The Great Humbling

ed gillespie
5 min readMar 11, 2020


Recreating the Shackleton Expedition’s rescue voyage 2013

Billions of years of fossilised sunshine burnt that is in turn overcooking the planet. A reckless fratricide and sororicide of the family of life driving the sixth mass extinction. A vampiric siphoning of wealth into a mosquito-like 1% of the population from the body of humanity (which reminds me of the Gary Larson cartoon ‘Pull out Betty! You’ve hit an artery!’). Populist politics hollower than a dry bone, empty of the marrow that truly sustains. And now a silent, deadly seemingly irresistible contagion sweeping invisibly across the globe. What a time to be alive!

Our leaders vacillate between laissez-faire and lockdown. The first in fear of a corrosive economic collapse, the latter perhaps the inevitable aftermath of the former. China welds shut apartment block doors, Italy is paralysed, and the UK is apparently terrified by the potential inability to wipe it’s own bum. The news blasts a torrent of contradictory uncertainty at us, any attempt at rational seamanship for this boat of the collective mind is inevitably swamped by the deluge, with an even more sinister undertow as the numbers of coronavirus cases inexorably rise. Don’t you just love taking back control?

The world we have built is clearly far, far more fragile than the ivory towers of our imaginations. Laid low by microscopic invaders and macroscopic megatrends, the boiler on the steam engine of infinite growth, into which we’ve been frantically, manically shovelling coal (and oil, and gas, and fissile atoms), feels like it’s about to blow. And yet perhaps this moment is the eye of the storm? The calm lacuna in the maelstrom? That weird almost unworldly moment when the screaming whirlwind stops, and for a time a strange serenity reigns…before the eye passes and the tempest roars once again. A chance to think deeply , and perhaps quickly, about how to react when the hurricane returns.

What does it mean to be truly ‘humbled’? It means to be less proud, to feel less important. It is to be profoundly defeated. From the Latin ‘humus’ — ground, to be grounded, and ‘humilis’ — made low or lowly. It is about a re-centering, a reconnection, being forced to make a radical reappraisal, to stare into the dark mirror and reflect on the reflection we see staring back at us, unblinkingly. There’s a message in the image.

In the panic and pandemonium of the pandemic we’re all riding in the same pantechnicon, the pantheon in which we worship is in question, and as we panhandle for solutions in the aftermath of the Pandora’s box we have opened, we risk imprisoning ourselves in our own panopticon. This pantomime requires us to envisage a bigger panorama of what is really going on here.

‘Pan’ is the God of the wild, and ‘Demic’ stems from ‘demos’ — the ancient Greek for ‘commoner’. Coronavirus is literally the mischief-making wilding of the people. I fear for the economic carnage wrought on the most vulnerable, the part-timers, the freelancers, the ‘just-about-managing’ toilers of the gig economy, as our growth engine judders and stalls, not through lack of fuel, but the evaporation of the very lubricant that keeps it’s pistons firing — people.

And yet as industry is suspended and cars remain parked we can breathe again. Like the grounding of all of Europe’s aluminium birds during the Icelandic volcano eruption a decade ago, that brought pristine con-trail-free skies to the continent for a week or more, there is a chance for a pause, a reset.

Perhaps those who choose to sweep clear the supermarket shelves to selfishly stock-pile for their own needs might experience a flicker of empathy for the displaced and desperate migrants and refugees for whom external factors have become truly existential?

Perhaps remote-working compels us to reimagine our practices of over-work and over-travel? What is being served by our hyper-mobility? Our harassed and harried pinging from place to place, wherever, whenever and however often we want, for whatever reason seems, well, in a twisted sense ‘reasonable’?

Perhaps the pseudo-connections of our virtual online worlds, thousands of ‘friends’ with whom we are constantly in contact but never actually see, might cede a little more attention to our genuinely nearest and dearest? Those whom we ought to hold closer?

Perhaps the absence and ending of deeply ingrained physicality, the potent symbolism of embraces and handshakes, will remind us of how utterly vital the rituals of connecting sword-hands and hugging heart to heart really are?

We have and are being forcibly severed from the very things that make us human. That make us just another animal in the bustling, jostling entourage of life. And this severance requires us to find, I believe, a greater reverence. A re-evaluation of relationship. Whether it’s a boiling climate, a decimation of nature, a stratified distribution of wealth that would embarrass a champagne glass, and now an infinitesimally small virus, we either attempt to reconcile these challenges together. Or we all go down together.

We all know somewhere in our bones, our churning stomachs, breaking hearts and possibly feverish brows that a great change is coming, and indeed has to come. Legendary activist Joanna Macey calls our time ‘The Great Turning’. Dark Mountain co-founder Dougald Hine has described it as ‘The Great Humbling’. That resonates profoundly with me.

This is not a time for the heroic Shakespearean leadership of Henry V. We are hopefully not yet at the stage, heaven forfend, of the breach in which we must ‘close the wall up with our English dead’. It is not about victory. It’s about homecoming. It is a time of reappraisal and to begin to embark on the seemingly impossible, like Ernest Shackleton and his crew setting sail in a lifeboat from Elephant Island to cross 720 miles of raging Southern Ocean. Heroism yes, but not in a battle against a French or foreign enemy, but a struggle against the monumental elements beyond his control; the screeching winds of the sky, the mountainous waves and the bone-gnawing cold. Forces he would have to work with not just conquer. But perhaps most of all, a wrestle with their own psyches, their own beliefs, their own determination to do what simply just had to be done if survival was going to be secured despite the improbable odds.

If we can genuinely recognise who we are now, one collective faction in life’s planetary tribe, where we are now, in the storm’s eye of our own creation, then what we must do becomes much much clearer and simpler. The journey ahead of us is not easy. It will inevitably necessitate a Great Humbling. But on a clear day, when a break in the weather soothes the sea and the clouds are swept from the darkening skies, like Shackleton, I can catch a glimpse of South Georgia glinting on the horizon and everyone coming home safely feels possible once more.

‘The Great Humbling’ is now a podcast series in collaboration with Dougald Hine. You can find it here and on Facebook, ITunes and Spotify.

Ed Gillespie is a writer, speaker, futurist and poet. In 2007/8 he circumnavigated the world without flying and wrote ‘Only Planet — a flightfree adventure around the world’. He is a serial entrepreneur and an adviser to or investor in a number of ethical businesses. Ed is also a facilitator with the Forward Institute’s responsible leadership programme, a Director of Greenpeace UK and Co-Founder of Futerra

Follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.



ed gillespie

Ed Gillespie is a writer, poet, environmentalist, serial entrepreneur and futurist.