Guest Essay:

The Great Turning:
Reflections on Our Moment in History

by Joanna Macy, Ph.D.,
eco-psychologist, visionary
teacher and writer

     I imagine that future generations will look back on these closing years of the twentieth century and call it the time of The Great Turning.  It is the epochal shift from an industrial growth society, dependent on accelerating consumption of resources, to a sustainable or life-sustaining society.  There is no guarantee that we will make it in time for civilization, or even complex life forms, to survive; but it is clear that there's no alternative, because now we are, in systems terms, "on runaway," consuming our own life support system.  I consider it an enormous privilege to be alive now, in this Turning, when all the wisdom and courage we ever harvested can be put to use and matter supremely. 

     Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute says that, while the agricultural revolution took centuries and the industrial revolution took decades, this ecological revolution must happen within a few years.  At the same time, it will be, of necessity, more thorough-going -- involving not only our political economy, but the attitudes and habits that sustain it. 

     Scientists -- at least those who are not in the pay of the corporations -- see more quickly than the politicians that there is no technological fix.  No magic bullet, not even the Internet, can save us from population explosion, deforestation, climate disruption, poison by pollution, and wholesale extinctions of plant and animal species.  We are going to have to want different things, seek different pleasures, pursue different goals, than those that have been driving us and our global economy.  New values must arise now, while we still have room to maneuver -- and that is precisely what is happening.  They are emerging at this very moment, like green shoots through the rubble.  It's not in the headlines or the evening news, but if you open your eyes and fiddle a bit with the focal length, you can see it, like a faint green haze over things, intensifying here and there in pools and pockets of grass, cress, clover. 

     The Great Turning is occurring on three simultaneous levels or dimensions.  Recognize how they are gaining momentum through your own life.  On the most visible level are holding actions in defense of Earth, including all the political, legislative, and legal work required to slow down the destruction, as well as direct actions-blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of refusal.  Work of this kind buys time.  It helps save biological and cultural systems, and the gene pool, for the sustainable society to come; but it is insufficient to bring that society about. 

     This first level is wearing.  You can get stressed out of your mind, by both the urgency and increasing violence against activists.  In point position, you take a lot of punishment; and when you step back to take a breather, you often feel as if you are abandoning ship.  But to the extent you still care what's happening to the world, you're probably just slipping back to continue the work of the Great Turning in another form -- the way the head goose, when she's tired, slips back and flies in the windstream of others, and another flyer takes her place. 

     The second or middle level of the Great Turning addresses structural causes of the global crisis, and creates sustainable alternatives.  Only a couple of years ago, it was hard slogging to raise any opposition to, or even interest in GATT (the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs); people's eyes glazed over.  But now they are rapidly becoming aware of the rape of the world, and the attack on democracy, built into corporate privilege.  Novel types of teach-ins demystify economics, engage the practical imagination.  At the same time new social and economic arrangements are mushrooming, from local currencies to local marketing and consumer cooperatives, from eco-villages to renewable, off-the-grid energy generation.  They may look fringe, but they hold the seeds of the future. 

     These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive, however, without values to sustain them.  They must mirror what we want, and think we are.  That paradigmatic shift -- at the third, most basic level of the Great Turning -- is happening all around us.  Some choose to see it as an influx of spirit from above, others as "hitting bottom" in our doomed and addictive society.  Either way, we are opening our senses to the web of relationships, the deep ecology, in which we have our being.  Like our primordial ancestors, we begin again to see the world as our body, and (whether we say the word or not) as sacred. 

     We hardly have words for the cognitive, spiritual, and perceptual revolution that is occurring now at a stunning rate of speed.  These lines from the late California poet Robinson Jeffers catch some of its flavor:

I entered the life of the brown forest, 
And the great life of the ancient peaks, 
    the patience of stone, 
I felt the changes in the veins 
In the throat of the mountain, 
    and, I was the streams 
Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag 
    and I was the stars, 
Boiling with light, wandering alone, 
    each one the lord of his own summit 
    and I was the darkness 
Outside the stars, I included them. 
    They were a part of me. can I express the excellence 
I have found, that has no color but clearness; 
No honey but ecstacy...

     We can't tell which will happen first, the final unraveling of life on Earth, or the moment when the elements of a sustainable world cohere and catch hold.  But even if the Great Turning fails to carry this planetary experiment onward through linear time, it still is worth it.  It is a homecoming to our true nature. 

     Just a thousand years ago a theologian wrote a poem.  Amidst the apocalyptic fears and hopes of the first millennium, he experienced and expressed a new vision of the holy -- not as a remote, justly angry judge, but as an immanent presence, creative and loving.  Now at the end of the second millennium, we can receive his poem and let it speak to our own inklings of that which presses within us to be born.  So attend now to Symeon the Theologian (949-1022), knowing that where he said "Christ" and "God," I am substituting "Earth" and "planet":

We awaken in Earth's body 
as Earth awakens our bodies. 
And my poor hand is Earth, she enters 
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully 
my hand becomes Earth, becomes all of her 
(for our planet is indivisibly 
whole, seamless in her planethood).

I move my foot, and at once 
she appears like a flash of lightning. 
Do my words seem blasphemous? Then 
open your heart to her,

and let yourself receive the one 
who is opening to you so deeply. 
For if we genuinely love her, 
we wake up inside Earth's body

where all our body, all over, 
every most hidden part of it, 
is realized in joy as her, 
and she makes us utterly real,

and everything that is hurt, everything 
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, 
maimed, ugly, irreparably 
damaged, is in her transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely, 
and radiant in her light, 
we awaken as the Beloved 
in every last part of our body.


Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory, whose books include World as Lover, World As Self; the Dharma of Natural Systems and Rilke's Book of Hours (with Anita Barrows).  From May 3rd through the 16th, 1998, she and her husband Fran Macy will teach at Schumacher College in England.

The original version of Symeon the Theologian's poem can be found in translation in The Enlightened Heart, ed. Stephen Mitchell, Harper and Row, 1989, p. 38.


Thank you for visiting the EarthLight Magazine web site.  We invite you to subscribe to EarthLight  and receive a wide range of these informative and inspiring articles, reviews and interviews every three months.

Return to EarthLight Home Page
Subscribe to EarthLight Magazine
Read Sample Articles
Find Out About EarthSaints Special Issue
Contact EarthLight Staff