Transition Plan for a Thrivable Civilization
Many people feel trapped in a world that has little to do with life. Our mainstream societies are driven by algorithms, models, and technologies designed for extractive economic growth, not evolutionary growth and planetary wellbeing. The ways we have modernised and developed our societies, although bringing short-term benefits, has also created immense harm and divisions. This raises the question whether these mechanistic models can truly deliver the ‘progress’ that they were once designed for.
Other choices are available, once that can promote genuine progress and collective wellbeing. To access these choices we’ll need to learn how to think, sense, grow, evolve, and develop as living systems. Life is thrivable and regenerative by design.
The word ‘thrivable’ combines the words ‘thrive’ and ‘able’, to emphasise how thrivability is a developmental learning process through which we develop the capacities for actualizing our potentials in ways that are generative, life-affirming, possibility increasing, and future creating. Essentially, thrivability is sustainability plus a sense of aliveness, joy, empathy, flourishing, and being in touch with the consciousness of life. The cosmological conditions of the evolutionary life process favour thrivability as the underlying driver, instead of mere sustainability or survivability through competition and zero-sum game dynamics.
A Transition Plan for Thrivable Civilizations may seem like a huge and rather ambitious undertaking. Indeed, it is, and one I devoted my life to as well my Ph.D. as an external researcher from 2014–2019 at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute of Maastricht University, the Netherlands. I published this research through my Ph.D. dissertation Into the Heart of Systems Change.
Before giving a brief summary of this research, I’d like to offer some context first. In the years leading up to this research, I had been working with companies and schools for developing their sustainability competencies, evolutionary leadership, and ecological literacy. Over those years I became aware of common subtle systemic barriers that were hindering the necessary systemic transformations, as well as the implementations of the newly developing competencies and awareness.
I wanted to better understand where these systemic barriers originated from, and how and in what ways these barriers are related to the root causes of our worsening sustainability crises. Furthermore, I wondered whether these systemic barriers were also present in many mainstream governance institutions, and inhibiting the solutions and leadership for addressing the greatest challenges of our time.
Knowing about the worsening sustainability crisis is evidently not leading to the expected behavioural shifts for resolving this. In other words, telling people that humanity might go extinct, or their world may collapse, doesn’t stop it from happening.
Furthermore, I noticed how the dualistic manners in which many elected leaders and corporations were approaching the challenges of our sustainability crisis contributed to these systemic barriers. I thus embarked on my Ph.D. research to further investigate this, and included my work with companies and schools as the case-studies for this research.
Into the Heart of Systems Change offers a diagnostic framework for making the systemic barriers visible that result from the growth archetypes of mechanistic systems, worldviews, and models. This article provides a brief overview of this research, as well as its proposed Transition Plan for a Thrivable Civilization.
The Problem with Mechanistic Systems
Every system has an archetypal structure that gives rise to its behavioural patterns and events, and which in-forms how a system grows, develops, and possibly evolves. Mechanistic growth archetypes are characterised by singular goals, dualistic drivers, and imposed objectives that are decoupled from the evolutionary process of life. In other words, mechanistic systems behave in opposite and often contrary ways to living systems. The video below provides a summary of some of the key characteristics of living systems.
Mechanistic thinking became dominant in Western societies through the spread of Newtonian-based sciences that portrayed a deterministic universe of random parts and particles, held together through immutable mechanical laws. Newtonian sciences were particularly suitable for the agendas of classical economics and its equivalent rational-choice based models. The believe in human superiority over nature spread, driving technological developments that sought to manipulate and control, rather than align with, the natural world.
Newtonian sciences and classical economics became the engines and worldviews for industrialising the human world, in particular the Western world. This mechanistic worldview was simultaneously adopted by social scientists, economists, politicians, judiciary, and policy makers, and gave rise to mechanistic governance models that divided much of society through win-lose competition dynamics and the pursuit of power.
