Thomas W. Clark

The Great Work: Our Way into the Future

Review by Jessica Chicka, 2013

The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. By Thomas Berry. Bell Tower, New York, 2000. 241 pages. $13.95

As a global society, we are at an important transition point. Western mentalities rooted in consumer-driven exploitative economies value the accumulation of wealth and goods over forms of happiness found elsewhere. Our manipulation of the world and its resources without concern for balance in ecological systems could mean our demise. It is time for us to transition into an “Ecozoic Era,” according to Thomas Berry. In his book, The Great Work, Berry suggests that it is the responsibility of the human population to promote a new way of living that integrates human beings as a part of nature rather than outside of it. The “great work” that he refers to is undertaking the necessary radical shifts in how we understand our relationship with the world, viewing it as a subject rather than an object. Berry utilizes historical analysis to highlight the progression of human separation from the natural world, which is at the root of the corporate-controlled reality in which we live. He believes education will play an important role in shaping the mindset of individuals from anthropocentric views of nature to understanding the human being as a part of nature. A successful manifesto describing the critical nature of the Earth’s health, Berry’s writing accurately portrays the radical shifts humanity must navigate in their everyday lives in order to prevent further harm to ecological systems.

Berry asserts that most individuals can draw on their experiences in nature to remind them of the importance of nature’s influence not only to their physical well-being, but also to their psychological and spiritual well-being. He fears that our current ways of life threaten opportunities for these kinds of interactions to occur, widening the gap between humanity and nature (15). Life on Earth cannot continue this way. His suggestion for how to improve our understanding of relatedness and interconnection with nature relies heavily on modifying our means of education. Most cultural systems in our world, including education, have been tainted by consumerism and corporations. Instead of education promoting exploration and critical thinking in contrast to dominant cultural themes, it encourages individuals to support the larger consumerist culture which exploits the natural world for economic gain. In Berry’s ideal situation, education, from preschool to university, would frame learning through understanding the universe as a series of relationships between subjects rather than a collection of objects (16, 81). We would come to learn about our connections with the vast universe through exploring the intimacy of our bioregion and discovering the precise ways in which organisms and natural processes interact with one another (98). Although it is a daunting task to shift the foundation of university and educational pursuits, he believes that it will be less challenging if ecological thinking is the basis for all knowledge, emphasizing that both the physical and spiritual aspects of the Earth must be respected by all human processes.

In order to address the problems present through human exploitation of the natural world, new forms of ethics, politics, and economics must also develop. Just like education, all ethics should be developed through the lens of ecological consideration. Berry notes that our current systems are all too anthropocentric to continue into the future Ecozoic Era. All of our ideas about rights and appropriate action stem from the conception that what really matters is human flourishing. Our current ethical systems cannot adequately address concepts like biocide or geocide (collapse of life systems and of the Earth itself, respectively) because they are too focused on human-based outcomes (104). This includes traditional religions’ ability to speak to ecological and moral issues, as they too have been corrupted and normalized to dominant cultural paradigms that separate human beings from nature. Instead of seeking individual salvation through otherworldly means, human beings must instead be responsible for their actions within the world. Berry believes that through recognition of the sacred qualities found in Earth’s processes, the necessary shifts in our cultural traditions will take place, allowing for an ethical framework that will consider the Earth. Political and economic frameworks will also need to shift away from focusing solely on human interests to expand and include consideration for the Earth.

As a historian, much of Berry’s argument as to why the great work is necessary is made through the lens of looking back at the ways in which Western society has become divorced from the natural world and the implications of this separation. He reminds the reader that the rise of modern Western science removed the psychic or spiritual aspects of nature, only focusing on the physical aspects that human beings could manipulate for their own purposes (78). This led to a mentality of domination that promoted economic systems reliant on exploiting natural resources for wealth. Nature became a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Berry recalls the development of corporations as one of the greatest turning points in Earth’s degradation (117). Corporations massively impacted the Earth through mining of natural resources while also shifting Western mentality to being only concerned with how much one could accumulate, instead of other factors that could influence one’s happiness or feeling of wholeness.  

Berry suggests that there is hope in light of all of the negative impacts humanity has created in the natural world. In establishing the Ecozoic Era, humanity will shape the destiny of the entire world. There are several factors which will play important roles in creating this radical transformation. One is to reinvent the human. Destruction of the Earth occurs because economic and political frameworks perpetuate the idea nature has instrumental value rather than inherent value. If human beings understand nature as having inherent value, they will support ecological flourishing by respecting individual organisms as subjects rather than objects for human use (159). To reinvent the human, sources of wisdom must be altered. Berry proposes a fourfold wisdom that he believes will give human beings the appropriate tools to take on the great work of establishing an Ecozoic Era. Each of these sources of wisdom is already present in our history, but is either disregarded as unimportant or has been co-opted by consumerist culture. The four sources are indigenous cultures, women, classical traditions, and science. Berry’s hope is that through these sources that have helped to shape previous eras, humanity can find characteristics which will help to define an ecological mindset that focuses on the context of the larger universe, rather than the individual’s wants. They also integrate a spiritual or psychic connection with nature so that motivations for prevention of ecological destruction stem out of an understanding of humanity as a part of the Earth community rather than separate from it.

While I admire Berry’s attempt to incorporate these sources which are often overlooked or disregarded as Western society developed, I also fear that he may be framing these histories in such a way as so they will fit with his paradigm. For example, he harkens back to native traditions as an example of the way human life was once fully integrated within nature. Native peoples were in tune with nature’s processes and did not exploit nature’s goods. They understood that their lives depended on the health and wellbeing of the world around them, bringing about great reverence for its processes and respect for the relationships formed. However, he runs the risk of overly romanticizing this way of life. In addition, some Native Americans, like George E. Tinker, take umbrage with Euro-Americans participating in or utilizing native traditions as a source of knowledge. These native peoples fear Euro-Americans will treat their traditions in a syncretistic manner, instead of valuing the traditions’ original spiritual and cultural meanings. With good reason, native cultures are wary of Euro-American interaction because of the ways they have been exploited in the past. Of course, Berry is looking for models from native peoples as examples to build his much larger great work from, but I do not think conversations will be very productive if individuals come in with the assumption that Native people’s traditions will be the solution to their problems. New and creative ways of being in the world will need to result out of consideration for the wisdom sources proposed, not just a syncretistic amalgamation of ideas.

Berry’s work addresses the fundamental need for change in our present ecological situation through a religious naturalist lens. He utilizes language of “spiritual” and “sacred” in his writing, but does not insist that these terms connect with a supernatural agent.  In fact, that which he refers to as sacred, or awe-inspiring, or spiritual is found within the Earth’s natural processes. His analyses of the problems are accurate in terms of identifying the historical causes of our ecological crises and how an overall shift in how we encounter the world must come about in order for real lasting change to take place. He refers to our current situation as a “moment of grace” (196), a period when we find ourselves having the potential to create change with new energy and a new way of being. The task is for individuals to acknowledge the opportunities present and act on them in life-changing, world-shifting ways to establish ourselves as a non-destructive member-species of the Earth community.