The Great Work
By Thomas Berry
We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of unending work. We seldom see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner. Summer and winter are the same inside the mall. Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, and shopping centres. We read books written with a strangely contrived human alphabet. We no longer read the Book of Nature.
So completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being that we have become strange beings indeed. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research in developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources from whence we came and upon which we depend every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet.
Once we recognise that a change from a human-centred to an Earth-centred norm of reality and value is needed, we might ask how this is to be achieved and how it would function. We might begin by recognising that the life community, the community of all living species, including humans, is the greater reality and the greater value. The primary concern of the human community must be the preservation and enhancement of this comprehensive community, even for the sake of its own survival.
The industrial establishment is an extreme expression of a patriarchal tradition with its all-pervasive sense of dominance, whether of rulers over people, of men over women, of humans over nature. Only with enormous psychic and social effort and revolutionary processes has this patriarchal control been mitigated as regards the rights of women. The rights of the natural world of living beings are still at the mercy of the modern industrial corporation as the universal expression of patriarchal dominance over the entire planetary process.
The ecologist, with a greater sense of the human as a nurturing presence within the larger community of the geological and biological modes of Earth being, is sponsoring a mode of human activity much closer to the feminine than the masculine modes of being and activity.
We have invented a counterproductive society that is now caught in the loop that feeds back onto itself in what can presently be considered a runaway situation.
The media and advertising are particularly responsible for placing the entire life process of the human in a situation wherein producer and consumer feed back into each other in an ever-accelerated process. Presently we experience on a world scale an enormous glut in many basic products, along with unmatched deprivation in the vast numbers of peoples gathered in the shantytowns of the world.
We might now recover our sense of the maternal aspect of the universe in the symbol of the Great Mother, especially in the Earth as that maternal principal out of which we are born and by which we are sustained. Once this symbol is recovered the dominance of the patriarchal principal that has brought such aggressive attitudes into our activities will be mitigated. If this is achieved then our relationship with the natural world would undergo one of the most radial readjustments since the origins of our civilisation in classical antiquity.
Not only is this devastation of the natural world due to an industrial economy that is willing to wreck the entire planet for financial gain or some so-called improvement in the human condition. It is due to the American Constitution, which guarantees to humans participatory governance, individual freedoms, and rights to own and dispose of property – all with no legal protection for the natural world. 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.
Because of this basic attitude we consider that the more extensively we use the world around us, the more progress we are making towards some higher state of being. The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process those recourses put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then onto the waste heap. This we consider as progress – even though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans.
For children to live only in contact with concrete and steel and wires and wheels and machines and computers and plastics, to seldom experience any primordial reality or even see the stars at night, is a soul deprivation that diminishes the deepest of their human experiences.
Already the planet is so damaged and the future so challenged by its rising human pollution that the terms of survival will be severe beyond anything we have know in the past.
We have such vast understanding of the universe and how it functions, and yet we manifest such inability to use this knowledge beneficially either for ourselves or for any other mode of earthly being.
Our economics is based on our mechanised exploitation of the Earth in all of its geo- biological systems. Commercial rights to profit prevail over urgent needs of natural systems to survive. Disengagement from such exclusive commitments to human exploitation requires an ethical stance and a courage of execution seldom found in our contemporary human societies.
We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ulitmacy, the irreversible closing down of the Earth’s functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and genocide, the devastation of the Earth itself.
The tensions created will be ultimately be even more severe than the capitalist-Communist tension that dominated political-social activities of the human community from the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 until 1991, when the Soviet collapse occurred and left the capitalist world and its market economy in control.
Such issues require a reorientation of all the professions, especially the legal profession, which is still preoccupied with individual “human” rights, especially with the limitless freedom to acquire property and exploit the land. Universities are still preparing students for professional careers in the industrial-commercial world even as this world continues its planetary destruction. The medical profession is only beginning to recognise that no amount of medical technology will enable us to have healthy humans on a sick planet.
What we propose here is not a solution to an issue but a clarification of the fact that the real issue before us is no longer finding expression in terms of liberal and conservative but rather in terms of the ecologist or the environmentalist on one hand and the commercial-industrial establishment on the other. A new alignment of forces is taking place throughout every institution and every profession in our society.
