Beyond the Binary: Reflection on the Deep Change Series

By exploring the roots of the challenges we face, we ensure that our personal actions and activism is directed in the right way - rather than our energy being spent tackling superficial or surface issues. The Regenerative Activism series has shown us that the crisis we face is more than just a climate crisis. It is a socio-political, cultural & spiritual crisis. That is why the response needs to be nothing short of a radical re-write of the systems that order our lives.

“A regenerative culture is something that moves beyond the idea of sustainability - it does more that just sustain itself. If you think of nature, it renews itself with resilience and flourishes as it grows. It has to recognise how different struggles and injustices are all interconnected and interdependent (recognising) how they all intersect.” – Sheila Menon

To be alive in this historical moment is to bear witness to a deepening rift. Oppositional forces have opened up a chasm in the world and we feel collective pain as it widens. Our path is precarious; it’s as if we walk along a knife’s edge. To the right lies empty space. At our left, a great mountain. If we fall to one side, the looming blackness rises swiftly to meet us: a near inevitable collision with our ecological limits, as we lose our future to climate breakdown. But to our other side is a slope so steep and demanding, it feels impossible to climb. So many of us shut off. For fear of either path we keep a blindfold on, edging our way along an ever-narrowing precipice - knowing nothing but the numb determination to move forward, to go on.

But what if there was another way? What if we forgot the fear, and the options that pull us in two terrifying directions? What if we were the chasm? What if we were the cracks through which something new was emerging?

With the online series “Regenerative Activism: Deep change” Advaya, in collaboration with the Ulex project and Gita Parihar, has delved into the heart of these questions. The series patently demonstrates the ways in which we can strategise effectively to find the deep resources we need to face what lies ahead. The gathering, held over four evenings online, provided both an in depth analysis of the complex issues that currently beset modern society, as well as the strategies needed to engender meaningful change.

“The current crises besetting humanity call for a revolution in consciousness (to) bring about a whole new story of what it means to be human.” – Gillian Ross.

We heard from activists, organisers and figures from leading grassroots organisations and NGOs – panelists who each have their own unique approach to tackling these issues. We examined the distributive injustices laid bare by climate change and Covid-19. We analysed issues pertaining to the global economy, the climate movement, ecological destruction and the erosion of our individual and collective wellbeing through the prism of ‘deep change.’

Through thoughtful inquiry, the series made us aware of how this disruptive historical moment has laid bare the problems that are rooted in our very way of life – in particular, how we have come to treat the earth and each other. At the heart of each issue we see the same themes arising again and again – symptoms of the profound dysfunctionality in our current systems. When examining these issues, participants found that key topics had a similar undercurrent; that of interplay between oppositional forces. Whether it be inclusion or exclusion, individual benefit versus the common good, activism or oppression, self care and burnout, or extractivism versus regeneration, binary themes came up again and again.

But most importantly, the series was unique in that it focused on overcoming this polarisation. The speakers mapped out an inspiring picture of international and grassroots action, which is emerging across the globe to confront urgent issues. The ‘duality binary’ is at the core of many of these issues, as it stems from the modern world’s perceived separation between humans and nature, as well as our inner and outer worlds. Moving beyond this binary is key to healing the deep rifts caused by it in the first place.

As the panelist Anthea Lawson explored, to give into this polarisation, to be resistant to looking at both our inner and outer worlds, is to feed into what the dominant culture demands. Through careful facilitation and dialogue, the series ensured it did not grow listless or become waylaid by a discussion solely of what was wrong with the world. Instead, it focused on our common humanity, examining how we can replace things in practice: namely, by exploring the grey areas in between. Dean Francis from the Urban Mindfulness Association phrased it concisely, when he said “there’s more than two sides to a coin… and staying on that edge is really useful.”

But what exactly lies beyond the binary?

In this increasingly complex world, beset by crises that deepen intersectional injustice, the series demonstrated the importance of taking holistic, multi-level approach in order to answer this question and come to a better understanding of the challenges we face. This is perhaps most clearly explained through the concept of the ‘problem tree.’ The problem tree is a tool that enables us - like the Regenerative Activism series - to interrogate issues deeply. In doing so, we see they intersect because they are intricately and intrinsically related. When we examine them more closely, we learn the issues of today’s society are in fact a multitude of consequences, stemming from a core problem. When we compare these core problems and delve deeper still, we see beyond those problems to an underlying root cause.

