Imbalanced Spheres of Activism and “The Great Turning” that Needs to Get Turning

Troy Wiley
Apr 24, 2018 · 16 min read

I am a big fan of several wise elders. Over a decade ago the Buddhist activist and scholar Joanna Macy, along with other esteemed authors and thinkers such as David Korten, Riane Eisler and Thomas Berry, coined the term “The Great Turning”, which refers to the global shift from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. According to their concept, there have been major points in human history that radically “turned” the relationships we have with each other and with nature. Starting with the domestication of plants and animals during the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, we turned away from egalitarian and cooperative tribal ways towards ways of domination and hierarchy and ownership. Then about 5,000 years ago we intensified the turn towards domination and hierarchy as kings, emperors and men who ruled in the name of god emerged and organized great empires under their personal rule. At this time, the newly created fictions of money and debt began to be used as tools and measures of power. The wealth amassed from the exploitation of nature and human labor was used to create greater hierarchy, and this in turn came to dominate nature and humans even further. Finally, the Industrial Revolution that began just a couple hundred years ago brought environmental and human rights problems to a crescendo, so that we now find ourselves at a critical and pivotal moment. We stand at another Great Turning point. In the words of David Korten, “The ruthless domination and exploitation of Imperial Civilization have reached the limits of what the living systems of Earth and society can and will endure. We face an epic choice.” This great turning, the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society, is already well under way. But the epic choice is ours as to how long it will take, how painful it will be, and whether we will really make the full turn necessary. I believe that with a certain shift (or shall I say “turn”) in our focus and priorities we can do it.

Ball of Human Civilization

I love the term “The Great Turning”. It suggests the metaphor of a huge ball of human civilization that can roll forward and backward, turn in different directions, or might just stop turning altogether. The spherical shape of this “ball of humanity” suggests in its most positive interpretation that we can change our direction and the speed with which we proceed. And maybe, just maybe, we need to “turn” the ball inside out and completely upside down.

The respected elders of “The Great Turning” named above have no doubt pushed the ball of humanity forward. But now, over a decade since the writings of these elders, we have to ask some tough questions. Is our big ball in this Great Turning going in the right direction? Is it turning fast enough? Has it slowed down or even come to a complete stop? And an even tougher question is, has the balanced model of activism, which these visionaries suggested is necessary to save our planet, itself become imbalanced?

I will respectfully make the case that yes, I’m afraid it has. But that’s a good thing, as I will suggest that it should be imbalanced.

My friend Trevor Malkinson beautifully summarizes Joanna Macy On the Three Pillars of The Great Turning in an article he wrote a few years back. According to Macy, in order for this Great Turning to be accomplished, work needs to be done in the following three distinct areas:

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.

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”.

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

I have wholeheartedly and whole-mindedly believed in the wisdom of Macy’s three-pronged model for years now. It seems so well balanced and intuitive that it must be right. The very fact that the model is referred to using phrases such as “Three Pillars”, “Three Pronged”, “Three Dimensions”, or, in the phrase I most particularly like, “Three Spheres”, there is an implied notion of balance, that each member of the trinity is equally important and fundamental in manifesting The Great Turning. I even used to think of Macy’s model in terms of the proverbial three-legged stool metaphor which is so often used to suggest balance and strength. Thus, if any one of the legs of the stool is smaller (less activism) or non-existent (no activism), then the stool will be weakened and fall over. Yet, in terms of our environmental or social justice activism, some people really do seem to work in only one sphere, while disregarding the necessary work in the other spheres.

For example, some activists focus exclusively on the “Holding Action” sphere in terms of street protests or civil disobedience, and do not pay attention to the important “Shift in Consciousness” sphere, i.e. “being the change” by developing resilience, non-violent communication skills, spiritual/personal growth, or embodying the values necessary to a life-sustaining civilization. Or maybe the “Structural Change” that is needed…that is the changes in our growth-based socio-economic system that is consuming the planet, destroying our sense-making abilities, and incentivizing the worst of our human qualities rather than of our best, is completely ignored. The model is suggesting that we need balanced activism in all three of these areas in order to find the power necessary to bring about The Great Turning from a doomed empire industrial civilization to a sustainable earth society. Seems sensible enough, right? But maybe the three spheres in this model should NOT be balanced.

