By Jono Kinkade
Joanna Macy, PhD is an activist, author, eco-philosopher, and scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology. She has written numerous books, including a recent memoir entitled Widening Circles, and travels the world to give lectures, workshops, and trainings in deep ecology, preparation for The Great Turning, and “the work that reconnects.”
City on a Hill Press: What is the Great Turning?
Joanna Macy: It’s just a name, of course, for the revolution that is taking place in this era. [The Great Turning] has the same scope and magnitude as the Agricultural Revolution back in the Neolithic era, which took centuries to unfold. [It is] as big in its impact as the Industrial Revolution that changed everything in terms of regulating our lives and pursuits by the machine, and addicting us to cheap energy and launching this explosion of technology and subservience to the market.
This gave us the “industrial growth society.” I like that term because it says it all—particularly that term “growth”— because it is a political economy that sets its goals and measures its achievements and success by how fast it can grow.
In any system you can’t maximize one variable—in this case corporate profits—without throwing [the system] off balance. And this system is out of control. It’s getting evermore unstable as we can see in the markets and its needs for ever widening our [use of] resources, so it has to be accompanied by militarism, et cetera.
So what’s worth noting for us all, and especially for young people, is that this is a system that is doomed. It is already being replaced, but you can’t see it very clearly because it is not being reported in any real way by the corporate controlled media. So it is very important that we perceive this as a revolution, and The Great Turning is just a name for it. Maybe other generations will call it something else.
CHP: What indications have there been that this is a great revolution?
JM: I think the first time I heard it referred to as the third revolution of this magnitude was from William Ruckelshaus, who was the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970-73). Then, from Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, and Dana Meadows, author of The Limits to Growth.
They all see it, as I do, as something that is underway, and they all see it as something that will not inevitably succeed, because you can’t tell. Maybe we won’t be able to tell right up to the last minute whether it’s new ways of doing and thinking will lock in before living systems on this planet unravel beyond the point of no return. So it’s a mighty adventure, and I consider it for me a source of gratitude, I feel it is a privilege to be alive at this time, where we can take part in it, because really it is a great adventure of our time.
CHP: How can people prepare for and understand the process better?
JM: I see it as like putting on a pair of spectacles. You learn to see as it is, so you have to look beyond, or see through, or look away from the deluge of misinformation and corporate infotainment that we are deluged with, and look at what sometimes can seem a little marginal. So we [often] look at the resistance.
There are these three dimensions that I talk about, [which] on one hand are all very different in character, and many of us are involved in one or all three. We need to see them, how important they are, and the distinctive functions that they play.
First are the forms of resistance, or saving what is left. These are the rescue operations, I sometimes call them “holding actions,” where we work to slow down the destruction of the industrial growth society. This is what many people think of as activism. It’s the political, legal, and legislative work. It’s also the direct actions. It’s the boycotts and blockades, the tree-sitting and civil disobedience, so forth, to slow down the destruction, and these are very important because they buy time for the other two dimensions.
But it’s not enough for The Great Turning.
You need to build the forms and structures, or build the embryonic forms of them that will ripen into a life-sustaining society, because that is what is birthing now, what’s emerging in its rudimentary forms, but they are appearing in abundance.
CHP: What is the third stage in The Great Turning?
JM: These new forms will just shrivel and die unless they are deeply rooted in our perceptions of reality, and what we hold to be real and true, and what we understand about who we are and how we are related to each other and to the living earth. That is the third dimension, which you can call a shift in consciousness. It’s a perceptual, scientific, and spiritual revolution. A core discipline of mine, along with Buddhist thought, is systems theory, which some would say is the greatest cognitive revolution of the last 3,000-5,000 years, because it’s a shift to seeing reality in terms of flows of energy and information instead of terms in things and separate entities and substances.
It’s really a tremendous visual shift, like a figure ground reversal, and that brings, that heralds a proliferating way of perceiving reality, reflected both in theory, but also in art and poetry and then the resurgence of attention being paid to indigenous earth wisdom traditions, so you got voices being heard now that haven’t been heard for many centuries, that we are paying attention to. Indigenous voices, shamanic traditions, women’s spirituality goddess traditions, as well as the growing importance of eastern traditions especially.
CHP: Is the idea of The Great Turning within some of these spiritual beliefs and indigenous traditions?
JM: [One is the Tibetan Shambala Warrior Prophecy], as well as Hopi and Mayan prophecies. These are kind of useful to us, because as we don’t need to believe them literally, they are like windows that can help us see reality in fresh configurations, and take down to blinders of the reductionism of classic science, where there were such dichotomies erected between mind and matter, mind and nature, self and other, reason and emotion.
CHP: As the Great Turning turns, how can people stay positive as they continue working for change?
JM: I find that there are a number of things that are really helpful in not going crazy with all the destruction and brutality that is happening now as the late capitalist society goes out of control. People get very mean, and there is frantic competition for the remaining resources. What helps me not go crazy with that and to keep my eyes on the big change is, for one thing, gratitude. To come from gratitude that I am alive now in this time, that I have a chance to weigh in. And that there are others that care, who are grateful for that, likeâ€¦so many students at UC Santa Cruz, and so many people out there. It’s just amazing how many there are who keep on going and who cherish life and want to conserve it.
You just look at things like the World Social Forum, how it’s just catapulted in numbers of people who are seeing that the only way to go is to take charge of our lives at the grassroots level and to move from acquisitiveness to sharing.
Coming from gratitude is one, and the other is to not be afraid of the dark. Don’t be afraid of the darkness of your own feelings, don’t be afraid of the sorrow and grief that comes up, because if we try to repress that, we just rob ourselves of energy. We just shut down, if we try to shut down to the pain, we shut down our energy, and we get kind of acquiescent to the power-holders now. To find our energy and find each other we need to be ready to cry and ready to honor our grief and our outrage and to see them as the other face of our love for life, that our sorrow for what the loss is is an essence inseparable from our love for life. [In the] Shambala Prophecy they talk of compassion [and] not being afraid of the world’s suffering. If you are not afraid of being with the world’s suffering, nothing can stop you.
CHP: For the younger generation, where do we fit in, and what are some of the most important and urgent issues?
JM: I’d say, trust, there is a lot of readiness to risk and adventure in young people, and to trust that. To trust the appetite for [renewal], to trust your disgust for the outworn political accommodations of greed and militarism. I’d say to be sure to band together, to link arms, and to never try to go it alone. I’d say not to struggle over which issue is most important, don’t try to compete in urgency or think that you have to work on everything at once. If there is one thing that matters to you, then work on that, because all issues are related, they are all expressions of the same problematique so to speak. They reflect our contempt for life and nature. Know that doing what you care about is part of the whole.
Also, know that this cannot be collected overnight. I’m very inspired by my friends in Sri Lanka in the peace movement. They have a peace plan, because they are in the middle of the civil war, and the peace plan that they have developed is [a] 500-year peace plan. They say this war is the ripening of seeds, wounds, and difficulties from over the last 500 years, and it’s going to take at least that long to [reach peace]. So be ready to do your part and hang in there for the long haul, plant seeds for the people that are coming along, and don’t berate yourself or disparage yourself because you can’t make total change overnight.
_For more information about Joanna Macy, go to her website www.joannamacy.net_