Earth, Water, Wind, & Fire ~ The Missing Thread in the Environmental Movement

I debated a long time whether or not to post a talk I gave recently, at the invitation of the Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. As the content itself is appropriate for the “space between”, I don’t feel as though there is an integrity issue here. The “don’t do it” concerns were: one) it’s long; and two) it approaches the edge of self-serving. So, the invitation (as always) is this: read it if you wish; the choice is yours! I have to begin, though, by describing my outfit. I rarely wear skirts but I did for this occasion. On top I was wearing a longish jacket which covered completely a black and white striped referee shirt. The explanation unfolds below. Picture this: as I begin to talk, I am unbuttoning my jacket to expose the referee shirt underneath.

I suppose that the phrase “having the courage of one’s convictions” has as many varied expressions as there are people having . . . courage. For me, it’s about making myself vulnerable in ways that are uncomfortable, for the sake of something far greater than myself. It’s about showing up. Bill McKibben, founder of the non-profit spoke in Exeter NH a few nights ago, and shared his discomfort with his abrupt ascent into the media spotlight. “This is not my calling,” he said. “I’m a writer, and I would much rather be sitting in my Vermont house in front of my computer than getting arrested in front of the White House, or wearing a referee’s shirt to blow the whistle on the numbers of elected officials receiving money from the coal and oil lobby and then passing legislation on their behalf. But here I am. Feeling foolish, uncomfortable in my own skin.”

I can relate. I’m a writer, too, and I could speak the exact words as Bill McKibben. But I’ve got my own words to share, and I’ll do it wearing this referee’s shirt as a symbol of the struggle to turn around the trouble we’re in. For McKibben it’s the science of climate change. For me, it’s the reclaiming of the spiritual thread of the ecology movement in general.

You know how in a theater Playbill, the first few pages introduce the actors? I need to do that with you, introduce a few – without having your eyes glaze over . . .

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried up at once; a shower is always falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

These are the words of John Muir, in the early years of the 20th century. To put him in more contemporary context, Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. Now I don’t think we want to categorize his observation as science, although he was in fact a brilliant scientist. We can’t think of these words as conservationism, either, although Muir was a conservationist of sorts. But . . . there are conservationists, and then, there are conservationists. Two ways of thinking about ecological conservation, and they emerge from really different perspectives.

Gifford Pinchot – a familiar name to those of us who have migrated north from Pennsylvania – represents one perspective. He was the chief of the US Forest Service – the first, in fact, coming into his own about the time John Muir was crossing over the thin space into another realm altogether. These words belong to Gifford Pinchot – his definition of conservation – “the art of producing from the forest and the waters whatever they can yield for the service of man.” Pinchot was all about the primacy of humans, about human privilege and entitlement. I think of him as the seed of the sustainability movement. And by the end of this talk, I am going to suggest strongly that sustainability – as an economic philosophy – is suspect.

The philosophical difference between the two – John Muir and Gifford Pinchot – is clear. Pinchot would have had no truck with Muir’s words, “ . . . eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn as the round earth rolls.”

Muir’s speeches and his writings were poetry, or poetic prose, and they emerged from his always-evolving and deeply spiritual life which – unlike Gifford Pinchot – was inextricably interwoven with a clear understanding of his place within the biosphere. For Muir there was no spirituality disconnected from his place within the biotic world. And, unlike Pinchot, his was no human-centered ethic of entitlement and privilege – the word is anthropocentrism. He writes – this makes my heart sing – “The world we are told was made for man. A presumption that is totally unsupported by the facts”. Muir’s spirituality was grounded always in the sacredness of the elements – earth, water, wind, and fire – the blessing of creation shared by all life forms.

John Muir isn’t the only deeply spiritual ecologist. He stood on the shoulders of such as Henry David Thoreau. I think we can get clarity about Thoreau if we were to hold him against the backdrop of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson; they were both Transcendalists – just like Muir and Pinchot were both conservationists – but each was tugging on a different thread. Briefly, Emerson saw nature as distinct from, separate from himself – he saw nature as allegorical (the ant is a symbol of industriousness); he saw nature as the symbol of God – not God but the symbol of God. Thoreau, on the other hand, couldn’t – wouldn’t – accept this dualism. For one, like John Muir who followed him, he knew himself to be of the natural world, not distinct from it. And two, Thoreau grounded his own spirituality in the natural world. It was Thoreau, not Emerson, who could write these words:

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the (ordinary) citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There . . . is the strength, the marrow of Nature. . . .”

