What is the Work?

What is my Work with a capital W? I want to connect with others who striving to live well in the beautiful and wounded world we have, while working to create a better world we can imagine together.

It’s the summer of 2020, the height of the coronavirus pandemic and all the related crises it has unveiled. I’m about to turn 55, and feel the need to recommit with purpose to my work as a faculty member. Let me put it plainly: for the rest of my career, I want to act much more boldly and honestly in service of planetary wellbeing.

Since writing my PhD in 2000, I have been trying to address what I perceive to be the central challenges facing people, non-human others, and the planet itself. As I understand them now, these challenges are: expanding our ecological consciousness, expanding our social and cultural consciousness, and expanding our awareness of the self. Self-Other-World: these three realms are obviously interconnected and constantly shape one another in networks of interbeing. To neglect one of them is to stay small and confused about who, what, and where we are. Further, to attend to our interbeing is a matter of both contemplation and action. We are connected to everything else in an unbounded world of shifting contingencies that constantly interact; everything we think and do matters. What we think and do makes us and makes our world—not just the world we experience in our own skin, but the world we share, and co-create, with everything else.

To live, to be alive in the world, to appreciate the beauty, wonder, and mystery of connection to nature and to those we love—there is much to be grateful for! In this very real sense, our lives are a gift and a blessing, to ourselves and others. And, we know too that the wounds around and within us are many and deep.

Colonialism, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and the industrial growth society fueled by corporate capitalism—all of these historical forces have long conspired to treat people, places, and communities, and land, water, and air, as objects for exploitation and manipulation. All major institutions in the industrialized West are complicit with these worn-out arrangements, and they all must be transformed for life’s sake: for people, places, and the more-than-human web of the lifeworld which is the planet itself. In my work in education, I contribute to this transformation through scholarship and writing, teaching and mentoring, and through my roles as an activist and leader.

Educational institutions, in particular, need to change in order to respond to history’s unfolding realities. But over the last 50 years, the university has become ever-more dominated by ways of thinking that narrow its collective mission, while reinforcing ways of being based on competition rather than cooperation, procedures rather than deep reflection, and economic bottom lines rather than the health, wellbeing, and future prospects of human and non-human communities. Fortunately, outside of formal education, there are many models and voices we can draw on to inspire the necessary deep changes in our moment of opportunity.

I believe Joanna Macy is one of our time’s most important teachers. At 90, she is an elder of ecological, social justice, and peace movements, best known for creating The Work That Reconnects—experiential processes that bring people into a new relationship with themselves, diverse communities, and the wider world. This is the kind of transformational learning we and our institutions need and, though I wish we could, we won’t find it in our strategic plan!

In Macy’s books and workshops over the last forty years, she talks of us living three stories simultaneously: The Great Turning, The Great Unravelling, and Business as Usual. I’ve found this to be a very useful framework to remind me what I’m here for, where I sometimes get stuck, and what we might, collectively, accomplish.

The Great Unravelling is the worldwide recognition that things are coming apart in human and more-than-human communities, and in the biosphere itself. This is the epoch of the Anthropocene: climate change, mass extinction, rising human population, deepening political chaos, massive inequalities, oppression, and much suffering. Though there has always been suffering and injustice among people, what is new today is that more of us can see more clearly how our institutions function to reproduce and maintain oppressive structures. We know even from mainstream media about the deepening divide between billionaires and the billions who struggle to survive; we know about the continued violence against Indigenous people and sovereignty; we know about pervasive institutional racism that continues to be denied; we know about the bloated military budgets of imperial nations; and we know that our everyday practices of consumption trade human convenience and excess for the degradation of land, ecosystems, and Earth systems. Knowledge of The Great Unraveling is widespread; what we lack in education is a deeper understanding of its causes and what we might collectively do about it.

Educators like myself are too often complicit in maintaining the everyday procedures behind the great unravelling. Business as Usual is the default mode for most large institutions, and it recruits all of us. Very often, everyone seems too busy keeping the ship afloat to stop—to stop long enough to ask some fundamental questions about our collective work. What is this boat made of? What is it carrying? Where is it going? Such deep questioning is fundamentally collective, and potentially revolutionary. But it rarely happens. Questioning the foundation—or the morality and sanity—of the system that pays us is not usually not part the job description. Some of us try, but paradoxically, business as usual thrives when organizations are able to point to small spaces of change within larger structures. This is how some organizations avoid the work of taking stock of their core identities. It’s an obvious strategy when fossil fuel companies advertise meager investments in green energy. But the same move takes place, more or less consciously, in schools and universities every day. What is our core mission at this particular place and time? What should it be? Business as Usual means that, collectively, we mainly avoid asking such difficult questions. Business as Usual is the momentum that fuels the Great Unravelling; its power cannot be underestimated, but it can be changed.

Thankfully there has been another story at play and it is gaining momentum. The Great Turning describes a vibrant worldwide movement that is changing the way we see ourselves, others (not just humans), and our relationships to land, communities, and the planet itself. Some call it “the movement of movements.” Paul Hawken coined another name for it: Blessed Unrest, a term that describes the loosely connected networks of people working everywhere for social justice and anti-racism, peace and non-violence, civil and Indigenous rights, and planetary health and wellbeing. There are a lot of us doing this work all over the world. I believe the most difficult and necessary aspect of this work is to transform our own relationships to the institutions and organizations that we rely on for our livelihood. And we’ll need all the help we can get from the wider movement to remind us of other ways of being beyond Business as Usual. We can only do it one relationship at a time.

My commitment as a faculty member is to act more explicitly and collaboratively in the service of Blessed Unrest and The Great Turning. These movements are about restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world—for life’s sake. Can this happen in higher education? Can it happen here, now?