Excerpt from “How Shall I Live my Life” by Derrick Jensen. In this collection of interviews, Derrick Jensen discusses the destructive dominant culture with ten people who have devoted their lives to undermining it.
Thomas Berry doesn’t fit the image of a typical environmentalist. A Catholic monk in his late eighties, he is a philosophical forebear to younger generations of activists. His main focus is not the immediate battles being fought, but the roots of the problem, which he traces back to the beginnings of Western civilization.
Berry wrote his book The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books) beneath an ancient oak in New York City, on a slope overlooking the Hudson River. That tree, to which he dedicated his book, lived through many changes, be- ginning with the arrival of the Europeans and the end of traditional Native American ways. It lived through the disappearance of the wood bison, the passenger pigeon, the great American chestnuts, the wolverines who prowled the shores of the Hudson, the Atlantic salmon that were once so numerous they threatened to carry away fishermen’s nets. It stood there as men cut down the neighboring trees, demolishing the forest where its life began. It lived through the pouring of billions of tons of concrete, the erection of brick buildings and rigid structures of steel.
Born in 1914, when there were fewer than 2 billion people in the world, Berry, too, has lived through many changes. He grew up in an undeveloped— read, undestroyed—area of the South. “I saw the beginnings of the auto- mobile age,” he says, “and, to some extent, the age of industrialization. I remember the discovery of the Arabian oil fields in the 1920s, and the development of the petrochemical age after the Second World War. By the time I was eight years old, I already saw something happening that I didn’t like.”
Berry has spent much of his life trying to understand why this culture is bent on destroying the natural world. When he was twenty, he entered a Passionist monastery, and for ten years, he got up at two every morning for liturgy. From 3 a.m. on he studied the foundations of Western thought. He discovered that environmental degradation is not a recent development: for example, by the time Plato wrote his Republic, the Greeks had already cut down the forests of their homeland.
At thirty, Berry went to the Catholic University of America, where he earned a doctoral degree in history. He also learned Chinese and Sanskrit, he says, “so I could find out how other cultures and religions dealt with the problems of human existence.” Berry traveled to China to teach and later be- came director of the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. In 1970, he founded the Riverdale Center of Religions Research in Riverdale, New York, and remained its director until 1995.
The fate of the next generation, which will live to see a world of 8 to 10 billion people, is often on Berry’s mind. “They are going to be in a tragic situation,” he says, “particularly in regard to petroleum. Our food depends on petroleum, and in a sense is transformed petroleum, just like our energy, transportation, clothing, utensils, and plastics. What are people going to do when the petroleum is gone?”
One of Berry’s book titles is The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Crown Publishing). The “great work” facing humanity, he says, is to move from mindlessly extracting and consuming the earth’s resources to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with nature. His other books include two academic works on religion, Buddhism and Religions of India (both Columbia University Press), and The Universe Story (Harper SanFrancisco), coauthored with cosmologist Brian Swimme.
The old oak tree under which Berry wrote is no more. It was cut down by a homeowner worried that its branches would fall on his roof. And Berry no longer lives in New York. He has returned to his place of birth in North Carolina, where he lives on a former farm that is now part of the city of Greensboro. I stayed there on a cool November night, talking with him until the small hours and starting up again the following frosty morning.
DJ: Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?
TB: The first part of answering that question is to ask what kind of transfor- mation we have to undergo. It seems to me that there are two dimensions to this transformation. The first is that we have to get beyond the artificial division we’ve created between the human community and the rest of planet. There is only one community, and it lives and dies as a unit. Any harm done to the natural world diminishes the human world, because the human world depends on the natural world not only for its physical supplies but for its psychic development and fulfillment. This is most important, because people talk about the need to destroy the natural world in order to advance the hu- man world. Well, anything that diminishes the wonder and fulfillment we receive from the natural world spoils the human enterprise. We may get a pile of possessions, but it won’t mean much if we can’t go to the mountains or the seacoast, or enjoy the songs of birds or the sights and scents of flowers. What does it do to our children when they cannot enjoy such things?
