The Great Turning and the Great Unraveling
from a Systems Perspective
By Molly Young Brown
Well, it’s happening, isn’t it? The Great Unraveling and the Great Turning both unfolding right now in our communities and around the world. So much is happening that I can’t keep up, which is why I haven’t written a Musings for some time. I started to write something about Fukushima last March, but that alone was so huge, I didn’t know how to begin. However, I do need to write to sort things out for myself and I hope my musings will offer some useful perspectives to others.
The Great Unraveling
The on-going catastrophe of nuclear meltdown and the radioactive contamination of the world erupting in Japan is only one of numerous unprecedented disasters this year alone. We have coped with wildfires of historic proportions, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, epic flooding, and earthquakes—all causing enormous damage and many deaths. It is clear that global climate change is not just a theory about the future, but something already well underway. It seems like all we can do now is hunker down and endure the unpredictable effects of our technological folly; it may be too late to head it off.
Meanwhile, the arrogance and greed driving our global economy continues unabated, creating suffering for millions, not only in the so-called “developing” countries, but within the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. Obscure financial manipulations–most of them highly unethical or downright illegal—reroute the nation’s wealth into the hands of a very few, impoverishing everyone else and our government. These financial games are carried on in abstraction, totally separated from the people involved or impacted (e.g. mortgage derivatives disconnected from people buying houses and living in them).
Weapons manufactures and other war profiteers lobby politicians to perpetuate unnecessary and immoral wars, solely to keep the profits flowing to mega-wealthy CEOs and their stockholders. These war industries also remain completely disconnected from the people whom their weapons injure and kill. Obeying orders, military operatives sit comfortably in front of computers in the United States dispatching drones to kill men, women, and children in distant, impoverished lands.
These ruthless acts committed by agencies of the financial-military-industrial complex demonstrate what happens when people look only to their immediate and narrow self-interest, with no sense of the health of the larger living system that supports their lives. Joseph Chilton Pearce asserts that inadequately nurtured (i.e. disconnected) children often grow up dominated by their reptilian (survival) brain, unable to see beyond their own immediate pleasure or pain. (Pearce, 2010). Human societies have long suffered the destructive effects of such stunted development among its members; technology now extends these effects around the world.
Until the advent of computer technology and the Internet, the reach of any one person or corporation was necessarily limited to a town or region, country, and could only extend beyond those borders slowly and at great expense. The two World Wars of the twentieth century required huge numbers of troops and weapons, and who was doing what to whom became quite obvious to the world. Eventually the immune system of humanity brought these wars to an end, but only after immense suffering and death.
The societal immune system has worked similarly in the past in the United States, ending slavery, regulating the way employees are treated, and thwarting the tobacco industry, to name three examples. Now, however, a small number of human predators—driven by their reptilian brains and protected by vast wealth and privilege—can easily and nearly invisibly manipulate global conditions for their own profit, seemingly undetected by the societal immune system. Most of us were unaware of what was going on, until quite recently.
Ellen LaConte in her excellent book Life Rules (LaConte, 2010) describes how human misbehavior has gone “viral” in today’s global capitalist industrial economy.
We are living beyond Earth’s means, inducing a critical mass, a syndrome that is undermining Earth’s immune system of natural and human communities and is caused by a global economy that has gone viral. The economy is behaving as if it were larger than Life. It’s not. Life is the largest complex system on Earth. Life rules. We don’t. (p. 50)
The Great Turning
Now the human societal immune system is again coming on line. The people of the world are rising up to say “No!” to the greed, insanity, and destruction. It began with “Arab Spring” in mid-eastern dictatorships, spread to Occupy Wall Street in the fall, and rapidly moved across the United States and Europe. The Great Turning is unfolding before our eyes.
The Occupy movement exemplifies relatedness; people in the streets interact directly with one another (and the police), making decisions and organizing themselves into spontaneous communities through “general assemblies” and consensus. One inspiring example is the “human microphone”: when authorities prohibited amplification equipment for Occupy Wall Street, people quickly developed a way of relaying speeches throughout the encampment. Those close to the speaker loudly repeat the speaker’s words in unison, until everyone has heard them. Not only does this practice project the information throughout the crowd, it unites the people and empowers the words they speak. The method is so effective it has spread throughout the Occupy movement, even where electronic amplification is available.
I believe this person-to-person relatedness is the most important aspect of the movement, demonstrating to the world grassroots democratic processes that are far more important than any “demands” or “goals.”
Feedback and Relationship
Systems can self-regulate and self-organize only when their constituent parts are in direct relationship, allowing true undistorted feedback to occur. System self-regulation refers to the way systems sustain themselves over time, in the face of internal and external changes and threats—an immune response. Feedback is necessary for this to happen—if I don’t register feedback from the nerves in my skin, I can burn myself badly. When conditions change beyond a system’s ability to respond, then the system must find new responses, new ways of behaving—this is called self-organization, or learning. Both self-regulation and self-organization are necessary to sustain life.
Financiers and war profiteers rarely receive direct feedback on the actual on-the-ground effects of their actions; in fact, they have deliberately isolated themselves from it. They keep running into brick walls, because they don’t see them coming. Moreover, one variable, corporate profits, has been maximized without regard to any other variable, such as the health of our physical life support systems, or the health of the larger society. As a result, our economic system and our international relationships are seriously unstable and unsustainable.
Occupy Wall Street breaks down the walls against feedback, through chants, signs, eloquent speeches, and masses of people camping out in public parks. Now feedback is reaching out to the nation through social networks on the Internet, prompting demonstrations and occupations in other cities, and making news even on the mainstream (corporate controlled) media.
