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Pass it On: Five Stories That Can Change the World

Pass it On: Five Stories That Can Change the World by Joanna Macy and Norbert Gahbler

It was only later that I got to know Joanna and to understand the deep insight into human relationships that stood behind those words. She once wrote, “When you recognize a quality in a person and you name it, you help that person to bring it about.”

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Two hundred years is the approximate lifespan of seven generations. The Onondaga, one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee people, and the people featured in the first story in this book, always consider the concerns of the seven previous and the seven following generations when they have to make far-reaching decisions.

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In their land rights action, unlike that of any other indigenous group in America, the Onondaga Nation did not demand return of any ancestral land or monetary compensation for it. They asked for one thing only: that the land be cleaned up and restored to health for the sake of all who presently live on it, and for the sake of their children and children’s children. As a step toward achieving this, they showed that New York State had taken their land in violation of federal law.

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Social and environmental thinkers of today point to these traditions as the kind of ethic we desperately need for evolving a life-sustaining society. “The Great Law,” writes Professor Manno of the State University of New York School of Forestry, “includes and reinforces an ethic of responsible resource management, a perspective of respect and gratitude toward the natural world, a requirement to consider the impacts of decisions on future generations (those ‘whose faces are coming from beneath the earth’) and clear assignment of stewardship responsibilities.

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Finally, gratitude is subversive to consumer society. Late capitalism, fated to strive for growth in corporate profits, conditions us to acquire and to keep on feeling insufficient so we can keep on acquiring. In such a political economy, gratitude is a revolutionary act.

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At my turn, I spoke of the World Uranium Hearing that I would attend the following week in Salzburg, Austria. People from around the world were coming to testify about their experiences of nuclear contamination. Navajo and Namibian miners would come, Marshall Islanders, Kazakhs, Western Shoshone downwinders from testing sites, and many others would speak out about the disease and death that follow in the wake of nuclear power and weapons production. I wanted these men and women of Novozybkov to know that they are not alone in their suffering, but part of a vast web of brothers and sisters who are determined to use their painful experience to help restore the health of our world. “At the hearing, I will speak of you,” I said. “I will tell your story to my own people back home. I promise you.” I made that vow because I loved them now, and because I knew they felt forgotten by an outside world that prefers to think that the disaster of Chernobyl is over. As the years pass since that fateful April of 1986, the catastrophe can be wiped from our consciousness as easily as the bulldozers razed the old wooden houses of Novozybkov because, as Vladimir Ilyich said, “wood holds the radioactivity.” And now, as their own government proceeds to build more reactors, it can seem to these families that nothing has been learned from all the suffering. That may be the hardest thing to bear.

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lamas.The founder of the school, an English-born Tibetan nun, was teaching, and she said, “So countless are all sentient beings, and so many their births throughout time, that each at some point was your mother.” She then explained a practice for developing compassion: it consisted of viewing each person as your mother in a former life.

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THE NORWEGIAN philosopher and mountain climber Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” in the early 1970s to denote the radical interrelatedness of all life forms and to summon the environmental movement beyond human-centered goals. Deep ecology broadens one’s sense of identity and responsibility, freeing us to experience what Naess calls the “ecological self.”

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But there was no way, John said, that these efforts, even if they were multiplied tenfold, one hundredfold, could save Earth’s forests. Look at the world demand for lumber and the collusion of local politicians with foreign industries. Look at the accelerating pace of deforestation. Even if activists won every battle they waged, it would hardly make a dent. John saw this with total realism, yet kept on giving his life to this work. “I do it,” he said, “to help catalyze a shift in consciousness; that’s all that can save us.”

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I looked at him wonderingly. “What do you do with the despair?” I asked him. “When I feel despair,” he said, “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, who’s protecting the rainforest.The rainforest is protecting itself, through me and my mates, through this small part of it that’s recently emerged into human thinking.”

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 “The work we did on the weekend was powerful,” he told me. “It blasted away our numbness, uncovered our passion for life. But it’s missing a piece.We’re still prey to the anthropocentrism that’s destroying our world.” So what would it take, we wondered, as we stripped and dove into the pond. What kind of group work could move us beyond our shrunken human self-interest? The question turned in my mind as I swam down into the brown water.

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The answer that emerged was the Council of All Beings. By the time we dried off and dressed, it was taking shape in our minds: a simply structured ritual, where people step aside from their human identities and speak on behalf of other life forms. We planned it with growing enthusiasm but had little idea of what it would become in reality, in interaction with others.

