David Suzuki, rediscovering our place in nature

Very few western scientists take the elements – earth, fire, water, air and space/spirit – seriously. David Suzuki is an exception.

In 1997 David Suzuki published, with Amanda McConnell, ‘The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature’. The four elements of air, water, earth and fire are a fundamental part of the story these authors tell. The book makes compelling reading. In the acknowledgements David Suzuki thanks Amanda McConnell for adding lyrical poetry to the book and writing the chapter on spiritual needs. Most reviewers refer to the book as being authored by Suzuki, as initially I did when this post was first written in 2014. To acknowledge the contribution both Suzuki and McConnell made to the book I now refer to them as co-authors.

The Sacred Balance 1997

The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature (1997) presents a broad range of scientific findings, in easily accessible language, using the elements as a framework. There are around 18  black and white illustrations to accompany the text. Luminaries in the conservation biology world such as E.O. Wilson and Paul R. Ehrlich praised the book for the different world view it presented for the human species as the new millennium was approaching.

Suzuki and McConnell begin ‘The Sacred Balance‘ by describing the inescapably biological nature of humans, something that many in the west appear to have forgotten. The authors proceed to discuss the physical needs of humans as biological beings. Chapters two through five are associated with individual elements, which I have added in brackets after the chapter heading. Each contribution provides examples of the essential nature of these elements to human existence and evolution.

  • The Breath of All Green Things (AIR)
  • The Oceans Flowing through Our Veins (WATER)
  • Made from Soil (EARTH)
  • The Divine Fire (FIRE)

In the introduction to the next chapter, ‘Protected by Our Kin’, Suzuki and McConnell write:

Early thinkers recognized the four elements necessary for life – air, water, earth and fire. But they did not know that the collective effect of living things themselves had played a vital hand in shaping those elements. Life is not a passive recipient of these elemental gifts but an active participant in creating and replenishing them.”

They continue by describing the diversity of life and the connections between all living things. This is an essential part of the elemental story.

The diversity of life - an essential part of the elemental story.

Spending time in the natural world helps us appreciate how diverse and connected life is. I have a great debt of gratitude to my University lecturer Dr David Ashton who opened my eyes to the beauty and complexity of nature. It helps me appreciate, and treat with awe, the sometimes subtle yet important interactions that occur in ecsystems like this dry eucalypt forest in Tasmania. In this instance the view is uplifting as well. 🙂

Suzuki and McConnell liberally use quotes and other authors writings to illustrate points throughout the book. This works very well. In the chapter ‘Protected by Our Kin‘, they include ‘The Canticle of Brother Sun’ by Saint Francis of Assisi. This song (which also refers to the elements of fire, earth, water and wind) is used to illustrate the need to see ourselves in a different relationship with the rest of nature. Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals and since 1979 of ecology. For those who would like to read his famous song, it is reproduced in my blog ‘Praying with the elements‘. The current Pope chose Francis as his papal name in honour of the Saint. This has refocused attention on the teachings of the 13th century mystic.

The seventh and eighth chapters of The Sacred Balance address topics that are outside the realm of most western scientists – love and spirituality. Humans are social beings and do not live by bread alone. Suzuki and McConnell write that love makes us human and must be a fundamental component of a sustainable future.

Walking along the beach

Spiritual connections help humans understand where we belong. The beach in this image is the famous Wine Glass Bay, viewed between the trees on Mt Graham in the previous photo. Indigenous Tasmanians call the Peninsula where the beach is found ‘The land of the Sleeping Gods.’ It is a deeply spiritual place.

The chapter ‘Sacred Matter’ reinforces the sentiment that meeting basic, inalienable physical needs – such as air to breath, water to drink, food to eat and energy for cooking/warmth – is just the beginning of human well-being. In this chapter Suzuki and McConnell conclude that we need spiritual connections (SPIRIT or ether – the fifth element in some philosophies) and to understand where we belong. They draw on creation and other stories from around the world to emphasise his point.