In this sense, by using the Regenerative Activism and the concept of ‘deep change’ as a framework in which to guide us, we were able to better examine the issues of: a privatised economy, the unjust impacts of climate change, our separation from nature, and our collective resilience and wellbeing. When doing so, each topic acted as a signpost, guiding us toward deeper truths about an underlying cause. By exploring the roots of the challenges we face, we ensure that our personal actions and activism is directed in the right way - rather than our energy being spent tackling superficial or surface issues: the symptoms rather than the cause.

The Regenerative Activism series has shown us that the crisis we face is more than just a climate crisis, or a public health crisis. It is a socio-political, cultural and spiritual crisis. That is why the response needs to be nothing short of a radical re-write of the systems that order our lives.

Beyond providing this detailed critique, the series has outlined some practical and compelling responses to guide us toward a better alternative. The panelists gave examples of radically transformative action, including what is needed to move toward recognising and overcoming deeply rooted systems of oppression in the form of racism, homophobia, transphobia, the patriarchy and capitalist extraction, which have meant certain lives, lands and cultures are not valued as much as others. They have shown us the first steps on the path toward a deep, transformational shift. Importantly, these individual and collective strategies address issues at the root cause, bringing about structural change vis-vis an evolution in consciousness. Those involved in the series and beyond are together weaving a story of deep cultural regeneration, showing in the words of Arundhati Roy “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

In the UK, those of us lucky or privileged enough have experienced lockdown as an enforced retreat ‘back to the basics.’ For some communities it has meant spending more time with family and appreciating things closer to home. Many of those involved in the conference found that as the speed of life has decreased, so too have we slowed down and begun reconnecting with nature. In the brief pause that has emerged, we have found some of the silence that Roy refers to when she says: “on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

The series has shown however, that it is not only on a ‘quiet day’ in which you can hear this new world, but also through the noise of local grassroots activism in Sheffield to defend trees that are legally represented by Paul Powlesland founder of Lawyers for Nature. It resounds in the voice of Sheila Menon,who challenges the climate movement to be intersectional in our approach, analysis and demands, so that we do not overlook the injustices that are woven into the fabric of the climate crisis and so replicate and reproduce the same systems of oppression that caused it in the first place. You can hear it in the critical support of indigenous communities to reclaim ritual and land by the Gaia foundation, which works in solidarity with the Earth’s custodians and defenders. Importantly, while each of the speakers has played an integral role in organising for systemic change, the majority agreed that there is no single policy that can act as a panacea, but that communities and social movements will always lead the way towards deeper embodiments of justice.

The key take home message from the series is this: we cannot underestimate the radical power of deep transformation, whether it be at the collective or individual level.

We should also therefore not underestimate the importance of emerging from the pandemic right. If we had the privilege of slowing down, of reflecting and shifting, then let’s aim to emerge with restored resilience and a renewed sense of vigour when fighting for systemic change. This means standing in solidarity and speaking out against the injustices that have been so present during covid for BAME, migrant and other communities across the globe who have had to navigate the pandemic with a fear of being abused or killed when stepping outside. In light of recent events, this especially includes responding to the following:

“There (is) a tale of two quarantines… over the last few months, black people have not only watched their friends and family members die at higher rates from the coronavirus, they have also watched people who look like them be gunned down while going for a jog, be murdered in their homes, threatened while bird watching in Central Park, and mercilessly choked on camera.” - Danielle Cadet

As we come out of lockdown, we need to acknowledge the disproportionate risk and burden that is falling on BAME communities, and let that acknowledgement inform any action, decision or response. Let’s aim to use this moment as an opening: let’s grow in wisdom and solidarity, where those of us who are able give our activism and support to those movements and communities worst hit to recover and respond. Let’s move toward the just transition for a new green economy, that places people and planet ahead of profit. Most of all, let’s hold onto this sense of interconnectedness, by supporting each other to be radically regenerative.

