Every Being Has Rights


Every Being Has Rights

by Thomas Berry





Introduction by Hildegarde Hannum

In introducing our first speaker of the day, I’d like to tell you about the long and impressive career of this man who has been called “our conscience, our prophet, our guide.” Thomas Berry entered a monastery at the age of twenty and spent ten years there. He is a Passionist priest and an historian of cultures as well, that is, an historian of large-scale patterns of human history. His knowledge is awe-inspiring in its breadth and depth.

He received his doctorate in European history from Catholic University in 1947, and in 1948 he went to teach at Fu Jen University in Beijing. Six months later, after Mao came to power, he was sent back home because, as he humorously puts it, he wasn’t fluent enough in Chinese to cope with the challenges posed by the new regime.

After studying the civilization of China, then of India, his interest expanded to the ways of life of the different peoples of the planet. He turned his focus also to where our American contribution lies, to the meaning of America in the larger context.

For two years Thomas Berry taught at Holy Cross and then joined the army to serve in the Korean War in the hope of being sent to Asia.  He was sent to Germany instead! Further teaching positions were at Seton Hall University, where he helped to start a Center for Asian Studies; St. John’s, where he started a program in Asian culture; and finally Fordham University.

By the 1980s he had changed his life’s course as a result of discovering the United Nations World Charter for Nature, a document that has largely been ignored. It deals with underlying environmental causes of our present predicament, and for Thomas Berry it represented a turning point because it made him realize that human affairs must conform with the larger functioning of planet Earth. This realization expressed itself in his groundbreaking book, published in 1988, The Dream of the Earth.

As important as the World Charter for Nature was for Thomas Berry’s later life, there was an early experience that made a lasting impression. When he was around eleven, his family moved to the outskirts of the town where they lived. Down the hill from the new house there was a little creek with a meadow on the other side. The first time he saw this spot, the meadow was full of white lilies in bloom. Add to this the woodlands beyond, the clouds above, and the crickets singing—it was a magical moment that was to remain deep inside him. He says that whenever he thinks about the direction his life has taken, his mind returns to that scene of the meadow across the creek.

I’d like to read a brief passage from The Dream of the Earth for those of you who do not yet know this book, which has been life-changing for many of us:  “. . . [A]s the crashing of the tropical rain forests resounds about us, as the sun is dimmed in the day and stars at night by the hovering pollution in the atmosphere, as the great hydrological cycles are disturbed in their vast role of watering the continents and bringing forth the greenery of the land, as a multitude of living species become extinct throughout the earth—even amid all these events, there is a resilience, a hope, and even an expectation for a surviving abundance of life upon earth, if only the human community will respond to the urgency with the insight and the vigor that distinguished . . . other historical periods.”

A poetic summation of the catastrophe that Earth and its inhabitants are confronting and of the challenge to humans to change our destructive ways. In response to this unprecedented crisis, Father Berry says, “a new historical vision is emerging to guide us on our way to a more creative future.” He has described what he calls the Ecozoic Era, a new and necessary era in human-Earth relations, a time when we humans must learn again to live in harmony with the Earth.

In 1970 Thomas Berry founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research and was its director for 25 years. Its purpose was to address environmental issues by developing an approach to the reconciliation of the human sphere and the Earth sphere. The Center also served as a resource for doctoral students at Fordham, with which it was affiliated.

Then, in 1995 he returned to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was born and raised.  He lives on family property, over a former stable, in what he calls his hermitage, surrounded inside by his books and papers, outside by woodland and a lake, with no other houses in view.

What I have said may begin to reveal the heart and soul of this extraordinary man. But I think they will shine through more fully as you listen to him speak—the way they did when he gave a Schumacher Annual Lecture twelve years ago and captivated his audience. 

Thomas Berry has spent a good deal of time with Native Americans, exchanging his wisdom with that of their Elders. Please welcome our beloved Elder, Father Thomas Berry.



