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Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy

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The challenges we face can be difficult even to think about. Climate change, the depletion of oil, economic upheaval, and mass extinction together create a planetary emergency of overwhelming proportions. Active Hope shows us how to strengthen our capacity to face this crisis so that we can respond with unexpected resilience and creative power. Drawing on decades of teaching an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects, the authors guide us through a transformational process informed by mythic journeys, modern psychology, spirituality, and holistic science. This process equips us with tools to face the mess we’re in and play our role in the collective transition, or Great Turning, to a life-sustaining society.

272 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 2012

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About the author

Joanna Macy

52 books295 followers
Dr. Joanna Macy, activist, ecologist and author, is one of the pioneers of engaged Buddhism. Her online work includes the article "World as Lover, World as Self"; "Bestiary" (an ode to wildlife); Nuclear Guardianship, her testimony at the World Uranium Hearings in Salzburg, 1992; and The Vegan Vision, on the ethics of a vegan diet. Her other books include Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems, World as Lover, World as Self and Rilke's Book of Hours.

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5 stars
531 (43%)
4 stars
391 (32%)
3 stars
221 (18%)
2 stars
59 (4%)
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16 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 160 reviews
Profile Image for Bob Stocker.
191 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2021
We're headed for a disaster. Soil is being depleted. Oil is running out. Oceans are getting fished out. Species are dying off. Even the climate is changing. What can we do? Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone don't offer specific solutions, but they do offer hope, Active Hope, you might say. We have a choice of three stories to follow: we can continue gobbling up the earth's resources (Business as Usual); we can despondently bury our heads in the sand (the Great Unraveling); or we can become conduits for positive change (the Great Turning).

This is a spiritual book – at least as close to being spiritual as anything I'm likely to read. Macy and Johnstone don't tell us what to do. They offer tools to help us decide what we can do and, perhaps more important, they suggest how we can develop attitudes that will enable us to bring about the Great Turning without slipping back into one of the other two stories.
Profile Image for Lisa.
173 reviews11 followers
August 24, 2013
This wasn't quite what I was looking for. Feeling in tune with Gaia doesn't help with what I was concerned about: living near the former Rocky Flats plutonium plant and knowing that the soul of the entire northern metro Denver area has some degree of plutonium contamination from spills, leaks and fires while the plant was operating. What we do know is that there is plutonium in the sediment of the lake that is a drinking water supply for a nearby suburb, that some of the landfills at the plant were left after the "clean-up" (and given all the other sloppiness with regard to radioactive chemicals, they are probably leaking into the ground upstream from the water supply), and that developers are intent on digging up that area around it and could care less about dispensing plutonium particles on the wind to the communities to the east. The author makes some good points about taking action, but as one who's never shied away from getting involved, I felt like this was aimed at a different audience.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,106 reviews748 followers
September 5, 2023
This is a motivational guide on how to enhance personal resilience while living in a world filled with many reasons to give up on any hope for the future. The book is not only encouraging hope, but is aiming for what its title describes as “active” hope. It is a hope that goes beyond a personal feeling to include a sense of motivation and productive participation with others to contribute toward making the hoped for future a reality.

A key idea which the book repeatedly returns to are three “stories of our time,” and the book suggests that it is empowering to name them and choose the one to live by; (1) Business as Usual, (2) The Great Unravelling, and (3) The Great Turning. Those are the terms used by the authors for deciding whether to ignore the world’s problems or to recognize them and then do something about it.

The authors have drawn on decades of teaching workshops with an approach known as Work That Reconnects. This book is filled with stories, questions, and group exercises which are obviously taken from their workshops. It’s the sort of book that could fit well with a group meeting regularly to discuss one chapter at a time.

