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The Great Turning as Compass and Lens

What it means to be alive at a moment of global crisis and possibility.

“Thinking of the Great Turning reminds me I don’t have to save the world by myself; then there’s more energy for my little piece of it — getting the military out of my son’s school.” — Anti-recruitment activist in San Francisco
“It strengthens me to see my work for renewable energy in the context of the grande virada.” — Corporate consultant in Brazil.
“I love telling the children in our eco-camp that their restoration project is part of the grosse Wandlung, and they are part of it, too.” — Teacher in Germany’s Black Forest.
“Now I recognize el gran cambio right here in Barcelona, and at the same time it links me with activists around the world. I feel less isolated.” —Spanish community organizer.
compass illustration
Illustration by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn for YES! magazine

E grande virada, die grosse Wandlung, el gran cambio… Wherever I go, in every group I work with, the Great Turning becomes more rewarding as a conceptual frame. It is a name for the transition from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. It identifies the shift from a self-destroying political economy to one in harmony with Earth and enduring for the future. It unites and includes all the actions being taken to honor and preserve life on Earth. It is the essential adventure of our time.

Of course, most people involved in this adventure do not call it the Great Turning. They do not need that name in order to fight for survival and to fashion the forms of a sane and decent future. Yet more and more of us are finding that concept to be wonderfully useful. For me as teacher, activist, and mother, the Great Turning helps me see what the physical eye cannot: the larger forces at play and the direction they are taking. At the same time, it sharpens my perception of the actual, concrete ways people are engaging in this global shift. In other words, it serves me as both compass and lens.

The big picture

From the countless social and environmental issues that compete for attention, we can take on isolated causes and fight for them with courage and devotion. But the forces we confront seem so great and time so short, it’s easy to fear that our efforts are too scattered to be of real consequence. And we tend to fall into the same short-term thinking that has entrapped our political economy.

The Great Turning invites us to lift our eyes from the cramped closet of short-term thinking and see the larger historical landscape. What a difference it makes to view our efforts as part of a vast enterprise, a tidal change commensurate to the crisis we face. What is underway, as many have observed, is a revolution that is comparable in magnitude to the agricultural revolution of the late Neolithic and the industrial revolution of the past two centuries. As the industrial-growth society spins out of control comes the third revolution, which is even now given names, like the ecological or sustainability revolution, or the Great Turning. While the first two revolutions, as former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus reflects, “were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious, this (third) one will have to be a fully conscious operation. … If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on Earth.”

As compass, the Great Turning helps us see the direction in which our political economy is heading. Because the industrial-growth society is based on an impossible imperative—limitless increase in corporate profits—that direction leads to collapse. No system can endure that seeks to maximize a single variable. Already our system is on “overshoot,” using up resources beyond Earth’s capacity to renew and dumping wastes beyond Earth’s capacity to absorb. The losses inflicted on the biosphere now affect every system essential to life, and deplete the diversity required for complex life forms. Yet life is a dynamic process, self-organizing to adapt and evolve. Just as it turned scales to feathers, gills to lungs, seawater to blood, so now, too, immense evolutionary pressures are at work. They are driving this revolution of ours through innumerable molecular, intersecting alterations in the human capacity for conscious change.

Still, as Earth’s record attests, extinctions are at least as plentiful as successful adaptations. We may not make it this time. Natural systems may unravel beyond repair before new, sustainable forms and structures take hold. That is part of the anguish that is widely felt.

That anguish is unavoidable, if we want to stay honest and alert. The Great Turning comes with no guarantees. Its risk of failure is its reality. Insisting on belief in a positive outcome puts blinders on us and burdens the heart. We might manage to convince ourselves that everything will surely turn out all right, but would such happy assurance elicit our greatest courage and creativity?

The Great Turning, as a compass pointing to the possible, helps me live with radical uncertainty. It also causes me to believe that, whether we succeed or not, the risks we take on behalf of life will bring forth dimensions of human intelligence and solidarity beyond any we have known. The scene on the ground

This third revolution of our human journey is not only a possibility; it is a present, ongoing, multifarious phenomenon. The Great Turning is like a lens through which we can perceive the extent to which it is happening. This lens is crucial, because it reveals developments that are ignored or distorted by the mainstream, corporate-controlled media. In the words of Gil Scott- Heron, “the revolution will not be televised.” It is hardly in the interests of billion-dollar industries, or the government that serves them, that we should know how they are being challenged and supplanted by grassroots initiatives.

