by Thomas Berry
The director of the Riverdale Center in New York
City, Thomas Berry was a strong influence on environmental activist/priest
Matthew Fox and is the inspiration and principle subject of physicist
Brian Swimme’s popular book The Universe Is A Green Dragon. In his
prologue to "Green Dragons" Dr. Swimme said: "I want to honor Thomas Berry
and the cosmological tradition he celebrates, stretching back from Erich
Jantsch and Teilhard de Chardin through Thomas Aquinas and Plato".
I first met Father Berry in 1984 through our mutual involvement
with the Temple of Understanding, an International Inner-Faith Organization
based in New York City. We met again at the First Global Forum
of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, held
in 1988 at Christ Church of Oxford University, Oxford, England
and Father Berry agreed to allow me to publish his work in my now-defunct
quarterly newspaper. Hoka Hey! originally published Earth Economics
in a two-part series in the Spring and Summer issues 1989. Hoka Hey!
also published Thomas Berry’s The Indian Future in the Spring, 1992
Sadly, not much has changed since Father Berry detailed these
warnings fifteen years ago. If anything, environmental matters have worsened
dramatically. As part of the team teaching the course, Manifest Destiny
and Environment: Fur Trade to Globalization, at the University of
Texas in the Fall of 2002, I decided to present Father Berry’s
Economics again at the Hoka Hey! "Classics" section of bbridger.com.
Economics as a religious issue can be dealt with in different
ways. One way is to begin with the religious quest for justice. In this
context we have a special concern that the well-being of the society be
shared by all, that the basic necessities be available to the less privileged.
Such and approach emphasizes our social and political responsibilities
to see that the weak and less gifted are not exploited by the strong and
This moral-religious critique generally concerns itself with
the issue of a capitalist market economy that neglects its social responsibilities.
The remedy offered, in accord with biblical and moral principles, is to
incorporate everyone into the functioning and benefits of the economy.
Admirable as this approach may be, it brings about only temporary improvement
since the more basic difficulty may not be the social issue but the industrial
economy itself, which is not a sustainable economy.
Another way of dealing with economics as a religious issue is
to begin with the present economy and inquire into its deeper implication
from within its own functioning. This is the manner of procedure we will
be using here. We will begin with a few observations concerning the reality
of the present economy and its capacity to sustain itself. We will also
look at its consequences for the well-being of the human community and
for the life systems of the earth upon which a sustainable economy depends
in a very direct manner.
The reality of our present economy is that it does not bode well
for either the human community or even the planet itself and its most basic
life systems. Economic dysfunction is generally expressed in terms of deficit
expenditure. Income does not balance outflow. In the natural world there
exists an amazing richness of life expressions in the ever-renewing cycle
of the seasons. There is a minimum of entropy. The inflow of energy and
the outflow are such that the process is sustainable over an indefinite
period of time. So long as the human process is integral to these processes
of nature, so long is the human economy sustainable into the future.
The difficulty comes when the industrial mode of our economy
disrupts the natural processes, when human technologies are destructive
of earth technologies. In such a situation the productivity of the
natural world and its life systems is diminished. When nature goes into
deficit, then we to into deficit. When this occurs to a limited extent
on a regional basis it can often enough be remedied. The difficulty
is when the entire planet system is affected. The earth system is most
threatened when the human economy goes out of balance and frantic efforts
towards a remedy lead to a reckless plundering of the land, spending our
capital as our interest diminishes.
If we look at the specific data available in the United States
economy we find there is now a GNP of over 3 trillion dollars. There is
a national debt of 1,800 billion dollars, and annual budgetary deficit
of some 200 billion, an infrastructure disintegration requiring repairs
of 750 billion, and annual trade deficit of over 100 billion, 200 billion
in Third World financial loans unlikely to be repaid, and an annual military
expenditure of 300 billion.* All of these can be considered financial deficits.
[Editor’s note: Father Berry wrote this essay in 1987 and these figures
are based on statistics from that era.]
