Thrivability as a Critique of Sustainability

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By Gary Horvitz:

"I’ve encountered a lot of talk about thriving lately. Everywhere I turn I am hearing that word: movies, meetings, online and personal conversation. It used to be that sustainable was sufficient. That word has now become inadequate. Now we need something more.

Maybe “sustainable” has been used so much it’s missing the clearly principled clarity it once had. With all the machinations of the billion dollar public relations campaigns bent on greening corporate images, we can hardly rest on any laurels for having changed the conversation. We realize that we must again distinguish authentic dialogue from the merely commercially opportunistic.

There is something missing from the conventional use of the term sustainable that does not quite articulate the full flavor of what we imagine is the coming world. The world we truly want is something more like sustainability on steroids; not merely providing basic necessities or doing so without degrading the life support system, but a world in which all people are living at an enhanced level of quality that can only emerge when we live in a generous environment of open possibility.

In the heart of the spreading references to thriving is also the ratcheting up of urgency that we feel in our bones and brains about the coming transition that will be necessary and the obstacles we see in the way. We want passion. We want to be touched by passion, moved by it. We want to feel that passion within our lives as a searing fire that will sustain us and burn through the old as we surf –and birth--the transformation into whatever is to come.

But let’s back up for a moment.

A simple operational definition of sustainability is that living systems are maintained in a way that meets human needs and doesn’t borrow or, shall we say, steal from the future to do that. Without even checking any “official” definition, I would say, simplistically perhaps, that sustainability is a condition that uses no more resources than can be fully regenerated in the harmonic course of natural process.

This definition would apply regardless of the resource under consideration, material or otherwise. Sustainability is the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium, a systemic motility embodying a capacity to respond fully to natural forces, to interpret environmental inputs and modify behaviors appropriately to maintain systemic viability. Lots of attributes of sustainability have been devised and articulated. And surely it means different things to different people. There are the more popular, and also misunderstood, but easily explained practical economic attributes such as zero-growth. The dominant human social and economic paradigm of endless growth in a field of limited resources is clearly not sustainable. And, as many believe, humans are on the verge of determining whether we are even capable of interpreting and responding appropriately to clear data that demands we modify our behavior to secure our own future viability.

To be bluntly specific, three features of the current paradigm(capitalism, patriarchy and empire) are unsustainable. The extractive industrial growth imperative that regards the earth as both a limitless storehouse of resources as well as a waste dump; the dominance of the masculine principle in our social design, economic modeling, learning communities and political discourse; and the economic and political game of dominance driven by scarcity and fear, have already conspired to bring many species to extinction and are now conspiring to bring the human species itself to a critical decision point.

Then there are the less widely understood social, political, and spiritual implications of sustainability. Regardless of the domain, however, at its heart, the term sustainable refers to a biological, energetic and social vitality, a structure/process that is perpetually and self-consciously adaptable enough to address emerging needs, is alive! It is dynamic. It changes easily and continuously.

In fact, the more deeply we dive into the philosophical core of the word, the more we realize that a critical principle determining our human aliveness, individually and collectively, is whether we can overcome the myth of separation that lies at the heart of our current economic structure. How do live as fully connected beings? And what kind of an economy grows out of living the true nature of our connection to each other and the earth?

Many are addressing this question now and have articulated behaviors that together unleash a living transformational process. We are on the cusp of creating an evolutionary culture in which we arrive at a new clarity about how ego—in the form of the money–based economy-- operates to keep us separate from each other, feeding intra-personal dysfunction (our bottomless desire for “more”), inter-personal dysfunction (“more for you is less for me”) and social and economic dysfunction (acting out of fear and scarcity to destroy the Commons of the earth).

Yet also, the term sustainable has been appropriated, co-opted, modified, turned inside-out, contorted to within an inch of its life by the very forces in the culture that have brought us to this precipice. Shell Oil promotes itself as a “leader in green technologies.” (

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