I’d like to begin by telling you the story of an encounter in Maine a year or so ago when I was there for a conference. An award was being given to people who had been striving to bring humans more intimately into the presence of the Earth, and I had been asked to say a few words at the beginning. Before I spoke, I talked to a woman in the audience, who told me that she was from a native tribe of the region and had been away for a while. She had just returned, and when she came over the ridge, she got the smell of home. The smell of home. Did you ever hear of that before? If you think about it, one of the first things you experience when you go into a home is something we might call the fragrance of the home. That was on my mind as I walked up to the platform, and I repeated what the woman had told me. I said that it reminded me of my own home. What does that word bring back to a person? It brings back awesome memories of childhood, particularly for those of us who tend to be away from where we were born originally.

I was thinking of my deepest experience of home. I was born in 1914, when roads were beginning to be paved. The automobile was just coming into existence. Ford was founded in 1903, General Motors in 1908, so I generally say that we were born at approximately the same time and have made our separate journeys through the twentieth century. Back then, it was the day of the horse and riding saddle or taking a buggy to town. After a few hours you’d turn back toward home. The horse seemed to have ten times the energy it had on the way because now it was going home. In a sense my deepest experience of home is associated with the energy of a horse heading for home. If you’re riding saddle and you’re not strong enough, you can pull on the reins all you want; you’re not going to slow that horse down much. The horse is likely to knock you off as it goes into the stall.

I think about the twenty-first century, about the young people particularly and what home means to them. I have been dedicated to children since the time I was a child myself. I think about the natural world and how the children will relate to it in the twenty-first century. The twenty-first century. What happened to the twentieth century? In the twentieth century we built a fantastic industrial world, an industrial world that was invented in the seventeenth century, developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reached its climax in the twentieth century—the age of petroleum, the age of plastics, the age of communication, the age of genetic engineering. There has been an unbelievable transformation of this world we live in.

Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the industrial age seems to have collapsed upon itself. It can go nowhere, it’s done everything. It can only embellish itself with trivia. So what’s ahead for the young people? They have momentous choices to make about the new things they will have to bring forth to build a viable planet Earth. Our concern now is not about a civilization, not about a continent, but about a planet—perhaps the loveliest planet in the universe, the most beautiful thing in all creation, the most ecstatic. It’s a world in which the divine presents itself to us in the sunlight by day, in the stars by night. I sometimes say that when we see the Earth during the day, the light blocks out the universe, and at night when the darkness blocks out the Earth, the universe lights up for us.

What is the impact of how we experience the Earth? As soon as young people understand that their home is not in this industrial world, they will realize that their home is in the world of woodlands and meadows and flowers and birds and mountains and valleys and streams and stars. Now they can’t see the stars through the light pollution so that the whole universe is in a sense blocked out for children. They can’t see the larger galactic display leading out into the vastness of space. They have all the mathematics of it, and they can see its dimensions and even see photographs of it, but they don’t have the experience of the universe.

How does a person first experience the universe? Well, I wrote a little verse not long ago about the child. I think the child is our guide. The Chinese always had a sense of children. The philosopher Mencius (fourth century B.C.), for example, who had deep insight into what a human being is, said that we are born with a wonderful mind, with an integral mind, but at a certain stage we throw our mind away, and therefore all education should be directed toward recovering the lost mind of the child. There was some of this in the Greek world too. The recovery of the mind. Well, what is the mind of the child?  I say in my verse:


The child awakens to a universe,

The mind of the child to worlds of wonder,

Imagination to worlds of beauty,

Emotions to worlds of intimacy.

It takes a universe to make a child,

Both in outer form and in its spirit.

It takes a universe to educate a child.

It takes a universe to fulfill a child.

And the first obligation of each generation

To the next generation is to bring these two together

So that the child is fulfilled in the universe

And the universe is fulfilled in the child

While the stars ring out in the heavens.


