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Thomas Berry on the Mythical-Cosmological Dimension of Environmental Ethics

To construct his environmental vision, Thomas Berry draws from multiple sources, including history, cosmology, “ecopsychology” and ecotheology. His somewhat unique approach utilizes the pre-rational, mythical wisdom of humanity to show how current environmental problems occur precisely through losing contact with this human dimension. In line with his thesis, Berry claims that "we need not a human answer to an earth problem, but an earth answer to an earth problem. The earth will solve its problems, and possibly our own, if we will let the earth function in its own ways. We need only listen to what the earth is telling us."Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 19.For this hearing to occur, humanity needs a better story by which to live: "We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us."Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 22.In the story that Berry proposes we need to imagine ourselves less as "a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth and indeed of the universe itself."Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 46.

Berry is clearly a creation-oriented thinker, emphasizing the miracle of life's existence and the uniqueness of humanity, rather than humanity's fallen nature and need for redemption. However, this does not mean that Berry fails to recognize and challenge the ways in which humans wrongly use their unique gifts of intellect, self-consciousness, and “directed will” to alienate themselves from other humans and the natural world. This estrangement - stated more traditionally as “sin” - grows out of two flawed myths: the religious myth of a transcendental redemption from earth and the secular myth of ultimate fulfillment on earth through increased technology and rationality, which he names the “industrial myth”. The irony of the industrial myth is that regardless of how rampantly it lays waste to the earth and alienates us from each other and the natural world, it still maintains its hegemony over us. Berry likens this to a drug or alcohol addiction:

Even when the consequences of a desolate planet are totally clear, the industrial order keeps its control over human activities because of the energy generated by the mythic quality of its vision. We could describe our industrial society as counterproductive, addictive, paralyzing, [a] manifestation of a deep cultural pathology. Mythic addiction functions something like alcohol and drug addictions. Even when they are obviously destroying the addicted person, the psychic fixation does not permit any change. . . Any effective cure requires passing through the agonies of withdrawal. If such withdrawal is an exceptional achievement in individual lives, we can only guess at the difficulty on the civilizational or even the global scale.Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 13-14.

Since the root of ecological problems are themselves largely mythic, its resolution will naturally stem from the ascendance of a new myth. Thus, Berry concurs with Lynn White, Jr.'s thesis that the answers to ecological problems will come largely from within religion - whether one wants to call it that or not - because ecological problems arise from particular religious worldviews, which are themselves constructed of particular myths.

Berry proposes a "mystique of the land" to counteract the industrial mystique and calls for three central commitments to achieve this: commitment to the earth as irreversible process, to the ecological age as the only viable form of the millennial ideal, and to a sense of progress that includes the natural as well as the human world.Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 16.That is, Berry’s “”mystique of the land” focuses pointedly on the need for immanent healing of the earth and our relationships with it.

Of course, it is one thing to recognize a problem and propose a solution; it is quite another feat to provide the knowledge and impetus necessary for its realization. And, therein lies the most difficult part of Berry's proposals: How can we gain access to the archetypal symbols and energies necessary for healing ourselves and the world - especially when it is precisely their nature to remain beyond our conscious control and willfulness? Berry’s response is that we can only recognize our needs and remain open them, just as we only need listen to what the earth is telling us. At this stage of our evolution, with the industrial myth so entrenched in the collective consciousness, can such a task even be understood, let alone embraced? Time will tell.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Richard Randolph and Jeremy Yunt

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