The Solstice of Society

As a gardener, Winter Solstice holds much more meaning for me than the conventional new year marker of January 1.  Even here in Southern California's year-round growing season, we observe the slowing of plant growth into semi-dormancy as the Solstice approaches.  We witness the acceleration into new growth once the Solstice is past.  Animals know it too -- my chickens are resuming laying.  The Winter Solstice is the crossover point, the planet's annual marker of change.

Some years I join friends at a Winter Solstice fire at a local community garden.  As part of the evening we write down one thing we are releasing from the old year, and something we wish to bring alive in the new year.  Then we slip the paper with our intention into the fire pit together with some white sage leaves or perhaps some rosemary.  This beautiful ceremony always gets me thinking, at a rather early point in the season by conventional calendar terms, about my personal goals for the new year -- "Resolutions" if you will.

2011 has been a year of incredible upheaval.  Many of the things that we in the alternative world have been forecasting and dreading and preparing for, became the headliners in the conventional newspapers.  Major storms.  Economic collapse.  Widespread unemployment.  Protests on the streets.  Riots overseas.  Governments toppling.  Hunger on the rise.

In some circles, 2012 is a number burdened with great significance.  Anticipations of doomsday.  Deadlines on climate agreements.  A popularly cited date for the peak of oil production.  Yet there has been a great welling-up of grassroots change, for the good.

The Great Turning

Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy refers to this time in which we are living as The Great Turning.  She says we are currently going through the third great revolution in the history of mankind -- a revolution on the humanity-wide magnitude of the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. 

The Great Turning is a time of massive change: Change in our outer world, for example changing to low-carbon lifestyle patterns, bringing our food supply more local to where we live, changing many of the patterns and practices Americans have called "normal" for the past 50 years.  Change in our social world, with attempts to heal some of the chronic injustices.  Change in our inner world, embracing a new view of relationships with each other, and a new definition of humanity in interconnected relationship with this one small planet we call home.

Once one acknowledges that what we are going through is as massive as the third great revolution in the history of mankind, it becomes quite obvious that the lifestyles we have known in the past are of the past.  No "jobs bill" through Congress, no presidential candidate is going to be able to do anything to create "economic recovery" and get things "back to normal."  No, things are going to get really different. 

The Solstice of Society

Here in our Southern California year-round growing season, in the month leading up to the time of the Solstice very little will grow.  The lingering warm season crops have curled and died, with the composting processes taking over.  Our cool season crops slow their growth.  Leafy greens continue to look bright in the garden, but cut-and-come-again plants don't quite do the "come again" part -- few new leaves unfurl.  A pea seed put into the earth in mid-December will sit there, unsprouted.  If we get rains at this Solstice resting time, that unsprouted seed may even rot before the planet shifts to the sprouting time.  The compost critters have slowed down.  Nothing is really going anywhere.  It feels like everything is stuck.

In society right now, the "warm season" good-economic-times businesses have curled, died, and are turning to compost.  The more resilient businesses, the ones we would expect should thrive into this transition, might look bright and hopeful in the "garden" of society, but few new avenues are unfurling.  Some new greener economic ventures may even rot before sprouting properly.  With Christmas retail, some people (misguidedly) celebrate that the overall composting/unraveling process has slowed.  But nothing is really going anywhere.  It feels like everything is stuck.

Right now, one could say we are in the Solstice time of society, the quiet zone between the seasons.

Emerging from the Solstice

Soon the sprouts will begin to stir.  The patterns and techniques of the new era will begin to reveal themselves.  As old lifestyle habits (like leveraging and borrowing and globalization and corporate jobs) are dying away to compost, new practices are emerging.  Urban agriculture.  Local crafting and manufacturing.  Renewable energy.  Consensus processes.  Gift circles and local sharing solutions.

In the garden, as we emerge from the Solstice time, life processes resume.  Compost critters awaken from their rest, and the decomposition process gets going again.  Our cool season crops stretch their leaves and burst into glorious new growth.  Seeds sprout again, bringing forth the next generation. 

Soon we will notice the post-Solstice reawakening in society.  The unraveling and composting forces will get back underway.  (This can be unnerving, even for those who know we’re going through the third great revolution in the history of mankind.)  Existing “transition-oriented” practices, habits, and businesses will reawaken to spread their leaves into new growth.  

Note: For want of a better term, I’m using “transition-oriented” to refer to lifestyle habits, practices, techniques, businesses, organizations  which are oriented to cope with this time of transition, this time of massive change.  Oriented to cope with a post-petroleum, localized, economically lean, post-peak-everything, low carbon, socially evolving time.  Designed to address the new future.


