On June 6, 2019 Joanna Macy, the environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism and Deep Ecology was one of two keynote speakers [along with Nate Hagens who spoke on “The Human Predicament,” film: 57:54 or audio: 58:25] at The New School at Commonweal’s Resilience Project in Bolinas, California. [The event was titled, “Can We Avoid Civilizational Collapse?”] A longtime San Francisco/Bay Area resident – she had just celebrated her 90th birthday.
The question, that the participants at the Commonweal event had come to explore, was: Is resilience a possible response in the face of climate change and civilizational collapse. And what might resilience look like.
Joanna Macy gave a personal and movingly psychological/philosophical talk, led a brief exercise in Open Questioning and closed with generous credits to writers and their ideas that are helpful in navigating and intervening in the collapsing civilization around us.
I’m so excited to be with an audience of people who are not afraid to hear about what’s happening to their world. I could talk all day but I’m not going to. I want to just say that in 1977, that is 42 years ago, I went to the Boston Coliseum with two of my teenage children. I had just completed a PhD thesis on Systems Theory and Buddhist teachings and looking forward to an academic career. It would be late starting career since I was already in my late 40s.
At any rate the Cousteau Society was putting on an incredible day intent on the threats to the biosphere. And on every level of the Colosseum there were booths and displays, panels, and rooms with people—discussions and lectures—on absolutely every aspect of what we’re doing. Not just the ocean, though Jacques-Yves Cousteau was there himself and shared his deep concern about the disappearance of the plankton, as important to our oxygen as the forests are. And he was very, very discouraged and discouraging about that.
I was familiar with almost all the information because my family and I had been very involved in macro analysis seminars from the movement for a new society that we’d been leading. But something happened to me at the end of that day. It’s like all the information that I had which was up here, some pins were pulled out and it all cascaded down through every part of my body—heart, gut—and I heard myself say, ‘We are destroying our world.’ And I knew that in a way that was beyond discussion because I’d been living with the data for previous decades.
I went into a dark night of the soul for about 15 months because I didn’t have anybody I could talk to about it; compare the symptoms, how it feels. For one, I wanted to protect my family. I didn’t want them to know what I was going through. And my peers, academic in the department of religion wouldn’t you think? Avoidance, patronizing, ‘Surely Joanna, you’re not thinking that all consciousness in the universe is in this one planet?’ It was the planet we have, it’s the planet we know, it’s planet we are.
What brought me out was Ralph Nader’s Critical Mass [Energy Project] focus organization and I joined a group in a lawsuit against a nuclear power plant, to windward of Washington, to try to stop them from racking the fuel rods too close together that the regulations permitted and brings them close to criticality. And the defeat of that—but it didn’t matter whether it won or not. I had this information that I wanted to tell people. It was about the health effects. That was what I was supposed to look up. I went right to the Nuclear Regulatory Committee. No one wanted to hear it. We’re not surprised. How do you bring it up? ‘By the way, did you know ...’ ‘Let me talk to you about ...’ ‘Have you ever thought ...’
I became so fascinated by the phenomenon of denial, of repressing the negative emotions about our world. And it wouldn’t leave me. And then I thought, Well, there is a Buddha nature in us all. There is what Thích Nhất Hạnh, that wonderful Zen master, said to those who said, What should we do to help our world? And he said, ‘The most important thing to do is to hear the sounds of the Earth crying in your heart.’ What a statement! As if the sounds of the Earth crying were inside me? But then I thought well that’s a natural thing to say given what I’ve learned about systems and about the Buddha Dharma.
So I began gathering people together for the purpose—and I’d been teaching meditation too, so I started there—a walking around pain: what’s it like to feel physical and mental and moral pain? How do we speak? And I got it right away that what people needed was not me telling them anything. Was not me being a Paul Revere about the condition of the world. But to invite, then create a situation in which they could speak. And I found that open sentences for starters was great. Much better than a question like, What do you think? How do you feel? Give them an open sentence: “When I face the collapse of our society, I feel ...” Now you just repeat after me and end that sentence. All right. Well when I face the collapse of society I ... And then it starts. So it’s like the open sentence is a kind of slide that you go down and into. And then pretty soon it feels so good to hear from parts of yourself that you had been shutting up in an inner closet.
I began to realize that we were tapping not only repressed emotions but what they could bridge to which was the realm of moral imagination. I think many of us here this morning were speaking from that. How do we imagine that we can live up to this, be this great simplification? This book I brought along to show you; it’s from, in France last year Une Autre Fin Du Monde Est Possible, [minimal English translate] Another End of the World is Possible, where they are looking—the great young Pablo Servigne and others are doing beautiful work publicly and with young people flocking to talking about collapse. And even developing a school of thought which they call collapsologie.
