The Great Turning

Image by Darshan Giri

Image by Darshan Giri

Joanna Macy, in her book Coming Back to Life (2014), presents three main human stories, or versions of reality, that coexist currently. These deep stories are profoundly useful in helping us navigate the enormity of the ecological and humanitarian crises facing all of us. The three paradigms are: 1. Business as Usual
2. The Great Unravelling and 3. The Great Turning.

These approaches affirm both the catastrophe humans have created and the possibility of transformation from a life-destroying culture to a life-sustaining one.

Capitalism, the use of violence in many forms, oppression, materialism and plunder of the earth’s resources for profit, all form part of the status quo, the accepted human way of doing business as usual. Business as Usual is the very paradigm that has caused global environmental destruction, war and extreme inequity and it is the current paradigm that resists social change.

The Business as Usual story names the deep denial and human complicity in the ongoing system based on violence. It is not just “others” who are in denial, we all are to some degree. It is not just others who are complicit, we all are (Do you drive a car? Do you use plastic?). The Business as Usual approach pervades every aspect of daily life from our governments, education, legal and medical systems, family structures, modes of transport, even our language and our psyches. Humans are social and we are all brainwashed to participate in the Business as Usual paradigm. When we realise our own complicity, we can move on from judging others and take radical self responsibility for our own actions.

The story we hear from activists, independent journalists, environmental scientists and so on, is that of the Great Unravelling. We are surrounded by cataclysmic events from thousands of fires burning in the Amazon, to the imminent extinction of one million species. There is compelling and deeply disturbing scientific evidence that these are not isolated cataclysmic events, but symptoms of systemic failure. The social, and economic systems humans have created and the global ecological system are at risk of collapse. Our way of living is simply unsustainable.

The honest recognition of the Great Unravelling, propels another story: the Great Turning. According to Joanna Macy, the term ‘the Great Turning’ is a cultural meme that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, as activists, we used to live by the working principle: Subvert the Dominant Paradigm. The Great Turning is a metaphor for the whole of humanity turning away from industrial-capitalist- patriarchal-exploitative systems and turning towards a truly life-sustaining society.

The Great Turning is a coming together to act in honour of the sanctity of all life. It involves resistance designed to stop harmful action against humans, against the ecosystem, against all of life. It also involves reimagining and reconstructing alternative structures and systems that meet the needs of humans and helps the ecosystem flourish. Through resistance, reimagining, reconstruction - in short a nonviolent revolution - we hold the vision of a world based on shared power, human rights and ecological sanctity.

The words of Arundhati Roy, social activist, for me describes the essence of this Great Turning:

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen... With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

- Arundhati Roy

Each story - Business as Usual, The Great Unravelling, The Great Turning - brings important truths. These three cultural stories offer a powerful and integrated way of understanding the current human predicament. The Business as Usual story reminds us of denial, complicity, the status quo that we all participate in. The Great Unravelling names both the extent of the global destruction and the imminence of the dangers we are in. If we ignore the scientific evidence of both the imminence and depth of the systemic danger we are in, we will not act quickly enough or dig deep enough to change the system. The Great Turning names both the vision and the courageous action that many are taking in service to a new story, to live based on the paradigm of living sustainably. The three stories can offer us guiding questions for our lives. In what ways am I contributing to the old story of Business as Usual? What does the Great Unravelling occurring around me show me? And the most important question of all: how can I be part of the Great Turning?

Anahata Giri
September 2019

Interested in deep conversation and listening about the Great Unravelling and the Great Turning? You might be interested in the Deep Listening Circles & The Empowerment Project.

Anahata Giri