A New Millennium’, the final chapter in the book, describes a number of initiatives that were underway in the early to mid-1990s trying to make a positive difference to nature. Since then, this type of initiative has grown many times over. Suzuki and McConnell quote Margret Mead in this chapter. Her words are still as relevant today.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In 1999 David Suzuki and Kathy Vanderlinden published ‘You are the Earth‘, a children’s book based on ‘The Sacred Balance‘. The book was designed to help children understand the relationship between society and the environment, and what they can do to make things better. With beautiful illustrations and activities to undertake I’d recommend it for adults as well.

The promotional material on the back of the book starts by saying ‘If you care about the future, read this book. You are made of water, air and the food you eat from the Earth’s soil…’ Suzuki came to this conclusion after working with Native people around the world. He came to realise that it is a mistake to think of the environment as something “out there”, separate from us. His message is brief and powerful ‘We are the earth.’

A four-part television documentary series called ‘The Sacred Balance’ followed these two books in 2003. Filmed on five continents the series discusses an inclusive vision of nature with scientists, philosophers, priests and shamans. The elements are up front and central in the series. Trailers and excerpts can be viewed here. I purchased the DVD of the series and found them enchanting and thought-provoking.

A second book called ‘The Sacred Balance‘ was published in 2002 in association with the television series. It is jammed pack with beautiful colour photos, mostly taking up whole pages. It is indeed a visual celebration. The book chapter headings explicitly refer to the individual elements of water, air, fire, earth and spirit – in contrast to the 1997 publication. I feel this strengthens the work. To me the 2002 book is very engaging and likely to appeal to a wider audience.

Professor Iain Stewart is another scientist who uses the elements to illustrate the importance of natural forces in our lives. The episodes of the 2010 BBC series ‘How Earth Made Us‘ are based on Water, Deep Earth, Wind and Fire. The fifth and final episode, called the Human Planet, considers our impact on the earth. The series is beautifully and arrestingly filmed and is well worth watching.

Suzuki and his co-authors use an elemental framework to help humans rediscover their place in nature. I wonder if it had the desired influence? Referring to the elements must have had an impact on readers and viewers, just what sort and how much I’m uncertain. Certainly the original book sold well and went into a second edition in 2007. It would be helpful to document how people’s views and behaviour changed after reading the books and/or seeing the documentary series. This information could be used to help design other projects using the elements to frame them.

It would be a highlight to interview David Suzuki on his thoughts and feelings about the influence of his books and TV series. The principles and wisdom that have arisen continue to inform and inspire the David Suzuki Foundation. What about more widely I wonder? These are the sort of questions I would like to explore if the opportunity arose.

Even if these questions are unanswerable, I’m pleased that David Suzuki took the time, with Amanda O’Connell, Kathy Vanderlinden and Maria DeCambra, to write the books and produce the documentary series. They have enriched our understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural world and are still as relevant today.

6 thoughts on “David Suzuki, rediscovering our place in nature

  1. I think I’m going to have to read this book, it really does sound influential. His observation of the need for diversity of life forms and the interconnectedness of all things is an important one. It seems that we as humans have misunderstood this and think that interconnectedness can only occur when we all have the same beliefs. Hopefully we will wake up to the message people like Suzuki are spreading, before it is too late.

    • More and more people are waking up to the message that everything is interconnected and that the resources of the planet are finite. While there is a long way to go, from little things big things can grow. The special thing about this book is that as well as covering the physical needs of humans (which they relate to the elements) the authors explore what else is essential for our well-being. I’ve been to many conferences on environmental management and have heard no western scientist refer to love and spirituality. Books like The Sacred Balance can help change this if it is read with an open mind.

    • There is another version of the book that was published at the same time as the documentary series. It has coloured images, unlike the original version, so you may like to consider that as an alternative.

  2. Hi, I’m working with the 4 elements, attempting to reconstruct the original science from first principles. So far I’ve found it correlates exactly with the human body, society, the planet, the rules of grammar, and more. It fits the Genesis creation account. It’s the origin of the the 7 days of the week, and 12 months too.
    You might be interested. I’m working on a short (free) book to explain it all through, hopefully will be done in the next week or 2:
    veritopian (dot) blogspot (dot) co (dot) uk

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