This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
Berry argues that we are nearing the end of the Cenozoic Era (the last 65 million years.) He proposes that we embark on a new era, the Ecozoic, in which the relationship between humans and the Earth is harmonious.
He believes that our children are an essential key to this transition. By repairing the damage we have inflicted on Earth, and by helping children to become “Earth literate” and develop an appreciation for the sanctity of the earth, the Ecozoic era will be ushered in.
We are now at the end of the Cenozoic Era of the planet Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. During the Cenozoic time which has been occurring for the last 65 million years, most all of the life forms with which we are familiar came to their full development. The Cenozoic is also when we humans came into being. However, this era is rapidly being terminated.
Not only the human, but even more so, the functioning of the entire planet is being altered. The climate, the chemistry of the atmosphere, the water and the soil, our relation to the sun, all the biosystems of the planet, even the geological structure of the planet: all these are being altered in the most extensive transformation that has taken place on the planet Earth in the last 65 million years. So extensive is the dissolution of the life systems of the Earth during the past century that the viability of the human cannot be taken for granted.
The long-term survival of our children depends on understanding the depth of what is happening to the planet at present—it is essential to admit that what is occurring is nothing less than biocide. It also depends on rekindling a relationship between the human and the natural world that is far beyond the exploitive relationships of the industrial mode. A different kind of prosperity and progress needs to be understood which embraces the whole Life community. All our human institutions, professions, all our programs and activities need to function now in this wider Life community context.
It is time to evoke the emergence of a new Earth period which can be identified as the Ecozoic era. Even now the shift is beginning to take place in which a relationship of mutual enhancement between humans and the natural world is being regarded not only as possible but essential to planetary survival. How do our children fit in with this change?
Our children need a healthy Earth in which to live. A sickened planet is not conducive to healthy children physically, or to their emotional or psychic security. Continued contamination of water, soil, air and other life systems by unnecessary and unsound production practices is jeopardizing their future existence as well as that of the planet.
Children need pure air and water and sunlight and fruitful soil and all those living forms that provide the context in which human existence can be properly nurtured. Only if this context is kept intact and an appreciation of it is passed on will we fulfill our obligations to our children and to the planet.
Membership in the Life Community
Our children need to be able to see that they are members of the whole Life community of the natural world about them, not just members of a local or even global human community. Human society as such is an abstraction. The only real community is the entire community of the natural world. No part of this integral community has either existence or life apart from the other members of the community.
We are awkward at this manner of thinking because many of our religions as well as humanist traditions carry a certain antagonism toward the natural world. But now the refusal to acknowledge the intimate membership in the community of Earth is leading to their own destruction as well as that of the planet. The next generation can survive only as functional members of this larger community. Our children are instinctively aware of this wider sense of identity. We need only foster this awareness.
Our children also need to be literate about the Earth. They need to learn not only how to read books composed by human genius but also how to “read” the Great Book of Nature. Again, absorbing this Great Book is natural to children. Alienation from this primary education experience has been, in our generation, the source of unmeasured disaster to every aspect of human existence.
A true prosperity requires being able to understand the language of nature. Native peoples know this language. It is primarily the language of the Earth, a language of living relationships that extend throughout the universe. We have here within this North American continent a superb natural setting in which our children can become Earth-literate, capable of understanding what their world is telling them.
Our children need to understand how to function with the energy of the sun and wind and the water rather than with the energies of fossil fuels or of nuclear processes. Our inability to use these other energies properly has led to a situation in which the planet Earth is covered with grime and poisons. These toxins are not only eating away with their acids the very stones and structures of all the great cities of the world, but they are also harmful to the planet itself.
The understanding of more benign energy forms and the skills to interact with them effectively are absolute necessities for the survival of our children in a sustainable life context. In addition, it is important that these energy systems be designed with sensitivity and a sense of appropriate scale.
Our children also need to understand the healthy limits of their bioregion’s capacity to provide energy and to support life. They need to be encouraged to envision a way of life that can be compatible with those natural limits. Helping children get in the habit of conservation as well as recycling is an important step in encouraging, them to co-exist with the rest of the life community.