The universe awakens us to the three great values of wonder, beauty, and intimacy until we become blocked by too many machines. I think E. F. Schumacher recognized these values, which is why he called his book Small Is Beautiful. Beauty will save us, not measurement. Schumacher doesn’t say small is efficient; it’s efficient all right, but he says it’s beautiful. We shouldn’t be concerned primarily with whether something is expensive or inexpensive but with whether it is beautiful. Is it wonderful? Is it something we can really identify with and be present to? This capacity for presence is such a magnificent thing. You know, that is the basic psychic capacity of a human being, and that is what we gave up in the seventeenth century with Descartes and Galileo and Bacon and Newton when they gave us this universe as an empty universe. Descartes said there is only mind and matter. What’s not mind is matter and our reaction to it. This interpretation has plagued all modern philosophy. What’s plagued us is the interpretation that the beauty we experience is something we invent; it’s not really out there. That is the evil of our times because it made our primary relationship with the natural world a use relationship. The worst thing a human being can say to another in my view is, “You used me.” We mustn’t use each other; we serve each other, we give our lives to each other, we provide the necessities of life, and we go through enormous suffering for each other. All that is beyond use.


When I was born there were fewer than two billion people on the planet. Now there are over six billion, and in the next generation the number will rise to more than eight, possibly nine, billion people, who will have only half the resources we have. They face a significant challenge, and the challenge before them requires all the caring help that we of the old generation can manage. The four great establishments that control our lives—the government/legal establishment, the economic/corporation establishment, the education/ university establishment, and the religious/church or synagogue or mosque establishment—are the areas they have to invent anew.

The coming generation, the generation now being educated in high school and college, needs to have something that will fascinate them, that will inspire them to do heroic things. They must gain a vision of a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. “A mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship” is a phrase I use frequently as the ideal to look for in the future. It is the integral way into the future, but it must rest upon an experience. That is why I think the child analogy or child reference is so important, and it’s why I dedicate The Great Story to the children, by which I mean all the children. I dedicate it to the children who swim beneath the waves of the sea, the children of the flowers in the meadows and the birds in the air, the children of the creatures that roam through the woodlands, the children of the trees—all the children because none of them is going to succeed unless they all succeed. They must all succeed.

We’ve got to understand ourselves as integral with the planet we live on. That is why I have followed the work of Lester Brown over the years. Lester Brown is one of the most remarkable people of our time. He founded Worldwatch in 1974, and he founded the periodical State of the World, published every year since 1984, which summarizes all the data he gathers. Recently he has published two books: Eco-economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Lester Brown knows more about the data of the planet Earth than probably any other person alive. There are oceans of data: everything has been measured, everything has been counted. It turns out that for the world population to live at the level at which we’re living in this country it would require the resources of our planet times five! We can’t even dream of living this way on a single planet much longer. We got away with what we’ve done with this continent, but the next generations will not.

One of the gratifying things that Lester Brown has said is that economics is a part of ecology. Ecology is not a part of economics. The basic referent is the ecology. The basic referent is the planet Earth. And it is crucial that we take care of the planet Earth. I like to use the idea of a lifeboat. We’re in a lifeboat, and there are people who are hungry, people who are injured and need medical attention. It’s important to take care of people. I don’t want to diminish our concern for the poor and the suffering, but if something happens to the lifeboat, everything else is irrelevant. In applying this to the planet Earth, we have to get used to the idea—and this is bothersome for many of us—that the integral Earth is more important than single humans; in other words, the community of the planet Earth is primary and the humans are derivative. If we do not base our way into the future on this insight, we will not survive

The industrialism of the twentieth century is over with. The destruction of the World Trade Center was an event that signaled the end of something. It marked the end of our feeling of security. We are afraid now. The next generation is entering a fearsome world, and the basic need is how not to be afraid. When I came here, at the airport I had to take off my jacket, take off my shoes for security inspection. Citizens are not trusted. We are paying our military over a billion dollars a day for security. That is a thousand million dollars a day. It adds up to an enormous amount every minute. That’s the price we’re paying, yet we have no security.

The industrial world is not a secure world. We invented weapons, we invented nuclear bombs in the expectation that they would make us secure. They do not. Security doesn’t come at the industrial level. The same thing with economics. Economics is a reciprocal relationship founded on those wonderful qualities of beauty and wonder and intimacy. That’s the way into economics, not the calculations. It’s the giving and receiving, and that is the capacity we so need.