However, since the mid-1920s a new paradigm in science and research has started to emerge, propelled through the rise of quantum physics, followed by evolutionary systems sciences, evolutionary biology, consciousness research, and complexity sciences, among others. This new paradigm scientific worldview reveals a universe that is informationally unified at deeper implicate orders of reality, which in-form the evolutionary process of life.
Although this new paradigm scientific worldview is not yet accepted by mainstream science, economics, and governance, it does offer essential keys for how to resolve the sustainability crisis, and how to design for regeneration and thrivability. Into the Heart of Systems Change explores some of these groundbreaking new scientific perspectives of an informationally unified and holarchic universe, and how to apply this to our societal development.
Furthermore, the new paradigm scientific worldview confirms what indigenous people have lived by for thousands of years; namely, that the universe behaves as an interdependent web of life that evolves by learning and working together.
Our mainstream societal systems, however, are still designed for the mechanistic growth and profit maximisation of the industrial age. Continuing the unsustainable and divisive growth models and systems that are bringing our world to the brink of collapse. Mechanistic systems, although having enabled the short-term benefits of rapid modernisation and technological advancement, are at the root of our worsening climate and biodiversity crisis. These mechanistic growth archetypes also cause systemic thrivability barriers that impact our capacities to evolve as a species, keeping us stuck in the kinds of behavioural loops that are typical for juvenile species.
The evolutionary process of life is a complex learning process, balanced through systemic boundaries that serve to regulate the healthy growth and development of living systems. For example, your body’s systemic boundaries regulate your body temperature in response to changes in your inner and outer environment. Mechanistic systems, however, miss these complex feedback loops, and lack systemic boundaries that can limit harmful growth patterns. Furthermore, mechanistic systems lack vital learning capacities, and are thus predominantly growth oriented, rather than developmental and integral.
In other words, mechanistic systems create systemic thrivability barriers by imposing goals and activities that undermine our self-regulating, adaptive, and transformative capacities as living systems.
One of the key systemic barriers of mechanistic systems is blocked collaboration and coherence, which further undermines the systemic transformations necessary for resolving the root causes of our worsening sustainability crisis.
Mechanistic systems, by design, are not responsive to thresholds of vital planetary carrying capacities and social ceilings. Classical economic market mechanisms that serve as the operationalisation of mechanistic economic growth engines are unable to solve the climate crisis. They miss essential balancing loops that are necessary for regulating growth in support of life.
To stop the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of our natural world we need economic and governance systems that behave like living systems, and are informationally coherent with the planetary conditions for a thriving world and future.
Furthermore, by merely focussing on sustainability targets rather than the underlying drivers of the sustainability crisis, we become blind to the deeper transformational change process that is necessary for transitioning to a thrivable civilization.
To address our systemic blindspots, it is essential that we make the systemic barriers visible and couple this to policy making and institutional design for a thriving world and future.
Also, growing up in a mechanistic universe does not inspire care for life, or stewardship for collective wellbeing. Instead, it makes it easier to rationalise exploitation and domination. We cannot resolve our sustainability crisis from the same worldviews and systems that are at the root of the problem.
Our sustainability crisis is essentially a systemic barrier issue that reveals a deeper crisis in human consciousness.
Systemic barriers also hinder our maturation process as a species, by ignoring the feedback that is necessary for evolutionary learning and locking us into harmful competitive behaviours that are characteristic of juvenile species.
Diagnosing Systemic Thrivability Barriers
Systemic thrivability barriers are widespread and can be found in almost all of our societies — politically, economically, socially, educationally, and culturally. The three case-studies that feature in my Ph.D. research for mapping out these barriers were based on three different types of training programs that I developed for educational and corporate organisations.
The method for making these barriers visible was through quantitative and qualitative evaluations with the participants of the case-studies, which included the making of system maps with causal loop diagrams.
Participants reported how making these barriers visible through the system maps empowered them to communicate what they had sensed for a long time, but often couldn’t describe in words. Below is an example of one of these system maps for the case-study of the financial institution.