So that we began to see, we were playing around, but that we were following a plot line in the given workshop—of whether it was a day or a half a day or a weekend or a week—that was in the form of a cycle or a wheel. But it’s more like a spiral because they could go around where you begin with where all the great spiritual traditions begin: with our full presence. Because what this world asks of us more than anything else, not our smarts, not our saintliness, not our super-ego, but our full presence. To show up, however we are. If we just be present. And a tool for that is gratitude.
Even if you’re saying Hmmmm, now this, the spices I love, or the weather I love, or the look in the eyes of old men that I love—anything—and that helps you get out of—you can’t experience gratitude and feel defended against painful information can you? And that grounds you.
Also what I liked about gratitude, always as I discover, was that gratitude is there, is independent of external circumstances. The indigenous people know that, especially those in this country; their great thanksgiving[s]. Whatever’s going on, that’s the moment for gratitude when it’s there. And also gratitude is a revolutionary act. And if you believe, as I do, that the corporate capitalism and the consumer society has a lot to do with the breakdown of our natural systems in this, gratitude is wonderful because it frees you from the neediness that is required to be subjected, to be a part, the self-loathing even, that’s required and engendered by the consumer society. If you don’t get this connection right away you will in a minute.
So there’s gratitude. And then we go into honoring our pain for the world. We don’t try to explain it. We don’t diagnose it. We don’t try to excuse it. We don’t dress it up in other clothes. We don’t sit on it. We respect it. We honor it for what it is: the heart is breaking. It hurts to see. It’s awful to feel. I don’t want to know. Tell me all the things you don’t want to know. That’s a great exercise.
So this was a whole process of discovery for me because nobody else I knew was doing this. So never be afraid to invent new things. And I’ve found that the pain for the world would certainly include outrage and anger, certainly include sorrow, great grief, dread and fear, and also deprivation and failure and powerlessness.
To speak this in open sentences is fine but the best is through ritual. In ritual you know you can speak for the whole and the definitions and the conventions around that make it a ritual is that you sense you’re speaking for the whole. It’s in an archetype of voice from this moment. And actually it’s beautiful how the language sometimes that is so suitably prophetic and poetic and deep and then, see, you’re suffering with the world. That’s what we do. That’s what all this equipment is in our heart, minds, and fingertips and our neurology. We suffer with our world. Just like the way we love our world. The literal meaning of suffering with is compassion. You’re a compassionate one. As we’re born, that’s our equipment. That’s the definition of a Bodhisattva.
So we reframe just feeling the pain and understanding it and then being liberated, then liberated from being anchored in a separate self. I found that the sequestration of the self in five centuries of hyper-individualism of the Western culture—which is being broadcast through or taken globally through our global economy—is a cruel thing for us all. That we’ve put so much of our sense of what and who we are into this a little prison cell of the ego or as one of my teachers, James Hillman, the Jungian psychologist talked about it as “the lonely cowboy ego.” And we could, in order to be real in our times and take in what’s happening to our world, there’s this, not as a should but it seems to happen naturally, that the world becomes your larger body. That you are a living body within the living body of Earth. You are in conversation with it but you are also in Earth’s hands and that there are all kinds of spiritual ways of being able to express that.
Then the next part of the plot line is seeing with new eyes where you can begin largely through role plays to play around with deep ecology and deep time. Deep ecology, which we drew a lot from the deep, long-range ecology movement of decades back, has the notion that as we mature as a self we grow our ecological self. Which is you, who you indisputably, preciously, not like any other, but you’re held in this larger body that lets you display your uniqueness and act your responsibility of participation, choice.
I feel that at the core of all that I’ve learned and have worked with, what’s guided me over the last 42 years of this is, from the beginning, from systems and Dharma, where they come together is where you find the self is always changing, but if you’re looking for it it’s in the act of choice making, in decision making, in what you want and choose and act on. And that this can help you to the moment where you are in the present, where is not yesterday and not tomorrow, where you can be with this unfolding drama of this beautiful planet. And that the story then, you can see the story you’re acting and you can choose.
There are three major things happening at the same time. One is The Industrial Growth Society. And those are mostly what you hear people talking about in the great institutions, in the government and the media and the military.
And ... and then there’s another story. We call it The Great Unraveling. So we have been working for this for decades with the sense—and that sort of built in to the Limits to Growth which goes back to 1970—with the fact that we have the data to show that the Web of Life is unraveling.
The third choice of what’s happening is that there is a transition. There is The Great Turning to a life sustaining society. We don’t call it sustainable. That’s a trigger word. Life sustaining. And that we can find our way into that exciting drama.
