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New York Skyline (C) 2002 by Daniela Gioseffi. All rights reserved.

A Necessary Revolution in Values for the Ecological Age
by Preston Browning

Preston Browning taught American literature for more than 30 years, principally at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is now Co-director of Wellspring House: A Retreat Center for Writers and Artists, located in Ashfield, Massachusetts. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from the University of Chicago and is the author of articles on 20th century American fiction, as well as Flannery O'Connor (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1975). He has spent much time in Central America and has translated poetry by both Nicaraguan and Guatemalan authors. His own poetry has been published in such magazines as Poetry East, The Pikestaff Forum, and The Lyric. He has written a play about the Reagan Administration's Central America policies and an essay entitled "Lies, Megalies, and the American Empire," which he hopes to expand into a short volume. The present article was written as an Opinion Piece for the Newsletter of the Society for Values in Higher Education in its Winter 2001-02 issue


No matter what their profession, occupation, philosophical perspective, religion or lifestyle, the goal of every thinking and ethically serious individual in this country today ought to be the creation in the next several decades of a just, humane, and sustainable global society. Given the obstacles and challenges the human family currently faces—massive environmental degradation, widespread and pitiless poverty (two billion of Earth’s inhabitants live on $1.00 per day or less), ongoing wars in a score of countries and, as we all know too well since September 11, the threat of terrorism in a multiplicity of forms—given these realities, the creation of a just, humane, and sustainable planetary society seems an utterly utopian ambition. True. But equally true, I believe, is the understanding that human life is not likely to continue on planet Earth without such a society coming into being in the foreseeable future. If I am correct, our situation calls for the most radical transformation in our ways of perceiving the world, of interacting with our natural and social environments, of spending our time and our money, and of succumbing to or resisting the allures of "the American way of life." It calls for, in short, a "revaluation of all values" as revolutionary as the one Nietzsche proclaimed necessary well over a century ago.

Even with the looming possibility of bioterrorism, no other phenomenon constitutes a graver threat to continued life on the planet than the ecological disaster which experts have warned against for a generation. As early as 1980, Jimmy Carter’s State Department and Council on Environmental Quality, in the Global 2000 Report, pro- jected, if then current patterns of human behavior were not altered, climate and weather changes which now manifest themselves with disturbing regularity. There is no need to rehearse in detail the sources of the ecological crisis: the disappearance of tropical rainforests; species driven to extinction daily; millions of tons of topsoil lost to erosion worldwide every year; the fouling of Earth’s air and water by chemical pollutants from wars and preparations for wars, from industry and agriculture; and an ever-increasing global population placing unsustainable demands upon an already severely stressed ecosystem.

Keith Helmuth, writing in the August, 2001, issue of Friends Journal, captures with great precision the "values" situation in which all of us find ourselves. There is a growing recognition that the state of Earth’s ecological integrity is not just one more concern to be added to an already long list of concerns. The ecological situation is not a concern in the usual sense of the word, nor is it a special interest. It is the foundation of all concerns and the most general and comprehensive interest possible. It is both the given and created context out of which everything we care about and work for develops. The human/Earth relationship is the context in which all concerns are situated. Justice, equity, and peace as well as spiritual well- being have no other home than the human/Earth relationship in which to flourish or wither, as the case may be.

After 9/11, it is a truism that "everything has changed." Yes and no. Several things have not changed at all. One of them is the human onslaught on the created order. Another is the seeming addiction of American leaders to dominate other peoples and the consequent wars, "police actions," occupations(e.g. Nicaragua, 1911-1933), CIA-orchestrated coups (e.g. Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, Chile, the former Zaire), invasions (e.g. the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Cambodia) and the low-intensity warfare the U.S. has initiated and bankrolled, the contra war against the civilian population of Nicaragua being the most obvious and bloodly recent example. As I argue in an essay completed days before the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon, entitled "Lies, Megalies, and the American Empire," U.S. imperial actions in developing countries, as the managers of the empire sought to secure "our raw materials" and oil from those living in those countries—except always a tiny, wealthy and often rapacious elite—have resulted in untold numbers of deaths, "gross millions," according to a former CIA officer speaking in Chicago in the eighties. Tom Driver and Anne Barstow’s account in a recent issue of the Newsletter of how the "war on drugs" in Colombia is really a cover for the U.S. campaign to drive peasants off the land and eradicate any challenges from guerrilla armies that might inhibit the free access of the multinationals to Colombia’s oil is another chapter in this depressing story.

[ New York Glowscape (C) 2002 by Daniela Gioseffi. All rights reserved. ]
Another thing that is little changed is the American public’s addiction to consumption. Of course, we may fly less. And not everyone will heed George W.’s admonition to go out and buy. Yet it is unlikely that most Americans will make the connection between our way of life and the events of recent weeks. But if we care about creating a just, humane, and sustainable global society, we must make that connection and help others make it. Though we North Americans constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of Earth’s resources. And we produce about 25% of the pollutants poisoning the ecosystem. An official of the Bush Administration has been quoted as saying that the American way of life is to be honored and protected, is virtually sacred

A perhaps more accurate way of describing it is as a planetary disease, which is what it would be if a mere quarter of Earth’s inhabitants consumed at our rate. Our omnivorous appetite for the satisfaction of our desires, artificially manufactured to keep our capitalist system afloat, not only threatens to overwhelm the biosystem but also robs the poor of the Global South of the possibility of even a modest level of physical existence.

In a sane society, our leaders would spend much less on "defense" and much more on striving to eliminate the causes of terrorism and other threats to our common life. They could hardly do better than taking some of the billions now devoted to aircraft carriers, tanks, fighter jets, etc., and initiating a serious program to switch to renewable energy, thereby ending a relationship of co-dependency with a set of inherently unstable governments in the Middle East. In the process they could provide hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs, while at the same time proving to the rest of the world that the U.S. is serious about reversing the catastrophic ecological trends that our way of life significantly contributes to—before it is too late.

The "ecological age" is, I believe, a term first used by Thomas Berry, the Roman Catholic thinker who describes himself as a "geologian." For years Berry has been gently admonishing us, urging us, warning us: "the story of which we are a part is the cosmic story, the creation story, and if we are to survive, we must enter a new age of harmonious relations with the Earth’s processes, an undertaking involving immense psychic and social changes." Berry’s words should inspire us:

"Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings a completely new sense of reality and of value."

Surely, the Society for Values in Higher Education is a logical, one might say natural, organization where what Thomas Berry calls "the Great Work" could be carried forward.

Copyrighted 2002 © Preston Browning. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.
First appeared Society for Values in Higher Education: published in its winter 2001-2002 issue.

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