“Four Changes” by Gary Snyder

Introduction by Diana Hadley, Jack Loeffler, Gary Paul Nabhan and Jack Shoemaker

In July 2016, Jack Loeffler recorded Gary Snyder reading his updated version of ‘Four Changes’ in his home.  This recorded version was prepared for and included in a major exhibition held at the History Museum of New Mexico at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

The exhibition was entitled ‘Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest’, and Snyder’s rendering of ‘Four Changes’  aptly conveyed how deeply the counterculture movement helped nurture the emerging environmental movement. The impact of this manifesto is as powerful today as it was a half century ago and could not be more timely.

Four Changes at Age 50: A Celebration on the Environmental Movement’s First Manifesto of Contemplative Ecology

Introduction by Diana Hadley, Jack Loeffler, Gary Paul Nabhan and Jack Shoemaker

In the months before the first Earth Day in April 1970, mention of a prophetic manifesto seemed to crop up in nearly every serious discussion of what the nascent environmental movement should be and what values it should embody. That manifesto was conceived and shaped in the summer 1969, as poet Gary Snyder toured a number of college campuses around the United States and then entered into deeper discussions with a number of other poets, visionaries and activists in the San Francisco Bay area. Affectionately called “Chofu” by other radical environmentalists during that time, Snyder gradually refined their collective vision into a ten page draft document that became what we now know as Four Changes.

Several features of this manifesto were then, and still are, unique in the canon of writings considered foundational to the environmental movement. Snyder’s literary gifts shine through the manifesto with prescient, poetic and playfully comic qualities to them. The tone seemed as fresh and as “out of the box” as Leaves of Grass must have sounded when Whitman first sowed it onto the American earth a century earlier. The manifesto called for a radical shift in our relationship with the planet through changing the way we perceive population, pollution, consumption, and the transformation of our society and ourselves. In this manner, it foreshadowed later expressions of ecological thought that we now call contemplative ecology and deep ecology

While it was in many ways anchored in Buddhist teachings, it was also precise in its understanding of modern ecological science and respectful of the place-based wisdom of the traditional ecological knowledge of the many indigenous cultures of the world. It did not privilege Western science over other ways of making sense of the environment, but welcomed dialogue and integration of many distinctive expressions. 

Four Changes was also rooted in a mature understanding of the political ecology of power dynamics and disparities in access to resources that were ravaging our planet, its biological and cultural diversity. Parts of it were so pertinent to these issues that it was read into the Congressional Record on April 5th, 1970— two and a half weeks before Earth Day flags were unfurled all around the world. In that sense, it was perhaps the first robust articulation of what we now call a yearning for environmental justice. Still, the tone was hopeful—that humankind could learn to respect, learn from and embrace the other-than-human-world. As Snyder later paraphrased one of the tenets of Four Changes, “Revolutionary consciousness is to be found among the most ruthlessly exploited classes: animals, trees, water, air, grasses.”  It is time to heed the call of the prophetic Four Changes.

Audio Transcript +


Position: Human beings are but a part of the fabric of life — dependent on the whole fabric for their very existence. As the most highly developed tool-using animal, we must recognize that the unknown evolutionary destinies of other life forms are to be respected, and we must act as gentle steward of the Earth’s community of being.

Situation: There are now too many human beings, and the problem is growing rapidly worse. It is potentially disastrous not only for the human race but for most other life forms.

Goal: The goal would be half of the present world population, or less.


Social/Political: First, a massive effort to convince the governments and leaders of the world that the problem is severe. And that all talk about raising food-production — well intentioned as it is — simply puts off the only real solution: reduce population. Demand immediate participation by all countries in programs to legalize abortion, encourage vasectomy, sterilization (provided by free clinics), and try to correct traditional cultural attitudes that tend to force women into childbearing, remove income tax deductions for more than two children above a specified income level, and scale it so that lower-income families are forced to be careful too, or pay families to limit their number; take a vigorous stand against the policy of the right-wing in the Catholic hierarchy and any other institutions that exercise an irresponsible social force in regard to this question; oppose and correct simple-minded boosterism that equates population growth with continuing prosperity; work ceaselessly to have all political questions be seen in the light of this prime problem.

