IT WAS LIKE AN ALTAR CALL. I had just finished a conference presentation on organic agriculture when a tall, hale fellow in his late 30s bounded down to the front of the auditorium. He wanted to tell his story about how organic food had saved his life. He recounted how he (let’s call him Jacques), a truck driver from Montreal, had weighed 325 pounds and been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and a smorgasbord of other ailments. One doctor, almost in passing, mentioned he might try switching to organic foods. Later, while driving through Quebec, he saw a sign reading “Organic Farm.” Quickly pulling his 18-wheeler off the highway and onto the narrow dirt drive, Jacques clambered out of the cab and asked the startled farmer if he could volunteer on his spread. All he wanted in return was the freedom to eat from the organic harvest.

Three years later, Jacques was a healthy 185 pounds, and traces of diabetes and cancer had vanished along with his capacious spare tire. His 6’ 2” frame exuded energy. Jacques mentioned how even the birds knew the superior benefits of organics, choosing to land in the organic-corn rows instead of the crops of the neighbour’s fields. In addition to his physical renewal, Jacques, who had been raised Catholic, mentioned he had also undergone a spiritual rebirth and had developed a daily practice involving kneeling on the ground in meditation. He described himself as a “new man,” who now had health, vigour and the spiritual energy to pursue a second career in organic agriculture. He finished to a standing ovation.

When we talk of energy in light of our present environmental challenges, stories such as Jacques’ rarely come to mind. We tend to think almost exclusively of our destructive reliance on fossil fuels, with their baleful carbon emissions, as well as alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind, that proffer the promise of more sustainable energy. While these are absolutely crucial to examine and explore – hence their pre-eminence in energy discussions – they do not encompass the entire energy picture. The question of what to do about energy, like the question of how to solve our so-called “environmental crisis,” does not demand simply technical or utilitarian responses. Rather, it compels us to consider a more holistic approach – one that looks deeply into the rich stored energy of the Earth’s soil, as well as lifts our gaze to the stars to reflect upon the creative energies in the unfolding universe.

Two docents who help broaden our discussion of alternative energies in light of our current ecological malaise are pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), and cultural historian and “geologian” Thomas Berry (1914-2009). Both provide insightful and non-instrumental reflections upon the energy question.

Regarding Jacques’ “ecological footprint,” to borrow the term of population ecologist William Rees, we don’t have to haul oranges in a semi across the continent to put a sizeable dent in our climate’s integrity. Even the average driver of a lightweight vehicle in North America, according to Pollution Probe, annually spews approximately four and a half tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as 200 kilograms of carbon monoxide and a fulsome stew of other noxious gases. And Jacques’ erstwhile, and our continued, frequenting of fast-food drive-through restaurants is an added heavy impress on our collective carbon footprint.

How heavy, you ask? Well, according to Jamais Cascio, former managing editor of the nonprofit media agency Worldchanging, one staple of Jacques’ former diet, the cheeseburger, represents about three kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. This includes a wide array of factors, from growing feed for beef and dairy cattle; to storing, transporting and cooking the sundry ingredients. With the average North American chomping down three cheeseburgers per week, or about 150 burgers per year, the US cheeseburger habit alone, according to Cascio’s calculations, contributes approximately 450 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per person, per year – the rough equivalent of the annual carbon output from 7500 SUVs. (Now, if you want fries with that….) As yet, emissions calculations on Canadian poutine consumption remain to be compiled. Stay tuned….

Aldo Leopold: Not Just “Dirt”

Interestingly, when we reflect upon energy, the role of the soil itself – the energy in the Earth, which grounds so much of life – is more stood upon than studied. One of the pioneering environmental thinkers to highlight that our soil was really an energy circuit was Aldo Leopold, the celebrated wildlife ecologist and putative father of environmental ethics.

Leopold had at one time embodied all the traits of the master, professional nature manager, helping eradicate the timber wolf in the West as part of a US government program. But later, he saw his role, and indeed that of the human species as a whole, not as conqueror of and director over nature, but as just “plain member and citizen” of the biotic community. Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac (1949) that land “is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels that conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.” Leopold saw that soil was not just plain dirt but rather “a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.”

Leopold, writing in the 1940s, needed to extend human ethics to embrace the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” which he saw as a positive and necessary evolution of ethics. Part of this evolution includes the incorporation of a dimension to environmental ethical discourse, which encourages development of an ecological conscience that engenders “love, respect, and admiration for the land.”

This sense of beauty in nature, and deep admiration for its mysteries, is not ancillary but constitutive of Leopold’s land ethic. The understanding of the fundamental energy circuit of the soil from which so much of life on Earth springs becomes an essential consideration when pondering our energy future, particularly in the US and Canada, which lose approximately one per cent of their topsoil each year owing to erosion, contamination, “development” and other factors. Thus, to consider a national energy policy without a national land policy is akin to building the roof of a house without giving any thought to its foundation. What Leopold reminds us is that most of the energy that sustains us is found in the dynamic interplay of sun and soil. When we ignore these basic sources of energy and our rootedness in a biotic community, we lose a sense of who we really are: plain citizens rather than lords and masters of the larger Earth community.

