Ecology and Religion

March 8, 1970

The raw beauty of nature belies a growing crisis. Brimming with insight, Watts argues the ecological predicament stems from long-held religious views of the world as separate from humankind. He urges rethinking this, and seeing ourselves as intertwined with the natural world, to find solutions. Recorded at the University of Texas as part of a weekend workshop.




Our guest lecturer tonight is not an ordinary man. A few hours ago I saw him doing a very beautiful spiritual meditation dance with about fifty people. Alan Watts is a prolific writer whose works are both incisive and delightful to read. Through the years, he has moved through many different professions, having served as a minister, professor, a research associate, an editor, and probably many other things that I don’t know about. As most of you know, his writings relate to many different fields, but he’s perhaps best known for having taken the profound spiritual wisdom of the East and, after having probed and experienced it himself, made it available to us of the Western heritage. As would be expected of anyone who speaks as openly and as directly as Alan Watts does, there have been critics and detractors. As best as I can observe, his response to those criticisms has been simply to do what he talks about doing; as to stand in the world and to be himself.


The workshop this weekend and this lecture this evening are among the programs of [???] which are designed to open up various aspects of the human potential. Dr. Watts’ subject tonight is Ecology and Religion. I know that long before ecology became a popular issue, Dr. Watts was speaking about the relation of man and nature as being the central aspect of life, and I’m sure that he will open up many creative and adventurous responses in us here tonight. Alan, we welcome you and look forward to hearing you.



I suppose most people now know what ecology is, but just in case there are some people in the audience who don’t, I should explain that ecology is that branch of science which deals with the relationship between organisms and their environments. The word is, of course, Greek—oikos meaning “the house” or the “household,” lógos meaning the “rationale” of it (as in economics, which is a similar word). Ecology arose in Western science for this simple reason: that when you try to describe completely the behavior of any living organism, you find that you cannot describe the organism without at the same time describing its environment. And that led to a very interesting thought: that the idea of a separate organism is false. And that, however, is an idea implanted in everyone’s common sense. One thinks of one’s self as a separate being, and not merely as a separate body—but it gets worse than that—as a separate ego inside a body. And so in common speech we are apt to say “I have a body” rather than “I am a body.” In fact, we look upon our bodies rather contemptuously, because we know they’re going to fall apart. The body, the material, the physical aspect is always in some way considered inferior to the mental, the spiritual, the psychological aspect. And so we feel, we are brought up to feel, divided into two parts: the mind on the one hand, or the soul, and on the other hand the body, the corpus, the corpse. And our whole ecological crisis results from this kind of schizophrenic attitude towards our identity.


Now, what is the ecological crisis? It is this—we’ll just add it up by titles. The human world is dangerously overpopulated. And this overpopulation is the result to some considerable degree of our progress in medical sciences. We are not so easily wiped out by plagues. At the same time, our overpopulated and technological society is eating up the Earth at a fantastic pace, so that scientists who study food problems predict that by the year 1975 there will be a worldwide famine unless we can increase the production of food by 25%. It will be possible but quite difficult to increase the food production by 2%. We are at the same time fouling our own nest: we are polluting the atmosphere and we are polluting the water. And water, incidentally, is the element necessary for life that is most necessary and in lowest supply. We are tearing the forests off our hills for building purposes, and even more so for making paper upon which to print information so that every literate person today is practically suffocated in mountains of paper. And think also of your supermarket: the paper bags in which you carry out your groceries instead of following the old-fashioned custom of taking a market basket to the store. Paper wrapping everywhere! All of it destroyed trees. And it isn’t as simple as that. For every pound of paper—and compare a pound of plastic. It seems that plastic might be the solution. But whereas the pound of paper will require, say, five gallons of water to manufacture it, the pound of plastic will require thirty. And that water is all discarded.


Let’s go on. For military reasons we have created nuclear energy, and there are also nuclear wastes. And these wastes have to be disposed of—not to mention the existence of nuclear warheads which, of course, could destroy all life on this planet at any time. But what to do with the waste? They are being put in enormous underground and sometimes underwater concrete vats. And these vats will wear out before the substances they contain cease to be radioactive. The problem with the nuclear weapons is not how to avoid their use in war, but how to get them off the planet. Then we will go on to consider the various chemicals that have been prepared for biological and chemical warfare. And again the problem is how to get rid of them, not how to avoid using them.