In many cases the governments are the wrong agents to address. Their most likely use of a problem or crisis is another excuse for extending their own powers. Abortion should be legal and voluntary. Great care should be taken that no one is ever tricked or forced into sterilizations. The whole population issue is fraught with contradictions, but the fact stands that by standards of planetary biological welfare, there are already too many human beings. The long-range answer is a steady, lower birthrate, area by area of the globe. The measure of optimum population should be based on what is best for the total ecological health of the region, including its wildlife population.

The Community: Explore other social structures and marriage forms, such as group marriage and polyandrous marriage, which provide family life but many less children. Share the pleasure of raising children widely, so that all need not directly reproduce in order to enter into this basic human experience. We must hope that no one woman would give birth to more than one child or two children, during this period of crisis. Adopt children. Let reverence for life and reverence for the feminine mean also a reverence for other species, and for future human lives, most of which are threatened.

In Our Own Heads: “I am a child of all life, and all living beings are my brothers and sisters, my children and grandchildren. And there is a child within me waiting to be born, the baby of a new and wiser self.” Love, lovemaking, seen as the vehicle of mutual realization for a couple, where the creation of new selves and a new world of being is as important as reproducing our kind.


Position: Pollution is of two types. One sort results from an excess of some fairly ordinary substance—smoke, or solid waste—that cannot be absorbed or transmuted rapidly enough to offset its introduction into the environment, thus causing changes the great cycle is not prepared for. (All organisms have wastes and by-products, and these are indeed part of the total biosphere: energy is passed along the line, refracted in various ways. This is cycling, not pollution.) The other sort is powerful modern chemicals and poisons, products of recent technology that the biosphere is totally unprepared for. Such are DDT and similar chlorinated hydrocarbons—nuclear testing fallout and nuclear waste—poison gas, germ and virus storage and leakage by the military; and chemicals that are put into food, whose long-range effects on human begins have not been properly tested.

Situation: The human race in the last century has allowed its production and scattering of wastes, by-products, and various chemicals to become excessive. Pollution is directly harming life on the planet: which is to say, ruining the environment for humanity itself. We are fouling our air and water, and living in noise and filth that no “animal” would tolerate, while advertising and politicians try to tell us “we’ve never had it so good.” The dependence of modern governments on this kind of untruth leads to shameful mind-pollution through the mass media and much school education.

Goal: Clean air, clean clear-running rivers, the presence of Pelican and Osprey and Gray Whale in our lives; salmon and trout in our streams; unmuddied language and good dreams.


Social/Political: Effective international legislation banning DDT and other poisons — with no fooling around. The collusion of certain scientists with the pesticide industry and agri-business that is trying to block this legislation must be brought out in the open. Strong penalties for water and air pollution by industries — “Pollution is somebody’s profit.” Phase out the internal combustion engine and fossil fuel use in general, do more research into non-polluting energy sources such as solar energy and the tides. No more kidding the public about nuclear waste disposal: it’s impossible to do it safely. So nuclear-power generated electricity cannot be seriously planned for as it stands now.

Stop all germ and chemical warfare research and experimentation; work toward a safe disposal of the present staggering and stupid stockpiles of H-Bombs, cobalt gunk, germ and poison tanks and cans. Provide incentives against the wasteful use of paper, and so on, which adds to the solid waste of cities, develop methods of re-cycling solid urban waste. Recycling should be the basic principle behind all waste-disposal thinking. Thus, all bottles should be re-usable; old cans should make more cans; old newspapers should go back into newsprint again. Establish stronger controls and conduct more research on chemicals in foods. A shift toward a more varied and sensitive type of agriculture (more small scale and subsistence farming) would eliminate much of the call for blanket use of pesticides.

The Community: DDT and such – don’t use them.

Air pollution – use fewer cars. Cars pollute the air, and one or two people riding lonely in a huge car is an insult to intelligence and to the Earth. Share rides, legalize hitchhiking, have hitchhiker waiting stations along the highways. Also — a step toward the new world – walk more; look for the best routes through beautiful countryside for long-distance walking trips: San Francisco to Los Angeles down the Coast Range, for example. Learn how to use your own manure as fertilizer if you’re in the country, as the far East has done for centuries. There is a way, and it’s safe.

