Thomas Berry does not fit the image of a typical environmentalist. A Catholic monk in his late eighties, he is a philosophical forebear to younger generations of activists. His main focus is not the immediate battles being fought, but the roots of the problem, which he traces back to the very beginnings of Western civilization.
Berry wrote his book The Dream of the Earth beneath an ancient oak in New York City, on a slope overlooking the Hudson River. That tree, to which he dedicated his book, lived through many changes, beginning with the arrival of the Europeans and the end of traditional Native American ways. It lived through the disappearance of the wood bison, the passenger pigeon, the great American chestnuts, the wolverines who prowled the shores of the Hudson, the Atlantic salmon that were once so numerous they threatened to carry away fishermen’s nets. It stood there as men cut down the neighboring trees, demolishing the forest where its life began. It lived through the pouring of billions of tons of concrete, the erection of brick buildings and rigid structures of steel.
Born in 1914, when there were fewer than 2 billion people in the world, Berry, too, has lived through many changes. He grew up in an undeveloped area of the South. “I saw the beginnings of the automobile age,” he says, “and, to some extent, the age of industrialization. I remember the discovery of the Arabian oil fields in the 1920s, and the development of the petrochemical age after the Second World War. By the time I was eight years old, I already saw something happening that I didn’t like.”
Berry has spent much of his life trying to understand why our culture is bent on destroying the natural world. When he was twenty, he entered a Passionist monastery, and for ten years, he got up at two every morning for liturgy. Then, from 3 a.m. on, he studied the foundations of Western thought. He discovered that environmental degradation is not a recent development: by the time Plato wrote his Republic, the Greeks had already cut down the forests of their homeland. At thirty, Berry went to the Catholic University of America, where he earned a doctoral degree in history. He also learned Chinese and Sanskrit, he says, “so I could find out how other cultures and religions dealt with the problems of human existence.” Berry traveled to China to teach and later became director of the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. In 1970, he founded the Riverdale Center of Religions Research in Riverdale, New York, and remained its director until 1995.
The fate of the next generation, which will live to see a world of 8 to 10 billion people, is often on Berry’s mind. “They are going to be in a tragic situation,” he says, “particularly in regard to petroleum. Our food depends on petroleum, and in a sense is transformed petroleum, just like our energy, transportation, clothing, utensils, and plastics. What are people going to do when the petroleum is gone?”
Berry’s latest book is The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. The “great work” facing humanity, he says, is to move from mindlessly extracting and consuming the earth’s resources to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. His other books include two academic works on religion, Buddhism and Religions of India, and The Universe Story, coauthored with cosmologist Brian Swimme.
The old oak tree under which Berry wrote is no more: cut down by a homeowner worried that its branches would fall on his roof. And Berry no longer lives in New York. He has returned to his place of birth in North Carolina, where he lives on a former farm that is now part of the city of Greensboro. I stayed there on a cool November night, talking with him until the small hours and starting up again the following frosty morning.
Jensen: My friend Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan Indian, says she’s got nothing against Jesus, except that he never said anything about our relationship with the land.
Berry: Much of the Bible is concerned with how humans should relate to God, and to one another. What’s gotten lost is our intimate relationship with the natural world. Our theology is highly developed, and our anthropology — our study of each other — is highly developed, but our so-called life sciences are still trying to figure out how nature works in order to control it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about genetic engineering. People have been talking positively about “designer babies.” We don’t just want to know whether the child is going to be a boy or a girl — which is bad enough. We want the child to look the way we want it to, think the way we want it to. That’s just one example of the insane degree to which we wish to control nature.
We need to regain our sense of the natural world as sacred. All that is left to us these days is the possibility of going to the seashore, or the mountains, or another wilderness area. But even this experience has become progressively less meaningful and more separate from our day-to-day existence. In our workaday world, we are no longer present to the natural world in any manner. We no longer see trees as other beings to commune with. We are not taught to make that connection, not encouraged to speak of trees this way. That’s why we live in a world of concrete and steel, of wires and wheels and mechanisms. This is the tragedy of our civilization: our children don’t see the stars because of light pollution; they play on grass poisoned with pesticides; they experience a world circumscribed by so much human-made material they are deprived of any normal relationship with the earth.