A common response from participants of all the three case-studies was their sense of feeling trapped by goals and objectives imposed by hierarchical power structures, and feeling undermined in their sense of self-worth, value, and agency. I decided to name these barriers systemic thrivability barriers, to emphasise that these are not just personal or individual barriers.
Other indicators for diagnosing the presence of systemic thrivability barriers are: dualistic polarization, hierarchic power structures, distrust between people, rigid learning and action tasks, lack of qualitative indicators for growth, dominance of progress indicators via achievements of preset goals, deliverables, standards, divisions, fragmentation, and lack of internal collaboration. These systemic barriers also affected the ways people approached issues, made decisions, and were able to learn, grow, and develop in their organisation.
Wherever systemic thrivability barriers were present, it often fed narratives of blame, victimhood, and division. As such hindering collaborative solutions and the development of trust, mutuality, and reciprocity.
The integral framework that forms part of my dissertation provides principles and guidelines for designing a deliberate and strategic change process, based on evolutionary learning and development.
7 Key Systemic Thrivability Barriers
Through the case-study evaluations various kinds of systemic thrivability barriers were identified, which I grouped into 7 types as summarised below:
- Collaboration and coherence are blocked — Competitive win-lose dynamics, either-or thinking, and dualistic choices force a sense of separateness from life and inhibit healthy collaboration. This causes divisions, distrust, conflicts, and disunity between people and their communities, and polarises our diversity.
- Interdependencies are harmed by mechanistic goals — Economic goals for maximising extractive growth and development are imposed on, and harming, our interdependencies with life, and the planet’s capacity to support populations.
- Reciprocity with living systems is blocked — By treating life and our planet as mere commodities, mechanistic systems are degenerative and block our reciprocity with living systems and nature.
- Distorted informational loops — By not accounting for the real costs and impacts that our mechanistic growth models create, and by not including essential planetary feedback loops in the ways we govern our development, we create illusionary models of progress and distorted worldviews.
- Thrivability learning and development are blocked — By creating cultures of competition, division and narrow educational goals, our learning and development capacities for regeneration and thrivability become blocked and are underdeveloped.
- Empathy and love are blocked — By incentivising domination and duality, and by blocking the development of thrivability consciousness, our capacities for empathy and love become blocked and diminished. Accordingly, people feel isolated, disconnected, disempowered, and alone.
- Responsiveness to pain is blocked — By ignoring essential feedback in the governance and cultures of our human development, and by numbing ourselves to the pain we inflict on our planet and each other, our responsiveness to pain becomes blocked and we fail to learn from the vital signals that pain provides us.
The research further revealed how operating and learning in mechanistic systems contributes to feelings of depression, isolation, and degradation. Our sustainability crisis is essentially a crisis of identity, values, and meaning. We are living systems — not machines.
A Transition Plan for a Thrivable Civilization
After 5 years of researching, mapping out, and addressing the identified systemic thrivability barriers, a transition map started to emerge for transitioning to a thrivable civilization.
This Transition Plan can be summarized in 7 steps:
- Diagnose and make visible the presence and impact of systemic thrivability barriers that result from mechanistic systems, models, and growth archetypes.
- Address and transform the systemic thrivability barriers through transformation strategies that address the dualistically polarising dynamics of mechanistic systems, and transform degenerative behavioural patterns that undermine the transition to a thrivable civilization.
- Develop future creative capacities through evolutionary learning processes that are embedded within evolutionary learning communities and evolutionary learning ecosystems.
- Apply evolutionary growth archetypes and thrivabilty patterns for our societal and human development. For example the 5 Future Archetypes that feature in my Ph.D. research for actualizing our future potential, and which have been applied in the archetypal design of the DAO for Hypha, and the SEEDS Constitution (for which I served as the lead architect and applied many of the strategies mentioned here).
- Develop regenerative, inclusive, and distributive economies that are designed as evolutionary living systems. Promote the development of a planetary conscious economic and political paradigm where success and progress are based on our common capacities to thrive and evolve with our planet as a whole.
