flow as part of a push toward greater environmental sustainability.

Another concept of Daoist philosophy is Qi (气 meaning “vital energy”) describes that qi is prevalent from the brightest star to the tiniest ant, and it is never static but, flows between Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things. Yin-yang (阴- means “shady place” and 阳yang means “sunny place”) concept of Daoism is also described the cosmology.

Although yin and yang work opponents of each other, but to maintain the equilibrium of nature, they must both be present and in a balanced position. Ziran (自然) is another essential Daoist concept. “Ziran literally means arising from itself; accordingly, it can be translated as ‘spontaneity,’ but it also means ‘nature’” (Paper, 2001). The meaning of ziran or ‘nature’ is different in Daoism than in western philosophy. As a driving force of Daoism, ziran can pertain to the ecological movement in multifetch ways. David L. Hall (1989) discussed in his article “On Seeking a Change of Environment”, that Daoism is an example of a philosophy that with an alternate perspective on order and nature, would produce a more satisfactory environmental ethic (Hall , 1989). In the Chinese classic text “The Tao Te Ching,” it is said that “This original nature is the eternal law. To know the nature’s law is to be enlightened. He who is ignorant of the nature’s law shall act recklessly, and thus will invite misfortune. To know the constant law of nature is to be generous. Being generous, one is impartial. Being impartial, one is the sovereign. Sovereign is the nature itself” (Lao-Tzu cha. 16).

Tu Wei- Ming (1989) argued in his article, “The Continuity of Being: Chinese Visions of Nature”, that Chinese cosmology, based on the concept of qi气, inspires environmental principles. He contended that because humans arise from both yang qi and yin qi, from Heaven and Earth, respectively, humans are like children of Heaven and Earth (Tu, 1989a). Thus, Tu Wei- Ming tried to make a bridge between nature and human beings by applying the virtue of filial piety. He additionally wrote, “forming one body with the universe can literally mean that since all modalities of being are made of ch’i, human life is part of a continuous flow of the blood and breath that constitutes the cosmic process. Human beings are thus organically connected with rocks, trees, and animals” (Tu, 1989b). By portraying nature and humanity as a single-family, he furthermore tried to integrate the systemic interconnectedness concept of Daoism with the Confucius’ filial piety and Chinese folk religion practices of ancestor worship. He drew an equation by stating that taking care of the environment is the ultimate means of assisting one’s parents in old age or venerating and feeding the spirits of one’s ancestors, which could potentially be a powerful motivator for many Chinese.

Zhang Jiyu and Li Yuanguo (2001) argued that, “The operation of the Dao places no restrictions on Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as regards their mutual stealing or mutual utilization. Daoism, as represented in the Yinfujing, sees nature and the myriad things as human beings’ best teacher, and as an unlimited vehicle for human enlightenment and social development” (Zhang, 2001a). In his article, “The Daoist Concept of Central Harmony in the Scripture of Great Peace: Human Responsibility for the Maladies of Nature”, Chi-tim Lai (2001) used the concept of Central Harmony (中和zhonghe) as found in the Han dynasty text, Taipingjing, to argue against scholarly interpretations of the Daoist perspective on nature as characterized by wuwei and ziran (Lai, 2001). Focusing on wuwei and ziran, Zhang Jiyu (2001) found that many Daoist principles are compatible with the global ecological movement that he mentioned in his article, “A Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association on Global Ecology”. He implored Chinese Daoist Association to educate Daoists and laypersons about their ecological obligations, to continue reforesting, starting with Daoist hermitages, and to transform Daoist sacred sites into examples of the benefits of environmental engineering, then perhaps expand the project to the rest of China. He argued that there is a great connection among Heaven, Eartth and other terrestrial things because of yin and yang qi; so, it is the duty and responsibility of humans to behave and act natural way (ziran)  and in the spirit of wuwei (Zhang, 2001b). It is mentionable that the Daoist masters across China have already been working in the areas surrounding monasteries to teach the lay people about the Daoist relationship between humans and the environment and to plant trees and grass to halt desertification, especially in Northern China (Zhang, 2001c).

To faster the “green revolution” process, which they called the “Daoist Ecological Protection Network” at the Third Ecology Protection Forum of China Daoist Temples and Pagodas in the autumn of 2008, 69 representatives of Chinese Daoist temples and associations met at Maoshan, one of the sacred Daoist mountains, to discuss the relationship between Daoism and the environment. They published the Maoshan Declaration, a document pledging to work in the next ten years to educate the Chinese population about environmental issues and their relationship to Daoism and protect and restore the environment on holy mountains and temple grounds (Maoshan Declaration, 2008).

To differ some extent with the previous scholars, Michael LaFargue (2001) argued in his article “‘Nature’ as Part of Human Culture in Daoism”, that a Daoist environmental ethic would be the middle road of organic harmony which falls somewhere between thoughtlessly destructive action and absolute non-action, modern Chinese Daoists have interpreted their own religion in such a way that they are playing an active role in protecting and restoring the environment, first on their own property, then broadening their scope to include China as a whole (LaFargue, 2001). To emphasize on China’s environmental issues relating to Confucianism with Daoism, Mary Evelyn Tucker (1994) argued in her article, “Ecological Themes in Taoism and Confucianism”, that Daoism and Confucianism should inform a Chinese environmental ethic together because they complement each other, with a Daoist perspective on the relationship between humans and nature and a Confucian focus on the interconnectedness of individuals, society, and nature (Tucker, 1994). The Daoist viewpoints of the interconnectedness between Heaven, Earth, and humanity obligate humans to respect and work with the earth to maintain a healthy balance of qi throughout the universe for ecologically sustainable development.

The above discussions suggest that the association of a suitable environment is essential for a balanced life. Lack of environmental protection due to different types of pollution threatens the life of the people and other animals. Environmental protection generally relates to protecting physical surroundings i.e., forests, trees, plants, wetlands, animals etc. But, overall environmental protection also needs to include social, psychological, and moral values. Without protecting those aspects, complete environmental protection will not be possible. Therefore, it is simultaneous protection of the surrounding outside and the norms, morality, and inner heart of people. For this reason, the teachings of Daoism are urgently needed to integrate into our daily lives. Only then the peace and prosperity will be possible, benefiting the universe. A large number of scholars believe that many ideas of Daoist teachings would promote or support ecological positions such as systemic interconnectedness and continuity; few academics, on the contrary, disagree on whether Daoism can positively influence and even give moral authority to environmentalism due to the several reasons namely increasing of atheism, dependency on scientific innovations, the gaps between belief and practice. However, this study keeps this research gap in mind and aims to further investigate so that Daoist principles can inspire individuals, government bureaus, and businesses sectors to act in a more environmentally ethical manner.


Environmental management is a core issue for a sustainable society. With the affiliation of technological tools, it is also necessary to link the socio-cultural values for ecologically sustainable development. Like other Chinese traditional philosophies Confucianism, Legalism and, Yin–Yang; Daoism also directs itself towards sustainable development. As an ancient Chinese religion and philosophy, Daoism has always been giving importance to divine harmony between nature and humanity. The Daoist principle consists in “a path” directing to find a suitable way to lead life. It believes that greed and selfishness are the big obstacles to the way of world harmony; additionally, they cause destabilization of the world’s natural balance. The Chinese dream of ecological and environmental protection across China and to expand it globally. Since the Chinese government has advanced towards an aggressive green building campaign for ecological modernization; therefore, Daoism as a tool of religion and culture can contribute significantly to the government’s journey.


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Author is a student of School of Law, Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, Shanghai, China-201701.


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