Excerpts from Every Being Has Rights
and Principles of Earth Jurisprudence
by Father Thomas Berry
. . . I was born in 1914, when roads were beginning to be paved. The automobile was just coming into existence. Ford was founded in 1903, General Motors in 1908, so I generally say that we were born at approximately the same time and have made our separate journeys through the twentieth century. Back then, it was the day of the horse and riding saddle or taking a buggy to town. After a few hours you'd turn back toward home. The horse seemed to have ten times the energy it had on the way because now it was going home. In a sense my deepest experience of home is associated with the energy of a horse heading for home. If you're riding saddle and you're not strong enough, you can pull on the reins all you want; you're not going to slow that horse down much. The horse is likely to knock you off as it goes into the stall.
I think about the twenty-first century, about the young people particularly and what home means to them. I have been dedicated to children since the time I was a child myself. I think about the natural world and how the children will relate to it in the twenty-first century. . . In the twentieth century we built a fantastic industrial world, an industrial world that was invented in the seventeenth century, developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reached its climax in the twentieth century – the age of petroleum, the age of plastics, the age of communication, the age of genetic engineering. There has been an unbelievable transformation of this world we live in.
Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the industrial age seems to have collapsed upon itself. It can go nowhere, it's done everything. It can only embellish itself with trivia. So what's ahead for the young people? They have momentous choices to make about the new things they will have to bring forth to build a viable planet Earth. Our concern now is not about a civilization, not about a continent, but about a planet – perhaps the loveliest planet in the universe, the most beautiful thing in all creation, the most ecstatic. It's a world in which the divine presents itself to us in the sunlight by day, in the stars by night. I sometimes say that when we see the Earth during the day, the light blocks out the universe, and at night when the darkness blocks out the Earth, the universe lights up for us.
What is the impact of how we experience the Earth? As soon as young people understand that their home is not in this industrial world, they will realize that their home is in the world of woodlands and meadows and flowers and birds and mountains and valleys and streams and stars. Now they can't see the stars through the light pollution so that the whole universe is in a sense blocked out for children. They can't see the larger galactic display leading out into the vastness of space. They have all the mathematics of it, and they can see its dimensions and even see photographs of it, but they don't have the experience of the universe.
How does a person first experience the universe? Well, I wrote a little verse not long ago about the child. I think the child is our guide . . . I say in my verse:
The child awakens to a universe,
The mind of the child to worlds of wonder,
Imagination to worlds of beauty,
Emotions to worlds of intimacy.
It takes a universe to make a child,
Both in outer form and in its spirit.
It takes a universe to educate a child.
It takes a universe to fulfill a child.
And the first obligation of each generation
To the next generation is to bring these two together
So that the child is fulfilled in the universe
And the universe is fulfilled in the child
While the stars ring out in the heavens.
The . . . capacity for presence is such a magnificent thing. You know, that is the basic psychic capacity of a human being, and that is what we gave up in the seventeenth century with Descartes and Galileo and Bacon and Newton when they gave us this universe as an empty universe. Descartes said there is only mind and matter. What's not mind is matter and our reaction to it. This interpretation has plagued all modern philosophy. What's plagued us is the interpretation that the beauty we experience is something we invent; it's not really out there. That is the evil of our times because it made our primary relationship with the natural world a use relationship. The worst thing a human being can say to another in my view is, "You used me." We mustn't use each other; we serve each other, we give our lives to each other, we provide the necessities of life, and we go through enormous suffering for each other. All that is beyond use.
When I was born there were fewer than two billion people on the planet. Now there are over six billion, and in the next generation the number will rise to more than eight, possibly nine, billion people, who will have only half the resources we have. They face a significant challenge . . . the generation now being educated in high school and college, needs to have something that will fascinate them, that will inspire them to do heroic things. They must gain a vision of a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. "A mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship" is a phrase I use frequently as the ideal to look for in the future. It is the integral way into the future, but it must rest upon an experience. That is why I think the child analogy or child reference is so important, and it's why I dedicate The Great Story to the children, by which I mean all the children. I dedicate it to the children who swim beneath the waves of the sea, the children of the flowers in the meadows and the birds in the air, the children of the creatures that roam through the woodlands, the children of the trees – all the children because none of them is going to succeed unless they all succeed. They must all succeed.
We've got to understand ourselves as integral with the planet we live on. That is why I have followed the work of Lester Brown over the years. Lester Brown is one of the most remarkable people of our time. He founded Worldwatch in 1974, and he founded the periodical State of the World, published every year since 1984, which summarizes all the data he gathers. Recently he has published two books: Eco-economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Lester Brown knows more about the data of the planet Earth than probably any other person alive. There are oceans of data: everything has been measured, everything has been counted. It turns out that for the world population to live at the level at which we're living in this country it would require the resources of our planet times five! We can't even dream of living this way on a single planet much longer. We got away with what we've done with this continent, but the next generations will not.