Now to come to the commons. What is a commons? You’ll come across it marginally if you read enough, but you won’t find it in the newspapers, you won’t find it in the books you read. Who ever talks about the commons? It doesn’t seem to exist in our society. I went to the dictionary, thinking the word must be there. Well, I couldn’t find it in the Heritage dictionary. It had the word “commons” but not for the use we are thinking of. Then I went to the Columbia Encyclopedia. Not there. Well, I thought, it generally refers to something economic, so I went to the dictionary of economics put out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it wasn’t there either. Finally, I went where I always go: to the internet. What did Google give me? It gave me the one book we all know, Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. That gives you something of an entrée, but it makes us think in terms of a dark side. What is the commons? For me it’s the universe.

The universe is made as a commons. The universe is so interdependent and so present, all parts present to one another. I don’t know whether you’ve come across the scientific justification for this. Do you know that we could not exist in a universe that had existed for a shorter period of time? In other words, we couldn’t exist without fourteen billion years of time. Did you realize that? It takes a universe this large and a universe that’s fourteen billion years old for us to exist. That’s a rather stark scientific statistic. Also, what’s amazing about the universe is that every being is present to and influences every other being immediately, no matter how far distant in space or time. Every atom is influencing every other atom of the universe—without passing through the intervening space. Now, figure that one out! Without passing through the intervening space. This sense of presence is a deep mystery of the universe. And that’s why it’s important for each of us to relate to each other in a creative way, in a way that gives life the wonder and the beauty and the intimacy that it should have.

We are still bound by the tradition of our relation to the planet as a planet of use instead of a commons. That’s why I insist that the idea of a commons has to do with the integral planet Earth, as part of the universe. That’s what the commons is basically.


The Constitution of the United States represents the height of good aspects of the modern world, but it’s also a deadly document. Why? The difficulty with the Constitution is its self-reference regarding humans. In earlier times there would have been recognition of some transhuman context in which humans had responsibility. Now we simply refer to “we the people.” The only way to incorporate the needs of the environment is by amendment. An ideal document from my standpoint is the World Charter for Nature, passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982. It has an awareness of our responsibility for more than the human.

Throughout recent centuries the focus has been on humans and their gradual liberation from want, liberation in the political area from domination and from dictatorial government. The sustainability of the planet was not considered. When this nation was founded, as the heirs of such benefits humans were given the highest position they had ever held. The Constitution rescues us from the domination of monarchical government, but by rescuing us from that control it makes victims of everything nonhuman. That which is not human was given no protections, no rights. It is deadly to give humans such exaltation, such freedom to own property and do with it whatever they want. The government can’t stop them. Nothing can stop them.

It was also deadly when corporations were given the rights of individuals in 1886, making corporations free and protected in whatever they do. Much later, in 1970, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was established, but so many of its regulations to protect the environment have been taken to court, and the federal courts have declared them unconstitutional. The EPA cannot protect the environment. There was a forty-page document put out last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council called Hostile Environment or How the Federal Courts Are Ruining Your Water, Your Air, and Your Soil. It shows case by case by case that EPA regulations in critical matters are declared unconstitutional. We might conclude that environmental protection is unconstitutional per se.

We need a new approach to law. Toward this goal I called a group of people together to form a movement called A New Jurisprudence. We’ve had three annual  meetings, the first one outside of Washington, the second in South Africa, and most recently in London, where our Secretariat is. We have representatives from England, Canada, Columbia, Brazil, India, the United States, and five African countries. Among them are Andrew Kimbrell [one of today’s speakers], Vandana Shiva, the famous Columbian ecologist Martin von Hildebrand, and his daughter.

I drew up ten propositions for A New Jurisprudence. And this is where the title of my lecture comes in: the first proposition is: Rights come with existence. That which confers existence confers rights. I am talking here about rights in a more cosmological sense, which presents a great difficulty in our civilization. We have no cosmology; we have science instead. Science is not cosmology. Just as with statistical economics, it doesn’t get you anywhere. The rights I mean are the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill one’s role in the great community of existence. If human law does not respect these rights, then human law is destructive, as destructive as it has been.

The third proposition is that all the rights of the nonliving world are role specific; the rights of the living world are species specific and limited. A river has river rights, a mountain has mountain rights, the ocean has ocean rights. In the living world the insects have insect rights, the flowers have flower rights, the trees have tree rights. The rights of an insect do not apply to a pine tree or to a fish. And that’s the wonder of the universe—this magnificent diversity in such an intimate unity. Such a superb world.

