Book Review: The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature by David Suzuki

When it was first published in 1997, David Suzuki’s The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature provided an insightful, heartfelt commentary on the dangers that humanity was facing and creating as a result of its disconnection from the natural world. And it seems that his pleas did not go unheard, for the book did quite well, selling over 100,000 copies in the age before “green” was trendy.

A decade later, Suzuki, with Amanda McConnell and Adrienne Mason, has updated and expanded his work in order to strengthen his case with the most recent scientific data and to tailor his argument to even more alarming conditions on Earth. Indeed, despite a growing focus on the environment, we are probably more out of balance now than when The Sacred Balance was first published. “More than ever,” Suzuki writes in the introduction, “we need agreement about what humankind’s real bottom line is, and achieving that agreement remains the primary goal of this book.”1

The Sacred Balance is most impressive for the masterful way Suzuki blends hard, cold scientific data with a much more holistic understanding of how we human animals are more than just the sum of our natural parts. This perspective is clear from the get go:

The heart of this book is the scientifically supported fact that each of us is quite literally created by air, water, soil and sunlight, and what cleanses and renews these fundamental elements of life is the web of living things on the planet. Furthermore, as social and spiritual creatures, we need love and spirit if we are to lead rich, full lives. (7)

As a result, the sciences come together with the arts, ecologists and paleontologists and economists rub shoulders with poets and tribal elders and grassroots environmentalists. Suzuki’s own prose, too, seems an inspired coniunctio mystica of left and right brains. He clearly recognizes that “When scientific endeavour is severed from its historical and local context, it becomes an activity carried out in a void” (37).

To convince us of our interconnection with the rest of the natural world, Suzuki shows how we are formed by the four elements (air, water, earth, and fire) and continually depend upon them for basic biological existence. But we also have a “fifth element,” which is spirit, bringing a need for love and spiritual satisfaction; we are social animals, too, and we are inclined to seek deeper meanings than just simple biology.

But Suzuki never lets us forget that we are creatures of Earth, even with our eyes lifted towards the stars, our hearts lost to time while we are in love, our minds ever caught up with themselves, and our cultural paradigms leading us into wholly unnatural lives. We are out of balance, out of tune, and Suzuki tries to ground us in order to bring us back into a state of mutually supportive existence: “When we forget that we are embedded in the natural world, we also forget that what we do to our surroundings we are doing to ourselves” (260).

Now, in 2008, Suzuki’s message that we are elemental, earthy entities and that we are severing ourselves from our sacred sustainer is not all that unfamiliar. It has been made countless times in countless books and will surely continue to be repeated for many years. But that makes it no less relevant, no less necessary.

And while Suzuki, like those other voices crying out in the wilderness, warns us to repent and change our ways, he ends The Sacred Balance with more than just advice for how to do so. Besides suggestions, he provides ten real examples of how individual humans are working to restore our balance with nature: for example, eco-architect William McDonough, Karl-Henrik Robért’s The Natural Step, and Muhammad Yunas’s Grameen Bank. This ending helps to show how change is happening and how we might help change keep happening, providing a powerful closing to an entirely inspirational book.

The only element of The Sacred Balance that I did not enjoy, though, was one of design rather than content. Throughout the work, the authors offer various sections of material that are tangentially related to the main text–sort of like sidebars or a hyperlink on a web page. While these are often very interesting, they tend to disrupt the main narrative, since there is no reference to them there. Nor, quite frequently, is there a good place to stop in the proximate main text to “navigate” elsewhere. Less intrusive, but similarly somewhat distracting, are the various quotations that also relate to and intrude upon the main text but are not worked into it.

Fortunately, this small flaw does not tip the scales and make The Sacred Balance any less impressive. As Suzuki speaks to our hearts and our minds, he inspires us to renew our interest in nature’s wonders, return our very natural bodies to their proper place in the natural cycle, and restore the natural balance on Earth that we have disrupted. And that is a message we should take to heart.

Image credit: Robert Lawton at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Suzuki, David, with Amanda McConnell and Adrienne Mason. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Rev. ed. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation and Greystone Books-Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2007. 4.

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