His work has focused on interlocking themes as population and the environment, ecological aesthetics, international conservation and the sanctuary movement. One of his foremost themes is what he has termed "the anthropology of conscience", emphasizing humanity’s capacity for non-violence, compassion, and tolerance. This has resulted in what they have generally described as "the sanctuary movement" Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, then Queen of Bhutan, described their efforts as being “invaluable for policymakers and scientists...(and) inspiration for the next generation of young ecologists wanting to make a difference in the world.”
Tobias has been an advocate for animal rights and in the mid-1990s was a recipient of the Courage of Conscience Prize. In 2004 Tobias was honored with the Parabola Focus Award for his body of work in defense of the Earth.Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, described Tobias as "one of the world’s great souls." Examples of his interdisciplinary approach include collections of essays such as A Parliament of Minds: Philosophy for a New Millennium and A Parliament of Science: Science for the Twenty-First Century in which he invited philosophers, scientists, and ethicists from around the world to contribute. For his enormous contribution to peace, nonviolence and cruelty-free living, he was presented with the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in 1997.
Tobias received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1977 in the History of Consciousness. His particular interests converged around a broad approach to ecological science and humanities: the impact on diverse human cultures of the idea of nature, a theme throughout much of gis approach to what he examined with respect to tribal cultures, and the ecological drivers throughout all civilizations and cultures.His early mentors, Helen Kazantzakis (widow of Nikos Kazantzakis) and Kazantzakis’ translator, the poet/essayist Kimon Friar, were very close to Tobias, who eventually directed one of his first films on the legacy of Kazantzakis. The Dutch painter Vermeer’s work inspired Tobias to write his biographical novel of the painter and his family, Jan & Catharina. Japanese aesthetics held an allure for him, who later wrote and filmed in that country. He was also interested in India; During his final year as an undergraduate, he moved to Kashmir, wrote several books, and made several first ascents in the Kashmiri Himalaya.
The Himalayas, and mountains in general, are an important influence on his work. He was the first review editor for the journal Mountain Research & Development, and some of his early climbing fiction and non-fiction appeared in such journals as Climbing, The Mountain Gazette, and Mountain Magazine, most notably an early essay entitled “The Anthropology of Ascent.” He made hundreds of mountaineering ascents, including many first ascents. Among his climbs was the first known ascent (solo) of the sheer wall on Mount Sinai. In 1973 he lived in a cave above the Monastery of Mount Saint Catherine’s, while attending the University of Tel Aviv and writing one of his earliest books, Dhaulagirideon, the subject of an essay in Mountain Magazine entitled, “Pondering the Imponderable.” In 1984, he wrote, produced and directed a mountaineering film, Cloudwalker for the UK's Channel 4, which many[who?] described as one of the most dangerous movies ever made at the time. It chronicled a failed attempt at a first ascent on a 7,000 foot wall of ice on the Moose’s Tooth, in the Ruth Gorge Amphitheatre of Alaska’s McKinley range. Much of this early mountaineering appeared in many of his books, including the early metaphysical epic, Tsa, and a novel set in Ladakh (where he had spent nearly a year in total while working on his Ph.D.) titled Deva, with a Preface by Kimon Friar. Subsequently, Tobias edited an anthology, The Mountain Spirit, as well as the anthologized work, Mountain People.
