The Great Work; Our Way Into the Future

Chapter Ten: The New Political Alignment

by Thomas Berry
Thomas Berry (1914-2009). Photo by Lou Niznik from the Thomas Berry website.

Author, philosopher, cultural historian and voice for Earth’s voiceless, Thomas Berry was born November 9, 1914 in Greensboro, North Carolina where he spent his early childhood. Named William Nathan after his father, he took the name Thomas after Thomas Aquinas when he entered the Passionist order.

He received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America in European intellectual history. Widely read in Western history, he also spent many years studying and teaching the cultures and religions of Asia. He lived in China in 1948 where he met the Confucian scholar, Wm. Theodore de Bary. Their collaboration led to the founding of the Asian Thought and Religion Seminar at Columbia University. Thomas authored two books on Asian religions, Buddhism and Religions of India.

For more than twenty years, Thomas directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research along the Hudson River. During this period from 1966-1979 he taught at Fordham University where he chaired the history of religions program. He directed more than twenty doctoral theses. Genesis Farm, in Frelinghuysen, NJ, as it has emerged over these last 38 years, was born into the legacy of his wisdom.

In 1993, Berry wrote a paper that would later be revised, edited and included as a chapter in one of his major books, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future.

THE OLDER TENSION IN HUMAN AFFAIRS BETWEEN CONSERVATIVE and liberal based on social orientation is being replaced with the tension between developers and ecologists based on orientation toward the natural world. This new tension is becoming the primary tension in human affairs.

So too the political tension between the empires and the colonies is being replaced by an economic tension between village peoples of the world with their organic modes of agriculture and the transnational corporations with their industrial agriculture.

This new alignment should not be taken as if the ecology movement were a New Left movement or a new liberalism. For the ecology movement has moved the entire basis of the division into a new context. It is no longer a division based on political party or social class or ethnic group. It is a division based on the human as one of the components within the larger community of the planet Earth.

In this new alignment those committed to industrial-commercial development of natural areas see this development as inherently progressive. Those committed to the integrity of the natural world and their indigenous peoples see this development as degradation, since the intrusion of the human into the life systems of the planet has already gone beyond any acceptable limits.

To the one group the human is considered primary in terms of reality and value while the larger, more integral Earth community is a secondary consideration. In the other group the integral Earth community (including the human) is seen as primary while human well-being in itself is seen as derivative. The one insists that the natural life systems must adapt primarily to human purposes. The other insists that the human must adapt to the priority of natural life systems. Ultimately there must be a mutual adaptation of the human and the natural life systems.

Reconciliation of these tensions is especially difficult because the commercial-industrial powers have so overwhelmed the natural world in these past two centuries that there is, to the ecologist, serious difficulty in further adaptation of natural systems to the human. Oppression of the natural world by the industrial powers has so interfered with the functioning of natural forces that we are already into an extensive disruption of the biosystems of the planet at the expense of the health and well-being of both humans and the natural world.

We cannot mediate the present situation as though there were some minimal balance already existing that could be slightly modified on both sides to bring into being a general balance. The violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability. It can only be considered as the consequence of a severe cultural disorientation. The change required by the ecologist is a drastic reduction in the plundering processes of the commercial-industrial economy. Until this is recognized there can be no way in which an acceptable reconciliation can be attained.

Yet we are so deeply committed to the exploitative mode of relating to the natural world that those in control of the great corporations can hardly think about modifying the exploitation in any significant manner. Even official movements toward “sustainable development” must be recognized as efforts to avoid the basic issue. Our sense of reality and of value has been so fully committed to the norms governed by the industrial process that such an abrupt shift is too difficult for serious consideration. These industrial norms of procedure are now functioning on a global basis through the transnational corporations.

These corporations, in alliance with the governments of the world, are now related to or organized into such establishments as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the International Organization for Standardization. Bonding of common interests has become so coordinated that it is increasingly difficult to escape not only their influence but their control over the various nations and cultures of the world.