- Develop governance systems and institutional design that enables the transition to a thrivable civilization, by empowering people with the means and opportunities for deciding together on the necessary actions for a thriving world and future. The SEEDS Constitution, for example, outlines a set of inclusive shared agreements with web3 based governance tools that make it possible for people to co-create regenerative economic and financial systems for a thriving world and future. Furthermore, the Hypha DAO design illustrates as an example of newly emerging governance systems that empower deep democracy, and are based on holarchic governance principles.
- Work with the transformative potentials of social tipping points dynamics for the required societal transformations and grassroots engagement for a thrivable civilization. For example, the EARTHwise Tipping Point System and its Earth Song project for creating generative social tipping points through the power of music and narratives that promote evolutionary coherence, rather than social divisions.
New Narratives for Systems Change
Within our global sustainability crisis is an invitation to become future creative, innovative, and unconventional. An invitation to explore how together we can co-create a thriving world, while hospicing the world that is dying and collapsing. This requires new narratives that go further than mere sustainability or warnings about collapse.
We need narratives that engage people in a change process that activates their future potential of the emerging new era, and unites us in our care and love for our Earth and the future generations.
These new narratives also require a life-based understanding of growth. For example by illustrating how the generative growth patters of living systems include stages of death, dissolution, and decay to enable renewal, transformation, and evolution.
Growth per se is not the problem, but rather the archetypes through which our desires for growth become expressed. Narratives of anti-growth or degrowth risk mobilising resistance, rather than showing the ways for growing and evolving in harmony with life on planet Earth.
Exploring Future Archetypes of the Emerging New Era
During my Ph.D. research, I raised the following question about the archetypal dynamics of the change of eras and the shift to new paradigm in human consciousness:
What are the archetypes of the emerging new era that harness the potential of our evolutionary next step as a species?
While researching these emerging new archetypal patterns in the response patterns of younger generations, I became aware of 5 archetypal stages for actualizing our future potential of the emerging new era through a metamorphic transformational change process. I named these archetypes: The Wholeness Coder, Future Creative, Evolutionary Catalyst, Pattern Weaver, and New Paradigm Storyteller.
After completing my Ph.D. in December 2019, I decided to explore these future archetypes in greater depth. I published about this through, The Quest of Rose, book 1 of the Future Humans Trilogy, which I co-authored with Jean Houston, Ph.D.
- The Wholeness Coder — Senses the deeper structural and archetypal layers of reality, and knows how to work with complexity, codes, and symbols. Enables whole system change by enabling new choices points and new codes. Catalyses change at the causal levels and by changing the rules of the game.
- The Future Creative — Envisions and opens the greater possibilities of our futures and life. At home in the imaginal realm, acts as the imaginal cells for enabling new growth and development. Catalyses change at the imaginal level by exploring and opening future possibilities.
- The Evolutionary Catalyst — Enables transformation, evolutionary learning, and healing. Develops and embodies the capacities of our future potentials. Knows how to work with tipping points dynamics of transitions through death, dissolution, integration, conception, and birth. Catalyses change at the evolutionary level by developing our future capacities.
- The Pattern Weaver — Weaves with the connective and collaborative patterns of our future potentials, prepares the soil for planting. Develops partnerships for the realisation of our future potentials. Catalyses change at the integral level by weaving the conditions for emergence and building communities.
- The New Paradigm Storyteller — Inspires our future becoming and communicates our future realities in ways that are sensory rich and evocative. Fertilises our world with the future patterns, and focusses on creating abundance for all. Catalyses change by becoming and communicating the new stories of our future becoming.
These 5 Future Archetypes also form part of a thrivability pattern that I mapped out on the basis of 22 essential qualities that I identified through my research on the cosmological foundations for how our universe grows and evolves.
These 22 qualities are fractal, and can help us to become conscious of the growth dynamics and evolutionary capacities of healthy living systems. This Thrivability Pattern can also be used diagnostically to assess whether a system by design is generative, and to identify qualities and steps that might be missing or suppressed in the case of degenerative growth patterns.