Now, any one of these problems that I’ve mentioned, taken alone, would be a serious threat to human survival. But taken altogether, where are we? We’re insane. And this problem of man in relation to his environment overshadows every other political problem. It isn’t just that, as you might say, a president of the United States suddenly gets alarmed about man’s relationship to his environment, and uses it as a political gimmick to divert attention from racial relations. It isn’t like that. It’s like when Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle. Just by then—

Cue a monstrous crow as black as a tar-barrel,

Which frightened both those heroes so,

They quite forgot their quarrel.


And that’s what’s happening. In other words, all the traditional political problems—as to whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a right-winger or a left-winger, a capitalist or a communist, a pale pink person or a dark brown person—are absolutely obsolete, because it is highly possible that the human race will not survive beyond the year 2000. So wake up if survival is important. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe all stars were originally planets, whereon there developed intelligent life which discovered the nucleus and its secrets, and just blew itself up. Maybe that’s how things go. It’s like saying a chicken is one egg’s way of becoming other eggs. But if you are interested in survival—and not mere survival, but an elegant survival—it’s necessary to be very wide awake to the ecological problem.


There is a historian of science by the name of Lynn White, who’s a professor of history at UCLA, and he said recently: the roots of our ecological crisis are religious, and therefore the solution must also be religious, even if not called by that name. And I would like to go first into the reasons why the roots of this crisis are religious.


Technology as we know it has emerged out of a certain philosophy of life. And the foundation of that philosophy is a distinction between symbols on the one hand and reality on the other—you might say words and events, map and territory, money and wealth. Now, isn’t it obvious that a word is not what it represents? A word is a sound, a noise, in the air. And if we take the sound “water,” the sound “water” cannot be used for washing or drinking. It stands for it. And in just the same way it is not nutritive to eat dollar bills or checks or credit cards. They are not wealth, they represent it.


In the same way, you as a living organism are not the same as your idea of yourself. That is to say, your organism is not your personality. It is not your ego. That is simply a concept of yourself in the same way as a dollar is a concept or measure of wealth, or in the same way as a menu represents what is going to be served for dinner, but it is not the dinner. It is very useful and very marvelous to be able to represent the real world with symbols—provided you know what you’re doing, provided you do not confuse the truth and go for symbols instead of wealth, instead of reality.


Now, you may ask me, on the other hand—because I’m talking, because I’m a speaker, because I’m a philosopher—“What do you mean by ‘reality’?” And I’m not going to tell you, because it can’t be said. Reality is [claps]. Some people would say that was a clap. But “clap” is not the same sound as [claps]. Some people will say reality is material and physical. Other people will say reality is mental or spiritual. But you will see that in either case reality is being defined in terms of philosophical concepts. The notion that the world is material is simply a philosophical school of thought. It’s an idea. Equally so is the notion that the world is spiritual. Even if we take it down to god, to the root and ground of being—all we can talk about it is ideas. And those are strings of words, or they may be strings of numbers, or strings of algebraic equations. But they never get there.


Because words and numbers are always strung out in a line, and you have to scan them with a process of attention called consciousness, and however fast you speed that up—even using computers—the world is always beyond it. Why? Because the world itself is not linear. The world is a multidimensional complex of everything happening altogether everywhere at once. Look at it this simply: how do you know how to breathe? Do you think how to breathe? Did you teach yourself how to breathe? Did you have to go to school to learn how to breathe out of a textbook? No. You breathed as soon as the doctor who delivered you spanked you on the bottom. Nobody had to teach you. But breathing—from the point of view of physiology—is a very complex process. How did you learn? How did you learn how to grow your hair, how to color your eyes, how to shape your bones, how to make your glands give out their proper secretions? You never did learn it—in the sense where we mean learning is reading instructions. You may therefore very well disclaim all this skill and say, “Well, I didn’t do it. All this breathing, all this hair, all these eyes, bones, and everything else were given to me by god.”