The natural rights of natural beings come from the same source as human rights: from the universe that brought us, that brought all things, into being. The universe is the source of rights because it’s self-referent. There is no further referent in the phenomenal order. Religious people might say that there is transphenomenal divinity, and that’s no problem particularly. But within the phenomenal world the universe is beautiful, it has all the beauty. We kind of flippantly say, so what? The sun comes up over the horizon, bringing the dawn. So what? Sets in the evening. So what? We are in a sense trivializing all this beauty.

I would like to read something I have written about the North American continent, the continent as our commons. Our commons is this continent, as part of the Earth. When we first came here, it was so lovely, so beautiful. We thought we were so wise. We brought with us our traditions from the universities of Europe. We were supposedly the most spiritual people in the world, the most competent technologically. Now after four centuries the continent lies pretty much in ruins, devastated in so many of its aspects. What happened? Such a wise, such a spiritual, such a great people. I think it might be good for you to hear what I wrote:


When we came here

We might have seen this land

as a divinely blessed land to be revered

and dwelt in as a light and gracious presence.

We might have felt the divine in every breeze

that blew across the landscape, seen

in every flowering plant, wondered at

in every butterfly dancing

across a meadow in daylight,

in every firefly in the evening.


But if in the past we have not been sensitive

to the deeper meaning of this continent,

we come here today as petitioners.

Pilgrims, penitent, we bring with us

the promise of dedicating ourselves

to relieving the oppression

we have imposed in the past

and beginning a new era

in our presence here today.


We are finally awakening to the beauty of this land.

We are finally accepting the discipline of this land.

We are finally listening to the teaching of this land.

We are finally absorbed in the delight of this land.


While we learn the sacred quality of this continent

in its spatial extent, we also experience

those historical moments of grace

whereby all the various features of this continent

took on their present modes of expression.


Today we come here to begin to relieve an ancient wrong.

We wish especially to restore to this continent

its ancient joy. For while much of what

we have done is beyond healing, there is

a resilience throughout the land that only

awaits its opportunity to flourish once again

with something of its ancient splendor.


We are concerned for the children,

the children of every living being

on this continent, the children

of the trees and grasses,

the children of the wolf,

the bear, and the cougar,

the children of the bluebird,

the thrush, and the great raptors

that soar through the heavens,

the children of the salmon

that begin and end their lives

in the upper reaches

of the great western rivers,

the children, too, of human parents,

for all the children are born

into a single sacred community.


It is increasingly clear that none

of the children nor any living being

on this continent or throughout

the entire planet has any integral future

except in alliance with every

other being that finds its home here.


Today we come as pilgrims to this continent

To beg a blessing from its mountains and valleys

and from all their inhabitants. We beg a blessing

that will heal us of our responsibility

for what we have done, a blessing

that will give us the guidance

and the healing that we need.


For we can never bring a healing

to this continent unless we are first

blessed and first healed by this continent.


To make ourselves worthy of this blessing

is the task to which we dedicate ourselves

in these opening years of the 21st century

that all the children of Earth

might walk serenely into the future

as a single sacred community.



Question & Answer Period

You mentioned that the Constitution has been a serious threat because it has exalted man above all of nature. I think there’s something even more dangerous that comes out of our deep religious traditions. It’s a kind of cosmic dualism. I grew up in a Christian family that set up a polarized way of relating to everything: there was God and there was Satan. It made a battle of everything. As I’ve matured, I see this dualism in just about everything, and I think it ends up fracturing and fragmenting people’s approaches to things and makes us lose the common pool of information that says we are all interconnected. The focus is on thought as primary over emotion, over intuition, over the body. I have tried to embody in my own life an experience of interdependency with things rather than just philosophize about it, and that tendency to philosophize I believe comes from the cosmic dualism Descartes talked about: I think, therefore I am. Could you speak to the dualism in our tradition? I see it as informing the law, informing education, informing government.

