Letters to the Editor

All I could think of as I read and reread John McClellan's article was a quote from Edmund Burke, restated here with some liberty (my additions in parentheses):
"All that is necessary for evil to triumph (and for the environment to be wrecked by human beings) is for good men (and women and children) to do nothing."

I object to the evil that human beings have created being called "sacred." Unless we place some constraints on our behavior and show some restraint, the world as we know it will continue to be wrecked. Sure, life may go on and the universe and DNA will have the last laugh, but I would like some natural (versus "techno") environmental quality in my life and in my kin's lives.
Richard Chaplin
Adamant, Vermont

After criticizing Deep Ecologists for taking a centrist position (biocentrism), McClellan then adopts a position of radical anthropocentrism. Like all chauvinisms, such as racism or sexism, anthropocentrism adopts the characteristics of its own group as the yardstick with which to measure other species. For people, "storing and manipulating information structures" becomes of primary importance. Other species don't do nearly as well, of course; that's because we're using our own criteria. (McClellan notes "The world of technology and culture was born"—as though pre-industrial civilizations were inferior.) No merely traditional anthropocentrist, McClellan elevates human culture to the position of a new stage of evolution. This conveniently allows him to relieve us of all responsibility for our actions. Are we killing the seas or wiping out forest ecosystems? No matter, it's all part of evolution. Ecosystems collapse anyway, so why worry? This absurdity leads the author to a peculiar sort of nihilism. There is no longer such a thing as wilderness, and no distinction between what humans have done to destroy the planet and what might have survived otherwise. Moralities, too, are all dissolved into some "larger design" (which is, note, no design at all).

For McClellan, sadly, there is no purpose, no passion, and no compassion, for there are no values. There are important differences between mvsticism and nihilism, but they are all washed away here in this flood of thoughtless and damaging rhetoric.
James L. Bull, Ph.D.
Alpine, California

Over seven hundred years ago, Zen Master Dogen foresaw the trap that John McClellan has fallen into. It is the tendency to think that the integration of existence and value results in the rejection of practical distinctions between good and evil, and the freedom from moral duty to make those distinctions in the world. I have no argument with the integration of existence and value. But I maintain that we must, recognizing the Buddha-nature in all things, still make distinctions in the world. Because we do work in the world, we must be careful that our work is, to whatever extent possible, non-harming (ahimsa).

With a wave of his hand, McClellan dismisses Gary Snyder and Arne Naess, placing them in a group of Deep Ecology proponents who, he speculates, "may have had good dharma teachers," but in his opinion, "don't listen to their teachers carefully enough." If McClellan wants to be taken as anything but a romantic dreamer and science fiction writer, he should devote more care to refuting the work of Snyder and Naess. If McClellan thinks that Snyder naively classifies machines into a dualistic "bad" category, then he has failed to read Snyder. On the contrary, Snyder has pointed out repeatedly that such a dualistic separation of human artifact from nature is a mistake.

Naess's formulation of Deep Ecology seems to have been influenced bv various Eastern traditions. The ultimate norm from which flow all logical derivations of Deep Ecology is simply: "Self-realization!" Naess explains that the Self he is talking about embraces all life forms on the planet.

Thus we come to the questions of "What is life?" and "Who are sentient beings?" McClellan's great satori is that life has been too narrowly defined by biocentrists, who are clinging to biology as evolution's highest expression. He says that machines and symbolic logic are blossoming into a new symbiotic life form living with us, or through us.

McClellan's photograph of Boulder, Colorado, at night, which he calls "Naked Nervous System," tells us much. The fact is that the pretty lights are all hooked up to a power plant somewhere, which either perturbs a river, or is burning the carboniferous residue of old forests, moving that carbon into the atmospheric system. I am not trying to prove that the power grid is morally wrong, but that these power plants just "carry water, chop wood" in a more complex form. McClellan, like manv Western people before him, has fallen in love with the glamorous possibilities of technology, instead of doing as he wants us to do, which is to see technology just as it is, its suchness, without illusion. He says that rather than resist the scary transition into the next stage of evolution beyond biology, involving the loss of what he calls "noncompetitive species," we should "lean into" the transition.

