Thomas Berry entered a monastery at the age of twenty, he says, because he wanted time to think about what was happening to the environment. That was in 1930, when such concerns were less fashionable. As a child on the rural fringe of small-town North Carolina, Berry had watched the automobile bring major changes to the meadows and woodlands in which he grew up. He came to view technological progress as a serious threat to our survival.
Berry views the physical universe as totally informed by spiritual presence; matter and spirit are simply two ways of approaching the same reality. He traces our culture’s belief in the separation of matter and spirit to the late Middle Ages, when the Black Death — and the new empirical sciences — destroyed people’s sense of connection to a constantly creative natural world. This led to a mistrust of nature, and a desire for perfection in a heavenly afterlife or a future millennium that would bring “heaven on earth.” Berry sums up the current stage of this predicament as an addiction to a narrowly defined “progress,” in which we risk the destruction of the natural world on which we depend.
For Berry, matter, mind, and spirit are three complementary aspects of the same reality. While acknowledging the religious implications of this belief, he feels that significant changes in our way of thought are most likely to take place outside current religious traditions, which stress God the Redeemer at the expense of God the Creator.
But he is careful not to challenge the church directly. In this respect, he differs from Matthew Fox, a like-minded theologian, whose efforts to bring creation-centered spirituality to a mainstream Catholic audience recently caused the Vatican to silence him.
Berry’s thought encompasses the sweep of human history, and he loves to point out landmarks and watersheds along the way: for example, by the time of Plato, the ancient Greeks had already deforested their homeland. In the wake of Earth Day 1990, with its call for immediate action, the theoretical underpinnings of Berry’s environmentalism seem increasingly important.
Berry spent much of his career as a professor of cultural history and Asian studies at various universities in the Northeast. In 1966, he established a doctoral program in the history of religion at Fordham University. His collection of essays, The Dream Of The Earth, was published in 1989 by the Sierra Club as the first volume in its Philosophy of the Environment series. In 1970, Berry established New York’s Riverdale Center for Religious Research, where he continues to serve as resident director.
Berry is a large, shy man who tempers his far-ranging but occasionally dogmatic insights with understated humor. He spoke with The Sun in Pittsboro, North Carolina, which he recently visited on a speaking tour.
THE SUN: As an ecologist, how would you describe your work?
BERRY: I’m concerned with how we can change this terrifying relationship that currently exists between humans and the earth. By the time I was twenty, I saw that I needed to deal with the difficulty in context. I decided to assault the industrial world, rather than flee it.
THE SUN: How have you done that?
BERRY: Through study. I’ve studied how the planet functions, how the universe functions. I studied China, India, the Greek and Roman worlds. Plato tells us that Greece destroyed its woodland. China contained a wonderful sense of the natural world and its philosophy, and offered us the best sense of how we relate to the natural world. But very early, in the Neolithic era, China began to cut down its trees, and so the Chinese world, too, is desolate, heavily eroded. We’ve become geniuses at environmental devastation. The question is whether humans are a viable species, and whether the planet is viable as long as we are around.
THE SUN: How does your approach compare with, say, the Earth First people, who bury spikes in trees to prevent the logging companies from harvesting them?
BERRY: The Earth First people have hold of a magnificent idea. People ask me what to do. I say, “Blow up the bridges.” Fifty percent of all the bridges in this country are not steady anymore, and it will cost trillions of dollars to repair them. One of the bridges between Brooklyn and Manhattan is falling. The question was whether to build another bridge or repair the existing one. They decided to repair the existing one, but I said, “Let it fall.” Stop this mad racing back and forth.
THE SUN: But for so many people it’s an economic imperative.
BERRY: That’s the terror of it. We build these monster machines and the economy depends on running them. We’ve invented a civilization that survives on destruction.
THE SUN: Yet, though we rail against the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest, the people there are desperate. It’s the only way they can make a living.
BERRY: It’s not the only way they can make a living. If they know how to deal with the rain forest as is, they can make a living out of it. Lots of things can be produced, in sustainable ways. That’s why Francisco Méndez, the Brazilian activist, was executed: he was teaching the peasants how to survive.
THE SUN: Given what happened to Méndez, how do we get to where Brazilian peasants can sustain themselves?
