A Tribute to Thomas Berry 1914-2009: Prophet of the Ecozoic Era

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Culture, Human Interest

Published on June 29, 2009 with 2 Comments

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009

By Steven Chapman

June 29, 2009

Earlier this month, on June 1, the Earth became a little bit darker.  Father Thomas Berry, cultural historian, visionary cosmologist, “geologian,” and mentor to many, passed away in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina.

Berry was one of the most original and creative thinkers of the modern environmental movement, and his passing merits reflection on some of his accomplishments. The arc of Berry’s career and his engagement with the “big questions” of our time is extensive. After entering the priesthood and obtaining a doctorate at Catholic University (with a dissertation on the work of Giambattista Vico), he eventually ended up at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx where he ran a history of religions graduate program.  He wrote books on Buddhism (1966) and on the religions of India (1971), and was the founding director of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research from 1970 to 1995.

During this time, Berry was heavily influenced by the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, serving as president of the de Chardin Society from 1975 to 1987.  With de Chardin, Berry understood that any modern worldview, religious or otherwise, needed to come to terms with the data provided by modern evolutionary theory.  But rather than seeing evolutionary processes culminating in humanity’s control over “spaceship Earth,” as de Chardin did, Berry came to view humanity’s role as increasingly problematic.  Whereas de Chardin’s thinking was both anthropocentric and Christocentric, Berry’s was biocentric and broadly ecumenical, based on an understanding that human beings were but part of the larger biotic community.  In a manner analogous to Marx’s treatment of Hegel, Berry turned de Chardin’s Omega-point teleology upside down, with the arrow of evolutionary development no longer pointing towards a heroic future but reversing course and pointing back towards the present human situation.   In Berry’s view, humanity had become something of an aberration and indeed an anti-evolutionary force, capable of shutting down the basic life-systems of the planet.  The main lesson of evolution, for him, was that humanity needed to re-invent itself at the species level, move away from currently pathological patterns of behavior, and move towards a more harmonious co-evolutionary relationship and communion with evolving planetary life in all its diversity.

A key insight of Berry’s thinking-I believe his major insight-is that modern humanity is caught adrift in a changing world, suspended between the outmoded stories of the past and the yet-to-be adopted stories of the future.  A heterodox Christian-he was fortunate to begin his career in the liberal atmosphere following the Second Vatican Council-Berry made no bones about the inadequacy of Biblical literalism or the theological traditions of the Church to provide a cosmology adequate to the modern world.   At the same time, he believed that the antithetical tradition of modern science, especially in its reductionist and mechanistic forms, was incapable of providing a meaningful alternative.  As a student of Western culture, he felt that the antagonism between the Judeo-Christian legacy and the scientific traditions of the Enlightenment needed to be healed by a new non-dualistic approach, along with an embrace of a scientifically-informed master narrative or “myth” which would furbish a workable cosmology and allow modern human beings to feel at home in the universe again.  His faith was that such a “New Story” would not only allow the Western Mind to overcome its peculiar schizophrenia, but would become the basis of a new ecumenical understanding, providing for an overall worldview or Weltanshauung which could comprehend all the particular narratives of diverse traditions, and thus become a common ground for humanity’s groping understanding of itself and of the world in the modern period.  These ideas were compiled in an essay Berry published in 1978 called “The New Story,” published in pamphlet form for the de Chardin society.  The elaboration of the New Story would be the unfolding leitmotif of much of Berry’s later work.

