Peace and the Environment: A Journey to Reconnect

Sitting on the edge of an urban stream that runs surprisingly clear, I am nestled in the grass among a small grove of trees who are slowly releasing their yellow leaves that dance and pirouette around me. A black and white speckled woodpecker thrums on a branch nearby. Two black squirrels chase each other from branch to branch making precarious leaps, stopping only to gnaw on walnuts now so plentiful. An occasional but pervasive smell of wild leeks wafts around me and draws me in to taste. My fingers follow the grooves and ridges of the bark on a nearby tree I am getting to know. Amidst the distant urban din, there is quiet here. 

This is my Sit Spot for this term, the place in nature I’ve chosen to visit weekly for a minimum of 20 minutes, using all six senses to explore and get to know these nature beings, journaling my reflections—just as I require of my Peace and Environment students. Sit Spots, inspired by the work of Jon Young, a renowned nature connection and culture repair mentor, form a foundational practice of this course and the basis for our exploration of the connections between peace and conflict to the environment. This is part of what sets this course apart from other environmental courses offered at UWaterloo. As many an Environmental Studies major has remarked, “I have a lot of knowledge about the environment, but I’ve never actually gotten to know it in this way, building a personal relationship.”

Jeremy Spira with a treeJeremy Spira begins building a relationship with a tree without the use of his sight.

Indeed, Relationship is central to the guiding framework of this course, together with Respect/Reverence, Reciprocity, and Responsibility—“the Four Rs,” as these are described by Martin Tamlyn, Manager of the Old Growth Forest Project at the Ignatius Centre near Guelph, where we usually hold a field trip. These, however, originate from a worldview that is Indigenous.

Undergirding and infusing all aspects of our study of peace and the environment is a consciousness of shifting paradigms, of the simultaneous existence of what some call the Old Story and the New/Returning Story,1 which Indigenous peoples remind us is the Original Story. The Old Story, characterized by a belief that humans are superior and separate from nature; that natural resources are for human consumption; and that there is general scarcity, leads to expectations of competition and inevitable violent conflict. We see this evidenced in the plethora of crises that are at once environmental, social, economic, and spiritual: resource wars, devastating impacts of climate change, the destruction of so much Life. This is what many Indigenous peoples call the dream or trance of the modern world.2 What does it take to wake up?

In contrast, the New/Returning/Original Story is characterized by a profound sense of interconnectedness; deep valuing of inter-relatedness, of cooperation and collaboration; a sense of abundance—there being enough for all if well distributed; and a living in balance with recognition of limits to growth. Conflict is understood as an inevitable part of all relationships, necessitating the development of skills and strategies for constructively navigating it so that it might be a catalyst for positive change and cultivating a culture of peace. 

We are somewhere in between stories. The Old Story is no longer working (if ever it did) and the New/Returning/Original Story is not yet being fully lived out. The reality is that most of us embody both to varying degrees. When the Old Story is unquestioned and unconscious, we live out of it without awareness of how we are influenced by it. For some, the New/Returning/Original Story is foreign, counter cultural (to the dominant culture), while for others it is familiar but colonized by ‘modernity’, and for others it’s their birthright under constant threat. How do we become more conscious in our choices of which story we live into and co-create?

We come back to the 4 Rs—Respect/Reverence, Relationship, Reciprocity, and Responsibility—with ourselves, with other nature beings, and with other human beings. As we begin in our Sit Spots, many of us do our best to visit with respect, which for some over time shifts to wonder and reverence. But many of us find ourselves initially feeling and acting separate, an outsider, an observer, documenting data. This doesn’t feel like relationship. It does feel calming to our stress and tech wired nervous systems. How much of this is about us and our well-being and how much about truly getting to know the ‘other’? Challenged to use our cross-cultural communication skills, we experiment with more intentionally interacting with the nature beings whose home we are visiting, desiring to make friends. Observing their non-verbal behaviour, listening deeply, checking our observations with additional research, expressing our inner thoughts and questions, offering gifts of gratitude, sometimes cleaning up garbage—gradually we stretch into experimenting with our side of reciprocity. We begin to learn names and how knowing names changes the quality of relating—from general (birds) to specific (blue jays, sparrows, crows). We try on the idea of everything being our relations—mother earth, father sky, grandmother moon, grandfather sun, brothers, and sisters. If so, what are our relational rights and responsibilities? Through our Sit Spots we come into greater connection with self and with nature. Our sense of relatedness shifts. We learn to hear voices different than our own, as well as a deeper voice within ourselves as we reflect through our journals.

