With every perspective and experience there is a background story, an implicit context that we have constructed which often lies quietly in our consciousness. This context is not created upon birth, but woven with different strands gathered from our schooling and universities, our parents and friends, and inherited cultural systems of thought. It is this conception that provides us with a reference point in the universe and often dictates our course of action and our response to events. It is this conception which is at the heart of our relationship with what we see around us.
We owe acknowledgement to Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and deep ecologist, for shining light on this context and how it influences our relationship with the living world. It was he who noted that seeking guidance to solve the current environmental crisis from our cultural and religious systems was problematic, as they were part of the original cause of the crisis. It was also he who said that we should look at our educational systems and examine what relationship with the earth is implicit in our textbooks and lectures, and question who we think we are and our place in the cosmos.
With a life dedicated to study and understanding this question, Berry argued that our rational, industrial society along with its amazing scientific insight, has broken the primary law of the universe; that being of integrity, and that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member of the universe. Moreover, the value of the universe is expression shown by its various forms and members of that community, not just by one. While our self-awareness is significant in the context of the planet, as also noted by Teilhard de Chardin, it is our assumption of our primary position in the universe and as Berry phrases it, our “industrial coding” that arose in Western society that poses a threat to life on this planet and therefore, our own.
We are losing 10 000 species a year (E. O. Wilson) and as Berry notes via rainforest specialist Norman Myers, this “impending extinction spasm” is likely to produce the “greatest single setback to life’s abundance and diversity since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago”. This is significant.
Berry suggests that we need to go beyond any transformation of our contemporary culture. He argues we should go back to our genetic imperative, the source of our culture. It is this genetic coding that gives our species their context and carries the deeper spontaneities of the development of our cultural codings. Here, our genes are considered to be more than a physical determination of our being, but rather “our richest psychic endowment, our guiding and inspiring force…”. Our genes connect us with the Earth and the universe, with nature and all other species, and provides us with the “shamanic dimension of the psyche”. This paves the way for a non-rational experience of life and the re-enchantment of our perception of other living things, along with greater sensitivity. This enhanced connection with life is the vaccine for our current disease of complacency.