I’ve lately been reading Thomas Berry’s 1999 book, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. Berry, one the last century’s most eloquent environmentalists, argues that humans must—and can—make the shift from exploiting and controlling the natural world to living in harmony with it and actively promoting its healing after centuries of industrial civilization.
A generation later I’m also watching the COP 26 conference on global climate change as it creeps toward a delayed conclusion, with member countries struggling to say good things while avoiding promises they can’t keep without stirring resistance among their populations. I wonder what the late Dr. Berry would be saying if he were still around.
Anyone who’s been paying attention to the climatologists (that would be a slight majority of the American population) knows that we (the world’s humans and other living things) are plunging headlong into a slow motion climate catastrophe where rising temperatures will provoke ever more extreme weather events that could kill millions and displace billions (of humans, that is).
And yet we seem unable to summon the collective sense of urgency that would allow us to change course and save the planet. We get “Yes, but…jobs,” or “Yes, but …we can’t afford it,” or “Yes, but…you go first.”
Humans came out of Africa and spread to all parts of the planet because we were supremely adaptable, more so than any other species in the history of the planet (except the cockroach). Agriculture generated surpluses that allowed the emergence of cities and civilizations; our numbers grew still more. Still, we were adapting, taking nature as we found it and seeing what we could do with it.
Over the last several hundred years a basic change has occurred: we went from adapting to nature to controlling it. We could use the energy from coal to dig more coal, extract more oil and gas, mine more iron and copper. The Industrial Revolution meant a huge, almost inconceivable increase in the energy we were consuming. We were, it seemed, finally able to break the bonds of nature itself. We could make nature adapt to us. We didn’t need to be adaptable anymore.
Now we know (those of us who’ve been paying attention) that it was pure hubris to think that we could control nature, make nature adapt to us. The greenhouse gases that we heedlessly pumped into the atmosphere are now warming the planet at a rate that threatens to make much of the planet uninhabitable for humans and the other organisms that live there.
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Yet maybe half of us (those who haven’t been paying attention) lean on alternative explanations that don’t require us to change much in how we live:
- “It’s all just part of the natural cycle: just wait and things will cool down again.”
- “It’s all part of the natural cycle, not caused by human activity. Nothing to do here.”
- “There’s nothing happening at all, just normal fluctuations in the weather. Climate scientists are inventing the crisis to control us.”
The Industrial Revolution seems to have killed off or drastically weakened the adaptive responses that enabled humans to be successful. Confronted with what President Biden called “an existential crisis,” we keep casting around for technical fixes that will let us keep on keeping on. Twenty years from now the survivors of those who haven’t been paying attention will finally get it. But it will be too late.
The planet will survive. Once the human species is cut down to size, new species will evolve that are well-adapted to the new environment we have, in our folly, produced.
Wherever Thomas Berry is, if he’s still paying attention to this world, he’s in deep grief for the loss of his vision—and his planet. And I, still in this world for the time being, mourn that my generation failed to get ourselves together to address this existential crisis. I beg forgiveness from my grandchildren.