Seeking a spiritual foundation for an environmental renaissance in these trying times

by Stan Hirst

I have occasionally heard some of the Suzuki Elders refer to our group as a Unitarian/Anglican conglomerate. It’s meant as a flattering reference, although statistically its not quite true. A mental rundown of the sombre faces around the Council table indicates that neither group is in the majority and the combined number makes up just half the total Council membership. The remainder of the Council membership seeks formal spiritual attachment through a wider range of channels.

However the pages of this site attest to the fact that spirituality is a deep-rooted facet of the Elders’ group. Karl Perrin has written “… faith, my long term spiritual discipline, is in seeking truth and offering service.” Don Marshall makes a case for spirituality as a part of building resilience to the psycho-social impacts of climate disruption. Guest contributors Sally Bingham and Anneliese Schultz  write eloquently of the strength of spiritual traditions and communities in supporting our ongoing efforts to care for Creation. Paul Strome writes of the importance of his spiritual connections to Inuit communities in the North. A review of Pope Francisencyclical Laudato Si published just 16 months ago on the website has to date attracted 2500 readers.

Apart from personal convictions, why should we be concerned at all over spirituality and its role in the activities and future of the Suzuki Elders? For one thing we need perhaps to draw on spiritual convictions to highlight the growing importance of connecting personal, social and political transformations in the public realm.

It is rapidly becoming evident that the world is changing very rapidly and not at all for the better. Global climate change has become the norm along with all its consequences – deterioration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine resources, widespread social unrest, political instability and economic imbalances. The world’s existing and emerging challenges seem to be so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be enough. They often seem to compound problems, not reduce them.

Canada, and especially British Columbia, have policies and procedures in place to try and manage and ameliorate the conflicts of exploitation and extraction. Planning and assessment guidelines, environmental and social assessment requirements, and mandatory consultation procedures have been in place for close to half a century. Most of them have been adapted and upgraded with experience over the years, yet major conflicts between proponents and opponents continue to be the norm. Oil and gas pipelines, marine transportation of fossil fuels, hard rock mining, hydroelectric dams and marine aquaculture, all commonly deemed indispensable to a modern economy, are prime conflict zones. Why?

One major issue continues to be the deep and sometimes widening divide between, on one hand, corporate interests and their political supporters who drive resource exploitation and economic enhancement and, on the other hand, communities and groups who stand to benefit economically from such activities but who also bear the burgeoning environmental and social costs and losses.

There is a growing sense that more importance be attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. A revised understanding of human nature and our relationship to the earth and its bounties would help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the U.K. speaks of the unfortunate fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. Some in the political sphere point out that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just the objects. Spiritual perspectives play a role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. They deepen the vision and lend structure and texture to human development and maturation. The overarching societal role of spirituality should be to serve as a counterweight to purely utilitarian thinking.

Many of the world’s environmental conflict zones already have ‘spiritual’ elements. They are a key pillar of First Nations’ defence of their territories and resources against the inroads of fossil fuel and other extractive exploitation from outsiders. Non-native society by comparison seems unprepared or unwilling to acknowledge a spiritual dimension, and is unwilling or not equipped to seek common ground at such a fundamental level.

Spirituality is ambiguously inclusive by its nature and cannot be easily defined, but at heart it is about the fact that it is we who are alive at all, rather than our personality or status. It’s about our “ground” rather than our “place” in the world. It is possible and valuable to give spirituality improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience. The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.


  1. You state there is “a deep and sometimes widening divide between, on one hand, corporate interests and their political supporters who drive resource exploitation and economic enhancement and, on the other hand, communities and groups who stand to benefit economically from such activities but who also bear the burgeoning environmental and social costs and losses.”

    It seems to me the response has to be political, not spiritual. Perhaps some people will be motivated by the spiritual, and that’s fine, but it seems to me that the fight is secular. How much wilderness should we preserve? How do we carry out economic activity to maintain a decent living for people, yet not foul up the environment?

    I suppose one could argue we should preserve forests for the spiritual thoughts they seem to generate. (See But I’m not one especially inspired to spiritual thoughts by rock and trees and meadows. I just want enough natural world preserved to allow the biological diversity that research shows the planet needs to continue human life in the long term. Whether we’re secular or spiritual people, to me that just seems common sense.

    Spirituality doesn’t necessarily lead to environmentalism. The directive in the Bible to “go forth and multiply” or take “dominion” over non-human life doesn’t lead to ecological balance. Yes, some spiritualities are more in harmony with the environment, but many are not. The pretty common apocalyptic mindset certainly isn’t. Why worry about preserving the world if it’s going to end momentarily?

    Basically I can call myself an environmentalist for what I think is a pretty reasonable secular reason: preservation of myself and my species. Do we really need to go further than that?

    1. Along with many like-minded environmentalists I am saying that more importance could/should be attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. That does not in any sense preclude a political or any other response to environmental insults. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline would be an example.
      Indeed, spirituality doesn’t necessarily lead to environmentalism. One has only to look at the current U.S. administration for confirmation of that. That’s where those who call themselves ‘environmentalists’ primarily to preserve themselves and their own species are to be found.

  2. Thanks for this. I agree that the inability or unwillingness to see ourselves as a part of nature rather than apart from nature must change, and spiritual perspectives are needed to support this change.

  3. I was very happy to see your views, and those of other Suzuki Elders, on this critical subject Stan. Although I also feel pessimistic at times regarding public will and political action, shortly after I read your piece I got a big boost toward thinking positive. I discovered that a young, dynamic new Congresswoman down in Washington D.C., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has introduced an outstanding resolution that, with the support that is blossoming with the Spring, will dramatically change the U.S.A. This dynamic new leader, along with a growing number of young people, and no doubt some helpful elders, are calling for a “Green New Deal” for this country which is clearly in big ecological and economic trouble. Although it does not refer to spirituality directly, it clearly has a spiritual foundation. We Canadians should all read this ‘game changing’ resolution and do what we can to make it happen on both sides of our border and around the world.

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