BERRY: Wiser investment by the World Bank would help. The World Bank put the road through the rain forest. The industrialized world is ruining the Third World by exploitation, by building big cities and big dams.
We must help local communities with their specific needs, such as their water supply and access to their own land. The big landholders are a problem, particularly in Brazil and the Philippines. The land has to be available to the people. Already there are a large number of wonderful projects taking place.
THE SUN: What about Third World debt?
BERRY: Some people compare it to a transfusion from the patient to the doctor. It’s part of the general absurdity of the whole economic structure. Take the gross national product. Why don’t we have something like the gross earth product: the trees and the apples, the fruit and the timber? Every human product depends on the earth product. Humans don’t have anything; it’s only the earth. We talk about the rising gross national product, but nobody mentions the declining gross earth product. We talk about the trade deficit; that’s nothing compared to the earth deficit. The petroleum industry is based upon extracting more and more petroleum. They don’t talk about the dwindling oil supplies. Very rarely do they mention the fact that this whole petrochemical age can’t possibly endure more than thirty or forty years. What then?
We need a new system; democracy is a conspiracy of humans against the natural world. We need to move from democracy to biocracy. Democracy gives humans freedom. It doesn’t give freedom to anything else.
THE SUN: Your recent collection of essays is entitled The Dream Of The Earth. Can you elaborate on what that means?
BERRY: Whether you think the universe has some pattern or is a chance evolution of matter, you can’t deny that it contains what might be called an element of the fantastic. The universe has at its base a stupendous imaginative power. And since, on the human order, imagination is most free in the dream world, I came up with the idea of “the dream of the earth.”
THE SUN: You contrast this with a millennial “dream of progress,” which you feel has captivated our imagination, almost as if we were hypnotized.
BERRY: Human action is governed extensively by dreams. The Western world has developed a millennial dream. It’s in the apocalyptic literature: a time when the human condition will be transcended, when there will be peace and justice. Ever since that dream entered Western civilization, we have acquired amazing historical dynamism in the quest to get beyond the human condition. It didn’t develop real power, though, until around the sixteenth century. Before that time, there was a sense of the spiritual healing of humanity, but there was no sense that we could actually transform the natural world.
The root of our contemporary industrial pathology is what I call a deep, hidden rage in the Western world against the human condition. We are devastating the planet in an orgy of destructiveness. We refuse to accept anything in its natural state.
THE SUN: How can we break through this rage?
BERRY: I don’t know, because it has been so institutionalized. I look at North Carolina, which is going through a phase of self-devastation. The Research Triangle is the perfect picture of desolation. There is no joy in the buildings. There is a lot of exhilaration in the technological wonders that can be worked there, but it’s not good for the planet, and if it’s not good for the planet, it’s not good for humans. It’s stupid to build nine billion dollars worth of new roads. We had such a beautiful state — plains, estuaries, mountains. . . . Such a beautiful state.
THE SUN: Yet you stress that we’re only vaguely aware of this devastation because we’re so caught up in the day-to-day conduct of our lives.
BERRY: That’s exactly right. We’re in a trance, a state of industrial entrancement, and the only way out is a counter-entrancement.
THE SUN: In other words, the dream of the earth?
BERRY: Yes, a dream of a more benign relationship between humans and the earth. I don’t know how that can be brought about. But the horror of what we’re doing should be obvious. Our children and grandchildren are going to inherit a desolated planet.
We have a gorgeous idea of the divine. Why? Because we live in such a beautiful world. If the natural world is diminished in its beauty, our sense of the divine is necessarily diminished.
THE SUN: With the idea of progress so prominent in our culture, how do you personally avoid entrancement with it?
BERRY: As a child, I was in a more benign relationship with the natural world, with the woodlands and the meadows and the creeks. But I knew already by the time I was ten years old that something was wrong. The automobile was coming into existence and the roads were being paved, and the creeks were being spoiled by runoff. Even at that age, I had the idea that the only integral, safe place was somewhere in the Northwest, and I wrote off to boys’ magazines when I saw the ads for canoes and equipment to live in the forest.
THE SUN: So this sense of the devastation came to you early.
BERRY: Sure, but I think all children have it. Children are not happy with concrete. One of the most tragic things in the world, I think, is a playground with concrete. It’s absurd to condemn children to this deprivation of the senses. No wonder they go into drugs.