Throughout the discussions in this book there are repeated reminders of the world's problems for which active hope is needed as a response. I thought the following excerpt quoting other sources gave a quick and succinct reminder.
In his study of factors threatening our civilization, Jared Diamond identifies a dozen issues that are "like time bombs." Any of these, including climate change, water scarcity, overconsumption, overpopulation, habitat destruction, loss of topsoil, and rising toxin levels, could trigger the collapse of our society. In combination, their potential impact is even more devastating. Describing his research into the existential threats we face, science writer Julian Cribb said: "I was meeting more and more people who were starting to wonder whether we were entering the 'end game' of human history."? The uncertainty we face can be expressed in just four words: Will we make it? (p.261)
The issues noted above are obviously not a complete list—it doesn't even include war, political polarization, racism, and economic disparity.

The following is a metaphor from the book that caught my attention about the kind of resilience needed to face these problems. First, the book refers to the example of a tennis ball as the way we usually think about resilience. If you squeeze and then release a tennis ball, it returns to its original shape—that’s an example of resilience. In contrast to that is the tomato which if squeezed does not return to its original shape. But wait, there’s another way to think about the tomato.
What helps us face the mess we're in and respond with Active Hope? The story of the Great Turning includes a vital ingredient that is game-changing. It is the unexpected resilience and creative power of life itself. The tomato reminds us that collapse doesn't have to be the end. If it is squeezed in a suitable environment, it is possible to imagine returning a year, a decade, or even a century later and see tomato plants growing. Seeds released by squishing may survive harsh winters or droughts, sprouting into new life time after time. This different kind of resilience is a powerful force of nature. It can be seen in the tender green shoots that bring burned-down forests back to life. It can also be recognized in our own creative power to redesign, adapt, and transform our ways of living, our patterns of organization, and our essential view of life. (p.262)
Profile Image for Linda.
122 reviews4 followers
September 28, 2012
After reading numerous books about environmental issues and the climate crisis, I was drawn to Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.

The Bottom Line

The authors are well respected advocates for social and environmental justice. Active Hope is a thought provoking book that requires engagement from the reader. It's about expanding our view of ourselves and the world. My favorite quote from the book is from Arne Naess who wrote:

"Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public a false impression that they are being asked to make a sacrifice — to show more responsibility, more concern and a nicer moral standard. But all of that would flow naturally and easily if the self were widened and deepened so that protection of nature was felt and perceived as protection of our very selves."

The ideas and practices in this book can be applied to any situation where one feels overwhelmed and powerless—doing is hope.

Read the whole review at: http://greengroundswell.com/active-ho...
654 reviews
January 6, 2020
Joanna Macy is an ecological activist, and this book was co-authored more than five years ago, before the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. I appreciate the author's use of Buddhist thought to inform her approach to solving problems that seem so big, as well as her detailed series of reflection questions to center and inform one's own thinking. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think the largest take-away for me is that rather get bogged down in despair over climate change, nuclear proliferation or any number of issues, perhaps we can each identify what matters most, join in community with others, and take one step at a time to change what we can. There seems to be a fair amount of repetition, and the material seemed very abstract at time, but on the whole, I'd say it is worth turning to this book if you're thinking about making changes in the world.
Profile Image for KA.
885 reviews
February 9, 2017
Not really the kind of book I tend to find helpful. I find books like Solnit's "Hope in the Dark" and Klein's "This Changes Everything" more inspiring, both because of their detailed stories of victories against impossible odds (the stories in "Active Hope" are pretty anemically told), and for their better writing.
Profile Image for Karen.
325 reviews12 followers
June 13, 2019
This book is exactly what the title suggests: it offers a plan for how to face the reality of climate collapse, do what one can, and stave off despair. The advice is fairly simple: it's really about making some shifts in the way we see our situations. We remember that we are part of the earth, not separate from it, and we see the grief, anxiety, anger, despair we feel on behalf of the earth and its residents as the Earth crying out in us. We remind ourselves of the resources we have, our strengths, the people we know are supporting us. We don't worry about the end result, we do what we can each day. We see uncertainty as hopeful instead of destabilizing.