But seldom does anyone speak of the earth deficit, the deficit
involved in the closing down of the basic life system of the planet
through abuse of the air, the soil, the water, and the vegetation. As we
have indicated, the earth deficit is the real deficit, the ultimate deficit,
the deficit with some consequences so absolute as to be beyond adjustment
from any source in heaven or earth. Since the earth system is the ultimate
guarantee of all deficits, a failure here is a failure of the last resort.
Neither economic viability nor improvement in life conditions for the poor
can be realized in such circumstances. These can only worsen, especially
when we consider the rising population levels throughout the developing
This deficit in its extreme expression is not only a resource
deficit but the death of a living process, not simply the death of a living
process, but of THE living process (a living process exists, so far as
we know, only on the planet earth). This is what makes our problems definitively
different from those of any other generation of whatever ethnic, cultural,
political, or religious tradition, or any other historical period. For
the first time we are determining the destinies of the earth in a comprehensive
and irreversible manner. The immediate danger is not possible nuclear war
but actual industrial plundering.
Economics in this scale is not simply economics of the human
community; it is economics of the earth community in its comprehensive
dimensions. Nor is this a question of profit or loss in terms of personal
or community well-being in a functioning earth system. Economics has invaded
the earth system itself. Our industrial economy is closing down the planet
in the most basic mode of its functioning. The air, the water, the soil
are already in degraded condition. Forests are dying on this very continent.
The seas are endangered. Aquatic life-forms in lakes and streams and the
seas are contaminated. The rain is acid rain.
So the litany goes on. The United States lose over four billion
tons of topsoil each year. The great aquifers of the Plains region are
diminished beyond their capacity for refilling. Our industrial agriculture
is no longer participating in the productive cycles of the natural world;
it is the extinction of the very conditions on which these productive cycles
While it is unlikely that we could ever extinguish life in any
absolute manner, we are eliminating species at a rate never before known
in historic time and in a manner never known in biological time. Destruction
of the tropical rain forests of the planet will involve destroying the
habitat of perhaps half the living species of earth. Although its strictly
economic implications have still not been worked out, it should be clear.
An exhausted planet is an exhausted economy.
The earth deficit in its resources and in its functioning has
been documented in a long series of specialized studies and in more general
evaluations in ever-increasing volume over the past 20 years. The first
thorough scientific study of the situation was that of Rachel Carson who
described the chemical poisoning of the land and the killing of its life
systems in her 1962 book, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).
In 1970 Paul Ehrlich edited a comprehensive study entitled Ecoscience:
Population, Resources, Environment (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman) Then
in 1972 came the comprehensive survey of the planet earth as a complex
of life systems, The Limits To Growth (New York: Universe Books),
edited by Donella Meadows with several others, a work based on the earlier
Dynamics by W. Forrester (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2cd. Edition,
1972). In 1976, an unappreciated work originally published in 1952 was
republished, a work by Edward Hyams entitled Soil and Civilization
(New York: Harper and Row). This is an extraordinary study of the
difficulties encountered in establishing sustainable human relations with
the land in various civilizations, even suggesting that the destruction’s
of the natural environment in the Mediterranean world by the classical
civilization contributed significantly to their decline.
In 1980 came a second comprehensive survey of the planet earth
entitled, Global 2000: A Report to the President, edited under the
direction of Gerald Barney (Washington, D.C.: Council on Environmental
Quality and the Department of State). Then in 1981 a valuable survey of
this report and four other global reports was given by Magda Cordell
in her book Ominous Trends and Valid Hopes (Minneapolis: Hubert
Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, 1981).
One of the most helpful of these general studies was published
by Norman Myers in 1984, Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management (New
York: Doubleday). In that same year, Lester Brown, with the resources of
Institute, started an annual publication entitled State of the World.
So far two issues are available, 1984 and 1985. The listing of specialized
studies would be endless. There are in depth inquiries into why this assault
on the earth is taking place, such as Carolyn Merchant’s study, The
Death of Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) There are special
studies in different fields such as the studies of agriculture by Rodale
Press. All of these indicate that the planet cannot long endure present
modes of human exploitation.
Until recently both textbook economics and corporation practice
have ignored the implications of such data or have given it minimal attention.
