A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Election 2016 and the End of a World Age

Thomas Berry writes about the real choices we face this year and the Great Work upon which we should be embarking.

Are you a conservative or a liberal? Pro-capitalism or pro-socialism? With all the hoopla in this year’s election campaign, the difference is essentially cosmetic – sort of like Henry Ford’s famous offer on his Model T: “You may pick any color, so long as it’s black.”

That’s because both parties and all candidates, regardless of the differences they try to draw, are offering the same single choice: more industrial growth, more and better ways to plunder the planet and more devastation of life on Planet Earth.

The only true alternative would involve shutting down industrial civilization altogether: no more cars or planes, no Internet, no power plants. But no one seeking your vote is about to suggest that. (And in any case, it’s almost certainly too late to turn back what we humans have set in motion.) We are in the closing years of the most prolific and stunningly beautiful era of Earth history.

One person who understood our dilemma very clearly was Thomas Berry, the Passionist priest, cultural historian, philosopher, and self-described “geologian,” who was, until his death in 2009, the best-known and most articulate voice of ecological wisdom in the religious community and beyond.

In his last book, The Great Work, published in 1999, Berry writes that we are currently in the closing years of the most prolific and stunningly beautiful era of Earth history, the Cenozoic, which began 65 million years ago at the end of the age of the dinosaurs and gave rise to the world as we know it today.

This is the era when the flowers came forth in all their gorgeous colors and fantastic shapes. It is the period of the great deciduous trees in the temperate zones and of the tropical rain forests in the equatorial region. The Cenozoic is the special time of the birds in all the variety of their forms and colors and songs and mating rituals. Above all it is the era of the mammals.

. . . The late Cenozoic was a wildly creative period of inspired fantasy and extravagant play. It was a supremely lyrical moment when humans emerged on the scene, quietly, somewhere on the edge of the savanna in northeast Africa.

The Cenozoic is coming to an end in another mass extinction: this one brought about by our own species. And Berry suggests that the “great work” of our time is to give birth to a new era that he calls the “Ecozoic”, one in which we humans reintegrate ourselves as a positive, rather than wholly destructive, element in the scheme of things.

The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.

. . . Our own special role, which we will hand on to our children, is that of managing the arduous transition from the terminal Cenozoic to the emerging Ecozoic Era, the period when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community.

This would involve upending the kind of thinking that’s dominated the last several centuries and was the Enlightenment philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Berry points to the framers of the American Constitution as having laid the legal groundwork for the destruction of the natural world:

The Constitution guarantees to humans participatory governance, individual freedoms, and rights to own and dispose of property – all with no legal protection for the natural world.

. . . So long as the American Constitution in its present form and interpretation remains our ultimate referent in legal affairs, any equitable consideration of the natural modes of being of this continent will never be achieved.

. . . The jurisprudence supporting such a constitution is profoundly deficient. It provides no basis for the functioning of the planet as an integral community that would include all its human and other-than-human components. Only a jurisprudence based on concern for an integral Earth community is capable of sustaining a viable planet.

As a result:

Our legal system fosters a sense of human rights, with other-than-human beings having no inherent rights.

The same is true for our economic system, which is “based on our mechanistic exploitation of the Earth in all of its geo-biological systems.” And it’s true for our overall human culture, which has increasingly been dominated by the need to separate ourselves from the rest of nature and to see ourselves as superior and “spiritual”.

We have rarely felt at ease amid the spontaneities of the natural world. We feel we deserve a better world. We must find our fulfillment in some transformed earthly condition. We find increasing difficulties in accepting life within the conditions that life has granted us.

And so we have come to embrace what we call “progress” toward creating our would-be “better” world by attempting to take control of nature and transcend it. Nature has come to be viewed “both as an obstacle to be overcome and as a resource to be exploited.” We have come to view ourselves as “a transcendent mode of being. We don’t really belong here. But if we are here by some strange destiny then we are the source of all rights and all values. All other earthly beings are resources to be exploited for human benefit.”

We can keep flogging the dead horse of economic progress. But soon it won’t be able to get up again.Were Thomas Berry still with us, he would, for sure, be viewing the 2016 election campaign and its endless debates over capitalism versus socialism as a giant distraction from the real issues at hand. As far as the Earth is concerned, there’s nothing to choose between them since “both capitalist and socialist regimes are committed to ever-increasing commercial-industrial exploitation of the resources of the planet.”

The debate we should be having instead is over whether we’re going to continue our blind, self-centered plunder of the planet and all its living creatures, or whether we’re going to bite the bullet, bring the disaster to a screeching halt, and head in a new direction.

At a talk he gave in 1991, Berry discussed the economic recession that was gripping the country at that time, and offered a prescient view of what was to come:

The industrial world on a global scale, as it functions presently, can be considered definitively bankrupt … This is not only a financial recession; it is a recession of the planet itself.

The Earth cannot sustain such an industrial system or its devastating technologies. In the future the industrial system will have its moments of apparent recovery, but these will be minor and momentary. The larger movement is toward dissolution.

That’s why there hasn’t been, and cannot be, a true recovery from the most recent recession, the so-called Great Recession of 2008.

We can keep flogging the dead horse of economic progress – cutting down any remaining forests, factory-fishing the ocean depths, and mining the last resources of the planet. And, yes, the economy will struggle to its feet, only to collapse again and again, each time a little sooner than it did before. But eventually – quite soon – it won’t be able to get up again.

Only if the Earth economy is functioning in some integral manner can the human economy be in any way effective. The absurdity has been to seek a rising Gross National Product in the face of a declining Gross Earth Product.

Berry argues that the same applies to every area of human endeavor. How can you possibly improve human health when you’re undermining the health and wellbeing of the entire planet? How can you guarantee justice for your fellow humans when you’re denying the rights of all other living creatures?

He acknowledges that the “great work” he outlines is a tall order:

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.

And if it was a tall order when he published the book in the last year of the 20th Century, it may now, in fact, be impossible. In the six short years since Berry’s death, things have only deteriorated, and the pace is accelerating.

But we don’t embark upon a great work only if its success is guaranteed. We embark on it because it’s the right thing to do. And we do it in the knowledge that it will make a difference, however small, in the lives of the animals around us, and also to lay the groundwork for the generation that will follow us.

As Thomas Berry understood so well, the most diverse, vibrant and beautiful era in Earth history is now drawing to a close. What follows will depend to a large extent on what we humans do in the next few years.