David remembers Thomas Berry, one of the most eminent cultural historians of our time.
I was reminded recently of the passing of Thomas Berry, one of the most eminent cultural historians of our time. His work and insight have been touchstones for me for the last 30 years.
The story starts for me in 1993 when my wife, Carole, and I were invited to help the folks in the North Simcoe area of Canada, north of Toronto and on the southern edge of the Georgian Bay. In those days, the bulk of our work was helping communities use continual improvement technology to improve their communities. In North Simcoe, as we were working with several teams, we noticed that they all seemed to be focused on some aspect of the environment. We asked why the theme seemed to emerge. Although the cause was a little unclear, the citizens of the area acknowledged that their adjacency to the Georgian Bay had something to do with the fact that people in the area seemed to be particularly sensitive to issues related to the environment. As we pursued the question, some Sisters from St. Theresa’s High School, one of the participating organizations, asked us if we knew of Thomas Berry. What they told us got our attention.
We found him at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research in Riverdale, New York. After spending a day with him, we thought he might be the smartest person we had ever met. At the time we were preparing to do a major community event in our own community of Jackson, Michigan. We invited him to help us out. He accepted. The theme was to be “From TQM to a Learning Community.” Part of the event was a conversation among Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, and Thomas Berry. In the midst of a dialogue between Peter and Meg about how the domestic auto industry could improve itself, Peter asked Tom what he thought about the issue. Tom said he didn’t understand why they would want to help an industry that was simultaneously polluting the atmosphere that we need to breathe and using up all the fossil fuels that, even then, we all knew were limited. That comment got the attention of the 1500 people in the auditorium and the others at the 125 down linked sites across North America. Since then, we did not stay close, but whenever I saw something that Tom had written, I paid attention. His passing prompted me to get a book of his that I had not already read. It is titled The Great Work (1999, Three Rivers Press, NY).
In The Great Work, he powerfully, intellectually, and spiritually describes the situation we are in with regard to our life on our planet. After centuries of thinking of anything nonhuman as an object to be conquered rather than a subject to be in community with, Berry describes the transition period we are entering as incomparable to any transition on the earth since “the geobiological transition that took place 67 million years ago when the period of the dinosaurs was terminated.” He argues that we, as a species, have done great work before, but that we have never done anything as important as this great work in order to preserve our humanity. He got my attention again. So what is this new great work?
It is to change our relations with the earth and with the universe from one of conquest to one of community among all members of the earth whether they are human or nonhuman. I remember thinking that Dr. Deming’s thinking was a big paradigm shift…metanoia he called it at one time. It was a big shift, but it was nothing compared to what Berry says we need to embrace. He also has a few ideas about how we might accomplish the great work.
He asks universities to help their students understand the journey the universe, the earth, and we human beings have been on and how it has evolved to make future life on our planet indescribably difficult. He also asks universities to train their students about how to live in partnership with the earth rather than as conquerors of it. That’s my job. What’s our job?
Based on Berry’s book, a few things come to mind:
- Keep on keeping on. Six Sigma is one of the most powerful ways we know to reduce variation and waste. Unless we use only those resources that directly contribute to the products and services we provide to the customer, there is room for improvement.
- More fully use Six Sigma, experimental, and “cradle-to-cradle” design approaches to design and redesign our products, services, and processes.
- Rethink what we buy and how we buy it. International trade has provided customers with cheaper goods in many cases but recent analyses have shown that the costs of quality, inflexibility regarding short term adjustments, and transportation, among other things, may well exceed the savings. Reexamine our use of fossil fuel. The more we innovate in oil extraction, the more we risk disturbing our water and air quality, to say nothing about the stability of the earth itself and the results of global warming. Dr. Deming years ago told us to “End the process of awarding business on the basis of price tag alone.” There’s some real opportunity there, because, I think, our accounting systems still don’t adequately capture and define many of our real costs.
- Get out of Wall Street. Dr. Deming also told us that one of the Seven Deadly Diseases was our emphasis on short-term profits. We all know this, but we tend to get caught in a system that focuses on just maximizing short-term profits. We can begin to wean ourselves out of those systems by rethinking how we want to fund our operations and by moving in that direction. The research we are involved with as we complete our book, The Transformative Workplace, is showing that happiness and well-being are more dependent on connections than on being rich.
- Finally, hold all these things in the context of seeking a relationship with the earth and the universe that is more in partnership and in connection rather than a relationship in which we view our home, the earth and the universe as just a place from which to take and in which to dump our waste.
I believe this is the great work. Let’s get busy.
As always, I treasure your thoughts. I would especially love to share with others the work you are already doing toward these ideas about what our job is.