John Muir: Taoist and Founder of the Modern Environmental Movement

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." - John Muir

As an environmentalist of sorts, I understand the connectedness of all living things, and the importance to humanity of our sustaining ecosystems. It was thus refreshing to read the book:

Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet
by Raymond Barnett (2016)
270 pages, ISBN-10: 1532762372, ISBN-13: 978-1532762376.

The book consists of four sections. I found the first section the most illuminating, as it presented John Muir's life story and the environmental ethic he came to live by. While he did well in business, his first calling was to immerse himself in nature, writing, "I could have been a millionaire, but choose instead to be a tramp."

The book is well-written, and not only interesting, but indeed inspiring. The life of John Muir (1838 - 1914) was truly remarkable, which the author recounts admirably.

Muir was born in Scotland. He was educated at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, after a job-related eye injury, he committed to be true to himself and follow his aspiration to explore and study plants, writing, "This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons." Upon regaining his sight, he undertook a transformative trip, walking 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida.

Muir settled in San Francisco, and spent considerable time exploring Yosemite, developing the theory that the valley was carved by glaciers. He also made several trips to explore Alaska.

Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892 as an organization for alpine mountain lovers. It was successful in the campaign to transfer Yosemite National Park to federal control. Sadly, the Sierra Club has since descended into corporatism, accepting a $100 million donation contingent upon abandoning its comprehensive population-environment platform. Authors Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhauss conclude in The Death of Environmentalism that:

"Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed 'thing' - 'the environment' - than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.' Something more - something more fundamental - is required. Environmentalists are in a culture war whether we like it or not. It's a war over our core values as Americans and over our vision for the future, and it won't be won by appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest."


The second part of the book describes how Muir's environmental ethic parallels Chinese Taoism, describing Muir as an "accidental Taoist." Muir vehemently disagreed with the doctrine of anthropocentrism - the belief that the natural world was created solely to serve mankind, writing:

"I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears."

Muir's ethic, while developed independently, was similar to Taoism. Barnett writes:

"The second pillar of the immanent view of Earth Wisdom and Taoism recognizes that in this world, humans are intimately related to every other living creature, and join other creatures in fully participating in the grand cycles of earthly existence. This second pillar may be described as a kinship view of human life: we are kin to all other life forms, and they to us. The corollary to kinship, of course, is that humans are nothing extraordinary."

Barnett continues:

"One of the great insights of Chinese civilization is the recognition of an over-arching pattern to natural phenomena, a pattern resulting from inherent properties of matter and energy. The Chinese call the pattern-generating force the Tao (or Dao). And qi (formerly ch'i) denotes the energy that flows along the pathways set by the Tao, with yin and yang being the two general aspects of this energy flow... When it comes to mountains, Muir is at one with the Taoist tradition of China."

Thus it is consistent with Taoism that Muir wrote:

"Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love." - John Muir, Unpublished Journals, 1872.

Barnett writes:

"Muir's 19th century articulation of Earth Wisdom, the three-pillared immanent worldview in the West - earth is our home, we are kin to the rest of creation, and reality is generated by complementary interactions of dualistic phenomena - constitutes his first legacy to the Western world."

"It was Muir's formulation and elegiac description of the importance of great interlocking cycles in the natural world, to my mind, that must stand as his greatest scientific achievement... So he possessed the talent to view a landscape and see in his mind’s eye the past flows of rivers and glaciers which had sculpted the land, laid down its topography, gouged out the basins of lakes, ground up bedrock and deposited it here and there as soils giving rise to meadows and forests, as well as the insects, birds, and mammals adapted to live there. [This] marks him as perhaps the first systems ecologist. And finally, he insisted that all immanent phenomena have spiritual dimension to them. Some accomplishments - for a tramp!"

Barnett's book is a tour de force. Each of its four sections stand on their own. The third part of the book focuses on a history of the environmental movement. The fourth section focuses on Barnett's blueprint for human survival. I take issue with this section because it is heavily based on the premise that climate change is anthropogenic - that is, solely caused by human activity and therefore urgently necessitates human solutions. In reality, climate change is being used to a large extent as an instrument of political and societal control. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book as engrossing and enlightening reading.

Barnett concludes that:

"The root of the current existential crisis facing humanity is the old worldview that humans are the center of the universe, created uniquely in the image of a supernatural creator of the world, and enjoined by that creator to have dominion over the earth. This worldview engenders and supports the capitalistic economic system exploiting the resources of the natural world, emphasizing profits and growth as fundamental goals overriding all other concerns.

This archaic, mistaken anthropocentric stance must be replaced with an immanent, Gaiacentric one, if human civilization is to survive on the planet."


John Muir:

Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet by Raymond Barnett, An Extended Book Review by Harold Wood (2018, updated March, 2023).

Book: John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, by Linnie Marsh Wolfe (1938, reprinted 1979).

Biography: John Muir: Rediscovering America, by Frederick Turner, 2020.


The Sierra Club's descent into corporatism:


How Deeply Did Wall Street Investor David Gelbaum Damage the Sierra Club? by Brenda Walker, The Social Contract, Summer 2014.

How the Environmental Movement Became a Casualty of Political Correctness and the Leftist Agenda, by Brenda Walker, The Social Contract, Fall 2012. "In short, the Sierra Club has shelved its mission of being a non-partisan protector of the earth to become a left-wing diversity organization with hiking boots."

The Sierra Club's Profitable Descent into Leftism, by Brenda Walker, The Social Contract, Spring 2011.


Countering the climate change narrative:

1,100 Scientists and Professionals Declare: ‘There Is No Climate Emergency’

The End of the Climate Change Legend

Is There Really a Climate Emergency?

Supporter of green energy nails the climate scam

Derailing the Green New Deal

Study accidentally proves man-caused global warming not provable