THE GREAT TURNING
After the agricultural and industrial revolutions we are now at a point of ecological revolution.
from Resurgence issue 186
FUTURE GENERATIONS will look back on these closing years of the twentieth century and call it the time of the Great Turning. It is the epochal shift from an industrial growth society, dependent on accelerating consumption of resources, to a life-sustaining society
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute says that, while the agricultural revolution took centuries and the industrial revolution took decades, this ecological revolution must happen within a few years. Such a revolution will have to be more thorough-going and will involve not only our political economy, but also our attitudes and habits that sustain it.
Scientists, at least those who are not in the pay of the corporations, see more quickly than the politicians that there is no technological fix. No magic bullet (not even the Internet!) can save us from population explosion, deforestation, climate disruption, poison by pollution, and wholesale extinction of plant and animal species. We are going to have to want different things, seek different pleasures, pursue different goals, than those that have been driving us and our global economy. New values must arise now, while we still have room to manoeuvre. And that is precisely what is happening. They are emerging at this very moment, like green shoots through the rubble. It's not in the headlines or the evening TV news, but if you open your eyes and fiddle a bit with the focal length, you can see it.
THE GREAT TURNING is occurring on three simultaneous levels. On the most visible level are the actions in defence of Earth. They include all the political, legislative and legal work required to slow down the destruction of Earth. This level also includes direct actions such as blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of refusal to participate in that destruction. Work of this kind helps save biological and cultural systems, and the gene pool. But by itself it is insufficient to bring about the sustainable society.
The second level of the Great Turning addresses structural causes of the global crisis, and creates sustainable alternatives. Only a couple of years ago, it was hard slogging to raise any opposition to, or even interest in, GATT (the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade); but now people are rapidly becoming aware of the rape of the world, and the attack on democracy, built into corporate privilege. At the same time new and sustainable social and economic arrangements are mushrooming, from local currencies to local marketing and consumer co-peratives, from ecovillages to renewable, off-the-grid energy generation. They may look fringe, but they hold the seeds of the future.
These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive, however, without values to sustain them. They must mirror what we want and think we are. That paradigm shift -- at the third and most basic level of the Great Turning -- is happening all around us. Some choose to see it as an influx of spirit from above, others as "hitting bottom" in our doomed and addictive society. Either way, we are opening our senses to the web of relationships, in which we have our being. Like our primordial ancestors, we begin again to see the world as our body and as sacred.
WE HARDLY HAVE words for the cognitive, spiritual and perceptual revolution, that is occurring now at a stunning speed. These lines from the late Californian poet Robinson Jeffers catch some of its flavour:
I entered the life of the brown forest,
And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone,
I felt the changes in the veins
In the throat of the mountain, and, I was the streams
Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking: and I was the stars,
Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one the lord of his own summit, and I was the darkness
Outside the stars, I included them. They were a part of me. ... how can I express the excellence
I have found, that has no colour but clearness;
No honey but ecstasy...
We can't tell which will happen first, the final unravelling of life on Earth, or the moment when the elements of a sustainable world cohere and catch hold. But even if the Great Turning fails to carry this planetary experiment of ecological revolution onward through linear time, it still is worth it. It is a homecoming to our true nature.
Just a thousand years ago a theologian wrote a poem. Amidst the apocalyptic fears and hopes of the first millennium, he experienced and expressed a new vision of the holy -- not as a remote, justly angry judge, but as an immanent presence, creative and loving. Now at the end of the second millennium, we can receive his poem and let it speak to our own inklings of that which presses within us to be born. So attend now to Symeon the Theologian (949-1022), knowing that where he said "Christ" and "God", I am substituting "Earth" and "planet":
We awaken in Earth's body
as Earth awakens our bodies.
And my poor hand is Earth, she enters my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Earth, becomes all of her
(for our planet is indivisibly whole, seamless and her planethood).
I move my foot, and at once she appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? Then open your heart to her,
and let yourself receive
the one who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love her,
we wake up inside Earth's body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as her,
and she makes us utterly real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in her transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in her light,
we awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
The original version of Symeon the Theologian's poem can be found in translation in The Enlightened Heart, ed. Stephen Mitchell, Harper and Row, 1989, p. 38.
Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, and general systems theory, whose books include World as Lover, World as Self; The Dharma of Natural Systems; and Rilke's Book of Hours, with Anita Barrows. From 3 to 16 May 1998 she and her husband Fran Macy will teach at Schumacher College (Tel: 01803 865934).
From Resurgence Magazine Issue #186: One of the very best ecology magazines available
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