THE SUN: This sense of the natural world you gained growing up — is this what you have called the bioregional sense?
BERRY: We have to have habitats where the human recognizes itself as integral with the earth. It could have been done wonderfully well where I grew up. I knew Greensboro when it was relatively small — only fifteen thousand people. We should have developed sustainable dwellings and commercial areas, craft skills, and people living in intimate rapport with the land. We could have developed a wonderful, culturally creative community. But now Greensboro is a bourgeois commercial community. We have colleges there, but what do colleges do nowadays? They teach people how to integrate with the industrial culture.
We should put the Bible on the shelf for twenty years, until we learn to read the scripture of the natural world.
THE SUN: How do bioregions fit into this picture?
BERRY: The earth is not a global sameness. The earth is differentiated into arctic, tropics, coastlands, mountains, plains, and so forth. A bioregion is an identifiable geographical area that’s relatively self-sustaining. The key word has to be self-sustaining. Industry is absolutely, utterly non-self-sustaining. Bridges don’t make bridges, roads don’t make roads, but trees make trees. Berries make berries, apples make apples. There is no survival outside of that renewing process. If humans want to survive, they have to dwell in that process.
THE SUN: If I as an individual became attuned to the Haw River watershed where I live, what changes would that create in my life?
BERRY: Food is the first thing. Food should go from the field to the table. As soon as food becomes a commodity and begins to be processed and preserved and packaged and transported, it’s lost everything. As soon as food begins to go into the commercial process and agribusiness develops, you get a food glut. Europe has a food glut. But the food is no longer food. To begin with, it’s grown because you want to make it commercial. You’ve got to have it cosmetically right, and to make it cosmetically right, you have to put a lot of chemicals in the soil.
There are people in almost every field who are working to give positive assistance to the relationship between humans and the earth. But professional people must become more deeply involved. In my book you’ll notice the six functions of a bioregion: self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing, self-fulfilling. Those correspond to the basic professions: teaching, law, medicine, religion, and so forth.
THE SUN: Then the whole principle of bioregions . . .
BERRY: . . . is the integrity of the community, and the human as a member of an ongoing community. All of this rests on the principle that humans and the natural world are a single society. There is no such thing as human society. What are we without the air and the soil and the rain and the trees?
We teach our professional people to exploit, not how to interact creatively with. Take medicine. The primary role of medicine should be the health of the biosystem, because how can you have healthy people on a sick planet? But right now, our doctors are being taught all the technologies to keep humans healthy on a sick earth. Instead, they should be leaders in publicly reconstituting this relationship with the healthy earth. Now take law: the primary aspect of law is governance, and the natural world is totally participatory in its governance. Everything governs and is governed by everything else. Human governance has to enter into this governance of the larger community. We need a new system; democracy is a conspiracy of humans against the natural world. We need to move from democracy to biocracy. Democracy gives humans freedom. It doesn’t give freedom to anything else. Everything else is “object,” because we are “humans,” and as humans we have rights. It doesn’t give any rights to trees or rivers. So we need a biocracy or a geocracy. We have the beginnings of this in environmental impact statements. That’s saying, “Before you do anything, you should see how the trees feel about it, or the animals, or the birds.”
We need legal systems that work not on a democratic basis, but on a biocratic basis or geocratic basis. It’s the only thing that’s going to work. Now, take the self-fulfilling function, in which I include the aesthetic, the religious, the cultural, the arts, and ethics. In ethics we have ways of dealing with suicide, homicide, and genocide, but commit biocide or geocide, and no moral codes will deal with it.
THE SUN: Is it something that we’ve lost over time?
BERRY: The American Indians had it. They recognized that the human was part of the larger society; that’s why they had totemic animals. Humans were descended from the animals, related to the animals, and so forth. It was a sacred world.
None of our contemporary religious traditions speak to this issue. Scientists have finally demonstrated that there’s no such thing as matter, or an objective world such as we once thought. They’ve shown once and for all the futility of trying to deal with the universe without dealing with consciousness. There is only one reality. It is psychic and spiritual as well as physical and material. These are not two different things, but two aspects of a single thing. We must recognize the world as a revelatory experience. In the earlier days of Christianity, they always talked about the two books, the book of Nature and the book of the Bible. After the sixteenth century, they started arguing about religious texts; the Bible became our sole reference point. We should put the Bible on the shelf for twenty years, until we learn to read the scripture of the natural world.
