A New Story for the Earth De-mystifying Earth Jurisprudence

"The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” - Thomas Berry

We live in a time of multiple, interconnected crises- from climate change and ecological breakdown to the rise of the far right and gross global inequality.

Thomas Berry, 'geologian', cultural historian and philosopher, believed the roots of these crises lie, ultimately, in a crisis of our imagination; in the story we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. This is perhaps why, for many, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism and the industrial growth economy.

Thomas Berry, who passed away 10 years ago this week, dedicated his life to changing this story and opening a new path for humankind.

As a cultural historian, Thomas Berry reminded us that civilisations which grow rapidly by destroying their life support system, collapse rapidly too. What is required of us now, he insisted, is to transform from a human-centred to an Earth-centred way of being in the world; from breaking to complying with the inherent, living laws and limits of life on our planet. This is what he called Earth Jurisprudence.

This Earth Jurisprudence is the guiding principle of a new story that is also very ancient. It is a story in which humans re-establish a mutually-enhancing way of being with our living planet, who we are born of and to who we return.

To celebrate Thomas Berry's legacy, this interactive story explores what Earth Jurisprudence is, where it comes from and its critical importance now and for future generations of all species, as we stand at a cross roads unprecedented in human history.

"Thomas helped me to examine the world critically, but without letting go of the mystery, and the wonder, that is an essential component of life on Earth. His thoughts and words inspire me every day." - Roger Chennels, human rights lawyer & EJ Course Facilitator, South Africa.

As a thinker, a poet and a great advocate for the planet, Thomas Berry was an inspiration to many people who are now making huge contributions to the 'Great Work' of shifting humanity back into a mutual-enhancing relationship with the planet.

Find out more about Thomas Berry in the words and memories of those who he supported, educated and called his friends.


“We see quite clearly that what happens to the nonhuman happens to the human. What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished." - Thomas Berry

Jurisprudence is the legal philosophy that underpins constitutions and laws. As a term, it goes beyond narrow conceptions of the law to describe how we live and govern our lives in their totality, according to deep beliefs about who we are, where we are from and where we're going.

The present international legal system is, in large part, based on a jurisprudence- a foundational belief and set of institutions- developed during the industrial era to serve the interests of colonists, industrialists and corporations.

This industrial jurisprudence is anthropocentric- it considers humans to be separate from and superior to nature, which is considered to be 'property' of human owners- something can and may use or abuse as they please, without consequences. As a result, the laws stemming from this jurisprudence have been used to legitimise the destruction of nature for commercial interests over the health of the planet.

Earth Jurisprudence is a different philosophy of law and of being the world. Its fundamental characteristic is the recognition that we are born into a lawful Universe, of which our planet is a part, and that human law needs to be derived from Earth's laws if we are to live in harmony with our home planet.

Earth Jurisprudence tells us that we are an inextricable part of the web of life on planet Earth; that we are part of a community of subjects, not a collection of objects. It is an umbrella term for the many customary governance systems, cultural traditions and cosmovisions that are rooted in this same truth; this same story.

Principles of Earth Jurisprudence

To transition towards a mutually enhancing presence on Earth, Earth Jurisprudence requires that these natural principles be embedded in human governance systems; particularly law, education, economy, politics and religion:

Wholeness – Earth is a single, interconnected community. The well-being of each member of the Earth community is dependent on the well-being of Earth.

Lawfulness – The Universe is lawful and ordered. Earth is the primary giver of law, human law is a derivative.

Duty of Care – Humans have responsibilities to care for all members of the Earth Community and maintain Earth's health for future generations.

Rights of Earth – Earth is a living being with intrinsic value. Every constituent of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.

Mutual Enhancement – Relationships within the Earth Community are reciprocal. Life is a cycle of giving and receiving.

Resilience – The inherent quality of all healthy living systems is to grow, evolve and adapt to change and disturbance, without losing their coherence.

Thomas Berry also saw Earth Jurisprudence as a transformational force; a source of movement that can help make the shift from the Capitalo/Anthropo- cene to what he called the ‘Ecozoic Era’, where humans once again live in harmony with Nature. He described this shirt as:

“The transformation of the western industrial institutions of religion, education, governance and politics from anthropocentric preoccupation to an Earth-centred understanding of our role and responsibilities as humans, embedded in the larger Earth community.”

Emphasising that any activity that undermines the wellbeing of the Earth ultimately undermines our own human wellbeing, EJ thinking has given rise to ideas, initiatives and movements like the Rights of Nature and Ecocide, which seek to hold individuals and corporations responsible for the co-violation of Nature and human’s rights. It is also the root understanding of societies that practice harmonious ways of being with Nature.

Where does Earth Jurisprudence come from?

Thomas Berry was clear that Earth Jurisprudence, whilst a new term, is not a new philosophy or practice. He pointed towards two ultimate sources of inspiration for understanding Earth Jurisprudence and where it comes from- Mother Earth herself and Indigenous Peoples.

