Books Community Sustainability

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone

The concept of planetary emergencies can make us, as individuals, feel small and powerless. Active Hope (How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy) (first published in 2012), and all the concepts behind its title, reassures us that we contain enough strength and imagination to tackle these emergencies (the climate crisis, social division and war, resource depletion, economic decline, mass extinction of species). It also guides us through transformational processes necessary to unleash hidden resources, unexpected resilience, and creative power, strengthening our capacity to face them.

The importance of books like Active Hope resides in not just chasing and finding hope at an individual level, by simply muting external problems; it’s also about facing and harnessing the painful realities we’ve brought about in the world.

Joanna Macy is a PhD scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, with decades spent teaching an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects. Large chunks of the book are informed by her previous workshops, run around the world with a wide range of participants. The collaborative model of power at the heart of the book is based upon “appreciating how much [more] we can achieve working together than as separate individuals.”

Co-authoring the book is Chris Johnstone, a medical doctor specialised in the psychology of behaviour change, resilience, and recovery from addiction. Because of their diverse backgrounds, the authors employ mythic journeys, holistic science, modern psychology, and spirituality to provide us with tools to face the mess we’re currently in.

“This blocked communication generates a peril more deadly, for the greatest danger of our times is the deadening of our response. We often hear comments such as ‘Don’t go there, it is too depressing’ and ‘Don’t dwell on the negative.’ The problem with this approach is that it closes down our conversation and our thinking. How can we begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about?”

The Work That Reconnects is an approach helping us restore our sense of connection with the web of life, and with one another, strengthening our capacity to face disturbing information and respond with unexpected resilience. The beauty of this process is that it has been conducted in many different languages, and has involved people of different faiths, backgrounds, and age groups.

“The spiral of the Work That Reconnects is something we can come back to again and again as a source of strength and fresh insights. It reminds us that we are larger, stronger, deeper, and more creative than we have been brought up to believe. It maps out an empowerment process that journeys through the successive movements, or stations, described as Coming from Gratitude, Honoring Our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth.”

The book’s dense information — for both study and action — is separated into four parts and thirteen chapters; small bites to help you assimilate new concepts. Experience from past workshops, well-tested practices, and an intricate network of instructive sub-chapters organized in Q&A format mix with theoretical and scientific digressions, legends and theories (from the story of Parsifal to Gaia theory), and abundant personal reminiscences of collective and individual stories. All of these elements sketch an articulate and comprehensive portrait of Active Hope – a concept which may be hard for some to digest, with its sense of 60s and 70s’ idealism, but which has the potential to flourish in the profit-focused present.

“Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.

“Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.”

The Three Stories of Our Time

In Part One (‘The Great Turning’), the authors describe three stories of our time, “each acting as a lens through which we see and understand what’s going on.” It’s important to appreciate that these are all happening simultaneously. The big question is: Which one do we want to put our energy into?

1. Business as Usual: Told by policy makers and corporate leaders, this story assumes that our society is on the right track and that we can carry on as usual. Their view is that economies can, and must, continue to grow.

2. The Great Unraveling: This reveals the destructive consequences of the business-as-usual mode and the progressive unraveling of our biological, ecological, and social systems. It involves a perception that the world is in serious decline, with many issues triggering alarm (economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, social division and war, mass extinction of species).

“Guilt is the uncomfortable awareness that our actions are out of step with our values. If we, collectively, don’t experience guilt for what we’re inflicting on future generations, we are in danger of pulling a ‘Madoff’ on them. The beautiful world we were entrusted to protect will have been all used up.”

3. The Great Turning: The groundswell of response to danger and the multifaceted transition to a life-sustaining civilisation, “the essential adventure of our time.” Some call it the Ecological Revolution, the Sustainability Revolution, even the Necessary Revolution. This story involves “the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.”

“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 book Blessed 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 oneand maybe even twomillion organizations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.’”

Given the focus on Active Hope, most of the subsequent chapters revolve around The Great Turning. The story has three dimensions: Holding Actions, Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices, and Shifts in Consciousness.

“In choosing our story, we not only cast our vote of influence over the kind of world future generations inherit, but we also affect our own lives in the here and now. When we find a good story and fully give ourselves to it, that story can act through us, breathing new life into everything we do. When we move in a direction that touches our heart, we add to the momentum of deeper purpose that makes us feel more alive. A great story and a satisfying life share a vital element: a compelling plot that moves toward meaningful goals, where what is at stake is far larger than our personal gains and losses. The Great Turning is such a story.”

The practices outlined in these chapters encourage the reader to try to notice, savour, and give thanks, while box-outs demonstrate the failures of other stories – for example: “More resources have been consumed in the last fifty years than in all preceding human history. Yet we’re not any happier, and depression has reached epidemic proportions.”

There is also an in-depth exploration of a wider sense of self, a different kind of power (power-with vs. power-over), collaboration, and the richer experience of community (groups we feel at home in, the wider community around us, the global community of humanity, the community of life on Earth). Other concepts are also explored. For instance, chapter three focuses on the ability of gratitude to promote well-being, and build trust and generosity – but also what blocks gratitude.

This is a book you’ll want to keep close to you — to open every time hope is eluding you; useful for activists in need of inspiration and practical advice, but also for those only warming up to bohemian-sounding concepts and holistic approaches. It’s also a good companion to help you imagine the future you hope for, a future hopefully informed by the collective transition to a life-sustaining society.

Sign up to our newsletter

Subscribe for fortnightly guides to ethical living and news on the best new ethical brands 🙌