One of the gratifying things that Lester Brown has said is that economics is a part of ecology. Ecology is not a part of economics. The basic referent is the ecology. The basic referent is the planet Earth. And it is crucial that we take care of the planet Earth. I like to use the idea of a lifeboat. We're in a lifeboat, and there are people who are hungry, people who are injured and need medical attention. It's important to take care of people. I don't want to diminish our concern for the poor and the suffering, but if something happens to the lifeboat, everything else is irrelevant. In applying this to the planet Earth, we have to get used to the idea – and this is bothersome for many of us – that the integral Earth is more important than single humans; in other words, the community of the planet Earth is primary and the humans are derivative. If we do not base our way into the future on this insight, we will not survive
. . . Now to come to the commons. What is a commons? . . . The universe is made as a commons. The universe is so interdependent and so present, all parts present to one another. I don't know whether you've come across the scientific justification for this. Do you know that we could not exist in a universe that had existed for a shorter period of time? In other words, we couldn't exist without fourteen billion years of time. Did you realize that? It takes a universe this large and a universe that's fourteen billion years old for us to exist. That's a rather stark scientific statistic. Also, what's amazing about the universe is that every being is present to and influences every other being immediately, no matter how far distant in space or time. Every atom is influencing every other atom of the universe – without passing through the intervening space. Now, figure that one out! Without passing through the intervening space. This sense of presence is a deep mystery of the universe. And that's why it's important for each of us to relate to each other in a creative way, in a way that gives life the wonder and the beauty and the intimacy that it should have.
We are still bound by the tradition of our relation to the planet as a planet of use instead of a commons. That's why I insist that the idea of a commons has to do with the integral planet Earth, as part of the universe. That's what the commons is basically.
The Constitution of the United States represents the height of good aspects of the modern world, but it's also a deadly document. Why? The difficulty with the Constitution is its self-reference regarding humans . . . we simply refer to "we the people." The only way to incorporate the needs of the environment is by amendment. An ideal document from my standpoint is the World Charter for Nature, passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982. It has an awareness of our responsibility for more than the human.
Throughout recent centuries the focus has been on humans and their gradual liberation from want, liberation in the political area from domination and from dictatorial government. The sustainability of the planet was not considered. When this nation was founded, as the heirs of such benefits humans were given the highest position they had ever held. The Constitution rescues us from the domination of monarchical government, but by rescuing us from that control it makes victims of everything nonhuman. That which is not human was given no protections, no rights. It is deadly to give humans such exaltation, such freedom to own property and do with it whatever they want. The government can't stop them. Nothing can stop them.
It was also deadly when corporations were given the rights of individuals in 1886, making corporations free and protected in whatever they do. Much later, in 1970, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was established, but so many of its regulations to protect the environment have been taken to court, and the federal courts have declared them unconstitutional. The EPA cannot protect the environment. There was a forty-page document put out last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council called Hostile Environment or How the Federal Courts Are Ruining Your Water, Your Air, and Your Soil. It shows case by case by case that EPA regulations in critical matters are declared unconstitutional. We might conclude that environmental protection is unconstitutional per se.
We need a new approach to law. Toward this goal I called a group of people together to form a movement called A New Jurisprudence. We've had three annual meetings, the first one outside of Washington, the second in South Africa, and most recently in London, where our Secretariat is. We have representatives from England, Canada, Columbia, Brazil, India, the United States, and five African countries. Among them are Andrew Kimbrell [one of today's speakers], Vandana Shiva, the famous Columbian ecologist Martin von Hildebrand, and his daughter.
I drew up ten propositions for A New Jurisprudence. [Found at the end of this article.] And this is where the title of my lecture comes in. The first proposition is: Rights come with existence. That which confers existence confers rights. I am talking here about rights in a more cosmological sense, which presents a great difficulty in our civilization. We have no cosmology; we have science instead. Science is not cosmology . . . The rights I mean are the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill one's role in the great community of existence. If human law does not respect these rights, then human law is destructive, as destructive as it has been.
The third of the twelve propositions is that all the rights of the nonliving world are role specific; the rights of the living world are species specific and limited. A river has river rights, a mountain has mountain rights, the ocean has ocean rights. In the living world the insects have insect rights, the flowers have flower rights, the trees have tree rights. The rights of an insect do not apply to a pine tree or to a fish. And that's the wonder of the universe – this magnificent diversity in such an intimate unity. Such a superb world.
