Joanna Macy On the Three Pillars of The Great Turning

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“If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.” ― Joanna Macy


A few weeks ago Br. Chris and I interviewed the author Darrin Drda, who was in town to give a talk about his new book The Four Global Truths- Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our TimesIt was the filmmaker Ian MacKenzie that helped connect us to Darrin, and Ian was present during the interview; it was a great group discussion and we should have a slice of that up in the podcast section real soon.

Joanna MacyAt some point in the interview Ian mentioned a three-pronged model used by the Buddhist activist and scholar Joanna Macy, which Darrin also uses in his book. It was the first time I'd heard about this model and I immediately found it very clarifying and useful, so I wanted to introduce it here for folks who aren't familiar with it, and also enter it into the project here at Beams for the future use of other writers.

The model is a guiding tool for how we can achieve what Macy calls "The Great Turning", the "transition from the "industrial growth" society to the "life-sustaining" model...Macy frames [this] as the third great revolution in history after the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, and as one that will be occurring much more quickly than the previous two, with an active and conscious participation on the part of humanity as a whole (1)".

According to Macy, to accomplish this turning work needs to be done in three distinct areas. They are as follows:

1) Holding Actions- this is essentially what we normally call activism or direct action. It's getting out there in the streets and saying a Holy No to the destructive and unjust practices that are taking place on the planet right now. It's putting bodies in the way of an out of control global system as it marches its sick juggernaut towards some form of deterioration or collapse. Macy says this could take the form of "blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal...Work of this macy-3pillarskind buys time. It saves some lives, and some ecosystems, species, and cultures, as well as some of the gene pool, for the sustainable society to come. But it is insufficient to bring that society about"  (2).

2) Structural Change- this is where we actively work to build new societal forms, new economies, new ways of being together and organizing etc. This is the realm of the famous Buckminster Fuller quote, "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete". In a similar vein, the German anarchist Gustav Landaeur once wrote that the state was "not something that one can smash in order to destroy...The state is a relationship between human beings; one destroys it by entering into other relationships". Structural change is where we develop the forms of a new society right within the old one, eventually having what's needed to shed our former skin.

There are a lot folks working on these sorts of projects today, ranging from permaculture, to Transition Towns, resilient communities, food sovereignty and the local food movement, peer-to-peer production, gift economies and other alternative economic forms, open source culture, green technologies, eco-villages, education initiatives and the list goes on.

3) Shift in Consciousness- this is where we do the work of inner spiritual and psychological transformation, what Joseph Campbell called the inward journey. Here we intentionally try and develop beyond our "skin encapsulated egos" and open into wider spheres of identity with the earth, cosmos, and the whole of humanity. This can happen through new forms of thought, understanding the Great Story of which we're a-part, and in particular, through the many spiritual traditions that have developed the methods for such transformation over the centuries.

For Macy this is important because, "These structural alternatives cannot take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. They must mirror what we want and how we relate to Earth and each other. They require, in other words, a profound shift in our perception of reality--and that shift is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening" (3).


So that's Joanna Macy's three-pronged model for achieving The Great Turning. I like this model because it helps to distinguish three distinct yet equally important areas necessary for achieving large scale societal transformation. This is helpful because individuals and communities often focus exclusively on one point of the triangle; furthermore, there's often substantial debate as to which one is most important, and thus most worthy of our time. But as Darrin Drda writes, "A successful transition to a more sustainable world will require substantial, simultaneous, and prolonged effort in all three areas...Like everything else in the universe, the three arenas of change are intimately GVO-Eds-GreatTurning-1Binterdependent" (4).

When we discussed this model both Ian and Darrin made the point that each of us is going to be drawn to, and more effective at, one of these dimensions in particular. Some of us are full of courage and fire, and are willing to risk body and more in an act of civil disobedience. Others will be more attracted to getting their hands in the dirt and creating new systems, while others will be fueled by diving into the work of evolving consciousness.

While I think there's an important truth to this, I'd still like to see more mixing of the three going forward. I'd love to see communities of spiritual seekers go out together at an Occupy protest or some other direct act of "refusal", and I'd love it if more activists got out to retreats and developed a daily spiritual practice. And I'd like to see all of us out there supporting these new forms of community, culture and exchange, building the new flesh of the multitude as we act in common. 

Here at Beams we're doing our best to support, give voice to, and take part in all three dimensions of the model, but I didn't see these distinctions clearly until I encountered Macy's framework, so a big thanks to Darrin and Ian for the introduction. In closing, here's a short video where Joanna Macy discusses The Great Turning and her model. It's a bit of a review of what was just written above, but it's nice to hear it again through the person of Macy.




"With this turning, the truth of the coming to presence of Being will expressly turn in- turn homeward- into whatever is". - Martin Heidegger, The Turning (1954)



1) Darrin Drda. The Four Global Truths- Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times. p.155-156.



4) Darrin Drda. The Four Global Truths- Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times. p.156.

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  • Comment Link Brian McConnell Friday, 29 June 2012 15:50 posted by Brian McConnell

    Thanks for writing this piece Trevor. The underlying theme is similar to one I raised towards the end of March in the Occupy Integral! thread here at "Beams and Struts" pertaining to Todd Goldfarb's article entitled, "Activism versus Spirituality". The process obviously entails integrating Macy's 'Three Pillars' into a reasonably functioning, collective whole.

    It's interesting to me also that David Korten is another who's embraced 'The Great Turning' metaphor:

  • Comment Link marty dagoberto Friday, 29 June 2012 19:00 posted by marty dagoberto

    Thank you so much for sharing this! Succinct and informative, I will be sharing this with my networks! I've been a student of Macy's and Korten's work for some time. They've helped me maintain relative sanity and determination in these crazy times. Another teacher who has helped me greatly with the spiritual/shadow work is Andrew Harvey, author of "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism." I'd strongly suggest your readers check out his work, as well. It's all about the sacred marriage of the mystic and the activist, for a third fire of compassion in action. and here's a free podcast series with him (and also Charles Eisenstein!):

    in lak'ech

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Friday, 29 June 2012 20:47 posted by David MacLeod

    Yes, yes. Good stuff. As mentioned, David Korten has embraced the metaphor, acknowledging Joanna Macy. This 'Yes' magazine article provides a summary of Korten's book "The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community."

    And this 1 hour presentation (with nice Powerpoint slides), followed by 20 minutes of Q&A is very good, from a 2006 presentation in Vancouver. Scroll to bottom of page for video link.

    Anodea Judith's "Waking the Global Heart" is a more feminine parallel to Korten's "Great Turning"

    And I also really like Andrew Harvey's "The Hope."

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 01 July 2012 22:54 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks for comments everyone. It looks like I'll have to bump Korten's book up on the ole reading list, and look into Harvey's The Hope too.

    Brian I think you're right when you say "The process obviously entails integrating Macy's 'Three Pillars' into a reasonably functioning, collective whole". What that looks like in action, however, is another question, but I suppose it's something we'll have to invent as we go forward and then share with one another. I suspect there's a variety of historical examples of this integration too, probably via religious communities of various sorts, but I'm not very familiar with that history. But either way, it's going to be an adventure going forward, with many chapters still to be written.

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