As adults, we maintain that disconnection. At one time, we depended directly on the earth for the necessities of life. We recognized this dependency and gave thanks and praise for it, as indigenous and agricultural peoples still do. But now most of us have no idea where our food comes from.
Jensen: And we work a lot harder to get it than hunter-gatherers did.
Berry: The way humans lived before civilization was a lot less work, because we ate what the planet naturally produced, so our food sources renewed themselves. And the planet offered us not only food, but also its wonders, its presence. There was none of this separation of the sacred and the secular: both spiritual and physical well-being were granted at the same time, because — and this is most important — the physical and the spiritual are two dimensions of the same thing.
Each thing is so present to everything else in the universe that nothing is separate. If people would only pay proper attention, they would find verification of this, even within the scientific worldview. For instance, the science of quantum physics tells us that every atom influences every other atom without a known signal passing through the intervening space. But most scientists do not take the next step of understanding.
Steven Weinberg, in The First Three Minutes, a brilliant scientific study of the first three minutes of the universe, says, “The more you know about the universe, the less point it seems to have.” My response to that is “Well, Steven, if there’s no point to it, then why do you study it so much?”
The answer is very simple. The “point” of the universe is the attraction between the Great Self and the small self. Every being has two dimensions: its individual dimension and its universal dimension. The universe is the Great Self. That’s why we are so inspired by being among trees, hearing bird songs, seeing the colors of flowers, and watching the flow of rivers. The source of our inspiration is an encounter with the Great Self, the dimension where we experience fulfillment. We are not ourselves without it. Taking a drink of water when you are thirsty is as spiritual an experience as it is a physical one. You see a river. You drink from it. The river takes care of you both spiritually and physically.
Jensen: I’ve always thought that traditional indigenous peoples live in equilibrium with their surroundings, but you suggest something else: “creative disequilibrium.”
Berry: Imagine that there are two basic forces in the universe: differentiation and bonding. One force pushes things apart, making them different, and the other brings things together, making them present to each other. If the differentiation overcame the bonding, then the universe would disperse. If the bonding overcame the differentiation, then everything would collapse. If the bonding and the differentiation entered into equilibrium, then everything would become fixated, static. The only viable option is for the universe to be in a state of creative disequilibrium, holding together enough not to fly apart, but remaining open enough to expand.
Jensen: How does this manifest itself in human relations?
Berry: Creativity. Play. There is a difference between a philosopher and a poet. Philosophers look for equilibrium. Poets delight in a teasing disequilibrium, in the interplay of tension among all beings.
This is also the difference between Chinese and Japanese art: Chinese art, although it has dynamics and interplay, looks for balance. Japanese art, on the other hand, is more free form and always insists on a certain disequilibrium.
Jensen: Do you think we’re now in a state of destructive disequilibrium?
Berry: I’d be more inclined to say we’re collapsing from excessive equilibrium.
Jensen: I don’t understand. What part of our world is in equilibrium?
Berry: Look at concrete and asphalt. They’re flat. They’re under control. That’s a form of equilibrium, probably the ultimate form: stasis — which is surely what Western civilization aims for. We can’t stand the wild. We can’t stand the creative disequilibrium.
What I’m really concerned with is the question of how we experience the universe. I propose that there is a cosmological order that might be called the “great liturgy,” and that the human project is validated by ritual participation in this natural order. Our job, as humans, is to be a part of the great hymn of praise that is existence.
We have lost touch with the cosmological order. The precise hour of the day is more important to us than the diurnal cycles. We’re so busy worrying — Will I get to work on time? Will I avoid rush-hour traffic? Will I get to watch my favorite television program? — that we have forgotten the spiritual import of the daily moments of transition. The dawn is mystical, a moment to experience the wonder and depth of fulfillment found in the sacred. The same is true of nightfall, and of bedtime, when we pass from consciousness to sleep and our subconscious comes forward. Children, in particular, know that bedtime is magical. Their parents talk to them in a different way at this time: tender, sensitive, quiet.
