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 is undeniably a noble mission, but when push comes to shove, does sustainable development have what it takes to engage society with the appropriate tools to tackle the pressing challenges we face? An increasing number of people are recognizing 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 it has been falling short of its intended goals.
1. Austerity-Based Messaging is Disengaging: 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. To achieve this goal, sustainable development has focused primarily on reducing detrimental impacts, with far less emphasis being placed on what can be gained from preferred activity. This has turned out to be a limited and ineffective strategy for changing peoples’ behaviors as countless individuals, businesses, and communities feel it compromises their growth and infringes on their free will. Essentially, sustainability has been promoted as mostly stick and very little carrot, and the result has been high levels of polarization, resistance, and disengagement that has stifled and stalled progress.
2. Segmented and Ineffective: 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, 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. An Insufficient Goal: Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sustainable development and its mission of eliminating ‘unsustainability’ is an inherently insufficient target for success. For over 30 years now, human demand for ecosystem services has outpaced the planet’s ability to reabsorb and replenish them. It is frequently cited that we now need 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 target of zero impact (carbon neutral, net zero, etc), lost ecological systems and prior developmental 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 sustainable development as it stands does not do this.
So with these points considered, it’s important to acknowledge that our primary campaign of reducing unsustainability is fundamentally incapable of getting us to where we now need to go. We need more. We need something like…
Thrivability: The New Frontier of Socio-Ecological Development
Thrivability is a burgeoning developmental model 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 entire cultures. To do this, a ‘thrivable’ designer focuses less on identifying and fixing problems and more on creating and strengthening conditions that provide the greatest opportunity for individuals, organizations and communities to to evolve, express themselves authentically, and operate in a mutually enhancing manner with their 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 that prescribes medications for diagnosed ailments.
The following excerpt from Arthur Brock further clarifies the approach:
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.
Because of its dynamic nature, thrivability cannot be approached so much as a destination as an ongoing process of adaptation, learning, and action. It places considerable emphasis on the link between intrinsic motivators and external outcomes, acknowledging that effective change must be internalized and embodied before it can spill over and influence broader scales.
Enabling Participation, Engagement, and Empowerment
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 regenerative development, a philosophy and process built around the premise that our communities and planet can be healed through human development. This recognition comes from the understanding that humans have always developed the places they’ve inhabited, and that many cultures throughout history have had symbiotic and sophisticated partnerships with the land that can come to be seen as mutually enhancing. The goal of regenerative development is to rekindle this wisdom, place it within modern social and technological contexts, and apply it to the development and regeneration of physical places. A brief description of the approach 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.
Again, in a world of ecological overshoot, getting back to ‘zero’ is an insufficient target for success. We now need to strive for ‘net positive’ goals in which ecosystems and communities are actively regenerated and enriched. Breaking the net zero plane requires developmental efforts to transcend isolated and incremental improvements and utilize strategies that integrate all aspects of a system into a cohesive and synergistic whole (ecological, economic and socio-cultural). This integrated living systems approach is the only way to ensure an effort or initiative can be developed with absolute effectiveness. 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.
Pulling it all Together
In an effort to concisely capture the core differences between thrivability and green/sustainable development mentioned throughout this article, I devised the following graphic.
But is Thrivability Really Necessary?
The thrivability movement is certainly compelling, but it is quite young and many people are tussling over its role within the broader social and environmental spaces. Some love it and dive in head first, while others have resisted it (particularly those who are established in the sustainability space) feeling the differentiation between sustainability and thrivability may be confusing or not entirely necessary. In response to this latter point, it’s important to note that thrivability’s intention is certainly not to replace sustainability, whose efforts to reduce and eliminate our detrimental activities are as important today as they’ve ever been before (think fossil fuel and chemical usage, ecosystem degradation, social inequity, etc). Again, the necessity and value of thrivability lies in its ability to shift our assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions of success into a more aspirational, engaging, and positive light. This is vitally important as our scientific and media outlets have been making it clear that the 21st century will be ripe with turbulence and disruptions. Well, it’s been said that we move towards what we picture in our minds. If the only picture we are shown is that of a future worse than the present, then it’s no wonder why people resist change.
Thrivability paints an entirely different picture. Its message of conviviality, connection, and enrichment serves as a beacon that can pull us towards our best potential. It is poised to rekindle a creative fire that has been seemingly smothered within the modern sustainability movement (think 100-point checklists and marketing buzzwords) and can serve as an important evolutionary step in our socio-ecological development.