Three Forms of Activism


In this age of overwhelm, with so many five-alarm fires of outrage and disasters each day, it’s only human to start feeling dizzy and helpless, as if there is little we can do to fight these giant beasts of racial injustice, war mongering, and impending environmental catastrophe. Some days, when something outrageous happens we may feel ready to do be heroic, storm out into the streets and handcuff ourselves to something or dangle our bodies from a bridge. Other days we may just feel like pulling the covers back over our heads and watching some Netflix. When we resurface, it can be hard to know where to begin.

What does it mean to be an activist anyway? Is it something that’s going to make me really tired? And how does any small action I take make any difference? What is it all adding up to? How does it make a difference on a wider scale?

Joanna Macy, the sparkley-eyed, passionate systems thinker, Buddhist scholar, and deep ecology elder, has been working on these questions through more than five decades of activism. Including the overwhelm and all the reasons we feel paralyzed. In her book, Coming Back to Life she describes 3 forms of activism:

  1. Holding Actions – taking immediate actions on behalf of life
  2. Structural Changes – transforming structures that are not working anymore
  3. Shifts in Consciousness – developing the thinking, the mental frameworks, the consciousness that supports life

When Joanna first started teaching about these three dimensions, people usually felt particularly compelled to do work in one of the dimensions more than the other two. However Joanna emphasized that each of the dimensions is very necessary to bring about the changes we want to see. So any holistic strategy needed to have a mix, with some people focusing on Holding Actions; some on Structural Changes; and some on bringing about Shifts in Consciousness.

Holding Actions

Are about working on immediate problems, stopping the destruction, stopping pipelines, saving species — saving what is left. These usually take the form of legislative work; civil disobedience; sheltering and feeding people; front line activism. This is work that people often throw themselves in to whole heartedly, but can burn out on.

Work of this kind 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.

Greenpeace activists dangling from Portland, Oregon’s St. Johns Bridge to block an oil tanker, Mike Zacchino[/caption]

Structural Changes

Structural work has to do with transforming the foundations of our common life. To do this we need to analyze the current systems, study other models, and work to implement them. This includes things like living in communities; restorative justice; growing food without pesticides; growing food in smaller farms in ways that is more sustainable; changing over to systems that use energy in a way that is not as polluting.

To free ourselves and our planet from the damage being inflicted by the Industrial Growth Society, we must understand its dynamics. What are the tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few, while progressively impoverishing the rest of humanity? What interlocking causes indenture us to an insatiable economy that uses our Earth as supply house and sewer? It is not a pretty picture, and it takes courage and confidence in our own common sense to look at it with realism; but we are demystifying the workings of the global economy. When we see how this system operates, we are less tempted to demonize the politicians and corporate CEOs who are in bondage to it. And for all the apparent might of the Industrial Growth Society, we can also see its fragility–how dependent it is on our obedience, and how doomed it is to devour itself.

In addition to learning how the present system works, we are also creating structural alternatives. In countless localities, like green shoots pushing up through the rubble, new social and economic arrangements are sprouting. Not waiting for our national or state politicos to catch up with us, we are banding together, taking action in our own communities. Flowing from our creativity and collaboration on behalf of life, these actions may look marginal, but they hold the seeds for the future.

Shift in Consciousness

These happens through studying environmental sciences, religion, awareness of and returning to indigenous practices. It means waking up to the realization that the earth is alive; that it is a living in a living system and we are a part of it.

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.

Taking the long view, Joanna describes this particular moment we are living through as the The Great Turning — the shift from an industrial growth society, to a life sustaining society. In the industrial growth society we are coming out of, humans objectify and commodify nature, relating to it as an inanimate thing that is there for the taking and the selling. When we run out, we just go back to the earth to get more. When we don’t need the things we’ve taken from the earth, we just find somewhere to dump it, with little regard to the place where are leaving the waste.

The Prophecy, Fabrice Monteiro and Jah Gal[/caption]

In the life sustaining society we are moving towards, we see the earth as a living system of which we are a part, that we want to treat as our home.

Our earth is alive. It’s not a supply house or a sewer, it is our larger living body with vast evolving intelligence that we are totally a part of and we can draw on.

Anne Symens-Bucher is Joanna’s Executive Assistant who has worked closely with her, teaching The Work that Reconnects and training facilitators throughout the country. This is one way The Great Turning is being translated and catalyzed by activists and regular people in the real world.

Anne talks about how the 3 forms of activism are actually overlapping more and more:

“For me, The Great Turning is where these 3 dimensions are actually overlapping. Where we’re not even thinking of them as separate dimensions but we’re acting on behalf of life in a way that is bringing all of them together.

For example, a traditional Holding Action would be a soup kitchen or a food bank where we’re handing out packaged or processed food.

But if we’re thinking of the holding action overlapping with transforming the foundations of our common life, then we’re going to say, Oh, we want to give people access to healthy food; to organic food; and ways to grow food. If the shift of consciousness is in there, then we’re also shifting the power dynamic — it’s about food as a right. It’s not a charity thing. It’s about justice, how do we create systems where justice can reign, rather than an act of charity.

I want the Great Turning to have all of these dimensions overlapping each other. For example if you drew a ven diagram, the Great Turning would be the center, that grows bigger and bigger.”
–Anne Symens-Bucher

The community where Anne lives at Canticle Farm in Oakland CA is one of the many model of the Work That Reconnects in action. Canticle farm experiments at the intersection of social justice, faith based activism, and earth based activism.


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