Such deficits were simply external or unreal costs of doing business, costs
that were not entered into the bookkeeping statements, limits on pollution
of the environment, clean-up of waste sites, and liability for personal
damage resulting from toxic disruption of the basic systems. Even the existence
of such clean-up needs should tell us something: The industrial system
itself in its present form is a failing system. Yet we can be sure that
whatever fictions exist in Wall Street bookkeeping, the earth is a faithful
scribe, a faultless calculator, a superb bookkeeper, we will be held responsible
for every bit of our economic folly.
Only now do we begin to consider that there is an economics of
the human as a species as well as an economics of the earth as a functional
community. We have just begun to realize that the primary objective of
economic science, of the engineering profession, of technological invention,
of industrial processing, of financial investment, and of corporate management,
must be the integration of human well-being within the context of the well-being
of the natural world. This is the primary purpose of economics. Only within
the ever-renewing process of the natural world is there any future for
the human community. Not to recognize this is to make economics a deadly
The Myth of Economics
The exploitation of the earth was and still is experienced by
economists not as a deterioration of the planet or as a new mode of exhaustion
of the planet but as an extension of the emergent creative process leading
to a kind of wonderworld of existence. This is "progress", a belief so
entrancing for the modern world that doubt about its validity is not permitted.
Even though this belief has long since been severely critiqued and its
limitation indicated, it remains the functional basis of our economy. The
GNP must increase each year. Everything must be done on a larger scale
with little awareness of the in-built catastrophe involved in the exponential
rate of increase. However rational modern economics might be, the dynamic
of economics is visionary commitment supported by myth and a sense of having
the magic powers of science to overcome any difficulty encountered when
human processes reach their limits.
This visionary approach can be seen in the new surge of the industrial
economy, the rising level of stockmarket quotations, the formation of the
the great conglomerates, the giant corporation mergers, the new mystique
of the entrepreneur. This last item is described in the recent best-seller
Search of Excellence (New York: Harper and Row, 1982) by Thomas Peters
and Robert Waterman, Jr., and given its archetypal model in the autobiography
of Lee Iacocca.
Herman Kahn and Julian Simon have argued in defense of this myth
of process with severe criticism of forebodings concerning the national
or world economy such as those presented here. Herman Kahn resented especially
the rejection of the idea of limitless progress and the danger of exponential
rates of increase presented in Limits to Growth and Global 2000: A Report
to the President. He encouraged us to continue our established way
into the future, confident that our scientific insight, technological competence,
and economic discernment would lead us on into an even better life situation.
The best summaries of this position of ever-continuing process can be found
in the book by Julian Simon entitled, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1982) and the one edited, The Resourceful
Earth (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984). These works argue that every
generation in modern times has lived better than the prior generation,
that there is no serious problem, we must not lose our nerve, science will
resolve our difficulties. Presently, there is a glut of food in America,
an increase in land brought under cultivation throughout the world, so
why worry about the loss of topsoil? Thus the mythic drive continues to
control our world even though so much is known about the earth: its limitless
resources, the interdependence of life systems, the delicate balance of
its ecosystems, the consequences of disturbing the atmospheric conditions,
of contaminating the air, the soil, the waterways and the seas, the limited
quantity of fossil fuels in the earth, the inherent danger of chemicals
discharged into natural surroundings.
Although all of this has been known for generations, neither
the study nor the commercial-industrial practice of economics has shown
any capacity to break free from the mythic commitment to progress, or any
awareness that we are in reality creating wasteworld rather than wonderworld.
This mythic commitment to continuing economic growth is such that none
of our major newspapers or magazines considers having an ecological section
in each issue -equivalent to the sports section, or the financial section,
or the comic section, or the entertainment section- although the
ecological issues are more important than the daily national and international
political news. The real history that is being made is inter-species and
human-earth history, not inter-national history. Our real threat is from
the retaliatory powers of the abused earth, not from other nations. If
this assault on the earth were done by evil persons with destructive intentions
it would be understandable. The tragedy is that our economy is being run
by persons with good intentions under the illusion that they are only bringing
great benefits to the world and even fulfilling a sacred task on the part
of the human community. "We bring good things to life". "Progress is our
most important product". "Fly the friendly skies". These are millennial
dreams for moving on into our new frontiers of economic accomplishment
for the fulfillment of the high purposes of the universe itself.
