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Joanna Macy reconnects
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Joanna Macy reconnects
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Joanna Macy reconnects
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Conversations
7 September 2019

Joanna Macy reconnects

Joanna Macy began engaging deeply with this moment of reckoning we’re facing, a period she has coined “the great turning,” more than 60 years ago—long before we had any of the climate science we have today. A true pioneer in resilience thinking, she saw early on that human impact on the planet, and in particular the consumer growth mindset brought about by capitalism, was creating deep-rooted trauma, and in ways that weren’t typically visible to the everyday person. She made it her life’s work to enliven, through writing and group workshops, people’s desire and ability to take part in the planet’s healing. “Of all the dangers we face,” she wrote, “from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” Joanna’s teachings, now renowned as “The Work That Reconnects,” have touched thousands of people around the globe, with the aim of helping them trust their raw experience and give voice to what they see and feel is happening to their world. Having forged an unparalleled career, which included stints with the CIA in Cold War Europe and the Peace Corps in post-colonial India, Joanna went on to become a scholar in systems theory and Buddhism, bringing all of it together in her work to inspire the social courage and moral imagination that she saw would be needed at this time. Now in her 90s, Joanna continues to speak to the possibility of this moment for a more loving and life-giving planet. It doesn’t have to be our unravelling, she observes, if we let go of the systems that have kept us small and re-learn what it means to look after one another.

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

NATHAN SCOLARO: The issue that we’re working on at the moment, which is why we’re really excited to speak with you, is about how we build the resilience for what’s to come—and in particular, the science shared in Jem Bendell’s “Deep Adaptation” paper, indicating that economic and social collapse is very near. So we’re asking how do we face the truth of that in a way that doesn’t see us crippling into despair? How are we activated by that so we respond in the best way that we can for this time as a species? And I know this is the work that you’ve been deeply invested in for the past however many decades.

JOANNA MACY: It’s been over 40 years of asking these questions. Initially we called it “Despair and Empowerment Work” and then it was called “Deep Ecology Work” and then “The Work That Reconnects,” which is what we’ve called it for the last 20-something years. Always we were recognising that the situation we’re in—whether we call it business as usual, or the industrial growth society, or global corporate capitalism—is unsustainable. And I think that’s a good thing because it’s very disruptive to life on Earth. What is falling apart is a demented system—a system that has been commodifying our mother. So this needs to come apart. The question is, how can we love and serve this world as this demented political economy dies? This civilisation needs to go into “positive disintegration,” a systems term for what happens at every stage of evolution, in order to pull through. To avoid becoming an evolutionary dead-end, the old codes, the old protections and armour for staying alive all have to disintegrate so that the soft, sensitive, vulnerable parts, like eyes and ears and fingertips, are freed to do what they are made to do, which is connect. Connection is the only way out of here. So it’s a good thing that this corporate global capitalism mode is toxic and time-limited. But the longer it goes on, the scarier is its demise because it brings so much more down with it. We’ve gotten quite used to this mode, come to see it as a permanent fact of life. So to have Jem Bendell, a sustainability expert, say that it’s not workable, is very helpful. My first response was a feeling of rest in my chest, a kind of unexpected relaxation as if there were some body tension that I’d been holding, to sort of fight the good fight and try to keep things going. Suddenly I felt I could draw a deep breath. Did you feel that also Nathan?

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

Well no. It was quite distressing for me, it hit me in a way that other information hadn’t hit me. That we’re heading for all kinds of collapse. It was new for me to hear it like this. And I’m still feeling very heavy about it all. So I’m interested to hear that response from you.

It was paralysing for you, and then what? You’re doing an issue of Dumbo Feather. It occurred to me quite early on in my activism that people did not lack information, although the information we have now is much more telling than it ever has been. But the point is: when I would try to tell people what was happening to our world, most of them—except for other activists—would turn away. They’d say, “It’s such a shame,” then change the subject. There was a reluctance to feel moral pain. I don’t like it myself, but seeking ways to have a person hear enough to want to do something, I experimented. I came to realise that the voice we most need to hear, and want to hear, is the one inside us. And finding ways to let that inner voice speak out loud started me on my work of the last four decades.