Okay. Just one more, and then I’ll try to weave this together. Aldo Leopold, standing on the shoulders of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Leopold and I shared one year of life on this planet, although neither of us knew it at the time – and I consider that my great good fortune. Leopold was the first to make use of the concepts of ecology and eco-systems, and he distinguished his ethics from the more popular environmental and conservationist philosophies of the day. Leopold understood the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms including humans; and the lens through which he explored the natural world was the lens of his ethics. Maybe some of you recognize his land ethic, and he intends the word land to stand for all life forms – human and non-human – and their systemic interactions and interrelationships. “A thing is right,” he said, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

How simple is that!

So. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. These are my prophets, and my mentors. And they’re calling to us, challenging us to reclaim a thread of what we today loosely refer to as the environmental movement. It’s a thread that we’ve dropped,and –  in my mind – no less important than the other two: science and pragmatics. I’ll call this third thread the thread of eco-spirituality. It hasn’t always been missing, witness these three, Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. But today’s environmental movement consists – for the most part – of only two: the science, and the pragmatics. We’re missing the spiritual. And it’s the spiritual that embodies hope, life, courage; it’s the spiritual that holds the good news. It’s the spiritual that holds the potential to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

We have all the science. We know what we’re doing to earth and water and air. We know that 200 species of life forms are going extinct every day, and we suspect that to allow species to go extinct has real consequences, even if we’re clueless as to what those consequences might be. We know about climate change. We know about fracking and mountain top removal. We have all the information we need about pollutants of earth, air, and water. Science is the first thread, and we’re still holding that one. To the point where many people have become numb with despair. And although the science might be changing opinions, it doesn’t seem to be changing hearts.

The second thread is what I’ll call environmental pragmatism. The second thread is about composting, recycling, solar panels, wind generators, geothermal heat, tankless water heaters. Environmental pragmatics fall under the umbrella of sustainable living. Both words – environment and sustainability – for my nickel, are suspect. When we talk about the environment, we’re talking about all that surrounds us, the humans. Our environment. We’re the center. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about the environment, because When we talk about the environment we’re talking about that which surrounds us, the operative word being us, we the humans inasmuch as we continue to occupy a human-centered reality. Environment is all about us. Sustainability, then, tends to refer to all that we humans need to do to maintain our environment. In a human-centered reality, so the thinking goes, we need to sustain our resources so that we can continue to live in the manner to which we (or some privileged proportion of us) have become accustomed.

The second thread – the pragmatic – addresses our sense of powerlessness over the suffering of the planet. Look! We can do something. We can help. Together we can turn this around. If only we all did these kinds of things . . .

So two threads, the science and the pragmatics. Together, they are necessary but inadequate to address the magnitude of the damage we’ve done to earth, water, air, and all wildlife and their diverse habitat. Together, two threads are insufficient to change hearts and transform perspective and behavior.

It’s the third thread we have to reclaim, the spiritual thread. And I am not talking about a belief in God, or any doctrine or dogma; I am not talking about anthropocentric religious practices. In fact, religious practices all too often get in the way – despite our calls for good stewardship – or maybe because what we call good stewardship falls into the same category as environmentalism and sustainability. Stewardship implies oversight – we think of ourselves, our human selves, as the overseers. All three of these – environmentalism, sustainability, and stewardship allow us to leave unexamined and unchallenged, the primary assumption which is . . . the . . . root . . . cause . . . of ecological degradation. The culprit here is our foundational assumption of human entitlement and privilege. The culprit is our anthropocentrism. And any spirituality that emerges from a human-centered reality will be by definition really, an agent of continued damage.

The spiritual thread, the third thread that I’m suggesting we reclaim, is that which emerges from our knowing and living out of our proper place within the natural world, not somehow external to the biosphere, and certainly not at its pinnacle.