Nor has the real situation been appreciated by social reformers
or by those concerned with the needs of the poor and dispossessed. These,
whether socialist or capitalist in orientation, wish mainly to enable the
poor to find their place in the industrial process itself is generally
Nor have our moral theologians been able to deal with our abuse
of the natural world. After dealing with suicide, homicide, and genocide,
our western Christian moral code collapses completely: It cannot deal with
biocide or geocide. Nor have church authorities made any sustained protest
made any sustained protest against the violence being done to the planet.
[Editors note: As I re-introduce Father Berry’s essay here in late 2002,
there is a rapidly-growing movement from religious fundamentalists asking
the question: What would Jesus drive?, a insipid attempt to curb America’s
appetite for gas-guzzling SUV’s.]
A Slowly Emerging Sense
The new sense of what economics is all about has emerged from
the naturalist Aldo Leopold in his essay, "A Land Ethic", from an independent
biologist, Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, and from the economist
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971). Georgescu-Roegen, in particular,
had a profound sense of the economic implications of the second law of
thermodynamics. Before his time, no modern economic system yet had any
realization of the earth system itself as the primary functional context
of life in all its aspects. Every modern economic system from the mercantile
and physiocrat theories of the 17th and 18th centuries of Keynes is homcentric
and exploitive. The natural world is considered as a resource for human
utility, not as a functioning community of mutually supporting life systems
within which the human must discover its proper role.
The basic critique of Georgescu-Roegen is that economists were
caught in a mechanistic world that could be understood simply from within
its own economic data. So with this model, derived from Newtonian cosmology,
the economist in their theories and the corporations with their practice
sought to manage the economic world from within such a limited context.
Economics was a closed process of commercial transactions with reference
only to the production and exchange of goods. As Georgescu-Roegen indicates,
"Economist do speak occasionally of natural resources. Yet the fact remains
that, search as one may, in none of the economic models in existence is
there a variable standing for nature’s perennial contribution." (The
Entropy Law and the Economic Process, p. 2) He also notes, "The fact
that biological and economic factors may overlap and interact in some surprising
ways, though well established, is little known among economists". (p. 317).
Even now corporations feel imposed upon when they are required
to make environmental impacts statements concerning their intrusion into
the natural world., when they are required to refrain from scattering industrial
waste over the land, to indicate to their workers the toxic nature of the
materials they are working with, or when they are required to list the
chemical contents of their products.
There is a certain pathos in social reform movements and in the
efforts made to improve the living conditions of the impoverished within
the context of such a dysfunctional and non-sustainable economy. This is
understandable however since life necessities, air and water, food, clothing
and shelter are demanded presently. Whatever the existing economy, human
needs must be supplied, even though food today for the few man be starvation
tomorrow for the many. This means jobs within the existing context. No
immediate alternative seems available.
Even so, an awareness should exist that the present system is
too devastating to the natural fruitfulness of the earth to long supply
human needs. Alternative programs are being elaborated and becoming functional.
If the moral norm of economics is what is happening to the millions of
persons in need, then these more functional economic developments are required
not only by those excluded from the present system but by the entire nation
community, by the entire human community, and by the entire earth community.
The Diversity of Creatures
This is not socialism on the national scale, nor is it inter-nation
socialism. It is planetary socialism. It is socialism based on the Summa
Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, (Part I Question 47, article1, where
he deals with the diversity of creatures.) Beyond planetary socialism he
proposes an ultimate universe socialism where he says that because the
"could not be adequately represented by one creature alone,
He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to
one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied
by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform,
creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe
together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and
represents it better than any single creature whatever".
From this we could argue that the community of all the components
of the planet earth is primary in the divine intention. Even biologically
it is evident that the well-being of the various components of the earth.