So it’s about the relationship we cultivate with the information, how we get to know our fight-or-flight responses and work through them so that when we are hit with the message and the science that cultural and economic collapse is inevitable, we are able to meet that and be propelled by that.

Yeah, and I would say, although I felt a sense of relief in Jem stating with such clarity that we’re heading for collapse, I have found that it is my preference to not be as certain as he is about the collapse. Any time you make a 100 percent certain prediction it gets you in trouble, and that is on two accounts. It can make it hard for people to listen to you. And we don’t want that. We want to be holding hands together in whatever we’re faced with. And secondly it can tip you toward affirmation of that position, interpreting the data in ways that can support it. So I wouldn’t say collapse is inevitable. But I do say it’s likely. What makes it so likely is that corporations are really running things. They’ve managed to take over the government, particularly in your country and mine. The US government is, as they say, a wholly owned subsidiary. What’s scary to me is that corporations today have only one variable they seek to maximise: profits— and that is both toxic and time-limited. There used to be talk of a “triple bottom line” with profits balanced by social equity and ecological sustainability. But those determinants fell away years back. And when you get any system driven by one single variable, in this case profits, it cannot stay in balance, it cannot self-correct. It falls into a runaway positive feedback loop heading for eventual collapse. And it’s not so much the collapse that scares me but the realisation that it’s beyond human correction. Once you work your way up to be CEO or any high rank and actively seek an alternative to maximising profit and shareholder dividends, you’re out.

There’s no life anymore in the system. It’s its own beast. So this presents us with an opportunity I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. I think we have to be equipped for the time that is coming, the time where what you have called “the great unravelling” is finally over. And we need new economic models and new ways of functioning as a society. And I’m excited by the prospect.

Well it makes it very clear what we need to be able to do, doesn’t it? We need to be able to take care of each other. We need to be able to survive the collapse that is coming around food and water and communication. And

there’s not a minute to lose for us to nourish survival skills and practices, to take care of each other, because being thrown into panic mode is messy.

In my country it’ll be even messier because it’s panic with hunger and a lot of guns. So we need to come together as communities where we can grow food collectively and begin to make sure we can feed one another. And learn how to welcome the stranger. And how to remember to love what is. A recent first question at a climate emergency meeting was, “As I face collapse of our culture, what I’m grateful for is…” That’s a wonderful question. Try it. We need spiritual practices for maintaining our good will, our sanity. In other words, spiritual practices of honouring the life in each other and our world. And our culture has had such practices. Our heritages, especially Indigenous traditions, have tremendous resources to offer us. Because they learned over the millennia to live on Earth with Earth. Fortunately, a growing number of people are turning to that.

What you’re making me realise is that the best work we can do right now is to feel into our state of inter-being. We have done a good job of creating separation that as you say can only serve us so far until it brings about its own destruction, you know the ego only takes us so far. Where our resilience comes from as a species is knowing how to be with one another, but we have to re-learn that, right? I know myself that I’ve forgotten what it means beyond an intellectual level to lead from the place of “we.”

Yeah. We’ve been crippled by the hyper-individualism of the last five centuries that has isolated the self. It often feels so isolated that it’s easily scared and obedient. A big part of my work has been to help us break out of that prison cell of the separate self and realise that we can grow our participation in the world and our sense of inter-being and mutual belonging. That is there in a lot of spiritual traditions. I’ve turned to the inspiration I’ve found from the Buddhist tradition where the teaching about the self is very clear from the beginning, with the Buddha saying, “There is no separate permanent self.” And when you think that there is and when you get to favouring that self, then you get into creating so much suffering and so much cruelty and meanness. So I think it’s a tremendous privilege to be alive at this time. I feel grateful that I didn’t check out earlier. To be really alive at this time when everything is at stake and everything that’s at stake depends on our rising up to our belonging to a living Earth. And just as we’re facing catastrophe we have science coming to the clear conclusion that Earth is a living system, as some of us have always deeply felt and known. And what’s ready to kill us is the old thinking that we have to get ahead and compete.

So in the early days of your activism when there wasn’t the science that we have now, you were acting on a feeling that the earth was a living system, and perhaps knowledge from Indigenous cultures. What’s the difference between the knowledge that you had then and the knowledge you have now?

