With the chaotic effects of global climate change impacting life around the Earth, it is clear that radical change is upon us, along with the suffering such change can bring. It looks likely that we face years of intermingled catastrophes: natural disasters, extinction of untold numbers of species, scarcity of clean water, collapse of oil-dependent economies, desperate military interventions, and the likelihood of more nuclear disasters contaminating the entire planet with radioactivity. David Korten calls this collapse of our unsustainable economic, political, and energy systems, “the Great Unraveling.”
The underlying cause of these crises has to do with our consciousness, our most essential understanding of who we are as humans. It has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about our relationships with one another and with Earth and its myriad life forms.
Three Stories About Who We Are
We hear one such story from politicians, business schools, corporations, and corporate-controlled media. This story, which can be called “Business As Usual,” would have us think of ourselves as separate and competitive with one another and with other living beings; it would have us forget that everything we require for life comes from the living Earth: air, water, food, clothing, and shelter. Business As Usual means we keep doing what we have been doing since the Industrial Revolution began—exploiting Earth as resource, powerhouse, and sewer for our profit-making enterprises, no matter what the cost to people, other living beings, and our planet life-support system. This story has produced enormous suffering and damage; it has brought us to the brink of extinction.
From environmental scientists, independent journalists, and activists who recognize the disastrous effects of “Business As Usual,” we hear the story of “the Great Unraveling” This story is supported by evidence of the on-going derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic, and social systems. As we see the Great Unraveling happening all around the planet, many of us feel enormous fear, grief, and anger.
There’s a third story that can redeem us, a story that recognizes the limited truth of “Business As Usual” and even of “the Great Unraveling.” This story expands to the more encompassing truth of our profound interconnectedness and interdependence within the web of life. We can call it “the Great Turning.”
When we look clearly and courageously at our world today, we can see the Great Turning occurring right now all around the world, right alongside the Great Unraveling. We see people turning away from the Industrial Growth Society, based on profit, greed, and competition,–and towards a Life Sustaining Society based on gratitude, love, and cooperation, honoring Life itself above all else.
In our individual lives, it often takes a crisis to catalyze change. We all know of people whose lives have been transformed by a life-threatening illness. So it is with groups of people, nations, and even humanity as a whole. At this pivotal time in human history, we walk into the unknown together, as into an initiation, a collective encounter with the human soul. We in the industrialized world have reached the end of our collective adolescence; it is time now to grow up, to move fully into true adulthood, with a broader, more encompassing sense of responsibility and connectedness with the Earth, all its peoples, and all its life forms.
Global environmental and economic crises can summon a rite of passage for humanity. May we do more than just endure the dark times; may we actively embrace them and use them for transformation. That’s what the Great Turning is all about.
(Adapted by Molly Brown from Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects, by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, 2014.)
The Great Turning
Today we face the unprecedented challenges of global climate disruption, gross economic inequality, over-population, international financial breakdown, potential epidemics, rising seas, droughts and famine, power-outages, and spiraling fuel costs—with no place to move to, no place to hide. Our life support systems on planet Earth appear gravely imperiled, perhaps beyond repair.
How shall we live in such a world? How can we preserve and renew our life support systems—physical, social, and spiritual—in the face of such colossal peril? Nothing less than a “Great Turning” in the way we think, do business, and go about our lives can save us, a Great Turning to a truly life-sustaining society.
Joanna Macy has identified three mutually reinforcing dimensions of the Great Turning. The first two refer to work-in-the-world: 1) front-line actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; and 2) understanding the economic and social systems that perpetrate the damage, and generating healthier systems that support life. The third dimension includes psychological and spiritual practices that can bring about a shift in our world-view and values. That shift can connect us with strength, love, and courage for the challenges before us. (An inspiring documentary, “Joanna Macy and the Great Turning,” is available here: http://vimeo.com/ondemand/greatturning/90774082.)
Many of us today are engaged in at least one of these dimensions, if not all three. We can see this Great Turning happening within and around us everywhere today. We see a worldwide awakening of concern for the planetary environment, with documentary and feature films on the subject becoming box-office successes. Many young people especially have taken up the cause of defending the environment from destruction. Yet the crisis seems only to intensify, and we face the real possibility that our civilization will not survive. Although the outcome of the Great Turning remains uncertain, it will surely fail if we ignore the problems—or just give up.
Each of us may already be contributing to this Great Turning in large and small ways, perhaps some we don’t even recognize. We feel empowered when we connect with our desire to serve the greater good, and acknowledge the ways we are already serving, in one or more of these dimensions. It is also helpful to see how our individual actions are part of a larger movement; no one of us—nor even a small group of us—can transform the world single-handed! We are all in this together.