The Great Turning Model of Balanced Activism is Now Itself Imbalanced
During this critical era in which we are being called to respond to the challenges with a greater sense of urgency than we have been thus far, I am going to suggest that it is perhaps Macy’s three-pillar model itself that is out of balance. While there is a need for a more nuanced update, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We just need to turn the model; or perhaps turn it inside out and flip it upside down to see what it might reveal. It is my hope that in doing this we may discover a new perspective, a new paradigm of activism that will provide a powerful impetus to get our big “ball of humanity” turning in the right direction, and rolling as fast as is needed.

Natural Hierarchy of Importance of the Spheres of Activism

So here is my proposal of an updated model, which is based on nested spheres of activism, which suggests a “natural hierarchy” of those activities which are more life-affirming, and, therefore, more important. This means that I am developing criteria by which we can rank the spheres of activism that are naturally more important and more urgent to our survival as a species. I will explain how I have reached these criteria by evaluating each of the spheres, doing so from least important to most important:

3) Holding Actions — While this may initially seem counter-intuitive, and perhaps even offensive to activists or individuals who donate time and money to groups that engage in some form of protest, I respectfully suggest that holding actions are the least important form of activism. Of course, it is important work, but we need to prioritize our areas of focus.

Allow me to explain. A powerful recognition is this — almost ALL charities, NGOs and protest groups around the world address symptoms of the illness. They do not fight the root cause — our outdated socio-economic system itself. The student protests of gun violence in the United States are addressing a symptom. Standing Rock protestors were fighting a symptom. Save the Children is fighting symptoms. World Wildlife Fund is fighting symptoms. Occupy Wall Street was fighting symptoms (yes, evil bankers are symptoms of a larger, inherently corrupt,monetary system). Arab Spring revolutionaries fought the symptoms of a corrupt global win/lose geo-political system. Those fighting to help address the immigrant and refugee problems are fighting a symptom of an outdated nation-state system that doesn’t see the root cause of the refugee crisis. Climate Change activists are fighting the symptoms of a global degenerative economic system that requires infinite, exponential growth on a planet of finite resources. Social Justice activists are fighting symptoms of an unfair, unequal, patriarchal system that’s divided us into races and classes and genders since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. And even Donald Trump is a symptom. (Read the short ebook, The Great Divide: Trump, Populism and the Rise of a Post-Scarcity World to see the systemic socio-economic reasons Trump got elected.)

The point is this — unless and until we start addressing the root cause itself, we will continue suffering from symptomatic problems such as greed, hierarchy, domination, war, and environmental destruction, as we have for 10,000 years. It is sadly ironic that as global capitalism goes into its final stages of collapse, we are faced with even more problems (symptoms) that pull at our heart strings and demand that we address them with our donations or our protests immediately. And yes, we do need to address many of them now. If our house is on fire and there are children inside, we must drop our differences immediately and pick up buckets of water to douse the fire. But let us ask what is causing the fire? And if we are not careful, due to disaster capitalism and the shock doctrine propaganda of our media and politicians, we will be kept in a state of perpetual reaction and distraction. We fail to see that it is a systemic problem, a global crisis that must be addressed.

From a symptomatic and systems perspective, it becomes clear that our entire charitable donation and foreign aid model only addresses symptoms and fails to address the root causes. According to the report Giving USA 2017 , as of 2016 an estimated $360 billion was given to charitable causes in the U.S. alone, with 72% of that coming from individuals. With all of the billions of dollars that have been contributed every year one could expect that the problems confronting us would have been solved by now. Yet somehow they have not, and don’t appear to be any time soon. (Please watch the documentary Poverty, Inc. to understand the charity model’s global failure.)