It’s the difference between saying I love nature and I am nature. It may sound like semantics, but its not. And it’s all the difference in the world.

So how do we pick up this third thread? How do we begin to re-imagine our proper place in the world? How are we to be with a re-visioned anthropology in which humans are of the biotic world, intrinsic to it, of course, but of no greater or lesser value . . . value, than, say, a dung beetle. How are we to be, and what are we to do, to reclaim this third thread?

Baby steps, I guess. And all I can do is share with you some of my own baby steps. Wearing this referee’s shirt is one of them. I walk a lot. I try to walk every day. In the years I was privileged to be partnered with my sweet rescue dog, Missy, I think we shared close to twenty-five hundred walks, and here’s how we did it. We’d walk into the woods, and before we’d go in, we would stop. Look. Listen. Smell. Notice. Missy’s heart was already prepared for this journey into the forest. It’s my heart that needed and still does need, the time to prepare for what’s literally a homecoming.

This is called mindfulness, and mindfulness transforms relationships. When I leave the woods, I give thanks, out loud, continuing to re-shape my heart and soul with the practice of gratitude. I give thanks to the trees and the rocks, and the water. I give give thanks – out loud – to my Missy girl, who taught me to notice. Mindfulness and gratitude. With both of these in place, it’s possible to become a servant to the biotic community. I like the word servant, here, as being the expression of right sacramental relationship with the planet, with the elements of earth, water, wind, fire, with all life forms, all habitat.

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the (ordinary) citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature. . . .”

You can see why Henry David Thoreau is a mentor. He knew himself as well to be the strength, the marrow of Nature.

To reclaim this third thread – and I don’t think any other approach carries this kind of transformative power – in the reclaiming the spirit of place, the sacramental value of earth, water, wind, fire, and all creatures – in that remembering, lies our hope.


  1. Marjorie Power on January 31, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    You speak eloquently about our need to see ourselves as BEING nature rather than creatures who LOVE nature. And I get your point, but I always wonder about this: each part of nature is looking out for itself as best it can. The dung beetle looks out for the dung beetle. Period. As humans, we have the capacity and therefore the responsibility to look out for all sentient things, not just ourselves. Doesn’t that give us a special place in the web of life? Not the kind of special place that means we’re entitled to ignore our responsibility, but the special place that results from being conscious and able to think in terms of past, present, and future? Even dogs can’t do that.

  2. caroline fairless on January 31, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    I am always delighted when someone manages to get to the crux of the issues with far fewer words than I ever have! I’ll just continue with the (fascinating) dung beetle, because that’s where I started, but in a systems analysis, which is what science means by a web of life, we could start anywhere. It’s probably true (although I don’t know this for sure) that the dung beetle looks out for the dung beetle. That’s not the point I am trying to make.

    I don’t want to be talking about the natural world in a way that is anthropomorphic. I line up more with someone like Rachel Carson, even from her earliest works, who lived under no illusion about the real world. Yet we do know that many species – not just humans – have the capacity and likelihood to show compassion, selflessness, friendship and true partnership. We know that many species grieve, experience pleasure – on and on. But I digress.

    The dung beetle exists with a system, with every part of that system connected to every other part of that system. As do humans. True as it may be that humans have the capacity of consciousness; it doesn’t make us special; we are still an integral part of a system, of no less or greater value than any other. What we know about eco-systems – a simple garden shows us this – that when one part of the system gets out of whack, the system itself – what many (not all) scientists such as James Lovelock, or educators such as Joanna Macy have named as Gaia, a self regulating system – compensates.

    So, I think about 7 billion humans on the planet. I think about countries and parts of countries with no water. I think of countries being stripped of trees resulting in the erosion of great land masses and the diminishing of oxygen. I think about – not the consciousness – but the unconsciousness of humans. I think about the greed and power needs of humans. I think about these 200 species of creature going extinct every day. I think about the cataclysmic floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, pollution and chemical related illnesses of all kinds. What I see is a self-regulating system at work.

