By Thomas Berry
David Korten writes eloquently of the relation between economics and politics in the modern industrial world, with special emphasis on the situation in America. The founders of this country in the late 18th century were men of property seeking independence from monarchical political power such as existed in Europe at the time. While David Korten has provided an exceptional insight into the oppressive aspects of the corporations since World War II, I would add a few observations concerning the historical context in which the modern corporation became the dominant force in the political life of the country.
Western civilization, in the course of its history, has seen a transition from the Prophetic-religious phase of Israel and Christianity into the humanist-philosophical Greek phase, through the Roman legal-military phase, then into the medieval religious-cultural phase, on into the monarchy-enlightenment period before entering into the modern democratic political phase and now, in more recent times, into the commercial phase dominated by the rise of the industrial exploitation of the planet. The entire process in America has been controlled by the various forms of the corporation enterprise.
If we look into the history of the corporation in America we find beyond the colonies themselves, the village-political units were the first corporations. As soon as the colonial inhabitants of a region came together, they incorporated themselves into villages, then into cities and counties, under the overall authority of the local rule over-seen by the English monarchy. The Common Law of England provided the guidance for the enactment and the enforcement of civil order in the various colonial establishments.
Through the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress, and then the Constitutional Convention, a new political community at the level of the Nation State came into being, the beginning of a new mode of political being in the larger story of human history. The fundamental law of the new political community was articulated in the Constitution, the first of the modern written constitutions, and in its first ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights. The primary values to be protected were personal freedom from the rule of monarchy and the right to ownership and disposal of property unimpeded by any legal or political power. The tradition of western civilization has been that property is an extension of the person owning the property and therefore inseparable from the rights of the person owning the property.
These provisions established the individual person in a wide range of freedoms. Nowhere previously had such protection been established for individual persons, or their activities. It was a remarkable achievement in recognition of the inviolability of the human person. From the discussions leading up to the enactment of the constitution, the basic tension was between the ideal of a centralized urban commercial society and the desire for a decentralized rural agricultural village-centered society. From the beginning the urban commercial society dominated. The commercial corporation became the controlling establishment.
We are told by the Harvard historian of Law (Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, p. 112) that “by 1790 in the colonial period fewer than 50 charters of commercial incorporation had been granted. However in the last ten years of the eighteenth century 295 additional corporate charters were granted.” These corporations for running ferries, building roads, setting up mills for grinding grain, were at first considered public facilities primarily for public purposes and under the control of public authority. But then came the sense of private corporations in control of public facilities. There was a feeling that everyone was better off when individuals had the primary responsibility for the effective functioning of the entrepreneurial venture.
In this context there developed, from the earliest years of the 19th century, a bonding between the legal-judiciary institution and the commercial-entrepreneurial venture. In the interpretation of Morton Horwitz: “By the middle of the nineteenth century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups within the society” (The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, p. 253). The supreme moment came in 1886 when the Supreme Court in the case of Santa Clara Versus Southern Pacific accepted the corporation as having the natural rights of a person. If such is the case, then the public authority loses whatever control was originally present when the corporation was established. With its massive resources, with everyone and every institution dependent on corporation funding, the corporation becomes the dominant force in the society.
In this context we can appreciate how the corporation has gradually taken control of the American economy and has developed a corresponding political power. Even beyond the banders of America the corporations through the ease of transportation and communication have become global powers, beyond the control of any individual nation or the community of nations.
With Heather Eaton we move from the political and economic realm to discussion of ethics with an essay remarkable for its clarity in identifying just how microphase and macrophase ethics relate to each other in our present historical situation. Here I will add only a few comments on the comprehensiveness and urgency of our present situation. Through our scientific technologies, we have seized powers over the natural world far beyond anything that humans have ever known previously.
The historical moment when we entered a destructive relation with the natural world was the last two decades of the 19th century. At that time we moved from an ever-renewing organic, agricultural-based economy to a non-renewing, urban industrial-based economy. The presiding establishment was the modern corporation. The dominant natural resource was petroleum. The instrument of invention was the scientific research institute. The central icon, the automobile. The geographic place, America.
These were the critical components that initiated the transition from an organic, ever-renewing agricultural economy to an extractive, non-renewing industrial economy centered on the use to be made of the world around us. The entire 20th century was dedicated to exploiting the energy of the sun stored in petroleum for electricity, transportation, petro-chemicals, fertilizers, and plastics. Goodness was associated with participation in this process. The ethics of Use instead of Fulfillment through the wonder, beauty and intimacy of the universe was established as our primary relation with the natural world.