The trees of the Appalachian mountains will not be healthy if the rain
is acid rain. Nor will the soil be fertile, nor will humans have their
proper nourishment. Nor will the human imagination be activated to its
grand poetic visions, nor will our sense of the divine be so exalted if
the earth is diminished in its glory. It is all quite clear. If we pull
the threads, the fabric falls apart, the human fabric in particular, in
both its religious and its economic aspects. We come to the essential problem
of economics as a religious issue when we consider that the present threat
to both economics and religion is from a single source, the disruption
of the natural world. If the water is polluted it can neither be drunk
nor used for baptism, for it no longer symbolized life; it is a symbol
Obviously, then, economics and religion are two aspects of a
single earth process. If the economy is more immediately the cause for
disruption of the natural world, the ultimate sources for this mode of
economic activity may be found in the religious-cultural context within
which our present economy emerged.
This may well be the reason why at this time when threatened
in the very source of our sacramental forms there is no sustained religious
protest or moral judgement concerned with the industrial assault on the
earth, the degradation of its life systems, or the threatened extinction
of its most elaborate modes of life expression. Even more important: Why
did this process develop in a civilization that emerged out of biblical-Christian
This most urgent theological issue, so far as I know, has never
been dealt with in any effective manner although the accusation has been
made by Lynn White, Jr. that Christianity bears "an immense burden of guilt"
for the present ecological crisis. A long list of answers have been written,
by a few theologians, but most brief articles not entirely convincing because
of the inadequate consideration of those dark or limited aspects of Christianity
that made our western society liable to act so harshly toward the natural
Exaggerated Religious Orientation
Any thorough study of our biblical-Christian traditions in their
historical realization reveals immediately a number of religious orientations
that have taken possession of western consciousness to an exaggerated degree.
The more intensely the religious dedication the greater the imbalance tends
The first of these religious orientations is the biblical commitment
to a transcendent personal monotheistic concept of deity with severe prohibition
against any worship of divinity resident in nature. By absorbing the original
pervasive presence of the divine throughout the natural world and constellating
the divine in a strictly transcendent mode, the natural world was to come
extent despiritualized and desecralized. The very purpose of Genesis was
to withdraw Israel for the Near Eastern orientation. Whatever the benefits
of such diminishment of the divine of the natural world, it rendered the
world less personal, less subject; it became something seductive, more
lible to be treated as object.
Secondly, the redemption experience became the dominant mode
of Christian consciousness to the diminishment of attention to creation
experience. A general sensitivity to the natural world and to the medieval
period. But then during the 14th century, after the Black Death, an overwhelming
commitment to redemption controlled the Christian experience. The Apostle’s
Creed as well as the Nicene Creed both glide lightly over the creation
reference. The Council of Trent was so caught up in redemption issues that
it had nothing at all to say about creation. Until our times, creation
has never been the basic issue. It was simply there; it was beyond discussion.
Nature gradually disappeared from Christian consciousness.
A third aspect of the Christian life orientation that brought
about our present alienation from the natural world is the Christian emphasis
on the spiritual nature of the human against the physical nature of the
other creatures. This attitude was strengthened by the influence of Platonic
philosophy from the Hellenic world. Human perfection was thought of in
terms of detachment from the phenomenal world in favor of the divine eternal
world presented as our true destiny. As the emphasis has developed since
the 16h century, we have more and more thought of the natural world as
object to be exploited to our rational satisfaction, to our aesthetic enjoyment,
or to our utilization as natural resource. In any case the natural world
is ultimately considered as object, as not possessing rights or subjectively
or legal status, certainly not constituting with the human as single earth
community as a segment of the comprehensive universe community.
A fourth aspect of Christian tradition that made possible such
devastation of the natural world as we presently witness it is the expectation
of an infra-historical millennial period in which the human condition would
overcome; peace and justice would pervade the land under the spiritual
reign of the saints and by the infallible efficacy of divine power. It
would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this belief in western
tradition and now in the world tradition, since it has, in a transformed
version been turned into the secular doctrine of unfailing progress in
human affairs. This mythic belief has evoked the enormous energies required
for creating the industrial world such as we know it.