“The New Story” was republished, along with other essays, in Berry’s landmark book, Dream of the Earth by Sierra Club Books in 1988 (recently re-issued).  One of the founding texts of eco-theology-even though Berry preferred to refer to himself as a “geologian”-that collection was distinguished by an unflinching critical analysis of the modern condition along with a rare poetic or even utopian dimension of principled hopefulness.  Berry was what one might call a “tragic optimist,” and his thinking is characterized by a dialectical tension between critical and utopian moments.  On the one hand, Berry documented the depredations of modern technological civilization with critical acumen, showing how the technological “wonderworld” promised by the myth of progress was leading modern humanity towards a kind of “wasteland.”   On the other hand, he held forth a new vision of the future, in which humans become co-creative agents in a mutually beneficial relationship with the larger planetary community of life, and where the current antagonism between human civilization and the natural world would be replaced by a new era of mutually enhancing relations.   He believed that in spite of the degradations wrought upon the natural world, it was still possible to tap into the creative energies intrinsic to cosmological and evolutionary process, and that those energies could be harvested in the service of a new kind of co-creative participatory relationship with the larger community of life.  Dream of the Earth remains Berry’s most original work, and certainly the most beautifully written.

In 1992, Berry published together with physicist Brian Swimm a curious book entitled The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era-A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos.  His concern in that book was pointed directly at the need for a new cosmology.  For him, the story of how all things came into being was indeed the sacred story or mythos appropriate to the modern age.  Berry showed in exemplary fashion how the story of origins provided by science could be expounded in narrative form to match the grandeur of any creation story in grand epic fashion. The epic begins with the mysterious flaring forth of the original singularity, proceeds through the era of radiation and the formation of the first hydrogen atoms, to the creation of galaxies, stars and planets, to the first self-organizing expressions of living matter in the Archeozoic era, the gradual increase of metabolic and morphological diversity in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, and culminates in the flourishing blue-green planet of the Cenozoic era we are familiar with today.

At the end of the book, Berry introduced a concept which would become a key component of his later thinking: the idea that the present geological era, the Cenozoic, will be replaced by a new era, or what he calls the emerging Ecozoic Era.  Berry begins with the recognition that the trajectory of human history is currently intersecting the trajectory of evolutionary history in an unprecedented way.  With the advance of technological civilization over the past two centuries, humanity had become a macrophase power, capable of interrupting the normal mechanisms of evolution.  In effect, Berry believed that evolution understood in terms of natural selection had come to a halt.  Human selection is now what counts.  And humanity is now capable of changing the very biogeochemical basis of the biosphere.  Moreover, through our human activities we are producing a cascading collapse of biodiversity on a global scale which is in many ways analogous to the great transitions of the past, such as the Permian Extinction, or the Cretaceous-Tertiary event which doomed the dinosaurs.  What is unprecedented is that the current extinction event is not caused by some outside trigger-e.g. by increased volcanic activity or by the impact of a giant asteroid-but is the result of the workings of a single species wreaking wonton havoc on the rest of the biosphere.

What, then, is to succeed the moribund Cenozoic?  Berry believed that if evolution were to continue in a forward direction, it would involve a transition from the current pathological phase of antagonistic human-earth relations toward a new era in which human beings would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.  This new hoped-for future is what he calls the “Ecozoic Era.”  Unlike earlier eras of natural history, which arose spontaneously through the inherent creativity of evolutionary processes, the Ecozoic Era will need to be brought into being by a tremendous act of human creativity.  It should be emphasized that Berry did not view the transition from the Cenozoic to the Ecozoic as natural or easy.  Rather, it will be the hardest thing imaginable.  The tenor of his thinking here is not so much teleological as eschatological, inspired by a faith that a more positive vision of humanity’s overall relation to the natural must exist, and that the holding forth of such a vision can become a driving motivational force for change in the present.  Thus the concept of the Ecozoic is not naïve utopianism (or “ecotopianism”), but rather a kind of engaged hopefulness, and an effort to proleptically actualize the kind of change needed if we are to survive as a species at all.

In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, Berry published arguably his most important book, the Great Work: Our Way into the Future.  This was his venture into the domain of ethics and human responsibility-what Kant would call “practical reason.”   While recapping many of the themes of Dream of the Earth, he brought a more urgent focus to the critical situation facing humanity in the modern period.  The task of new millennium, Berry argued, was for all thinking individuals to work together towards the transformation of human societies and human consciousness from our current autistic self-absorbedness towards a new era of human-earth symbiogenesis.  As Berry writes in the title essay: “The Great Work now, as move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human deviation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”  And later: “Our special role, which we will hand on to our children, is that of managing the arduous transition from the terminal Cenozoic to emerging Ecozoic Era, the period when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community.”  While by no means underestimating the severity of the current crisis, and mindful of the difficulties, Berry believed that survival of both the planet and the human demanded such a radical shift of values and orientation.  In fact, Berry believed, we have no choice.  We will either adapt or perish.

