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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

The Ecosystem of the Spirit

Ecosystem thinking in the Great Lakes - the idea that we need to see the water, land, air, and all life in the Basin as connected - forms the DNA of Great Lakes restoration work.

For example, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Canada, and the International Joint Commission wrote in their 1995 report, “It must be remembered that an ecosystem approach is a tool to help comprehensively and systematically address root causes of environmental problems.”

In other words, if we want to truly restore the Great Lakes, we need to look at the whole, and that includes humans.

Including humans was one of the points made by Dr. John Hartig as well in a 2021 article about an ecosystem-focused approach to restoration:

The difference between environment and ecosystem is like the difference between house and home. A house is something that is external and detached – it sits across the street or down the block. In contrast, a home is something we see ourselves in even when not there.

That is why scientists, when describing an ecosystem approach, talk about humans-in-a-system, rather than a system-external-to-humans. What humans do to their ecosystem, they do to themselves.

Humans are part of the ecosystem as much as lake trout, mushrooms, sand, white pine trees, and water.

Lake Michigan at sunset (photo by Dan Robinson)

Spirituality as part of the Human Ecosystem

So, if we want to put humans into the ecosystem approach, we need to put all that we are as humans into that approach. In other words, we need to take into account the human ecosystem… our physical, mental, and spiritual selves.

Humans are inherently spiritual, and by that I mean, we can’t help but think about where we fit into the big picture of existence. We can’t help but try putting our life story in the larger story of the world around us and making meaning out of what we experience. For some of us, that gets channeled and organized around a religious tradition, but for others it might take a different form (patriotism, art, sports fan-dom, etc.).

How can we bring human spirituality into the work of restoring the Great Lakes?

Spiritual storytelling

First, we must give people space to tell their stories, especially how they connect with the Lakes in a spiritual way. How many times have we said - or heard others say - how much the Great Lakes mean to them or what a difference it makes being by the water? Why is that? What makes that experience so impactful?

Those of us involved in restoration work might feel we know the answer to those questions, and perhaps we’re right. But giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories can have a profound effect on them and their connection to the work of protecting the Lakes. The Watermark Project, an initiative of Swim, Drink, Fish, comes to mind as one example of an opportunity for people to tell their stories of connecting to water.

Tools of the trade

Second, we need to help people develop the tools, language and space to express what they’re experiencing spiritually. I’ve had numerous conversations with people about why the Lakes are important to them. Often, people struggle to put into words their experience from a spiritual perspective, even ministers and leaders of religious groups.

I can tell it’s an important aspect to their experience, but they don’t have the language or they’re not used to expressing to someone else what is going on inside of them. It can be a very personal aspect of their connection to the Lakes. We need to create the kind of space and provide the resources where people feel comfortable and able to share what they’re thinking and feeling spiritually.

Wisconsin Green Muslims, with Huda Alkaff as Executive Director, serve as one important example of using the resources of a religious tradition to address environmental issues in the Great Lakes Basin. As we think about ecosystems, for instance, we often consider the idea of “balance,” that an ecosystem has to have a healthy balance of the elements that make it up. In her guest column for the Great Lakes Spiritality Project, Alkaff wrote:

“In Islam, there are clear teachings and signs about the important, beautiful, and intricate balance of creation. God repeatedly tells us to maintain that balance and not to upset the order in creation. In the Qur’an (15:19), God says, ‘And the earth We have spread out; set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.’”

Equity as a spiritual value

Third, we must give greater priority to environmental justice. If we all are truly connected in the Great Lakes Basin as part of one ecosystem, it stands to reason that our ecosystem is only as strong as the people (and plants and animals and water…) who suffer the most from environmental degradation. In an unjust system, those people are also the ones who suffer most from racial and economic oppression. The bigger picture of existence is flawed and incomplete if it is not just and equitable.

Justice and equity are spiritual and religious values, and spiritual and religious traditions can provide important resources for motivation, language, and imagery. In my own tradition of Christianity, I know that religion has sometimes… often… given permission and rationalization for oppression and degradation of the environment. But I firmly believe that is a misreading and manipulation of the tradition for selfish and unjust purposes.

Interfaith Power and Light’s “Faith Climate Justice Voter” initiative is one example of connecting spirituality and the work for equity. Chapters of Interfaith Power and Light exist in all the Great Lakes states.

Spirituality is a necessary ingredient in restoration work

I believe we will never be able to truly restore and protect the Great Lakes if we don’t include a spiritual perspective alongside all the other great restoration and education work that is being done. Spirituality - understanding ourselves as part of the bigger picture of life and existence - is at the heart of being human. I’ve spent a lot of time in Christian churches, and I’ve spent a lot of time along the Great Lakes. I’m not sure in which setting I’ve experienced a deeper sense of the Divine (well, maybe I do know, but don’t tell anyone….)

People find a deep sense of meaning and spirit along the Lakes. We would be missing, then, an important and necessary part of the restoration ecosystem if we didn’t connect to and feed that desire for meaning. Spirituality and religious experience can provide the motivation and framework for people to take the next step and actively care for the Great Lakes and the waters that sustain all life here.


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