Thomas Berry, leading ecological thinker, Passionist Catholic priest and world-renowned cultural historian, died Monday at the Well-Spring retirement community. He was 94. Berry’s health had declined over the years and his family expected his death.
Berry has been one of the great minds of the 20th century, and ideas have influenced people across the world, from corporate globalization critic David Korten to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya. Almost his whole life, he has been a student of the earth and the human condition. In particular, he conducted an ongoing study of the ecological nature of Earth, the way everything affects everything else. He realized then that human beings are a part of a larger natural order.
One of his many achievements was to articulate a vision of an approaching “Ecozoic Era” in which human societies would live in a sustainable and mutually beneficial manner with the natural world. But for this to happen, we would have to change our relationship and attitudes to nature by learning to understand it in a new way.
“The catastrophe of our time is the loss of any real human connection to the natural world,” he told a reporter in 2005. “That’s why ecology alone is not the answer because it’s a ‘use’ relationship to the natural world. The earth is saying, ‘You used me.” Trees, birds — all living things — have rights, he wrote. They require that people treat the natural world not as an object, but as a living being. “If nothing has rights but humans, then everything else becomes the victim,” Berry said.
But maybe changes are underway. Berry’s vision certainly played a role in growing concerns about climate change, species loss, and depletion of natural resources; what 30 years ago was a small minority is beginning to transform into a mainstream sustainability movement.