The Role of Worldview in the Ecological Crisis

gray and brown mountain

How did we get into this mess? The question of how we have got to this state of ecological and climate crisis that has caused irrevocable change and is shutting down the very life systems of the planet is a very complex question without simple answers. People in every possible field of research, as well as in governments and grassroots, are seeking to understand how we got to where we are, in order to figure out how to move forward in ways that are Earth healing, instead of Earth destroying.

One of the things that we need to examine in trying to understand how we got here is the question of worldview. The bottom line is this: we are in an ecological crisis of our own making because of a destructive, anthropocentric worldview that has been operative throughout the Western world for around 500 years. It is a worldview whereby humans see themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, and act accordingly. How did this worldview come to be, and what new vision of Earth-human relations can function as a more ecological, healing worldview for both humans and the planet?

Defining Worldview

Worldview is defined by religion and ecology scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim as “the basic interpretive stories of who we are, what nature is, where we have come from, and where we are going.”[1] Worldview is not individual; it is made up of the stories we share collectively, as societies making sense of ourselves and the world around us. The role of worldview is considered, by many ecotheologians, to be increasingly central to the problem of human destruction of the Earth. This is because, among other things, worldview informs the actions that we take.

Although worldviews are not exclusively religious, they emerge from the origin stories we tell ourselves as a people; these have emerged from the religious practices and beliefs of human communities for thousands of years. It is only in the last few hundred years that we have come to see ‘religion’ as separate from other areas of our lives. However, worldviews are religious writ large; they strive to answer the same questions that religions do, about who we are, where we came from, and how we are to act accordingly. Thus, it is in the domain of theologians (as well as philosophers, artists and poets) to think about the question and role of worldview in human life.

Not the Only Worldview

The disordered worldview that I am examining in this post is not, of course, the only worldview that is functioning in the world today. Many Indigenous peoples around the world have maintained a more harmonious worldview of human-nature-Creator relationships. I am focused primarily on the problem of worldview as it has manifested in dominant societies around the planet, especially those rooted in Western religious-spiritual tradition.   

The Current (Majority) Worldview

The ecological crisis and other major social challenges are a result of a modern worldview that developed out of the Scientific Revolution that began in the 16th century, and grew out of the sciences of René Descartes, Frances Bacon, Isaac Newton, and others. This worldview is rooted in an understanding of knowledge and progress as running along a linear trajectory, and a scientific approach to things that is reductionist, deterministic, mechanistic, and materialist. Things are studied in individualistic, separate specialized domains, ignoring context, interrelationships, and the systemic and holistic ways in which things work. This is the case for the natural world, as well as every other aspect of understanding the way the world works, including how humans function. (For example, such separation and specialization also occurred in philosophy, literary theory, economics, social sciences, and theology).

This modern worldview has resulted, among other things, in the ecological crisis because the natural world came to be seen as devoid of any value outside of its use to humans. As well, understanding of how one aspect of the natural world impacts upon another aspect was stunted, due to the rigid separation of knowledge disciplines from one another. It has also had devastating consequences for women, people of colour and indigenous peoples around the world, the poor, those living with disabilities, and more.[2]

An Alternative Framework

So, ecotheologians have been looking for an alternative framework, a new worldview, in which human beings are reoriented in relation to the natural world. How can the more recent scientific understanding of human beings as rooted in and part of the wider ecological world lead to a more constructive, ecological worldview that can help, instead of harm, the Earth community?

Return to Cosmology

As ecotheologians have continued to work with the idea of worldview, some have suggested a similar term: cosmology. Cosmology is traditionally identified with the science of studying the universe and humanity’s place within it. There has been a ‘return to cosmology’ in the conversations that have occurred between the disciplines of science and religion with respect to the ecological crisis.[3] In light of 20th century understandings of the universe as emergent [get definition], there exists the idea of a new cosmology that takes into account this new understanding of the universe and all that exists within it.

