Nondual Ecology

John McClellan

RECOGNIZING the inherent Buddha-nature of rocks and clouds is not that hard—many acknowledge this in principle. Liberal thinkers admit most animals and plants and even microbes to the select company of sentient beings. Rocks and clouds are beginning to be accepted, too, as part of the "natural living world," i.e., the world that existed before mankind brought civilization out of his brain and spread it across the landscape. But recognizing this prized quality of aliveness in technology, in human/machine interaction, and in abstract symbolic systems is something else again. Buddha-nature in nuclear bombs? In computer systems, in our urban networks, in the workings of pure mathematics? No one in the environmental world seems willing to go that far; only cyberpunks and techno-futurists have such thoughts, and they are generally dismissed as frivolous by us serious, "nature"-loving Deep Ecologists. We Buddhists, and Muirists, and Thoreauists.

Today's Deep Ecology seems to regard technology as an evil force, something alien to the natural world, loosed by almost-divine mistake on this planet. These new energies are not regarded as legitimate expressions of sentience, universal life force, nor are they granted the respect that we accord to "natural processes"; rather they are seen as something wrong, something to be controlled and repressed. Deep Ecologists show the same fear and loathing toward today's out-of-control technology as humans have had—until just recently—toward uncontrolled Nature, with her savage wastelands. Just as we waged war in the nineteenth century on wilderness, environmentalists today long to conquer technology, to subdue and control it.

Such a dualistic view of the world, neatly partitioned into good, pure nature and bad, aggressive technology, does not lead to a complete relationship with everything that is. It perpetuates the same kind of good guy/bad guy scenarios we have always indulged in, and leaves a bad taste, especially since the bad guys seem to be winning. Why not take Deep Ecology all the way to the heart of what is really wild on this planet: why not embrace as sacred Everything That Moves, just as we do in a wilderness system? Since everything that exists moves, we'd be done with all this picking and choosing, worry and strife. We'd have ready-made, flawless, sacred outlook.

The Deep Ecology Establishment

The ambivalence of deep ecologists toward technology is seen clearly in the recent book Gaia's Hidden Life, by Shirley Nicholson and Brenda Rosen. Wonderful arguments are presented for the recognition of living beings in the natural world, even among rocks and stars, etc. But almost every one of the twenty-seven authors, from James Lovelock to Thomas Berry, rejects technology as an invalid, unnatural, even wicked, form of existence. Meanwhile, they idealize the vanishing dream of free, wild biological systems. They would restore them to their erstwhile splendor—as though evolution ever moved backward!

This point of view is called biocentrism, and is proudly opposed to anthropocentrism, our outmoded "humanist" outlook. But biocentrism seems little better. It is based on the assumption that evolution reached its pinnacle not with Man, but with Biology. But evolution isn't like that. It never reaches a pinnacle. It never rests, and never turns back.

A contemplative biologist would not want to be "centric" about any stage of the evolutionary process. The earth is no longer seen as the "center" of the universe, humans are no longer thought of as the "center" of evolution, and there's no reason biology should be, either. Evolution unfolds continually and mysteriously out of itself. It has no goal, claims no achievements, and is uninterested in any past or future states. Just this mysterious present moment unfolding, in which there is nothing to cling to, nothing to be "centric" about. To students of Buddhist dharma this may sound familiar. Many people have come to understand the working of mind, the theory, and also to some degree the practice of nonduality, nonclinging—but we still seem to hold primitive, "centric" beliefs about planetary evolution and local biologies.

The leading Deep Ecology thinkers all seem to have this biocentric attitude—Gary Snyder, Arne Naess, Bill Duvall, John Seed, Dolores LaChapelle, and so on. Many of them have good dharma teachers too, but in my opinion they don't listen to them carefully enough. They talk about surrender to what is natural, and about following the Tao, but are not willing to stretch their arms wide open and let in Everything that Moves. They would like to exclude certain things: exploitative technology, warfare, social injustice, famine, urban landscape, television, the extinction of noncompetitive species, the collapse of planetary life support systems for higher species. . . .

You have to go to Walt Whitman and William Blake for a view in which all of life is honored impartially, devils and angels together on their own scary terms. Many Zen and Tibetan and American Indian teachers know this, Rumi says it over and over—contemplatives seem pretty clear on this understanding. It's time for deep ecologists to get up to speed here. This naive, biocentric view exists because deep ecologists are not contemplative mystics. They became ecologists, specializing too early in a limited professional expertise on the "natural environment." Serious ecologists must learn to let go of personal or social agendas, and embrace everything that arises. Only after this surrender can one go deep.