Weeds will flourish as well.  A weed is the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time for the gardener’s overall plan for the garden. 

Energy-intense, high-consumption, socially repressive business directions are weeds – they aren’t part of any overall plan for humanity’s survival.  Government plans which depend on globalization, existing financial networks, and the presumption of growth are weeds.  Many “jobs” programs are being contemplated, and most of them are designed as weeds.  Building more freeways and sports arenas, expanding airports, “improving” widespread sewer projects -- even if they “create jobs” -- are weed-based approaches.  They are ill-fitted to the necessarily powerdown, localized, lower consumption future we face.    

Bailout is a vain attempt to stop the composting process.  It is usually based upon bonds and government debt.  Any kind of debt (whether that is government, bond programs, personal debt, college loans) at this point in human history is most definitely a weed.  Debt means borrowing from the future to consume today; thus at this point in time that means borrowing from a much leaner future to consume in today’s relatively more-plentiful times.  Don’t go there.

Weeds can be quite durable in a garden.  They will suck nutrients away from the desirable plants we are trying to nurture.

New Year’s Resolutions

As we emerge from this Solstice time, what will be your personal role?  It is the season for setting personal goals.  “Resolutions” perhaps, but I urge you to think in terms of a course of positive action.  What do you have the skills and passion for, to offer to this revolution?  What part will you play?

In tough times it is tempting to curl up and go inside.  It is tempting to contract our views, to get smaller -- to focus solely on intimate family, daily needs, job, and little fiddly things like housekeeping.  Meanwhile, out in the garden, big weeds flourish unchecked, and the desirable plants struggle with inadequate support.  Unattended, the weeds and composting processes will take over (see Jared Diamond’s Collapse).  But we could be growing a valuable crop (see Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Companion).  How might you help nurture it?

Joanna Macy identifies three ways we can further The Great Turning

(1) Stopping action - halting further destruction.  Preventing the errant conventional practices from wreaking any more damage in this interim period between our realizing how bad it is, and our setting up wiser practices.  Traditional environmentalism is full of examples:  Julia Butterfly Hill sitting in an old-growth tree; crowds protesting Keystone XL in front of the White House.

(2) Creating new structures - building the new ways of the future.  This is where the international Transition movement and transition-oriented organizations blossom and shine.  Examples might include: setting up time banks or sharing networks, securing land access and building community gardens, teaching people the new skills needed for powerdown lifestyles, retrofitting buildings with insulation and low-tech energy-free necessities.

(3) Change in Consciousness - helping people with the psychological and spiritual redefinition that is part of this journey.  Examples include the work of Joanna Macy, the work of Pachamama, and many more.

What is your role?  Which of your old habits will you allow to settle into compost?  What part will you play in furthering The Great Turning?

Are you a “stopping action” type – do you like the thrill of political action?  Then help “pull weeds”; clear the space for the new directions we need to take.  Campaign to stop misguided projects which won’t bring us a survivable future.

Are you a “change in consciousness” type of person?  Many spiritual circles are coming on board transition-type ideas.  Churches, synagogues, spirituality groups are looking for answers.  Help others understand the ideas of The Great Turning and the realities of peak everything; help them to accept the inevitability of change.  Then help people cope, emotionally and spiritually, with the redefinitions of self, community, humanity this drives.

Are you a builder, a creator, a networker, or an organizer?  Where are the blank empty spots in the “garden” of your local community?  What transition-oriented tools do you wish your neighborhood had?  A time bank?  A local food hub or free public food supply?  A neighborhood study group such as the UK’s Transition Streets?  A business network, studying the types of business and the changed philosophy that will be necessary for this new future?  What could you do to help set these up?

Commit it to writing

Success trainers from Stephen Covey on down encourage their students to write goals.  In group work of my past, we used to encourage each other to "commit it to writing." 

Something happens when you put pen to paper, something clicks inside.  "I meant to do that" crystallizes.  It moves out beyond fleeting notion, and becomes intention.  You make a commitment to yourself, and perhaps to those around you as well.

Let me encourage you to commit your goal to writing.  Write it in the comments section here, or write it in your private journal at home:   What will be your part in furthering The Great Turning this year?


Joanne Poyourow is active in Transition Los Angeles.  Her most recent book is "Economic Resilience: What we can do in our local communities."  You can now follow her on Twitter @TLAJoanne


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