The other dimension to this is that we have to somehow get beyond Western Civilization, which must be profoundly altered because it is so destructive in its present state. This alteration is so absolute and so deep in its implications that a person has to wonder about the continuity. In other words, Western Civilization itself is causing our difficulties, which makes this type of a change hard to really comprehend. Transformations of this magnitude are generally associated with some type of religious change.
It seems clear the mission of our times is to reinvent what it means to be human. One thing we know about human beings is that they invent themselves. As a species we are genetically coded toward a further transgenetic cultural coding through which we become fully human. We must be taught how to be human, through our parents, through our community, through rituals, through interactions with the natural world. This is why there is a diversity of ways to be human under different cultural contexts. The Western mode of being has developed into such a distortion that it is causing over- whelming impact not only on the human dimension of the planet but other dimensions as well. Civilized humans have become a planetary power, be- yond what any species has been previously. Because language derives from experience, and ultimately from the natural world, we’re in a situation that is hard to present in any kind of known language. All of this means that it can be hard even to imagine the type of transformation that is necessary. We need to imagine it before we can deal with the question of whether or not people will voluntarily accept it.
I suspect that when it happens it will not be so much voluntary or in- voluntary, but subconscious. In other words, I don’t think we’ll be entirely conscious of what’s going on. Cultural formations don’t happen consciously. For example, we surely did not intend to damage the continent to this ex- tent, nor did we intend to establish a structure of human lives that would have these implications. There may be some people who understand the transformation—just as there are some people now who understand the culture’s destructiveness—but for the society at large the actions of the culture are nearly always unconscious.
DJ: You’ve written about the role of Passover in the beginning of a process of separation…
TB: The beginning of Western Civilization. The spiritual structure of Western Civilization gets its start in a very profound way at the time of the Passover, when the Hebrew experience of the cosmological springtime festival was transformed into an historical event of liberation. This is a profound change: from the experience of the divine in the cosmological order—in the world around us—to the experience of the divine as manifested in the historical moments of particular communication between the divine and the human. It’s profound because this then becomes the basic referent for what might be called reality and value; it changes the entire mode of human development.
DJ: I don’t understand.
TB: Within the earlier perspective, communication between the cosmological and the human worlds generally took place through shamanic types. Within the newer worldview, divine/human communication takes place through prophetic types.
DJ: What’s the difference?
TB: The prophetic type becomes the voice of the personal divine, or the medium whereby the divine communicates itself to the human and the human communicates itself to the divine. But the shamanic world is more cosmological, by which I mean that the shamanic personality is in relationship with the powers present throughout the universe.
In back of this, and really what I’m concerned with, is the question of how we experience the universe. My proposal—and this is why a cosmological worldview is so important—is that a cosmological order is what might be called the great liturgy. The human project is validated by ritual insertion into the cosmological order. Our job is to participate in the great hymn of praise that is existence.
We have lost touch with the natural order of things. For example, which day of the workweek it is may be more important to many of us than the great transition moments in the seasonal cycles, and which hour of the day it is—will I get to work on time? Will I avoid rush hour traffic? Will I get to watch my favorite television program—may be more important to us than the transitional moments in the diurnal cycles. We have forgotten the great spiritual import of these moments of transition. The dawn is mystical, a very special moment for the human to experience the wonder and depth of fulfillment in the sacred. The same is true of nightfall. And it’s true when we pass from consciousness to sleep, where our subconscious comes for- ward. That this is a special moment of intimacy is particularly apparent to children. They often know that the moment of falling asleep is the magic or mystical moment when there is a presence. Parents talk to their children in a very special way at this time. It’s very tender, sensitive, quiet. It’s the great transitional moment in our day-night cycle.