These industrial-commercial processes were the means whereby the pains inherent in the human condition could be relieved. That these new developments would affect the climate throughout the planet, would melt the icecaps, make the air toxic, pollute the soil, change the basic structure and functioning of the air, water, soil, and eventually would affect the functioning of the entire organic world were incidental side effects of the most noble venture in all of history, the advancement of the human cause achieved by the “conquest of nature”.
Domination of the natural world became the high purpose of the human venture. There was no way of knowing just what the consequences would be. That the human condition might ultimately be worsening rather than improving was beyond thought. Domination could only lead to improvement. The greater the human dominance the greater glory for the human. This was clear in the term “environment”, the term most often used to designate the natural world —a term meaning ‘that surrounds some point of reference’. This term distorted the discussion by establishing the human as the absolute value to be preserved at whatever cost to the other components of the Earth.
Even trivial advantages of the human would become so absolute as to justify the devastation of immense areas of the natural world. The term “ecological”, the appropriate word, was seldom used since it would designate the inter-relationships of the component members of the planet within a sustainable geobiological community. In the one case the basic referent is the human, the Earth is seen as subservient to human well-being; in the other case the central concern is the full community of life systems. That the well-being of the human could only be found within the well-being of this more integral Earth community was beyond understanding at the time.
Even beyond the self-destruction involved in this Ethics of Use is the loss of the numinous presence which comes to us through the entrancing experience of the natural world especially through the dawn and sunset, the mountains, the sea, the rivers and valleys, the flowers, the song of the birds, their flight through the sky, the wildlife roaming the forests.
An early recognition of what was happening had already begun shaping a more viable ethics in the work of the 19th century naturalists, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. This was continued in the work of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Wallace Stegner and a multitude of others in the 20th century. Their work has been extended into our own times by such persons as Wes Jackson, Fred Kirschenmann, Miriam Therese MacGillis, John Seed, Wendell Berry, and a long list of others with an ethics of reverence dedicated to preservation of the land.
Those who have worked with these issues most, in my own acquaintance, consider that learning to live in intimate relations with the land is an expression of the only ethics that can provide fulfillment as well as a survival of the human. The difficulty just now is how to disengage from our industrial way of life. We cannot simply abandon our present industrial way of life and enter into a more integral way of life within the Earth community. A comprehensive understanding of our plight is beginning to manifest itself throughout the commercial-technological-industrial world of the present.
We are finally learning that our industrial way of life exists only by spending our capital, not only our economic capital, but our natural capital, our social and even our cultural capital. The industrial world has begun to reflect on itself through the work of Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Ray Anderson, William McDonough. Their aim has been to so diminish the impact of the industrial process on the natural world that, if possible, a viable balance will be achieved. It has become clear that the industrial process must not consume more resources than the natural world is capable of producing in its ever-renewing cycles.
Such a program of sustainable industrial production is proposed in the recent work of Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, Natural Capitalism. While this effort to bring industrial production into the ever-renewing energy cycles of the sun, the wind, the rivers, the tides, and the geothermal energies within the Earth, must be appreciated and fostered, we must do some hard thinking as regards what level of industrial consumption can possibly be sustained by natural processes. We must also wonder if those who set forth this program are fully committed to changing their fundamental Ethics of Use for a fundamental Ethics of Reverence.
We must inquire more profoundly just how we will sustain an increasing human population into the future. Just how to design an acceptable pattern of change will require a realism in our thinking beyond anything that has yet appeared. Such insight combined with continued dedication to discovering a viable way into the future would seem to be the basic attitude that is needed.
In her response Rosemary Ruether brings into view the most immediate practical issue that confronts the human community at this time, the economic issue, the oppression of the dispossessed by the elite and the concern that the elite will use the ecological issue to their own advantage, just as they are using the present pattern of socioeconomic relations to gain “vast power and wealth” while passing along its costs “to the poor, the impoverished human beings and to the impoverished and polluted earth.”
While greater equity in sharing of the wealth created by our present industrial society is a primary urgency, it is an issue that has disturbed our modern world for the past two centuries with no abiding resolution. Dr. Ruether outlines eight major patterns of transformation that are needed in our present situation. Each of these has its own urgency. All are needed.
My first observation, however, is that the history of social reform of these past two centuries seems to indicate quite clearly that truly basic social reordering cannot be achieved within the industrial context within which it arose and in which it now exists. No possible adjustment within that context, it seems to me, can achieve the acceptable sharing of wealth that we are seeking. So long as we insist on our present commitment to a non-renewing industrial economy driven by use as our primary relation with the world of Natural Resources and with the Market Economy as the controlling factor in the distribution of the benefits of this economy, we will be caught in our present situation of ever-increasing wealth for the few, of minimal possession by the many, and with a general dissatisfaction for everyone.