Active Hope is very much like an instruction manual or a workbook. It is laid out methodically and written in simple, clear language. Interspersed throughout the chapters are thought exercises to try either alone or in groups. In a few places are extended narratives from the authors' experiences that illustrate the mental/spiritual journey they are writing about. Although the thought exercises can be done by individuals on their own, the book is really directed toward people who are working with a group on climate activism.

The book has endnotes, a list of resources for further reading/inquiry, and an index. I recommend it for people who are dealing with climate grief/anxiety/depression and for people interested in (or who already are) taking action.
Profile Image for Filoména.
113 reviews9 followers
January 26, 2021
Budu se k ní hodně vracet pro podporu, ponoukávání, uklidnění, jemné a láskyplné, leč pevné vyšťouchnutý ze dveří. Jako k prostředku, který mi přiblíží vlastní zdroj, a pomůže mi si ho vůbec uvědomit.
Profile Image for Kelly Barth.
Author 1 book26 followers
March 22, 2013
For those grieving from environmental crises–which the rest of the world seems ill-equipped to help us with and encourages us to ignore–this book offers deep honesty and the promise of healing. Years of pretending we aren’t worried, even despairing hasn’t worked. This book offers an alternative of feeling our despair and, therein, finding hope and empowerment once again.
Profile Image for Jill.
550 reviews21 followers
March 25, 2022
If you are freaking out about climate change specifically, or other dystopian parts of late stage capitalism, this book may help. The basic premise is: we have an opportunity to engage with making things better, IF we can stay regulated and synthesize our experiences in order to stay motivated and not melt down into despondency. Hard work.
Profile Image for Joel.
142 reviews4 followers
July 5, 2020
WOW. I haven't devoured a book this quickly in a looooong time, and I say that as someone who reads a lot. The only reason it took me 2 days instead of 1 was I had to stop to take notes every 5 minutes and capture all that was here. Anyone who is involved in activism in any capacity should stop whatever they're doing and read this book. Especially if they're feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, exhausted, etc. This book helped me to understand how necessary hope is and how it can sustain us during lifelong battles for justice. And not in the kitschy toxic positivity way (smile more and your depression will be cured!!) but in a genuine manner that entails accepting the pain and suffering the world throws at us, honoring that pain, and still finding space to keep fighting.

I think one of the most important things this book did for me was to redefine and broaden the definition of activism. Activism doesn't have to mean being the next Angela Davis or Fred Hampton; activism means, "using our skills, experience, networks, enthusiasm, and temperament to the healing of our world." And when our activism aligns with our values, it can even lead to flow, a state described as, "[when] people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." The thing about flow though, is that there must be a challenge enough to absorb us but not so difficult that we feel overwhelmed.

Emotional distress can be motivating, but if it goes beyond what we imagine we can cope with, we may just shut down. On the outside, we seem to be holding it together, but internally, our energy sags and our sensitivity is dulled. Failure to maintain our energy/enthusiasm leads to burnout or even permanent withdrawal. Activist burnout is a very real phenomenon and I'm sure a lot of people have felt such fatigue with all that's happening in the world right now!

I think a lot of the ideas presented in this book tie in beautifully with the things I learned in Braiding Sweetgrass as well. (another book I highly recommend). The authors frequently speak of a spiritual connection with Gaia (or Earth and all life on it). This had me pondering the spiritual experiences I've had and so many that others have shared with me. It seems that if you were to ask almost anyone to describe a spritiual experience, it would center on communion with nature, or connection to humans on either a very grand or very intimate scale. How then, can we expand our sense of self to include such? The authors use a 4 part framework for developing such a sense. They emphasize the need to look at where an issue overlaps with the self, the immediate community, society-at-large, and all of life on Earth. They speak of gratitude as more than just "politeness" but rather as a necessity in recognizing our place in the web of life. They also emphasize that connectedness with a healthy community brings out our latent, distinct gifts.

