THE ECOLOGICAL AGE
Thomas Berry, a foremost Catholic figure in the development of a Catholic response to the
ecological crisis, ponders the role of humans within earth’s systems. Here are some of his observations,
taken from his article.
As humans, we are now just emerging from a technological entrancement – our entrancement with an
industrially driven consumer society. During this period, the human mind has been placed within the narrowest
confines it has experienced since consciousness emerged from its Paleolithic phase. Nothing less than
entrancement could have so obscured scientists and technicians that has led to the devastating ecological
impasse which humans face today. However, the excessive analytical phase of science is over.
Even primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe – and of our place and function
within it. Theirs is a vision that extends to celestial regions of space, and to interior depths of the human
being – in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement. They felt
themselves sustained by a cosmic presence that went beyond the surface reality of the surrounding natural
world. The human sense of an all-pervasive, numinous, or sacred power gave to life a deep
Over time, a realm of consciousness of high spiritual, social, and artistic development occurred
– then further developed in the age of the great traditional civilizations of the Eurasian and American
worlds (the age of Confucian China, of Hindu India, of Buddhist Asia, of the ancient Near East, of Islam, of
medieval Europe, of the Toltec, Mayan, Aztec, Pueblo, and Incan civilizations of Central and South
Our deepest convictions arise in the contact of the human with some ultimate mystery whence the
universe itself is derived.
The human structure of life in all these civilizations had many similarities: the sense of the
divine, ritual forms, social hierarchies, basic technologies, agricultural economies, as well as temple
architecture ands sculpture.
But then, in the Western world a new capacity for understanding and controlling the dynamics of
the earth came into being. By the mid-eighteenth century, the invention of new technologies had begun whereby
we could manipulate our environment to our own advantage. At this time also an “objective world” was born – a
world clearly distinct from ourselves and available as a vast realm of natural resources for exploitation and
The new scientific attitudes and technologies became the modern substitutes for the mystical
vision of divine reality and the evocation of spiritual forces by ritual and prayerful invocation. Human
effort, not divine grace, was the instrument for progress. All this achievement was associated with a sense
of political and social transformation that would release us from age-old tyrannies. With such expectations
came a new exhilaration in our powers to dominate the natural world. This led to a savage assault upon the
earth such as was inconceivable in prior times. As with all such illusory situations, the awakening can be
slow and painful and filled with exaggerated reactions. Our present awakening from this enchantment with
technology has been particularly painful.
Presently, we are entering another historical period, one that might be designated as the
ecological age. The transformation will require the assistance of the entire planet. It is a radical change
in our mode of consciousness. Much of our trouble during these past two centuries has been caused by our
limited modes of thought – we centered ourselves on the individual, on personal aggrandizement, on a
competitive way of life, and on the nation, or the community of nations, as the guarantor of freedom to
pursue these purposes. A sense of planet Earth never entered into our minds.
The ecological age, into which we are presently moving, is an opposed, though complementary, age
that succeeds the technological age. In a deeper sense, this new age takes us back to certain basic aspects
of the universe which were evident to the human mind from its earliest period, but which have been further
refined, observed, and scientifically stated in more recent centuries.
These governing principles of the universe have controlled the entire evolutionary process from
the moment of its explosive origin some fourteen billion years ago to the shaping of the earth, the emergence
of life and consciousness, and so through the various ages of human history. These principles, known in ages
past by intuitive processes, are now understood by scientific reasoning. The ecological age must now activate
these principles in a universal context if the human venture is to continue. These principles, on which the
universe functions, are three: differentiation (meaning the number of different things in the universe),
subjectivity (meaning the move to consciousness and the rise of the numinous or mystical), and communion (the
communion of all reality in the universe).
Differentiation: Life on planet Earth finds expression in an overwhelming variety of
manifestations. So, too, with the human: as soon as we appear, we immediately give to human existence
multiple modes of expression.
Subjectivity: With the nervous system and the brain comes greater freedom of control over the
activity of the organism. In this manner, planet Earth becomes ever more subject to the free interplay of
self-determining forces. With subjectivity is associated the numinous quality that has traditionally been
associated with every reality of the universe.
Communion: A third principle of the universe is the communion of each reality of the universe
with every other reality in the universe. Here our scientific evidence confirms, with a magnificent overview,
the ancient awareness that we live in a universe – a single, if multiform, energy event. The unity of the entire complex
of galactic systems is among the most basic experience of contemporary physics. Although this comprehensive
unity of the universe was perceived by primitive peoples, affirmed by great civilizations, explained in
creation myths the world over, nowhere was the full genetic relatedness of the universe presented with such
clarity as the by the scientists of the twentieth century.
The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the
universe. There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to
the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in
the sea; to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to
silence forever a divine voice.
It would be easier for us if we would remember that the earth itself – as the primary energy –
is findings its way both to interior conscious expression in the human and to outer fulfilment in the
universe. We must simply respond to the urgencies imposed on us by the energy that holds the stars within the
galactic clusters, that shaped the planet under our feet, that has guided life through its bewildering
variety of expression, and that has found even higher expression in the exotic tribes and nations, languages,
literature, art, music, social forms, religious rituals, and spiritual disciplines over the surface of the
planet. There is reason to believe that those mysterious forces that have guided earthly events thus far have
not suddenly collapsed under the great volume of human affairs in this twenty-first century.
What is clear is that the earth is mandating that the human community assume a responsibility
never assigned to any previous generation. The human community is passing from its stage of childhood into
its adult stage of life. We must assume adult responsibilities. In its prior period, the earth acted
independently as the complete controlling principle; only limited control over existence was assigned to
ourselves. Now the earth insists that we accept greater responsibility, a responsibility commensurate with
the greater knowledge communicated to us.
What we need, what we are ultimately groping toward, is the sensitivity required to understand
and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself.
Source: Thomas Berry, “The Ecological Age”, in The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra, 1990), 36-49.
Photo credit: Intellimon