I am suggesting what seems to me a different approach. Our present social and cultural tensions are, I believe, inherent in the very structure of our civilization as this has existed since its Mediterranean origins. As Dr. Ruether notes, the anthropocentric, patriarchal character of our western culture is a self-destructive dynamic. A most incisive presentation of this aspect of our traditions has been offered by David Ehrenfeld in The Arrogance of Humanism. The difficulty is not simply the patriarchal controls over our society but our effort as humans to dominate the planet for human benefit. This goes beyond any traditional socialism with its efforts to share the wealth of the Earth among us humans. It goes to the basic issue of the integrity of the Earth Community with all its human as well as its other-than-human members.
The things that we are most proud of in our tradition are exactly the things that are causing us to be oppressive to ourselves, to other peoples and to the planet with all its various forms of expression. It is not the failures of our civilization, it is the successes that are devastating. When the norms of goodness themselves become distorted, then a “reversal of values takes place.” This was the problem that Nietzsche was dealing with in almost all of his writings, especially in Beyond Good and Evil. In this situation the use of language becomes difficult.
It is not exactly the question of any specific cause of the difficulties that we are presently concerned with. A dramatic illustration of what is involved in our present situation can be found in the Constitution of the United States, a document profoundly revered now when the scriptures themselves have been abandoned. The defense of human freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is revered beyond measure.
Yet it might be said that precisely because of its humanist perfection the Constitution is the ideal prescription for destroying the Earth. This can be said because of the sublime dignity that is recognized in the human mode of being, personal freedom in ourselves and the rights to own property and do with property as we wish so long as we do no harm to others. No other peoples in any other country have had such recognition or such protection in their personal activities.
The difficulty is that rights were conferred only upon humans. No rights and no protections were recognized in any non-human mode of being. In this context the Constitution is wonderful for the human, but a disaster for every non-human, and because it is a disaster for the non-human, it’s a disaster for the human. In such a context it is little wonder that the very freedom that we possess within the human community becomes the very source of the oppression that the successful impose on the others. The amazing thing about the statement of the “Declaration of Independence” that all men are created equal is their exclusion of women, the exclusion of slaves. Even those without property had no vote. But mostly those with human freedom immediately used this freedom to oppress the other-than-human world.
The reorientation of the society that I am suggesting requires a basic recognition that the human is a member of the larger Earth community. I propose that from here on nothing effective can be done in the human order in isolation from this larger Earth Community. In achieving this new mode of consciousness our educational programs at every level, from kindergarten to professional school, must establish themselves in this context. The Earth, within the solar system, is self-emergent, self-sustaining, self educating, self governing, self-healing and self-fulfilling. In each of these phases of the Earth’s activities we must think of ourselves as a participant. The Earth brings us into being, sustains us, educates us, governs us, heals us, fulfills us.
But even when we point out this reversal in our thinking of ourselves, something unbelievable has happened in the physical order. Previously, despite our mode of consciousness, we were physically living in the natural world. The full array of geographical forms and living beings of the planet Earth was the surrounding context of the human. Now the human is the surrounding context of the natural world. Formerly we lived in cities surrounded by natural life systems, the forests, rivers, mountains, valleys, deserts, coastlands. Now we have overwhelmed, surrounded, enveloped all the natural life systems. As noted by E. O. Wilson, humans have, in numbers, become a hundred times more numerous than any land animal of comparable size in the history of life. (Diversity, p. 272)
A rethinking of the western world in its deepest foundations must take place to deal with a new experience of the universe and of the planet Earth. The new civilization needs to establish itself, not on an anthropocentric commitment but on a commitment to the integral Earth community. Instead of “We the People of this United States” we need to begin with “We the component members of the North American continent” or “We the members of a sustainable bioregion.” An equivalent United Nations would appear: “We the component members of the planet Earth”. The human community in its limited sense is not a viable mode of being, economically, socially, or culturally.
One of the most effective contexts for realizing this new situation is in the integration of the human venture within the various bioregions into which the natural world is divided. This is to some extent being achieved in the Community Supported Agriculture Projects that are increasingly widespread. Over a thousand such farms are now functioning in this country. These farms are based on the proposition E. F. Schumacher set forth in Small is Beautiful. In this context almost any group can begin a mutually beneficial presence within the local region. While it can be said that these projects emerge from groups of persons with some resources, they tend to grow into projects with participation by families with minimal income. Urban community gardens are being designed by persons such as Paul Mankiewicz in New York, and by Richard Register in California.
