Joanna Macy is one of the green movement’s old lionesses - a woman who began her quest to boost environmental awareness by breaking into a nuclear reactor in the 1970s.
Before the break-in, her undergraduate son brought home a paper on pollution from nuclear power and weapons. It wasn’t long before Macy was joining him in his activism, eventually busting into the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.
Macy, now 81, soon emerged at the vanguard of a new wave of environmentalism, sometimes called deep ecology or Gaian environmental ethics. Instead of setting aside conservation parks for people to enjoy, this wave demanded people connect to the Earth psychologically or spiritually.
Thus, the movement was heralded as a “shift in consciousness,” a radical change at the heart of human nature and not just in its infrastructure.
Forty years later, Macy is still a passionate cheerleader for this shift she began defining in her 40s. Next week, she’s hosting both a public talk and a workshop in Whitehorse.
But after so many years spent talking about such a dramatic change in human nature, you can’t help but wonder why people still buy big trucks and big televisions to satisfy their needs.
“I think (the pain) is overwhelming,” she said on the phone from Skagway. “We have a fear of pain. We close down our hearts, our minds. We’re afraid of the despair.”
The pain Macy refers to is the pain we all feel from watching the Earth be destroyed, she said.
Her theory says we all have an inherent connection with the Earth, and that our destruction of it forces us to numb ourselves to escape the guilt.
Her questioning all started with that first adventure into the nuclear reactor.
“When I discovered the health effects -the cancers, the miscarriages, the stillbirths and the deformities - I found that people didn’t want to know about it,” said Macy.
“I became fascinated by what it is that is shutting us down. Why are we closing down our awareness of what’s happening and pretending that it isn’t there?”
Macy isn’t always clear about what causes this “shutting down.” Sometimes it’s simply a psychic force - a fear of pain, for example. And sometimes it’s the corporate elites, who want the current model of industrial growth to remain intact.
What matters is that it’s a recipe for destruction.
Macy is a practitioner of what’s called “general systems theory.” The theory holds that if you grow one part of a larger system at the expense of other parts, like the Earth for example, the whole system is doomed to fail.
So humanity is undergoing a Great Unravelling because of this. The age of industrial growth is eating up the Earth’s resources and making it impossible to sustain.
The growth of China and India into modern industrial states is part of this unravelling.
But as a counterpoint, there is also the Great Turning, the term Macy uses to describe the 40-year-old shift in consciousness.
“It’s more evident on the grassroots level,” she said.
Resistance of industrial development, buying local food and green architecture are all part of the Great Turning.
But this Great Turning theory can be inconsistent at times.
Macy praises certain changes in infrastructure that do less harm to the environment. But what if green solutions brought about by technology help reduce humanity’s impact on nature? What if the idea of technological progress and humanity’s ability to solve problems remains at the forefront of these changes? What makes the current changes a shift in consciousness when it might just be a smarter, second wave of the industrial age? A kind of industrial age 2.0?
“Because it’s not destructive of life,” said Macy. “When you put corporate profits in front of anything else, that’s where the excitement is.”
“But the real excitement is doing it in ways that is not destructive of life.”
She criticizes Californians for overhauling their energy grid with cleaner sources because it remains centralized. She would rather see people run individual energy sources.
In the same vein, should we refrain from buying organic products at Walmart and opt for more expensive products in local markets?
Also, while the industrial age, steeped in the optimism of liberal ideology, offers an individual a clear mission in life, it isn’t always clear what will motivate individuals in the next age - what Macy calls a “Life Sustaining Society.”
Macy says the motivation will be “to open their hearts and minds to the beauty of life.”
“Once you see that, which is right there anyway, when you stop closing down for fear of pain, you get to see the wonder, beauty and mystery of life itself,” she said.
“What motivates us is to identify with something bigger than our personal comfort.”
If this kind of society is truly possible, what will motivate people when there are no more nuclear power plants to resist?
The urge to build new life-sustaining systems will be there, she said.
There’s also the hypocrisy of those who feel they are taking part in the Great Turning, but who currently live in unsustainable communities, like the Yukon.
“We can take part in the Great Turning, but still be complicit in settlements and infrastructure that are harmful,” said Macy. “So we change what we can and we take in larger and larger dimensions.”
There’s also Macy’s criticism of “comfort.” The search for comfort at all costs is what feeds the industrial age, she said.
But how does that jive with a person’s need for comfort - not to mention the historical trend of people leaving indigenous hunter-gathering societies for more modern ones?
“I’m talking about our psychic comfort at all costs, which involves closing our eyes,” she said.
“That’s happening on a large scale. People are denying our innate love for nature.”
The goal is to get people to be comfortable with the pain they feel for the Earth, and use it as a motivation to heal its wounds.
“That pain is not some private craziness.”
All in all, the theory moves between being very general about what the Great Turning consists of to being very specific about it. But despite the confusion, Macy is not lacking in passion. In the world of environmentalism, a movement that is usually more underdog than enforcer, Macy has an appreciable skill for moving crowds and rallying groups to the cause.
“My work is to see what brings me alive and to work for the sake of life on Earth and to help everybody else find that too,” she said.
Macy is hosting a public talk at 7 p.m. at the Beringia Centre. Donations are welcome. She is also hosting a workshop from September 11 to 12 at the Lorne Mountain Community Centre for $290. Call Jill Pangman at 668-5032.
Contact James Munson at