We’re In The Great Turning Now: Joanna Macy’s Coming Back To Life (and more)

Colleen Szabo
7 min readApr 25, 2020

Maybe you’ve never heard of The Great Turning. I think I first read the term from Joanna Macy, around ten years ago, in her book Coming Back to Life: Practices To Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (1998). The book was updated with the help of Molly Brown in 2014, and that’s the edition that sits next to me on my desk now. The Great Turning, Macy says, is “a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.” Macy puts it thus in an article here on ecoliteracy.org. She says that this Turning is the essential adventure of our time. From where I sit right now, it looks like she is spot on.

For we are in a big planetary adventure, no? Maybe the biggest ever. Calling this shift an adventure is emblematic of what I love about Macy’s approach. She presents hard truths, but with a wisdom that refuses to play the power games that are the dysfunctional cornerstone of my society. Her teaching is perfectly balanced between the positive and negative, between grief and joy. That balance is also what I call compassion; the ability to see the bigger picture, and the way that everything is in me. Compassionate balance is wisdom, and Macy is tops on my list of wise elders. Imagine if all of us were encouraged and supported to step up to the wise elder role- and the wise youth role!

The Great Turning then is the shift out of an Industrial Growth Society to one of sustainability, or health; health for planetary systems and for humans on mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual levels. The term “Industrial Growth Society” refers to the top down sociopolitical-socioeconomic system that currently orders our social conditioning in America.

IGS is a term that’s pretty popular in ecopsychology and other alternative camps, if I’m not mistaken; I’m not much of a joiner. The label communicates the perception that industrial growth is the driving force of our economy and therefore our social order, and that the government is in support of that objective (industrial growth) and its valuations. Big corporations as irresponsible economic rulers are the obvious bad guys in this unmitigated growth model.

The social conditioning we support as American citizens determines our relationship with Earth, and until we examine that conditioning, lasting change towards sustainability is unlikely. For sustainability is indeed the driving paradigm for The Great Turning. The IGS envisions our physical planet as materials to extract, and as a dump for the toxins that result from such extraction and the manufacture and use of marketable products.

Macy’s ecopsychology-ecospirituality presents the big picture vision of sustainability. The solution in its simplest blueprint is a society where All Is One. It is our separation from self, from other, from the planet that sustains us so lovingly, that fuels the IGS. We are trained to this separation in our childhoods.

Some of us didn’t do so well with that childhood conditioning, though; obviously Macy wasn’t comfortable with it. The current coronavirus event is teaching many of us about separation and how humans are thus conditioned. In that, it teaches us about relationship. In the archetypal sense, the masculine is the separator, the feminine the connecting principle, so not surprising that a woman speaks to the wisdom principle of interconnectivity. The Turning’s basic shift from unhealthy levels of separation to connection is good news, for it means we are not powerless bystanders. We are the architects of our world.

Interconnectivity or oneness empowers us to shift away from the IGS disaster by changing ourselves; our self perception, our behaviors, and our relationships with everything. We change our story. Macy says The Great Turning is the story where “the central plot is about joining together to act for the sake of life on Earth.” I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there’s more and more of this happening lately.

Macy’s ability to straddle both the intimate and the objective informs a crucial and unique angle to her Work That Reconnects. In short, she says that many of us disconnected souls are trained to the story she calls Business As Usual. This story requires that we don’t feel the wrongness, the pain, and the suffering of the whole IGS mode of operation. Of course in a society that imagines the planet as a collection of resources and a dump, as a collection of facts, a subject of “research”, and images on paper and screens rather than a living being, we are quickly trained to the objectification or “thingness” that pervades my society’s conditioning. The connective power of feeling is feminine, of course; a power that has been lost in the competitive IGS shuffle. It is a power that has been labeled weakness, but is essential to living The Great Turning.

In despite of our early conditioning, this lack of relationship, lack of respect and honoring of Gaia, haunts many in our egocentric society, undermining our ability to thrive. Thriving is a fundamental quality of sustainability. Macy aims to deconstruct our conditioning by finding, and encouraging, the paralyzing sense of loss and grief that keeps us from thriving. Our natural grief keeps many of us running, numbing, or otherwise hiding in response to tragic information overload.

Macy believes that, with the collection of tools she has been honing for years, we can come together and use our grief to step away from Business As Usual and its powerlessness, and discover our unique role in The Great Turning. Joining together to act for the sake of life on Earth is a simple storyline that asks us to face, and then use our grief, for reconstructing our Industrial Growth Society.

Joanna Macy’s healing spiral

Though Macy’s philosophical roots are Buddhist, she doesn’t push religion or spirituality; she knows that partnering with and loving Terra is natural to humans, and requires no religious woopla. Though she learned from some indigenous teachers, she has absolute and utter faith that every human has their own unique ways to contribute to the new world that we are creating.

As a writer, I love that she opens her arms wide to everyone. She lists three areas or dimensions that are mutually reinforcing of the Turning; 1. actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings, 2. analysis and transformations of the foundations of our common life, and 3. a fundamental shift in worldview and values. Many are engaged in all three, she says, adding this: “People working quietly behind the scenes in any of the three dimensions may not consider themselves activists, but we do. We consider anyone acting for a purpose larger than personal gain or advantage to be an activist.” In a world that’s largely at a standstill, this is good news indeed. For many, a fundamental shift in worldview and values will be the compassionate product of their isolation.

One of my behind the scenes joy-filled practices at this time is singing. Here’s one that reminds me that this Great Turning is, in fact, a simple thing that asks us only to care about natural human desires for love, healing, and dreams of a sustainable and beautiful restoration of Gaia. Voices are important…songwriter is Ruth Pelham

Here is the trailer for Joanna Macy’s short film Joanna Macy and the Great Turning.

Macy has plenty of talks on the internet, and her skill at metaphor and intimacy is evident in all of them. She is a translator of Rilke and uses poetry in her writing, bringing in the elements of beauty and love. She will be 91 years old on May 2. And apparently going strong. What a great encouragement for the despairing. Happy Birthday Joanna! And many, many thanks. Joanna Macy’s site here

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