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, i.e.it 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.” Need I say more?
In the midst of all this blurring of meaning, does the term thriving actually mean anything? Or is it a merely artificial distinction? As Peter Block has said, all transformation is linguistic. What does the word thrive convey that the word sustainable does not?
I would suggest four principles of Thriving:
1. Thriving is the spiritual dimension of sustainability. What sustainability is to a material economy, thriving is to the spiritual economy. We intuitively know that it is not enough to birth a new world that provides the necessities of life without acknowledging and attending to the spiritual implications for each person in their own lives. To the extent that sustainability is about economics, then thriving is about each of us embodying (living our true nature) that new economy: becoming that new economy expresses not only our love of each other but manifests Love as the primary principle of being alive.
2. Thriving is the fire of spirit and the air of open heart-space.Sustainability evokes the esthetics of earth and water. Thriving is about the inception and integration of a divine fire that infuses all our actions with open-hearted possibility.
3. Thriving is the precarious edge of balance.If sustainability invokes balance, thriving challenges us as chaos challenges predictability, birthing an order where emergent complexity demands continuous innovation. Here, at an evolutionary edge, consciousness speaks nature into being, becoming the locus of adaptation and experimentation, the trial and error of organic vitality.
4. Thriving is the mythic dimension of sustainability, the meta-narrative of possibility. It is a reference to the continuous, spontaneous process of creating, modifying and re-forming the open architecture of diversity; where distributed networks of freely accessible information and self-organizing governance activate the free-flow of resources to meet real needs.
In his book, Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein refers to thriving as a human birthright, a natural and inevitable symbiotic expression of a healthy ecosystem. The full implication of a healthy earth is the healthy human being. However, the Separate Self is bringing us to the precipice of annihilation. At the root of the consuming fire enveloping all systems of earth is this myth of separation and the acquisitive drive that springs from it. The drive to accumulate, to “possess” the illusory objects of imagined wealth, drawing unto ourselves all the things that reinforce our personal conception of a unique “self,” is leaving us bereft of humanity and community. Despite the ubiquity of messages that reinforce Separation, its rationale is fracturing and its flaws are becoming ever more apparent.
To the degree that we are able to let go of the trappings of the acquisitive Self and learn to listen to a deeper voice emerging from the inmost fire, guiding us to connected action in the world, we may each discover our personal gift and appropriate occupation. And to the degree that we are able to manifest that occupation in service to family, community or bioregion, the Gift of that service is rendered to the Giver, the web of life itself. All the “things” we now “own,” the “possessions” we create and temporarily hold to ourselves, have come from and will return to that web of life, including our “selves.”
The Connected Self is an individual, yet one who no longer has a need to possess an identity based on separation, competition or domination. The Connected Self is awakened to a universal force, becoming an open channel for inspired vocation, beauty and diversity in co-creative action. The Connected Self becomes a unique expression of love and justice, profoundly trusting her place in the world, unflinchingly descending into the reality of and living our common material nature. For the Connected Self, the distinction between Self and Other blurs and dissolves. Every individual who lives this connection enters the heart as an expansive new home and becomes an owner, a steward of a New Economy.
Our true freedom, finding our place in the connected community of life, derives from comprehending the reality of our temporary ownership of a few objects (some more than others) and, at the same time, our timeless ownership of and responsibility to all things. The true nature of all possessions (including money) is transitory. Our freedom derives from letting go of all similar manifestations of Separation and to simultaneously embrace our Common Wealth, a dynamic sense of ownership and responsibility that eventually moves all things into a Circle of Gifts.
That ownership means we can no longer avoid addressing the depth of our complicity in the way things are, nor can we turn away from the sight of others committing acts of separation and extraction that are destructive to the Common Wealth. A New Economy derives from our ability to perceive and live the Whole unimpeded by illusions that any Part truly belongs to us. Possess Nothing. Own Everything. Then we will surely thrive.