• Dan Robinson

‘I Think Spirituality is Central’


Reflecting on over 30 years of working to protect the Great Lakes, Dave Dempsey said, “my decision to devote my career to the Great Lakes really happened as a result of what I would call a spiritual experience.”

A morning at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior when he was 24 years old provided the setting for that experience. On his first camping trip then, Dempsey had a hard time sleeping. “I got up early,” he recounted, “after I heard this rhythmic pounding of water against the base of the bluff that we were camped on. I got up there and looked out over the Lake, and had this feeling that I wanted to spend my life working to protect places like that, so that 500 years from now, they could still be enjoyed by people like me. So that really was where my life changed.”

Turning from the path of becoming an English professor, Dempsey devoted his efforts to caring for the Lakes. That decision eventually brought him to serve in a variety of positions, including as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard, as Executive Director of the Michigan Council on Environmental Quality, as a member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and as Policy Advisor to the International Joint Commission. Dempsey currently works as a policy advisor for FLOW (For Love of Water), which applies the public trust doctrine to address water, energy and climate issues.

Dempsey has also written eleven books, and the latest of those publications came out in 2018, Lake Nation: People and the Fate of the Great Lakes. The book recounts a series of conversations he had with people in the Great Lakes region, asking them about their experiences with the Lakes and why they think the Lakes are still struggling when so many people feel a connection to them. These conversations are interspersed by his own reflections.

In Lake Nation, Dempsey refers to the Great Lakes as “sacred places,” because the Lakes provide "20% of the world’s freshwater. So, if you looked at it simply as a natural resource, you would consider it socially sacred. We need the clean water for our future. But, it’s a special place unlike any other in the world, and I think it awakens a lot of spiritual reactions from people who live or visit the Great Lakes.”

However, he added, the Lakes come with “a sense of responsibility and stewardship that I think affects a lot of people, many of the millions who live among the Great Lakes.”

Because of that sacredness, Dempsey thinks, “spirituality is central, I really do. I think the passion and persistence that people bring to the Great Lakes many times stems from spirituality, and as we develop more and more of the world, the Great Lakes are more and more precious to us.”

Despite the drastic changes the Lakes are going through, they also create a feeling of permanence, Dempsey said, “from a human perspective, almost a sense of eternity. It’s definitely much longer and greater than an individual life. I think that gives a lot of people hope in itself, and also the commitment to work on it.”

That commitment to protecting the Great Lakes needs to translate into action, so Dempsey wants to “encourage people not to give up hope and not to refrain from participating in the policy world of the Great Lakes,” which can feel strange and alien at times. He realizes that people can be “very cynical about government officials’ willingness to protect the Lakes, but of course that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“If you want the Lakes to be around for future generations,” Dempsey said, “it does require some effort, and the effort that we often need is through the political system. That’s one way. That’s very important. The other way is through individual stewardship. So, one can do both, or one or the other, but at least pick up one strand of Great Lakes protection policy and don’t give up.”

As the Great Lakes Spirituality Project explores further a spirituality of the Lakes, these waters serve as inspiration. “The Lakes are always a source of refreshment, spiritually,” Dempsey added. “When you spend a couple of days by them I think it naturally gives you hope and the strength to carry on.”

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