McClellan seems to think that he has something new, but it is only a reheated version of the same nonsense that has been served up to us for years. It's called "technological optimism." It is driven by a love for an imaginary future, for which the treasures of the present are sacrificed. In truth, all treasures are in the present moment. In these times, it is daunting to say, "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all." We will be tempted to consider an offer from anyone like McClellan, to be excused from this work. Environmentalism is like doing the dishes. As my wife often reminds me, the dishes do not need to be reconsidered, they need to be washed.
Jordan Fisher-Smith
Nevada City, California

The Author Responds:

I was surprised at the intensity of the responses to my article "Nondual Ecology," both pro and con. Some of the supporters, like Allan Hunt Badiner, are as embarassing as the detractors, and for the same reason: they seem convinced I am what Fisher-Smith refers to as a "technical optimisit"—a Technophile I am not. I would never have traded the glorious climax biologies of the late Paleolithic for civilization, not for all its beauties and horror, its cities and symbolic systems, its slavery and warfare, its mathematics, music, and brutal industrial processes.

Though Badiner is quite right about technozen (we must practice the dharma in every area), I do not feel technology is an evolutionary advance over nature, as Fisher-Smith and James Bull suggest I do. Nor on the other hand would I want to say with Richard Chaplin and many Deep Ecologists that technology is evil; or as Suzanne Head suggests, that natural biologies are superior forms of life, more important in the long run than a global civilized technology.

I do not presume to know what kind of evolution the earth should have. She seems to have her own ideas, and I don't understand them. My private opinion is, technology has its good points, but the cost is unreasonable. The price is nothing less than wild nature, and appears to be non-negotiable. For some reason evolution doesn't seem to mind this terrible expense. (I am not sure that evolution and the earth always get along well together. The gods are strange.)

There is a very real and savage war raging on the planet right now between the last of the wild biologies and the ferocious and equally wild technologies. This has been going on for at least ten thousand years, and it's not over yet. This terrible and tragic drama demands the full attention of all who care for life in any form. We must, as Fisher-Smith says, "make distinctions in the world" and take great care that our actions are helpful. I think we do. Is it unreasonable to go on to say that whatever we may do, the deep dancing ground of life and death is not greatly affected by our actions, and that it has not changed since the earliest days of life on this planet?

Suzanne Head, James Bull, and others seem to feel that if one holds an absolute view of this kind, one loses touch with moral values, and can no longer make ethical distinctions, or help the world. As Fisher-Smith so clearly puts it, values become collapsed into absolute existence, and no one has to care about or do anything. As Bull says of me, "For McClellan, sadly, there is no purpose, no passion, and no compassion, for there are no values." Czaplin reaches for his Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." These writers seem to fear the Devil will make work for those whose hands are idle enough to hold a deep view. Perhaps they think the absolute view is dangerous, too hot to handle, and should not be used in ordinary life. I disagree.

I see no reason for a simplistic "either/or" attitude in this area. Yes, everything is perfect, and yes, there is still much to do. As Fisher-Smith puts it, the dishes need to be washed, and "deep view" contemplatives are expected to do their share. But washing the dishes and fighting the wars are not the only purposes for our existence. Surely it must be clear by now, after ten thousand years of exhausting, heartbreaking civilization, that no one ever wins these things. We win and lose and live and die—the wars are not important. They are games. The games must be played, but there is a deeper way of being with all this. How can this delicate matter be discussed properly?

There is an extremely powerful and subtle form of materialism that colors our thinking about "our" world, especially during a long, hard war. We become possessive and demanding, greedy for our preferred vision of life, scornful of our enemies, unappreciative of the dark forces. Many of these forces are gods, like those of suffering, of evolution and species extinction, and of death itself. Gods of this caliber deserve respect; we underestimate them at our peril. Sailors know this; climbers know it; warriors in sacred traditions know it—there is no reason we environmentalists should not be capable of the same respectful attitude toward the forces we are up against. This requires a clear view.