    Whether or not we ought to be responsible, isn’t the question I am asking. The question I am asking is, why – given that we do have the capacity of consciousness, that we do have the capacity for mindfulness, are we not using them? And I really have no doubt that this planet will, at some point, be about the business of self-regulation. If we are the problem – and we are – the world will take care of us. We’re not special, although we do have a unique role in the system, the role of servant, and I am making a distinction between servant and the more popular concept of steward, which implies oversight (again, wanting to single out the humans as special.) But it’s hard to embrace our role, when most of us aren’t even aware that we are of a system.

    In (eco) systems thinking, the biosphere is out of whack, and it’s the humans that have made it so. It will not be possible to continue living as we are now.

    You’re right, we do have the capacity to think in terms of past, present, and future. But we’re not doing it. If we don’t figure it out (and many scientists think we are already past the point) the re-establishment of balance will happen for us, or to us.

    I love the ending of the Rebecca Baggett poem – in fact this poem in its entirety speaks to me as no other in my current stage of life.

    . . . that I still believe
    we are capable of attention,
    that anyone who notices the world
    must want to save it.

    The first step, I think, and it’s clearly the most unlikely, is that humans come to understand our proper place within the biosphere. This is my opinion, obviously, that we cannot do the healing work if we don’t come to understand our proper place within the eco-system(s) of the planet, and that we cannot even come that far, if we fail to re-cultivate the spiritual thread.

  3. Marjorie Power on February 2, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    There may be more people who have the kind of awareness you speak of than you know. Partly because of my husband’s career both before and after retiring from the Washington State Department of Ecology, and partly because I have spent my adult life in the Northwest, I would say I’ve known quite a few people who recognize our proper place within the biosphere.

    Whether or not they see their efforts in spiritual terms doesn’t seem very important to me. Not when I see how hard they work, or have worked, not necessarily at the greatest wages, to restore some aspect of balance to the planet. No, between them they can’t save the world. But the fact that they keep their hands dirty trying to save what they can does count, at least in my book. I’m starting to get the impression that if people are associated with “environmentalism” or “sustainability” their values and knowledge base are automatically not up to snuff, as far as you are concerned.

  4. caroline fairless on February 3, 2012 at 12:43 am

    It is certainly not my intent to dismiss or diminish any effort whatsoever on behalf of earth or anyone (including myself) who works on behalf of the healing of our planet. I don’t. I honor all of us in our efforts. As I stated in the piece to which this is a response, the two threads of science and pragmatics (dirty hands) are essential. I am saying additionally, that they are not sufficient.

    Every day I am challenged to say the things that speak the truth as I know it, in such a way that brings people into the inquiry, not turn them away. I am humbled and grateful for any opportunity.

    Still, I cannot back away from what I am trying to say, no matter how imperfectly. The spiritual piece is critical. I say again, that it’s the piece that’s missing, and that without it, we have no hope of addressing the magnitude of the suffering of earth, water, air, creatures, loss of habitat, etc. Even with it, we may have already gone beyond what this planet can absorb. Again, I point to the cataclysmic events of the past few years.

    As for “sustainability” and “environmental improvement”, I am asking all of us to explore what they really mean and how they are used and mis-used both. Sustainability, at least in the way that the culture has ingested it, is not a concept that will point all our lives – human and non human – to a viable future. There are already too many of us humans! And, although it’s true enough that the word “environment” could just as easily point to the environment of an ant, as E.O. Wilson gleefully points out, that’s not really the way we (humans) know the concept. When we talk about environment, we tend to be talking from the perspective of a human-centered reality.

    I want to go back to the Garden narrative in the book of Genesis. The word in that story that we translate “till” as in “to till the soil” literally means to serve.

    Humans are called to serve the biotic community. Not because we’re special in terms of our consciousness, and therefore have the oversight responsibility that stewardship implies, but because that very consciousness determines our role. I do not mean to offer that as semantics, because there is a great deal of difference.

    So, to recap, I do not dismiss the spiritual thread, cannot. I see its reclamation, to weave with the science and the pragmatics, as our only hope, such that it is. What the Bill McKibben talk did for me, which I hope I’ve articulated in the post, is to challenge me to continue to get my hands dirty, to show up with my whole being, not just my words.

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