Stephen Bede Scharper on our relationship to water

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First aired on Tapestry (15/02/13)

Recently, Lake Winnipeg received an international award from a German environmental organization -- but it wasn't one that anyone is celebrating. It was named the "Threatened Lake of 2013" because of dangerous levels of blue-green algae, which threaten to choke the lake to death.

What meaning does water hold for us, and why are we not always good caretakers of this life-giving element? Tapestry host Mary Hines addressed these questions in a recent conversation with Stephen Bede Scharper, author of For Earth's Sake and a professor of religion and environmental ethics at the University of Toronto.

When asked why some people are so deeply drawn to the sound and sight of water, Scharper speculated that it's because "we're seeking connnectivity and relationship." He went on to note that "approximately 70 per cent of our bodies is made up of water. So we in a sense are water, to a large extent. And I think we're connecting with that which we are."


Many of us live in cities, where streams are buried beneath landfill, water flows through pipes and our only contact with it may be what comes from the tap or is in the toilet. "When we bury our waters we bury part of ourselves, and our spiritual openness," Scharper pointed out. "I think the movement now, in a lot of urban restoration projects, is to unearth the buried rivers, to uncover the lost creeks," he said.

Scharper is critical of our attitude towards our natural resources, and water in particular. "In the modern period, our role became to master and dominate and control nature -- to use the words of Sir Francis Bacon, to torture nature for her secrets, to use it as an instrument for human advancement, rather than as a life-way for us to be connected to," he said. He went on to say that "it made us think that somehow we were no longer deeply interpenetrated with water and with nature and I think this has been a huge loss for the human psyche. And we're seeing the consequences, environmentally, spiritually, in many ways."

Water is a powerful symbol in religions all over the world, Scharper pointed out, in part because it is "the essence of life, and all cultures understand that. " When we start regarding it as merely a resource to be managed, "we lose a sense of the sacred."

Scharper believes that in many parts of the world, "conflicting cosmologies" are at work. In India, there's "a long, fluid, rich Hindu cosmology, which sees the Ganges in the divine light." But there's also a "Western, industrialized world view that is competing with that traditional one, and sees economic development as a main driver of Indian society. With that kind of clash of world views, you can see the destruction of things that were sacred. "

Although water deserves our regard because of its live-giving properties, Scharper cautioned that we also have to be aware of its destructive power -- and that our actions can be responsible for unleashing it. "The respect for water, the respect for its power, this is critical for understanding our place as humans," he said. He described swimming in Georgian Bay once, and being pulled by the current far from shore. "It was a major lesson to me about respect for water."

Scharper went on to sound a cautionary note. "What we're seeing now with climate change is that things that were considered acts of God can't be seen that way anymore. The results of human-engendered climate change are so vast and possibly cataclysmic in terms of changing our weather patterns that what becomes an act of the human and an act of God becomes very hard to discern."

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