12 February 2011

The Ten-Thousand-Year Vision

Posted by Admin under: Creation; Evolution; Future; Inspiration; Religion; Science; Story; Sustainability .

Our friend Elyssa Serrilli recently sent us a note with a short essay by Thomas Berry:

I’d like to share with you a short essay on a transforming human consciousness that often inspires me; it’s by Thomas Berry. You may have seen it. I hope you enjoy it.

The essay, called “The Ecozoic Era,” arrived just in time to inform a conversation with my (increasingly enlightened) daughter on the future we see for humanity.

This in turn arose from a question about the future of language and communication, which is at the heart of her artistic endeavor—like that of all artists, essentially to invent a new language.

To truly imagine the future of language, however, we must first imagine the future of humanity: who are we, and how will we be communicating? Will everyone in the future speak English? Will people [continue to] change how they communicate, and with whom? Of course.

Now the future is an elusive concept: it’s what we can imagine today, but if we look back on history such imaginings (both good and bad) have typically been wide of the mark. Like Malthus, many thinkers (especially those calling themselves economists) have been too dismal; but the utopians of the past have been equally dismayed to discover how cruel, greedy, and short-sighted humans often are.

The value of both dystopias and utopias, however, is that they offer us visions, of heavens and hells, that can guide our actions. Without some kind of ten-thousand-year view (however implicit), humans could hardly make sense of their everyday behavior. They may assume that things will be exactly the same, just more so; or that things will undergo a radical shift in one direction or another.

This brings us to Thomas Berry’s 1991 essay, which begins this way:

As we think about the future form of an integral Earth Community we might begin with the observation that in the sequence of biological periods of Earth development we are presently in the terminal phase of the Cenozoic and the emerging phase of the Ecozoic era. The Cenozoic is the period of biological development that has taken place during these past 65 million years. The Ecozoic is the period when human conduct will be guided by the ideal of an integral earth community, a period when humans will be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.

In short, we are being told, the future will be radically different: it will shift from a culture of competition, exploitation, and domination to one of cooperation, collaboration, and ecological sustainability. And this change, moreover, is being thrust upon us:

The Cenozoic period is being terminated by a massive extinction of living forms that is taking place on a scale equaled only by the extinctions that took place at the end of the Paleozoic around 220 million years ago and at the end of the Mesozoic some 65 million years ago. The only viable choice before us is to enter into an Ecozoic period, the period of an integral community that will include all the human and non-human components that constitute the planet Earth.

Unless we adopt this choice we are likely to irreparably damage the ecosystem we depend on.

Ultimately humans cannot extinguish life on the planet. What humans can do is to severely damage the planet beyond recovery to its former grandeur within any comprehensible period of human historical time. This in some manner deserves the designation of geocide.

The Ecozoic Era, in other words, is the only plausible hope for humanity to have a future. Berry goes on to describe six “principles” he sees as defining the Ecozoic Era; but whether we agree with all of these or not, the fundamental truth that he so simply and directly articulates in this way is what makes this short essay so profound.

Let’s look at these principles, however, for if they capture the essence of the transformation they can provide stepping-stones to a more positive future.

The first principle of the Ecozoic era is recognizing that the Universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.

In other words, nothing exists by itself, but only as part of an intricate web of coexistence. And if we pay attention to this, and truly listen, we can hear the voices of every part of this living whole we call the Earth, the biosphere, and realize that it is only our deafness to them that has gotten us into trouble.

We no longer listen to what the earth, its landscape, its atmospheric phenomena and all its living forms, its mountains and valleys, the rain, the wind, and all the flora and fauna of the planet are telling us. Since the Seventeenth Century we have not heard, we have not understood the inner world about us. We have experienced the external phenomena. We have had no entry into the world of interior meaning. We have not heard the voices.

Until we do listen, until we do hear these voices and understand what they are telling us, our lives will continue to be shriveled, our judgment as absurd, as destructive as we can presently observe in what we have done to the soil, the water, the air, and the living forms of this loveliest of planets. We will appreciate or revere the planet if we are to form a viable Earth Community.

This leads him, inevitably, to speak of needing “new religious sensitivities,” in the sense that religion needs to be informed by what we already know scientifically and cosmologically, and recognize our actual origin as our sacred story. Not everyone will follow him here, whether because they choose to adhere to the conventional myths of divine creation, or because they dismiss the divine altogether. We do not know whether there was an intelligence or creative power that existed “prior to” the Big Bang and gave rise to it. What we do know, however, is what Berry asserts most forcefully, that like all other living beings humans arise from and are an expression of the Earth:

The human belongs among these forms. It establishes with them a single community. There is no effective spiritual or religious mode of being for the human in isolation from this community. The visible world about us is our primary scripture, the primary manifestation of the divine, and this for human communities throughout the entire planet.