My basic orientation is that because of the industrialization over the past few centuries, together with the idealization and exaltation of humans, the nonhuman life forms have been demeaned and have become an object of use, not a subject to be communed with. We can try to counter this situation by means of education. We need to take children out to experience the grass and the bees and the insects and the trees and the stars—that is what’s real. Descartes emptied the world of all that, making it a mechanistic shell meant to serve us. This means that the wonder and beauty of any of these items are imposed by us, not communicated to us.


I used Descartes as an example, but I’m also thinking of the Pharaohs. They exalted themselves above things as well. I was speaking more generally to this current  of cosmic dualism running through human history. The native American Indians didn’t have as much of that orientation; they saw themselves as being part of the Earth.

In Egypt in early civilizational times the universe was thought of as a great liturgy, as a great celebration, and the humans validated the human project by ritual insertion of the human into the cosmological order at the times of transformation—the springtime and the harvest time and the wintertime—so that you had the dying down of life and the renewal of life, which gave meaning to things. It was a kind of a dance, it was a kind of music. In China when winter changed to spring, the ruler had to move from one part of the palace to another to coordinate with the cosmic liturgy. He had to change the color of his garment. The music changed. The whole of human life was woven into the universe. In that classical period it was the Chinese who to my mind had the best relationship with the planet. They had the best understanding of what a human being is. Now our idea of the Chinese has been distorted, but somebody like Mencius, whom I mentioned earlier, somebody like Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529), had an extraordinary sense of the great unity from the emperor down through all the human realms, through the trees and flowers, encompassing everything. Only those who could see the human as part of a single unity were considered educated.


Among the great dramas of the twentieth century were people’s attempts to overthrow the capitalist order: the socialist revolutions of the Chinese people, the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution. Presently we are in a unipolar world in which the United States has assumed the role of global policeman, using tools of cosmic violence, threatening the world’s peoples. As people who live in the home of the global enforcer, what should our moral response be as people rise up against the capitalist order?

The basic tension in human society is shifting between socialist and capitalist in the twentieth century to the developers and the preservationists in the twenty-first century. Now, how these two tensions relate to each other is going to be a problem we must address. I think the odds are changing in the sense that capitalism is driving us so deep into devastation of the planet that it’s doing itself in, and I suspect that it doesn’t have much longer to go.


You spoke about the technologies that you use yourself and that we all use, those of us who enjoy the prosperity to do so: flying in an airplane, using a computer, and so on. These are technologies based on the ecological devastation we abhor. How can those who wish to live consciously and make positive changes in the world avail themselves of this technology and concomitantly work to change our dependence on it?

In other words, how can we use the technologies without being caught in them? Well, that’s almost the same as the problem we all have of survival in this industrial world. I live in a place in North Carolina that is doing its best to bring in industry, bring in development. It wants to subsidize development, but it won’t subsidize education adequately. The rationale is that we need the jobs. We’re in what’s called a Catch-22. That is why decisive action is urgently needed, but it’s going to require a certain amount of heroic effort, especially on the part of younger people who do not have family responsibilities. As soon as you have a family, you need to think in terms of earning enough money to support them. It’s a curse of industrial civilization that jobs are not desirable or fully human: you’re in an office or you’re at a counter or you’re doing some mechanistic-type thing. I don’t have an answer for you except that I hope education is going to change the situation. An enormous amount of energy is moving in the right direction, and a lot of young people are beginning to see what is needed.

One of the best things to emerge in the religious world is Sisters of Earth. Many religious orders were founded in the nineteenth century. All of them are in a state of terrible decline. There were 250,000 nuns a few years ago; now there are no more than 150,000, and their median age is around seventy. In another twenty years they will be down to a fragment of what they were. It was a great work they did in the twentieth century in their days of teaching, their days of caring for the ill, their days of social work. Government has taken over much of those jobs so that something new is needed. Several hundred nuns have been meeting over the past ten years. In 1994 they asked me to write a piece on religious women as the voice of the Earth. What I wrote has been published in six different languages. These women are helping to develop the new ideas we need.

In Vermont there’s a movement to found the first ecozoic monastery dedicated to integral rapport between humans and the Earth. Work on rapport between the human and the divine should perhaps be put aside while we get this going.