Cosmology as Worldview

Within ecotheology, the new cosmology suggests a deeper, more comprehensive worldview than what has been the dominant worldview for so long. One scholar who developed the idea of cosmology as worldview is cultural historian Thomas Berry. Calling himself a ‘geologian’ – a theologian for the Earth – his work on the new cosmology presents a richly layered understanding of humanity and our place in the universe, and the central importance of worldview to how we act and live on the Earth. Berry argues that humanity requires a ‘functional cosmology’, a story that will provide the mystery, the mystique that can allow for a new way of perceiving human-Earth relations.

How Berry explains this is very complex; the bottom line is that all human ways of understanding, every single discipline from the physical sciences to education, to philosophy and economics, politics and history, and so much more, must be reoriented within the observable phenomenal order.[4]

Worldview Based on How the Earth Functions

Berry, and others with him, understand the need for Christianity, and the entire Western religious-spiritual tradition, to renew itself “in relation to the integral functioning of the biosystems of the planet Earth.”[5] In other words, it is about a reshaping of religious traditions in light of what we know about the integral functioning of the Earth, and the major scope and reach of the ecological crisis, rather than trying to understand those things within the constructs of religion as they have been shaped over the last several thousand years. This is a radical shift in perspective.

Berry suggests that the postmodern understanding of the emergent universe, which locates the Earth and humanity within the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe, can function as a new cosmology, as the new worldview that we need in order to reorient ourselves and find a sense of home within the Earth community. From this new worldview, we can create new institutions, new ethics, new ways of living and working together for Earth healing, and indeed the healing of all human relations.

Living into a New Worldview

Going back to the definition of worldview given at the beginning of this post, what basic stories can we end up telling about who we are, what nature is, where we have come from and where we are going, when we begin from what we now know about the Earth systems of the planet and our place within them? We are literally cousin to everything single thing on the planet, because everything that exists has come from the same moment, the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. We are all made of stardust, the elements that came into existence in that moment. The Earth was formed from those elements nearly 4.5 billion years ago. Life came forth from those same elements 3.5 billion years ago. And humans came forth, in our earliest ancestors, between 5 and 7 million years ago, from those same elements.

Everything is Connected

Not only is everything cousin to everything else, but the entire functioning of the planet occurs within systems of deep interconnection and interdependence. These very systems have emerged from the initial elements of the universe, too. What affects one part of our ecosystem has a ripple effect through other parts. This happens on a micro scale, such as in soil composition, and on a macro scale, as we are seeing with the global change in climate.

And the fact is that humans are not separate from the natural world. Rather, we form and are formed by the bioregions within which we live. Nor are we superior to the rest of the natural world; we are clearly demonstrated an inability, in the last few hundred years, to live in harmony with the natural world, within the functioning of Earth systems.[6] The entire Earth is suffering, and human beings are suffering, thanks to our ways of living on the Earth.

Human Capacity for Imagination and Wonder

And yet, we have a remarkable human capacity for imagination and wonder, for creating and healing, constructing and planting; this capacity has also emerged from the stardust that came into being 13.8 billion years ago. Our very human capacity to reflect on the world and what we have done to it comes from the emergence of Earth 4.5 billion years ago, from the beginning of life, and from the beginning of our time on Earth as a species. That same capacity can guide us now, to create a new worldview, one that can be truly Earth healing.

Let us begin to imagine, then, what it would mean to live out of a new worldview, such as what Thomas Berry suggests. Let us being to practice living in ways that reflect an ecological worldview, a worldview of interdependence and interconnection, restoration and healing, harmony and humility.

A New Worldview is Possible

A new worldview is, indeed, possible. There are human communities around the world that never lost a sense of human dependence upon and connection with the greater whole of the Earth. Those of us who have inherited the destructive modern worldview that emerged out of the Scientific Revolution can begin to imagine, to dream, to live and to act within a new way of asking and answering the questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

[1] Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, “Series Foreword,” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, ed. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), xvi.

[2] An excellent book that explores the impact of the scientific revolution sparked by Descartes, Bacon, Newton and others on women and nature is The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, by Carolyn Merchant (New York: HarperOne, 1990. Originally published in 1980).

[3] See for example, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature by Stephen Toulmin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[4] Two highly readable books by Thomas Berry are: The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999) and Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).

[5] Berry, Dream of the Earth.

[6] This has been a grave misinterpretation of the creation story in Genesis.

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