One of the principles of a natural system is that growth is not linear and constant. For every period of rampant growth (spring) and a place of fullness (summer) there is also a period of letting go (autumn) and a place of stillness (winter). When applied to humans, the modern lives we have constructed and the values we share it is easy to see that we have become addicted to spring and summer energy and terrified of what it means to let go, to reflect and to lean into the feelings that this brings.
But just as nature is doing her rampant growth thing, all around us a space has opened up for many people (though I recognise that not everyone is feeling that privilege). We are being forced to let go — it feels strange when we are addicted to adrenally overloaded ‘busyness’.
“Times are urgent, let’s slow down” Bayo Akomolafe
We have crossed a threshold. The word emergency comes from emergence. An entire new world has emerged from under our feet, not one we imagined, expected, hoped for or wanted. As someone who has worked in the business of creating change I find myself clambering for stable ground in ways that I never expected, despite the safety net my privilege affords me.
But an emergence brings new growth, that’s the point. The opportunities for radical reappraisal of our priorities and the invitation to let go of previously deeply embedded assumptions. The invitation to adopt new ways of working and to throw away what no longer serves.
What do we want to return to? What are we no longer going to tolerate that we previously accepted as ‘the way things always were’?
Over the last few years I have been researching and exploring what it is to be human in these times of transition and how we might embrace our inner and outer wildness to become activists for change in the companies we build, our everyday lives and the communities we serve. My journey has been a combination of my own embodied change in wild places and exploring my own activism in the projects I get stuck into.
At the heart of my learning and research is a recurring theme that we have become increasingly distracted from the very things that make us who and what we are — human.
In doing so we’ve forgotten our interconnection to nature, the ‘more than human world’ and that we are the successful product of 3.8 billion years of trial and error. Inherent with that forgetting is the knowledge that our every action has an impact on everything else around us. Everything has consequence.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” John Muir
This radical shift in our inter-connected world view impacts everything we do:
- We seek to exert control over events, our emotional states, nature, others.
- We’re convinced by the myth of scarcity which feeds the traditional narrative of consumerism and binary choices about what we can and can’t have. It feeds a life governed by fear not gratitude.
- We’ve become apathetic to our capacity to create change, our own innate wildness, our will — human agency.
- Our systems and structures become inflexible, narrowly defined, without the capacity for innovation or collaboration.
- We conform to ‘business as usual’ rather than unleash the full potential of creativity. Unwilling to listen to the voices that sit on the margins of society. In nature, all change happens on the margins.
This is not a short-term problem and certainly not a 2020 Covid-19 thing; there has been a slow and long-term shift in how we live our lives. But in this time of emergence most of these assumptions no longer make sense (they haven’t done for a while, but now we notice). We can’t control, narrowly define or return to the confines of what we knew. We have, probably, a once in a lifetime chance to take a different view of being human and reconsider how we live and work.
Distracted from being human
This idea has been taken from The Work that Reconnects (WTR), developed by writer and activist Joanna Macey. The book Active Hope by Joanna and Chris Johnstone as well as The Work that Reconnects network are a wonderful resource for stepping into action to solve the great challenges of our time. Over the last few years I have been working with WTR as a practice in my own life and work. This deep-time idea is adapted here with huge gratitude for their work.
Our species Homo Sapiens have been on Earth for somewhere in the region of 240–250 million years, the culmination of a 3.8 billion year innovation process since life first existed on this planet.
There is little evidence that humans have significantly evolved from this point — we have a 240 million year old brain and body.
If we convert the 240,000 years into a 24 hour day we will see that each 10,000 years neatly fits into an hour and the human timeline looks a little like this:
- Midnight to 18:00. Our entire species lived in Africa, slowly panning out from where it is thought the first humans lived in the Kalahari Desert.
- 18:00. First human movement out of Africa.
- 18:00–22:50. Humans lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers slowly expanding around the world.
- 23:20. We started to write, everything was recorded orally until that point.
- 23:30. Stonehenge and the first global cities in places such as Egypt, Peru, China, Iran.
- 23:45. Jesus was on the earth around a quarter to midnight with Muhammed just a few seconds afterwards.
- 23:55. Even at 5 minutes to midnight all power came from windmills.
- 23:57. Columbus reached and colonised America.
- 23:58. The industrial revolution.
- 23:59. In this last minute the earth’s population has exploded from 1 billion to 8 billion.
- 23:59 and 40 seconds. In the last 20 seconds (the time since 1950) we have used up more resources and fuel than all of human history before it.
What strikes me every time I see this is the huge acceleration of the pace of change. Like we’re out of control, not looking where we’re going. We have become distracted from what it is to be alive.
How can we start to see the current emergence(y) as a chance to take a longer-view of time, as we reassess our work, our organisations and how we show up in our communities and lives?
How can we start to understand our impact not in terms of our fleeting human lifetime but beyond that, in service to solving the very real issues that exist in our world?
How can we start to turn our attention to the sort of big, uncomfortable questions that can no longer go away, because they have no right to go away. They are the ones that require urgent responses, like climate breakdown. They are also the ones thrown into sharp and terrible focus at the moment by Covid-19 but have always been there like wellbeing inequalities caused by poverty. Like the capacity of humans to feed and care for one another as inequality increases.
240,000 years of evolutionary progress?
Time to think bigger than the heartbeat of our tiny existence.
“If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime then you are not thinking big enough” Wes Jackson
Be the slow work of change
If we start to see our work as being in service to long time principles and see human-kind in a different light, perhaps we might start to value feeling, purpose, empathy and connectedness as the core to being human.
As we acknowledge the space we have been given and express our gratitude for what our modern world provides perhaps we could take time to honour the extraordinary action that we are seeing right now such as the huge community, collaborative task to feed and care for the vulnerable in our communities like #BrumTogether in Birmingham. We might also become conscious of the tiny yet invisible acts of humanity that are springing up around us everyday. This is a time for the micro as well as the grand, for everyday rituals that connect us back to ourselves and each other.
It is also the time to attend to the deep work of healing in communities faced with what was until a few weeks ago unfathomable levels of trauma and loss. In doing so we might, just might start to open into the feelings of grief that we have collectively all held onto for all of the other big, scary, uncontrollable things that we now so urgently need to pay attention to.
When each of these contrasting acts of gratitude and grief are interwoven perhaps we might create new life-sustaining practices that become the shoots of real cultural shift. A true emergence of a life-sustaining world.
But we need to start today.
The actions we take now become the future we create together.
“Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life” Mary Oliver