Eco-I Ching

A gentleman came to have morning coffee with me and appealed for my support of small Midwestern farmers who were going bankrupt. He gave a romantic description of a stalwart breed being forced to relinquish centuries of precious frontier and pioneer traditions. "Aren't they fundamental for a healthy planet and a healthy society?" he challenged.

I had to wonder out loud whether these were the same people for whom the millions of buffalo were slaughtered to create farmland; the ones for whom pesticides and insecticide were developed to increase profit; the ones who lobby to poison coyotes to protect their farm animals; the ones who fund the most powerful lobby in the world to give them billions of dollars in subsidies of all sorts, from power and irrigation to outright cash; who are the backbone of the National Rifle Association; and who make sure that U.S. foreign aid can't be used to help increase farm output in third-world nations.

This conflict might seem to be merely a political debate, but of course it isn't. There are two ways to look at the situation. My coffee guest was talking about individuals, while I am describing those same people in their collective form.

Philosophy Generates Myths, Which Generate Metaphors

The real differences among people of good will are usually based on the metaphors we use, such as the family farm. These metaphors in turn are based on myths (such as bountiful nature given by God), which in turn are based on large-scale philosophies (nature has laws).

Our contemporary American philosophy is commonly associated with Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and Darwin, with a touch of Thoreau. Generally we view nature as coldly indifferent (storms), anarchistic (as in the word wild) and sometimes malevolent (mountain lions), but also a source of boundless wealth at the service of white homo-sapiens.

With our national philosophy of boundless wealth, the ecological senario of planetary destruction doesn't seem amenable to an effective American debate.

Two No-Win Arguments

Environmentalists can't win because they don't know what they want. Their two main lines of reasoning&emdash;that we have scarce resources and that some methods of energy have cumulatively harmful by-products&emdash;are logically indefensible positions within the American mythology.

Scarce Resources: Arguments predicated on scarce resources as a justification for conservation, recycling, and reclamation play right into the hands of the myth of science, which offers cheap energy as a Holy Grail. Science these days is taking on a more sacred mantle; in the past, it only strove to heal the sick and redeem the poor. Now it promises to save the planet.

Harmful By-Products: The "harmful by-products will destroy the planet" argument is not only rebutted by the promise of future science, but it operates differently in case-by-case battles over details. A good example is the idea of using nuclear power to offset the greenhouse effects of CO2. Generally, the harmful by-product argument is premised on science itself, which makes it particularly vulnerable to embarrassing mistakes and controversial new findings.

A New Way of Looking

If there are to be sound ecological solutions, they must not be derived from the systems of thought that have created our current situation: science, Christianity, and progress, the foundation stones of our current Western edifice. The question in my mind is whether it is possible to find a view of nature that is not derived from these existing philosophies.

Nearly all current (and former) philosophic schools have defined the state of nature based on their own unique viewpoints. The elements of the environment are included in each philosophic system. For Platonists, nature has a priori qualities that include revealed truth; for Zoroastrians, it has a timeless repetition.

Unfortunately, from our current perspective that there is no God, it becomes evident that such thought systems, and consequently their deriviative states of nature, are only projections of human values. Therefore, following any intelligent set of practices derived from higher systems of philosophic thought will lead in the unwitting direction of executing the frail human values that underly those sets.

The alternative course I suggest is to select a philosophy that was derived from the rudimentary observations of nature. There are several such observation-based views, all orginating in pre-historical times. The one I picked was written down 2,200 years ago in China, at which time it was supposedly 20,000 years old. It is called the I Ching.

An Observation-Based Philosophy

The questions I choose to ask of this philosophy, to see whether it could be applicable today, were these: What approach to nature does it take? What observations need to be added to the original database as a result of contemporary experience, and how might we modify the former to include the latter?

The Approach to Nature: The I Ching consists of eight primary symbols called trigrams, each made up of three lines. The lines may be broken or unbroken. They are each associated with an early Chinese character that probably had a clear meaning at the time of the transition from oral to written tradition.

The I Ching was used for divination purposes, and the eight primary symbols were laid out in an 8 x 8 matrix of 64 symbols, each with a descriptive character. These 64 symbols in turn were each given countless added interpretations over many centuries of use.

The I Ching views the natural world as unknowable, and with no definable qualities; nature is seen as being best approached with unique behavior in each specific instance.

These seem like very wise ways to define nature: unknowable, undefinable, and infinitely varied. Nature is the flowing river that we step into, and which is never the same. A true relativist philosphy, indeed.

The I Ching view doesn't have much room for science as we know it; an offer to appease the gods doesn't make make much sense in our world today. Such an offer might have been suggested in the ancient I Ching. The I Ching thus seems quite foreign to our present-day systems of human values.

The I Ching, as I read it, assumes that humans only have two dimensions for interacting with nature plus two ways of interacting with other humans.

In interacting with nature, we have the choice of the time dimension or the space dimension. These are the key man-nature interactions in the 8 primary trigrams. Interactions occur at a particular point in time and in a particular space.Time refers to when a human can interact with nature; it is an infinite line from now, to soon, to someday, to never. Space is also a continuum from here to there to everywhere. Everywhere once referred only to the earth, while now it includes the cosmos.

Are there some other dimensions that the I Ching ignores? Yes, there are countless such dimensions, ranging from those we can clearly recognize in nature, such as color, smell, and temperature, to those that are not so evident: willpower, memory, and intellect. But none of these are so clearly evident, fundamental, and unambiguous as time and space.