Nature: The 'Primary Text'

Thomas described Nature as the 'primary text' for Earth Jurisprudence - the ultimate source of the laws by which human societies should govern themselves.

These laws are the laws that govern life on Earth. Our planet is, as Thomas said, "a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects". These subjects- plants, animals, water, soil, minerals- exist in a dynamic relationship with one another that follows discernible patterns within a living, self regulating system.

For example, water flows through the land in rivers that follow ancient courses. Fish, birds and other wildlife adapt to this flow; the presence and behaviour of the water. If the river is prevented from flowing by a huge dam, if too much water is extracted for industrial use or if forests, high moorlands and other water-retentive ecosystems are destroyed for timber, agriculture or mining, the system will be disrupted. Some species will go elsewhere, others will die out. Diversity, the lifeblood of all ecosystems, will waste away.

In other words, if the norms and laws of this natural system and its evolutionary path are disrupted, the system and all those who rely on it, including human communities, will experience loss and hardship.

New advances in science and quantum theory are increasingly showing us that life itself is an emergent property of Earth- of the planet as a whole, rather than constituents of the biosphere alone. As described in Gaia Theory, the relationships between cells, individuals, species and ecosystems are 'homeostatic', meaning that, through natural communications and feedback loops, they work to produce conditions in which life on Earth can thrive.

When the laws and processes by which the complex, beautiful Earth system regulates herself are observed, our planet produces the conditions that allow the community of life, including human beings, to flourish. When a million, interconnected ecosystems and the links between them are fractured, our planet tips towards producing conditions- destabilised temperatures, storm surges, cyclones, droughts- that are antithetical to much of life as we know it, and certainly to human communities.

For most of human history we have understood that we are born into this lawful, self-regulating and living system we call Earth, Mother Earth, Pachamama, Gaia. Earth Jurisprudence is a recognition of this fact.

Indigenous Peoples: custodians of Earth

Indigenous and non-industrial societies who govern themselves according to these fundamental ecological laws have never left the path of Earth-centred living; of Earth Jurisprudence.

The laws that indigenous and non-industrial peoples observe in Nature through their close, multi-generational engagement with the places they live forms the foundation of the ways they govern their lives. In this way, our Earth's cultural and ecological diversity are symbiotically connected and sustained. Earth's gift of many diverse ecosystems is reciprocated by our cultural adaptation to them and the respect we accord to their natural processes through these cultures.

Through working with and listening to these peoples, we can see how it is possible for humans to live and thrive whilst maintaining the dynamic equilibrium upon which the health and the wellbeing of all depends. They have managed to sustain their ways of life despite the industrial onslaught, demonstrating the strength and tenacity a deeply rooted relationship with our Mother Earth gives us.

Indigenous women from Uganda display maps of their sacred territory

As, Ailton Krenak, an indigenous leader from Brazil, says:

“We hold the memory of what it means to be human… I think people should pay close attention to this. Even if we had all the white people’s technology and money, we would be worth nothing if we did not hold the memory of the creation of the world, our planet.”

In order to comply with Earth’s laws, Indigenous communities have developed sophisticated ways of ensuring each generation understands the lawfulness of the world they are born into. Through shared stories of origin, art forms like painting and oral histories they impart knowledge of these laws and the consequences of breaking them. This breaking of the law is, ultimately, equated with the destruction of our source of life and thereby ourselves.

Indigenous Peoples' close relationship with Nature and their understanding derived from this means they are sorely aware that Earth’s laws are being broken daily and globally. Time and again indigenous traditions from across our planet have warned industrial societies and leaders of the inevitable consequences of doing this.

As citizens of the industrialised world self-examine and try to transform their own societies it is essential to stand in solidarity with those indigenous communities on the frontlines of pitched battles to protect Mother Earth.

Why is Earth Jurisprudence important now?

“The industrial process is now in its terminal phase. This is the inevitable consequence of civilisations that destroy their life support system. The difference now is that the dominant civilisation has colonised the farthest reaches of the Earth.”-Thomas Berry

The fabric of life on Earth is thinning, with over 1 million species in imminent danger of disappearing forever in a ‘sixth mass extinction event’- the first caused by a single species, humans. It could take Earth between 3-5 million years to recover from this destruction of diversity.

Earth's life-systems are thinning...

The loss of the biodiversity that helps regulate our climate is accelerating global climate instability as we fail to reduce emissions quickly enough. Societies around the world are showing the strain as right-wing governments rise and conflicts escalate as both result and cause of mass movements of our fellow human beings.

Climate change and the unravelling of our ecological life support systems is the inevitable consequence of systematically breaking the laws that govern life- of taking more than Nature can replenish, of toxifying her systems, of digging up what Earth has buried, manufacturing products she cannot re-integrate and dumping the ‘waste’ where it does not belong

New movements are emerging...