There are magical moments in the yearly cycle, too. One is the winter solstice, the turning point between a declining and an ascending sun. It’s a moment of death in nature, and a moment when everything is reborn. We have lost touch with this once intimate experience.
Then, in the springtime, humans are meant to wonder at the new life and to ceremonially observe succession. This leads to the fulfillment of summer, and then to the harvest, another time of gratitude and celebration, but also the beginning of the movement toward death.
I went to a monastery when I was twenty. The monastery rituals were — and still are — based on cosmological processes. We got up at two in the morning to celebrate the liturgy of the night. At dawn, we had the liturgy of the day, singing or chanting certain songs according to the particular season. At all the various moments of the day — midday, vespers, the evening, the closing of the day — we celebrated the wonder of existence. But, even with all of this, the sense that the liturgy is based on sacred cosmological cycles escaped most of us. If such awareness is difficult for people performing these many celebrations, how much more so for those of us who do not reflect on — much less sing to — the dawn?
I think the Iroquois thanksgiving ceremony is one of the greatest of all religious festivals. The Iroquois remember and thank fifteen or more specialized powers, including the water, the rain, the wind, the earth, the trees. This is cosmological thinking. Such an experience evokes a sense of wonder at the majesty of things. To participate in the sacred mystery in these moments is to know what it means to be human. We deny ourselves our deepest delight by not participating in the dawn, the dusk, the solstice, the springtime.
Jensen: You’ve said that the Passover holiday played an important role in the beginning of Western civilization. How so?
Berry: The spiritual structure of Western civilization got its start when the springtime festival was transformed from a celebration of the divine in the cycles of the world around us — the cosmological order — to the experience of the divine as manifested in a particular historical moment. Both festivals are about communication between the divine and humankind, but within the earlier religious perspective, such communication generally took place through shamans. Within the newer worldview, it takes place through prophets.
Jensen: What’s the difference?
Berry: The shaman is in ongoing relationship with the powers present throughout the universe, while the prophet is a medium through which the divine communicates a specific, one-time message. Moses was understood to be a real person who had a specific conversation with God at a particular place and time.
Jensen: And Moses and God were the point of the story. Nature, represented by the burning bush, was just the medium.
Berry: Yes, and Christianity later followed this same path: Jesus was a historical figure, as opposed to a mythical one. Connection to the sacred or to God — who is seen as distant from the earth and not a part of it — is not something available to all through participation in the greater whole, but is reserved for a special few, the prophets. Everyone else must experience the sacred through these representatives.
And so we saw an increasing emphasis on the historical, the literal, and the linear, as opposed to the mythological, the cosmological, and the cyclical. This historically oriented Christian world then bonded with Greek humanism to create the Western anthropocentrism with which we, unfortunately, are all too familiar. In this view, humans are the only creatures who matter. Everything else loses its sacredness, its wonder, and becomes mere objects put here for us to use, not beings here to fulfill their own destinies, to commune with each other and with us.
We can’t lay the full blame for all of this on the Passover holiday or even the larger movement from mythological to historical celebrations. That alone didn’t kill our sense of the cosmological. Our connection to the planet resides deep within us and has never been eradicated. Instead, it has been slowly eroded over the centuries and millennia of civilization.
One key event was the plague, called the Black Death, that struck in Europe between 1347 and 1349. In Florence, the population declined from ninety thousand to forty-some thousand in six months. In Sienna, the population went from forty thousand to fifteen thousand in less than a year. Because part of what human beings do is discern meaning, these events had to be interpreted. Not having the slightest knowledge of germs, people could think only of moral explanations: that God was punishing us for becoming weak and sinful. The thing to do, then, was to become more spiritual, to be redeemed and escape this world, which was increasingly becoming a “vale of tears.” Overall, one-third of the European population died.
