The Great Work: Our Way into the Future

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   The Great Work: Our Way into the Future The future of humanity is full of uncertainty and distress (Berry, 1999).

This uncertainty is caused by one great factor: ecological imbalance. Ecological imbalance is the result of excessive human consumption. Here, human consumption is not the physical process of consuming the environment for man’s needs, rather on the philosophy which drives such consumption (Berry, 1999). The idea of human consumption is simple.

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The environment was created to sustain man’s daily existence. The main tenet of today’s economics is three fold: allocation, degradation, and sustenance. Allocation refers to the general division of the environment for specific human needs and wants. Here, the environment is treated as the object rather than the subject of human existence.

 Degradation is the eventual result of allocation. Once the environment is depleted, the chances of human survival become slim. The virtual indifference of the greater part of humanity to the issues of environmental protectionism and more importantly to oriental philosophy of nature can be described as the ‘conceptual’ root of the problem (Berry, 1999). The seminal problem of the human hand is not ‘need’ per se but the lack of power to control such ‘need.

’ Here, one does not deal with externalities only, but rather on the totality of human action. Sustenance has many meanings. In western philosophy, it refers to the actual reproduction of daily life. Reproduction here refers to the acquisition of material goods for the satisfaction of the human body.

In eastern philosophy, sustenance simply refers to a state of satisfaction in relation to the principle of nature. Here, one may assume that this innate difference between the oriental and western conception of sustenance is the result not of visual comparison but the general effects of the application of the western conception of sustenance to policy-making (Berry, 1999). Here, Berry (1999:71) points out the importance of ecological conscience in restoring the ‘health’ of the environment.  Ecological conscience is not simply a state of realization, rather an actual restructuring of guiding philosophies.

Berry (1999) argued that this restructuring is not a gradual process, rather an abrupt/radical one. The radical nature of this restructuring is not arbitrary. For almost 100 years, humanity tried to reconcile its desire for excessive human consumption and protection of the environment. In almost all ways, the environment is the sole victim.

 Berry (1999) posits that such ‘revolution’ must be meaning-oriented. Ecological conscience demands the following from individuals: 1) commitment to protect and preserve (not conserve) the environment, 2) simplicity of living and a general modification of current lifestyle, 3) critical evaluation of economic, political, and social theories used in policy-making, and 4) recognition of the fact that the environment is related to every individual, and that all individuals are interrelated (thus, a change in the environment will inevitably affect all individuals). One can say then that if this ‘transition’ or ‘revolution’ is successful, then humanity will be able to accomplish a great work.According to Berry (1999), each era of human history has its own ‘great work’; that is, the actions and philosophy of each era shape the future of the next eras.

For example, the values of religious freedom, right of the individual, and the supremacy of reason were in general the result of the evolution of the human thought. Greece contributed the principles of rationality, emancipation, and empiricism that had impact on the history of Western history. The age of scholasticism brought Europe into a period of academic prosperity. The age of the Roman Church introduced the concepts of Divine Providence in the management of the state.

The Industrial Age brought changes in the lives of individuals, groups, and countries. The Industrial Age essentially created a culture of excess. This culture of excess is what drives economies to produce more than what the whole humanity can consume at a particular time. Although a significant portion of the human population benefited from periodic economic booms, much of the benefit derived from excessive consumption are wasted.

Here, the environment becomes the sole loser in the consumption process. The devastation of the planet is the legacy of the Industrial Era. Hence, it is the duty of humanity to repair the damage and to be intricately connected to the larger earth community (of which all individuals belong). The Great Work of humanity lies in the future.

The means by which such work depends on the following conditions: 1) humanity must recognize its past mistakes, 2) acceptance of a radical change in ecological conscience, and 3) a general commitment to change. Berry’s work is interesting in three respects. First, the idea that each historical period contributed to the history of humanity is relatively a new idea. Philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, and Locke believed that the future of humanity lies in the present course of human existence.

The past is neither a great work nor a legacy; it is a lesson. Berry posits that each historical period is important to the present state of humanity; that is, the ‘future great work’ of humanity is essentially dependent on the past ‘great work.’ Second, the way in which Berry criticizes the concepts of human consumption, allocation, and sustenance is very radical. For one, these concepts were developed out of precise economic laws (that were proven to be statistically true).

Berry instead offers a set of untested remedies to today’s problem. However, it is not the utility of his ideas that is interesting, rather the general rationality of his propositions. Much of his proposals are still problematic. How do you change ecological consciousness? How do you persuade individuals to ‘love’ and ‘care’ for the environment? What is the nature of the ‘great work’? How serious is the state of human existence today? These are some of the questions that Berry fails to answer adequately.

 Third, supposing there is a significant change in ecological conscience, the possibilities available to policy-makers are wide. Note here that the abandonment of a whole way of life is equally devastating to humanity. Should the change be gradual/semi-gradual? Is it possible for policy-makers to find a compromise between the two courses of action, at least in the short-run, so that humanity in the future can adapt to the prescribed changes?The end of humanity only rests on the human hand. It is the human hand who exploits, preserves, and influences the environment.

                                             Reference Berry, Tom. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Bell Tower.

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