To whom, then, were they given? Is your heart not you? Is it just something you have? Is your brain—which we know less about than any other organ in the body—is that not you? Is it just something you have? If so, I ask again: who is “you”? Do you know how to open and close your hands? Well, you say, “Surely I do, because I do it.” Yes, but how? You can’t describe it in terms of words—although a physiologist may describe it in terms of words, but that doesn’t help him to open and close his hands any better than you.


So, you see, you are a great deal more than you suppose. Because we have all been brought up to confuse our living reality with an idea, with a personality, which is given a name. And as a result of that we all feel isolated, we all feel as if we were a little man inside our heads, about halfway between the ears and a little way behind the eyes. That’s what most people seem to mean when they use the word “I,” “myself.” So we are detached from our bodies, we have them, and in turn our bodies are detached conceptually—not really, but conceptually—from the rest of the world, and we think, “Well, everything outside my skin is definitely not me.”


Now, look into some other historical aspects of this strange situation in which we find ourselves. Through the Jewish and Christian religions we inherit a tradition of thought about the nature of the world which uses certain metaphors. I should say first of all that these metaphors are not essential to these religions, but these religions include them as part of their pedagogy, their way of teaching. So I don’t want to, as it were, give offense to anyone here who is a Jew or a Christian, as if I were trying to tear your religion apart. But it is so that both the Jewish and the Christian religions have used an image of the creation of the universe which represents the universe as an artifact, as something made in the same way as a potter would make a vessel, a sculptor a figurine, or a carpenter a table. And we get that, of course, right from the Book of Genesis, where it is said that god created Adam out of clay, and then breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. So it is fundamental to the common sense of all Western peoples to think of themselves as made. And if you are made, you are essentially a mechanism.


Now look what happened. Towards the end of the eighteenth century advanced Western thinkers found it impossible to believe in god as a super-boss, king, and law-giver governing the universe. The reason they found this impossible—they never could prove that such a god did not exist—but that sort of an idea (the old gentleman with the white whiskers on the golden throne of heaven) simply became implausible in relation to the vision of the universe that late eighteenth-century astronomy and other sciences were unfolding. No one would dream of attributing a composition by Beethoven to Palestrina; the style. So when we saw this new vision of the style of the universe, what sort of a thing it is, it was awfully difficult to attribute the nebula in Andromeda to the lord god Jehovah. Because the lord god Jehovah just didn’t seem to have the imagination to produce that sort of a phenomenon.


You know, when people were thinking then, Christians in Europe and America, were thinking then of the world as having been created in 4000 B.C. And then they started to think about light years. And the Hindus came along and said: Well, of course, we’ve known this all along. We always calculated the history of the universe in terms of kalpas as our mere basic unit of reckoning. And a kalpa is 4,325,000 years. That’s what we begin with. And we think of those added up into [???] of kalpas, kotis of kalpas—centuries, you see, of kalpas. And we’ve always thought that way.


Well, this upstaged the Christians pretty badly. And so they rushed to reinterpret everything. And they’ve always been having to do this. In the same way, of course, when it says in the Book of Genesis that god created the world in six days. Of course, the day—well, it says in the Psalms: “a thousand years are but a day in my sight.” Well, that stretches the day at least to a thousand years. But then they thought, well, perhaps a day is merely a metaphorical expression. Well, what if god is just a metaphorical expression? See where we get to?


But the problem was essentially this: that if you think of the world as an artifact, as something made, and then you find you can no longer believe in the maker, what are you left with? You’re left with a machine. And you don’t like it. The scientific naturalism of the nineteenth century which rejected all supernaturalism [???] therefore to regard the world as nothing but a fortuitous congress of atoms operating in accordance with the principles of Newtonian mechanics.


And you would’ve thought that someone who declared himself to be a naturalist would’ve been sort of in favor of nature. But on the contrary—the naturalists began the most savage war against nature ever waged. Because they hated it! It’s like Americans—who are credited with being materialists—absolutely loathe material. They do everything to destroy it, to convert it into poison gas and garbage. They don’t know how to cook, how to dress, and mistreat the world in the most terrible way. Cities that look like rubbish heaps scattered all over the most beautiful mountain country and plains. What a gorgeous country, speaking of the territory. How hideous, speaking of the map. Because material is not reverenced, is not respected. Everything is being turned into plastic, poison gas, smog, fake surface sort of like, see?


