One of my favorite environmental activists is also one of my favorite philosophers: Joanna Macy is an ecophilosopher. She has written over a dozen books and travels extensively to share her thinking in workshops and lectures on topics that include ecological awareness, personal and social change, as well as spiritual issues. Macy calls the “empowerment process” she teaches “The Work That Reconnects” with a goal “to help us restore our sense of connection with the web of life and with one another.” 1, 2
To step back for a moment, I find much that is written about environmental challenges reminds me of the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. I stood as a child absolutely awestruck on a national park observation deck and tried to take in the vastness of the view. It simply didn’t look real. Nothing I’d seen before even came close to offer any reference point to orient my comprehension. As an adult, I often get that same feeling when reading about environmental issues. Mounting statistical evidence and potential scenarios for climate change are already extreme and many proposed policy solutions require a scope of global cooperation that seems doomed to failure. This is where Joanna Macy comes to the rescue.
In the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy she co-authored with behavioral psychologist, Chris Johnstone, they give us an important distinction about two very different ways we process our wishes for change:
“Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.”1
Macy and Johnstone explain that Active Hope is “something we do rather than have” and they offer three simple steps to use it for personal empowerment: 1
- “Take a clear view of reality”
- “Identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed”
- “Take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.”
Whether you use these steps in dealing with the recent upheaval of our world by contagion or the ongoing climate crisis, if you choose an initial step to bring about even a small degree of change you hope for, you can find some measure of control.
For example, in recent months, my family—like so many others—realized we were overly dependent on a food supply chain that was suddenly broken. Rather than wishing (passively hoping) the local grocery store would return to full capacity, we found nearby farms selling directly to the public with a wonderful range of fresh foods. Turning our hopes to action has proven to be a win-win: at the same time the quality of food coming into our household increased, the amount of packaging waste going out of the house decreased dramatically because nothing needed to be fortified in paper or plastic for cross-country transport. We have a new sense of control in the midst of a seemingly uncontrollable situation and it fits with our yearning for a more sustainable future.
The video below shares Joanna Macy explaining the wider concept of The Great Turning which is her term for the sustainability/ecological revolution now underway as people embrace a mindset “that we are a living part of a living planet…being the transition from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society.”3
Here is how Macy described the “gift” of The Great Turning: “When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true size; for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe…When we stop distracting ourselves by trying to figure the chances of success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. This moment then becomes alive, charged with possibilities, as we realize how lucky we are to be alive now, to take part in this planetary adventure.”4
Macy and Johnstone write that “the contribution each of us makes to the healing of our world is our gift of Active Hope. The purpose of this book is to strengthen our ability to give the best gift we can: our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability.”1 I’ve found their words gave me a context for understanding something of the magnitude of what we are experiencing now and a more positive way to find my own toehold in confronting some of the larger environmental issues we are all bound to face.
There is a link below for excerpts and more information about the book, Active Hope.
1Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.
2JoannaMacy.net. Joanna Macy & Her Work.
3Video. Joanna Macy on The Great Turning. 18 August 2007.
4Macy, Joanna. The Greatest Danger. Yes! Solutions Journalism. 2 February 2008.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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