Life in the green lane moves pretty fast. Right when we think we have something figured out, another product, technology or concept steps up to replace what we had thought was current. A great example of this is the compact fluorescent light bulb. Merely a few years ago, CFLs were promoted as the saviors to our energy inefficiency woes. Today however, they are quickly being replaced by light emitting diodes (LEDs), a more efficient bulb that lasts significantly longer and doesn’t include hazardous toxins that are found within CFLs. All around, the LED is a superior product.

On personal, institutional, and global scales we’re often told that sustainability is our ultimate goal. Universally defined, sustainability aims to ‘meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This sounds nice, right? Sure it does. But when push comes to shove, does sustainable development have what it takes to engage society with the appropriate tools to tackle the complex challenges we currently face? Many are sensing that it does not, that efforts should be made to better capture our potential to not merely sustain or survive, but to thrive into the future. This, in essence, is exactly what thrivability aims to do.

To properly understand thrivability, it is helpful to take a deeper look into the modern sustainability discourse, and why in theory it might not cut it.

1. The core of the sustainability movement is about acknowledging that we’re in a hole, a crisis situation, in the negative – it aspires to get us back to zero. This message may be grounded in scientific truths, but it has proven not to be the most effective engagement strategy for changing peoples’ behaviours. Businesses resist this message as it compromises their growth, and individuals and communities oppose it as it is generally infringes on their free will. Essentially, sustainability has been promoted as mostly stick and very little carrot, and people tend not to enjoy getting hit with sticks, particularly if they feel as if they have always followed the rules.

2. Building upon this, sustainable development has exposed a significant blind spot by failing to acknowledge the connectivity and interdependence of the various issues encompassed within our pressing 21st century challenges. Progressives frequently site a growing number of global crises that require unique and urgent attention, from energy, food, water, and waste crises, to economic, infrastructure, and carbon crises. All of these crises have received a significant amount of attention over the years, each with their own institutions, NGOs, conferences, journals, websites, funding mechanisms, etc. The work happening here is incredibly well-intended, but the concern is that by approaching these issues in isolation of each other, we fail to acknowledge a deeper systemic understanding of how they all relate to each other, or what may have caused them to develop in the first place. The result is redundancies and ineffective strategies that often exacerbate problems elsewhere.

3. And on a purely emotional level, sustainability as a term is not very inspiring. Rarely do we hear it used in other contexts of our daily lives as something to aspire towards. ‘Things are great with the misses. Our love life is sustainable!’ This doesn’t sound quite right, eh? Well, if the terminology represents something that’s static and uninspiring in every other connotation, why would we have it signify our most pressing goal of engaging people to have beneficial relationships with a perpetually changing planet?

4. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sustainable development and its predominant mission of reducing and ultimately eliminating ‘unsustainability’ is an inherently insufficient target for success. For approximately 40 years now, human demand for ecosystem services has outpaced the planet’s ability to absorb and replenish them. Our current ecological budget sits at a little over a planet and a half’s worth of services each year, and projections show that demand for resources will somehow increase in the decades ahead. Under sustainable development’s current target of zero impact (carbon neutral, net zero, etc), lost ecological systems and prior energy/carbon impacts are generally unaccounted for. In other words, if we were to stop ‘being bad’ today and live impact-free, truly sustainable lifestyles, we’d be living on a severely degraded planet that has already shown signs of significant imbalance. The active restoration and regeneration of the biosphere to a stable equilibrium needs to be accounted for, and there are currently very few philosophies or frameworks out there that address this… sustainability as it stands is not one of them.

Ok, so sustainability has its issues, eh? Am I suggesting that we abandon ship? Absolutely not! Sustainability and its emphasis on working to get us ‘back to zero’ is as valuable today as it has ever been. So long as we continue to face issues like tar sands, oil pipelines, fracking, depleting rainforests, poisons in our commerce system and violations of human rights, we’ll require efforts to bring attention to preventing these degrading practices from continuing. Sustainable development has done a noble and determined job of taking on this role. But what I am suggesting however is that we need to acknowledge sooner than later that our primary campaign of reducing unsustainability is fundamentally incapable of getting us to where we’re now needing to go. We need more. We need something like…

Thrivability

Thrivability is a burgeoning approach to development that is currently being brought to life by a network of social innovators, living systems specialists and change agents throughout the world. It is a positive and inclusive vision that steps away from messages of austerity, burden and sacrifice and into a mentality that empowers people to take on the deepest societal problems with courage and enthusiasm. It is founded upon the premise that thriving is not something that just happens to inspired individuals, but it is something that can be actively designed into organizations, communities and cultures. To do this, a ‘thrivable’ designer focuses less on identifying problems and more on actively creating and strengthening conditions that provide the greatest opportunity for a system to evolve, express itself authentically and operate in a mutually enhancing manner with its broader ecosystem. In this light, thrivability’s approach to development is salutogenic, akin to a doctor helping a patient live a stress-free, meaningful and healthy lifestyle, as opposed to a pathogenic approach which prescribes medications for diagnosed ailments.

