When awe fuels change.
Our dear community,
Our organization and this Substack has gone through a little transformation! We are now formally called the Awe Exchange - and we’re so excited to be building, creating and experimenting in new ways, using the power of awe and collective imagination to help create a world where change-makers can dream in uncertain times, whoever and wherever they are.
Thanks for being part of the journey.
So.. what is 'Awe-Based Change-Making’
Many activist movements today operate on a currency of urgency. While our house truly is on fire, it’s difficult to see beyond the emotions of fear, anger and guilt. While righteous anger can catalyze action in the short-term, studies show it rarely sustains long-term engagement. And with rising activism-related mental health challenges like burnout and eco-anxiety, fear-based approaches can actually disempower changemakers. The more urgent these times become, the more paralysis we can feel.
‘Awe Based Change-making’ is an approach that taps into the power of awe - that feeling of wonder, connection and smallness we get when encountering something vast, something that reframes our understanding of reality.
This is not a silver bullet nor a replacement for the entirely valid emotions listed above. Awe is an ingredient that should be considered when building collective change.
Here are three key principles:
Fostering Interconnection - Experiences of awe may help dissolve barriers between self and other human and non-human actants (trees, insects, the bench you’re sitting on etc.). This interconnectedness felt when we experience this emotion can motivate protecting what we collectively share.
"Leave no one behind (LNOB)” is the central promise of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. LNOB starts by recognizing who is currently being left behind in the first place. So, how do we start recognizing others (both human and not) connected to our living systems?
Experiencing awe can shift our attention to the systems around us. It's an act of noticing that has the potential to anchor us in a deeper 'knowing'. In the thirteenth century, Islamic philosopher Ibn Yami used the 'known/unknown' method that we often see in Design Thinking methodologies today. This framework categorizes knowledge into four types: known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Awe grounds us in wonder and curiosity, which drives discovery of the 'unknown knowns' and 'known unknowns'. It opens us to ask questions, identify blindspots, and imagine possibilities. Awe dissolves barriers between the self and nature, sparking the interconnectedness that motivates protecting our shared commons.
Inspiring Curiosity within the Complexity - Awe provides relief from anxious fight-or-flight mindsets. When anchored in wonder, urgency becomes possibility, apathy becomes engagement.
Awe is a spectrum of emotion, both awesome and awful. It can inspire hope, but it can also birth a feeling of discomfort. The shade of grey that is the experience of awe can reveal a different flavour of ‘hope’. A as strong believe in keeping hope alive, I do see the danger in relegating action and putting hope on a pedistal.
Environmental peacemaker Olivia Lazard says it so well:
”(…)I think the binary conversation that puts despair on one side and optimism on the other has become quite counterproductive in the conversation about climate change and ecological overshoot. When hope is a larger part of the story, people delegate responsibility away to the people who make it their business, and it stops being a collective story.”
Awe can offer a new perspective on the realities we are living through - possibly even to show us beauty within the complexity of the emotion itself.
Sparking Creativity - Awe unlocks wonder, imagination and new perspectives. This flexibility is crucial for thinking beyond the polycrisis we’re facing, and envisioning what our collective future could look like.
At the Awe Exchange, we're working to make awe-based tools accessible to changemakers worldwide. Our projects gather interdisciplinary research, pilot models with partners, and convene coalitions to drive adoption. We provide science-backed resources so organizations can integrate awe into their approaches.
The goal? Forge a new era of changemaking rooted not solely in fear, but shared awe, wonder and curiosity. Awe helps us remember we're in this together.
Want to learn more about awe-based activism? Follow along or get in touch!
With kindness and curiosity,