Furthermore, Joanna Macy herself stated that holding actions don’t usually work. In this brief video of the Great Turning she said that “…in case you haven’t noticed, most of them [holding actions] fail. We spend most of our time looking for money or whatever…” . This states exactly the same point that I make in my book, The Next Copernican Revolution, that…

“…those with money and power and wealth and ownership have always controlled and dominated those without it. Money always wins…We can’t fight bad money with good money, because there’s always more bad money than good money, because the bad money people do what the good guys never do in order to get the money. So, I’m afraid to say, we can’t win fighting them head on. It’s too big to fight on their terms — money terms. The fight alone would be a global civil war that, in itself, would destroy the planet and human civilization. It’s unwinnable, any way you slice it…So we have to do it another way.”

So as will become evident as I explain the other spheres, we need to shift our focus away from Holding Actions and instead focus on the more important spheres…Structural Changes and Shifts in Consciousness.

2) Structural Changes — This is the second most important sphere for the reasons I already mentioned. But to reiterate with a metaphor, if cockroaches are coming out from beneath the refrigerator, they will keep coming until we remove the rotting food that attracts them. A lot of us are too busy blaming the cockroach-like human beings (evil elite or bankers or CEO’s or politicians) who do bad things (wait, maybe this comparison isn’t fair to cockroaches), and then falsely attribute this behavior to a flaw in human nature. In other words, many people think that humans are an inherently violent, competitive and destructive species. But there isn’t just one human nature; we also have the capacity to be altruistic and cooperative. So it depends on the context, or our environment, or whether we have conditions of scarcity or abundance. It was Buckminster Fuller who wrote, “We have learned in the last decade from our behavioral science studies that aggression is a secondary behavior of humans — that when they get what they need, when they need it, and are not overwhelmed, they are spontaneously benevolent; it is only when they become desperate that they become aggressive because what they have relied on is no longer working.” And as I document in my book, despite appearances, and despite all the forces against us, we are nonetheless evolving into the global empathic species that Jeremy Rifkin refers to in his book, The Empathic Civilization, and in this great animated video.

So you see, it is a structural problem. We must get to the root cause of that which divides us from our own empathy, divides us from each other, divides us from our animals and environment, and leaves a wake of global destruction. This structural root cause is our outdated socio-economic system, which includes both the economic system and our political system as two sides of the same coin. As our current socio-economic system continues to break down — as it should and must because it is unsustainable — then more and more people will become open to and aware of completely new possibilities for our structures and systems. As I wrote about in an essay, From Dystopia to a Utopian Reality… as Soon as Now, we have the real possibility, literally at our fingertips, to create heaven on earth in the near future by evolving to a post-capitalist, post-scarcity world. It is no longer the stuff of science fiction. And not only is it not a utopia, it is no longer a choice; it is a necessity if we wish to leave our kids a habitable planet.

1) Shift in Consciousness — So this brings us to the shift in consciousness sphere, which I think is most important, but perhaps not for the reasons you may think. Of course we need to “be the change”, and stay grounded, peaceful, embrace the spiritual truth of oneness, transcend (and include) our egos, live/embody our values, and truly envision and want a more beautiful world that works for everyone. In fact, as I wrote recently, we already have enough blessed unrest and critical mass of people around the world who want this more beautiful world. But we are missing one thing. A different kind of shift in consciousness is being called for. The shift I am talking about is one of positivity and possibility. As we are bombarded with doom and gloom of visions of the very real destruction of our planet, the very real break down of our systems, and the very real fear of more and more people and animals suffering unless we change course, a powerful recognition is hitting home…we don’t have much time left. We don’t have a hundred years to fix things, we don’t have a couple of decades, we don’t even have ten years left. It is now.

And when the enormity of this sets in, this sense of urgency, then it changes everything. It changes what our priorities are, and what we focus on. It changes what we do now. It changes what we think is possible. The author Daniel Pinchbeck gets this sense of urgency, as indicated by the title of his book, How Soon is Now? And he also gets that we need to shift our consciousness, “it is only when we see ourselves as one planetary tribe that this change can occur…to evolve from one state of being — our current level of consciousness — to the next.” Even though Pinchbeck understands this sense of urgency, I question the immediacy of his timeline and whether his proposed changes are commensurate in scope with said urgency. So in other words, we not only need to turn the ball of humanity soon by shifting the model of activism towards structural change, but we need to ensure we are turning it far enough to the root structural cause.

