Very few western scientists take the elements – earth, fire, water, air and space/spirit – seriously. David Suzuki is an exception.
In 1997 David Suzuki wrote a book, with Amanda McConnell, called ‘The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature’. A four-part documentary series called ‘The Sacred Balance’ followed on television in 2003. Filmed on five continents the series discusses an inclusive vision of nature with scientists, philosophers, priests and shamans.
In the first chapter of the book Suzuki describes the inescapably biological nature of humans, something that many in the west appear to have forgotten.
The next five chapters are structured around the physical needs of humans as biological beings. The chapters are based around the elements, as the headings below demonstrate. (I have added the associated element in brackets).
- The Breath of All Green Things (AIR)
- The Oceans Flowing through Our Veins (WATER)
- Made from Soil (EARTH)
- The Divine Fire (FIRE)
Each chapter provides examples of the essential nature of these elements to human existence and evolution.
In the introduction to the fifth chapter, ‘Protected by Our Kin’, Suzuki writes:
“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.”
He goes on to describe the diversity of life and the connections between all living things. This is an essential part of the elemental story.
Like elsewhere in the book, in this chapter Suzuki uses quotes and writing from influential people to illustrate his point. For example, he includes the poem ‘The Canticle of Brother Sun’ by Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis is known as the patron saint of ecology/animals. His famous poem is reproduced in my blog ‘Praying with the elements’ (https://wordpress.com/posts/fireupwaterdown.com?s=praying+with+the+elements). It is important to understand the role the elements have played in Christianity, the most widespread religion in western cultures.
The seventh and eighth chapters of The Sacred Balance address topics that are way outside the realm of western scientists – love and spirituality. Humans are social beings and do not live by bread alone. Suzuki writes that love makes us human and must be a fundamental component of a sustainable future.
In the chapter ‘Sacred Matter’, Suzuki 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 he concludes that we need spiritual connections (SPIRIT or ether – the fifth element in some philosophies) and to understand where we belong. He draws on creation and other stories from around the world to emphasise his point.
The final chapter, titled ‘A New Millennium’ 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 quotes 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.”
Did using an elemental framework help humans rediscover their place in nature, as intended? It must have had an impact, just what sort and how much I’m unsure. It would be interesting to document how people’s views and behavior changed after reading the book and/or seeing the documentary series.
I’d also like to interview David Suzuki about his thoughts on the influence of the book and TV series. The principles and wisdom in the book continue to inform and inspire the David Suzuki Foundation. What about more widely? Certainly the book sold well and went into a second edition in 2007.
Even if these questions are unanswerable, I’m glad that Suzuki took the time, with Amanda O’Connell, to write the book and that this led to the production of the documentary series ‘The Sacred Balance‘. They have both enriched our understanding of the relationship between humans and the elements.