It’s frustrating and disappointing – to put it in absurdly mild terms – that we’re still having to protest the same problems we did in the 1960s. That decade brought so much power to the table, with the Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall riots, the Women’s Liberation movement, the anti-war protests, the environmental movement, the Red Power and Chicano movements, and the Summer of Love. But more than fifty years later, it’s apparently still up for debate whether black lives actually matter, whether gay and trans citizens deserve equal protection under the law, whether women’s bodies are their own domain, and whether shareholder profit and military might are more important than the continuation of life itself.
The frustration is clearly warranted. And at the same time, my sense is that today’s protests are covering new ground. Those earlier movements went as far as prevailing conditions and mainstream consciousness could stretch at that time. Important changes did take place, recognizing individual rights, extending legal protections and more. But the dominant worldview was unable to go further than this, leaving in place entrenched structural inequities and extinction-bound assumptions and institutions.
And this is where today’s protests and movements take up the mantle. More than ever before, we are witnessing a deepening and broadening understanding of our collective commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – and among these, most of all, to life. And that gives me hope.
A New World is Possible
Five and six decades ago the structures of society seemed to form a monolithic fortress, unchangeable, impenetrable – in the view of some, ordained by God. But that fortress has been steadily crumbling ever since, as the population continued to notice problems and injustices and as activists continued to push for change. With each chink, each fallen parapet, the collective narrative stretched imperceptibly further. Over time, in the places where the fortress fell away, a new world started to come into view in the background. And there is where we find the key difference between the protests of the 1960s and today – in the real possibility of a whole new world.
Such fertile conditions for societal transformation had been growing steadily for years. And then the pandemic hit, accelerating the process even as it decelerated virtually everything else in our lives. As much as Covid-19 has brought tragedy, it has also shown us that dramatic and rapid social change is possible; and now many of us are demanding more. Together with the mounting environmental crisis, the virus has also helped us comprehend our profound interdependence with each other and with all life across the planet. In the same vein, it has prompted many of us to reflect on what truly matters, on what gives our lives meaning, on what really makes us feel alive – and how “normal” is something we don’t want to go back to because it was not delivering well on any of those things.
Readiness for Profound Change
As if that weren’t enough, then we all witnessed the cruel injustice of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. And that seems to have been the spark to dry tinder, sending millions into the streets in what – on the surface – looks quite similar to the Civil Rights protests of the 60s. But a closer look reveals a more widespread readiness – and for many, a strident demand – for profound, systemic societal change.
Within the “defund police” movement, for example, the demand is not for more protections for individuals. The movement is not a request for reforms to the existing model of policing, nor is it focused on isolated actions or tactics. Instead, it is an invitation into a community conversation to ask: what would it look like if we created structures and systems to support community health and safety? This question is not new. But such an inquiry into alternatives and complements to policing would not have been comprehensible, much less palatable, to the general public even a few years ago. Yet in early June this year, it was explored on a nationally broadcast town hall meeting that featured former president Barack Obama. And the conversation is generating viable new options that clearly have merit and that seem to be gaining momentum.
Similarly, we’re seeing widespread calls to reimagine or even replace capitalism – another conversation that was present in the 60s but was unfathomable on a society-wide scale until very recently. Notably, a new wave of visionary women economists is leading the charge, proposing new values and structures for communities that are more resilient, caring and aligned with the needs and limits of the biosphere. And again, clear and compelling alternatives are gaining support.
Recognition of a Common Root Cause
In these and other ground-breaking efforts to reimagine society, we also see new levels of recognition that the multiple ills plaguing society – ecocide, racism, patriarchy, extreme economic inequality, colonization, fascism – each cannot be adequately addressed in isolation of the others, not only because they are intertwined, but because they all share the same root cause. Though today the spotlight is appropriately on the Black Lives Matter movement, what is arising more generally is a multi-faceted resistance to a worldview and culture that devalues all life. At the intersection of today’s multiple movements and protests is rejection of a narrative of separation and reductionism; a stunted, zero-sum mentality that generates those many plagues and whose logic can’t conceive of alternatives.
A Life-Aligned Worldview
In response, what underpins the many and varied movements of today is a worldview that more clearly honors life and seeks to align with its patterns and potential. The common vocabulary is the language of aliveness, with terms like regeneration, flourishing, thriving and healing binding the various conversations together. Not coincidentally, a growing segment of the population is starting to recognize the wisdom inherent in indigenous perceptions and practices, with their unwavering reverence for life. Indeed, in all those creative conversations to imagine a new world, we’re starting to take design cues from the inclusive, collaborative, adaptive, systemic and generative nature of living systems, in contrast to the monocultural, heavy-handed, rigid, reductive and extractive approaches that the dominant worldview prescribes.