People ask me what to do. I say, “Blow up the bridges.” Fifty percent of all the bridges in this country are not steady anymore, and it will cost trillions of dollars to repair them. One of the bridges between Brooklyn and Manhattan is falling. . . . I said, “Let it fall.” Stop this mad racing back and forth.
THE SUN: Substituting a book, however sacred, for the observable world, seems to be another aspect of this dream from which we are trying to awaken.
BERRY: You cannot have religion in a man-made world, because religion is our experience of the mystery of the universe. We have a gorgeous idea of the divine. Why? Because we live in such a beautiful world. If the natural world is diminished in its beauty, our sense of the divine is necessarily diminished. Even our intellectual activity is diminished, because we depend on the natural world for our inner life, our imagination, our sensitivity.
Outer impoverishment leads to inner impoverishment. Think of the moon. If we lived on the moon, our sense of the divine would reflect the lunar landscape. Our imagination would be as empty as the moon’s surface.
THE SUN: So if a religion is to be genuine, it has to be rooted in this . . .
BERRY: . . . experience of the natural world. Consider the dimension of the issue. This is not just another historical change or cultural modification; we are changing the planet on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. We’re changing the biosystem, the chemistry of the planet, the geological structure, in a harmful way. It took four and a half billion years to make what we have, and we are negating that in a matter of decades. This is totally different from any other change that humans have brought about on the face of the earth.
It’s a question of survival or non-survival. I don’t look for humans to become extinct, but we are extinguishing ten thousand other species annually. The planet is already degraded. Future generations are going to live on a degraded planet, and a degraded planet means a degraded human mode of being. Much of this is irreversible.
THE SUN: That brings to mind a quotation from Albert Schweitzer that you use in The Dream Of The Earth: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” I can’t help but hope it’s not too late to salvage some possibility of a dignified human existence.
BERRY: The basic issue, though, is that we are fixated on this type of devastation: we’re cutting the tropical rain forest at an acre a second, we’re destroying our own forests in Alaska almost as fast. Because it’s an addiction, we think we can’t do without it. We are addicted to this type of world, and we’re paralyzed.
But an enormous amount is being done by such organizations as the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the World Resources Institute, Worldwatch. John and Nancy Todd at the New Alchemy Institute are designing waste disposal systems for towns, using artificial wetlands for the waste water to pass through, so that purification takes place naturally. They have also developed bioshelters, which provide ways of growing food year-round. They do this up on Cape Cod. I was there once when it was about ten degrees outside, and in this bioshelter, it was in the eighties, with no artificial heat.
Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, is studying how to restore the prairie and the prairie grasses, and to grow foods natural to the region. Lewis Morrison is also developing ways to increase productivity in relatively small areas. For example, he is trying to find out whether tomatoes, which do fine every year as annuals, might also succeed as perennials.
Miriam Therese MacGillis has a place called Genesis Farm, where she is developing organic agriculture with community-supported gardens. She has 140 families that contribute a certain amount — $400 a year, I think — and then they come from May to December, every week, to pick up their vegetables.
Richard Register is an architect redesigning the city of Berkeley, California, in such a way that by changes in ten-year intervals over a period of one hundred years, the city will have extensive wooded areas with no decrease in population. The automobile will be withdrawn gradually. People will walk or bicycle to work.
Then there are the Earth First people, who say, “Don’t cut the forests. Period. If you start cutting, I’m going to go in and spike the trees, and when you send them to the sawmill they’ll break the saw.” If they spike trees they’ll tell you, because it makes cutting those trees less viable economically. It’s about time North Carolina developed a few Earth First types to stop some of the bulldozing that’s taking place in this state.
THE SUN: Are you a hopeful person?
BERRY: I have to be hopeful. I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. I feel the poignancy of the situation, and I always remember the title of that book Lin Yutang wrote in response to somebody or other’s simplistic solutions for international affairs, Between Tears And Laughter. It’s monumental, the crassness of those who are assaulting the earth, while the rest of us remain quiet. There are a few angry people, like Earth First. But we need more angry people. I got angry in the 1920s. I’ve been angry ever since.