These initiatives are sprouting on all sides, like green shoots through the rubble of a dysfunctional civilization. The Great Turning lens reveals that initiatives as different in character as a wind farm, a lawsuit against election fraud, and a fleet of kayaks protecting marine mammals are all part of an historic transition. It is important to review the three dimensions of this transition because they make it easier to see the Great Turning in action and to recognize our part in it. While presented as first, second, or third, they are not to be taken as sequential or ranked in importance. They coarise synergistically and are mutually reinforcing.

The first dimension includes all the efforts underway to slow down the destruction being wrought by the industrial-growth society. These range from petitioning for species protection to soup kitchens for homeless families, to civil disobedience against weapons makers, polluters, clear cutting, and other depredations. Often discouraging and even dangerous, work in this dimension buys time. Saving some lives, some ecosystems, some species, and some of the gene pool for future generations is a necessary part of the Great Turning. But even if every battle in this dimension were won, it would not be enough. A life-sustaining society requires new forms and structures.

The arising of these new forms constitutes the second dimension. Here we see the emergence of sustainable alternatives, from solar panels to farmers markets, from land trusts to cohousing, permaculture, and local currencies. At no other epoch in our history have so many ways of doing things appeared in so short a time.

Many of them — as in health, animal husbandry, and pest management — reclaim old, traditional practices. Yet, as promising as they are, these forms and structures cannot survive without deeply rooted values to nourish them. To proliferate and endure, they must mirror who we are and what we really want. They require, in other words, a profound change in our perception of reality.

This is the third dimension of the Great Turning: a shift in consciousness. Both personal and collective, both cognitive and spiritual, this shift comes through many avenues. It is ignited by the new sciences and inspired by ancient traditions. It also arises as grief for our world. Irreducible to private pathology, this grief gives the lie to old-paradigm notions of the isolated, competitive self. It reveals our mutual belonging in the web of life.

Now, in this very time, these three rivers — anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and ancestral teachings — flow together. From the confluence of these rivers we drink and awaken to what we once knew: we are alive in a living Earth, source of all we are and know. Despite centuries of mechanistic conditioning, we want to name, once again, this world as holy.

Whether they come through Gaia theory, systems theory, chaos theory, or through liberation theology, shamanic practices, or the Goddess, such insights and experiences are absolutely necessary to free us from the grip of the industrial-growth society. They offer us nobler goals and deeper pleasures. They redefine our wealth and our worth, liberating us from compulsions to consume and control.

So rich is the harvest, that when we claim these new understandings, there’s little room for panic or self-pity. Instead, gratitude arises to be alive at this moment, when, for all the darkness coming upon us, blessings abound. They help us stay alert and steady, so we can join hands to find the ways the world self-heals—and see the present chaos as seedbed for the future.

Seeds for the future

Among such blessings for me now, I count the explorations my colleagues and I are making into the mystery of time. With “deep time” practices, we enliven our felt connections with past and future generations, and open our hurried, fragmented lives into vaster expanses of time. The ancestors, who bequeathed us life, become more present to us, and so do the future ones, whom we carry within us like seeds.

These practices, long a feature of my workshops, gave rise to an extraordinary event last year. In Australia, where the Dreamtime is still a reality to the aboriginals who welcomed us, several dozen of us gathered to devote a full lunar cycle to immersion in deep time. The event was called “Seeds for the Future: Training for the Great Turning.”

There, under the wheeling stars by the southern sea, we felt the power of this planet-time. In our silence, rituals, and role play, we sensed the ancestors and the future ones moving in our midst, encouraging us in the work that is ours to do. In our discussions, we felt the presence of those living now and the magnitude of their manifold efforts on behalf of life. Earth Community became for us not only a promise, but a present reality.

Returned to our daily lives, we call each other seedlings. That’s what the Great Turning makes of us: seedlings of the future. How can I falter now, with so many hands and hearts at work, and all generations lending their support?


Joanna Macy, Ph.D., a Buddhist teacher and deep ecologist, is widely known for her workshops at the interface between social change and spiritual breakthrough. Her books include Coming Back to Life; World As Lover, World As Self; and Widening Circles, A Memoir. See www.joannamacy.net.

A 30-day event, similar to the Australian event mentioned above, will take place on the Central Oregon Coast September 12–October 12, 2007. See www.seedsforthefuture.org or write thegreatturning@aol.com.

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