The Human Spring

ed gillespie
5 min readMar 21, 2020

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‘If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring’ sang Tony Bennett. On this first day of spring in March 2020 something extraordinary is unfolding in regard to our supposed ruling of the world in this unprecedented pandemic lockdown. Blue skies are reappearing over previously smog-shrouded cities. Birdsong is ringing true and through beyond the now absent traffic’s roar. And as the sediment settles in Venetian canals without being constantly churned up by motorised boats, it has revealed clear lagoonal water and silvery fish. Something has happened very quickly, we have stepped out of the way, and nature has bounced back (#spoileralert/#plottwist — maybe in some way we are the virus?).

A decade ago the Arab Spring emerged across the Middle East as people rose up in rebellion against authoritarianism and exploitation. Initial optimism was short-lived as the movements that brought the prospect of freedom, hope and more radical, representative democracy were either crushed, dissipated or dissolved into brutal and ongoing civil wars, in what became known as the ‘Arab Winter’.

The Arab Spring itself was named after the ‘Springtime of Nations’in 1848, perhaps Europe’s biggest historic wave of revolution, as citizens of over fifty countries, rose up in ad-hoc, unco-ordinated fashion against the monarchies and bourgeoisie, demanding democratic participation, freedom of the press and workers’ rights. Like the Arab Spring the results of this continent-wide unrest were at the time distinctly mixed, although many of their demands were later adopted, with a hint of historical irony by those who at the time were actually enemies of the revolts.

And here we are in what might be described as ‘The Human Spring’. But what is the essence of this awakening, this moment of seasonal and soulful fertility, the promise of a fresh new growth? I have written about the symbolic power of spring before. Right now we face the fear and trauma of losing a generation of our elders — parents or grandparents depending on your age, something Dougald Hine has written about painfully beautifully as a ‘collective encounter with mortality on a planetary scale’. We’re self-isolating and having to embrace the uncertainty of how long this lockdown may have to last. It almost certainly won’t be ‘over by Christmas’.

But amidst this grief and apprehension there is also the tenacious wriggling up of an irresistible question, that breaks through the concrete of our complacency like a Mare’s Tail rhizome, a cocky green shoot that cannot be ignored: ‘What happens next?’

Covid-19’s message to humanity so far, familiar to every parent disciplining a child, has essentially been ‘Now go to your room and think very hard about what you’ve done’. I have referred to this previously as ‘The Great Humbling’. Where we are being involuntarily forced to confront and collectively reflect on the consequences of our actions. This could be transformational. However beyond the yoga retreats, wilderness vigils and ‘camino’ style pilgrimages, I suspect that real transformation only comes from the difficult, uninvited, involuntary experiences we are subjected to, as opposed to the ones we might consciously select for ourselves.

Perhaps this is what initiation really means? To wade deeply into the cold, cloying mud of grief and loss, that weighs you down and builds in claggy layers on your boots, making each step heavier and slower and more exhaustingly burdensome. Until suddenly it doesn’t — as that emotional sludge falls away under its own mass. You have not shaken the grief off. You have worked your way through it. Because without doing so you can never truly dance with love.

All around me I sense the panic. Entire industries like events, tourism and aviation have almost been burned down overnight. And when your house burns down do you just rebuild it again as it was before? Or do you build the house of your dreams?

In the smoking embers lie the new shoots of a truly regenerative recovery. Ashes are actually good for soil fertility, which is why volcanic slopes are so lush, the seeds of the right thoughts and actions are already being planted. But what rises Phoenix-like from them will NOT be the same as what grew there before. It can’t be.

In this ‘Human Spring’ we have been compelled to stop. To pause. To reflect. To think. We have the space and time to reimagine and rebuild, radically and reverentially. Let us listen to those who will furiously attempt to patch up a sinking vessel, perhaps the only one they know, whose packed ‘real-world’ schedules have just flipped into equally packed ‘online’ ones — thereby completely missing the unequivocal message in this lack of movement. They need soothing balm for their fiery fears. But let us not be led by them.

The true leaders in this springtime for humanity will be the ones who can fully appreciate, comprehend and envision what is needed at a global trans-national level, as perhaps those architects of the Bretton-Woods agreement did for the post-second-world war world, but be able to act at a revolutionarily relocalised level of reconnection, reconciliation, responsibility and resilience. Crucially Bretton-Woods took place in 1944, BEFORE the war had ended. We need leadership for a post-crisis world today. The financial crash of 2008 was squandered. Let us not make the same mistakes again.

It’s time to grow a new forest economy, not a regimented plantation of neatly placed and spaced trees, devoid of biodiversity, and focused on the one-dimensional monetary value of the extraction of the timber to be harvested. But a wild, tangled, resilient, mature, interconnected and interdependent ecosystem full of colour and imagination and vibrancy, and diversity, that is not about infinite growth but dynamic exchange, that is in service to the systemic transformation that will hopefully soon be underway in every sector. A shift that is steeped in our deepest myths, for almost every indigenous culture intuitively understands the ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ (world out of balance) we find ourselves in, and a new imagining led by stories of awe, magic, wonder and compassion.

It is only this spring-like awakening that will move us all dramatically towards a world that even in the very recent past might have been ‘politically impossible’. Now we have the once in a generation chance to make it ‘politically inevitable’. I was once castigated by a former colleague who described my ideas of what I knew the world really needed as ‘commercially and politically impossible’. My reply was that in that case we must change those commercial and political realities. And here we are.

The sun is shining outside, despite the perceived gloom. Let it shine inside too, radiantly. In the Arab Spring they occupied public squares. In the Human Spring we are facing an occupation of the private heart. It’s demand? That we let love rule like it was the first day of spring. Because it actually is.

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

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ed gillespie

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