I had the good fortune to here Berry speak on two occasions.  The first was in New York, where he gave a talk on the need to protect and conserve the rapidly diminishing indigenous traditions.  I knew the man could write, having read Dream of the Earth, but hearing him speak was something different.  In elegiac tones, he lamented the slow extinction of indigenous wisdom by the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and neoliberal economic policies.  He spoke passionately about how the collective wisdom of the first peoples contains important insights for the future of humanity as a whole-much as endangered species may hold out hope for future medical advances.  The extinction of this wisdom when we need it the most, he explained, was one of the great tragedies of the modern period.  From this theme, Berry launched into an impassioned discourse of humanity’s responsibilities in the world, as well the need for a new regime of human-earth relations.  In the question and answer period, he responded to everyone with grace and humility, and in such a way that everyone in the room was involved in the ongoing dialogue.

The second time I heard him was a gathering at the Unitarian Church in Berkeley, sponsored by the California Institute of Integral Studies entitled “The Cosmological Imagination.”  While the conference had a slightly uncomfortable “new age” feel to it, featuring many of his fellow travelers and acolytes, including Brian Swimm, Mathew Fox, and Joanna Macy, it was clear to me that Berry had become a central figure among the emerging movement of “cultural creatives,” and that he had reached a receptive audience well beyond the narrow academic confines of those generally interested in such themes.  At the end of his career, Berry had become a cultural phenomenon, with the ability to reach out and engage people from all walks of life, and to inspire them with the belief that a better world was possible.  His influence has indeed been palpable.  For instance, his presence is clearly imprinted in the language of the Earth Charter, and at international gatherings such as the World Social Forum.

Well, he is gone.  Back on Earth, confronted with the triple crisis of anthropogenic climate change approaching criticality, massive biodiversity loss, and global economic chaos, we have our work cut out for us.  It is Berry’s lasting contribution to have shared not only a deep critical analysis of the human condition in the modern period, but also an enabling and ennobling vision of a better future.   To paraphrase lines from a poem by Jeffers: “It may be foggy, but his voice carries a long way off.”   That is, after all, what prophets are for.

More Info

For more information on the life and works of Thomas Berry, or to make a contribution in support of his legacy, visit www.thomasberry.org. For more details about what Berry means by the Ecozoic Era, here’s a useful link to a 1991 lecture presented to the E.F. Schumacher Society:  http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/publications/berry_91.html

  • antfaber

    I’m willing to sacrifice my waistline to save the biosphere from “wonton havoc”. The only question is, do I use a fork or chopsticks?

  • Theo Badashi

    This is an excellent essay, thank you. I’m a student of Brian Swimme, but have only recently found Thomas Berry’s work. What an amazing man! Little did I know how deeply his vision and words would impact my life!

    I’m currently exploring Teilhard’s main ideas and have enjoyed seeing how the larger evolutionary conversation is reflected in Berry’s work. I find Teilhard’s general thesis of a complexification towards an Omega Point both fascinating and probable; indeed I think we’re seeing it emerge, in different forms, all around us. While those in the modern techno-Singularity movement appear to embrace this idea from a materialist perspective, I think the only way for us to actually reach such a stage in our spiritual development is to actually do the work of reconnection that Berry (and others like Joanna Macy) have outlined.

    After reading your essay I’m even more excited to delve into the wisdom and vision of Thomas Berry. As we further cultivate a new flame of insight and purpose, let us look to those like him to illuminate out paths, and to open our hearts to the power and potentiality that is here with us right now, pulsating quietly in the rhythm of the Earth.

    Thank you again for this wonderful post.