As long as these corporations continue in their relentless exploitation of the planet through their oil wells, their automobile manufacturing, their chemical compounds, logging projects, road building, and their assaults on the marine life of the seas, then the biosystems of the planet will continue to be extinguished. The entire range of life development for the past 65 million years will be threatened.
Accomplishment of a programme of integral survival of the planet, and of the human community, requires that the dominant profit motivation of the corporation endeavour be replaced with a dominant concern for the integral life community. To seek benefit for humans by devastating the planet is not an acceptable project.
The tension among corporations drives each to greater intensity of activity as they rival, threaten, and support one another. This mutual support amid the stress if their diversity is what constitutes the ‘market economy’. They are dependent on the same recourse base, the same citizenry, the same media technologies. They are served by each other. They are committed to the same market economy. They have the same opposition to any national or international government regulation. They are especially resistant to any restraints on their activities based on protection of the environment.
None of the political empires of past ages had anything like the control over land and peoples now held by the more powerful corporations of the twentieth century, nor has any economic system had such effective technologies for exploiting the resources of the planet.
From its beginning until the present, the corporation has proclaimed that public well-being could only be attained through a prosperous industrial, commercial and financial establishment whose benefits were freely appropriated by the managerial and ownership class, with minimal payment to those who provided the labour and the skills needed for the process.
Because the corporations had such power to resist any regulation by the government, they prospered though legal and illegal use of public funds and public properties, such as the forests for logging, the rivers for damming, the mountains for mining, the grasslands for grazing. Much of this was through using influence on the legislatures of the country and by direct and indirect pressures exerted on the judiciary and the administration, largely though manipulation of the media.
Three terms have evolved in recent times to describe the work of the corporations: corporate libertarianism, corporate welfare and corporate colonialism.
The term corporate libertarianism refers to the insistence of the corporation on the freedom to carry on its work as seems best in any manner not explicitly forbidden by law.
The term corporate welfare means that the government best serves itself, the people and the well being of society by using public resources to support the work for the work of the industrial or commercial corporations.
One of the main achievements in the period after World War 2 has been the return of political independence to various peoples of the world in countries that had been taken over by the more industrial countries of the world. Now, however, through new free trade policies the former political colonies have become economic colonies controlled largely by the transnational corporations through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This new situation is designated as corporate colonialism.
As we reflect on this imposition of the immense global corporations trying to take over the responsibility for ‘feeding the world’, we can only wonder at the reduction of the people of the Earth to a condition of being nurse-maided by some few corporation enterprises. We might conclude that Mother Monsanto with her sterile seeds wishes to take over the role of Mother Nature herself.
The corporations control our minds through their ownership or influence over the public media. They dominate governments by their financial support of selected candidates of political office and the constant pressures they exert on the legislation through lobbying. In this manner the oppose legislation to restrict corporations and support legislation to support corporations, funds now referred to as corporate welfare. The extent of such corporate welfare, on a global scale, is sometimes estimated at well over $100 billion annually.
We are now in a new historical situation. The forces that we are concerned with have control not simply over the human component of the planet but over the planet itself, considered as a assemblage of natural resources available to whatever human establishment proves itself capable of possession and exploitation.
Our schools of business administration at the present time teach the skills whereby the greatest possible amount of natural resources are processed as quickly as possible, put through the consumer economy and passed on to the junk heap, where they remain useless at best and at worse toxic to every living being.
The horrendous fact is that we are, as Cambridge University biologist Norman Myers has indicated, in an extinction spasm that is likely to produce ‘the greatest single setback to life’s abundance and diversity since the first flickering of life almost four billion years ago’. The labour and care expended over some billions of years and untold billions of experiments to bring forth such a gorgeous Earth is all being negated within less than a century for what we consider ‘progress’ towards a better life in a better world.
But while this peril is cause for concern, it is also a cause for advancing consciousness. Responsible people no longer think of the world simply as a collection of natural resources. We have begun to realise that the Earth is an awesome mystery; intimately as fragile as we ourselves are fragile. But our responsibility to the Earth is not simply to preserve it; it is to be present to the Earth in its next sequence of transformations. While we were unknowingly carried through the evolutionary process in former centuries, the time has come when we must in some sense guide and energise the process ourselves.