Solid waste – boycott bulky wasteful Sunday papers which use up trees. It’s all just advertising anyway, which is artificially inducing more energy consumption. Refuse bags at the store and bring your own. Organize park and street clean-up festivals. Don’t work in any way for or with an industry that pollutes. Don’t be drafted into the military. Don’t waste.

(A monk and an old master were once walking in the mountains. They noticed a little hut upstream. The monk said, “A wise hermit must live there” — the master said, “That’s no wise hermit, you see that lettuce leaf floating down the stream, he’s a Waster.” Just then an old man came running down the hill with his beard flying and caught the floating lettuce leaf.) Carry your own jug to the winery and have it filled from the barrel.

Our Own Heads: Part of the trouble with talking about DDT is that the use of it is not just a practical device, it’s almost an establishment religion. There is something in Western culture that wants to totally wipe out creepy-crawlies, totally, and feels repugnance for toadstools and snakes. This is fear of one’s own deepest inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is, relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams. Again, we all should share our crops with a certain percentage of bug life as “paying our dues.” Thoreau says, “How then can the harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first fruits but his last fruits also.”

In the realm of thought, inner experience, consciousness, as in the outward realm of interconnection, there is a difference between balanced cycle, and the excess that cannot be handled. When the balance is right, the mind recycles from highest illuminations to the muddied blinding anger or grabiness that sometimes seizes us all. That is the alchemical “transmutation.”


Position: Everybody that lives eats food and is food in turn. This complicated animal, the human being, rests on a vast and delicate pyramid of energy transformation. To grossly use more than you need to destroy is biologically unsound. Much of the production and consumption of modern society is not necessary or conducive to spiritual and cultural growth, let alone survival; and is behind much greed and envy, age-old causes of social and international discord.

Situation: Humanity’s careless use of “resources” and its total dependence on certain substances such as fossil fuels (which are being exhausted, slowly but certainly) are having harmful effects on all the other members of the life-network. The complexity of modern technology renders whole populations vulnerable to the deadly consequences of the loss of any one key resource. Instead of independence we have over-dependence on life- giving substances such as water, which we squander. Many species of animals and birds have become extinct in the service of fashion fads — or fertilizer — or industrial oil. The soil is being used up; in fact, mankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children — all the while in a kind of Addict’s Dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress — using the great achievements of science to produce software and swill.

Goal: Balance, harmony, humility, growth that is a mutual growth with Redwood and Quail — to be a good member of the great community of living creatures. True affluence is not needing anything.


Social/Political: It must be demonstrated ceaselessly that a continually “growing economy” is no longer healthy, but a cancer. And that the criminal waste which is allowed in the name of competition — especially that ultimate in wasteful needless competition, hot wars and cold wars with “communism” (or “capitalism”) — must be halted totally with ferocious energy and decision. Economics must be seen as a small sub-branch of Ecology, and production/distribution/consumption handled by companies or unions or cooperatives with the same elegance and spareness one sees in nature. Soil banks; open space; logging to be truly based on sustained yield (the US Forest Service is sadly now the lackey of business). Protection for all predators and varmints. “Support your right to arm bears.” Damn the International Whaling Commission which is selling out the last of our precious, wise whales! Ban absolutely all further development of roads and concessions in National Parks and Wilderness Areas; build auto campgrounds in the least desirable areas. Initiate consumer boycotts of dishonest and unnecessary products. Establish Co-ops. Politically, blast both “Communist” and “Capitalist” myths of progress, and all crude notions of conquering or controlling nature.

The Community: Sharing and creating. The inherent aptness of communal life — where large tools are owned jointly and used efficiently. The power of renunciation: If enough Americans refused to buy a new car for one given year it would permanently alter the American economy. Recycling clothes and equipment. Support handicrafts — gardening, home skills, midwifery, herbs — all the things that can make us independent, beautiful and whole. Learn to break the habit of acquiring unnecessary possessions, a monkey on everybody’s back — but avoid a self-abnegating anti-joyous self-righteousness. Simplicity is light, carefree, neat, and loving — not a self-punishing ascetic trip.

(The great Chinese poet Tu Fu said, “The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple.”) Don’t shoot a deer if you don’t know how to use all the meat and preserve that which you can’t eat, to tan the hide and use the leather — to use it all, with gratitude, right down to the sinew and hooves. Simplicity and mindfulness in diet are the starting point for many people.