I think that there’s a growth in what is called Gaia consciousness. It was very fortunate that when James Lovelock first developed his theory that our planet is a self-organising, self-regulating system, he called it the “Gaia hypothesis.” That was a brilliant move. It immediately evoked the earth goddess and struck a deep chord in the human spirit. And that’s not surprising because we actually are deeply connected, embedded in the living body of Earth. It stirred that ancient archetypal truth in us. And we can nourish that by experiencing it as we work for Earth, and feel ourselves supported, held, enlivened. There’s reciprocity at work. We can almost feel it flowing through us—the intelligence and vitality of a much larger body. That became more real for me in Australia when I came out there with the work in 1985 and I met John Seed. He had a big influence on me through his description of what happened to him defending an old growth forest. Police were supporting a lumber company doing illegal logging, and John and his mates were protecting the trees with their bodies while a legal intervention found its way through the provincial courts in Sydney. While the chainsaws were screaming and the police gunned their paddy-wagons, John had the realisation that it was not he who was defending the rainforest. The rainforest was defending herself through these pieces of the humanity it had nurtured into existence. On hearing this, I immediately thought, That makes all the difference. That I have an inexhaustible supply of support and inspiration for defending life because it is not dependent on me. That I could be just a channel for Earth acting through me.

I want to know how we can all tap into that. That is the activation point for expansion, that we can serve the natural world, that that is what we are here to do and how we can experience all kinds of creativity and joy. And I think that is what has sustained you for all of these years—from the point of you realising that humans were bringing about their own destruction.

So there are countless ways that we can. Countless ways that we can remember who we really are. For example, we do an evolutionary remembering, imaginatively experiencing the whole evolutionary journey through time. The human chapter is just the last, little, most recent chapter.

We’re the youngest of all in the history of life on this planet, the youngest from our mother’s womb.

We went through a single-cell being, a fish in the ocean, pushing up on dry land, being a lizard, all of that. All of that. We’ve had so much to draw on in the work we’ve done together. There’s a deep rootedness in the past and the ancestors of all beings that give us imagination and courage and fresh ways of seeing. And then in the work we’ve done, we’re always pushing beyond this little separate individual self to see that we’re here for the future lenses as well. And that the future generations are inside us too. That’s another thing that grew in the last 40 years of the work and growing all the time—this realisation that we can tap into the desire of the future generations to have their turn, because they’re in us. They’re in our DNA. They’re in the eggs of every little girl child that gets born. And as one of my teachers said, she was a great radiologist studying the effects of nuclear contamination, “Every being who will ever live in Earth is here now.” Where? In our ovaries, in our gonads and in our DNA. So the work over the last decades has grown this lively sense of how vast is our participation in life. The consumer society has condemned us to a stunted view of who we really are, only taught us how to want and get and devour. And just for ourselves. But that’s not true, it’s not our true life. So

we’re finding the courage to shake off the consumer society and realise that it’s been really lousy for us. As we do this, we don’t want to panic.

And we don’t want to turn on each other. We can wash ourselves clean from all that the consumer society has almost addicted us to. We don’t need that! Jem Bendell outlines four “Rs” that we do need at this time. The first three were in his first paper: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. And then by the following fall, late 2018, he added Reconciliation. For Resilience, we want to ask—and it’s fun to do this in groups—“What are the values and behaviours that we are glad to have in this challenging time?” What’s helpful that we already practice and cherish? Relinquishment: “What are the values and behaviours that we want to get rid of? Oh boy! There’s a lot. Let’s scrub them away. And then the third R, “What are the values and behaviours that we would like to Restore?” That we would like to adopt? Either from our past or from other cultures? And that’s a lot of fun to think about. I found it verges on the exhilarating to think about what we want to bring on board in the value sense and so it works counter to the mainstream in that you don’t feel panicky when you’re thinking like that. And then the fourth R is the Reconciliation. “With whom and with what do we want to make peace?” Here we are facing this enormity of breakdown and huge shift. What do we want to do now when things are so dicey? And with whom do we want to make peace? That’s beautiful. When you start this process, so many ideas come to you. What I found is that you get really great enthusiasm from this process. Thinking about the kind of world you really, really want to be part of. And that’s good because we’re going to need that kind of energy, we need enthusiasm for what’s to come. We’ve got to remember this is an exciting time and not get scared, because when you’re scared you get mean.

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