In response, courageous new movements are emerging. Extinction Rebellion have taken the streets in the UK and elsewhere, the Schools Strike for Climate has spread across continents, and from Uganda to New Zealand Rights of Nature and Indigenous movements are fighting to affirming the recognition of se the inherent rights of Nature to be, to habitat and to evolution

At this critical time, Thomas Berry and Earth Jurisprudence offer us powerful medicine. They emphasise the essential need to reconnect with Nature as our source of life, inspiration and law, wherever we are, and to root our resistance and our alternatives more deeply in a recognition of Nature’s own laws to avoid shallow, false solutions to our crises.

As young leader Greta Thunberg has said - with the passion of the generation whose future the industrial growth economy continues to threaten - we need to listen to the Earth - to the scientists and indigenous knowledge holders telling us about her ailments- first and foremost.

What is healing, regenerative, pragmatic and realistic for Earth, not for human-centred politics or economics, must be our ultimate guide to what we need to do to help our planet restore herself.

How can we make Earth Jurisprudence a reality?

“We can recover a mutually enhancing relationship with the wider Earth community.”- Thomas Berry

To comply by Earth’s laws, we must first know them, and this requires us to revive our connection with Nature and our eco-literacy, re-learning Nature’s laws after generations of alienation.

This re-learning involves nurturing our relationship with Nature. This could be through planting a window box, developing our relationship with a tree in a park, tuning in to the cycles of the moon, or more elaborate, wild ways, depending on our circumstances. This practice roots us in the reality of being a cell in the body of our living Earth and helps us to see the world through this lens.

When we see life from an Earth-centred perspective, as Thomas Berry did, as Indigenous Peoples do, we are compelled to take responsibility for protecting life - for following Earth’s laws in whatever we do, for collectively re-shaping the institutions we encounter and for resisting destructive forces, in-line with the higher laws that govern life.

Around our living planet, communities are taking action to protect and restore Earth's precious ecosystems and the Earth-centred cultures that care for them.

The community of Tharaka in Kenya are restoring their land and their traditions. Brewing sacred honey beer for rituals at sacred sites, protecting the River Kithino and reconnecting youth and elders, they are reviving the ancestral memory of how to live in harmony with their territory.

In the face of great adversity, small farmers grow 70% of the food on our plates using agroecological methods that follow the laws that govern their ecosystems and help regenerate Nature. Their stories are shared in Gaia's We Feed the World photographic exhibition.

Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon have walked a path of total transformation- re-building their forest culture, fighting off mining corporations and winning recognition as the custodians of over 26 million hectares one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.

Ugandan communities living along the shores of Lake Albert are meeting regularly to revive their seed diversity and custodianship of the sacred natural sites- critical places of ecological and spiritual wealth. Since they began rebuilding their Earth-centred governance systems the rains have returned.

In Europe's far north, indigenous and traditional fisherpeople are working with scientists to re-wild rivers, wetlands and the boreal forest after a century of destruction. Thanks to their traditional knowledge, fish and birds are returning in their thousands.

These courageous communities show us that we must both 'stop the bleeding' and 'start the healing'. They are the people showing us how to re-embed Earth Jurisprudence in our daily lives and the societies we are part of. Their work is an inspiration for us all to ask: What can we do?

A New story For The Earth

As we embrace Earth Jurisprudence, we learn the rigour of staying conscious, of continually decolonising our minds from the destructive stories we are fed daily by the media and corporate world. This practice holds us steady in these unravelling times. It builds strength in times of weakness, clarity at a time of confusion, and solidarity that bridges differences of colour, race, age, gender, species and the gulf of human-Earth alienation.

These bridges are essential. Our collective, interspecies and intergenerational survival is at stake. We might not make it, but one thing is for sure, we will never make it if we do not get out of our human-centred prison and expand our consciousness "to include all of Nature in her beauty” as Einstein once said.

Thomas Berry, like Einstein, believed that our true human potential lies in salvaging our greater ecological selves. This moment of crises calls on us therefore to become more fully human by standing in solidarity with each other as part of the larger Earth Community.

“Peace is the result of this recognition of the Earth and the common sense of togetherness that she creates among us all. She underpins and unites all regions, economics, education and the laws which govern our lives. The challenge is to change our thinking from a humanistic perspective to an Earth-centred perspective. Through this change we can recover a mutually enhancing relationship with the wider Earth community.”-Thomas Berry

At a time when hope is in short supply, reconnection with our source of life, and the long evolutionary story in which we are embedded, will surely sustain us and guide us in our commitment to heal the wounds inflicted on Mother Earth and restore her thriving for future generations of all species.

For 35 years, Indigenous knowledge and Earth Jurisprudence have inspired all of our work at The Gaia Foundation.

We work alongside land-based and indigenous communities to revive their Earth-centred traditions, to re-build food and seed sovereignty, protect sacred natural sites, defend lands and waters threatened by industrial mega projects and web-up movements for systemic change.


Created with images by M_Caballero - "photoshop space universe" • Pexels - "forest nature outdoors" • Mario Álvarez - "untitled image" • skeeze - "world earth planet" • KKristie - "waterfalls cedar philippines"

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