Nondual Ecology

John McClellan

Everything That Moves

The only ease lies with the process of evolution itself. Sound ecology must be based on respect for evolution's creative/destructive working process, not on a childish clinging to pretty toys it may have made. Then we can live in this world, help it out, and lean into its mysterious unfolding.

To combine this challenging view with the challenging practice, one simply regards everything that moves as a form of sacred activity. The mad materialist technobiotic frenzy gripping the planet is nothing other than this. There is only One Thing happening, not some things that are good and others that are bad. This Thing includes fragrant ecosystems, fresh and unsullied in wilderness areas on spring mornings, and it includes urban industrial megagrid, ghettos and famine zones, materialistic greed, the extinction of wild animal species, and the slavery and torture of "domesticated" ones. Life and death. Even television.

Everything we love will die, and everything we hate will live, and vice versa, and we will never be rid of such problems. Death is sacred activity. What is happening on this planet today is the sacred activity of life and death, which we sometimes call evolution—Edward Abbey, Earth First!, and the Sierra Club notwithstanding. It is perfect as it stands, flawless, without blemish. But, as Suzuki Roshi said, there is always room for improvement too.

So it's proper to fight and struggle with the situation, to take care of each other, and try to save a few sentient beings. We must do this, and we do, just as we struggle to improve the "climate," "landscape," and evolutionary process in our own minds and hearts. The thing to be careful about is not to reject what is cruel, dangerous, and poisonous, even the heartless machines, the computers and TVs, cars and highways, nuclear bombs, animal and plant torture, and money.

These are our sacred enemies. They might even be our sacred friends; one never knows for sure. We should not try to know for sure. It's none of our business. To try to distinguish friend and enemy on this level is disrespectful. To the enemy, one offers a deep bow, as deep and as filled with respect as one offers to one's friends and teachers. This bow is offered to everything without reservation. It is a form of protection. It saves us from attachment and illusion, and in the end, from despair.

Only One Nature

We can choose to regard all of existence as "alive," or we can regard it as "not alive"; we can regard it as "both alive and not alive," or as "neither alive nor not alive." These are all valid ontological constructions. What we cannot do is divide existence into two classes, and call one of them alive and the other one not. One a "natural," kind, pure, and nice biological nature, and the other a raw, unnatural, alien, bad, ugly, industrial, nuclear, polluting, materialist, urban nature. There's just one nature around here.

As environmentalists, we must learn this way too. Bowing to what is, working hard and politely to improve it on a local level at the same time. Not trying to change the larger design. but simply contributing some tidiness and sanity to our immediate surroundings. Keeping a nice camp in this great howling universal wilderness, a reasonably safe and comfortable place where the gods are honored, the children are cared for, and good fun is had.

Outside such a camp there is Great Wildness. Sacred beings roam out there on the street, enjoying dangerous degrees of sacred freedom. The gods are in charge out there. What they choose to do and to leave undone is their business, not ours. No one tries to control what goes down on the street, no one but gangs, drug lords, and cops. You don't want to be like that. You want to be a bodhisattva of compassion and awakeness, with sympathy for all forms of life. You want to tiptoe through the street in a state of reverence and awe, armed if necessary and able to defend yourself, as in any wilderness area—but always respectful of whatever you meet. Whatever. The street, regional ecosystem, or planet, should be considered a wilderness area, free to define itself no matter what happens. This is basic wilderness ethic, and is the first and greatest rule of all Deep Ecology.

Reality does not need or want to be changed. It has gone to great trouble to establish itself as it is, and it is perfect. This very world of today, as it appears before us in all its glory and horror, is the sacred landscape we live in. What is. Our role is not to arrogantly critique this Great Perfection, picking and choosing in it according to the conventional wisdom of the day; our job is simply to join in with it. And there's no need to have a poverty mentality about the life in this world. It is not now and has never been in any danger. No matter what happens on this planet, there will always be plenty of good life-filled worlds for us to join in with.

John McClellan lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author and photographer of Invisible Worm (The Lama Foundation) and the photographer of Empty Heart, written by Joshua Zim (Westview Court).

Images by John McClellan.
Image 1: Rocky Mountain Arsenal—Nerve Gas Factory, 1992
Image 2: Flatiron Sky—3:23 P.M., 1992
Image 3: Naked Nervous System, Boulder, Colorado, 1993

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Kevinosbern's picture

Well this indeed is something that deserves much more attention, I will see to that it does get it from my part. Let us all unite and make sure such unique and hard words innovations are made available to all.

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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.