born for these times in which we live…

Posted March 16th, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on born for these times in which we live…

I mean, for what other times would we be born other than the ones we are actually in?

I often read this Thomas Berry quote at the end of presentations on the ecological crisis, from his book The Great Work, Our Way Into the Future, which I still think his most important because of how he nails the industrial culture with such disturbing accuracy.

The Great Work before us, the task of moving modern industrial civilization from its present devastating influence on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence, is not a role we have chosen. It is a role given us, beyond any consultation with ourselves. We did not choose. We were chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historical task.

You know, like it or not, we were born into these times. We were not born into a different time, a time when humans had not gone beyond the biocapacity of the planet, when rivers still ran free and were not full of toxins, when you did not have to fear the food you ate for the cancer it might bring later in life, or the chemical inputs into the brains of your babies, when CO2 levels were 250 ppm, instead of the 400 ppm they are today, and rising rapidly.

Image: NASA Global Climate Change - Vital Signs of the Planet

Image: NASA Global Climate Change – Vital Signs of the Planet

We inherited this world. And it’s not one of those realities for which we can say, it’s not my problem so why should I have to deal with it? It’s everybody’s problem and we all have to deal with it, because it is certainly going to deal with us. No escape. Nowhere to go to get away from it. The decision to do nothing is the decision to make things worse, to add our measure of responsibility into the mix.

Not what we bargained for when we came into this world. Not what I thought I would be facing 65 years after my birth – my birth into a world of 5 billion fewer people.

We do not choose the moment of our birth, who our parents will be, our particular culture or the historical moment when we will be born. We do not choose the status of spiritual insight or political or economic conditions that will be the context of our lives.

for CNCI did not choose to come into the world at the advent of a global corporate culture that would drive us to the brink of a collective human suicide, that would so savagely exploit the Earth that there would be – just in the course of my  one lifetime – no place left on the planet to escape the ruins it leaves in its wake, that would load up the atmosphere and biosphere with our poisonous waste products for the sake of some unnatural climate-controlled consumer culture that has us mesmerized by its powers to entertain and distract, that would replace actual meaning with fake, superficial meanings that have emptied our souls of content and depth.

I did not want this world, but here it is. I was born into the post-World War II expansion of industrial culture that seeks to absorb into itself every human person and every natural “resource” that it can use for its purposes – what purpose at this point, who knows, other than to maximize power and wealth for fewer and fewer people.

I did not choose this. I did not choose this spoiled, ravaged world.

We are, as it were, thrown into existence with a challenge and a role that is beyond any personal choice.

Yet, I also emerged into this world idealistic – why and how, I do not know, but I did. And because of that, I wanted my life to be “noble,” as did so many others of my generation, formed as we were by the civil rights struggles, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, the UFW movement, and so much more. And as much as my well-earned cynicism has worked hard at times to defeat that original nature of mine, I am still moved and challenged by that desire. And so these words, when I first read them many years ago, still touch me deeply and remind me why I cannot give up, even in the face of the evidence.

The nobility of our lives, however, depends upon the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role.

And then comes the act of faith:

Yet we must believe that those powers that assign our role must in that same act bestow upon us the ability to fulfill this role. We must believe that we are guided by these same powers that bring us into being.

We did not choose the time, nor the challenges we will face in our time. We are born into it. We are participant in a whole evolutionary process that brings us into being at just the right moment – because there is nothing but the right moment for us to be here.

Which is why it is we, and only we, who have the opportunity and the capacity and the inner strength to make a different world than this one, to alter course and to do that just as radically and profoundly as is required.

The decision, then, is whether or not we will embrace that challenge, not whether or not we have what we need to meet it. We do. We have what we need to meet the challenge.

Million gallon oil leak near the BP refinery in Whiting IN

Million gallon oil leak near the BP refinery in Whiting IN

And what is the full nature of that challenge? I pose this question because, as we have said and written often, it is not a challenge of global warming and climate change. Climate change is a symptom, it is not the disease. Even if we found a way to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions – like to zero by mid-century, which is what is needed (and won’t happen) – we would still face a monumental ecological crisis because of how far we have lived beyond the planet’s limits, how profoundly we are shredding habitats, how much we have contaminated, and continue to contaminate, soil, water, air, and every other thing we need to live, how we continue to pour chemicals into our environment and our bodies, and on and on.

Contamination is a symptom. Global warming is a symptom. The Pacific Garbage Patch is a symptom. The disease is the industrial growth economy. The disease is our addiction to it.

Cooling the planet’s fever might make us feel better for a while, but the disease is still a mortal threat to our future.

And so we see why the work is “great.” Yes, it is monumental. It is the most important work humans have ever had to do on a collective basis. And the “collective” is not functioning very well right now – which is why it is so important for us to eradicate what is destroying the collective – like racism, religious intolerance, war, deep economic injustice, selfishness, the refusal of an ethic of the common good and a commitment to the good of the commons.


We need this for life. It is life.

Which is why a truly “ecological” movement is about the whole, why to be ecological it cannot be about a piece of pipeline here or there (though these local struggles are very important to making the connections among us, building the new community, while inhibiting as much as possible the connections that tie the industrial machine together), but must also be about what kind of communities we create. This means not only communities in human terms, but also communities with the sentient and non-sentient beings among whom live and dwell and have our being. A truly ecological movement creates the “new community,” reflecting the values and ways of life that we believe are our future on this planet.

I love where Berry goes here:

Our own special role, which we will hand on to our children, is that of managing the arduous transition from the terminal Cenozoic to the emerging Ecozoic Era, the period when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community. This is our Great Work, and the work of our children…

Incredible vision, isn’t it? A tremendous sense of mission. Just think how it fills human life with meaning right now, how much purpose it gives to our lives.

Banner from the August Community Days

Sisters of the Humility of Mary, part of their mission

Okay, sure, it’s going to be hard – but, oh, the joy and friendship that will be a part of this journey, and the deep satisfaction of knowing that we were up to it, that we believed in ourselves enough to trust that we came into this world at just the right moment, exactly when that world most needed us, these very gifts and skills and talents that are inside each and every one of us.

Margaret Swedish


The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Thomas Berry, Bell Towers NY, 1999. Buy from an indie bookstore, please.

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