Joanna Macy has been one of my great teachers and mentors. She wrote this article in 1999, and I feel it carries much wisdom for our times and so I wanted to share it here.
An Expanded Definition of the Great Turning
I want to share with you something that has been a tremendous inspiration to me. That is, broadening our view of time, and looking at this historical moment not as something we are trapped in and cannot see beyond, but as a time whose role we can appreciate.
Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute talks about this as the time of the ecological revolution. He says it's the third revolution of our species that we know about. The first was the agricultural revolution"that took centuries. The second was the industrial revolution, and that took generations. The third, the ecological revolution, is the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. He says that the ecological revolution is born of necessity and driven by evolutionary pressure to bring into being a sustainable civilization. But, unlike the past revolutions of our species, this has to happen in just a few years. Not only that, it has to involve not just our technologies and institutions and the systems of production and distribution; it also has to involve our values and our perceptions"who we think we are and how we experience our relationship to each other and to the world.
I would like to talk about how this is happening and how we can take part in it and experience the great adventure of our time. Lester Brown calls it a revolution, but I like to imagine that future generations, even as close as the 2030s, 2040s, will look back on this time and call it "the great turning."
They'll look back at us and say, "All those ancestors back then, bless them. They were involved in the great turning, and they didn't know whether they would make it or not. At times it looked as if it was hopeless, futile. Their efforts seemed paltry, darkened by confusion, and yet they went ahead and they took part in it." And I'm imagining that they'll look back with almost a kind of envy, seeing more clearly than we can now the high adventure that it represents, this great turning from a growth-addicted, unsustainable society to a stable, life-sustaining one.
Lest I sound too wildly optimistic, let me acknowledge that we don't know if this great turning is going to happen fast enough or fully enough to stop the unraveling of the systems supporting complex, conscious life forms on this planet. It's not clear yet whether we re going to pull it off. There's no guarantee.
You know, when you make peace with that, you realize something. It liberates you from having to be braced all the time against bad news and constantly feeling you have to work up a sense of hopefulness, which can be very exhausting. That's one thing the Buddhists have taught me. There's a certain equanimity and moral economy when you're not continually trying to evaluate your chances of success.
Yet we can certainly see the great turning happening now, and most clearly if we look at three particular dimensions of it. These three are interdependent and mutually supportive.
The first I call "holding actions." These are the many forms of legal, political, legislative, and regulatory activities by which we are slowing down the destruction caused by the industrial growth society. To be included also are the many kinds of direct action"blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, tree sitting. Through these we are managing to save some species and some ecosystems, save some lives, save some genetic material for the life-sustaining society that's coming.
These holding actions can be exhausting, though. It's good to know that it's OK to step back. Many of us, if we step back when we feel bruised and bent out of shape from being there in point position on issue after issue, feel as if we are abandoning ship. We feel guilty about it. But we need to know that the great turning is vast, and if we step back, it's like the lead goose dropping back from point position to fly in the windstream of the others. We're not abandoning anything. We don't cease being who we are, and we don't stop being deeply allied with the ongoingness of life.
The second dimension of the great turning comprises the new structures, institutions, agreements, and ways of doing things. It is extraordinary how swiftly these are springing up like green shoots through the rubble of our dysfunctional civilization. I don't think there has ever been a time in human history when so many new ways of doing things have appeared in so short a time"from ways of owning land, to co-housing, to eco-villages, to cooperatives, to new local currencies, alternative schools, alternative modes of healing. They reveal an amazing degree of ingenuity, an awesome readiness to experiment and create. Even though these emergent and often embryonic systems sometimes look fringe, perhaps, or marginal, they are the seeds of the future.
Yet these new forms will wither and die unless they're deeply grounded in our values. So the third dimension of the great turning is in the way we see things and understand our connection and requirements for life. There is a revolution going on in our grasp of what we really need, and it is quietly spreading now in the simple living movement.