Such a Deep Ecology might not seem to be especially "environmental," because it doesn't cling to any version of reality; it continually surrenders to whatever situations occur. This viewpoint doesn't directly advance the work of saving the planet or preserving local landscapes, but it could be helpful for environmentalists nonetheless. Because unless we enter into the heart of that Wildness where life itself is continually born, we remain outsiders in our own world, and outsiders never really know what's going on. Outsiders can't help sentient beings.

Negentropic Evolution

In a Nondual Ecology, all forms of life are honored equally. This includes everything that displays negentropic activity, i.e., the self-organizing, information-encoding, entrophy-defying activity of dissipative structures, as described by Ilya Pirogogine and others in the field of Complexity.

Negentropic processes defy, on a local level, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which condemns all forms of existence to slow death by entropy, or disorganization. Instead of gradually losing their information structure, dissipating their energy, and running down into amorphous thermodynamic equilibrium, negentropic structures, all by themselves, increase their energy levels, internal complexity, and degree of self-organization. In the domain of the life sciences, this energetic self-organizing activity is as surprising in its way as perpetual motion would be, especially if the motion got stronger and stronger over time. Such things are considered impossible in classical physics on any large or long-term scale, but the life processes on earth have lasted four billion years so far, saturating the entire planet and overflowing the solar system. If we weren't so used to this process by now we'd call it a miracle, and some still doubt it could be taking place on other planets.

I consider all such activity, spontaneously arisen on the pristine, untouched wilderness of this planet, to be the precious stuff of life itself, naturally free and primordially pure, whether we like it or not. Many of these entities or technobiotic processes are dangerous, but so are the natural forces in large biological wilderness areas. We have at last come to appreciate this element of danger in nature; perhaps we must learn to accept it as well in the world we live in today—in the world of cities, wars, famine zones, collapsing ecosystems, toxic pollution, and so on, including the extinction of species and even perhaps the disappearance of "higher" life forms on this planet, like ourselves. This kind of danger may be good for us, even healthy.

What are these wild new forms of life that have taken over the planet recently, these machines, the social and metabolic behavior systems of civilization, the new energy, information, and transportation networks that hold our planet in such a close and deadly embrace? Are they authentic biological entities, legitimate expressions of sentience, the result of the natural working of evolution on a pristine planetary wilderness?

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andrewf's picture

I like this article. I agree with much of it. I too struggle with a biocentric view which fails to completely understand the evolution of humans. I love nature more then most anything, but am inclined to throw the people part out, at least the way it is evolving now. I think there is very little that has to be done. Many cultures had the act of living figured out long ago. What most needs to be done, and what most cultures perceived as the continued evolution of themselves (once basic survival was taken care of), is our "awakening" into our world, inside and out - our enlightenment. Everything else is regurgitation, wheel spinning, boredom, selfishness, and most of all, fixing problems we have created in our toying with perfection. But awakening does not mean accepting all this and the destruction it has created and letting it run its course, it means fully perceiving it and acting on it, which I assume most environmentalist do. There is a middle way for everything, which is what nature displays best, extremes are quickly balanced out, as we will be someday soon. Yes, ecology tells us 99% of what we need to know about the world, and Buddhism, the awakening, the other 1%. I find Buddhism to be very exceptional, ecology too. And fundamentally they are the same. But we have to be self-centered just enough to be enlightened AND active in the face of destruction.

tinalear's picture

John McClellan, you have spoken something I've thought for years but never really known it. Till I read your words. A big question arises me, though. If I really go with the idea that the world is "in perfect balance," and I become aware (as I recently have) of the horrors of factory I just see it as part of the overall balance of the world and continue eating meat? Isn't that gross rationalization, or denial, or unconscionable lack of compassion? I don't want to ever eat another animal of any kind that has been subjected to that kind of cruelty. Is that me disrespecting the *balance*, by somehow setting myself apart from it?

sanghadass's picture

NO... KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. The only danger is the possibility of obsession. I have met vegans who filter everything through the vegan mind-set. It is wonderful what you r doing. Try to step out of the vegan frame of reference - on occasion - to see if there are other important vantage points from which to look at things. There are! Do not reify your identity as anything at all. There is no need to be anyone - in particular. xxoo

michaelgarfield's picture

Huge thanks to John McClellan for voicing this perspective! As a former paleontologist and someone currently deep in the conversation about technological evolution, I cannot adequately express my appreciation for having such an eloquent voice to cite when I want to evoke this middle way meta-perspective. Here are a couple of related pieces I have published in the last few months about this very issue, from slightly different angles:

Anyone interested in more of this stuff, please contact me. I will never tire of this discussion.