Response to The Great Work by Thomas Berry

By Aruna Gnanadason

The time-honored traditions of prudence of small communities are based on a deep respect for the integrity of creation. However they are confronted with economic and development agenda that are unraveling the very capacity of peoples to sustainable livelihood. This article explores the relationship between Berry's vision and the realities of these communities who are attempting to maintain their ecological traditions. Berry's vision of progress is challenged from the perspective of small poor communities, as well as the problem of the universalizing of knowledge.

Keywords: development, Thomas Berry, wisdom traditions

Increasingly I am coming to recognize that it is small communities who live in a caring relationship to the earth—subaltern groups and their cultural traditions of prudent use of the natural resources—that offer a word of hope for the future. These traditions of prudence are based not on an attempt to save the Earth so that humanity can have a future, but on a deep respect for the integrity of creation. The Chipko movement in the lower Himalayan region in India is, for example, essentially for the protection of the trees and of the land, based on an understanding of the intimate bond between human persons and the earth and the entire cosmos. The survival of the earth is intimately related to the life of those who are daily engaged “in the production of survival” (Shiva 1989: 224). Gharwal women of the Chipko movement had this to sing:

A fight for truth has begun
At Sinsyari Khala
A fight for rights has begun
At Malkot Thano
Sister, it is a fight to protect
Our mountains and forests.
They give us life
Embrace the life of the living streams Embrace the life of the living streams
clasp them to your hearts
Resist the digging of mountains
That brings death to our forests and streams
A fight for life has begun
At Sinsyaru Khala.
Chamundeyi, Doon Valley,
inspired by the Chipko poet Ghanshayam Shailani.
(Quoted by Shiva 1989: 210)

Such voices of wisdom and their passionate “yes” to life, have been marginalised and excluded by the more dominant discourse. I am, therefore, grateful to Thomas Berry for weaving through this book affirmations of the wisdom traditions of the past including the traditional wisdom of the native peoples of the North American continent; all of which are based on a spiritual and sacred connectedness with the earth.

The traditions of prudence have been overrun and submerged by the dominant paradigm of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. It is, therefore, this that we need to address most urgently. In a country like India, the 1970's ‘development’ discourse moved, albeit rather reluctantly, to environmental concerns. Earlier than this even social movements tended to dismiss such an emphasis because it took away attention from struggles for economic and political justice in a globalising world. After many years of political work on class struggles, the value of taking a more integrated approach became apparent because of a new environmental consciousness, and a recognition of the inter-relatedness of concerns. In my understanding, and regrettably, in the past five years or so, we have once again tended to present fragmented, mechanistic or economistic aspects of the problem. By picking up one or the other issue to deal with, we have failed to address the more global impact of the present development paradigm on the earth and the peoples of the earth. We struggle to find an alternative paradigm.

I believe we are caught in an awkward space between two worlds just now; the world we thought we trusted and depended on, a world we believed was governed by what we considered to be universal principles and values, and, another world that challenges such a world view. We now hear new voices of hope from women, from the Indigenous peoples of the world, from subaltern groups and from the earth herself. These are strangely new voices, but they have to be heeded. There is a call for a major paradigm shift, a journey into the unknown and unfamiliar. This is a journey into the—until now—feared local and particular. This is a journey of being attentive to the place and the memories that go with it and the experiences that give it and the community identity.

Development discourse was flawed from the outset by the fact that we placed the Earth outside ourselves and did not establish connectedness. Development focussed on the improvement of the quality of life for the human. The resources of the earth were to be made sustainable for the sake of the human being's welfare. In the development process some areas of the world and some peoples have been rendered ‘underdeveloped’ and subsequently, economic growth becomes the panacea for “underdevelopment”.

