The originality of Thomas Berry, environmentalist

Thomas Berry. Image: WikipediaWhile representatives of 190 nations meet in Copenhagen this week to hammer out an agreement on cutting carbon emissions to reduce global warming, the daily work of what has become known as "saving the planet" goes on in a thousand different ways. Literature on environmental ethics pours off the presses and the world's religions find themselves forced to address the issues. Among the Christians who have warmed to the task is the late Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest with a large following in the United States and elsewhere.

Newsweek dubbed him the “most provocative figure among the new breed of eco-theologians,” while the National Catholic Reporter acclaimed him as “one of the 20th-century's most probing thinkers on the human relationship with the natural world and its implications for religion.” Any number of people I know regard Thomas Berry with varying degrees of admiration. With his passing in June of this year, I decided it was high time that I read one of his works. I chose a collection of his essays, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Sierra Club Books, 2006). I was roundly disappointed. Rather than being enlightened on questions of environmental ethics that I’ve grappled with over the years, I discovered that Berry was not up to speed on many issues. In addition, Berry has the bad habit of failing to define terms, and his use of metaphor, pleasing to the ear though it might be, lands him in fallacious reasoning. His work is full of false dichotomies, something that is not surprising given that he typically fails to address viewpoints articulated by others.

Here is an example of one of the false dichotomies Berry proposes: He maintains that Descartes’ proposal that “the universe is simply composed of mind and mechanism” resulted in “the mountains, rivers, wind, and sea becom[ing] mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply so many board feet of timber to be ‘harvested’ as objects used for human benefit.” (page 18) Surely there is some alternate way of regarding forests than either as mere lumber or as an abode of spirits. Any environmentalist worth his salt has pondered the question of whether natural things have “intrinsic value.” Yet Berry is mute, and leaves us with the impression that these are the only two options.

Berry tells us that we need to “recover our awareness of the universe as a communion of subjects,” in contrast to “a collection of objects to be used” (18). Once again, he makes it seem that there can be only two attitudes towards non-rational natural things, when there are certainly other options. In addition, he never tells us what he means by subject, although he contrasts it with object. Usually subject is used in regard to a being that possesses cognition. Rocks and plants in this sense are not subjects. Does subject mean for him “natural substance?” Berry does not tell us. Yet this quote is posted on the opening page of the website. Too often people mistake obscurity for profundity.

Problems of definition and logic come up in Berry’s claim concerning the importance of ecology: “In education, ecology is not a course, nor is it a program. It is the foundation of all courses, all programs, all professions. Such a statement can be made because ecology is a functioning cosmology, and cosmology deals with the ultimate self-referent mode of being, the universe itself. The ecology issue is not restricted to one course in education. It is the course, the curriculum, the structure of the entire educational program. It is the basis of medicine; it is the context for law. Ecology refers to the way the universe functions. The universe is the ultimate referent for every mode of being and every mode of activity in the universe. Cosmology is the unifying context and the ultimate referent for all human understanding. It is the entire sequence of education from kindergarten to professional school” (30).What is Berry trying to say here? In one breath “ecology is not a course,” and in the next it is “the course”.

Berry disregards the standard understanding of what “ecology” and “cosmology” are. Granted it is a mistake to assume dictionary definitions are correct, they need to be taken into consideration, instead of being summarily dismissed. Webster’s defines ecology as “a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environment” and cosmology alternately as “a branch of metaphysics that deals with the universe as an orderly system or a branch of astronomy that deals with the origin, structure, and space-time relationship of the universe.” What does Berry mean by calling ecology “a functioning cosmology”? Ecology investigates how part of the universe functions, but certainly doesn’t explain things such as the formation of planets that are needed for life. In addition, Berry illogically leaps from the part to the whole; if ecology explains how part of the universe functions, this is obviously not to explain how the whole does. And is he trying to say that a person has to study ecology in order to study law?

Yet another questionable assertion of his is that the universe is the “ultimate self-referent mode of being”. A theistic philosopher such as Aristotle would deny this on the grounds that the universe is constituted of things that depend upon God as the cause of their natures and motions. Berry fails to consider this view, in keeping with his general practice of not taking into account others’ views on crucial issues—something which may explain the “originality” of his thought. (In passing, it is more than puzzling that a Catholic priest would name the universe as “the ultimate self-referent mode of being” when Catholic theology maintains that the universe is dependent upon God who created it from nothing and who sustains it in being. Yet Berry tells us point-blank: “certainly humans have nothing but what they receive from the universe.” (121). His position is all the more baffling when one considers that a reason commonly offered for why Christians should avoid unnecessary environmental destruction is that it is God’s creation.)

One of the few authors Berry does make reference to is Aldo Leopold. Berry cites Leopold’s oft-quoted assertion that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from a conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such”. (36) Berry approves of this statement, despite two problems with it. First, beavers and pebbles may be parts of a land-community, but they cannot be citizens of a community, except by metaphor, for they lack reason. Secondly, the statement presents us with a false dichotomy. There is at least one other option, namely, that Homo sapiens might both have a right to use non-rational things and a responsibility not to abuse them; H. sapiens thus falls in neither of the categories Leopold offers: he is neither mere equal of other natural things nor (ruthless) conqueror of them.

Berry’s attribution of rights to insects and rivers provides yet another illustration of his chronic failure to engage in discourse with other thinkers. He maintains that: “The natural world on planet Earth has rights that come with existence itself. These rights come from the same source from which humans receive their rights, from the universe that brought them into being.” (110). There is no discussion of what a right is, and of what sort of being is a bearer of what sort of rights, despite the extensive literature on these questions. Moreover, the simple fact that natural processes in the universe are (at least in part) responsible for the apparition of a variety of beings, provides no reason for why we should accept that these processes endow the said beings with rights--an original point of view, perhaps, but entirely unsupported.

A final illustration of how Berry eschews dialogue with other thinkers who have addressed questions crucial for developing a sound environmental ethic is his position on the place of humans in nature. He both fails to consider the arguments that indicate that humans do transcend nature, and he fails to entertain the Aristotelian-Thomistic position on human nature. In regard to the question of human transcendence he says things like: “If there is such a thing as human intelligence, then it has emerged out of the universe” (114) and “Thought itself and the highest of human spiritual achievements are attained through activation of the inner capacities of carbon in its alliance with the other elements of the universe. Thus carbon has varied modes of expression, from inorganic to organic to conscious self-awareness in the human.” (55)

There is good reason, however, to regard the capacity for abstract thought as an immaterial faculty which as such cannot arise from matter; in any case, some discussion of the point is in order, rather than bald assertions. Berry laments the influence of Descartes who held that the human being is made of two separate substances, mind and body, and that other animals are mere bodies or machines; but he never mentions the Aristotelian-Thomistic view that human beings are composites of body and immaterial soul united as matter and form. This view would have it that humans are neither in complete continuity with other natural things nor in complete discontinuity, but are in continuity with them in virtue of their body, but in discontinuity in virtue of their rational soul.

I would be sincerely grateful if someone would point out to me some of Berry’s genuine insights. I realize that he was a pioneer in the area of environmental ethics. Still, by 2006, the year Evening Thoughts was published, environmental questions had received considerable attention in secular quarters and some attention in religious circles as well. Berry writes as if he was the only one thinking about environmental issues. Of course this does not mean that he has nothing to say -- only that what he does say is marked by lack of scholarship, a failure to define terms and a lack of logical rigor.

May Thomas Berry rest in peace. And may some more capable Catholic environmentalist pick up the baton in the important discussion of how we ought to treat the environment.

Marie I. George is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, New York, where she teaches Environmental Ethics and Logic.


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