Joanna Macy (1), my first Buddhist teacher, has been on the front lines of environmental activism for 50 years. Now at 90 she is focused on ending global climate change. Joanna talks about how important it is for us to take a long view for perspective during times of crisis. She suggests that we imagine answering to our grandchildren and other children in our lives when we grow old and they ask us, “What were you doing to help during the Time of the Great Turning?” The Time of the Great Turning is the time we are in now, in which we have the opportunity to choose between focusing on our fear and separation, or whether we will take decisive action to join together and wake up to the collective world crisis we are in and respond with kindness and cooperation to make the necessary changes to ensure the survival of life on earth.
Joanna talks about three levels of activity that support positive change during this Time of the Great Turning:
- Activists on the front lines taking direct, non-violent action to insist upon immediate and practical measures to end carbon pollution now.
- People who support the activists with planning, logistics, and money.
- Healers who help everyone stay well— mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Roger Hallam, the brilliant co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion in England, has studied effective activism strategies in great depth. He promotes non-violent civil disobedience to help all of us wake up and declare climate emergency now so that we can move towards solutions in time. In his practical and hopeful book, Common Sense for the 21st Century (2), he states that only five percent of the population must be involved in civil disobedience to be effective. He acknowledges that most of the people on the front lines will be high school and college-aged individuals, and encourages us to include children and old people in direct actions because they evoke so much care in others.
I am encouraged to know that if we can mobilize just five percent of the population to act, we can demand that governments world-wide take our climate situation seriously and implement the solutions needed to save this planet. We should not despair, but instead be brave. It is the young people who will be facing the climate crisis in their generation. They will be the ones needed to make up the majority of that five percent of the population taking radical, peaceful action to demand honest, wise solutions for a sustainable future.
It makes sense to support these young people now, to help them find freedom from a pre-occupation with their bodies so that they can look out at the world and harness their strength and passion for what is needed ahead.
Of course, the fear and stress of living in a world that is in an environmental crisis evokes intense shock and grief that can lead to feelings of paralysis. It is easier to focus on trying to change our bodies than to face the enormous loss and suffering of global warming and social breakdown.
Thanissara (3), another Buddhist teacher and environmentalist I admire very much, offers these simple steps to support our psychological capacity to mobilize protection for our beloved earth:
1. Allow yourself to feel in your body how you are impacted by climate and environmental breakdown. Practice being kind to yourself as you work with feelings of shock, anger and grief.
2. Notice the ways you fall into patterns of avoidance: making demands, defending yourself with denial, or distracting yourself from facing the difficulties ahead.
3. Reach for an inner well-being. Cultivate self-love. Explore how you can simplify your life by relinquishing the things you do not need and expanding what really matters to you.
4. Join with others in your community to take part in efforts to address climate change. Listen to your intuition to guide you towards the actions that feel most important to you now.
Let’s listen to Joanna and imagine speaking to our grandchildren when we grow old. Let’s imagine sharing with them the brave and loving direct actions we took, or the support we gave to those on the frontlines, or the work we did to heal those who were suffering.
Let’s imagine that we were successful, and the world is green and well, the people loving, connected, aware and cooperative, the animals and all beings thriving again.
Just in the imagining, we can gather strength for the steps we need to take now.
(1) Macy, J. (1991). World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA. Parallax Press.
(2) Hallam, R. (2019). Common sense for the 21st century: Only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
(3) Thanissara (2015). Time to stand up: An engaged Buddhist manifesto for our earth. Berkeley, CA. North Atlantic Books.
Photo credit: larrydyer.com