The University’s Place in the Universe

The Declaration, Volume 7, Number 1: Summer 2004  [Feature]

By 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.


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 cosmology.”13


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

Non-Dual Consciousness

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 … the 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 home.”19

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, 1997): 3.

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, 1999): 8.

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): 67-68.

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 ecological sustainability.

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