As for human interaction, the I Ching seems to settle on a spectrum that ranges from not acting and being alone, to acting and communicating with others. While there are obviously a wide range of other human interactive conditions, ranging from jumping, praying and being sad to killing, crying and voting, the I Ching seems to have settled on these two for the same reason it settled on the two dimensions of interactions with nature: they are simple, understandable and seemingly universal.

When we put these four dimensions&emdash;time, space, action, and communication&emdash; together, we get the eight trigrams, the eight major human options in living.

The first four trigrams deal with not acting or pre-action, the second four with action. Therefore, the first set of four has two for not acting in time and two for not acting in space.

The first trigram for not acting in time is called (1)* Creative-Heaven and represents pure thought; it probably implies quiet meditation. The second trigram, for not acting in space, is called (2) Receptive-Earth and represents physical stillness (perfectly grounded being). The third trigram is no action in time again, and is called (29) Reason-Mastery. It refers to an awareness of time flowing and would be called by us contemplation and planning; it might also allow for some form of talking to others. The fourth trigram is again no action in space and is called (30) Clarity. It means not moving, or continuing to do whatever you are doing but displaying wisdom and showing good behavior by example.

* Trigram numbers ( ) are included in this article for contemporary I Ching students to compare their views to mine.

The I Ching, because it is a philosophy that only observes nature and predicates no elevated descriptive characteristics about nature, is an ecologically sound guide to human action. Traditionally, a person uses it when confronted with a decision. A trigram is selected at random and its meaning is applied to the particular situation confronted.

Since the first four out of eight trigrams are based on no action, therefore half of all consultations to the I Ching will result in no action. This would certainly be beneficial for the environment if it were widely pursued. At most, the symbols based on the first four trigrams in I Ching advise no more than planning, self-discipline and talking to others close by.

The second four primary trigrams allow action. The first in the second set of trigrams is related to time and is called (51) Arousing-Thunder and refers to tentative action, with great sensitivity to responses around you and prompt feedback.

The second trigram denotes action in space and is called (52) Stillness-Mountain. It refers to taking very tentative actions and calls for gentle, precise movement in a small area. The third trigram is action in time again, and is called (57) Penetrating-Wind; it refers to action that involves perseverance, gentleness, and flexibility. It also includes the long-term education of other people.

The fourth and last of the eight trigrams is action in space and is called (58) Joy. It refers to the physical yielding of space but with widespread distribution of small measures and sometimes the inclusion of many people.

When looked at as a whole these eight trigrams passed down over the millenia are a prescription for dealing with nature and our fellow human beings.

The overall sequence is:

Deep insight

Followed by personal clarity

Which permits the first cautious but decisive and sensitive action

And sometimes requires long-term gentle, flexible but persistent activity.


All of this is good advice anytime and anywhere and is good for the environment, especially when the implicit elements include gaining consensus among one's peers before acting with physical lightness.

Updating the I Ching: What can be added? Nothing can be added to the eight primary trigrams. Only to the other 56 trigrams and the supplementary commentaries on the primary eight (technically called "the changing lines") could contemporary material be added.

I would suggest two experiences that we humans have encountered in the past two millenia that should be added to the I Ching. Both are relevent to ecology.

The first is that large-scale actions can have adverse effects, such as using up trillions of barrels or oil, cutting down billions of trees, or killing millions of whales. Such scale was not as significant an issue when the I Ching was created. Needless to say it a central issue in the ecology of the planet in this century.

The second is that the intensity of many human creations can be harmful; examples include DDT, lead, mercury, plutonium, and finally chlorine-based pesticides. These strange products are all compounded in factories that turn out only a few thousand tons of material a year and are applied in minute quantities to the ground, yet they can be found in groundwater thousands of feet deep and under the Arctic Ice thousands of miles away.

Scale and intensity are distinct threats to the environment, yet they are hard to determine as they concern the production of materials that are integral to all of our day-to-day activities. Starting a lumber business isn't in itself harmful, but when the lumber company cuts trees on a giant scale, the results are horrendous. Similarly, finding a simple method for extracting and concentrating a mineral to treat tooth decay could be trivial, but when the concentrated mineral is used in the wrong environment it might kill all microbial life under water.

I Ching advice must offer caution and restraint about scale and intensity in all of its advice that involves action. That means adding a new line to 32 trigrams. Such a line should alternate in its caution, sometimes cautioning about scale and sometimes about intensity. Such cautions should also be varied in their wording.

The following are some suggested lines to add:

Consider the effect if millions do what you do.

What will happen to a fish in the sea and the butterfly

a thousand miles away?

Include future generations in your action.

A small cup can poison a great well.

The ghosts of 10 million buffalo are watching you.

One more straw can make a load too heavy.


These examples are meant to suggest that scale and intensity considerations are easy to understand but need to be considered at every juncture of life before action is taken.


The I Ching is a brilliant tool for creating a meaningful environmental milieu because it truly is based on human wisdom as applied to the state of nature. If we can bring it into our daily lives, we can certainly benefit our ecology.

Insofar as it is a document that reflects mature wisdom several millenia old, it needs to be updated to include the harmful effects we have experienced in the past century. Our experience has taught us that humans can do too much and reach too far, and in their fullness can damage more than has ever been damaged.

Michael Phillips,1983 (revised 2000)


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