The authors also regularly emphasize two tools needed in order to change the world: compassion and insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena. This book has helped me to develop these tools and to seek new ways to utilize them. It's given me the space to mourn all the atrocities of our day while also preserving hope for the better days ahead. One last quote that I just loved:
"If we stick only with what we know how to do, what we're comfortable with and confident about, we limit ourselves to the old, familiar ways rather than developing new capacities."
Profile Image for Annika.
20 reviews
January 9, 2023
Boken innehöll en del som var tänkvärt men var lite för flummig för min smak och lite väl… amerikansk (i brist på bättre ord).
Profile Image for Kate Lawrence.
Author 1 book24 followers
July 20, 2012
Macy and her co-author provide a boost of encouragement to everyone worried about seemingly hopeless environmental and social crises. Practical as well as inspirational, the book includes numerous exercises to strengthen those qualities that will best serve us as we work toward a more life-sustaining world. Macy has been giving workshops on these ideas for many years, testing and refining her methods, and the book reflects the depth of that process.
The principles of her teaching, called The Work That Reconnects, were welcomed by the two groups I shared them with, who participated with interest in selected exercises. She affirms that it is not necessary to be optimistic about the future in order to be an effective activist, and proves it, while redefining activism as any act done with no expectation of personal gain. That makes most people activists at least sometimes, helping us to feel that we are not alone in working for change. Active Hope presents a valuable and much-needed approach to support and increase activism at this critical point in human history, and to make it maximally effective.
Profile Image for Forrest.
18 reviews6 followers
June 4, 2022
I hate to give this book three stars—I would opt for 3.5 if that were an option. I didn’t encounter anything in here that I didn’t like or agree with, but I think the authors’ writing style made it hard for me to get the most out of it.

I don’t mean to dismiss the ideas in this book or suggest any of them are silly. The authors’ recommendations are very insightful, and—speaking from firsthand experience—they do help a lot. But the voice used often sounds a little too yoga instructor-y. And while I’m aware of Joanna Macy’s background with Buddhism, I thought the ways she wove Buddhist concepts and philosophy into the book might be alienating to some readers.

Liked the content, just not the delivery.
1,071 reviews2 followers
December 5, 2018
I had a hard time getting into this book. There were too many self-help pschyo-babble terms for me. I did appreciate parts, like focusing on gratitude, but I didn't like the catch phrases or understand how envisioning the future can be turned into practical actions.
Profile Image for Norm.
4 reviews1 follower
August 12, 2012
Language is a little more accessible than Joanna's other books. Message is inspirational! We need to get together and start taking action rather than carry on with "business as usual".
Profile Image for Erin.
259 reviews4 followers
September 20, 2021
This book is a very helpful, practical guide to maintaining healthy and functioning headspace in the midst of full awareness of the awful extent of the climate crisis. It includes meditations, self-reflection questions, and stories from the authors' lives. I was especially intrigued by the section on time. In the current era, we have become so focused on the minuscule increments of time that we seem to have lost the ability to look at timespan in the long term. When as a society we do try to take a "long term" approach, it usually includes a couple of decades at the most. We've neglected the perspective consistent with the Iroquois' Seventh Generation Principle (how will the actions we take today affect the world seven generations from now?). In contrast, oil companies willfully neglect needed repairs to prevent a catastrophe only a couple of years in the future just to prioritize quarterly profits today. While it was a small portion of the overall book, I found the authors' reflections of the implications of our abridged perspective on time and the necessity for an expansive perspective to be very compelling.
Profile Image for Deb Rudnick.
256 reviews1 follower
April 8, 2018
This book is a must read for anyone who aspires to engage more with the great challenges that face us or who is seeking more motivation, compassion and articulation for the hard work they are doing to repair our world. The authors offer a wealth of advice and guidance on how to approach challenging work to repair each other and our planet in voices that are kind, realistic and wise. I think it is difficult to read this book and come out of it untransformed or uninspired. Their thoughts on the power of collaboration, passion and vision ring beautiful and true. I had gotten this out of the library but I ended up buying it so I could keep it as a reference- I expect and hope I will refer back to it on an ongoing basis.
Profile Image for Amy.
522 reviews37 followers
August 19, 2021
It’s not about having the answers. It’s which narrative we choose to embody during this earth walk. Active Hope is a great read to remember a bunch of different tools we have at our disposal and more importantly which framework we can choose to operate within. Highly recommend particularly to those experiencing climate anxiety and despair.
202 reviews
December 4, 2022
I quite like parts like our part being part of nature protecting itself but ultimately the be thankful for trauma bit at the end (which is acknowledged as problematic) put me off.
Profile Image for Sara.
247 reviews5 followers
November 19, 2019
A very important read for anyone facing the climate crisis and wondering how to process the emotions that come with that.
86 reviews
February 19, 2020
Beautiful and inspiring. Just what I needed in a moment of frustration and despair!
Profile Image for Laura.
73 reviews
May 20, 2018
I’ve had this book for two years – carted it from Colorado to New Hampshire to Thailand and then back to New Hampshire, where I finally read it. As a cynic and a person heartbroken about what humans are doing to animals, the environment and other people, I didn’t believe I could face the mess we’re in without going crazy. This book helped, and I appreciated the examples and specific exercises. I couldn’t give it 5 stars simply because I still feel much resistance to hope in my own heart and body and mind. I do expect to return to this book again and again – I imagine its teachings will speak to me in different ways at different times.