I hope to have children someday, and I will want to raise my children with love and respect for our natural world. I also would like to be an educator, and I know I’ll come across children, and already have, who don’t have that respect and admiration and love. What is your advice on how to reach those children? When they’re thirteen and fourteen and fifteen years old and haven’t been raised with that love, how do you affect them so that they too can learn to respect the Earth and help to better it?

I’m not sure I have an adequate answer. In most disciplines there are ways in which the natural world can be inserted into the program. I think we need to begin with the universe and particularly the planet Earth, instilling an awareness that humans are a component of the planet Earth and that we cannot survive unless the planet survives. Just how that can be carried out I’m not sure. There are nature centers for children where they can go and see the natural world.


In terms of the masses of people who live in cities, what is your imaginative vision for the transition of our planet from this industrial age to an age more sensitive to the Earth? I was just in the Los Angeles area, and as I was flying over the city, I was struck again by what an unsustainable place it must be to live in. I wonder if people there are presented with alternatives. Here in the Berkshires we have many opportunities to make choices that can shift our lives more toward the Earth, more toward a local economy. I am concerned for people who live in cities and for the cities themselves. How are they going to make the transition as the wheels of industry crumble?

There are cities that have led the way, such as Curitiba in Brazil. Richard Register in California has a program for changing the city of Berkeley into an eco-city. If you look up Richard Register and his Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, you can learn about what is being done and what can be done. Things such as keeping cars off city streets as much as possible, instituting walkways, planting tress,


I think that from the very beginning of human consciousness, not just the past three centuries of industrialization, the separation of human beings from everything else, from one another, is what allows us to exploit not only nature but one another. This separation came about way before the development of technology. Technology is an extension of it that gives us greater ability to exploit by much more efficient means. I think we all need to look at the inherent violence inside ourselves. It’s part of the way we are, and we need to try to understand it. Sometimes I think we need to throw our books away and look very closely at ourselves and how we operate because more ideology seems to create more separation.

That’s a very important point you’re making. The human story is not a good one with regard to the natural world. Plato mentions that the hills of Greece were eroded, as were the wonderful soils along the African shores of the Mediterranean. The Mayan civilization supposedly declined because of inadequate care of the soil. The Chinese were a peasant society; they started cutting trees and never stopped, which is responsible for another large part of the erosion of the Earth’s soils. It’s true that this is a uniquely human challenge. In the natural world it’s quite different. Of course the beaver destroys too by cutting down trees, but not so extensively. Still, if you have a beaver on your property, you’re in trouble.

Our interactions are precarious, and that is why we are frightened. Our technologies are an expression of our fears. We’re afraid of hunger, and so we want to stockpile an infinite amount. Being able to survive in a constant interchange requires discipline, a type of discipline that we call the four virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. A person has to have judgment, a person has to have discipline and restraint, a person has to have endurance and the power of courageous action in times of difficulty.


In my own life I find that by adopting a vegetarian diet I can have an impact on the environment as far as my own personal reach is concerned. I wanted to ask what your thoughts are on the importance of at least moving in the direction of a vegetarian lifestyle?

That is one of the most effective things, to my mind, that we can do on an individual scale. Feeding grain to animals is a tragedy because of the need for grain as the staple, you might say, of human survival. Fostering small, self-sustaining, self-referent communities in food production is crucial. An example is the community-supported-agriculture movement, which is growing. The repercussions can be significant.


Concluding remarks

I think of the twenty-first century as a new age such as has not been experienced ever before. Never in the total history of the planet Earth has anything like this occurred. There have been extinctions previously; in fact, at the end of the Paleozoic Era at least 90 per cent of species were extinguished, and in the Cenozoic, they say 60 to 65 per cent were extinguished. Then the mammalians came into power, and a great age occurred. It took the greater part of sixty-five million years to create a lyric world. Humans had to be born into a world of beauty, of encompassing beauty, because to sustain the emotional impact and the intellectual and imaginative powers required a lyric world. I call it lyric because that is a word which resonates. It’s song, it’s music, it’s dance, it’s poetry, it’s vision, it’s joy, it’s delight, it’s ecstasy. Humans had to be born into that beautiful world in order to sustain the responsibilities we carry, such as the responsibility of intelligence. And to some extent that is being tested now. Are humans a viable species? Are the life systems of the planet Earth viable if there are humans around? We’re told that an extinction at the rate of the present one has not occurred before. The viability of the human species is being challenged.

