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State of the Possible

Practical idealists from diverse movements, and perspectives consider the possibilities for transformational change.

Sitting in the circle for the final session of our three-day retreat at the Fetzer Institute, I looked around at the remarkable group of people. And suddenly I could feel it deep in my bones.

Across the circle sat John Mohawk, farmer, historian, elder, and advocate for indigenous foods — and people. Next to him, Verlene Wilder, labor organizer for the AFL-CIO. To my left, Edget Betru, a young African-American woman who brought a contingent of youth of color to Seattle to block the meetings of the World Trade Organization. To my right, Chris Gallagher, who, as director of the Social Venture Network, strengthens links among socially and environmentally responsible businesses.

What became so tangible to me in that moment was that each of the 25 people in the circle was a living, breathing representative of an epic shift to a sustainable world occurring all around us. It's a shift as big as the agricultural revolution that so changed life on the planet some 10,000 years ago, yet it is extremely difficult to perceive in the hurly-burly of everyday life. Each person in the circle was connected with large constituencies, each quite different from the others, so it felt as though we sat among millions — millions who are creating this shift as they arise with creativity and stubbornness to say “no” to the destruction of the Earth's living systems and human communities, and “yes” to our potential as homo sapien sapiens (the wise ones!).

Between May 1999 and November 2000, the Positive Futures Network has held three retreats. At each we've brought together a small group of practical visionaries, highly diverse in racial and ethnic background, ranging in age from 22 to 85. Some are business owners, others church activists, still others labor leaders, farmers, elected officials, scholars, journalists, and heads of advocacy groups. Some have backgrounds in the civil rights movement, others the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and many more. Each is working in some way to establish economic and social systems that respect the Earth and treat all people with dignity.
Called “The State of the Possible,” the retreats are designed to deepen our common understanding of the historical context of our work, the interconnections between our issues, and the possibilities for the human future, while at the same time nourishing our spirits and connecting us with one another in friendship and trust. Let me share with you some of the questions we explored at the retreat last November.

As we attempted to place our work in an historical context, the phrase “The Great Turning,” suggested by Joanna Macy, resonated with many who felt it conveys the sense — and the turmoil — of an old era dying as a new era struggles to be born. For some, the phrase “The Great Remembering” felt right, with its implication of reawakening to older wisdom, and learning from the struggles of parents, grandparents, and generations stretching back through the centuries, who suffered from and sometimes made breakthroughs against the domination systems of their times.

We asked ourselves, is anything new in what's happening now, as we seek to revive democracy, curtail corporate power, combat racism, promote economic justice, and come to terms with our condition as a species among species on a living planet? Or are our struggles simply part of an eternal, recurrent pattern?

Many of us felt our present context is both ancient and unique. The struggle against the excesses of those who hold power seems eternal. Much of the wisdom from the perennial traditions is as important now as it ever was. But the global nature of our current predicament is unique. Never before has our entire species been at risk. It seemed just possible that in confronting the enormity of this new challenge, we humans might catapult ourselves to a new level of planetary consciousness and social function.

Can we get beyond the terrible effects of the divisions of race and class? When a society systematically creates winners and losers, it generates an underclass, the existence of which is then justified with racism, sexism, and other “ism schisms.” So, as we tackle the problems of race and class, we come up against an even bigger question. Can we move beyond the dominator model to a world with a place of dignity for all? Could the global nature of our current environmental and social crisis spur us to create systems that truly embody our growing realization that we are all inter-connected?

These are some of the large possibilities that lifted our sights from the trenches and ignited our imaginations. We also tackled more immediate issues. Participants drew on the diverse experiences of the others to wrestle with practical questions, sometimes generating breakthroughs on topics as diverse as campaign finance reform and creating partnerships to bridge racial divides (see sidebars).

Each retreat is, of course, only a beginning. What counts is when participants draw on their new friendships and insights to embark on exciting new directions that make a difference in the world. This May, we're inviting all the past participants to gather to further deepen connections and expand our collective sense of the Great Turning, the Great Remembering. We'll keep you up on the evolving saga — which I hope resonates with the questions you've been asking yourself and discussing with friends. <

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