Paul A. Morgan
This paper appeared in the Greening of the Campus V conference
proceedings, Ball State University, September 18 - 20, 2003.
Few people have written more directly about campus greening than
Thomas Berry. His 1988 book, The Dream of the Earth, includes
a chapter titled, "The American College in the Ecological
Age." There he links our devastation of the planet in part
to confusion about what and where we are, and offers recommendations
for unifying the college curriculum by placing it within the context
of a functional cosmology. In his most recent book, The Great
Work: Our Way Into the Future, Berry identifies universities
as one of the four major institutions (incl. corporations, governments,
and religions) that must drive the "Great Work" of moving
from the terminal phase of the Cenezoic era to an envisioned Ecozoic
era. To fulfill their role, though, universities will need to
reconceive their educational, research, and service missions.
They will also need to help cultivate a human consciousness that
identifies with the universe itself.
Despite Berry's sustained concern with the curriculum and mission
of universities, he has generally not been adopted as a guiding
visionary of the campus greening movement. Though the movement
has focused on and made progress toward a range of utilitarian
goals, there has been less interest in addressing the questions
of cosmology, mission, and consciousness on which Thomas Berry's
work is focused. If campus greening is to realize its full and
necessary potential, more attention should be paid to Berry's
work because it provides the context and vision that will be needed
to make greening efforts more effective at, in his words, "moving
modern industrial civilization from its present devastating influence
on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence."1
Avoiding Co-Option by Focusing on Fundamentals
In Greening the Ivory Tower, Sarah Hammond Creighton writes
that "Like it or not, the language of the world is money
and thus we must often communicate our efforts to green the university
in financial terms." She goes on to note that "happily,
many of the most important environmental initiatives can have
real financial benefits that are usually related to cost avoidance
or avoided liability."2 Indeed, many campus greening objectives
fit nicely within existing university priorities, but this coincidence
has also made it easier to postpone addressing more difficult
root causes. Chet A. Bowers warns that "framing the solution
of the crisis in a way that does not involve a radical change
in the conceptual and moral foundations of the educational process
will only add to our problems."3 Bowers' point is that if
we lack clarity about the fundamental changes needed, the campus
greening effort may end up with the kind of dilemma faced by proponents
of sustainable agriculture who are now wrestling with the emergence
of organic industrial agriculture. This co-option has not surprised
agricultural philosopher Paul B. Thompson. His concern has been
to articulate a clear and distinct philosophy for sustainable
agriculture, and so he regrets that the "consumer/environmental
movement has never clearly committed itself to philosophical principles
that depart from utilitarian premises of the industrial model."4
The food industry is thus rapidly absorbing the easily digested
aspects of the organic movement, reformulating it as a niche segment,
and dropping those elements - social, aesthetic, spiritual - that
aren't consistent with its market-driven philosophy. We will see
organic produce in mainstream stores, but it may now be even more
difficult for environmentally sound, socially just, human-scale
agriculture to survive as a viable challenger to a system that
swallowed up organics without changing its commitment to the myths
of progress and limitless growth. To the extent that campus greening
defines itself primarily as a movement for efficiency and cost-savings,
it too risks being absorbed and neutered by a culture of higher
education that functions more and more like industry and that
is still committed to "training persons for temporary survival
in the declining Cenezoic Era."5
Elements of a Viable Alternative
What Thomas Berry's work provides is a foundation for campus greening
that takes seriously the need to offer a genuinely alternative
philosophy and vision. He has praised the Talloires Declaration
and the importance of embodying sustainable practices,6 but his
primary concern has been the powerful myths and narratives that
drive modern industrial society, including universities. Speaking
about why the environmental movement has not realized its full
potential, he writes that "it is not primarily because of
the economic or political realities of the situation, but because
of the mythic power of the industrial vision."7 For Berry,
the most crucial and difficult point of intervention is at the
level of myth, narrative, and vision.