One of these agricultural-based communities is Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, where Miriam Therese MacGillis has provided the guidance for a agricultural center participated in by 150 families who provide the support for the farmers needed to cultivate the land. Each week throughout the year the families come and obtain the vegetables they need for the week.
While such communities are far from any adequate realization of the ideal that I am suggesting, they are, it seems to me, a beginning. There is a mutuality between humans and the natural world, as well as between humans themselves. Above all it is the beginning of something beyond the market economy. It might eventually provide in some manner the need indicated by Dr. Ruether in the phrase “Ideologies and cultures are reflections of social relations”, although this phrase might also be reversed.
Aruna Gnanadason finds extensive compatibility between the thought of the book under consideration with the traditional thought of India. She is particularly clear that a prudent use of natural resources must be 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.” This human-earth relationship, she believes can be achieved “only through small communities who live in a caring relationship to the earth.”
Her concern is that I have ventured too far in my expression of a certain hope that the national and multinational corporations will participate in the reshaping of viable human-earth relationship in the future. In this I am in extensive agreement with her. What I have suggested in my writings is that a change of mood is taking place throughout the commercial world. Yet, even with the changes that have taken place we cannot expect effective help from these forces that have been the principal causes for the difficulty that we are now addressing, even though these corporations are now almost universally claiming to be dedicated to preserving the integrity of the natural world.
The central person articulating a valid view of the importance of the small community project is E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful 1973). His awakening to this view took place in India where the small communities are the prevailing context of life. The most significant effort toward developing bioregional communities that really function are those endeavors that are known as community-supported agriculture.
There was a movement in England in favor of small communities and of small commercial ventures in the first half of the 20th century, a movement known as Distributism. It was fostered especially by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Hilary Belloc and Vincent McNabb. Chesterton reacted to the constant enlargement of commercial ventures, especially to the Department Stores that were taking shape in England at that time, by suggesting that a bomb be exploded in these stores and that the various sections be spread all over the country.
This movement fostered the handcrafts making individual products rather than the machine-made products that could stamp out an unlimited number of articles in a brief while with expenditure of much less human energy. This emphasis on Distributism in England occurred at approximately the same time that Mahatma Gandhi was fostering individuals working daily with the spinning wheel. It was also at this time in the late 1920s that Ralph Barsodi founded his School of Life in Kentucky, a school relating the small human community directly with the Earth as the primary source not only of nourishment, but of intellectual and cultural development. So at this time also Maria Montessori in Italy, India and England was teaching a sense of intimacy with the Earth as a primary aspect of education from earliest childhood through professional training. More recently, as indicated by Dr. Gnanadason, we have the Chipko movement in India, a movement that brings to expression the full force of India’s intimate heritage with the Earth since pre-Vedic times.
Such resistance to the overwhelming mechanization of production methods and the use of machine power along with industrial design using the new production technologies was overwhelmed by something close to pathological entrancement with the newly acquired control over the resources of the Earth and the magic of machines. In addition to the submission of human affairs to the control of the engineers in the shaping of various products, the workers too were brought into the machine line of production through the invention of the conveyor belt and the assembly method of production. While this system was perfected in the automobile industry by Henry Ford, it was applied on a much more extensive scale by Frederick Winslow Turner with his Principles of Scientific Management published in 1911.
But even though the corporation ventures into environmental concerns are not fully authentic programs, many of them are moving out of the most harmful phases of the industrial-commercial world. In my view, these ventures do need to be appreciated even in the limited contribution that they are making. The movements known as The Natural Step and Second Nature are more mitigating movements rather than final resolution of the difficulties we are encountering, they need to be fostered rather than ignored. The difficulty is primarily in their motivation.
The existing adaptations are dominated by their prior concern to benefit the existing industrial establishments by diminishing the basic costs of their functioning. The difficulty lies in their primary relation to the natural world. Especially through the omnipresent advertising programs the entire community has now altered its primary relation to the natural world from its being a source of spiritual fulfillment to the role of being a deposit of natural resources for use. Until a more exalted sense of the planet is identified, no economy will be viable.
I must agree that there are no adequate indications that a new historical period of viable human-Earth relations sponsored by the commercial-industrial establishments of the world is opening up before us. Yet I do think that a new critique of their own work is taking place in every phase of the human endeavor. This new attitude is showing up even in the World Bank, now sponsoring several hundred environmentally sound ventures in different parts of the world. Persons such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Paul Hawken of The Natural Step are working with architects such as William McDonough of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville to design buildings that will function with the energy of the sunlight in obtaining its heat and will be so insulated that it will be self-cooled in the summer. If these are not ultimate answers, they can possibly be considered as alleviations.