But here is where the hope and opportunity come in to kick fear in the ass.

As the very real doom and gloom scenario comes closer and closer, so does the very realistic possibility of flipping the paradigm in short order to the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible. So there are two critically important understandings that can help us really shift our consciousness and thus shift our world:

  1. It is POSSIBLE to flip our paradigm (note: understanding what a paradigm is already puts us on the path to flipping it)
  2. It is possible to flip the paradigm SOON, as soon as now.

If we can make this shift in our own hearts and minds, to fully believe that it is possible to end the existing paradigm of domination and hierarchy that has been with us for 10,000 years, and do so very very soon, then that is half the battle. But the funny thing is that this time it’s not going to be a battle. That would be the old paradigm. This is a revolution of the mind. Take one minute to fully absorb what the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti has to say:

What we are trying in all these discussions and talks here, is to see if we cannot radically bring about a transformation of the mind. Not accept things as they are — but to understand it, to go into it, examine it, give your heart and your mind with every thing that you have to find out. A way of living differently. But that depends on you and not somebody else. Because in this there is no teacher, no pupil. There’s no leader, there is no guru, there’s no master, no savior. You yourself are the teacher, and the pupil, you’re the master, you’re the guru, you are the leader, you are everything! And, to understand is to transform what is.~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

A major obstacle preventing us from believing that something like this change is possible is not seeing a path to get there. At the World Summit, we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we are asking the kinds of questions that we believe will get us there. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., even if we don’t see the entire staircase before us, we have the faith to know that we will get to the top.

We see that the real problem preventing humanity from addressing our challenges is the fact that we are so divided. We see that the root cause of this division is our failed and outdated governments and economic systems. For us to mature as a species quickly enough to avoid our own extinction, we must unite as one humanity, beyond the imaginary borders and inhumane systems we’ve created. We are building a World Summit event to “unify the unifiers” — all the different groups, protest movements and conscious organizations around the world, who are ultimately working towards, and want, the same thing…a peaceful, sustainable planet that works for everyone. But if each group continues to work separately, we will fail to take true advantage of the power of the critical-mass of our numbers. If, on the other hand, all the different tribes can come together and go beyond our differences to create a World Summit event, while recognizing and appreciating our diversity, then we are building the new models of self-governance and economics simultaneously that will make the old systems obsolete. Then we can begin implementing the regenerative solutions that already exist. Imagine a global “Manhattan Project”, where we finally unite and come together to create the first truly “civilized”, geo-tribal society living harmoniously on a flourishing, diverse planet.

So what it comes down to is this. If a critical mass of people shift a larger part of their activism and contributions away from the sphere of Holding Actions to the sphere of Structural Change, and they do so via a Shift in Consciousness by believing in their heart and soul that it is possible to flip the paradigm, then miracles are possible. Then we truly can bring together all of humanity under the shared belief in the vision of “flipping the paradigm” very soon, maybe as soon as 2019 or 2020. By sharing and holding this conviction, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and we will, in a very wonderful way, reap that which we sow.

“Nothing less than a miracle is needed to heal our world..What is a miracle? It is not the intercession of a supernatural being into material affairs, not an event that violates the laws of the universe. A miracle is something that is impossible from one’s current understanding of reality and truth, but that becomes possible from a new understanding.” ~ Charles Eisenstein


WorldSummit is about uniting and gathering people, groups…


WorldSummit is about uniting and gathering people, groups and organizations beyond our differences and the political and economic systems that divide us, because ultimately we all want the same thing - a more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible.

Troy Wiley

Written by

A writer, digital nomad, and social entrepreneur working with the World Summit to flip the paradigm.


WorldSummit is about uniting and gathering people, groups and organizations beyond our differences and the political and economic systems that divide us, because ultimately we all want the same thing - a more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible.

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