This is, in other words, no traditional religion based on the Koran or the Bible, but one that asserts that it is Nature, not man alone, that is created in the image of God.

The second principle is one that we have already stated, that beyond genocide is a much greater “crime against humanity”: biocide and geocide, the killing of most forms of life on the planet. The third principle is a corollary of this: that the human is derivative, secondary; it’s the Earth that is primary. The ancient cultures all understood this; we now have to grasp it in modern terms:

The primary concern of every profession, institute, and activity of the human betrays itself unless it makes this larger earth community its primary referent.

So with Economics, the first concern, the first principle of understanding, must be the economic integrity of the planet. Concern for the Gross Earth Product must be the primary concern, not the Gross Human Product. Only within the ever-renewing cycle of Earth productivity can human productivity be sustained.

So with the healing professions, the primary concern must be to maintain the integral well-being of the planet. Not even with all our medical sciences and technologies can we establish well human beings on a sick planet.

The fourth principle is the full (re)integration of the human into world of nature:

We cannot make a blade of grass. But there is liable not to be a blade of grass if it is not accepted, protected, and fostered by the human. We have completely new and comprehensive responsibilities now that we never had before.

Indeed, we must become responsible for the ecological regeneration and sustenance of the biosphere; we must protect it from our own wanton destruction if we want it to continue to support us.

Ultimately we should be diminishing the domestication of the planet and assisting the wilderness to reactivate itself. A contradiction, perhaps. Yet what is needed is that we accept and foster the wild fertile forces of the planet that are consistently being weakened, unless humans withdraw their terrifying presence and grant to the other members of the Earth Community their rights to habitat and their share of the Earth’s benefits.

The fifth principle is that “Progress” is only the “progress of the entire life community, not progress of the human at the expense of the non-human members of the community”:

To designate human plundering of the planet as Progress is an absurdity beyond description.

Berry’s sixth principle is that of celebration as, in some sense, the ultimate purpose of life:

The universe throughout its vast extent in space and its sequence of transformations in time might be considered a single multiform celebratory event. The very purpose of the planet Earth seems to be to exhibit a culminating celebratory mode of expression, something to justify the emergent galaxies, the supernova explosions wherein the elements were formed, the shaping of the solar system, the emergence of this privileged planet.

One could no doubt argue with this, but to what end? The universe is indeed a wondrous unfolding, one that seems more improbable, more precarious, and more miraculous the more we learn about it. This sensitivity is not at odds with science; it actually arises from it:

When we ask what is the meaning of the flight of the birds, their song; what is the meaning of the quiet gliding of fish through the sea; what is the meaning of the evening song of the cicada: we can indeed assign some pragmatic answer, but that would not go to the deeper meaning of the phenomena. This we find under the rubric of celebration.


So with the human, our entry into the Ecozoic period can only come through celebration of the grandeur and loveliness and joy of existence on the planet Earth. Once we begin to celebrate, all things become possible even an Ecozoic era.

All things become possible, even an Ecozoic era. And we must work not just to make it possible, but to make it a reality.

3 Comments so far...

jo sippie-gora Says:

12 February 2011 at 9:15 am.

Thanks, Elyssa, for the piece by Thomas Berry who, like great visionaries and educators Joanna Macy and David Korten, have inspired my advocacy toward deep sustainability. You may like to check out Tikkun’s May/June 2010 issue entitled “Environmentalism Without Spirituality”, particularly “Spirituality in a Time of Crisis”, by Mark Hathaway.

Lori Sandler Says:

12 February 2011 at 9:31 am.

Beautiful! Thank you to Elyssa for sharing the article and thank you Jonathan for posting it and your insightful comments and explanations. Indeed, humanity is spiraling forward in evolution, with the wonderful opportunity to integrate all that we have experienced, learned and created, with the most fundamental truths which we have neglected for far too long: truths such as oneness with our environment and all living beings, and the knowledge of ourselves as responsible creators of the “reality” we are experiencing.

I love Berry’s conclusion. I had not thought of the word celebration, but it does accurately encapsulate the conclusion I had also reached as to the purpose of it all. I had come up with the word beauty- that the purpose of it all was beauty- to see the beauty in all things, to uncover it, to recognize it (celebrate it), to reflect it and to share it with others. There is beauty in every thing and every one. This beauty is the god-essence from which all arises. It is our source of life, of love, of creative power. It is what cries out in the souls of all beings for freedom, for self-expression and for joy. It is what is happening with the young people in Egypt right now and in the hearts of all of us. When we, as individuals and as a collective, begin to celebrate and honor that beauty that is expressed in this physical experience of creation and evolution, then we will create heaven on earth.

Gerard Farias Says:

13 February 2011 at 12:02 pm.

This is inspiring… suggests to me that we need to learn from the indigenious people of the world who seem to have understood these ideas for centuries. My own understanding is limited… but I suggest the work of Wade Davis… see a couple of videos here..


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