During the next hundred years, there was a big change in the spirituality of Europe. In fourteenth-century Florence, paintings of Last Judgment scenes, where Christ with an upraised arm condemns the wicked into hell, became common. You never saw these images before the plague. Death had been more or less a part of life, something dealt with through religion. But the people had been traumatized, and now death frightened them. The Last Judgment became a fearsome thing.
People lost touch with the great liturgy, and the world became horrifying and filled with sin. The task of the spiritual person was to withdraw from the natural world, which was seen as the source of contamination, of seduction. Then, in the sixteenth century, Protestant Puritanism overlaid this withdrawal with a certain sternness. In the seventeenth century, we find Jansenism, a kind of Catholic puritanism characterized by an aversion to the natural world. The Jansenists determined that the Eucharist — the Communion celebration with wine and bread, in commemoration of the Last Supper — was such a holy ritual, and humans so wicked, that even those Catholics who went to Mass were not considered worthy of receiving the Eucharist more than, say, a couple of times a year. Not only had the faithful’s direct access to the sacred been eliminated; they had been alienated from their own church’s rituals. (It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that people were again encouraged to participate in Communion each time they went to Mass.)
While the Church articulated the need to be redeemed from the earth, science articulated the need to understand and control the earth. Thus, in the contemporary Western world, the division between the sacred and the secular continued to widen, which made both the Church and the scientists happy: the Church was happy because it didn’t have to deal with the secular side of life, and the scientists were happy because they didn’t have to deal with the spiritual. This split led directly to the aggressive commodification and destruction of the planet, because if you perceive the natural world to be composed of things put here for your use, then you are going to exploit it.
Jensen: You consider the U.S. Constitution to be part of the problem with Western culture. But doesn’t our Constitution grant us more rights than any other people in the world?
Berry: This ties back to the Western world’s preoccupation with the political issue of how humans relate to one another, and how the human community establishes order within itself. So often in the West, this question of governance has devolved to mean simply the relationship between the people and their ruler. Since the Puritan Revolution of 1648 in England, we’ve seen a movement essentially from a monarchy to an oligarchy, rule by the few.
Jensen: Why not a democracy?
Berry: What is a senate? It comes from the Latin senatus, which comes from senex, which means “old man.” It began in Rome as a group of elderly citizens who acted as a consultative council. And, of course, our whole Western tradition of governance originated with the Roman system.
The important thing is that, when the U.S. was founded — and this has been true for all other Western nations, as well — the central idea behind it was that humanity had to work out its problems within the human cultural tradition. The idea of incorporating the nonhuman world just never occurred to the Founding Fathers.
Although the Constitution merely articulated ideas that already existed in ancient Rome, as the first modern constitution it carried a great influence and has played a strong role in shaping the future of the entire human community. But the nonhuman world is absent from this document, and this absence has proven to be a disaster. The nonhuman world is there to be exploited by the human world. The primary relationship is that of use.
The negative consequences of this didn’t spin out of control until the 1880s, when industrial society achieved dominance over the natural world. It was then that humans turned a corner on their ability to exploit, and thus to destroy, the natural world. Since that time, there have been no limitations to speak of.
Of course, it’s not just businesspeople and politicians who are to blame. Other sectors of society have manifested the same deep cultural tendencies. Take the American intellectual community. From the beginning, its purpose has been to rationalize exploitation. When Benjamin Franklin got together with some educators in 1754 and formed the American Philosophical Society, its quest was for useful knowledge. That’s always been the way in America: How do we achieve knowledge that will be useful? The idea of knowledge as a means to achieve fulfillment and understanding, to become more fully human, is secondary. It certainly exists within the larger human tradition, but within our culture, the practical sciences are exalted above all else, to the detriment of us all.
Jensen: We all know the joke about the most common six words spoken by someone with a graduate degree in the humanities: “Would you like fries with that?”
Berry: To get a sense of our culture’s priorities, compare the number of people studying business or science to those studying the humanities. And even the word humanities is inadequate. What about the nonhuman members of the great earth community?