Self-organization can be rather messy, especially with consensus decision-making, because both processes require the system to include a variety of perspectives and needs. Self-organization proceeds by trial and error, so there are many dead-ends and false starts before new ways of functioning emerge—and they eventually do. This is of course very confusing to the mainstream media, who prefer tidy and superficial sound-bites that don’t take up too much air time or analysis. Yet this is precisely how the Occupy movement has functioned, through system self-regulation, self-organization and consensus—a very exciting development for true democracy.
I am also excited about how readily the Occupy movement connects with other activist groups. The opposition to the Tar Sands XL Pipeline (which would transport dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico) organized a civil disobedience sit-in at the White House in September, resulting in the arrests of 1200 citizens. When the call went out to encircle the White House in early November, many Occupiers joined in, swelling the ranks to 12,000. I imagine that most Tar Sands protestors support the Occupy movement, and some actively participate in it.
Because there is no hierarchical leadership in the Occupy movement (also true of living systems), no one person or group can say “these people belong and these people don’t.” All who consider themselves part of the “99%” are welcome, including homeowners threatened with foreclosure, people struggling with student loans, people paying high health insurance premiums (or unable to afford it at all), veterans, peace activists, environmentalists, indigenous people, people of color, elders and young folks, public service workers, upper, middle, and working class people, labor unions, the unemployed, and the underemployed: in short, anyone who perceives the injustice and insanity of our current economic and political systems.
This inclusiveness has led to some problems with anarchists and others promoting violence within a movement committed to non-violence. Even here, the community is seeking ways of stopping violence at its roots—through caring relationship, direct intervention with perpetrators, and cleaning up any property damage that occurs—self-regulation in action.
In an article adapted from their recent book, This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, Sarah van Gelder, David Korten, and Steve Piersanti list ten ways that the Occupy Movement is already impacting our society, including: “It names the source of the crisis…Wall Street greed, perverse financial incentives, and a corporate takeover of the political system… It provides a clear vision of the world we want… It is a movement, not a list of demands… It combines the local and the global…[and] It offers an ethic and practice of deep democracy and community.” (Read the article for fuller explication of these and other impacts of the Movement at this link: http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/ten-ways-the-occupy-movement-changes-everything).
Journalist Chris Hedges has also written several inspiring articles about the Occupy movement, including his recent “Finding Freedom in Handcuffs” (2011) describing his experience participating in an Occupy action at Goldman-Sachs headquarters that led to his arrest. He writes of the faces of suffering children he sees while being handcuffed, in contrast to the people looking down from the glass tower of Goldman Sachs, “people carefully selected for the polish and self-assurance that come with having been formed in institutions of privilege, whose primary attributes are a lack of consciousness, a penchant for deception and an incapacity for empathy or remorse.” Read his article here: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/finding_freedom_in_handcuffs_20111107/
Crisis and Transformation
The Great Unraveling of our unsustainable and unjust economic and political system, and of an ecosystem too long abused and exploited for short-term human ends, represents both the results of greed and arrogance, and an opportunity for transformation. When the old ways of life no longer work, living systems (including humans) need to find new ways to live in harmony with their environment and each other (who are part of the environment, after all). Thus the Great Turning and the Great Unraveling go hand and hand.
Ellen LaConte suggests great unravelings and great turnings have occurred several times in past millennia, many of them before humans appeared on Earth. She calls these times of crisis “Critical Mass,” which she defines as:
…a point in time or a process when enough of something has been literally amassed that a spontaneous transformation occurs. After critical mass is reached, something new emerges or is created, or a new state of being is achieved. (page eight)
Each time Critical Mass has been reached—for example, when bacteria over-populated the world 3.9 billion years ago—living systems have self-organized through trial and error to find new ways to function and survive. During the first Critical Mass, bacteria invented photosynthesis, so they no longer had to rely on fermenting organic material for energy. “They went solar, just as we will have to do” (p. 117). LaConte recounts two other such life-threatening and transforming crises and what living systems learned—how they self-organized—in response. Understanding those lessons, which LaConte outlines as “Life’s Economic Survival Protocol,” (p. 122) can guide us humans through our current “Critical Mass” crisis, brought on by the global capitalist economy gone viral. I highly recommend her book as a guidebook for the Great Turning.
Transformation is already taking place, in many ways and many places. As exciting and significant as the Occupy movement may be, it is not the only sign of the Great Turning now taking place across the planet. Paul Hawkin’s book, Blessed Unrest (2007) describes the thousands—or is it now millions?—of local grassroots organizations and projects dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice, all over the world. Like all living systems, these groups are organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture. The Occupy movement is currently the most visible aspect currently of this encompassing world-wide movement, which may have now reached sufficient Critical Mass to impel big change to take place, rapidly and globally—perhaps just in time to fulfill the prophecies regarding 2012. The Great Turning is transforming the world, and the lives of all its participants.
May these transformations be for the benefit of all beings.
References & Recommended Reading
Hawkin, Paul. (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. New York: Viking.
Hedges, Chris. (2011). “Finding Freedom in Handcuffs,” TruthDig. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/finding_freedom_in_handcuffs_20111107/
LeConte, Ellen. (2010). Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it. Bloomington IN: iUniverse. Ordering information: www.ellenlaconte.com/life-rules-the-book/
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. (2010). Strange Loops and Gestures of Creation. Benson NC: Goldenstone Press.
van Gelder, Sarah et al. (2011) This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement. New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
van Gelder, Sarah, Korten, David, and Piersanti, Steve. 2011. “10 Ways the Occupy Movement Changes Everything.” Yes! http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/10-ways-the-occupy-movement-changes-everything