Looking at this in a more inquisitive manner… if sustainability is centered around asking the question ‘how do we fix the mess we’ve made?’, thrivability asks ‘what kind of world do we want to live in?’ And if sustainability is indeed about aspiring to get us back to zero, thrivability asks, ‘what’s on the other side of zero?’ The philosophy speaks beyond bottom lines. It speaks about actively creating a future we want rather than responding to one that frightens us. And because of its dynamic nature, thrivability cannot be approached as a destination, but rather as an ongoing process of adaptation, learning and action. It acknowledges that effective change has to be embodied, not merely considered or planned for.

Core components of thrivability encompass fields like appreciative enquiry, presencing, biomimicry, applied improvisation, traditional ecological knowledge and developmental psychology. A great excerpt from Arthur Brock here:

Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.

Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than one consumes. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Place-based and Human-Scaled

If we’re looking for applied approaches to thrivability, New York-based Project for Public Space‘s exploration of placemaking has its finger right on the pulse. This group has identified that the current sustainability agenda has tended to work in silos around abstract issues with incremental goals, perpetuation a very passive role for citizens. They advocate that ‘only by helping people connect to, care for and shape the world beyond their front doors will we be able to instill people with a capacity to redress the larger environmental crises.’ PPS Vice President Ethan Kent expands upon this through some positive enquiry:

What kind of places do we want to create? What kind of communities do we want to live in? What kind of world do we hope to see in the future?

These questions are at the heart of environmentalism today, but are seldom posed. Environmentalism can perhaps best accomplish its goals for humans to impact less by leading the conversation on how we can impact more.

Crisis drives people to action but often does not lead us to address underlying challenges and opportunities. Through the years environmentalists have effectively drawn attention to many problems, galvanized action to remedy them and limited the overall damage. But today the movement can seize an opportunity to launch a discussion about the world we want and how we can empower people to make it happen.

Regenerating Living Systems

Additional inspiration can be drawn from work being done within regenerative design (great manifesto HERE by Bill Reed and David Eisenberg), a philosophy and process that is built around the premise that our communities and earth can be healed through human development. This message is in stark contrast with sustainability and environmentalism’s primary approach of working to save the earth from human development. A brief description of regenerative design via Wikipedia:

“Whereas the highest aim of sustainable development is to satisfy fundamental human needs today without compromising the possibility of future generations to satisfy theirs, the end-goal of regenerative design is to redevelop systems with absolute effectiveness, that allows for the co-evolution of the human species along with other thriving species.”

In his book Thriving Beyond Sustainability, Andres R Edwards confirms this link between regeneration and thrivability.

‘Instead of restoring ecosystems in decline, the thrivable goal is to regenerate them so that they teem with diverse wildlife and are integrated with flourishing human settlements.’

Driving this approach to development is the recognition that humanity must shift from thinking in mechanical and fragmented terms and into methods that are fully integrated within living systems. This can be seen as the key differentiator thrivability has with conventional and sustainable models of development, which both heavily rely upon mechanical processes that promote the optimization of parts and efficiency improvements as key drivers of progress. These efforts are generally well-intended, but they often come loaded with unintended consequences. Brian Walker and David Salt touch on this in their book Resilience Thinking:

The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish the systems resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.

It is from its much stronger emphasis on community empowerment, an intent to regenerate whole living systems, and its promotion of success as an active practice (not a destination) that thrivability can really come alive and spread its influence. Fortunately, this movement is well on its way as its principles are now being embedded into countless organizations, university curriculums, mainstream books, community developments and specialized conferences throughout the world.

In an effort to concisely capture some of the core differences between thrivability and green/sustainable development mentioned throughout this article, I devised the following graphic.

Final Thoughts

Thrivability represents an incredibly important evolutionary step in our ecological development. It is poised to align people around our inherent goodwill and act as a vision of wellbeing and conviviality that pulls us forward into the future that we want. It is not meant to be a utopian vision of perfect harmony or world peace. It acknowledges that disruption and turbulence are defining characteristics of living systems that must to be embraced, not resisted. It is not naive to the pressing challenges of the 21st century, but understands that how we respond to them is our choice. We can either resist and fight and bemoan, or we can embrace and embody and celebrate.

So where do we start? Pick an idea important enough that even if you fail, the world will still be better for you having tried.

 

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.