Jensen: Getting back to the Constitution, how would you improve upon it?
Berry: First, we need to add an amendment to the effect that there is no fundamental separation between the human and nonhuman communities. This is true on the local level, on the planetary level, and even on the universal level. There is only one community, and it lives and dies as a unit. Any harm done to the natural world diminishes the human world, because the human world depends on the natural world — and not only for physical resources, but also for psychic development and fulfillment. Some people think we need to destroy the natural world in order to advance the human world. We may get a pile of possessions in return, but it won’t mean much if we can’t go to the mountains or the coast, or enjoy the songs of birds or the sights and scents of flowers.
For far too long, we have believed that the natural world will take care of itself, no matter what we do to it. We got by with this attitude for a while, though at a cost to our immediate surroundings and to our own humanity. But that was before we had our current level of technology. Our scientific worldview has not protected us from the fact that all communities are really just smaller divisions of the one earth community and thrive or diminish together. Although we may feel that we are gaining an advantage, this advantage comes at the direct expense of other beings, and of ourselves, as well.
If we want to survive and to remember what it is to be human, then we need to establish a viable pattern of activity for the whole earth community. This community should be governed by the principle that every being has three rights: the right to live; the right to occupy a habitat; and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of nature.
Jensen: How do we get there from here?
Berry: I’ve always liked the title of Chellis Glendinning’s book My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. We somehow have to get beyond Western civilization, which is so destructive in its present state. Such a profound change is hard really to apprehend. It’s an alteration so absolute and so far-reaching in its implications that a person has to wonder what continuity might remain. Transformations of this magnitude are generally associated with some sort of religious upheaval.
The mission of our times is to reinvent what it means to be human. One thing we know about human beings is that we invent ourselves. As a species, we are genetically coded to undergo a further, cultural coding through which we become fully human. Our parents and our community must teach us how to be human through interactions with the natural world. This is why there are different ways to be human within different cultural contexts.
The Western mode of being, however, has become so distorted that it is having an overwhelming impact not only on the human inhabitants of the planet, but on its other occupants as well. Civilized humans have become a planetary power, with might far beyond what any species has had previously. It can be hard even to imagine — much less put into words — the type of transformation that is necessary.
Jensen: Do you think our culture will undergo such a transformation voluntarily?
Berry: I suspect that, when the transformation takes place, it will not be voluntary or involuntary, but subconscious. In other words, I don’t think we’ll be entirely aware of what’s going on. Cultural transformations don’t emerge consciously. For example, we surely did not intend to damage the environment to the extent that we have. There may be some people who will understand the transformation when it occurs — just as there are some people now who understand the culture’s destructiveness — but for the society at large, the actions of the culture are nearly always unconscious.
People talk about reform or revolution, but in either case, the change emerges from within the Western tradition itself. Revolutionary elements always emerge out of the same source as the tradition they are revolting against. Communism and capitalism, for instance, are both driven by the millennial vision at the end of the Bible: chapters seventeen through twenty-two of the book of Revelations.
Jensen: How so?
Berry: The Old Testament promised that when the Messiah came, there would be peace, justice, and abundance. But in the early days of Christianity, after the Messiah apparently had come and the prophecy had been fulfilled, there was no peace and no justice. Instead, there was persecution, oppression, and rejection almost everywhere. Needless to say, the early Christians had difficulty making sense of this.
It was in this context that Saint John went to the island of Patmos and wrote the visionary book of Revelations, which promised that, once “the dragon” had been chained, there would be a thousand years of peace, justice, and abundance in the world. This promise of paradise on earth has lived on in Western consciousness ever since. It’s inescapable. Anything Westerners do will be driven by the belief that someday there will be a communist workers’ state, and then we will have peace, justice, and abundance. Or someday the riches of the capitalist system will trickle down to bring peace, justice, and abundance to those at the bottom. Or someday modern science and technology will rid the world of disease and suffering and make war obsolete. Someday, someday, someday.
Jensen: And in the meantime, we’re destroying the world.