It is no wonder that the UNDP Human Development Report of 1992, under the garb of concern for human development, claimed that one of the great lessons of recent decades is that competitive markets are the best guarantee for human development. Although the Report affirms that in developing countries, it is not the quality of life that is at risk, it is life itself, the Report goes on to assert the sanctity of economic growth over all other considerations. For example:

For these societies, there simply is no choice between economic growth and environmental protection. Growth is not an option, it is an imperative. The issue is not only how much economic growth, but what kind of economic growth. The growth models of developing and industrial countries must become models of sustainable human development.

For industrial societies, the options are larger. They can afford to slow down their energy-intensive material growth and nevertheless improve their well-being. They must adopt new technologies and comprehensive policies to reduce the pressures they put on the carrying capacity of the earth. (UNDP 1992: 2)

This quotation summarises the attitude within the mainstream development paradigm to the majority of the peoples of the earth and to the Earth itself. Societies which are not within the frame of the industrial world have no choice, we are told. Such societies have to keep pace with the so called developed world and ‘develop’ at any cost; even at the cost of the serious and irreversible damage that is being caused to human life and to the environment. Such attitudes and practices legitimize the mass displacement of people, the massive destruction of the ecosystem leading to drought and hunger, the alienation of people from the land, the control and exploitation of labour and the denial of the human rights of people.

It is the colonial heritage that ensured The Death of Nature, as Carolyn Merchant titled her book (1982). As a result, governments in the South have come to believe that they must keep pace with the North and develop at any cost. This urgency to develop has implied not only the death of agriculture but the imposition of major development projects such as hydro electric projects or nuclear reactors for energy production, huge defence establishments and industrial units. These have caused much social and ecological distress. Additionally, it has also been at the root of the external debt—the uncontrolled flow of financial capital and the speculative market, structural adjustment programmes and poverty reduction strategies—which is limiting the power of governments to act socially and ecologically. This spiral of activity thereby plunges large parts of the eco-sphere into further degradation.

The mega-dam project on the Narmada River and its tributaries in North India is a vivid example of this. Medha Petkar, a dynamic woman ecologist, with a team of dedicated co-workers, has been organising the Indigenous peoples of that region to challenge the building of these dams, which are displacing over a million people as well as causing serious environmental disturbances. The other major dam project on the River Ganges, the Tehri Dam, is another ecological disaster. The earthquake some years ago, in the Gharwal region at the foothills of the Himalayas, has been attributed to the damming of these rivers. The callous attitude to the Earth is self-evident in all this. In a bid to “develop” we have ignored the voice of the Earth.

Listen to the Earth and the Children of the Earth

The Great Work is a poetic treatise on the earth by one who obviously loves the Earth/the Universe. According to Thomas Berry we have for the past 66.4 million years been in what he describes as the Cenozoic period; part of a slow, irreversible emergent process. Yet we have managed to destroy it in the past few centuries. In his words, “we are, in reality, terminating the Cenozoic Era, the lyric period of life development on the Earth.” (p. 49). He believes that we have to renew our sense of the sacred because the universe is the primary sacred reality.

He speaks of the universe as an irreversible emergent process and of the Earth's capacity for homeostasis; that is, a comprehensive inner adjustment and self-regulation in response to changes in the outer world. Thomas Berry oVers us a raison d’être for hoping in the midst of a disintegrating eco-system. There is a continuity between the human and the natural world as one single sacred community, in which the human being is not an addendum. Therefore, in his estimation humanity needs to take responsibility for the care of the natural world.

In his understanding, “the other-than-human species, through their genetic endowment, discover their survival context with only limited disturbance of the larger complex of life systems. They find their niche quickly, or else they perish.” (p. 91). Human beings, however, need to discover their role because, “(b)y bringing humans into existence the Earth has created a supreme danger to all other components of the Earth community because the human can invade the region of other species with a unique range of freedom.” (p. 91)