In all these ways, the conditions – and the prospects – are very different today than they were sixty years ago, thanks to the groundwork laid by those earlier generations of protesters and thanks to the progression of time, technology and perception. Now, more of us are able to imagine a different world. More of us are able to think holistically and systemically. More of us are aware of how life works, how precious it is and how much is at stake. And more of us are coming together in service of a truly life-affirming, life-aligned society.
Admittedly, not everyone has ears to hear these conversations yet or eyes to see what more is possible. The backlash of fascism, divisiveness and violence is a sign of desperation, a last-ditch effort to hold on to control. Those who would continue to devalue life are getting more blatant and brazen than they have been since those protests of the 1960s. And ultimately, that will be a good thing. Let’s air it out and reveal it for what it is – what some are calling a “death cult.”
And let’s take heart in the knowledge that there is an unprecedented critical mass of people with open minds, generous hearts, and the technological means to be in creative conversation to cultivate a more thrivable world.
So where do we go from here? How do we bring all this home, so that our children and grandchildren won’t be burdened with protesting these very same issues, or worse?
Deepening the American Experiment
I find clarity in recognizing that we are continuing the work of the American Revolution. The American Experiment is ongoing and indeed, in the grand scheme of human evolution, freshly minted at less than 250 years in. These conversations we’re having now are an unbroken continuation of those that launched the nation, with its inquiry into how a diverse population might come together in mutual commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“More than simply a means of escaping King George’s oppressive policies,” I noted in another piece, “the nation’s founding was a philosophical innovation. As John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815:
The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
“At the time, there was little in their own experience to support the founders’ philosophical vision,” I wrote further. “As David C. Korten, former Harvard Business School professor and author of The Great Turning, explains:
In its time it was a truly audacious idea. When the founders boldly declared that all men are created equal and that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, the evidence of 5,000 years of rule by hereditary emperors, kings, and feudal lords suggested such an idea might even be contrary to human nature.”
Today, that original audacious idea is surfacing new depth and clarity. Rising up “in the minds of the people” is a set of vital insights that many will say is contrary to human nature:
- that nothing is more precious than life, not even money;
- that we are all in this together – with each other and with everything that is alive – and so liberty is necessarily a mutual experience;
- that we are participants in life’s grand creative adventure; that we can be wise caretakers of life’s unfolding process and of a larger living world; and that this is likely the greatest source of our happiness;
- that in structuring our society, we can find guidance in life’s “universal design principles,” as the founders themselves did;
- that in these ways, our communities and organizations can be places where we are nourished by our relationships and by the opportunity to contribute and develop our gifts; where we can be held appreciatively by people and place; where we can experience beauty, wholeness and healing; where we can grow into wisdom alongside each other, with trust that this is the most direct path to effective action; and where these are the express purposes of coming together.
What’s Needed Next
To enact this audacious idea, it is not enough to protest against the old, and it is not enough to imagine the new. It will require the ongoing work of learning and living into the more life-aligned worldview that will get us to a new and better world – perhaps once and for all. I think of this work as the “informed intention and practice of thrivability.”
* If we’re going to align with life, we’ll have to know what that involves and what it requires of us. We’ll have to be “informed” about life’s universal design principles.
* We’re going to have to get very clear that enabling life to thrive is our explicit intention – otherwise we’ll continue to fall catastrophically short of that goal.
* And we’ll need to step into curious and compassionate learning and prototyping together, with every community, every organization and every encounter as a potential practice ground for a more thrivable world.
All of this will take dedicated times and spaces for ongoing conversation and capacity building. Individually and collectively, we are going to have to learn to act as stewards of what is alive in ourselves and in our mutual endeavors. This is why my colleagues and I created an online platform called Thrivable World, to support such conversations and capacity building.
The number and diversity of vitally important causes can be overwhelming. It can feel like everything is falling apart and like our attention is scattered in too many directions. Each cause certainly has its own issues and needs. But I believe we can find added power and impact in recognizing and cultivating the common ground that holds them together.
If 1967 was the Summer of Love, my greatest wish is that this time may come to be remembered as the Summer of Life, when we really turned the corner and found our roots, when we explicitly aligned with life, and when we recognized that life is the one thing that unites us all.