We need to accept this situation and accept its challenge. We need to create a new world, to bring the planet Earth back to its earlier creativity, to bring it back to its joy and its beauty. And that’s what we need to teach the children. We need to introduce the children into a creative mode, because right now the creativity is gone. We must do it now before it is too late. We must help them develop and sustain creativity. We already have the critical knowledge; we have the environmental movement that goes all the way back to the 1840s when the earliest sense of what was happening first arose and resistance appeared: George Marsh wrote Man and Nature, the great book on humans and the Earth and the viability of the two together.

The movement continued with Thoreau, who gave us a wonderful example: he once became fascinated with a farm that had trees and meadows and other wonderful aspects. He made a deposit of $10 or $20 to buy it. But then he realized that he didn’t really need to buy it, that he possessed it already in a spiritual way, in an interior way. Thoreau also told us that in wildness is the preservation of the world. Wildness. Not wilderness. There is something civilized about wilderness. But wildness—that is the way into the future.

Now, how we are to evoke a creativity of the order of magnitude needed is not easy to say. But if you take the great litany from Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and the authors of The Limits of Growth all the way down to the present, we can say that it has begun. These remarkable people set a pattern that can be used to educate the people. We need to get beyond Christianity in a way because Christianity is not being responsive. Why aren’t more Christians doing what needs to be done? Why are the religious universities so negligent and so insensitive and so incompetent? Everything needs to be remade.

I recommend that when you go home you read a poem written by Samuel Coleridge in the nineteenth century. It’s called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” A great poem. It’s about what we are facing now. The ancient mariner tells the tale of a ship sailing gaily over the sea. An albatross follows the ship for days, sometimes perching on the rigging. The mariner cruelly shoots the albatross, and as soon as that happens, the whole world changes.

The ship goes into the doldrums, a period of no wind so that the ship cannot sail. Gradually the food and water run out. All the sailors die, except for the ancient mariner. When he sees the sea creatures he had earlier described as “slimy things,” he now suddenly feels love for them, and at that moment everything changes. Spirits come to raise up the dead sailors from where they were lying on the deck; they set to work, and the ship starts to move. When the ancient mariner gets back to land, he feels driven to tell his “ghastly tale” again and again as penance.

Of the poems in the English language I’m especially attracted to this one, with its moment when everything is lost. Yet something can be regained if you find the ultimate resource, which is the love we have for others, including “bird and beast.” But our love has been narrowed in scope, and that is what’s the matter with the Christian church. Love has been narrowed to the human instead of including the whole of the universe, as it once was in the teaching, but it has been forgotten because of working out of a text—words, not realities. The real revelatory experience is in the air we breathe, in the birds that fly and the flowers that bloom. Until we discover that, things won’t work. So go back home and read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

I would like to leave you with the sense of an emerging creativity and the idea that a new dawn is available to us. In closing, this bit of verse I wrote:


Look up at the sky—

The heavens so blue, the sun so radiant,

The clouds so playful, the soaring raptors,

The meadows in bloom, the woodland creatures,

The rivers singing their way to the sea,

Wolf song on the land, whale song in the sea,

Celebration everywhere, wild, riotous,

Immense as a monsoon lifting an ocean of joy

And spilling it down over the Appalachian landscape,

Drenching us all with a deluge of delight

As we open our arms and rush toward each other,

You and I and all of us,

Moved by that vast compassionate Presence

that brings all things together in intimate celebration,

celebration that’s the universe itself.


Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest and cultural historian, was deeply concerned with the relation of the human world to the natural world. He was long the voice of ecological wisdom in the religious community and beyond. In 1970 he founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research and was its director for twenty-five years.

In 1988 he published The Dream of the Earth, which describes how the human community might live in a mutually enhancing way with planet Earth. Following upon the success of that book, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, co-authored by scientist-cosmologist Brian Swimme, was published in 1992. Father Berry’s The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, appeared in 1999.

Thomas Berry died in 2009 at the age of 94.




Schumacher Center for a New Economics and Thomas Berry