From a self-reflective standpoint, the series did just that. I found it deeply regenerative in that it replenished me to greater levels of energy and insight. Hearing from the diversity of speakers widened my perspective. It helped me to see that my personal actions are valid and important - a part of what makes up the tapestry of ‘deep change.’ It showed me revolutionary acts are not just ones that happen externally - they also lie within ourselves. The conference helped me come to terms with my own years of inner exploration after professional burnout, reframing it not as a ‘break’ from activism, but rather a way of resourcing and energising my activism. Because without inner reflection, we will never recognise the extent and depth to which we are part of what we are trying to change.

“Paradoxically, systemic change is a deeply personal endeavour.” – Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

That is not to say that individual acts are enough and we should stop pushing big business and governments to take responsibility for the mess we are in. It is not to say we should stop fighting, individually and collectively, against systemic racism in all its forms. Nor is it to suggest that the individual act of ‘green’ consumption is enough to overcome the detrimental impacts of capitalism as it drives us ever closer to extinction. More than ever we need examine the overarching power structures causing these issues. We need to push for good policymaking and hold the people in power to account.

What it does mean, however, is that we need to wake up to the power that is inside each and every one of us. A big part of that power is developing the reflective capacity to see how we ourselves - in our daily actions and wider activism - may be reproducing systems of oppression that we are trying to overcome in the first place. We must dig into the roots of who we perceive ourselves to be. That is the power of individual change - at the deep, personal level. Every act that each one of us takes in the form of personal activism as reflective practice contributes to a greater wave of change, who’s shape and rhythmic motion is regenerative culture.

“A regenerative culture is something that moves beyond the idea of sustainability - it does more that just sustain itself. If you think of nature, it renews itself with resilience and flourishes as it grows. It has to recognise how different struggles and injustices are all interconnected and interdependent (recognising) how they all intersect.” – Sheila Menon

Every one of us needs to take on personal development as an imperative. As a moral duty for life, for nature and for each other. We need to reframe the pragmatic responses that already exist as the radical alternatives that they are, by focusing on the culture they are contributing to changing, as well the practical outcomes they achieve. Beyond this, we need to connect, to collaborate with our community and innovate to find new responses. To find new forms of activism that challenge these oppressive structures from every angle, at every level.

Together we can achieve a deep inner shift, which will in turn create a paradigm shift.

“We take part in (a shift in consciousness) when we pay attention to the inner frontier of change, to personal and spiritual development that enhances our capacity and desire to act for our world. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were often regarded as separate endeavours and viewed in either-or terms. (Now) they are (becoming) recognized as mutually reinforcing and essential to one another.” – Joanna Macy

When faced with the overwhelming array of issues that typify our postmodern and metamodern world, we can often feel lost, or numb, as there is so much out of our own control. But there is one thing that is within our control and remains our choice.

What is this choice?

It is the choice to operate in the space beyond the binary. It is to welcome a growing awareness about the intimate connection between our inner and outer worlds. It is our ability to work on ourselves: to be open to learning and sharing and growing. That means opening our ears to the lived experience of others. It means creating a platform for hitherto unheard or unlistened-to voices by shifting power and sharing resources. It means looking into where we perpetuate suffering unknowingly. It means examining ourselves and our actions carefully, to see the ways in we ourselves feed into a culture of oppression and violence. It means not just focusing on our common humanity, but listening to its diverse voices.

“Faced with an urgent task, it may feel counterintuitive to first look inside ourselves, but it is essential.” – Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

The goal of this personal work is, at the end of the day, a collective one. To achieve systematic transformation we need both individual and collective change - because in the end, its all these little actions that will add up to a new world. As a starting point, this means restoring our relationship with ourselves, with nature and with each other. It is these individual and collective steps that together will help realise the deep shifts in socio-political structures and consciousness that are needed.

Now is the critical moment to shape our future.

The Regenerative Activism series is a call to action that emulates the words of Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, when they say:

“You are not powerless. In fact, your every action is suffused with meaning… know that you are incredibly lucky to be alive at a time when you can make a transformative difference to the future of all life on earth.”


Erin Tandy

Erin Manning holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is also the director of the SenseLab

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