The natural rights of natural beings come from the same source as human rights: from the universe that brought us, that brought all things, into being. The universe is the source of rights because it's self-referent. There is no further referent in the phenomenal order. Religious people might say that there is trans-phenomenal divinity, and that's no problem particularly. But within the phenomenal world the universe is beautiful, it has all the beauty.
. . . Our commons is this continent, as part of the Earth. When we first came here, it was so lovely, so beautiful. We thought we were so wise. We brought with us our traditions from the universities of Europe. We were supposedly the most spiritual people in the world, the most competent technologically. Now after four centuries the continent lies pretty much in ruins, devastated in so many of its aspects. What happened? Such a wise, such a spiritual, such a great people . . .
. . . because of the industrialization over the past few centuries, together with the idealization and exaltation of humans, the nonhuman life forms have been demeaned and have become an object of use, not a subject to be communed with. We can try to counter this situation by means of education. We need to take children out to experience the grass and the bees and the insects and the trees and the stars – that is what's real.
. . . One of the best things to emerge in the religious world is Sisters of Earth . . . These women are helping to develop the new ideas we need . . . In Vermont there's a movement to found the first ecozoic monastery dedicated to integral rapport between humans and the Earth. Work on rapport between the human and the divine should perhaps be put aside while we get this going.
. . . In most disciplines there are ways in which the natural world can be inserted into the program. I think we need to begin with the universe and particularly the planet Earth, instilling an awareness that humans are a component of the planet Earth and that we cannot survive unless the planet survives.
. . . There are cities that have led the way, such as Curitiba in Brazil. Richard Register in California has a program for changing the city of Berkeley into an eco-city. If you look up Richard Register and his Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, you can learn about what is being done and what can be done. Things such as keeping cars off city streets as much as possible, instituting walkways, planting tress.
. . . vegetarian lifestyle . . . is one of the most effective things to my mind that we can do on an individual scale. Feeding grain to animals is a tragedy because of the need for grain as the staple, you might say, of human survival. Fostering small, self-sustaining, self-referent communities in food production is crucial. An example is the community-supported-agriculture movement, which is growing. The repercussions can be significant.
. . . Never in the total history of the planet Earth has anything like this occurred. There have been extinctions previously; in fact, at the end of the Paleozoic Era at least 90 per cent of species were extinguished, and in the Cenozoic, they say 60 to 65 per cent were extinguished. Then the mammalians came into power, and a great age occurred. It took the greater part of sixty-five million years to create a lyric world. Humans had to be born into a world of beauty, of encompassing beauty, because to sustain the emotional impact and the intellectual and imaginative powers took a lyric world. I call it lyric because that is a word which resonates. It's song, it's music, it's dance, it's poetry, it's vision, it's joy, it's delight, it's ecstasy. Humans had to be born into that beautiful world in order to sustain the responsibilities we carry, such as the responsibility of intelligence. And to some extent that is being tested now. Are humans a viable species? Are the life systems of the planet Earth viable if there are humans around? We're told that an extinction at the rate of the present one has not occurred before. The viability of the human species is being challenged.
We need to accept this situation and accept its challenge. We need to create a new world, to bring the planet Earth back to its earlier creativity, to bring it back to its joy and its beauty. And that's what we need to teach the children. We need to introduce the children into a creative mode . . . We must do it now before it is too late. We must help them develop and sustain creativity. We already have the critical knowledge; we have the environmental movement that goes all the way back to the 1840s when the earliest sense of what was happening first arose and resistance appeared: George Marsh wrote Man and Nature, the great book on humans and the Earth and the viability of the two together.
The movement continued with Thoreau, who gave us a wonderful example: He once became fascinated with a farm that had trees and meadows and other wonderful aspects. He made a deposit of $10 or $20 to buy it. But then he realized that he didn't really need to buy it, that he possessed it already in a spiritual way, in an interior way. Thoreau also told us that in wildness is the preservation of the world. Wildness. Not wilderness. There is something civilized about wilderness. But wildness – that is the way into the future.
Now, how we are to evoke a creativity of the order of magnitude needed is not easy to say. But if you take the great litany from Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and the authors of The Limits of Growth all the way down to the present, we can say that it has begun. These remarkable people set a pattern that can be used to educate the people. We need to get beyond Christianity in a way because Christianity is not being responsive. Why aren't more Christians doing what needs to be done? Why are the religious universities so negligent and so insensitive and so incompetent? Everything needs to be remade.
I recommend that when you go home you read a poem written by Samuel Coleridge in the nineteenth century. It's called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." A great poem. It's about what we are facing now. The ancient mariner tells the tale of a ship sailing gaily over the sea. An albatross follows the ship for days, sometimes perching on the rigging. The mariner cruelly shoots the albatross, and as soon as that happens, the whole world changes.