Finally, I’ll add that I came across this book when looking for some writing by Joanna Macy. I was introduced to her concept of abundance (rather than scarcity) in my graduate social work program. I was very resistant to the idea of adopting an abundance mentality because I felt like it was simply not accurate given the suffering in the world. A wise professor tried to help me see that an abundance mentality could coexist with, and in fact help resolve, the very issues I saw contradicting it.
Profile Image for Melissa Stacy.
Author 5 books212 followers
July 18, 2016
This is an EXCELLENT book. Recommended to anyone who is following the literature on climate change, is acutely aware of the devastating science involved, and suffers panic/grief/living terror every moment they think of the future. This is not a book that promises false optimism. This is a book that says to hope anyway. To keep reading the science, and doing everything you can to stay empowered, and to keep hold of a vision of change and survival.

This book is very much aware of how grim the situation of climate change has become. At no point do the authors shy away from the bitter truth of the peril and urgency involved in trying to save life as we know it on earth. But the authors make a powerful argument for embracing the fear and the grief, to feel our pain fully, and then the book provides the mental and emotional tools to create a vision for a changed humanity that is no longer on a course toward extinction.

This is a powerful, beautiful book. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Dani Scott.
386 reviews
June 5, 2019
Very helpful as an introduction to Joanna Macy's philosophy and practices. At this point, some of the facts are a bit old, but the practices themselves are ageless. If you are interested in connecting more deeply with the Earth or connecting more with community that is interested in connecting more deeply with the Earth, these practices could really help. I appreciated the way the book built the concepts upon one another, starting with the personal, then spiraling out to society as a whole. Very heartfelt.
Profile Image for Barbara Ardinger.
Author 24 books27 followers
June 6, 2012
Macy, a famous metaphysical author, and Johnstone, famous in the UK, write persuasively about "the mess we're in" and how to deal with it. The three sections of the book are "The Great Turning," "Seeing with New Eyes," and "Going Forth." We learn what the Spiral of Work That Reconnects is and how to use it in our own lives to hopefully improve not only our own lives but those of others on the planet. These days, we need more books about social change.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
218 reviews15 followers
March 30, 2021
I found this book to be incredibly empowering and enlightening. It provides a narrative for identifying the wicked problems we face are not insurmountable.

My only gripe with this book is the title and cover art. It comes across as woo-woo when it is heavy on theories, and actionable policies that can transform society across multiple levels.

Profile Image for Kirsten D.
78 reviews13 followers
July 31, 2022
Empowering and inspiring! I feel so blessed to live in a world touched by Joanna Macy.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 160 reviews

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