To summarise, the growth archetypes of living systems are inclusive, regenerative, and thrivable by design.
I completed my Ph.D. dissertation through the following personal message.
Tomorrow began about 13.8 billion years ago. Tomorrow is already given to us now, as was yesterday, too. It is time to become the future creative humans that we can be. Thrivability begins within.
Our climate crisis cannot be resolved without the wisdom of the heart. There is so much that is happening right now that our minds cannot comprehend, yet our hearts can embrace.
They say the longest journey is the distance between the head and the heart, mainstream academia has increased that distance even further. It is time we reduce this distance now.
It is my hope and intention that this dissertation, beyond all the other reasons for which it was written, also shows that the knowledge of the head and the heart can be integrated as one coherent body of knowledge and wisdom.
This story is about you and me and our children, our world, and their future. We began this story long ago, when one became many.
We all desire to grow. Growth is wonderful and intrinsic to life. However, it’s essential that we develop growth models that, by design, operate as living systems for developing and evolving the human world in harmony with life.
Thank you for joining me, and millions of others, on this journey Into the Heart of Systems Change, for a thriving world and future.
Written by Anneloes Smitsman, PhD. Updated in September 2022.
If you appreciate this research, please support it further by sharing this article through your community and by giving a “clap of hands” in support.
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- What is the maximum goodness that we can create together.
- The Call for Educational Transformation.
Smitsman A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Ph.D. Dissertation. International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS), Maastricht University, the Netherlands. ISBN: 978–94–6380–610–7. https://bit.ly/3EtGV1P
Sahtouris, E. & Smitsman, A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change with Dr Elisabet Sahtouris. EARTHwise Centre Youtube Channel. Retrieved 25 July 2019 from https://youtu.be/jhSPsJQZe8E
Smitsman, A., Laszlo, A. & Barnes, K. (2018). Attracting our Future into Being: The Syntony Quest. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research. DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2018.1499850
Smitsman, A & Houston, H. (2021). The Quest of Rose: The Cosmic Keys of Our Future Becoming. Book 1 of the Future Humans Trilogy. Independently published via Oxygen Publishing. Winner of the Silver Nautilus Book Award.
Smitsman, A & Alexander Laszlo, A. Eds. (2022). The New Paradigm in Politics. The New Paradigm Symposia Series — Book 1. New York: SelectBooks.
Smitsman, A. (2022, forthcoming). Applying the Cosmic Architecture of Consciousness for a New World Paradigm. In, The New Paradigm in Cosmology. The New Paradigm Symposia Series — Book 2. New York: SelectBooks.
Smitsman, A & Currivan, J. (2021). Healing our relationship with Gaia through a New Thrivability Paradigm. In Wright, J. (Ed.) Quantum Thinking for Agroecology: Theory and Practice for the Farming of Tomorrow. Taylor & Francis Group, FL, USA. https://bit.ly/3AvVG1K
Smitsman, A. (2021). Economy of Life -The architecture of wholeness for an economy that is life sustaining and regenerative In Eds. Klomp, K & Shinta Oosterwaal, S. Thrive: Fundamentals for a New Economy. Amsterdam: Business Contact.
Smitsman, A., Martens, P. & Laszlo, A. (2019). The Polarization Effect: Healing our Worldviews. Systema 2019, Vol 7 (1). http://www.systema-journal.org/article/view/414
Smitsman, A. & Currivan, J. (2019). Systemic Transformation — Into the Birth Canal. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Vol 36 (4), 604–613. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2573
Smitsman, A., Laszlo, A. & Luksha, P. (2020). Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems for Thrivable Futures — Crafting and Curating the Conditions for Future-fit Education. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research. DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2020.1740075.
Smitsman A. & Smitsman A.W. (2020). The Future-Creative Human — Exploring Evolutionary Learning. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/02604027.2020.1810536
Smitsman, A., Laszlo, A. & Barnes, K. (2018). Attracting our Future into Being: The Syntony Quest. World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research. DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2018.1499850