Chet A. Bowers notes that societies that have managed to live
sustainably on the planet all had healthy "mythopoetic narratives"
or "meta-narratives" that provide an understanding of
the universe, of who we are, how we came to be, and what our role
is.8 Among his list of six guiding principles for "long-term
sustainability", the first is the development of new narratives
that represent humans and other forms of life that make up the
natural world as equal participants in a sacred, moral universe.
New mythopoetic narratives that explain the origin of the universe
and forms of life on this planet must be judged, in part, in terms
of how they represent humankind's moral relationships to other
forms of life.9
Bowers has in mind non-anthropocentric narratives that fulfill
the role of traditional cosmologies. Surprisingly, Bowers makes
no mention of Thomas Berry who years ago recognized the necessity
of a new cosmology. In The Dream of the Earth Berry writes:
"It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now
because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories.
The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how
we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned
the new story."10
Though the major religions still offer creation stories, and
there are still some believers, the discoveries of science have
led many people to reject these traditional narratives. Berry,
along with colleagues such as Brian Swimme, has dedicated himself
to articulating the new story, the new cosmology, which draws
out the profound and awesome implications of the universe's unfolding
as revealed by more than a century of scientific discoveries.
This universe story is not limited to the subject matter of astronomy
or physical cosmology. It includes - near the tail end - all of
human history and culture, the arts, sciences, religions, professions,
all of it, because it is all an unfolding of one reality, including
the consciousness that reflects on the universe itself. In this
ultimate context, the industrial vision of continued control of
the planet for human purposes appears narrow and confused.
Curriculum - The Universe Story
Our planetary crisis calls on us to become clear about who, what,
and where we are, and Berry sees universities as having a central
role to play in this process of once again finding our place in
the universe. He writes:
"Here I propose that the universities need to teach the story
of the universe as this is now available to us. For the universe
story is our own story. We cannot know ourselves in any adequate
manner except through this account of the sequence of transformations
of the universe and of the planet Earth through which we came
into being. This new story of the universe is our personal story
as well as our community story."11
Berry concludes that the college years are the time when the
full, profound implications of the universe story can be appreciated.
In The Dream of the Earth he recommends a series of six
courses that would trace the evolution of the universe from the
initial flaring forth to the emergence of life and human consciousness,
and along the way reveal our connections to the entire process.
Such a curriculum would relate a meaningful story that would serve
traditional aims of helping students discover who they are, and
it would provide the context in which to situate their life work,
regardless of what path they chose. Any university that organized
itself within this context would also have taken a major step
toward undoing the fragmentation of disciplines that has made
it difficult to do more than inject environmental topics as themes
in various courses. Anthony Cortese has lamented this "compartmentalized
education" and called for a "coherent and consistent
approach guided by a unifying vision of a sustainable future."12
Berry's new cosmology provides the needed coherence. It is radical,
but not romantic or idealistic. It merely asks that we piece together
and reflect on the full significance of what we already know.
If we do this, universities can enter a new stage, and not merely
make the existing stage more efficient:
"There have been stages when the Western university was
dominated by theology as the queen of the sciences. There have
been periods when the universities were dominated by humanistic
concerns. There have been times when the university was dominated
by mechanistic science, engineering, or business. The new situation
requires that the university find its primary concern in a functional
Mission - The Great Work
Though a functional cosmology would provide unity and coherence
to universities, Berry recognizes that their missions and energy
are derived from a powerful vision of commercial-industrial progress,
which is quickly spreading around the planet. Without a new source
of creative energy, a new cosmology alone will not suffice. Berry
proposes that the mission of universities - and all major societal
institutions - be the "Great Work" of transitioning
to a sustainable society and into what he calls the Ecozoic era,
"a fourth biological era to succeed the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic,
and the Cenezoic."14 From the perspective of Berry's Great
Work, campus greening is not one project among many that universities
ought to be concerned with, but the nascent beginnings of a new
central organizing principle that will drive research, teaching,
