The Great Turning

By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

Gaia Education
6 min readApr 21, 2017


Series: Following the crises up-stream: The Role of Worldviews & Values Systems in the Great Transition


The physicist Fritjof Capra suggested that if we follow the current ecological, social and economic crises upstream we begin to realise that they all stem from a deeper crises of consciousness. The stories we tell about who we are and why we are here no longer serve humanity. Our currently culturally dominant worldview and value systems are drivers of our unsustainable behaviours. In trying to Design for Sustainability we have to pay more attention to these worldviews and value systems and how they affect what we see, shape our real and perceived needs and inform our intentions, as well as the way we design solutions.

Gaia Education´s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn how to make a difference in your community and region. The Worldview dimension of the course starts on 21 May 2018 and there are still a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now!

This series of excerpts from the Worldview Key, a collection of articles collated in the book ‘The Song of the Earth — A Synthesis of the Scientific and Spiritual Worldviews, offer background material to the curriculum of the Worldview dimension of both Gaia Education’s face-to-face EDE and our online GEDS programmes. This series highlights some classic articles from that compendium. Enjoy!

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In the Agricultural Revolution of ten thousand years ago, the domestication of plants and animals led to a radical shift in the way people lived. In the Industrial Revolution that began just a few hundred years ago, a similar dramatic transition took place. These weren’t just changes in the small details of people’s lives. The whole basis of society was transformed, including people’s relationship with one another and with Earth.Right now a shift of comparable scope and magnitude is occurring. It’s been called the Ecological Revolution, the Sustainability Revolution, even the Necessary Revolution. We call it the Great Turning and see it as the essential adventure of our time. It involves the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world. This transition is already well under way. In the early stages of major transitions, the initial activity might seem to exist only at the fringes. Yet when their time comes, ideas and behaviors become contagious: the more people pass on inspiring perspectives, the more these perspectives catch on. At a certain point, the balance tips and we reach critical mass. Viewpoints and practices that were once on the margins become the new mainstream.

In the story of the Great Turning, what’s catching on is commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so. Social and technical innovations converge, mobilizing people’s energy, attention, creativity, and determination, in what Paul Hawken describes as “the largest social movement in history.” In his bookBlessed Unrest, he writes: “I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over one — and maybe even two — million organizations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.”

As an aid to appreciating the ways you may already be part of this story, we identify three dimensions of the Great Turning. They are mutually reinforcing and equally necessary. For convenience, we’ve labeled them as first, second, and third dimensions, but that is not to suggest any order of sequence or importance. We can start at any point, and beginning at one naturally leads into either of the others. It is for each of us to follow our own sense of rightness about where we feel called to act.

Joanna Macy’s and Chis Johnstone’s book, Active Hope (Source)

Holding Actions aim to hold back and slow down the damage being caused by the political economy of Business as Usual. They include steps we take to raise awareness of the damage being done, as well as campaigns, petitions, boycotts, rallies, legal proceedings, direct actions and other forms of protest against practices that threaten our world. Their goal is to protect what is left of our natural life-support systems, rescuing what we can of our biodiversity, clean air and water, forests, and topsoil. Holding actions also counter the unraveling of our social fabric, caring for those who have been damaged and safeguarding communities against exploitation, war, starvation, and injustice. Holding actions defend our shared existence and the integrity of life on this, our planet home.Holding actions are essential; they save lives, they save species and ecosystems, they save some of the gene pool for future generations. But by themselves, they are not enough for the Great Turning to occur. For every acre of forest protected, many others are lost to logging or clearance. For every species brought back from the brink, many others are lost to extinction. Vital as protest is, relying on it as a sole avenue of change can leave us battle-weary or disillusioned. Along with stopping the damage, we need to replace or transform the systems that cause the harm. This is the work of the second dimension.

If you look for it, you can find evidence that our civilization is being reinvented all around us. Previously accepted approaches to healthcare, business, education, agriculture, transport, communication, psychology, economics, and so many other areas are being questioned and transformed. This is the second strand of the Great Turning, and it involves a rethinking of the way we do things, as well as a creative redesign of the structures and systems that make up our society.When we support and participate in these emerging strands of a life-sustaining culture, we become part of the Great Turning. Through our choices about how to travel, where to shop, what to buy and how to save, we shape the development of this new economy. Social enterprises, micro-energy projects, community teach-ins, sustainable agriculture, and ethical financial systems all contribute to the rich patchwork quilt of a life-sustaining society. But by themselves they are not enough. These new structures won’t take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. Cultivating and sustaining these values is the work of the third dimension of the Great Turning.

What inspires people to embark on projects or support campaigns that are not of immediate personal benefit? At the core of our consciousness is a wellspring of caring and compassion; this aspect of ourselves — which we might think of as our connected self - can be nurtured and developed. We can deepen our sense of belonging in the world. Like trees extending their root systems, we can grow in connection, thus allowing ourselves to draw from a deeper pool of strength, accessing the courage and intelligence we so greatly need right now. This dimension of the Great Turning arises from shifts taking place in our hearts, our minds, and our views of reality. It involves insights and practices that resonate with venerable spiritual traditions, while in alignment with revolutionary new understandings from science.

We take part in this third dimension of the Great Turning when we pay attention to the inner frontier of change, to the personal and spiritual development that enhances our capacity and desire to act for our world. By strengthening our compassion, we give fuel to our courage and determination. By refreshing our sense of belonging in the world, we widen the web of relationships that nourishes us and protects us from burnout. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were often regarded as separate endeavors and viewed in either-or terms. But in the story of the Great Turning, they are recognized as mutually reinforcing and essential to one another.

This article was originally published at

This article features in The Song of the Earth, the fourth volume of Gaia Education’s ‘Four Keys to Sustainable Communities’ series (officially endorsed by UNESCO). The book is available for purchase here and on Gaia Education’s online shop:

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Want to know what you can do? The Worldview dimension of the course starts on 21 May 2018 and there are still places left, so sign up now!



Gaia Education

Leading provider of sustainability education that promotes thriving communities within planetary boundaries.