Although Berry does criticise the excessive anthropocentrism which he traces to several sources. such as European colonialism, to the Greek cultural tradition, Christian biblical traditions, religion, the English political-legal tradition, and the new vigor of the merchant class (p. 54), he also seems to place too much responsibility for the Great Work on human beings. He emphasizes “the role of the human community in relation to other components of the planet,” (p. 91). He proposes altering humanity's role so that we can be more constructive in what he calls an emerging Ecozoic Era, when the Earth will have a chance for renewal. To this end he asks the university, the legal system, and ethics to transform themselves to respond to the Ecozoic Era. For instance he says that: “The universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in the declining Cenozoic Era or whether they will begin educating students for the emerging Ecozoic.” (p. 85)

In his understanding, western civilization has failed in its role. He says that even though, “the Christian world did have this commitment to the cosmological order, it had an even deeper commitment to the historical order.” (p. 24). Using North America as a case, he documents how the settlers came with the attitude and theological ideology that this continent was a region to be exploited in both its lands and its peoples. Thomas Berry sees this as “one of the most fateful moments in history, not only for this continent but of the entire planet.” (p. 40). The settlers believed that there was no significant religious experience in the land they seized. They came with arrogant assumptions about their understanding of the Earth and could not fathom the deep spiritual connection that the Indigenous Peoples they encountered had with the earth. “They could not understand that their inability to commune with the land would result in the devastation of the continent.” They had the conviction that, “(t)heir human-spiritual formation was complete before they came. They came supposedly with the finest religion in the world, the highest intellectual, aesthetic, and moral development, the finest jurisprudence. They needed this continent simply as a political refuge and as a region to be exploited.” (p. 43). It is these arrogant assumptions of colonial powers all over the world that have given rise to the clash of cultures in the recent centuries, such as those between European anthropocentrism and the Indigenous peoples' nature-centrism.

According to Berry, different sectors of life and social organization need to rectify themselves if we are to have a future. The term progress needs to be reformulated; the term profit needs to be rectified. The way in which patriarchy has functioned, including the impact on women, on ethnic groups, on impoverished classes of our societies all need to be rectified. This means their rights, but more than that the rights of nature, which have thus far not been acknowledged by traditional jurisprudence.

The Corporate Sector—What Kind of Fifth Phase Can We Envisage?

Berry makes a scathing attack on the corporate sectors, which are considered to be one of the principal instruments causing the devastating the planet. He acknowledges their ambivalent commitment to providing comfort and security for people, but he challenges the ideology of the corporations whose primary focus is on profits. The corporate understanding of “security” is seen as a product to be offered to a community and not as the strength of a community to sustain its members and its livelihood. Corporate libertarianism and the demand for the removal of all controls—corporate welfare, and the use of public resources and land in support of the industrial/commercial agenda, corporate colonialism, and the development of free trade policies sanctioned by instruments such as the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—these have become the hallmarks today! “We have created a technosphere incompatible with the biosphere”. (p. 167). Political control of the colonies has been taken over by economic control. Nation states have been made to be subservient to corporations and their instruments of governance. Corporations have been taken hostage by the uncontrolled flow of financial capital and speculative markets. We cannot allow the corporation driven economy of today to determine education, politics, media and even our minds.

Thomas Berry describes our present economic paradigm as an “extractive economy”. An extractive economy disrupts the biological integrity of the planet—the primary evil of contemporary industry being founded on uniformity and standardization. “Since monoculture and standardization are violations of both the universe covenant and the Earth covenant, we need to foster a new sense of the organic world over the merely mechanical world.” (p. 149). We have to reclaim our integral relation to the universe as an integral whole, where nothing lives in isolation.

But then, Thomas Berry speaks of a fifth phase of corporation history when, “the existing corporations are finally beginning to recognize that they can only survive within the limited resources of the natural world.” (p. 132). He recalls the Stockholm Conference on the Environment of the UN in 1972, the 1980 UN Charter for Nature and the 1992 UN World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (UNCED), and the adoption of the Agenda 21 as “public recognition given of the coming impasse between human demands and Earth resources.” (p. 133).

