Gaia’s Director, Liz Hosken, reflects on the legacy of philosopher and ‘geologian’ Thomas Berry, and why his central idea- Earth Jurisprudence- can be a guiding light for emerging movements defending Earth at a time of crisis. Originally published in The Ecologist.
I first met Thomas Berry at a talk in 1996 and immediately recognised him as an elder with a rare far-sightedness about our past, present and future.
He pulled no punches during his talk:
“The industrial process is now in its terminal phase. This is the inevitable consequence of civilisations that destroy their life support system. The difference now is that the dominant civilisation has colonised the farthest reaches of the Earth.”
At that time, Thomas was thinking about his next book, The Great Work. Published over twenty years ago, it proposed the kinds of change we now hear discussed by UN experts on climate change and biodiversity, and demanded by a groundswell of popular movements around our planet.
The Great Work calls for the transformation of the western industrial institutions of religion, education, governance and politics from anthropocentrism to an Earth-centred understanding of our role and responsibilities as humans, embedded in the larger Earth community.
More and more of us know now, as Thomas did then, that this is where we need to go. That this transformation – the philosophy, ways of being and practices it entails – is essential to the survival and thriving of our own species as well as the wider community of life.
Thomas called this way of living in right-relation with the planet ‘Earth Jurisprudence’.
Jurisprudence as a term goes beyond narrow conceptions of the law. It is about how we live and govern our lives in their totality and, most importantly, in relation to Nature.
In his writings, Thomas emphasised that, having been successfully imposed around the planet, our western, human-centred legal system is being used to legitimise the destruction of Nature and the violation of human and other species’ rights, in the interests of economic elites and the drive for endless growth on a finite planet.
This dominant legal system is rooted in a profound misconception of law as something humans can invent from scratch. Whereas, for most of human history we have understood that we are born into a lawful, self-regulating and living system we call Earth, Mother Earth, Pachamana, Gaia.
We are inextricably part of a web of life and as such the laws we must comply with, that we must live by, are the laws that govern life on Earth.
By complying with Nature’s laws and codifying them in the institutions through which we govern our lives and societies, we contribute to the dynamic equilibrium upon which the health and the wellbeing of all depends.
This way of being and organising society, and the Earth-centred institutions it gives rise to, is what we call Earth Jurisprudence.
Earth jurisprudence recognises that we are born into a lawful Universe, of which our planet is a part; that Earth is the ‘Primary Text’, the source of the laws that govern all of life, including our own. This is the reality of life on Earth, whether we recognise it or not.
The great work ahead for those of us living in industrialised nations is to re-align ourselves and our societies with Earth’s laws and limits; to re-develop ways of complying with Earth Jurisprudence. Thomas went to great lengths to impress on his friends, readers and followers that living in this way is not new.
Indigenous societies who never left the path of Earth Jurisprudence can offer inspiration for understanding what Earth Jurisprudence means in practice. They continue to derive their customary laws from the laws embedded in their ancestral lands, with which they have an intimate, intergenerational relationship.
As Ailton Krenak, an indigenous leader from Brazil, said: “We hold the memory of what it means to be human … I think people should pay close attention to this. Even if we had all the white people’s technology and money, we would be worth nothing if we did not hold the memory of the creation of the world, our planet.”
In order to comply with Earth’s laws, Indigenous communities have developed sophisticated ways of ensuring each generation understands the lawfulness of the world they are born into. The consequences of breaking these laws is, ultimately, the destruction of our source of life and thereby ourselves and the rest of the Earth community.
This destruction is what we are faced with now, on a planetary scale. As we self-examine and try to transform our own societies it is essential to stand in solidarity with those indigenous communities on the frontlines of pitched battles to protect Mother Earth.
The emergence of Extinction Rebellion, school climate strikes and Rights of Nature precedents from Uganda to New Zealand shows us that there is an awakening happening.
People of all ages and walks of life are willing to take action, to call the alert, to break through the silence of our media-dominated world and demand better for Nature, future generations of all species and those on the frontlines of climate breakdown.
A more generous, Earth-centred consciousness is emerging, recognising the interconnectivity of climate change and ecological breakdown and that these crises are a consequence of the rampant industrial growth economy.
Climate change and the unravelling of our ecological life support system is the inevitable consequence of systematically breaking the laws that govern life – of taking more than Nature can replenish, of digging up what Earth has buried, manufacturing products she cannot re-integrate and dumping the ‘waste’ where it does not belong.
Thomas Berry and Earth Jurisprudence offer us powerful medicine for this crisis – to be rigorous in complying with Earth’s laws in all walks of life and to make this compliance our primary societal concern, so that we begin to contribute to the vital task of regenerating life at all levels.
To comply by Earth’s laws, we must first know them, and this requires us to revive our connection with Nature and our eco-literacy, re-learning Nature’s laws after generations of alienation.
This re-learning involves nurturing our relationship with nature. This could be through planting a window box, developing our relationship with a tree in a park, tuning in to the cycles of the moon, or more elaborate, wild ways, depending on our circumstances. This practice roots us in the reality of being a cell in the body of our living Earth and helps us to see the world through this lens.
Reconnection with our greater nature and learning the laws by which we must re-order society are not intended to replace protest and contestation, but instead to inform and root this resistance more deeply in the realities of a world that brutally others nature and abounds with shallow, false solutions to our crises.
As young leader Greta Thunberg has said, we need to listen to the Earth, and the science telling us about her ailments, first and foremost. What is pragmatic and realistic for Earth, not for politics or economics, must be our ultimate guide to action.
When we see life from an Earth-centred perspective, as Thomas Berry did, we are compelled to take responsibility for protecting life, following Earth’s laws in whatever we do and collectively re-shaping the institutions we encounter with these laws as our guiding principle.
As Thomas wrote:
“Peace is the result of this recognition of the Earth and the common sense of togetherness that she creates among us all. She underpins and unites all regions, economics, education and the laws, which govern our lives. The challenge is to change our thinking from a humanistic perspective to an Earth-centred perspective. Through this change we can recover a mutually enhancing relationship with the wider Earth community.”
This article is part of a week of celebration from 1-7th June 2019 marking the tenth anniversary of cultural historian and philosopher Thomas Berry and Earth Jurisprudence.