I teach general living systems theory because it helps us understand that our true nature is in relationship. Deep ecology, which is also very important for me, is the moral and intuitive expression of this systems view, where we give up clinging to some special status as the crown of creation and rejoin the earth community. Then we can experience our own specialness in ways that allow us to see the specialness of every other life form. Arne Naess, the philosopher who first used the term "deep ecology," also coined another term: "ecological self." The ecological self recognizes and enjoys our interrelationship with all that is, as if we were living cells in the body of earth.
Here, in this dimension of the great turning, we are coming out of the prison that the Western, mainstream mind hasput itself in"that of the rugged individual, the separate self, defended and needy"and we are freed to experience our inter-existence. It is an incredible moment to be alive. That is why I like working with people in groups, experientially, where we can hear from ourselves and each other and experience interactively this new way of being in our world as part of the living body of earth.
In our time we are not only finding new ways of thinking, but re-encountering very ancient ones. The religions of the East -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sufi, Taoism -- come to greet us, and also the earth wisdom traditions of indigenous peoples. It's as if they're all walking into the room, the old shamans, and the witches, and the ancient storytellers and seers, to keep us company now and inspire us. To be alive in this time is to find it easy to be a mystic, because so much is telling us about the presence of the sacred. I've started a list of the attitudes that can help us in this great turning, and I've come up with at least five to share with you:
COME FROM GRATITUDE
It's not something you immediately think of in relation to the disasters of our time: the pollution that is cloaking our cities and poisoning our air and water, or the bombs that are dropping, or the money that we're pouring into missiles instead of schools, or the growing gap between rich and poor. Yet it is precisely in this moment that we can profit from this teaching, which is featured in every religious tradition. For example, at the beginning of a Buddhist practice period, you give thanks for having a human life. You give thanks not because humans are superior but because humans can change their karma. We have free will, the extraordinary capacity to be able to direct our attention and make choices.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
Don't be afraid of the darkness of your own pain, whether it's anguish for the world or rage for the suffering of your brothers and sisters. If we are like living cells in a collective body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of this larger body. It isn't crazy, or weak, it is natural that we suffer with our world. That is the literal meaning of compassion:suffer with. We are all woven into this life, and we all know on some level that the fate of the world is our fate, too. There is no private salvation. So we must take care not to pathologize our grief. It is worthy. And we must not fret when we cannot see clearly. That's the nature of systems"they are not machines whose behavior we can predict. They unfold, and in the unfolding, new, undreamt of possibilities emerge. So don't be afraid of the dark. The future ones will say of us: "Bless 'em, they were groping their way but they still went ahead."
DARE TO VISION
Just because we can' see clearly how it's going to turn out is no reason not to cook up the most vivid of dreams. Whatever takes birth out of the darkness can only do so if we have been able to imagine it. Sometimes I think our imagination is the least developed muscle in our repertoire. Let the future into your hearts and minds and into your imagination. We will never be able to build what we have not first conceived.
ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES
There are so many different issues, and they seem to compete with each other. Shall I save the whales or help battered women? Shall I protect the rainforest, or work on nuclear waste, or AIDS? It helps to realize that the part contains the whole. All the manifestations of the disease of our time have their source in the assumption that we are separate, and in the resulting illusion that we are somehow immune to what we do to other beings. But the root mistake is the same. The truth is that when you are working for the rainforest, you're also working for the whales or homeless children. This understanding is part of the great turning. It's a question, then, of finding what you love to work on and taking joy in that. Just don't try to do it alone. Link arms. Find the great gladness that is there for us in collaboration, the way we can spark each other's ideas and release each other's powers.
ACT YOUR AGE
Since every atom in our body goes back to the first flaring forth of space and light, we're really as old as the universe, which is continually happening. It's right here, unfolding in us, through us. So when you are lobbying at your congressperson's office, or visiting your local utility, or testifying at a hearing on nuclear waste, or standing up to protect an old grove of redwoods, you are doing that not out of some personal whim, but in the full authority of your 15 billion years. Practice knowing that. It is true. It helps us glimpse the enormous promise that is there, and feel life's desire to go on. The life of this planet has desired you into being, and through you it can continue.
- "Coming Back to Life: Joanna Macy," a talk originally published in TIMELINE, September/October 1999