and service. Its impact on all involved with the university, especially
students, should be profound. Berry writes, "College students
should feel that they are participating in one of the most significant
ventures ever to take place in the entire history of the planet."15
This mission is quite different from the current pre-occupation
with preparing students "for their role in extending human
dominion over the natural world", a project that has brought
us to the brink.16
Another facet of Berry's analysis raises direct questions about
what we mean by "higher" education. At present the focus
is on building up skills and knowledge. Berry suggests that we
should be cultivating a different mode of consciousness. He and
Brian Swimme write that "The immediate goal of the Ecozoic
is not simply to diminish the devastation of the planet that is
taking place at present. It is rather to alter the mode of consciousness
that is responsible for such deadly activities."17 The problematic
consciousness they refer to is anthropocentric and dualistic,
and it is deeply embedded in the structure and function of universities
and the other major institutions of modern life. The desired alternative
goes beyond bland assertions that humans are part of nature. Rather,
it is a non-dualistic consciousness that identifies with the universe
itself. Berry says that "In reality the human activates the
most profound dimension of the universe itself, its capacity to
reflect on and celebrate itself in conscious self-awareness."18
The implications of this passage are truly profound. What Berry
fails to stress, though, is that such a consciousness is not a
given. It is a potential that can be actualized provided that
one is developmentally prepared and that one's culture, education,
and experiences work to cultivate and reinforce it. If universities
intend to help facilitate a consciousness that identifies with
the planet and the universe, then they will need to provide powerful
experiences that do not require students to leave Earth, but that
have the impact described by former astronaut Russell Schweikert:
"For me, having spent ten days in weightlessness, orbiting
our beautiful home planet, fascinated by the 17,000 miles of spectacle
passing below each hour, the overwhelming experience was that
of a new relationship. The experience was not intellectual. The
knowledge I had when I returned to Earth's surface was virtually
the same knowledge that I had taken with me when I went into space.
. . . What took no analysis, . . ., no microscopic examination,
no laborious processing, was the overwhelming beauty
stark contrast between bright colourful home and the stark black
infinity . . . the unavoidable and awesome personal relationship,
suddenly realized, with all life on this planet . . . Earth, our
The implication of Schweikert's story is that knowing the facts
about the planet or the universe will not necessarily lead one
to care for it or realize identification with it. What we need
are powerful experiences, in nature, under the stars, and perhaps
even in our own minds.
Discussion and Conclusions
If the campus greening movement is to realize its full and necessary
potential, it must help us find our place in the universe. Where
are we? What are we? What is our role? If we can focus on answers
to these questions, we may be able to generate the creative energy
needed for the difficult task of transforming the curriculum and
mission of universities. Only by advancing a vision that cannot
be co-opted will we have hope of shifting the planet into a new
era with a new consciousness.
1 Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future.
(New York: Bell Tower, 1999): 7.
2 Creighton, Sarah Hammond. Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving
the Environmental Track Record of Universities, Colleges, and
Other Institutions. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998): 41-42.
3 Bowers, C.A. The Culture of Denial. (Albany: SUNY Press,
4 Thompson, Paul B. "The Reshaping of Conventional Farming:
A North American Perspective." Journal of Agricultural
and Environmental Ethics 14:2 (2001): 217-229.
5 Berry, The Great Work, 85.
6 Ibid., 76.
7 Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. (San Francisco:
Sierra Club Books, 1988): 31.
8 Bowers, The Culture of Denial, 31.
9 Ibid., 207.
10 Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 123.
11 Berry, The Great Work, 83.
12 Cortese, Anthony D. "Education for Sustainability: The
Need for a New Human Perspective." (Second Nature,
13 Berry, The Great Work, 84.
14 Ibid., 242-243.
15 Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 97.
16 Berry, The Great Work, 73.
17 Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story: From
the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. (San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1992): 251.
18 Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 132.
19 Quoted in O'Sullivan, Edmund. Transformative Learning: Educational
Vision for the 21st Century. (New York: Zed Books, 1999):
Paul Morgan is an associate professor in the Department of
Professional and Secondary Education at West Chester University
of Pennsylvania. His campus and scholarly work are devoted to
exploring the historical precedents, philosophical rationale,
and practical means to reorienting educational institutions toward
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