Can we see this vast field of sentient being, consisting of the material universe and both biological and technological forms of negentropic life, all arising from the spontaneous working of the laws of evolution? Can we see that all these lifeforms are good, or bad, both good and bad, and none of the above, from a variety of ever-shifting points of view? Then, can we sincerely and deeply bow to all this, accepting everything without reservation?

Once the basic respect is established, we are then free to claim friends and declare enemies among these various life forms, to fight wars, to uphold good against evil; but this must be done with the greatest of care and humility. The moral and social choices made by societies in the past are filled with terrible mistakes. The gods are not easy to sort and name.

The contemplative's "acceptance" of today's world does not give the critics of Deep Ecology "undeserved ammunition," as Suzanne Head says. It does not constitute in any way an endorsement of the "enemy," or even of the status quo. It is the point of departure, rather, for all further readership.

A clear view is essential. You can't fight a war or play a game of "friends and enemies" properly if you are not willing to bow to the entire playing field. Clinging to our own private or "preferred" version of reality throws our game off. This is why the best players, as in the game of Go, or real warfare, do not limit their view to personal, bio-, anthropo-, or any other kind of "centric" versions or private territory. They keep an eye on the whole field. One must be able to see the game on its own terms, however strange or "inhuman" these may seem, to be of any real use on the field.

We care passionately about the world, almost too much at times; this is understandable, as our very lives are at stake. But a deep and constantly refreshed detachment must lie at the core of any really passionate relationship. When this is forgotten, lost in the heat of caring, the relationship becomes greedy, possessive, and materialistic; it becomes deluded, self-centered, and blind, and ultimately unhelpful.

This detachment is expressed by the bow, and is an expression of respect at the same time. The greatest compassion is expressed in this way. The buddhas bow as deeply to us deluded sentient beings as we bow back to them. (Always in this world, when we bow, we are bowing back. The world itself and all the buddhas have already bowed to us.) They bow no matter what type of foolishness, stupidity, or even cruelty we may be up to. They care, but remain respectful and detached. They are not in charge of us. Parents have to learn this same detachment and respect for their children as they grow up.

We must learn to respect our world in the same way, remembering that we are not in charge of it. The world is free to make choices we neither like nor approve of. It seems to be making a great many such choices today. It makes no difference whether you like what you see, or don't. Everything is worthy of honor, just as we ourselves are, because it has had the bravery, the intelligence and raw negentropic power, the adaptive cunning and sheer stubbornness to come into existence and "hold" its form or function for a little while.

We must be prepared to bow to the most terrible forces, which is why I included a picture of the World War II nerve gas factory out at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Anyone who can bow to that will, as Mark Twain put it, surprise their friends and astonish their enemies, and will surely be a good person to have around. Later on, we will all have a chance to bow to our own death. As this is known to be an extremely difficult bow, it would be wise to get all the practice we can. The simplest thing is just to bow to everything, no questions asked.

I am surprised at the lack of comment on what I consider to be the most interesting and original idea in the article, concerning the theory of the spontaneous symbiotic union with human beings. Of the many letters I received, only Fisher-Smith even mentioned it, and he didn't like it. This is a theory of the process of civilization which, if true, would explain a lot about our relationship with technology, the troubled state of the planet, and other such matters.

I am sorry to hear the article described as an absolutist point of view, as Head and Fisher-Smith seem to do. The absolute arises from the relative, and vice versa. I hope I have not confused them, or given either one false emphasis. Neither of these two great realms can be used to invalidate the other. Any discussion where one party says "Absolute!" and the other says "Relative!" is sure to be based on some common confusion or misuse of words. The buddhas won't even listen to this tired old stuff anymore. We shouldn't be wasting our time with it either. There is so much real work to do.

The work. First we should check the clarity and intention of our own heart and mind. Then, after a keen glance once around the playing field, followed by a deep, respectful bow, we get to work: look to the safety and well-being of our family, reach for good tools and good weapons, call to our friends, and begin to see if we can be of any help. There is much to do, in this howling storm of evolutionary wildness that is rocking the planet to its biological foundations today. In any big storm or long war, there is always much to do.

John McClellan
Boulder, Colorado

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.