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Worldchanging Interview: Jean Russell on Thrivability
Jon Lebkowsky, 8 Sep 09

183408958_8b939f6171_m.jpgTechnology consultant, entrepreneur and thrivability theorist Jean Russell joined Jerry Michalski's August 3 Yi-Tan Conference Call for a conversation about thrivability as a conceptual replacement for sustainabilty. After that talk (which you can hear via the above link), I asked Jean to join me in a brief but enlightening Worldchanging interview.

Jon Lebkowsky: Let's start with the definition of thrivability I found at, that it's "our path out of unsustainable practices toward a world where all people have a high quality of life, a voice, and a nurturing earth supporting them. Using whole systems approach, it demands that we evolve our way of being together, of collaborating, so that our collective wisdom and action bring forth a flourishing world and thriving life."

What's the origin of this definition, and what led you to start thinking about "thrivability" vs sustainability?

Jean Russell: At a Recent Changes Camp in Portland Oregon in 2006 I had a powerful two-hour conversation with Jair. I have not stayed connected to him, but in that conversation he mentioned the word thrivability. And it took hold of me for several reasons. Jair and I share a connection to Tom Munnecke, and I had been engaged in conversations with Tom on the community. Tom wrote about solution-focus, positive deviance and other ideas that informed my concepts of thrivability. So I chewed and chewed on the idea, starting a blog to track my explorations.

This definition of thrivability evolved from that blog. Because this was so alive for me, I would talk with people about it wherever I went. And so I really feel that the idea is less mine and more the ideas of people who have shared with me. It is also strongly informed by the three years of conversations on I came to the space as a writer focused on philanthropy, but while there I learned about such a wide variety of elements of social benefit work. I let my curiosity lead me, and the great wisdom of many there guide me. So, for me, thrivability is the umbrella that holds all of these efforts -- it speaks to the unified whole of our efforts and the world those efforts aspires to.

I have puzzled over the connection between sustainability and thrivability. When I started the thrivability blog, I wondered if it was simply a language shift or if there was something deeper. Thanks to the network of people involved in the conversation, I feel clearer now than I did in '07. If we drew a Venn diagram of the two, there is significant overlap. A lot of the work done under the umbrella of sustainability totally fits the concept of thrivability too. It is less that the actions are significantly different as much as the approach and aspiration is different. The language of sustainability is about neutralizing. Thrivability is about succeeding.

An example can help. If we ask, when building a home, "what isn't sustainable here?" then we get a list of what we could do to make the house sustainable: maybe it says something about the materials we use and how the energy flows. If we are innovative, it also includes water flows and a green roof. If we ask instead, "what would make this home thrivable?" I want thrivable materials and thrivable energy. But I also want thrivable design -- how do the living creatures of the home move through it? And while putting in a green roof, did we make it something that can be a garden? Did we consider the interior lighting of the house -- not only for heating and cooling, but also for seasonal affective disorder? How does the house play together in the ecology of the neighborhood? Who works to build it? Are their lives more thrivable for having created the house? What else is an input/output or otherwise impacted by this house -- and how can that be thrivable? Do you see how the shift from problem-focus to solution-focus includes the strategies employed in addressing the problem but also goes further?

JL: I understand the difference between the two, but it seems to me that you could have a 'thrivability' that isn't sustainable, or that diminishes the sustainability of related or dependent systems. Would it make more sense to talk about "sustainable thrivability"?

JR: I think Arthur Brock points to the answer quite well. He recently wrote:

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 you consume. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Thrivability already includes what is meant by sustainability. And it goes beyond it. To say sustainable thrivability in some way limits it, in fact. Think of life forming on Earth -- to sustain single celled organisms is one thing -- to transcend that and create multi-cellular organisms in another. The earth has conspired for life to thrive, creating upward spirals, building resources, and evolving greater complexity.

It was Arthur who first pointed out to me that the last few hundred years of consuming resources might have been just what the earth required for us to transcend this way and move to the next form of interaction, the next level of complexity.

Front page image: flickr/mikebaird, CC license.

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Great article and fascinating concept... I'm gonna have to run with this, as my business is conveniently named Thrive Design Studio and I deal with progressive, ecological design. Cheers!

Posted by: Josh on 8 Sep 09

Thanks, Jean, for launching off onto this topic. I think that there is a profound difference between the notion of "sustainable" and "thriving." Humanity could "sustain" itself by receding back into the caveman era, reducing its carbon footprint, and meeting all kinds of sustainability metrics. But I'd hardly call that thriving.

If we look at a continuum of -10 is collapsing, 0 is sustaining, and +10 is flourishing (or thriving), its interesting to look at the dynamics... moving from say -5 to zero is an entirely different thing than moving from zero to +5. While the struggle in the negative realm is to get to zero, moving to the positive, self-reinforcing can have entirely different dynamics - creating a cascade of uplift, if you will.

Framing the question in terms of the positive is more than just linguistic shenanigans... it is a fundamentally different approach to looking at how things are done. We need to look at how to "Create and Epidemic of Health" (Jonas Salk's term), rather than trying to "fix the health care system" (which in reality is a Disease Industrial Complex, that doesn't want to be "fixed"). We need to figure out a way of creating a global immune system, rather than fighting the epidemic of the day.

Tom Munnecke

Posted by: Tom Munnecke on 8 Sep 09

Very interesting concept Jean, love it.

Have been thinking about this issue with regards to global CO2 emission reductions via establishment of carbon sinks (through forests or in the soil). Having a "thriving" net positive impact rather than just a lower negative impact.

Concept also has some relevance in some forward-thinking work that has been done by IUCN and Shell with regards to building biodiversity businesses (as opposed to reducing negative biodiversity impacts from business).

