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The Spirituality of Change-Makers and the Global Civil Society

Picture by Frederique Darragon (

I have been involved in this change process since 1968, in other words, for almost half a century. It began for me with the counter culture of the 1960s, out of which the ecology movement and a new wave of the feminist movement emerged in the 1970s. At the end of that decade, I witnessed how the German “young socialists,” transformed by the sixties’ counterculture, formed coalitions with ecologists, feminists, and peace activists, out of which emerged the “Greens” — a new political movement that rapidly spread around the world.

During the 1990s, Green politics was eclipsed by the information technology revolution and the subsequent emergence of a new global economy with seemingly irresistible momentum. However, the harmful social and ecological consequences of global capitalism were soon recognized by scholars and community leaders around the world who forcefully raised their voices and demanded that we must “change the game.“ By the end of the twentieth century, an impressive global coalition of NGOs had formed, all interlinked electronically but also through strong and enduring friendships among their leaders, many of them men and women with deep personal roots in the cultural movements of the 1960s.

This new global civil society now forms an alternative global community whose members share the core values of human dignity and ecological sustainability. It is active not only in grassroots politics but also maintains a network of scholars, research institutes, think tanks, and centers of learning, which largely operate outside our leading academic institutions, business organizations, and government agencies. In my experience, this is where the systemic thinking that is crucial to solving our global problems is developed and practiced most successfully.

The global civil society was born in November 1999 at the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In fact, it was first known as the “Seattle coalition.” The problems of economic globalization, also known as “Neoliberalism,” have been at the very center of its concerns from the beginning. However, these scholars and activists clearly recognize that the major problems of our time — energy, the environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war — are systemic problems, all interconnected and interdependent. Different organizations deal with different facets of this global crisis.

After the global financial crisis of 2008-2010, it had become clear that the crisis and subsequent recession had perpetuated and even aggravated the economic inequalities created by global capitalism around the world. And suddenly, people all over the world began to rise up and forcefully expressed their outrage. These uprisings included the Arab Spring, the mass movement of Los Indignados in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street, which subsequently gave rise to the broader ‘Occupy movement’ in the United States and around the world.

The specific grievances of these uprisings varied from country to country, but there were some shared themes: a common understanding that in all those countries the economic and political systems had failed and were fundamentally unfair. Occupy Wall Street identified the essence of this feeling with the brilliant slogan “We are the 99 percent,” which quickly caught on in the media and decisively shaped the American political dialogue. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, focusing on economic inequality and calling for a “political revolution,“ was so successful largely because the ground had been prepared by the Occupy movement and, more generally, by the global civil society.

As I mentioned, the two core values shared by the global civil society are human dignity and ecological sustainability. Together they form a new ethics for our time. Ethical behavior is behavior for the common good; it is always associated with a community. Today, we belong to many communities, but we all share two communities to which we belong. We are all members of humanity, and we all belong to the global biosphere. We are members of oikos, the Earth Household, which is the Greek root of the word “ecology.” As members of the Earth Household we should behave in such a way that we do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. This is the very essence of ecological sustainability. As members of the human community, our behavior should reflect a respect of human dignity and basic human rights.

The awareness of belonging to the larger community of life, and the commitment to act accordingly, in my view, are the very essence of spirituality. This is how the two core values shared by the global civil society reflect its spiritual awareness.

Today, NGOs around the world skillfully use the internet to network with each other, share information, and mobilize their members with unprecedented speed. This became evident dramatically in the recent rapid spread of the popular and largely leaderless uprisings, as well as in their mutual declarations of solidarity, all guided by the vast array of social media that have become critical political tools for communities and organizations. The power of this complex “meshwork” of civil society motivated by a coherent set of values, is truly awesome.

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