In February 1968, ten months before his tragic death in Bangkok, Thailand, Thomas Merton foresaw one of the most significant conflicts of the twenty-first century, that between “a millennial consciousness” and “an ecological consciousness.” The former he judged to be a further intensification of the dream of modernity as a climax to human history through the technological, economic and political engines of “progress.” Merton knew through his own critique of modernity that such an effort, marked by “commercialism, hubris, and cliché,” would most likely be conducted “by immolating our living earth, by careless and stupid exploitation for short-term commercial, military, or technological ends which will be paid for by irreplaceable loss in living species and natural resources” (W.F. 74).

The millennial consciousness, based as it is on anthropocentric triumphalism, is at odds with an ecological consciousness whose core principle is that “we belong to a community of living beings and we owe our fellow members of that community the respect and honor due to them.” Merton reminds us that “we are not alone in this thing” and directs us as members of a living community to “bring the rest of the living with us” into whatever “new era” we fantasize. Merton praises Aldo Leopold for setting forth an ecological “Golden Rule” in his Land Ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (W.F. 74).

The millennial consciousness could only prevail in the future if supported by an action plan dominated by “ecological irresponsibility.” Merton states bluntly that, according to “Leopold’s ‘ecological ethic,’ it would be ‘wrong’” (W.F. 75). We can avoid the occurrence of this “wrong” only by “a deepening of the ecological sense and by a corresponding restraint and wisdom in the way we treat the earth we live on and the other members of the ecological community with which we live” (W.F. 75). Merton notes that such an ecological consciousness is also present in Albert Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life ethic that holds that all of “life is sacred . . . that of plants and animals [as well as that of our] fellow man” …

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Thomas Merton's Tree of Life


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