I question whether this optimism is valid. Critiques of the UNCED process would remind us that it was at the time of preparation for Rio that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development was founded, which has become the model for the present UN sponsored compact with business. At the same time the instrument which was to monitor the activities of corporations, the UN Center for Trans-National Corporations, was closed down. I find some ambivalence here because while Thomas Berry does critique corporations by saying that, “until now the corporations have remained unconvinced of the need to align their own functioning and the limits of activities to the possibilities of the Earth” (p. 133), he also seems to believe that they are capable of change in a fifth phase of development. I am not sure. For example, in a recent press release from an environmental group, Inside EPA, we learn that the industrial sector is going on a global offensive against environmentalists. Attempts are being made to counteract recent gains made by environmentalists on international trade issues. Funding to these organisations is being targeted for these purposes. What is even more pernicious is that internet “intelligence” agencies (such as London based Infonics PLC) are being contracted by business to track and cripple global networking initiatives of environmental groups. Inside EPA (a project of the Environmental Protection Agency) has evidence that Sony Co. has prepared an action plan for counteracting environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Sony and other corporations oppose a European Union proposal called the “WEE” (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive which attempts to phase out toxic substances in electronics and would require manufacturers to take back their products for recycling once their useful consumer life is over. Several environmental groups have been lobbying for this initiative to become legal and hence this is an attack on their efforts.

It is further ironic that Thomas Berry makes no mention of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) or of agreements such as that on Emission Trading. These represent ways in which property rights of the common heritage of all of humanity are being framed in favour of corporations. What should be for the sake of social or public good are being reduced to private property of those with the capacity to buy them for profit. Is this a mark of the fifth phase? Indigenous peoples in a Statement entitled “No to patenting of Life”, say:

We, Indigenous Peoples from around the world believe that nobody can own what exists in nature except nature herself. A human being cannot own its own mother. Humankind is part of Mother Nature, we have created nothing and so we can in no way claim to be owners of what does not belong to us. But, time and again, western legal property regimes have been imposed on us, contradicting our own cosmologies and values.

We view with regret and anxiety how Article 27.3b.1 of the TRIPS of the World Trade Organisation Agreements will further denigrate and undermine our rights to our cultural and intellectual heritage, our plant, animal and even human genetic resources and discriminate against our indigenous ways of thinking and behaving. This article makes an artificial distinction between plants, animals and micro-organisms and between “essentially biological” and “microbiological processes” for making plants and animals. As far as we are concerned all these are life forms and life creating processes are sacred and should not become the subject of proprietary ownership. We know that intellectual property rights as defined in the TRIPS Agreement are monopoly rights given to individual or legal persons (e.g. trans-national corporations) etc.” (Indigenous Peoples Statement on TRIPS: 1999)

This testament from Indigenous peoples comes at a time when the sale of life forms is gaining ascendancy. But then, who listens to these voices of wisdom and the words of caution about what we do to the Earth? As long as life forms of all kinds can be considered ‘property’, what hope for the future? What baffles me is the lack of faith in the voices of prudence, in the wisdom of Indigenous peoples, in the Dalits for example, and in others who live in such close connection with the earth. The tendency is always to go back to those actors who are at the heart of the problem in the first place and to seek their change of heart! Thomas Berry too seems to do this. I believe we have wandered through this road long enough, hoping for some transformation that seems to be more an illusion than that which leads to real solutions.

Wisdom Traditions Explored

As a conclusion, Thomas Berry identifies fourfold wisdom traditions that are available to guide us into the future. Here he once again draws attention to the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who, all over the world, provide models of a more integral human presence in the Earth. My deep reverence for the wisdom of Indigenous peoples is based on their constant affirmation of the sacredness of the land and the Earth, sentiments so well expressed in their earlier-quoted Statement on intellectual property rights. When 500 farmers came to Europe in what has now been called the Farmer's Caravan, to “speak to” and “reason with” the World Trade Organisation in Geneva and to the Group of 7 meeting in Bonn, they had one simple message to share. “As farmers we have lived with the earth and tilled the land and cared for it for centuries—give us the land back into our protection.” The traditions of prudence that these agrarian communities represent oVer a wisdom tradition that is Earth-centred.