We then come into Circle, another core practice through which we learn the 4 Rs. We sit in a circle with no tables and we pass a talking piece (even on zoom), creating space and opportunity for everyone to speak and be heard, but with no obligation to ever speak; presence is gift to the whole. In Circle, with the talking piece and a foundation of shared values and guidelines, we co-create a community where we all become teachers and learners, where our questions, stories, and explorations can be held, and where we learn to listen deeply to perspectives different from our own. This is where we integrate our reflections, readings, and other resources (like guest speakers and videos) into a collective co-creation of knowledge. Here we experience connection…sometimes disconnection…hopefully reconnection. Here we practice skills needed for navigating conflict and for building cultures of peace through inclusivity and dialogue across lines of difference. It is in Circle that we come into greater connection with self and with other people.

Through our practices of Sit Spots and Circle, we are settling the cortisol in our overstressed body systems, shifting our brains from fight/flight/freeze reactions, connecting our minds and hearts, allowing access to our creativity and intuition. We are activating seeds of consciousness often dormant, ancestral wisdom buried, that which is already in our evolutionary biology calling us toward living from core values that are life affirming and guide us toward wholeness. It is from this place that we want our visions and actions to come—the responsibility we hold for contributing to the emerging story. In the spirit of Einstein’s admonition that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, we are learning practices to help shift our consciousness.

As we explore intersections of peace with the environment, we cannot escape the overwhelmingness and despair that comes with comprehending the extent of the devastation we as humans are having on nature, the disproportionate impacts of wealthy nations that implicate us in our own lifestyles and daily habits: the violence we contribute to through the mining of conflict minerals for our cell phones and computers; resource wars in which oil is central; greenhouse gas emissions; polluted water resulting in ongoing boil water advisories for many First Nations; logging of old growth forests; the extractive nature of industrial agriculture; and the intersections of race in the production of our food.

Student holds head against a treeResponsibility brings us to the question of “what is mine to do?” Integral to answering this is cultivating a hope-filled vision of the world we want to live in, daring to dream of what does not currently seem possible. In this we draw inspiration from communities locally and globally reaching across lines of difference to collaborate in their care of the earth and thus of each other (like cultivating urban gardens on vacant lots, protecting a shared river or forest, even transborder peace parks between feuding nations). As Randall Amster, author of Peace Ecology, observes, “the same set of global conflicts over resources, population, and climate that are increasingly at the root of war might also be among the most potent drivers of peaceful relations.”3

In the complexity and inevitable overwhelming of the state of the world, it is about coming back to basics of our relationships. As David Suzuki notes, “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.”4 Activist Julia Butterfly Hill admonishes, “we cannot have peace on the earth, unless we have peace with the earth.”5 Contrary to our unconscious bias, nature is not the backdrop to the stage on which we humans live out our lives. We are always living and acting in relation to other nature beings. The question is not whether we are in relationship but what quality of relationship?

I invite you to find a Sit Spot and continue your own journey in shifting and deepening your relationship with nature—in so doing, contributing to a more just and peaceful world.

  1. Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
  2. Pachamama Alliance, “Awakening the Dreamer”, 2021,
  3. Randall Amster, Peace Ecology (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 6.
  4. Suzuki, David. (2015). What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves Times Colonist.
  5. Pachamama Alliance, “Awakening the Dreamer”, 2021,

Jennifer BallAs Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Jennifer Ball’s research interests pertain broadly to women’s community-based peacebuilding, Circle as pedagogy and community engagement process, community resilience, rural planning and community development, and narrative methodologies.