Our Own Heads: It is hard to even begin to gauge how such a complication of possessions, the notions of “my and mine,” stand between us and a true, clear, liberated way of seeing the world. To live lightly on the Earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple, concrete acts. The inner principle is the insight that we are interdependent energy-fields of great potential wisdom and compassion expressed in each person as a superb mind, a handsome and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language. To these potentials and capacities, “owning things” can add nothing of authenticity. “Clad in the sky, with the Earth for a pillow.”


Position: Everyone is the result of four forces — the conditions of this known-universe (matter/energy forms, and ceaseless change); the biology of his or her species; individual genetic heritage; and the culture one is born into. Within this web of forces there are certain spaces and loops that allow to some persons the experience of inner freedom and illumination. The gradual exploration of some of these spaces constitutes “evolution” and, for human cultures, what “history” could increasingly be. We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our “selves” but to change our culture. If humans are to remain on Earth they must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive, harmony-oriented, wild-minded scientific/spiritual culture. “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.”

Situation: civilization, which has made us so successful a species, has overshot itself and now threatens us with its inertia. There is also some evidence that civilized life isn’t good for the human gene pool. To achieve the changes, we must change the very foundations of our society and our minds.

Goal: nothing short of total transformation will do much good. What we envision is a planet on which the human population lives harmoniously and dynamically by employing various sophisticated and unobtrusive technologies in a world environment that is ‘”left natural.” Specific points in this vision:

  • A healthy and spare population of all races, much less in number than today.
  • Cultural and individual pluralism, unified by a type of world tribal council. Division by natural and cultural boundaries rather than arbitrary political boundaries.
  • A technology of communication, education, and quiet transportation, land-use being sensitive to the properties of each region. Allowing, thus, the Bison to return to much of the high plains. Careful but intensive agriculture in the great alluvial valleys; deserts left wild for those who would live there by skill. Computer technicians who run the plant part of the year and walk along with the Elk in their migrations during the rest.
  • A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world.
  • Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family — responsible, but more festive and relaxed is implicit.


Social/Political: It seems evident that there are throughout the world certain social and religious forces that have worked through history toward an ecologically and culturally enlightened state of affairs. Let these be encouraged: Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shaman, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, Alchemists . . . the list is long. Primitive cultures, communal and ashram movements, cooperative ventures.

Since it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this change a continuing “revolution of consciousness” which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the side of the transforming energy. We must take over “science and technology” and release its real possibilities and powers in the service of this planet — which, after all, produced us and it. More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground.

Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there. The tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters, local politics, even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory. Learn about it and start acting point by point. On all levels, from national to local, the need to move toward steady state economy, equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner growth stressed must be taught – maturity, diversity, climax, creativity.

The Community: New schools, new classes, walking in the woods and cleaning up the streets. Find psychological techniques for creating an awareness of “self” that includes the social and natural environment. “Consideration of what specific language forms — symbolic systems — and social institutions constitute obstacles to ecological awareness.” Without falling into facile interpretations of McLuhan, we can hope to use the media. Let no one be ignorant of the facts of biology and related disciplines; bring up our children as part of the wildlife. Some communities can establish themselves in backwater rural areas and flourish — others maintain themselves in urban centers, and the two types work together — a two-way flow of experience, people, money, and home-grown vegetables. Ultimately cities may exist only as joyous tribal gatherings and fairs, to dissolve after a few weeks. Investigating new lifestyles is our work, as is the exploration of ways to explore our inner realms — with the known dangers of crashing that go with such. Master the archaic and the primitive as models of basic nature-related cultures — as well as the most imaginative extensions of science — and build a community where these two vectors cross.

Our Own Heads: are where it starts. Knowing that we are the first human beings in history to have so much of our past cultures and previous experiences available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity – the first members of a civilized society since the early Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our selfhood there, our family there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are — which gives us a fair chance to penetrate some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of “human survival” or “survival of the biosphere” and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process that is beyond qualities and beyond birth and death. “No need to survive! In the fires that destroy the universe at the end of the kalpa, what survives?” — “The iron tree blooms in the void.” Knowing that nothing need be done is the place from which we begin to move.

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