However, there is danger in romanticising Indigenous peoples' lives or that of the Dalits in India and other groups who are socially excluded. In most parts of the world they continue to live in the most inhuman conditions. Their struggles for land are intimately linked to their identity. Their demand for sovereignty is based on centuries of oppression and genocide—they have been robbed of all that they hold dear. The World Council of Churches dossier Understanding Racism Today describes vividly the direct relationship between environmental degradation and racism. “In many places where they (people of African descent, Black or Indigenous peoples) live oil, timber and minerals are extracted in ways that devastate eco-systems and destroys their culture and livelihood. Waste from both high and low tech industries, much of it toxic, must be disposed of somewhere and waste plants are often built in or near low-income living areas, where there is a predominance of racially oppressed people, without any consultation with them”. (1998: 9). Thomas Berry does not document this present reality well enough.

Berry then speaks of the wisdom of women. I concentrate on this here because I believe that ecofeminism has much to offer towards a new approach to the Earth and the care of the Earth. With its critique of excessive anthropocentrism, the women's movement challenges androcentrism, which is at the heart of the patriarchal quest for domination over the earth.

The women’s movement has brought strongly onto the agenda of ecological discourses the importance of taking seriously nature/culture balance. There are no “immutable essences”, when it comes to gender or race. Culture, class, race and ethnic identity—all play a critical role in defining patriarchy. It becomes important to unravel the different categories because environmental degradation affects each group differently (some more than others). Additionally, each group has its own resources to oVer for caring for the Earth.

Ecofeminists challenge hierarchical, anthropocentric and androcentric biases of patriarchal epistemology. Thomas Berry oVers no challenge to the tendencies to universalize knowledge or the hierarchizing of knowing. He fails to acknowledge that Blacks, Indigenous peoples and women are presented as those who know the least. Ivonne Gebara, the Brazilian feminist theologian argues that knowledge can never be neutral, because “every act of knowing involves an attitude to life.” (Gebara 1999: 24). She adds that “philosophical traditions of knowing created within the western tradition have always had an anthropocentric (human-centred) and androcentric, (male-centred) bias. Their treatment of knowing has been limited. They refer to the experience of part of humanity as though it were the experience of all.” (Gebara 1999: 25). In this frame, she criticises monotheistic epistemology—a God whom we understand in anthropocentric and androcentric terms. She describes how this western concept of the One True God has been at the heart of imperialism and colonialism—and therefore of the destructive attitude to the Earth.

Gebara criticises that on which Christian patriarchal epistemology and theology base themselves: the revealed eternal truths of Christianity. These so-called immutable truths devalue any lived experiences within diverse socio-cultural contexts—for instance the experiences of traditions of prudence of small communities surviving and ensuring that the land they live on survives. Ecofeminist epistemology would hold that, “To know is first of all to experience, and what we experience cannot always be expressed in words.” (Gebara 1999: 48). Additionally, it would underline that an anthropocentric perspective is incomplete without a wider biocentrism. Consciousness of our interdependence with all of life and all of the Earth is central, because, “this would help us drop the insulting attitude of imperialist superiority… and should open a new page in the history of Christian theology.” (Gebara 1999: 54). Gender and ecology should be mediators in our knowing and should modify knowing—and not be seen as additional categories in analyzing humanity's role in the destruction of the Earth.

In Thomas Berry's affirmation of the wisdom of the classical traditions, I agree that Christianity was one of the world religions that had played a legitimizing role in sustaining imperialism and colonial expansion. It is important to find within this faith new resources as interpreted by those excluded from the dominant traditional interpretations of the faith. I, however, focus attention on his reference to Hinduism, a tradition for which, with Thomas Berry, I have deep respect. Within this tradition are based “revelatory experiences of a spiritual realm both transcendent and imminent in the visible world about us and in the capacity of humans to participate in that world to achieve the fullness of their own mode of being.” (p. 185). I too have drawn inspiration from Hinduism's Earth-affirming spirituality.