Berry: It’s all based on a deep resentment of the human condition: of being born, living, and dying; of the world being out of our control; of being dependent on the universe in ways that we can never fully understand. This resentment is what drives technological society. It drives communism. It drives capitalism. Resentment coupled with the quest for an abiding peace, justice, and abundance.
Jensen: Should we just get rid of Western civilization?
Berry: Not at all. Because the problem is within the Western world, the solution must be there also. You always find the solution where the problem is.
This brings us back to the notion of reinventing what it means to be human. As I said, trees don’t need to be taught how to be trees, and bears don’t need to be taught how to be bears, but humans need to be taught how to be human. We need cultural coding.
Carl Jung said that there are archetypal forms pervasive throughout humanity, although they manifest themselves differently in different cultures. For example, cultures generally have a great-mother tradition.
One of the most common archetypes is the death-and-rebirth ceremony: the idea that humans are not fully human until they’ve gone through some ceremonial rebirth. This is an area in which Western civilization stands in contrast to many other cultures. There are some of us — Evangelical Christians come to mind — who emphasize the necessity of being “born again,” but, for the most part, this archetype lies in the forgotten corners of our minds. We’ve become far too rational and historical. The understanding that might be derived from our mythic stories has been lost.
An understanding of death and rebirth provides one clue to comprehending our situation. If such deep transformation is a normal human process, then it is feasible for it to occur on a cultural level as well. Most of the time, we’re so caught up in our predatory existence that life without it is almost unthinkable. Millions of people, however, are awakening to the desperateness of our situation. This didn’t happen until now because the full impact of the West’s relationship with the natural world could not be seen until we achieved this level of power; our civilization’s vulnerability couldn’t be fully perceived until we’d actually begun the process of killing the planet.
Even within our own tradition, there is a capacity for understanding that the small self cannot survive without the Great Self, and that the well-being of the universe is the primary concern. The universe as a whole participates in and manifests the divine more than any single element within it. It’s the same as with music, or building a house: The different components by themselves don’t constitute the whole. The parts make sense only together.
We see this in the story of creation. After each day, God says his creation is “good.” But after the last day, he says it’s “very good” — it’s good in a special way. From this statement, Saint Thomas concluded that the purpose of creation was not just humanity, but the entire universe. Thus, if there is such a thing as the divine coming to earth in human form, its purpose is not to save humanity, but to save the universe. And if there is a redemption, if there is a salvation experience, it’s primarily for the benefit of the whole universe.
The West missed a big chance for salvation five hundred years ago. If we were going to come to North America at all, then we should have joined the great community of this continent, joined the life pattern, become a part of the landscape. And we should have established a constitution based on the three rights I spoke of earlier.
Jensen: What do you see ahead?
Berry: The decline of the West. Oswald Spengler wrote a book by that name before the First World War. Spengler concerned himself with what makes one culture viable, and what causes another to die off. He believed a culture has a life span, just as any organism does. It moves through birth, childhood, maturity, development, decline, and death. Once a culture starts to decline, according to Spengler, it can’t really be stopped. The culture will try to stabilize itself and prevent decline, but nothing will work.
Jensen: This makes me think of the police efforts to quell the protests against the World Trade Organization.
Berry: The World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — they’re all efforts to stabilize an increasingly unstable and declining system. And one of the ironies of these attempts to stave off decline is that they actually tend to speed it up.
The extraordinary rate at which we are destroying the planet makes clear the unsustainability and undesirability of our culture. An impressive intellectual critique of civilization has been building for many years now. Organizations are arising to fight the destructiveness of the culture, and millions of young people are acting on the knowledge that things just aren’t right. Churches and universities are putting out declarations.
Jensen: Will we make the necessary changes in time?
Berry: I don’t think the question is whether our culture will undergo a transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. The question is how well it will be done. And that will depend on whether we can make authentic changes and face the difficulties at the proper level. We must respond adequately to this problem; it is the the most significant humankind has ever faced.
Originally published in the May 2002 issue of The SunFiled in Interviews by Derrick Jensen