So influential is the present commercial-industrial order that our dominant professions and institutions are functioning in this context; not merely our economic system, but government, jurisprudence, the medical profession, religion, and education. Every aspect of life has been absorbed into the commercial-industrial context. We seem not to know how to live in any other way. In the industrialized nations the automobile, the highways, parking lots, shopping malls, all seem to be necessary for survival at any acceptable level of human well-being.

Through the Internet a more extensive range of human transactions will be carried on without travel or physical presence, yet this will not remedy or remove the waste heaps, polluted waters, sterile and eroded soils, forests devastated by clear-cutting, toxic chemicals, radioactive waste, the thinning ozone layer. We see all this, yet we continue creating these chemicals, clear-cutting the forests, polluting the waters, piling up enormous waste heaps, destroying wetlands. We do this even though the industrial bubble is already dissolving. The end of the petroleum-based economy is in sight. Yet even now the commercial-industrial world insists that this is the only way to survive.

The tendency is to insist that ecologically oriented persons will accept the existing situation with some slight modifications. The system itself must continue in the existing pattern of its functioning. The alternative, the radical transformations suggested by the ecologists—organic farming, community-supported agriculture, solar-hydrogen energy system, redesign of our cities, elimination of the automobile in its present form, restoration of local village economies, education for a post-petroleum way of life, and a jurisprudence that recognizes the rights of natural modes of being—all these are too unsettling. Even though such books as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring are proving to be valid statements of the future that awaits us, they are still considered as too extreme to be accepted.

Never before has the human community been confronted with a situation that required such sudden and radical change in lifestyle under the threat of a comprehensive degradation of the planet and its major life systems. The difficulty can only increase. Tensions between capitalism and socialism, between liberalism and conservatism, are disputes over minor differences in comparison with the issues now before us. Both capitalist and socialist regimes are committed to ever-increasing commercial-industrial exploitation of the resources of the planet. Neither is acceptable to the ecologist.

Fixation on the primacy of industry in the well-being of the human is producing a recession of the basic resources of Earth, which is now a permanent condition. This recession is not a temporary economic recession of any one nation, nor the recession of some financial or commercial arrangement, it is an irreversible recession of the planet itself in many of the most basic aspects of its functioning. The Earth simply cannot sustain the burden imposed upon it. The air in many places has become polluted. The water of the planet has become toxic for an indefinite period of time. The soils of the Earth are saturated with chemicals. We have only the slightest idea of the consequences for the physical and psychic life of the human community, especially for the children who have lived in this chemically saturated environment since the day of their conception.

Physical degradation of the natural world is also the degradation of the interior world of the human. To cut the old-growth forests is not simply to destroy the last 5 percent of the primordial forests left in this country. It is to lose the wonder and majesty, the poetry, music, and spiritual exaltation evoked by such awesome experience of the deep mysteries of existence. It is a loss of soul even more than a loss of lumber or a loss of money. Loss of spiritual, imaginative, intellectual, or aesthetic experience is considered irrelevant by the developers as soon as a territory is identified as a place where money is to be made. In North America, even after taking 95 percent of these forests, developers insist on the right to cut the few timberlands that survive, while speaking of the extreme demands of the ecologists.

The severity of the tension between the developers and the ecologists can only be fully realized if, in addition to what has already been indicated, we understand that the exploiters have been in control of the North American continent since the beginning of its settlement by Europeans in the seventeenth century. Americans have never known any other way of life. The original settlers came here for religious freedoms but also for a “better” life than was available in the European world. The spaciousness of the continent, the luxuriance of its coastlands, its woodlands, its fertile soils, the beaver and deer and buffalo—all these seemed, in their abundance, to be beyond the capacity of any human force to diminish in any significant manner. The attrition of most life forms has been severe in these past few centuries.