Because the human condition was not overcome by spiritual power
or divine intervention, humans have since the time of Francis Bacon been
determined to bring this better world into being through the scientific,
technological, industrial, and corporative enterprise. If this requires
the total despoiling of the earth to achieve such transformation, then
so be it.
While none of these Christian beliefs individually is adequate
as an explanation of the alienation we experience in our natural setting,
they become convincing in their totality in providing a basis for understanding
how so much planetary destruction has been possible in our western tradition.
We are radically oriented away from the natural world. It has no rights;
it exists for human utility, even for spiritual utility.
The natural world is subject as well as object. The natural world
is the material source whence we emerge into being as earthlings. The natural
world is the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic,
moral, and religious existence. The natural world is the larger sacred
community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to
become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is
to diminish our own existence.
If this sense of the sacred character of the natural world as
our primary revelation of the divine is our first need, our second need
is to diminish our emphasis on redemption experienced in favor of a greater
emphasis on creation process. Creation, however, must now be experienced
as a material-physical reality from the beginning. We need to know the
great story of the universe in its four phases of emergence: the galactic
story, the earth story, the life story, the human story.
We need to see ourselves as integral with this emergent process,
as that being in whom the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in
conscious and self-awareness. Once we begin to experience ourselves in
this manner, we immediately perceive how adverse to our own well-being
as well as economically is any degradation of the planet.
A third need is to provide a way of thinking about "progress"
that would include the entire earth community. If there is to be real and
sustainable progress it must be a continuing enhancement of life for the
planetary community. It must be shared by all the living from the plankton
in the sea to the birds above the land. It must include the grasses, the
trees and the living creatures of the earth. True progress must sustain
the purity and life-giving qualities of both the air and the water. The
integrity of these life systems must be normative for any progress worthy
of the name.
Already these three commitments -to the natural world as revelatory,
to the earth community as our primary loyalty in a biocentric orientation,
and to the progress of the community in its integrity- these three
commitments constitute the new religious-spiritual context for carrying
out a change in direction in human-earth development. For indeed this is
the order of the magnitude of the task that is before us. If the industrial
economy -in its full effects which has well nigh done us in, along with
a major part of the entire living community, then the termination of this
industrial devastation and the inauguration of a more sustainable lifestyle
must be of a proportionate order of magnitude.
The industrial age itself, as we have known it, can be described
as a period of technological entrancement, an altered state of consciousness,
a mental fixation that alone can explain how we came to ruin our air and
water and soil and to severely damage all our basic life systems under
the illusion of "progress".
But now that the trance is passing, we have before us the task
of structuring a human mode of life within the earth complex of communities.
This task is now on the scale of "reinventing the human", since none of
the prior cultures or concepts of the human can deal with these issues
on the scale required.
A New Life Program
Fortunately, a number of creative persons have, over the past
20 years, identified the main features of the new life program. Among the
first persons to be mentioned as authentic guides to the future is Edward
Schumacher whose little book, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper
and Row, 1979) constitutes a first principle of absolute importance that
technologies should be appropriate to the function to be carried out. This
simple principle pointed out one of the most obvious mistakes of western
engineering enterprises: the lack of proper relation of the technological
and the human need to be fulfilled. This exaggerated scale of our present
energy of our present energy systems was later pointed out in Soft Energy
Paths (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). The vast corporate structures
seem determined to build ever bigger energy-consuming constructions when
much simpler, more efficient, and less expansive methods and materials
are available and infinitely more benign to the earth.
The question of human-scale was later developed by Kirkpatrick
Sale. So too the Solar Energy Research Institute developed
its program. A New Prosperity, based on energy systems less polluting,
less costly. Another contribution along these lines is found in Progress
as if Survival Mattered, by Friends of the Earth (Ellenwood,
Georgia: Alternatives, 1981), a book of extensive practical value.
One of the main directions into the future must also be concerned
with human habitation. Here much important work has been done by architects
in association with others concerned with establishing more intimate, more
functional and more viable communities. Gary Coates is among the most outstanding
in the general area, especially with the information he has presented of
community efforts recently underway in various parts of the country. His
study, Resettling America (Andover, Mass: Brick House Publishing
presents a number of community projects. There we find such titles
as Rural Towns for America; An Ecological Village; The
Rise of New City States: Urban Agriculture; Goals for Regional Development.
