Active Hope – Review

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, April 2012. New World Library, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-57731-972-6. RRP £14.99 (paperback)

The tides of populism and the resulting dire state of politics in both Europe and the United States might mean that this book, although published a few years ago, is just the right thing to read at this point in our history. It certainly does feel as though the world is in a mess, and here is an attempt to present a positive response to its environmental crisis. The main principle is what the joint authors, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, call Active Hope. As they explain, “our focus is on how… we can best play our part, whatever that may be, in the healing of our world.” The hope they look for is active, in learning a way to be in which “we not only give but we receive in so many ways as well.”

In the introduction, three possible scenarios are suggested. The first is Business as Usual, playing down warnings and insisting that there is no need to change the established way in which we live. According to this perspective, the welfare of society depends on continued wealth-creating beyond anything else.  The second is the Great Unravelling, according to which our destruction of the environment is already irreversible and there is nothing we can do. Yet the third story comes from refusing the cynical self-seeking denial of the first, while taking quite seriously the warnings of the second but looking for an alternative to its sheer despair. This is the vision of the Great Turning. “Involving the emergence of new and creative human responses, it is about the epochal transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world.”

Macy and Johnstone then take us on a journey round what they call the spiral of the “Work That Reconnects”. The spiral starts by refreshing our human capacity for gratitude, then in being true to the pain we must feel for the world, so that finally we may come to see with new eyes, and go forth in a positive and constructive way of life, to face the future with active hope.  Joanna Macy comes from the Buddhist tradition, and is an academic and a lifelong environmental activist based in the United States. Chris Johnstone has been a doctor in the NHS, and through developing a role in coaching became involved in Macy’s vision of Work That Reconnects. This book comes out of workshops they have run over the years and each chapter seeks to offer practical tools, ending with Try This boxes.

Five years after it was first published, their book remains important. For we can recognise the persistence of the Business as Usual story in our world today, with its attempted reassertion in the United States and elsewhere. Yet surely a key element in the phenomenon of protest-populism is our entering into the despair of the Great Unravelling? So its analysis is helpful for our Green Christian project of Joy in Enough, and its positive outlook with practical applications is exactly what we are trying to encourage as Way of Life  Companions and Explorers.

Andrew Norman


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