The ship goes into the doldrums, a period of no wind so that the ship cannot sail. Gradually the food and water run out. All the sailors die, except for the ancient mariner. When he sees the sea creatures he had earlier described as "slimy things," he now suddenly feels love for them, and at that moment everything changes. Spirits come to raise up the dead sailors from where they were lying on the deck; they set to work, and the ship starts to move. When the ancient mariner gets back to land, he feels driven to tell his "ghastly tale" again and again as penance.
Of the poems in the English language I'm especially attracted to this one, with its moment when everything is lost. Yet something can be regained if you find the ultimate resource, which is the love we have for others, including "bird and beast." But our love has been narrowed in scope, and that is what's the matter with the Christian church. Love has been narrowed to the human instead of including the whole of the universe . . . The real revelatory experience is in the air we breathe, in the birds that fly and the flowers that bloom. Until we discover that, things won't work. So go back home and read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
I would like to leave you with the sense of an emerging creativity and the idea that a new dawn is available to us. In closing, this bit of verse I wrote:
Look up at the sky –
The heavens so blue, the sun so radiant,
The clouds so playful, the soaring raptors,
The meadows in bloom, the woodland creatures,
The rivers singing their way to the sea,
Wolf song on the land, whale song in the sea,
Celebration everywhere, wild, riotous,
Immense as a monsoon lifting an ocean of joy
And spilling it down over the Appalachian landscape,
Drenching us all with a deluge of delight
As we open our arms and rush toward each other,
You and I and all of us,
Moved by that vast compassionate Presence
that brings all things together in intimate celebration,
celebration that's the universe itself.
Twenty-Third Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 2003, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Earth Jurisprudence (EJ) or Earth law recognises the Earth as the primary source of law which sets human law in a context which is wider than humanity. This is to say that human law is secondary to Earth law. Earth Jurisprudence acknowledges that the good of the whole takes precedence over the good of the parts. Thus the way we govern ourselves needs to embody an ethical code of practice which requires us to live according to Nature’s laws for the well-being of the whole Earth Community and future generations of all species.
Earth Jurisprudence is the term first used by cultural historian Thomas Berry to name this philosophy of governance and law which understands that the Earth, not human interests, are primary. It accepts that humans are born into an ordered and lawful Universe, to whose laws we need to comply if we are to be a benign presence on Earth.
The many interrelated crises, which we are living through now – from mass species extinction to climate change and social and economic inequity – are a result of a radical break in human principles of governance over the last few centuries, where law has been used to legitimise social and ecological destruction. Short-term human interests fuelled by an insatiable drive to accumulate money and power, have been enshrined in law in total disregard for the well-being of the larger Earth Community. This is reflected by the fact that in 1886 corporations were granted the same rights as individuals without proportional responsibilities. However other species have not been given the rights of an individual human.
Earth Jurisprudence provides the foundation for restoring a mutually enhancing relationship between humanity and Nature. It calls on humans to fulfill their responsibilities to the wider Earth Community - to maintain the health of the Earth as a whole and all the different species living on Earth. As Thomas Berry pointed out, Nature herself and indigenous peoples, who live according to their traditional systems of ecological governance, are sources of inspiration. Earth Jurisprudence gives a name to the philosophy which is embodied in indigenous customs and norms around the world. This includes the ancestral traditions of Europe such as the Greeks and the Celts. However, the challenge we face now is how we deal with the globally dominant industrial belief in endless economic growth and its lethal consequences for the social and ecological integrity of the Earth.
Within this context, Thomas Berry drafted 'Ten Principles of Jurisprudence', expressed in terms of rights, which he believed should be recognised in national constitutions and courts of law.
Rights originate where existence originates. That which determines existence determines rights.
Since it has no further context of existence in the phenomenal order, the universe is self-referent in its being and self-normative in its activities. It is also the primary referent in the being and the activities of all derivative modes of being.
The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be used. As a subject, each component of the universe is capable of having rights.
The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights: from the universe that brought them into being.
Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.
All rights are role-specific or species-specific, and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference in rights is qualitative, not quantitative. The rights of an insect would be of no value to a tree or a fish.
Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other modes of being to exist in their natural state. Human property rights are not absolute. Property rights are simply a special relationship between a particular human ‘owner’ and a particular piece of ‘property,’ so that both might fulfil their roles in the great community of existence.
Since species exist only in the form of individuals, rights refer to individuals, not simply in a general way to species.
These rights as presented here are based on the intrinsic relations that the various components of Earth have to each other. The planet Earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself. Each component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment, which includes the predator-prey relationship, is integral with the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive community of existence.
In a special manner, humans have not only a need for but also a right of access to the natural world to provide for the physical needs of humans and the wonder needed by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination, and the intimacy needed by human emotions for personal fulfillment.
Reflections: A Personal Journal