These are all presently in progress.
Out of their own experience with the New Alchemy Institute
on Cape Cod and in alliance with others interested in the subject, John
and Nancy Todd have presented us with a vision and the drawings for The
Village of Solar Ecology (East Falmouth, Mass: New Alchemy Institute,
1980). In agriculture there are a multitude of new developments. The experience
and writings of Wendell Berry on this subject come from a person who is
a farmer, writer, thinker, and teacher. His critique of industrial agriculture,
the absurdities that have emerged from it, its destructive impact on human
life, are among the most effective studies available. But even more important
is his presentation of the mystical bond between humans and the earth in
his work, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San
Francisco: Sierra, 1977).
Then there is the work of John and Nancy Todd in their bio-shelter
projects; Wes Jackson in his work at The Land Institute and his
recovery of genetic strains of grasses on the Plains region; Bill Mollison
in his Permaculture program being carried out at the Permaculture Institute
on North America on the Northwest coast; Robert Rodale and the Regeneration
project being directed from Emmaus, Pennsylvania, The Farmland Foundation.
These are only a selection out of hundreds of projects being carried out
at the present time.
In alliance with these projects there are the 50-some ecologically
oriented organizations in the U.S. that joined together a few years ago
to defend the North American continent from government supported corporation
abuse. These are all efforts outside the professional or official establishments.
Objections exist not only in economics and industry, in boardrooms and
research laboratories, but also in education, law, medicine, and religion.
Having become part of the bureaucratic process, all these find serious
difficulty thinking about, much less adapting to, change of the magnitude
I am suggesting.
For the past hundred years the great technical engineering schools,
the research laboratories and the massive corporations have dominated the
North American continent and even an extensive portion of the earth itself.
In alliance with governments, the media, universities, and the general
approval of religious groups, they have been the main instruments for producing
acid rain, hazardous waste, chemical agriculture, the horrendous loss of
topsoil, wetlands, and forests, and a host of other evils the natural world
has had to endure from human energy. The corporations should be judged
by their own severe norms of exactly what they have produced, the
kind of a world they have given us after a century of control.
A New Surge of Activity
Feeling threatened now by the rising movements for change, corporations
are seeking to strengthen their position. The new surge of economic activity
throughout the world, the rising stock market, the enormous assets accumulated
that now rise toward the hundred billion level, the global extent of assets,
the new ease of information gathering, analysis and communication, all
this functions like a great exhilarating wave of achievement in corporate
consciousness. A feeling of euphoria pervades the business world, a euphoria
shared in by the investing public, although there are deep forebodings
concerning the future of the industrial enterprise.
The absolute limitations indicated some years ago in the Club
of Rome report and the absurdity of exponential rates of growth begin
to assert themselves. Since growth is the central fact of contemporary
economics, a sudden confrontation with the inherent limits of earth development
is coming as a sobering experience indeed. Before this moment arrives,
however, an extensive series of confrontations can be expected. Already
these are occurring in every aspect of human endeavor, in all our institutions,
professions, and activities.
Earlier successes in environmental legislation in the 1970s in
setting up regulatory agencies and norms concerning the quality of air
and water and waste disposal, were the occasion for later resentment by
industry and corporative enterprise. Increasing difficulty is experienced
in meeting standards. In many instances the situation is fairly clear concerning
what needs to be done. The difficulty for government, for industry, and
for the citizenry is accepting the consequences of the changes required,
for we are involved in changes in the deep structure of our sense of reality
and of value, as well as in the practical adaptation to lifestyles that
make less extravagant demands on the environment.
We must be aware of how difficult our present situation is for
everyone, even when there is a willingness to deal effectively with the
issues before us. The scientific determination of acceptable standards
in environmental purity is enormously difficult. The technologies for meeting
these standards and their cost to the society, the sensitivityof the citizenry:
all these are difficult. By entering into an industrial economy we may
have taken on a task beyond human capabilities for both judgement and execution.