Now, this is because, when you look at the world as a piece of machinery, you know perfectly well that all machinery is stupid. If we are nothing but a product of blind energy—in other words, if human reason, intelligence, love is nothing but fluke—it is a result of a gyration of energy as if a million monkeys had been typing for a million years on a million typewriters, the chances are that maybe, at some point of time, they would type out the Encyclopædia Britannica. And so we have been brought up to feel that that is the sort of result we are. We are the Encyclopædia Britannica typed out by the monkeys.


Now, that’s what you really believe. There are religious people here—and I’m talking of religious people in the sense of those who are faithful attendants of the standard-brand religions. You know, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Reformed Jewish, whatever. You don’t believe in your religions. You think you ought to believe in them, and you feel guilty because you don’t. But you don’t. If you did, you’d be screaming in the streets. So the clergymen get up every Sunday, and they say, “Dear people, you really ought to have faith. We all ought to have faith. We don’t have strong enough faith. If we really had faith, we’d be able to move mountains.” You don’t hear that kind of sermon when people have faith.


So the thing has become implausible—in those terms—and therefore we’re left with a mechanism, because we inherit the idea of the mechanism through the notion that the world has been made, as something is put together from separate parts and constructed. So we look upon everything that exists as an object. Say, well, you know, it’s like you put this podium together, for example. You do this, and you do this, and this, and slap it all together, and let’s stand aside from it and measure it properly in all directions, and we can take an objective view. Of course, we’re civilized. We don’t regard the podium as a living being. You know, who would dream of addressing the podium and saying, “How do you do? I trust that, this evening, your spirit will be congenial with mine and that we won’t get in each other’s way.” We say that’s mere animistic superstition. So it’s an object. And we can stand aside from it, and examine it, and measure it, and look at it. And we take that attitude in our sciences to everything. Until we get to quantum mechanics, and that’s another story.


But the ordinary common sense attitude of people is that the world consists of objects. And furthermore, when you turn that back on you—take an objective attitude to yourself, as in behavioristic psychology—and then you start talking about unconscious mental mechanisms, you get Freud’s psycho-hydraulics, and everything becomes mechanism. Well, obviously, everything that is an object is objectionable. And therefore, when we see the world as not life, as not having subjectivity, but merely being objectivity, we are going to destroy it. We’re going to commit suicide on a grand scale. Because we do want to be nothing but machines, something completely explainable. Why not?


And this, again, goes back to the great deep roots of religion. You see, the objective of technology is to control everything—to know the future so completely that it can be predicted, you see, and so controlled. We have the ambition to be god. And in the Genesis myth, where the lord god tells Adam that he must not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Hebrew words for good and evil are related to the art of metallurgy. In other words, they are rather more technical terms than moral terms: what is advantageous and disadvantageous rather than what is loving or unloving. So the fall of man is connected in this myth with the development of technology, and of man’s attempt to acquire power over the world.


And so let us suppose, then, that you really could be god in the old-fashioned sense of Jehovah—we’re not going to talk about any sophisticated ideas of Brahma or the Tao or anything like that for the moment—but just good old-fashioned Jehovah. It’s like the kid who took too much acid in Los Angeles and turned himself in to the police with a little note that said, “Please help me,” signed, “Jehovah.” What would you do if you were god in that sense? Everything is known to you. Everything is under your control. You know all futures, all pasts, and all presents. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” What would you do? Well, I think you’d say to yourself: “Man, get lost!” Because you would be incapable of ever having a surprise, and that would be like making love to a plastic woman.


So it says—I mean, in the Christian tradition—that god then created man and also the angels with freedom of will, so that they would surprise him. You know, he said: “Do your own show!” But it never really came off, because it was said, you see, you’ve got freedom of will, but you’d better obey me—or else! It’s like saying to your child: “Now, you’re my child, of course. But you must love me. All nice children love their mothers. And of course, naturally, I want you to love me because you really want to and not just because I say so.” And that is a trick known as the double-bind, which is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Because if you do, then you’re a goodie-goodie. And if you don’t, you’re disobedient. And if you do it the way you’re told to do it, then you’re just a replica of your parent. And they wanted something different. And then comes the plastic woman again, you see? It’s very difficult.