There are magical moments in the yearly cycle, too. There is the winter solstice, the moment when the transformation takes place between a declining and ascending sun. It’s a moment of death in nature, a moment when everything is reborn. We have lost touch with this intimate experience.
In the springtime, humans are meant to wonder and to ceremonially observe succession, leading to the fulfillment of summer, and the beginning of the movement again toward death. At the harvest there is another time of gratitude and celebration. I think the Iroquois thanksgiving ceremony is one of the greatest festivals in the religious traditions of humankind. Different elements are remembered and thanked: the water, the rain, the wind, the fruitfulness of the earth, the trees. The Iroquois articulate fifteen or more specialized powers that humans need to commune with and be grateful for.
All of this is cosmological. Such experience evokes a sense of wonder at the majesty of things. We participate in the world of the sacred, the world of mystery, the world of fulfillment. To recognize our fulfillment in these moments is to know what it is to be human.
We can say the same for places as for moments. To be fully human is to fully experience the spectacular formations of the planet: particular mountains, particular rivers, certain rock structures.
We no longer do this. We don’t experience the natural world surrounding us. We deny ourselves our deepest delight by not participating in the dawn, the dusk, the solstice, the springtime.
I went to a monastery when I was twenty. The monastery rituals are based on cosmological processes. We get up at two in the morning to celebrate the liturgy of the night. At dawn we have the liturgy of the day, largely singing or chanting songs of the Bible or hymns written through the centuries to celebrate the dawn or the particular season of the year. Songs celebrating the summer are different from songs celebrating winter. The point is that all through the various moments of the day we celebrate the wonder of existence: the night, the dawn, midday, vespers, the evening, then the closing of the day.
But even with this basis, the sense of it being caught up in sacred cosmological liturgy escapes most people in monasteries. If it is difficult even for people performing these celebrations so many times each day, how much more so for those who do not often reflect on, much less sing to, the dawn?
We can’t lay the blame for all of this on the Passover transition, or the movement from mythological to historical celebrations. That one incident didn’t kill our sense of the cosmological. Our connection to the rest of the planet and the need to celebrate all life lives deep within our bodies, and has never been easily eradicated. Instead, it has slowly been eroded over the centuries and millennia of civilization.
DJ: Can you back up?
TB: After the Passover and with the rise of the Judaic tradition, we saw an increasing emphasis on the historical, the literal, the linear, as opposed to the mythological, the cosmological, the cyclical. Moses was a real person, who had a specific connection to God at that place and at that time…
DJ: And Moses or God were the points of the story, instead of the burning bush itself.
TB: Yes, and later Christianity followed this same path. Jesus was a historical figure, as opposed to a mythic one. Connection to the sacred or to God— who is distant from the earth and not of it—is reserved for a special few who exist in specific places at specific historical times, and everyone else must experience the sacred through these representatives. This experience of the sacred is not, within this perspective, something available to all through their participation in the greater whole.
This historical Christian world then bonded with Greek humanism to create the Western anthropocentrism with which we have unfortunately become all-too-familiar. Humans are the only creatures on the planet who matter. Everything else loses its sacrality, its wonder. All wonder and sacrality is, in fact, vested only in these prophetic figures. It is not vested in the natural world, according to this perspective, and does not surround us every day. All of those things—not beings—that surround us are here merely for us to use. They are not here, under this worldview, to fulfill their own destinies, to commune with each other and with us, and for us to commune with them.
