The Great Work

January 19, 2001

By Michael Jessen

The new millennium was only five days old when yet another report about Earth's threatened environment was issued. This time the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was the bearer of the bad news.

"Without practicing sustainable development, humanity faces a deteriorating environment and may even invite ecological disaster," noted Don Hinrichsen and Bryant Robey, co-authors of "Population and the Environment: The Global Challenge."

According to the report, the rate of global consumption is the major threat to the environment. Resources are being consumed far faster than they can regenerate. This leads to water shortages, soil exhaustion, deforestation, air and water pollution, and the degradation of coastlines.

As usual the report received scant attention in the mainstream media whose collective attitude seems to be: "We'll report the actual upheaval, but not the threats."

This causes one to wonder what is it about the human psyche that enchants us to deny the truth of impermanence. Every moment of our lives takes us closer to our eventual death, yet we behave like our minds, our thoughts, our bodies, our physical possessions, and our plans for the future are oblivious to change or challenge.

In a fascinating interview in the January 2001 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine, Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley -- two renowned organizational theorists -- say changing the way humans work together can foster a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of life.

Wheatley, president of the non-profit Berkana Institute and author of Leadership and the New Science, believes we have lost faith in each other.

"We still feel very badly about each other," she says. "In my estimation, we're quicker and quicker to take affront or to be affronted, to take umbrage, to feel insulted, to assume that other people are mal-intended, rather than well-intended. This is where we are as a culture. We're very far from each other; we're very far from believing in each other."

Senge is a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Fifth Discipline, which has been called one of the most important management books of the twentieth century.

"People come together in organizations for, in some sense, a noble purpose, but are finding ways to constrict or even destroy life in the process," says Senge.

"You might say that organizations are one way for us to practice what it means to live as a collective being, not just as an individual being," Senge notes. "That's tough, but I think that's what the discipline of working together is ultimately about. There are issues and difficulties that only manifest when we put ourselves in a situations where we're vulnerable to being in a collective."

Wheatley says people need to realize they can choose a different way of organizing their workplaces, institutions, and themselves. "What we really need to change are our fundamental organizing behaviors or habits," she concludes. "The change must be both personal and institutional," adds Senge. "It can't be one or the other."

As Hinrichsen and Robey point out in their report, humans have done an excellent job of changing Earth's environment. Over the past 50 years, they write, almost half of the world's original forest cover has been lost. Every year, nearly 40 million acres are cut, bulldozed, or burned. Current demand for forest products may exceed the limits of sustainable consumption by 25 percent, they add. The report also chronicles the disappearance of about 600,000 plant and animal species since 1950. This is the fastest rate of extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared, say the authors, noting that nearly 40,000 more species are currently threatened.

The human species is also affected by high rates of pollution, the authors write, citing more than 12 million deaths annually from unclean water, along with poor sanitation, and 3 million deaths annually from air pollution.

According to State of the World 2001, signs of "accelerated ecological decline" and a loss of political momentum on environmental issues are emerging simultaneously. The State of the World books are annual reports on progress toward a sustainable society and have been issued since 1984 by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington based research organization. The increasingly visible evidence of environmental deterioration is only the tip of a much more dangerous problem: the growing inequities in wealth and income between countries and within countries, inequities that will generate enormous social unrest and pressure for change, Worldwatch researchers forecast.

But as Wheatley says, "human nature is the blessing, not the problem." We can admit we need to evolve in new directions. We can commit to telling our children and grandchildren that we were part of the solutions.

"If we are to keep the planet from going to hell in a handbasket, what is required is no less than a kind of religious conversion, a worldwide commitment to treating the Earth like the wonderful gift that it is," says Chet Raymo, a science columnist for the Boston Globe and a professor of physics and astronomy. Raymo is not alone in calling for a new relationship between religion and science.

"The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner," writes Thomas Berry, a Catholic monk and author of The Dream of the Earth.

"We might observe here that the Great Work of a people is the work of all the people," says Berry. No one is exempt. Each of us has our individual life pattern and responsibilities."

Humans have undergone numerous evolutions during our history on the Earth. It is clearly time to reinvent the human as both an individual and as a member of human society. We also need to reinvent our basic human activities in ways that enhance the Earth community. As aging baby boomers reach what Carl Jung described as "the second contemplative half" of their lives, perhaps they will undertake this challenge.

Our coming to be is not over. We will know we have completed the Great Work when reports of environmental chaos are only a part of our past.

GREEN STEPS - Try to foster a worldview that sees all peoples and creatures as part of an organic whole. Join with others and commit to any small actions that improve the environment. Little things really do mean a lot. Read some or all of the books cited in this article. Urge government leaders everywhere to put environmental sustainability before development. Change leaders if they don't listen.

RESOURCES - The full text of the Hinrichsen-Robey report is available at The Great Work: Our Way into the Future by Thomas Berry is published by Random House. Shambhala Sun magazine is available at many newsstands for $7.95. Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization is published by Doubleday. Margaret Wheatley's Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World is available from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Chet Raymo is the author of Natural Prayers (1999) published by Hungry Mind Press and Skeptics and True Believers (1998) published in paperback by Doubleday Canada. State of the World 2001 is published by Norton and is also available in downloadable pdf format online at for $14.00.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a Nelson, BC consulting company that helps businesses and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by telephone at 250/229-5632 or by e-mail at His firm's award-winning web site is at

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