That’s our choice we can make again and again. Thank you for listening.
That is Joanna Macy. The environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism and Deep Ecology and Keynote Speaker at the Resilience Project in Bolinas, California. There is the longer video posted on the New School at Commonweal website that also shows in detail the open question exercise that she led next. The participants were asked to face each other in pairs, preferably with someone they didn’t know. Joanna Macy then gave two open questions that the participants repeated and completed to each other. The first open question was:
As I face the collapse of our civilization, what I’m grateful for is ...
And the question for the second round was:
As I face the collapse of our civilization, what breaks my heart is ...
In the end all participants had answered both questions. Here to give you a sense of how animated the open question exchange became is the closing bell and Joanna Macy’s inspiring comments on the broken heart.
Thank you very much and take time to thank your partner. First of all I want I want you to remember or know that the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. It’s that big. It is in this precious present moment that we can feel the vitality and presence, a full presence, of ourself in this world, again and again and again.
Now there are a couple of things I wanted to call your attention to. I have found that there’s a book on collapse that’s helpful called Reinventing Collapse by Dmitri Orlov. He lived through the collapse of the political economy in Russia between roughly 1988 and ’95. There it was not an ecological devastation so much as of course an economic one. But it went through the bottom falling out of people’s lives. Their money meaning nothing. Their rank meaning nothing. And how they got by and what they learned.
There’s that, Reinventing Collapse, and that’s interesting exercises like something as simple as reflecting in your life, determining what’s a necessity and what’s a convenience. Looking around my home, which seems all pretty simple but then I think of when you get down to it there are really three things we need to stay alive: air, water, food. The ways you reconfigure for yourself the productivity of your life.
Richard Heinberg’s book, Afterburn and particularly, what I love about this book is—very few people talk about it—but he calls it a chapter on “Our Evanescent Culture”. He’s looking at how dependent—I haven’t seen this in any comments so far today or heard it—but we’re electricity-dependent and not only, so, Okay, when the lights go out they go out. Our ancestors up to just a few generations ago, they didn’t have electricity. We can just adjust back. Uh-uh.
For many reasons and there’s one he goes into here which is the loss of our knowledge through digitalization. So much of what we need even on a daily basis for how to treat an infection or measles or what has been digitalized and so convenient. So much of the history and geography of our planet has been in the laptop of our youth and our school students can just [look up]—they don’t need to remember anything.
He describes this in a way that very few people are [aware of:] the trap we’ve set for ourselves by digitalizing so much of our knowledge.
And then, there was reference made to Jem Bendell who is the professor at Cumbria University in the UK that wrote just ten months ago this paper where he had been a professor of Sustainability Leadership and he’d taken a year off to look at climate change and he came out realizing that everything he’d been teaching, most everything he was teaching wouldn’t be really applicable. He had the courage, and he described it recently when he was giving a talk in Australia. For weeks beforehand he was wondering if he dared, do I dare say this? I’m going to be ruined. And then he found after he gave this talk, which became his paper called Deep Adaptation, that there were clusters of people coming up and saying, Oh thank you for saying that, or I’ve been feeling that.
What I have found particularly helpful are four R’s that he proposes. I just did a day-long workshop in Oakland in an urban farm and its population where we went through these four R’s. But interactively. And I’ll tell you what they are but you’ll see them online.
The first R is resilience. He defines that as what are the values and what are the behaviors that we have and want to hang on to. I’m so familiar with these four—I’ll tell you the other three—but I was startled that when, in the workshop what we did, we were about 20 only 20-25, we counted out by fours and had all the ones and twos meet separately. So you’d meet in a group with a separate one of these. So you’d be in a group with this resilience. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s. But just popping ideas. It was a tonic; yes! we could make it. It was so wonderful. All right that’s the first one. What we already have that we want to be sure to keep and use.
This second R is relinquishment. I just love the way that sounds. It makes it sound sutton and silky, or just let it go. What are the values and behaviors we need to let go of and expectations?
My group you want to know was the third R which is, he calls, restoration. What are the values and habits and behaviors that we, our kind used to have? What do we want to go back and bring forward from the past? And it was fun doing that with young people from different colors and cultures there. And what was coming up. It all seemed so inviting.
Then the fourth (when his first paper came out there were those three but as he lived with this, and this has been a huge roller coaster for him too, and he has stayed with this and then came this fourth one) which is a wonderful question for us now and I’ll close with that. Reconciliation: What do we want to make peace with while we can, in our family, in our neighborhood, in our class, in our politics, in our species, in our work, in our community, internationally, globally?
So I close with that. Looking forward to the good times we’ll have as we think more and more and feel in us the joys of the reconciliation that can come with this adventure upon us.