So suppose, then, it was a different thing altogether. That god—and I’m talking in a kind of symbolic language—instead of making an artifact universe, manifested himself or itself or herself as the universe? Instead of being always lording it over everything, became totally involved, and in a certain way forgot infinite wisdom, power, and knowledge? There’s a hint about this in St. Paul, who always is so remarkably quotable out of context, but where he says in the Epistle to the Philippians, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of god, did not think identity with god something to be grasped, but humbled himself and made himself of no reputation, was found in fashion as a man and became obedient to death.” What an adventure! That’s called the kenotic theory—from the Greek kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” That’s the kenotic theory of the incarnation of god becoming Jesus. There was also a kenotic theory of creation. See? That god not simply became only Jesus, but you all. Of course, if anybody individually gets up and suddenly says, “I’ve realized I’m god,” everybody says either you’re blasphemous or crazy. And we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and send you to the lunatic asylum.


But that’s because, you see, in our society we cannot accept someone realizing that he is god because we have a political idea of god: god as the boss-man, based on the Cyruses of Persia and the Pharaohs of Egypt. That’s where the imagery comes from. That’s where even the titles of god come from: king of kings and lord of lords is the [???]. That’s the Cyrus of Persia, borrowed. And if you’re going to look at god in the image of Cyrus of Persia, that’s idolatry. Every time you sing kyrie eleison—it means “Cyrus have mercy on us.” How can you, as members of the republic of the United States, believe that the universe is a monarchy, if you think that a republic is the best form of government? If the universe is a monarchy, then a monarchy is the best form of government.


See, that’s how we’re all mixed up. That’s like, in the problem of getting exemption from the draft because you’re a conscientious objector, or to claim that you smoke marijuana because it’s your religious sacrament. The courts always say, well, do you believe in a supreme being? They want to say to you: is it in your conscience that you are receiving orders from a higher echelon of command than the president of the United States? And therefore, it’s always been terribly difficult for Buddhists and Taoists and people like that to register as conscientious objectors, because they say you don’t believe in a supreme being, you don’t believe in a boss.


But, you see, therefore, the whole idea of the universe as being governed—and when you think of man as made in the image of god in the sense of man being made in the image of the governor, you get fundamentally an aggressive attitude to the world. Because the Cyrus of Persia ruled by force. “You do what I tell you, or else!” Now, maybe I’ll be a beneficent despot and say to you, “Well, I’m going to try and persuade you by sweetly reasonable activity,” or even really by putting myself out in the principle of “this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.” But I’m just going to convey that if you don’t do what I’m persuading you to do, you’re going to fry in hell forever!


So then, if man conceives of himself in the image of this tyrant, he attempts to govern the world by attack. And so we speak of the conquest of nature, the conquest of space. And, of course, naturally, we’re going to conquer cancer and all this kind of thing, see? So out comes a thing like DDT: conquest of pests. And we suddenly find it’s a disaster. And we don’t realize, you see, that we’re on a spaceship already. We don’t need rockets. We’re going zooming through space faster than any rocket could be imagined to go. All you need is sensitivity; it comes to you through radar astronomy. You don’t have to go zooming out with these great phallic symbols, which may be satisfactory to the sexually unsatisfied males who concern themselves with such things. We don’t have to go out with bulldozers and attack nature in ghastly fulfillment of the prophecy that every mountain shall be laid low and every valley exalted and the rough places made plain.


We need to realize, you see, that we, our body, is nature. That everything—the air, the temperature, the grass, the plants—they’re all us! That the grass is just as much you as your own hair. You can’t live without it. Just as you can’t be a solid without a surrounding space. You say the space isn’t there, it’s just nothing. But supposing the space around me disappeared—could you see me? Where would my outline go if there were no background space? How could I move without it? Maybe space is more real than solid. Could be. When scientists start to talk about properties of space, curved space, expanding space, the average layman can’t understand what they’re talking about because he thinks that space is nothing. It’s all been overlooked.


