Crafting Gentleness

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Great Turning

A friend (hi Kathryn) sent me an email with the following in it, written by Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher and deep ecologist:

"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."

I am personally really wary of this kind of thinking. In some ways, for me it reproduces a quasi-Marxian, quasi-evolutionist, quasi-evangelical progress paradigm, structurally/ narratively speaking. One of the key reasons I find this kind of thinking unhelpful, apart from the chronological linearity of it (cloaked by the cyclical metaphor of 'turning'), is that it seems to implicitly invite those people who are ecologically inclined to think about themselves as some sort of vanguard (no accident that vanguard is a military metaphor), and there's plenty in history to suggest that that's not going to lead to a whole load of roses, primarily because people involved in vanguards have a tendency to throw the word 'should' around a lot, and have also a tendency to LOVE institutional forms (often thought of as counter-institution s, nonetheless) and 'movement' metaphors, which very quickly can descend into party-politics and activistism.

Also, the prevalence of this kind of thinking in ecological/spiritual circles makes me less rather than more likely to consider it helpful - I have never thought democracy/majority rule to be a good yardstick for helpful thinking, and really popular structures of thinking (like this one) tend to be mirrored and doubled a lot across often competing discourses, which is always fascinating to watch. The people we critique use this thinking too! Such structures also tend to locate agency and the power of helpful transformation primarily way beyond us, in some 'natural' process that we simply 'join'. I don't find that helpful.

One way I think this kind of thinking can be helpful to me is to think about turnings and evolutions and revolutions at the level of the person, in my own journey. That works for me, maybe. If I extend the idea beyond myself it can often be an invitation to very subtle arrogances, as I see it, and no little disempowerment of myself and others. And if I consider any of those narratives as anything other than retrospective descriptions of how my life has turned out, then that invitation repeats itself. If I extend the function of those narrative frames to what hasn't yet happened, then for me that's disrespectful of the possibilities of happening. Otherwise, if I'm having a hard time getting with the Evolution Program then it's easy for me to think that I'm simply not good enough or if it's someone else that's not getting with The Programme then it's easy for me to think that they are simply not good enough. I find that thinking neither helpful nor desirable. Actually, now I think about it, I pretty much don't like using these narratives to make sense of my life at all. (Are reductionist retrospective linear narratives respectful of my life relationships and my variable attitudes to date? Not for me.)

I'm not going to champion any movement, party, or large-scale construmption ('assumed construct', just made it up :) without knowing the values and attitudes of the people involved. If there are too many people involved for me to know that, then I'm not supporting whatever is happening there. Hence my reluctance to unequivocally support protest marches. What people say they are involved in as activists often assumes the presence of an attitude of helpful goodness, but what really happens, when we take a look at relationships, attitudes, effects, and consequences, tends to be a lot more complicated than that. I will champion values and attitudes, but I tend to champion little in terms of what people do when it lies beyond my zone of proximity.


  • "the prevalence of this kind of thinking in ecological/spiritual circles makes me more rather than less likely to consider it helpful"

    Should that be "less rather than more", or have I misread it?

    I love "construmption" which conjures up images of construmpets... :)

    I understand much of what you say about the unhelpfulness of progress narratives. They tempt us into neglecting what's actually going on and how people (us included) are treating each other.

    But (and I know you've tried to answer this for me before) does this mean there's no room for talking in large historical terms, attempting to describe major shifts or transitions?

    By Blogger duke_aldhein, at Tuesday, 08 August, 2006  

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