Also, in espousing a land ethic, Leopold is proposing much more than rational best practices when it comes to land use. He is, in fact, claiming an ethics of the heart, one rooted in love as much as in reason, and incorporating awe-filled admiration as much as rational argumentation. Thus, in writing about the energy of soil, Leopold is talking about much more than understanding how it works and harnessing it for human enterprise. He is also asking us to cultivate “love, respect, and admiration” for the energy of the land, viewing it not just as a commodity to be captured for human benefit, but as a vast, integrated, holistic, wonder-making force on which our lives depend.

Thomas Berry: Cosmological Energy

Cultural historian and Passionist priest Thomas Berry also calls us to broaden our vista to view a more holistic understanding of energy. Just as Leopold was nudging mid-20th-century science and environmental policy toward an understanding of energy in the soil as a critical substructure of all ecological relationships, Berry invited us to view energy as a larger cosmological reality in the unfolding of the universe itself.

A one-time professor of Asian religions at Fordham University, Berry, who passed away in June 2009, became chief architect of the “new cosmology,” which addresses current ecological challenges by exploring humankind’s role within the larger universe. He viewed the human as deeply enmeshed not only in the biotic community, but also within the cosmic community: the universe itself.

For him, our present energy questions must be considered in connection to the Big Bang itself, the “primordial flaring forth” that unleashed the creative energy out of which stars, planets, galaxies, dark matter and all that we know came into existence. For Berry, solar power is not simply one option in a panoply of alternative energy choices, but a primordial energy source, one that, in a sense, is the parent of all life and energy on Earth.

With a profound sense of the natural world’s beauty, Berry, like Leopold, also saw the need for admiration, awe and wonder to be integral, rather than peripheral, dimensions of environmental discourse. And for Berry, the energy of the dynamic universe is deeply interconnected with human energy – physical, psychological and spiritual.

He viewed our present ecological moment as a distinctive geological juncture, the closing of the Cenozoic period and the beginning of what’s become known as the Anthropocene era. As he writes in Befriending the Earth, “What is happening in our times is not just another historical transition or simply another cultural change. The devastation of the planet that we are bringing about is negating some hundreds of millions, even billions, of years of past development on the earth. This is a most momentous period of change, a change unparalleled in the four and a half billion years of earth history.”

For Berry, we are faced not only with a technological question of alternative energies, but a psychological and spiritual question of finding the energy needed to both imagine and help advance a new relationship with the Earth. To help nourish the cultural and psychic energy needed to respond to such seismic changes, Berry advocates a deepened awareness of the awesome beauty of the natural world, from a mountain meadow blanketed with flowers to a star-strewn summer sky.

Berry claims that there is a psychic-spiritual dimension to all reality, and that the emerging, expanding universe holds a place for human consciousness as one locus in which the universe, in a sense, reflects upon itself. Building on Leopold’s notion of the intrinsic, rather than the commercial, value of nature, Berry espouses a call away from a commoditized worldview, and an invitation into a deeper communion, an intersubjectivity, with all creation. For him, the universe is a “communion of subjects” with which to be in deep relationship, rather than a “collection of objects” to be bought, sold, used and discarded.

Like Leopold, Berry sees the severe limitations of human effort to manage or control nature. Yet he also sees human inclination and spontaneity as part of nature, leading to a nuanced understating of the human vocation. “What we need,” Berry muses, “what we are ultimately groping toward, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself.”

Just as Leopold moved environmental ethics from land management to “love, respect, and admiration” of the land itself, so Berry moved environmental discourse from the land to the entire cosmos, and attempts to show the interconnection of the energy of the cosmos, the soil and the human species in all its manifestations: rational, physical, psychological and spiritual.

In reflecting on our present moment and the choices it places in front of the human community as a whole, Berry invites humanity to what he calls the “great work” of our time: the task of working with, rather than against, the life-giving energies of the Earth.

While all of us cannot jump out of tractor trailers and onto organic farms like Jacques, we can alter our relationships with each other, our food, the elements and the way we conceive of energy in our time of ecological challenge. By reflecting on energy not simply in technological or utilitarian terms, but, as these authors propose, in a more holistic manner – as a matter of relationship with both the biotic community, as Aldo Leopold suggests, and the larger reality of the cosmos, as proposed by Thomas Berry – we might be able to engage sustainable energy sources in new and fecund ways. We might not only develop improved and cheaper alternative energy sources; we might also develop new relationships with our environment and each other, ones that befriend, rather than besmirch, the Earth.

Thomas Berry never wavered from his message: humanity must live in harmony with the Earth or perish. Learn more about this amazing man at

Astronomy North, the University of Calgary, the Canadian Space Agency and the City of Yellowknife have collectively been observing the Aurora Borealis since September 2010.


Stephen Bede Scharper, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is an associate professor with the Centre for Environment at the University of Toronto. He is author of Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment and co-editor of The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment.

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