Population and environment - World War III
Tobias has tackled the many complex issues concerning human population pressure on the environment. His book World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium received widespread praise. Psychology Today wrote that it "reads like a volcano erupting...Tobias throws sparks like an evangelist and has the old-fashioned, wide-ranging erudition of a Renaissance scholar.” Scientist Marc Lappé described World War III as “a lengthy and complex treatise that is a distillation of a lifetime of thought and action concerning the human condition.... It provides a thread of hope, offering a new vision about how humankind may ultimately come to peace with nature.” Writing also of Tobias’s' World War III in 1998, Jane Goodall said, “Tobias describes for us a path that we could take – a path mapped out by a combination of scientific, logical, intuitive, and spiritual reasoning – towards a future where all is not, after all, lost.” In 1994, during the UN population conference, the Montreal Gazette quoted Tobias “For purposes of absolute clarity I call it World War III,” or, as the Gazette extrapolated from Tobias’s perspective, “the most terrifying problem humanity has ever faced." In her Foreword to World War III, Jane Goodall said of Tobias that he has provided “ample scientific proof of the large-scale habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity that has and continues to take place. ”
In China, Tobias tracked down the “father” of the one-child revolution –a legendary mystery figure, Dr. Qian Xinzhong and met with him in Beijing). In his later PBS adaptation of his book, he interviewed Madame Peng Peiyun, the head of China’s State Family Planning Commission; she admitted that China could possibly hit 2 billion: a number that smashed the conventional demographic projections for China by a whopping 25%. Not surprisingly, many were alarmed by the scope and devastation portrayed in World War III. Kirkus Reviews wrote that Tobias had employed “a governing metaphor a bit less subtle than a strip mine” but acknowledges that “Tobias is both knowledgeable and passionate in his attempt to reconcile scientific rationality with a religious reverence for the planet.” Tobias’s contribution to understanding this issue was in his systematic correlations of myriad hits to biological populations throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Pacific Rim, as well as in the G7 nations, resulting from expanding human numbers, a relationship that has recently seen a wave of renewed scientific interest, particularly in calculating the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
The documentary, No Vacancy, based on Tobias’s book of that title, again addresses the issue of population and the environment. Journalist Ellen Snortland writing in the Pasadena Weekly, stated that, “‘No Vacancy’, written and directed by Michael Tobias, is to the world’s population explosion what Al Gore’s `'An Inconvenient Truth'’ is to global warming.”
The anthropology of conscience - the Jains, Bishnoi and Todas
n researching indigenous spiritual and ethical traditions, he thinks that humanity has what it takes to get it right, with respect to an environmentally sustainable future. In Mother Earth News, Tobias has been described as one who has “reinvigorated (Thomas) Malthus’s theories” of exponential population growth. Tobias has also argued, with a range of examples and research, that human beings are constantly revealing windows on the “soul of nature.” In writing about the example of the nearly twenty-million Jains, Tobias has said that “what we do with the all-encompassing belief in nonviolence is a personal affair...Each of us must rise to the challenge; must transform every juncture of every day into the possibility of a poetic gesture of forgiveness, right intentions, love and compassion. The opportunities, of course, are endless.” In analyzing Jain compassion, lifestyle, and nonviolent approaches to the world, Tobias has championed Jain ecological connections. His work which most embodies this is Life Force: The World of Jainism, which has been called “the best book on Jainism.”
His PBS film Ahimsa –Nonviolence premiered nationwide in the United States on Christmas Day in 1987 and was described by Southeast Asian Religions Professor Chris Chapple as a film “which elegantly portrays several Jain leaders and extols the religion as the great champion of animal rights and nonviolent living.” The film, which took three years of preparations and was filmed in nearly 100 locations across India, was one of the first to explore in depth the Jain religion, as well as portraying the life of Digambara, Shwetambara and Sthanakavasi mendicants. In an essay on Jain conscience in 1997, Tobias described “the goal of absolute nonviolence” as an ideal that activists worldwide must take seriously, “every waking moment." Elsewhere, he has argued that evolution does not condemn us; only our choices can do that, adding, “We have the capacity throughout our lives to give unstinting, unconditional love.”
In examining the Bishnoi, he focused on universal principles of conservation based on long-term ethical convictions. In this case, the Bishnoi of Rajasthan who, during a sustained drought in Western India and Pakistan in 1988, were shown to have saved themselves and their communities and ecosystems through prudent and non-violence ecological behavior, a metaphor, for progressive conservation that could be applied throughout Asia, Africa and elsewhere. He pointed out that the entire society of the Todas of the Nilgiris converted to vegetarianism 1000 years ago. This transformation of an entire community on ethical grounds is one of the “windows” he cites as key to understanding the potential for the human species to engage in non-violence. In his introduction to the book One Earth he wrote, “The human race is rallying. The earth desperately needs the personal help and restraint of each of us.”
 The sanctuary movement and international conservation efforts.
n some of his earliest work, Tobias focused extensively on the concept of “sanctuary” as an ecological and modern-day ethical incarnation of early spiritual and legal traditions in many countries, particularly canon law, wherein, for a thousand years those who entered churches could obtain legal sanctuary.
In a cover story for the New York Academy of Sciences publication The Sciences, and in three films, he called for an Antarctic World Park, in the spirit of similar proposals from Greenpeace and New Zealand. He drew attention to the despoliation occurring in what was considered the last great hope for large-scale haitat preservation. His film, Antarctica: The Last Continent (PBS, 1987) encouraged the National Science Foundation to implement best environmental practices at some of its managed bases in Antarctica, including McMurdo, which NSF subsequently did. In his Discovery Channel documentary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, Black Tide, he considered the dilemma of safely using oil resources.
