What Is Good for the World Will Be Good for Us: Wendell Berry on Making Our Planet a Better Place for Ourselves and Our Posterity

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“It took modern humans tens of thousands of years to reach a population of seven hundred million and then we tapped into millions of years of stored energy known as fossil fuels. Our human population exploded. It increased by ten times in a mere two hundred years. Our consumption has also exploded: on average ten times per person and many times more in the Western world,” notes Jeff Gibbs in his controversial and highly criticized film. “You put the two together and the result is a total human impact one hundred times greater than only two hundred years ago. And that is the most terrifying realization I have ever had. We, humans, are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height. Not because of one thing, not climate change alone, but all the human-caused changes the planet is suffering from.”

Right after this reflection Jeff Gibbs goes on to interview a social psychologist and writer Sheldon Solomon about the predicament different environmental movements face when trying to solve the immense human-caused threats that face our planet. The most interesting part of that conversation is that they go beyond technological solutions and talk about underlying issue at the core of the human psyche — our denial of death. Towards the end, Sheldon Solomon notes,

If we’re to make progress, whatever that word means, or even to persist as a form of life, we’re going to need to radically overhaul our basic conception of who and what we are and what it is that we value. Because the people that you referred to earlier both on the left and the right that think we’re gonna be able to discover more oil or solar panel ourselves into the future where life looks pretty much like it does now, only cleaner and better, I think that’s just frankly delusional.

So what can we do to prevent the inevitable fall of our own and of our planet? The answer is complicated and multifaceted and requires global human cooperation that is highly unlikely in this day and age. But on an individual level, we still have the power to help our planet notes environmentalist, poet, and writer Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) in his revitalizing volume titled The Art of the Commonplace.

Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry writes:

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world — to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity — our own capacity for life — that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

Then he adds:

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.

The Sower by Vincent van Gogh.

The Art of the Commonplace is a refreshing read for our fast-paced lives and an inspiration for those interested in sustainability and green living. Complement with deep ecologist John Seed on going beyond anthropocentrism.

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