Then came the capacity to exploit the coal deposits, the gold fields, the copper and iron ores; the skills to build the canals, the railroads, the highways; the ability to dam the rivers for irrigation and for power at a thousand different places. All this was done with a certain arrogance of the settlers, from the beginning. The rights of the indigenous peoples, the rights of living species, the rights of natural modes of being to exist, none of this evoked from the settlers any adequate sense of responsibility for their actions. When the chemical and electronics industries were established, when the power systems were put into place, when automobiles began to spread their exhaust over the countryside, even these events caused no adequate reflection or even interest in what was happening. Waste was simply poured into the air or dumped into the rivers or used as fill for wetlands.

Only the bright side of all this development was seen. The dark side, the toxic waste, was denied, ignored, hidden from sight, buried. Now, when the immense amount of such waste can no longer be hidden, when the poisons begin to affect the health of the populations, when the lead in the air and in the paints begin to affect the brain functions of children, when the “Love Canals” are identified, when the people of Louisiana begin to realize how extensively the countryside along the Mississippi has become saturated with chemicals, then the new alignment of forces begins to take shape.

The assault of developers on the ecologists has already increased in its pervasiveness and intensity. A person need only read The War Against the Greens by David Helvarg to understand the extent of this opposition. Insensitivity toward the devastation of the natural world led to disregard of the environmental issue throughout both the 1992 and the 1996 campaigns for the United States presidency. The most acute antagonisms of the past have seldom evoked such deep feelings of being threatened. Yet a polarity has evolved that now finds expression in every aspect of contemporary life, in our social and political and economic institutions, in our professions of medicine and law, in our educational programs, in our religious traditions. This polarity in life attitude pervades the public and private order of our society.

There will, naturally, be an infinite number of variations in the emphasis that will be given to various plans of action. But the main outlines of the tension are clearly evident. The tensions created will ultimately be even more severe than the capitalist-Communist tension that dominated political-social activities of the human community from the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 until 1991, when the Soviet collapse occurred and left the capitalist world and its market economy in control.

In understanding these new tensions a person need only read a few surveys, such as the attack on the ecologists in The True State of the Planet, a book edited in 1996 by Ronald Bailey, or Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order, which identifies the controlling power of the corporations, by Richard Barnett and John Cavanaugh. In addition to these a person might read The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon, someone who argues that there is no real resource problem, population problem, or soil problem.

Yet there is still a tendency to think of ecologists as radical, romantic, or trivial New Age types. If by clear-cutting the last 5 percent of the surviving old-growth forests we provide jobs for the present, then clear-cutting is justified. This is the realist position. Forests are seen as so many board feet of lumber whose primary value is to be cut down for human use. The sense of meaning, of entry into the mysteries of existence, the grandeur experienced in their presence, all these are marginal to the essential thing of life, which is to exploit the forests for their passing human use and their monetary value.

Such issues require a reorientation of all the professions, especially the legal profession, which is still preoccupied with individual “human” rights, especially with the limitless freedom to acquire property and exploit the land. The number of lawyers hired by single corporations to defend themselves against any limitation of their perceived rights to exploit the natural world is evidence of the strange principles of jurisprudence that allow the devastation of the planet to proceed. Universities are still preparing students for professional careers in the industrial-commercial world even as this world continues its planetary destruction. The medical profession is only beginning to recognize that no amount of medical technology will enable us to have healthy humans on a sick planet.

A new awareness is emerging, however, throughout every realm of human activity. The term sustainable development is now the single most significant phrase in any discussion of these issues. This phrase obtained currency in the 1987 report (Our Common Future) of the World Commission on Environment and Development. It was later used to indicate the central concern of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. So central is this phrase at the present time that it could be said that whoever owns it controls much of the discussion concerning the future.

Indeed, at the present time few persons would directly confront the proposal that development can no longer be as unlimited as it has been in the past. So prevalent is this phrase, sustainable development, and so widespread the claim to be acting with regard to the environment, that the deeper question has now become the question of authenticity in fulfilling its demands. Are contemporary commitments to safeguarding the environment merely up-front appearances with little substantial regard for the natural world, or is there a true commitment to limit industrial activity so that no real harm is done to the ecosystems of the planet?