Now, as I said, this perception of the sacred in the world is not easy to eliminate, and so the cosmological relationship did continue, up through the medieval period, until the plague, called the black death, that took place be- tween 1347 and 1349, when a third of Europe died. In Florence, the population declined in six months from ninety thousand to forty-some thousand. In Sienna the population went from forty thousand to fifteen thousand in less than a year. Because part of what we do as human beings is discern meaning, these events had to be interpreted. Not having the slightest knowledge of germs, people didn’t have the possibility to interpret all of this physically. They could only think of moral explanations; for example, the idea that God was punishing humans for becoming weak and sinful. The thing to do, then, was to become more spiritual, and to get redeemed out of a world increasingly seen as a vale of tears anyway. So over the next hundred years there was a big change in the spirituality of Europe. The art, for example, changed dramatically. When studying late fourteenth-century art from Florence, you keep encountering scenes of death, or last judgment scenes, where Christ with an upraised arm condemns the wicked into hell. You never saw these things before. The last judgment became a fearful thing, as did death. Before that, death had been more or less acceptable, simply part of life, something you dealt with through religion. But the people had been traumatized, and now death frightened them far more than it had before.
DJ: Let me get this straight…
TB: People lost touch with much of their participation in the great liturgy: the world instead became filled with manifestations of sin, became horrifying. The task of the spiritual person was to withdraw from the natural world as contamination, as seductive. This was articulated well by the great spiritual writer Thomas á Kempis. Then in the sixteenth century Protestant Puritan- ism overlaid this withdrawal with a certain sternness. In the seventeenth century you get Catholic Jansenism, a kind of Catholic puritanism, an aversion from the natural world. The Jansenists determined that the eucharist—the communion celebration with wine and bread in commemoration of the last supper of Jesus, making Christ present in a special way—was such a holy ritual, and humans were so wicked, that even those who went to mass were not considered worthy to receive the eucharist more than, say, once or a few times a year. Not only had one’s direct access to the sacred been banished from the world, the faithful had been alienated from the church’s own rituals. It was only after much soul searching and penitence that at the beginning of the twentieth century the custom was reasserted for common people to participate in communion each time they went to mass.
Things continued to get worse after the Jansenists. If you perceive the natural world as not sacred, and as composed of things put here for your use, you are going to exploit it. The church articulated the need to be redeemed from the earth, whereas science articulated the need and means to under- stand and control the earth. Thus really began the division between the sa- cred and the secular in the contemporary Western world, which made both the church and scientists happy. The religious people were happy because they didn’t have to deal with the secular side of life, and the secular people were happy because they didn’t have to deal with the spiritual. This latter has led directly to the aggressive commercialization of the planet. Because the natural world was ostracized from the world of the sacred, we have felt free to do with it anything we wanted.
DJ: Let’s go at this from another direction. You’ve written how there are three fundamental types of relationships humans can enter into.
TB: From the beginning, Western Civilization has been very conscious of God-human relations as well as our intrahuman relationships. Think of the Bible. Much of it is concerned with how humans should relate to God, and how humans should relate to each other. What gets lost in all of this are intimate relations with the natural world.
What this means is that our theology has long been highly developed, and particularly in modern times our anthropology has become highly developed, as have our social studies, as part of anthropology. And of course we have the so-called life sciences, but we are still trying to figure out how nature works in order to control it, not how to regain our sense of the natural world as sacred, as fulfillment.
All that is left to most of us these days is the possibility of gaining a kind of romantic fulfillment in going to the seashore, the mountains, or traveling to wilderness areas. But this has progressively tended to become less meaningful, and more separated from our day-to-day existence. In our day-to-day existence, our workaday existence, we are no longer present to the natural world in any manner. We no longer see trees as other beings to be communed with. Nowhere are we taught how to do this. Nowhere is it encouraged for us to speak of this. That is why we live in this world of concrete and steel, of wires and wheels and mechanisms. That’s the tragedy of our children. They don’t see the stars because of light pollution, they play on grass poisoned with pesticides, they experience the world as circumscribed by so much human- made material. Our children have been taken away from any kind of normal human/earth relationship.
We maintain that disconnection as adults. At one time we depended directly on the earth for our life support. We recognized this dependency, gave praise and thanks for it, as do indigenous and agricultural peoples. By now most of us have no idea where our food comes from.
DJ: And we work a lot harder to get it, harder at least than hunter/ gatherers.