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As we stood on the outer wall, I watched Bon-pa Tulku smile calmly as my husband queried him about Chinese policies and the prospects of another period of repression. I saw that such calculations were conjectural to him, as were any guarantees of success.Who knows? And since you cannot know, you simply proceed.You do what you have to do. You put one stone on another and another on top of that. If the stones are knocked down, you begin again, because if you don’t, nothing will get built. You persist. Through the vagaries of social events and the seesaw of government policies you persist, because in the long run it is persistence that shapes the future.

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Behind the Tulku’s demeanor I glimpsed determination and humility combined. He was not afraid of failure.There was too much to restore for the sake of future generations to let possibilities of failure stay his hand. There was too much at stake to let the past lure him into bitterness. No one had better reason to nurture righteous anger at the Chinese than Bon-pa Tulku and his fellow lamas, but they seemed to have found better uses of the mind.

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I don’t know if I will see it again. I don’t know if I will ride again over the green hills of Kham to that company of monks and hear their long horns sound. Present Chinese policy forbids me to travel there, but it cannot block the memory of it. That memory is precious to me, because I know that we too, in our Western world, have to rebuild what has been destroyed. I don’t know where we are going to find the will and stamina to restore our contaminated waters and clear-cut forests, our dying inner cities and the eroded, poisoned soils of our farmlands if not in the steadiness of heart that I saw in Bon-pa Tulku and in his capacity to let go of blame.

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When anger arises over stupid, destructive policies, and the pollution of our world tempts me to hopelessness, I remember Tulku’s smile on the parapet of Khampagar. And when I catch myself looking for a quick fix of inspiration, or assurances of success, or simply a mood of optimism before doing what needs to be done, I think of him and hear words that he never spoke. Don’t wait, just do it. A better opportunity may not come along. Place one stone on top of another. Don’t waste your spirit trying to compute your short-term chances of success, because you are in it for the long haul. And it will be a long haul, with inevitable risks and hardships. So just keep on, steady and spunky like a Khampa pony crossing the mountains, because in the long run, it’s our perseverance that counts.

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Joanna Macy: We say, “keep on keeping on.” And we say,“We’re not asked to succeed, we’re just asked to be faithful.”

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JM: As I reflect on these five stories and the different ways that they’ve inspired me, I see that each has a teaching, and each teaching can serve as a guideline for me as an activist today.They keep me awake and oriented toward my own deeper intentions.   NG: Five guidelines, like the five fingers of one hand.What are they?   JM:The first one is: COME FROM GRATITUDE

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So, following from that, the second guideline is: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

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Some people think that if we express these “negative” feelings, we strengthen them. But my experience tells me the opposite.When I am afraid of feelings that I have labeled “negative,” I repress them below consciousness where they develop a power I cannot influence. In the story about Novozybkov, we can see how liberating it could be if people on the planet no longer hid their suffering from each other and from their children.

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JM:The third guideline is: DARE TO ENVISION

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Those moments in Tibet continue to teach me to dare to imagine a healthier, saner world, and to have the simple courage to put one stone on top of another, without continually checking on how “hopeful” I am. Our own lives, and the traditions of other cultures, are full of examples of what powerful intentions can create. Bo-npa Tulku didn’t just fantasize; he enacted his vision. And to do that, he enlisted others. Only with the help of others can our dreams come true. This brings us to the next guideline.

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That fourth guideline is: REDISCOVER OUR SOLIDARITY

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We need companions and coworkers to stoke the fire of our determination and courage for change. Our solidarity with others is vaster than we realize. It cuts across all borders.

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This is where the synergy that is natural to all open systems becomes wonderfully noticeable. The whole is more than the sum of the parts: as it self-organizes, emergent properties appear, generated by our interactions. I don’t believe that any of the individuals in the stories in this book could have succeeded without their friends. Think of John Seed; even the police and the loggers with the chainsaws contributed to his epiphany: his realization of his identity with the rainforest.

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JM:That fifth and last guideline is: ACT YOUR AGE

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Our true age, as an inseparable part of this living Earth, is four and a half billion years.

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Those of us in Western societies often tend to experience tremendous time pressure, and the speeding up of every aspect of our lives. Our political economy, which sets its goals and measures its success by how fast it can grow, leads us to accept long-term damage for short-term advantages. But when we broaden our horizons to our four and a half billion years as planet Earth, our goals shift and the pressure eases.The political gains or economic losses that seem so important in the moment shrink in comparison to the vast journey we are making and the larger life we are serving.

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