The more realistic response to this phrase is that development is simply not sustainable. What is needed is a sustainable way of life. Paul Hawken goes further than sustainability with his proposal that a “restorative economy” is already in process. This view is presented in his book on The Ecology of Commerce (1993) and carried out in its basic principles through the movement known as “The Natural Step.” Another more rigorous critique of the corporations is presented by David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (1995). Both are working toward a depth understanding of the present situation with suggestions as to a viable way into the future.

David Korten makes proposals for the sequence of intermediate steps needed if we are to move into a sustainable mode of human presence on the planet in a later book, The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism. A further observation might be made that a sustainable mode of survival at our present level of economic well-being in the industrialized countries is hardly possible as a universal attainment. It is estimated that to support our present Earth population at the level enjoyed in North America would require two or three planets.

The more ultimate question has to do with the “soul” of the future as this finds expression in the single life principle of the planet Earth. There is much consideration of the physical and biological modes of survival with relatively little comment on the soul of the future. Here we are mainly concerned with the “soul” as the shaping spirit within any vital process. These, the inner spirit and the outer form, are two distinctive aspects of a single mode of being. In considering the soul of the future, I am concerned with the inner vision that we need if we are to make the intellectual, social, economic, and religious adjustments required for a viable future.

That the human and other components of Earth form a single community of life is the central issue of the Great Work. We can hardly repeat too often that every mode of being has inherent rights to their place in this community, rights that come by existence itself. The intimacy of humans with the other components of the planet is the fulfillment of each in the other and all within the single Earth community. It is a spiritual fulfillment as well as a mutual support. It is a commitment, not simply a way of survival. Anything less, to my mind, will not work. The difficulty we confront is too great. The future is too foreboding. We need to think of twice the present human population facing the future with half the resources. The next generations need a truly inspiring vision of the wonder and grandeur of life, along with the beginnings of the new technologies they will need.

The profoundly degraded ecological situation of the present reveals a deadening or paralysis of some parts of human intelligence and also a suppression of human sensitivities. That exploitation of the Earth is an economic loss should at least be evident, especially when we observe such extinctions as have occurred in the seas. There we can observe that some species of fish have become commercially extinct because humans would not limit their take to the reproduction rate of the fish, even though this reproduction rate was almost astronomical in the abundance of its production, as was the case with salmon in the Pacific and cod in the Atlantic.

When the proposal is made that we must continue what we are doing “in order to provide jobs” it must be considered as an unacceptable solution when a much greater abundance of jobs is available for repairing the already damaged environment. In all of these instances we can see a disposition toward biocide, the destruction of the life-systems of the planet, and geocide, the devastation of the planet itself, not only in its living creatures but in the integrity of the nonliving processes on which the living world depends.

Read the publications of the business world —Fortune, The Economist, or the Wall Street Journal —to observe the abandonment of any discipline that would limit the moneymaking concern of our industrial society, for it is precisely by this grasping after greater wealth to sustain a “better life” that we perceive “progress.” The pathology of this attitude is the limitless straining after what cannot be attained by any level of consumerism. As with any addiction, the addiction itself is seen as the way to life. The authentic remedy, the only valid way to life, is perceived as too painful for acceptance.

What we propose here is not a solution of the issue but a clarification of the fact that the real issue before us is no longer finding expression in terms of liberal and conservative but rather in terms of the ecologist or environmentalist on the one hand and the commercial-industrial establishment on the other. A new alignment of forces is taking place throughout every institution and every profession in our society.

It is important to understand this new situation, the inherent difficulties of reconciliation, and the new language that has come into being. Only in this manner can we appreciate the true nature of the issues under discussion and the magnitude of change required in shaping a viable mode of human presence on the planet Earth for the future. All our professions and institutions need to be reinvented in this new context. We must in a manner reinvent the human itself as a mode of being. Eventually this implies rethinking the planet and our role within the planetary process.

To learn more about the work of Thomas Berry, please visit

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