So then, when you concentrate, therefore, on the solid against the space, and want to take all facts, say, as being hard facts—people don’t talk about soft facts—and all this is an attitude of aggression, you see, based on the theory that success is force. And the crisis we are in is the complete blowing up, the complete debunking (or self-contradiction is the best word to use) of the notion that success comes through force. Look at the war in Vietnam: shooting mosquitoes with machine guns, and we think, you know, we’re gonna just kick the shit out of ’em. You know? That sort of attitude; that sort of nasty, over-specialized male attitude, which is exemplified in so much of our population. Come off it! You’re not going to move anything that way. Real power is not force. Real power is falling, is using your weight. “All comes to him who waits.”


Look: when, in judo, you want to move something towards you, you don’t pull like this, you do this. So you use your weight. And if the enemy attacks you and pushes at you, you just drop to the floor and he spins right over your head and lands against the wall. That’s his problem. The Earth is falling around the sun. All energy follows the line of least resistance. Water is the most powerful thing in the world, but it always takes the course of least resistance, using its weight. You can’t cut water. It doesn’t resist you. But you can’t wound it. You know, you can push your finger into it, but the moment you withdraw it, the hole’s gone. And that is, in a way, a feminine property.


So Lao Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher, said: “Thou being a male, retain in yourself always a female element. And so you will become a universal channel.” And that is the problem of this whole paternalistic god-the-father conception of the ground of being: it’s aggressively male. And it needs modification with the symbol of the female. The Earth mother, the lover of the Earth. And women are always fundamentally concerned about whether the vegetables are grown and whether the children are nurtured. Of course, we try to masculinize our women to an enormous extent with a good deal of success, and it’s really tough on us—the lack of real female women to civilize our men. But that’s where we stand, you see, in this whole ecological crisis.


Now, again, I repeat to those of you who are devout Christians or Jews: I’m not trying to knock your religion. I’m merely saying that you’ve got the wrong symbols, and you’ve got a choice of others. Besides the symbol of the kingdom of god, you have the symbol of the body of Christ, which is an organic (as distinct from a political) symbol. You’ve got the idea “I am the vine and you are the branches,” which is a vegetative symbol. Instead of this notion of god who is above, and has a mallet, and goes bang!, like that, and puts order into everything, you see? Chonk! Like a sculptor with a chisel: chong, chong, chong. Think of it the other direction, like a flower, where the energy comes through the stalk, out into the petals and the leaves, see? You have an expansive, non-forcing, but rather growing, organization.


And in those terms we can conceive a kind of stelliform universe, where the center of the whole thing is also the center of each one of us; where we don’t force creative action, but allow it to happen through us. Just as you cannot force yourself to circulate your blood, you cannot force yourself to sleep, you cannot force yourself to breathe, or to digest your food. You have to allow it. And so, in exactly the same way, you have to allow yourself to love—not only other people, but also this whole universe which is your own body. And instead of regarding yourselves as poor, frustrated, angry little outcasts investing a ball of rock that revolves around an unimportant star on the outer fringes of a minor galaxy. This is a big put-down, as if to say: “That’s the way things are, baby, and I’m a real tough guy because I recognize that. You may believe in god and someone up there who cares. Well, that’s for little old ladies and children.” But actually, any place in space can be considered as the middle of all space, because it’s curved like the surface of a sphere. Any point on it is the middle of it. Everybody’s in the middle. The tiniest little amoeba thinks it’s human. So don’t lose center, see? You’re it.


Another way in which we lose center is to explain ourselves away as mere results of a past. That’s on the analogy of billiards, which is Newtonian mechanics: you’re just a billiard ball that’s been hit by a cue called motivation. Why did you do it? Oh, my mother had a complex. It works the other way around. The ball hits the cue. The wake flows from the ship. But if you want to insist that the past controls you, that’s your privilege. But you’re in the middle. And the middle isn’t just ego, it’s the whole energy of the universe—and the most important thing we can do is to realize that. Because if we don’t, we can’t deal with the ecological problem. That’s why the solution is religious. If we try to deal with it in a spirit of panic, we’ll just make a mess of it. Because when the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. And the wrong man is the person, you see, who still confuses himself with his idea of himself.

Alan Watts

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