The combined impacts of demographic pressure with energy intensity and consumerism have been themes in his work. The Sky’s On Fire, a movie-of-the-week for ABC based upon his novel Fatal Exposure, examined the effect of ozone depletion on biodiversity. The View From Malabar and Element One were early documentaries for public broadcasting examining green space issues, and prospects for an hydrogen fuel cell economy. America’s Great Parks, a documentary for Discovery Channel, examined the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.
He has endeavored to explore the concept of sanctuary in his, and co-author Jane Gray Morrison’s work, Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence. They track efforts by conservationists and animal rights activists to save habitat and individuals. They focussed on Alaska (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife researchers working to save a rare seabird, Kittlitz’s Murrelet), the San Francisco Bay Area (Muir Woods and the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge), Central Park, Gene Baur and team’s Farm Sanctuary in Upstate New York, the Central Suriname Nature Reserve with Dr. Russell Mittermeier, the Iberian Wolf Sanctuary in Portugal, the work of Brigitte Bardot in France, continuing efforts to save Bialowieza National Park in eastern Poland and western Belarus, a European brown bear sanctuary in the Netherlands, Michael Aufhauser’s Gut Aiderbichl sanctuary in Salzburg, Austria, Howard Buffett’s cheetah sanctuary (Jubatus) in South Africa, Marieta Van Der Merhe’s Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia, and other sanctuaries on Socotra in Yemen, in the United Arab Emirates at Al Maha, at the Al Areen Sanctuary in Bahrain, in the vegetarian Rajasthani city of Pushkar, and the Nilgiris of India (working with the Todas and Dr. Tarun Chhabra), in Indonesian Borneo with Dr. Birute Galdikas at Tanjung Puting National Park, in Brunei’s Ulu Temburong National Park, at a butterfly sanctuary in Malaysia, at nature reserves throughout Singapore, in Thailand, and the many moss temples of Kyoto’s Greenbelt, Japan, and in eastern-most Bhutan’s newest wildlife sanctuary of Sakteng, where he participated in a recent biodiversity survey across 125 kilometers of little-known Eastern Himalayan high-altitude terrain, under the auspices of Bhutan’s National Biodiversity Centre.
He has been involved wildlife preservation efforts. In New Zealand; for nearly a decade he has overseen ecological restoration of an peninsula in the far South of the country, adjoining Rakiura National Park, He is President of the California animal sanctuary Dancing Star Foundation.
In his most recent documentary, Hotspots (2008) Tobias and Morrison joined forces with President of Conservation International, Dr. Russell Mittermeier, to make a film, based upon the book Hotspots Revisited, which focuses upon biodiversity conservation efforts on Easter Island (Rapa Nui, Chile), throughout Madagascar, in the Atlantic Forests of Brazil, in the Tropical Andes, Southern California, and New Zealand.
Reconciling animal rights and conservation biology
n their book Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, Tobias and Morrison examined donkeys through an interdisciplinary ecological approach.
In his book, Environmental Meditation, he addresses the eco-psychological underpinnings of animal rights, eco-aesthetics, ecological history, and spirituality – from Chartres, to Viennese ducks, the search for paradise and “the mind in an age of ecological stress.”
The reconciliation of conservation biology with animal rights has been a theme in his recent work. In his lead essay for the catalogue of a museum exhibition on Endangered Species: Flora & Fauna in Peril, he writes, “The numbers (referring to U.S. Fish & Wildlife listings of Threatened and Endangered species) represent far more than cold calculus. Each species has an amazing, mysterious face, an incalculable biography, and a primeval context that is local, regional, and global... Given the extremes of the human animal, whose footprints are inordinately represented across the landscape, we must confront that all too familiar spectacle of ourselves: ungainly beasts in an innocent garden, with capacities that both recommend and condemn us in the context of biological history.”
He has furthered his enquiries into this dialectic that perceives human nature with both optimism and sincere misgivings, in such works as Nature’s Keepers: On The Front Lines of the Fight to Save Wildlife in America, Voices From The Underground: For the Love of Animals, and the 1836-page illustrated novel The Adventures of Mr. Marigold. Chateau Beyond Time' got a Publishers Weekly Starred Review as a “...a well-written and sophisticated thriller,”