Posted by: Greg Murray on 9 Sep 09

Great Concept! I have been looking for just this idea to do my thesis on. Endless possibilities, and a concept that transends the now. Thanks!

Posted by: Rhonda Fields on 9 Sep 09

I get it Jean.

Go above and beyond the green status quo. But most people don't get recycling, let alone sustainability! This "thriving" of yours could be confusing, lefty-lofty and clique given the advertisements by Kaiser Permanently!

Are poor folks going thrivable?

Posted by: Willi Paul on 9 Sep 09

Thank you Josh. Tom! Great to see you here, and I appreciate your additions and feedback.

Willi Paul, thank you for your comment. One, Kaiser is a regional phenomenon - we don't see that here in Chicago. Yes, it could be a left-lofty effort. And, I intend to expand the appeal and awareness far beyond that.

In some cases, I think the "poor" (financially speaking) are far more connected to the idea of thrivability than those with the financial wealth (who have money to waste and thus can waste resources). The financially "poor" are forced to be creative with their limited resources. And so must we all be, creative with our limited resources, if we are to turn the planet around and start growing what we have instead of depleting it. Maybe we should do a bit of listening to those who have more experience optimizing resource flows?

Posted by: Jean Russell on 14 Sep 09

Thrivability is a new twist on an old concept. The old concept is "eudaimonia," usually translated as "happiness," but actually means a combination of happiness, well-being and "human flourishing," aka, thriving.

Eudaimonic happiness is what the Dalai Lama means when he uses the word happiness. Eudaimonia is what's behind the "new economy" of well-being. Eudaimonic happiness is what the U.S. Framers meant, too -- the pursuit of 'human flourishing' in life.

Ditto when William Grieder writes in Come Home, America that we need to focus on "what constitutes flourishing in American life."

Not intending to be critical about "thrivability." Just trying to put the word and the concept into its historical and cultural context, and put this good idea into the larger current into which it belongs.

Also, what I expect is that getting thrivability viable as an actual measure for systems will essentially lead to well-being, flourishing, etc., the whole eudaimonic cluster, as being elements that one will be looking at.

As for replacing sustainability, I am all for it and agree completely that it is a "static" word, and we need an active one. I think that any noun is limited when it comes to expressing action and dynamism; verbs are better.

Since I think of climate change as "mutually assured destruction of people and planet," I frame the activity of sustainability as creating "mutually assured vitality of people and places, humans and habitats." Not one word, and not as much of a verb as I would like, but for me expresses what we're trying to DO, and what you're trying to get at with "thrivability."

And definitely, strongly with you on ASPIRATIONAL language. Anything that taps into the human aspiration for fullness, joyfulness, expansion of all one's human potentials and "the elemental possibilities for human experience," as Grieder puts it -- all good, all key, all powerful, and on the aspirational measure, thrivability is a lot better than sustainability.

Posted by: MimiK on 14 Sep 09

Thank you Greg. I must have missed you before. Waves!
MimiK - that you for the fabulous context for thrivability. Do you have a sense of what actual measures will be useful for thrivability? My sense is the complexity is hard to simplify into usable metrics, and we end up condensing information where we instead need to be discerning. Developing that measurement approach will be tricky and yet incredibly valuable.

Posted by: Jean Russell on 17 Sep 09

Hello there Jean,

Wow, this is such tremendous conversation = resource rich public discourse!

I gotta say thanks for this post and the link to "Yi Tan Call 241" = I totally love this kinda stuff and have already shared it with various friends and colleagues.

Although at first glance it may seem simplistic, consciously reflecting on our common notions of "I want." and "We care." was an emergent theme throughout various classroom conversations the late, great West Churchman facilitated (and I enjoyed the privilege of auditing) at Berkeley about 15 years ago. This here conversation on "thrivability", I believe, would bring a few smiles to West's face. It's certainly helped me gain a clearer glimpse of where and how "I want" overlaps with "We care."!

More folks appreciating more life affirming opportunities for qualitative growth (or "thrivability") is a much more robust, inclusive and attractive organizing rhythm than just informing one another about actual limits to quantitative growth (or "sustainability") and they're both clearly part of larger whole systems approaches.

Like Gil Friend mentioning (via Yi Tan) about 'love's absence as indifference', whenever we simply don't care anymore and yet choose to remain engaged in an activity or a relationship, we're doing so in the absence of human love. Whenever we actually do care, we're naturally much more capable and much more resourceful. Being thrivable, rather than just sustainable, simply welcomes more human love into our efforts, endeavors, activities, relationships, etc.

On an intuitive level, this conversation's prompting me to consider "succession" of our human ecosystems in an entirely different light. By aligning our most basic survival instincts with our appreciation for Earth's ground rules and then consciously combining them with our inherent interests in thriving, we may just win this human race.

A couple more thoughts inspired by "Yi Tan Call 241":

1) Bucky Fuller's notion of innovation as a sideways byproduct comes to mind. For me, the challenges of current crises management are much more likely to be met successfully when we humans choose fun rather than fear.

2) We need, simultaneously to be engaged in cleaning up our past messes as we're also evolving beyond our mess-making tendencies. Responding to this need is where and when "We care." overlaps with "I want." and also why and how celebrating thrivability enables us to feel good implementing best practices in sustainability.

Ciao for now,

paul t. horan

P. S. = If anyone knows a Student or a Teacher who's responsible for a current creative writing assignment and feeling stuck with a shortage of juicy ideas, please feel free to circulate this gift that's meant to serve as fuel for clear, creative and life affirming thought and also to help enrich our public trust:

Imagine you're an

ecosystem, nurtured by

"THANKS!!!" from the future ...

Posted by: paul t. horan on 18 Sep 09

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