The arrogance of our engineering intrusion into nature is only now being
manifest, as well as our arrogance and our naivete concerning our rational
skills and our inventive genius.
The difficulty is that the arrogance continues even when its
deleterious consequences are so evident. The Herman Kahns and Julian Simons
wish us to press on even further into the wasteworld that we are creating.
President Reagan foils the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency
to fulfill its official mandate. These are the attitudes that evoke such
initiatives as Greenpeace Movement on the seas and the Earth First Movement
on the land. There are the lawsuits initiated by the National Resources
Defense Council and by some of the larger ecologically oriented organizations.
Extensive lobbying is going on in some state legislatures and in congress.
Along with these are the great variety of spontaneous protest movements
and great volume of newsletters, reports, and periodicals that have taken
a stance and are making demands on industrial and political establishments.
These presently are finding a way to sustained influence on the society
through Green Movements, and in Green politics. In some countries Green
Parties are beginning to function.
A Significant Movement
Among the most significant of these general social movements,
the one with the most efficiency may ultimately be the Bioregional Movement.
This movement, especially strong just now in North America, is based on
a realization that the earth expresses itself not in some uniform life
system throughout the globe but in a variety of regional integration’s,
in bioregions, which can be described as identifiable geographical areas
of interacting life systems that are relatively self-sustaining in the
ever-renewing process of nature. As we diminish our commitment to our present
industrial context of life with its non-self-renewing infrastructures,
we will need to integrate our human communities with the ever-renewing
bioregional communities of the place where we find ourselves.
We need to re-align human dwelling and human divisions of the
earth with the biological regions. This will provide a primary biological
identity rather than a primary political identity. Our cultural development
within this context could have a new vigor derived from such intimate association
with the dynamism and artistic creativity of nature. Much more can be said
of the bioregional movement in both its confrontational and in its creative
aspects. its power is in its integration of the human within the cosmological
process. In this manner it achieves what a number of new age writers fail
These writers wish to be totally realistic and yet hopeful; they
even see an exciting future taking shape across the board, as it were,
in the events of our times. They see new creative attitudes in the physical
sciences as well as in economics, politics, social structure, and religion.
such is the presentation of Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy
(Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1981). We find a similar attitude in Megatrends
by John Naisbitt (New York, Warner Books, 1983) and The Third Wave
(New York, Morrow, 1980) by Alvin Toffler. The latter two present amazing
amounts of information on every aspect of contemporary life. Peter Drucker
with his concentration on the managerial role contributes considerably
to our understanding of the controlling processes of our corporative
institutions. Robert Heilbrunner gives us a more profound insight into
the governing principles and ideals of our economy.
But all fail ultimately in judging the present, and in outlining
a program for the future, because none of them are able to present their
data consistently within a functional cosmology. Neither humans as a species,
nor any of our activities, can be understood in any significant manner
except in our role in the functioning of the earth and of the universe
itself. We have come into existence, have our present meaning, attain our
destiny within this numinous context, for the universe in its every phase
is numinous in its depths, is revelatory in its functioning, and in it
human expression finds its fulfillment in celebratory self-awareness. Neither
the psychological, sociological, or theological approaches are adequate.
The controlling context must be a functional cosmology.
The Role of Religions
As this time the question arises as regards the role of the traditional
religions. My own view is that any effective response to these issues requires
a religious context but that the existing religious traditions are too
distant from our new sense of the universe to be adequate to the task that
is before us. We cannot do without the traditional religions, but they
cannot presently do what needs to be done.
We need a new type of religious orientation. This must, in my
view, emerge from our new story of the universe. This constitutes, it seems,
a new revelatory experience which can be understood as soon as we recognize
that the evolutionary process is from the beginning a spiritual as well
as a physical process. The difficulty so far has been that this story has
been told simply as a physical process. Now, however, the scientists themselves
are awakening to the wonder and mystery of the universe, even to its numinous
qualities. They begin to experience also the mythic aspect of their own
scientific expressions. Every term used in science is laden with greater
mythic meaning than rational comprehension. Thus science has overcome its
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