Our children need to learn gardening. The reasons for this reach deep into their mental and emotional as well as into their physical survival. Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe. By gardening our children learn that they constitute, with all growing things, a single community of life. They learn to nurture and be nurtured in a universe that is always precarious but ultimately benign. They learn profound reasons for the seasonal rituals of the great religious traditions.
More immediately, however, is the question of physical survival. With the ever-increasing loss of soil on which food-growing depends, with the rising inflation in the economic sphere, with the need for food grown in a proper organic context, and with the crowded situation in our urban centers, the capacity of our children to grow a significant amount of their own food on very limited areas of Earth will become an increasing urgency.
Elementary education especially might very well begin and be developed in a gardening context. How much the children could learn! A language related to life! Emotional responses to blossoming and fruitful plants, social cooperation, death as a source of life. They could learn geology and biology and astronomy. They could learn the sources of poetry and literature and the arts. They might even be saved from the sterile and ephemeral world of Atari.
Our children need to be prepared for their role in the fruitful functioning of the Great Earth itself, the first and greatest of all “corporations”. They need to learn that the underlying role of all human corporative enterprises is to enhance the functioning and meaning and value of this primary corporation, the planet in which we live. If the Earth becomes bankrupt there is no future for anything that lives within the Earth.
The remarkable achievement of the Earth in its natural state is its ability to renew itself and all its living forms. The infrastructure renews itself. No human-created process can do this. Neither automobiles nor roadways, nor subway systems, nor fossil fuels, nor railways, nor power plants, nor nuclear generating plants renew themselves. They last but a few years and then rust away and the resources of the planet are no longer sufficient to renew them.
A completely different role of the human in relation to the Earth begins to identify itself. One which functions in a different fashion and with different ideals from the highly entropic, exploitive manner in which our culture functions at present. Recognizing our intimate membership in the whole Life community and becoming literate in its wisdom and language, our role becomes that of dynamic participator. In recognizing this intimate connection, we begin to understand and align ourselves with the natural world’s capacity to be self-emerging, self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing and self-healing.
Experience of the Sacred
Our children need to understand the meaning and grandeur and sacredness of the Earth as revelatory of the deep mysteries and meaning of the world. Rather than teaching them to disdain the natural world as unworthy of their concern, it would be most helpful if our religious traditions would move toward a stronger emphasis on the glorious phenomena of the universe about us as modes of divine communication.
In a special manner, through celebration and ceremony, our children need to observe and esteem the spontaneities of nature in our own bioregions here in the different areas of North America: spontaneities that give expression to genetic diversity which is the most precious endowment of the living world.
Without the marvelous variety of living forms that swim in the sea and live and move upon the Earth and fly through the air, our own human understanding, our emotional life, our imaginative powers, our sense of the divine, our capacity for verbal expression; these would all be terribly diminished. If we lived on the moon, our sense of the divine world would reflect the lunar landscape; our emotions, sensitivities and imagination would all, in a similar manner, be through a lunar mode of expression.
So with our children, they are what they are and have such remarkable expansion of life because of that share in the natural world that they have here within the North American continent. The radiance of their surroundings is even now reflected in the radiance of our children’s countenances.
A Sense of History
Our children need a sense of their historical role in creating this coming ecological age, the Ecozoic. This future world is something that has never existed before within the context of the whole planet. We are involved in an irreversible sequence of planetary developments. For the first time an integral form of the planet Earth with all its geological contours, its living forms and its human presence has become possible as a vital, functioning planetary whole expressing itself in its unbroken sequence of splendors in movement and song and an infinite variety of color in the sky and throughout the continents.
There is truth in the expression—The Dream is at the heart of the Action. The greatest gift we can give our children is to assist them in their dreams of a planet of pure air and water and sunlight and soil, where the community of all living beings can flourish in the celebration of existence.
Thomas Berry (1914-2009) was a cultural historian, writer, and geologian. He was ordained as a priest in 1942 and studied and taught world religions, including serving as founder and director of the History of Religions graduate program at Fordham University. He believed that history is currently being made between humans and the life systems of earth. Today, his work is carried on via the Thomas Berry Foundation and university conferences based on his ideas.
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