Stephen Scharper, with his comprehensive insight into my writings, points out that the contribution made by the western political, social, technological and environmental achievements might be given more positive understanding that I have given here or in my other writings. The diffculty is that these positive accomplishments make the present situation more admirable in its achievements while at the same time they give to the present a greater sense of not needing the total transformation that I am suggesting. Unfortunately these positive accomplishments of our recent times have been achieved in an inadequate context. They foster the illusion that we are proceeding in the proper direction. Even so they might be considered an introduction to the basic social and political adjustments that must now be made.
To begin with our universities, the advances that have been made there have only fixated the industrial corporation into American society and even into the global community. The university research projects have been among the greatest supports for our present devastation. These same abilities have given to our western civilization a certain prestige throughout the world. With such academic prestige our western corporations have now enveloped the planet in their web of commercial transactions and their corresponding seductions.
When Dr. Sharper speaks of democratic spirit, personal integrity, and social justice we must inquire into the context of their present functioning. Our existing norms of human well-being are unacceptable. The reversal of values that we are experiencing makes everything diffcult, even the meaning of words. We critique not what is quot;wrong” with western civilization but what is considered right and proper. The damage being done is being done by good people for good purposes, by persons who are “bringing good things to life.” Only these need to be shared more extensively by the entire community, not simply by some financial elite group. Everywhere there is the sense that life is somehow improving by the very things that are making the planet uninhabitable.
While Dr. Scharper insists on the values of our democratic freedoms in western political life, I am pointing out the inability of the west to extend these democratic freedoms to an appreciation of the non-human world. Rather than present our human society as the norm of well-being for the planet we need to establish the well-being of the planet as the context for the well-being for every being on the planet. We have not fully understood the larger principles involved in the democratic process in its more comprehensive expression.
At present the better the situation for humans, the more extensive the damage done to the living world. This tension between the needs of the human community and the needs of the natural life systems will almost certainly increase in the years to come. At the present time “The pathos of the human obscures the tragedy of nature.” To relieve the pathos of the human we are turning the natural world into a desert. If this did indeed relieve that pathos it would be understandable. The diffculty is that it only deepens the pathos and makes the future course of human affairs infinitely more perilous. In reality the simultaneous alleviation of the larger Earth community is not only fully compatible with but is an indispensable first step toward alleviation of the human community. The flow of life nourishment throughout the planet is so interrelated that the planet must survive in its integrity if any segment of the planet is to receive its needs for continued existence.
There will always be imbalances. Yet we are now experiencing a profound dissolution of a phase of western civilization that goes back in its anthropocentrism to its foundations in Christian spirituality, Greek humanism, and Roman legal and governmental structures. Transition on this scale is the most traumatic experience that western civilization could possibly experience. In our effort to understand this process we might note the study of civilizations presented by Oswald Spengler in his work entitled The Decline of the West published after World War I, in the years from 1918-1922.
While the organic metaphor he used of a cultural cycle going through the seasonal stages of the rise, blossoming, decline and death in the organic world need not be used as regards its inevitability, it does provide a way of thinking about the need of something beyond the ordinary sequence of renewals that western civilization has experienced in the past. Spengler’s identification of the western world trying to prevent its final decline by technological fixations and institutional controls does suggest a way of thinking about our present situation.
The value of his study is his sense of the comprehensive transformation involved. All values are transformed into a new setting. All the arts enter into a new expression. Words, remaining the same, take on new meanings, to express new ideas. Most significant is the change in emotional mood according to whether the change is from or toward a more rational, a more aesthetic, or a more religious mode of feeling and imagination. In his view the turn toward decline in the cultural cycle is marked by a loss of creative interiority and aesthetic vigor to a more institutional, technological fixation of the culture.
The insight that can be derived from this particular study of cultural transformation is that institutionalization and technologies cannot supply the life principle of a civilization. A thorough renewal is required. A change of soul is needed. Such is what I am suggesting. So long as we experience the natural world primarily as natural resource to be used, our democratic freedoms, our scientific-technological genius and our commercial institutions will only worsen the situation. A new sense of a meaningful universe, a universe beyond the world of commercial bargaining, an entrancing world that will fulfill some primordial longing, only such a world will save us, our civilization or the natural world itself.
Republished with permission from Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, Volume 5 no 11/111 2001, published by Brill