The Dao of Civilization

The Dao of Civilization

A Letter to China

By Freya Mathews

Anthem Impact

The book sets out a prospectus for a new form of civilization patterned at every level to serve and sustain the biosphere. It calls on China to lead the world towards this new era by re-crafting its own civilization in accordance with its indigenous tap-root: Dao.

Paperback, 108 Pages


February 2023

£20.99, $24.95

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About This Book

An escalating ecological catastrophe is befalling the biosphere in the twenty-first century.The philosophical roots of this catastrophe lie in the deep structural dualism that has characterized the Western tradition. Dualism conceptually divides mind from matter, culture from nature and the human from the animal, thereby giving rise to an exclusively instrumentalist attitude to the natural environment. Science as the engine of modernity is now the chief global vector of dualism and by its means the instrumentalist attitude has spread around the world.

According to the author, this foundational flaw in Western thinking may be traced ultimately to the Greek discovery of philosophia; that is to say, it may be traced to philosophy itself and to the theoretic orientation to which philosophy led. Any escape from dualism thus requires training in an altogether alternative mode of cognition, a strategic and synergistic mode cultivated not via abstract theorizing but by visceral, sensory, agentically engaged practices of responsive attunement to one’s immediate environment. Such practices were the province of pre-agrarian societies that relied on foraging, and hence on intimate attunement to local ecologies, for their livelihood. Vestiges of this earlier pattern of practice were also preserved in the indigenous Chinese tradition of Daoism via a repertory of psychophysical exercises designed to induce attuned responsiveness to environmental cues.

First-hand opportunities for responsive engagement with local ecologies must rather be routinely available to people today just as they were to earlier peoples. Societies must reconfigure economic praxis so that human agency, in its most routine daily forms of expression, interacts synergistically with the biosphere rather than imposing its own abstractly preconceived designs upon it. This is required not only because such reconfigured praxis will serve and sustain life on earth at a biological level but also because it is what is needed to induct people themselves into ecological awareness. The book includes instances of such alternative, synergistic modes of praxis – in agriculture, manufacture and architecture.

As an emerging super-power whose thought-roots are in strategic as opposed to theoretic modes of cognition, China is in a position to assume world leadership in this connection. The author appeals directly to China to reclaim its Daoist heritage, apply this heritage to the problem of praxis today, and thereby light the way towards forms of civilization more appropriate to our times.


‘For many of us working in the field of regenerative practice, Freya Mathews is the most important environmental philosopher writing today. In this book she sets out profound insights that challenge existing praxis as well as describing the new ways of thinking that will be necessary to shape an ecological civilization. It is hard to conceive of a more urgent task for humanity, and this book is sure to be one of the most illuminating for those that want to lead on that journey’ — Michael Pawlyn, co-author of Flourish: Design Paradigms for our Planetary Emergency and author of Biomimicry in Architecture.

‘Freya Mathews has given us The Dao of Civilization, an intellectually stunning work that opens new ways of coping with the existential crises of climate change by uncovering the ancient and untapped earth-based philosophies of ancient Chinese Daoism and Australian Aboriginal thought. Mathews persuades us, in her highly accessible and engaging style, that we are anything but helpless in our confrontation with a dramatically changing environment. This is a trailblazing work that will upend the way we think about the world and our place in it’ Thomas Michael, School of Philosophy, Beijing Normal University; author of In the Shadows of the Dao: Laozi, the Sage, and the Daodejing.

In this brief but richly multilayered volume, one of the deepest ecophilosophers of our age, Freya Mathews, integrates different strands of her work into a cogent whole. Mathews shows how mutually beneficial symbiosis, a fundamental principle of life’s great abundance, might also form the foundation of a different kind of civilisation—an ecological civilisation—that could enable humans to flourish synergistically with all life. Tying these insights into the core principles of Daoist philosophy, Mathews offers a tantalizing hint of how China could conceivably shed its allegiance to the extractivism of global capitalism and instead lead the world on a path to a life- affirming future Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: a Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning and The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom.

Freya Mathews addresses huge themes with intellectual boldness and writes with enviable clarity and lucidity. The Dao of Civilization articulates a philosophy and practice for a human civilization in harmony with the planet. Essential reading for anyone concerned with environmental philosophy and the human place on Earth— Peter Reason, Professor Emeritus of Action Research at Bath Spa University, UK.

In this wonderfully written and deeply insightful book, ecophilosopher Freya Mathews shows us how profoundly feelingful relationships with land in a range of ancient and modern traditions – especially Law in Australian aboriginal culture, the Dao from ancient China and the more recent biosynergy approach, can help us navigate towards a world in which we humans can at last find our rightful and fruitful place within the living fabric of our animate earth.  After reading this book,  Freya’s latest masterwork, I found myself praying that citizens and leaders of all stripes and colours all over the world will take its message deeply to heart, for nothing less gives us a chance of avoiding the worst of the ecological and climate mayhem which are the products of our modern nature destroying ways of living —Dr Stephan Harding, Deep Ecology Research Fellow, Schumacher College, Dartington UK; author of Animate Earth.

Author Information

Freya Mathews is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Philosophy at Latrobe University in Australia.


Anthem Impact

Table of Contents

Part I A Philosopher’s Letter to President Xi Jinping: on the Meaning of Greatness; Part II By the Law of the Living Cosmos: Shanghai Lectures on Ecological Civilization; Introduction; Lecture 1; Lecture 2; Lecture 3; Lecture 4 Epilogue; Acknowledgements; General Bibliography; Index


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