Suddenly, everything is up in the air. The ground has fallen out from beneath us. That vertigo we feel is real. Like the coyote in those old Road Runner cartoons, we’re suspended just beyond the edge of the cliff, waiting with equal parts denial and dread. Between coronavirus and climate crisis and all the systems they act upon, there is no scenario in which the ground gently rises up to hold us as it has done for so long. As a civilization, this is the moment when we either learn how to fly or we come crashing down.
“Learning to fly” involves more than simple fixes, like Universal Basic Income or community gardens. Certainly, these are useful solutions to consider. But what we truly need to learn is what it means to align with life’s core patterns and potential — what it means to commit to the intention and practice not only of sustainability but of “thrivability.” More than anything, we need to learn and integrate new, life-honoring guiding principles, so that our every organization, community and interaction becomes a practice ground for a society that is more resilient, caring and aligned with the needs and limits of the biosphere.
I wrote about this and briefly touched on the metaphor of flight in my 2016 book, The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World. At the time, crisis and crash were still widely perceived as a distant threat, and adopting a new worldview was seen by many as an optional philosophical dalliance. Now, my musings seem to have more immediate relevance:
“When we truly acknowledge the life in and around us and our ability to create the conditions for life to thrive, new visions of reality become apparent: new possibilities, new goals, new priorities and new actions. In embracing the perspectives this story of thrivability offers, we become more active and intentional participants in life’s process. And along the way, we find a path to richer meaning, to greater compassion, to more effective collaboration, to healthy regeneration and renewal, and to more thriving, in all senses of the word.
Ultimately, if we are to navigate increasing complexity successfully… if we are to bridge the many fragmented approaches to sustainability and corporate social responsibility… if we are to solve the persistent problems of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict… and, indeed, if our species is to survive, it is precisely such an expanded lens and inspired approach that is needed.
All of this may sound naively utopian, denying the world we see before us today and the fundamental aspects of human nature that have contributed to the problems we face — things like competition for scarce resources and individual self-interest. But the lens of thrivability doesn’t deny those aspects. It defies them, in the grand tradition of Daniel Bernoulli.
A Swiss mathematician and physical scientist, Bernoulli is most famous for his eighteenth-century discovery of the principle that paved the way for human flight. His principle illustrated that air moving faster over the top of a shaped wing will have lower pressure than air moving more slowly underneath the wing. This difference in pressure will cause graceful lift — and flight. But his more important contribution may have been to set a precedent for going beyond the previously accepted laws and limitations of science. He didn’t dispute the existence or validity of the law of gravity. Instead, he discovered a principle that allowed people to transcend it — both figuratively and literally.
Until Bernoulli’s principle was applied to early planes, intrepid inventors modeled their various attempts at aircraft after the dynamics of birds — the only known model for flight. These flapping contraptions did succeed in getting off the ground, but not far and not for long. Spurred on by their limited success, their designers continued to focus on incremental improvements to their model, all to no greater success.
Then came a brilliant flash of insight: instead of working so furiously and gracelessly against gravity, why not use another force of nature to transcend it? Wings were affixed firmly to the sides of the plane and designed to direct air over them faster than it could travel under them. Speed was applied, and voila! Takeoff! What followed was a blindingly rapid series of advancements that led to modern jet airplanes and space travel. So potent was this transcendent principle that we put a man on the moon a mere sixty years after Wilbur and Orville made their first hesitant flight.
Similarly, thrivability rises above the piecemeal, incremental efforts and compromises of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, offering nothing less than a soaring path out of the desperate race in which humanity seems to be caught. The unseen force with the power to provide graceful lift is life itself. And in our organizations and communities, that dynamic force may be thought of as the human spirit — the part of each of us that is vital and alive, passionate and creative, ever seeking opportunities for connection and contribution.
Taking advantage of this transcendent principle calls for stretching our perceptions beyond the current Western guiding story. It requires looking beyond familiar ‘flapping’ tactics to entirely new perspectives. And it means shifting from a reductionist, mechanistic understanding of reality to an integral, organic paradigm. As with Bernoulli’s important insight, this calls for imagination and more than a little faith.
Yet there is considerable incentive to move ahead. Our ecology, our economic systems and our social structures together rely on our ability to move toward more life-enhancing ways of acting in the world. And though there are signposts pointing the way to a hopeful future, it’s far from clear that we’ll actually get there. The Mayans and the ancient Greeks offer fair warning that collapse and regression are always possible. And so, if I might offer up my one, most inspired rallying cry, it is this: the more of us who embrace and begin living out the emerging story now, the more likely we all are to reach the destination that calls to us from the horizon.”
This was my message in 2016. Today, we are no longer looking ahead to a destination on the far horizon, a pleasant option to consider as armchair philosophers. The stakes are immeasurably higher now: we can actively embark on a path of wisdom, compassion and thriving, or we can default to struggle, division and despair. We will choose the informed intention and practice of thrivability, or we will follow the path of other fallen civilizations.
The good news, as my friend Doug Cohen pointed out, is that “some of us have been growing those wings (quietly, stealthily perhaps) for many years in preparation for this very passage we’ve been given to navigate.”
We can do this.