TB: The way humans lived before civilization was a lot less work, because the planet naturally produces, naturally renews itself. It offers itself to us not only for food, but in the sense of offering wonders, and its presence. There’s none of this separation of the sacred and the secular in the natural world, both spiritual and physical well-being are offered at the same time, because—and this is what is most important—the physical and the spiritual are two dimensions of the same thing.
If people would only pay proper attention, there are certain verifications that someone could receive even from within the scientific worldview. For instance, the fact that nothing is itself without everything else. The human story and the universe story are in reality a single story. The story of anything requires the telling of the story of everything. And each thing is so present to everything else in the universe that nothing is separated. Every atom influences every other atom without passing through the intervening space.
Many scientists understand this, but often they do not take the next step of understanding. Steven Weinberg, for example, wrote The First Three Minutes, a brilliant scientific study of the first three minutes of the universe, but then later in the book he says, “The more you know about the universe, the less point it seems to have.” My response to that is, “Well, Steven, if there’s no point to it, why do you study it so much? Why do you give your life to it?”
The answer is very simple. The point is the attraction of the Great Self and the small self. Every being has two dimensions: its individual dimension and its universal dimension. The universe is the Great Self of every part of the universe. Why are we so happy being with trees, other animals, hearing birdsongs, seeing the colors of flowers, the flow of rivers? Why do these inspire us so? Well, that is what might be called the large self, where we experience our fulfillment. We are not ourselves without it.
Imagine a drink of water when you are thirsty. It is as spiritual an experience as it is a physical one. You see a river. You drink from it. The river takes care of you physically, and spiritually. That is everything right there.
DJ: Different subject. I’d always thought traditional indigenous peoples lived in dynamic equilibrium with their surroundings, but you propose something else: creative disequilibrium.
TB: Well, there are two basic forces in the universe: differentiation and bonding. That is, pushing things apart, making them different, and bring- ing things together, making them present to each other. At the beginning of the universe, it had several options. If the differentiation overcomes the bonding, then the universe disperses, and nothing happens. If the bonding overcomes—is too strong for—the differentiation, then it collapses. If the bonding and the differentiation enter into equilibrium, everything becomes fixated. The only viable option of the universe is for it to be in a state of creative disequilibrium, holding together sufficiently to not fall apart, but open enough to be expanding.
DJ: How does that manifest in relations involving humans?
TB: Creativity. Play. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Paul Winter, the musician. He asked me to write something he might read at his wedding. I wrote a verse he made into a bookmark. “Look up at the sky. The heavens so blue, the sun so radiant, the clouds so playful, soaring raptors, meadows in bloom, the woodland creatures, rivers singing their way to the sea, wolf song on the land, whale song on 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, Paul and Chez, and all of us, moved by that vast compassionate curve that brings all things together in intimate celebration, celebration that is the universe itself.”
There is a difference between a philosopher and a poet. Philosophers look for equilibrium. Poets delight in a teasing disequilibrium, in the interplay and modes of tension of all beings with each other.
This is also the difference between Chinese and Japanese art. Chinese art, while it has its dynamism and interplay, looks for balance. Japanese art, on the other hand, always insists on a certain disequilibrium. That’s why it is often more free than Chinese art.
DJ: Do you think we’re in a state of destructive disequilibrium?
TB: I’d be more inclined to say we’re collapsing from excessive equilibrium.
DJ: I don’t understand. What’s in equilibrium?
TB: We can’t stand the wild. We can’t stand the creative disequilibrium. Concrete and asphalt are flat. They’re under control. That’s a form of equilibrium. Probably the ultimate form. Stasis. Which is surely what Western Civilization aims for.
If we are to expect to survive, and to remember what it is to be human beings, we need to establish a pattern of viable activity for the whole earth community. This community should be ruled by the principles that every being has three rights: the right to be; the right to habitat; and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of nature.