However, I have been challenged in recent times, particularly by Dalit thinkers and theologians, to recognize that like all patriarchal religions, Hinduism has embedded within it structures of domination that have effectively suppressed the spiritual resources of the cosmic religiosity of the peoples of the Earth. It has legitimized the hierarchically structured caste system and has systematically discriminated against women. Within the traditions of prudence of Dalits and Indigenous peoples are spiritual resources that care for the Earth. “The mode of resource utilization evolved by the Indian society clearly fulfils these conditions. We therefore, expect the evolution of a number of cultural practices resulting in a sustainable use of natural resources by the caste groups that constitute not only the genetic but also the cultural units of the Indian society.” (Gadgil and Malhotra 1998). Several specific cases can be cited to substantiate this—the Dheevar caste of Bhandara district of Maharashtra never catch fish going upstream on spawning migration, although the fish are exhausted and easy to catch. There are entire sacred groves and ponds in which no plant or animal is damaged—some species of plants and animals survive only in such protected localities. Monkeys, peafowl, the banyan and the fig trees and a variety of plants and animals are regarded as sacred and are protected widely in many parts of India. (Gadgil and Malhotra 1998). Traditions of wisdom of subaltern groups have been submerged by the dominant Hindu paradigm. I am convinced that these traditions must be allowed to bloom, because within them there is hope.

Finally, regarding the wisdom of science, I challenge Berry's conviction that the observational sciences have presently moved beyond the mechanistic understanding of a so-called objective world (p. 25). In recent times the unholy alliance between western science, technology and the corporations, makes me question this. I still go back to Carolyn Merchant who in her seminal work, The Death of Nature, criticises Western science for its mechanistic worldview that has sanctioned the exploitation of nature, and unrestrained commercial expansion. It has also been the basis for a new socio-economic order that has subordinated all other sciences and philosophical traditions of other cultures and particularly of subaltern groups.

The Great Work Continues

We owe a debt of gratitude to thinkers like Thomas Berry for their courage in identifying the problems and for the clarity with which they name the challenge. But even so, I struggle with the challenge of how easily we can slip into taking an anthropocentric approach to dealing with the Earth. There is another way forward. Larry Rasmussen offers me the key when he speaks of “Earth Community and Earth Ethics.” He writes: “Many human beings have lived in non-anthropocentric ethical systems. Some still do. Systems far less de-sacralizing of nature than modernity's have guided most human communities. But the issue now is how we re-enchant the world and conduct human life in a manner appropriate to larger wholes and at the same time address earth's distress, billions of human beings' distress included. That is a daunting task on a new scale for earth ethics.” (Rasmussen 1996: 345-346). We need to explore this further within a moral framework that oVers an alternative logic of what we mean by power and of shared power over against the prevailing logic of dominance and control. In all this we are called to recognise the continuity between the earth and all the creatures of the earth—including the human. The Great Work embraces all. And in the efforts of those who live in closest proximity to care for the earth, the greatest wisdom lies.

Aruna Gnanadason, Co-ordinator, Justice, Peace and Creation Team, World Council of Churches, PO Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland


  • Berry, Thomas. 2000. The Great Work. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Gadgil, M. and Malhotra, K.C. 1998. “The Ecological Significance of Caste” in Social Ecology ed. Guha, Ramachandra. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Gebara, Ivonne. 1999. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.
  • Indigenous People's Statement on TRIPS. Signed at the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, on 25 July 1999.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Rasmussen, Larry. 1996. Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Geneva: WCC Publications.
  • Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive: Women Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.
  • UNDP Development Report. UN 1992.
  • Understanding Racism Today. 1998. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

Republished with permission from Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, Volume 5 no 11/111 2001, published by Brill