Many people today feel trapped in a world that has little to do with life. Our societies are developed mechanistically, disconnected from the wisdom and growth dynamics of living systems. The pursuit of unlimited and extractive economic growth, based on fossil fuels, has created immense harm to the planet and our future wellbeing. And yet, other choices have always been available, if we learn from and apply the informational architecture of living systems. Life is thrivable by design.
I felt a deep urge to better understand the root causes of our sustainability crises. I wanted to understand the systemic barriers that inhibit and slow down the solutions and leadership needed to address the greatest challenges of our time. It was evident that the way we approached these challenges was itself the biggest barrier to resolving them. I thus decided to explore the journey of systemic transformational change that is at the heart of what is happening in our world today, and embarked on a Ph.D. research project from 2014–2019 as external researcher with the Maastricht Sustainability Institute of Maastricht University.
I titled my Ph.D. dissertation, Into the Heart of Systems Change to explore the systemic barriers that we have inherited from the growth archetypes that created the mechanistic systems and mechanistic worldviews, with emphasis on how this became expressed through the western developmental models. This article provides a brief overview of this research.
The problem with the modern growth archetypes
Modern society is driven by mechanistic growth archetypes that are based on policies of extractive expansion and domination, which are the root cause of our climate and biodiversity crisis. These mechanistic growth archetypes cause systemic thrivability barriers that harm systemic thrivability boundaries.
In living systems, systemic boundaries are complex feedback loops that regulate the health and thrivability of the system as a whole. For example, your body’s systemic boundaries make it possible for it to regulate your body temperature. Mechanistic systems create systemic barriers that interfere with systemic boundaries by imposing goals and activities that undermine life’s self-regulating and adaptive capacities.
The systemic barriers of mechanistic growth models are driving the climate crisis. Mechanistic economic growth has been driving the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and has caused tremendous harm to biodiversity and wildlife. Emissions also drive the climate catastrophe that is heating up the planet, melting ice and pushing up sea levels. We could say our planet is running a dangerous fever, but we keep adding more heat — which only makes things worse. At the same time, we are damaging the planet’s lungs, fluids, blood vessels and organs by destroying its biodiversity and natural habitats.
Our sustainability crisis is essentially a systemic barrier issue that reveals a deeper crisis in consciousness. The mechanistic systems and worldviews, in which so many people have been brought up, portray a universe of separate parts and particles and random events, rather than the unified understanding of life and consciousness that is now emerging from a whole new paradigm in science and research. Systemic barriers reveal that we do not understand that life is essentially a unified reality, and so we do not recognise the systemic boundaries of our interdependence.
During my Ph.D. research, while mapping out the systemic barriers of mechanistic systems, many people who worked and learned in these systems reported how they felt trapped by goals and objectives that undermined their thrivability. Furthermore, people reported that systemic barriers negatively affected their senses of self-worth and value, and their agency for making empowered choices and actions. I named these barriers systemic thrivability barriers, to emphasise that they are not just personal or individual. Participants said that by mapping out these barriers together, it empowered them to put into words things that they had felt and sensed for a long time, but had no idea how to describe to others.
Systemic thrivability barriers are now widespread. They can be found in almost all of our societies, politically, economically, socially, educationally, and culturally.
Identifying and Transforming Systemic Thrivability Barriers
Through my Ph.D. research, I have identified seven prevalent forms of systemic thrivability barriers.
- 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 is 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 from life 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.
My research also showed that, when we operate in systems where life is not part of the conversation, people can more easily feel depressed, isolated and degraded. Our sustainability crisis is not only an economic and political issue: it is also a crisis of identity, values and meaning. We are living systems — not machines.
Mechanistic systems are designed for collapse. They were never made to thrive. And yet, we have in us the potential to thrive and evolve with life, and as life. We are beings of consciousness; we can choose how to grow, develop and evolve ourselves and our world.
A Transition Plan for a Thrivable Civilization
After 5 years of researching these systemic barriers and working in the field to help address those, a transition map started to emerge for the development of a Thrivable Civilisation that goes beyond mere sustainability.
This Transition Plan can be summarized in 7 steps:
- Diagnose the presence and impact of the systemic thrivability barriers that are generated by our mechanistic societal systems.
- Address and transform the systemic thrivability barriers with transformation strategies that can help to transform the dualistic polarising tendencies of mechanistic systems and transform the degenerative behavioural patterns.
- Develop Future Creative capacity through an evolutionary learning process and Thrivability Bildung Strategies that are embedded within Evolutionary Learning Communities and Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems.
- Enact and embody the 5 thrivability Future Archetypes through the thrivability pattern by implementing the thrivability pattern into the design process and activities for our societal systems.
- Develop a Thrivability Growth System based on the infodynamics of living systems and measure value creation. This can support the development of a new growth paradigm that is generative and Life based and measures success and progress on the basis of thrivability and not merely sustainability.
- Develop Thrivability Leadership and Governance systems. The sixteen Indigenous Guiding Principles for building a Sustainable, Prosperous, and Harmonious World from Four Worlds International Institute can serve as a guideline.
- Generate engagement and collective enactment for the full transformation of our societal systems through deliberate glocal engagement strategies. Glocal engagement through conscious strategies, generative design principles, and coordinated teams of people who are willing to BE the systems of a thrivability world, is essential.
Transforming our Mechanistic Systems
Within our global ecological crisis is an invitation to become future creative, innovative, and unconventional. An invitation to explore how together we can co-create a thrivability world from within the world that is dying and collapsing.
The research of this dissertation is founded on the hypothesis that mechanistic systems were developed through a growth dynamic of rapid expansion and extractive growth through behavioural dynamics of competition and domination via zero-sum game (win-lose) dynamics.
This hypothesis is based on the assumption that this incomplete growth model created systems and worldviews that are dualistically polarized, causing fragmentation and divisions in our human development, institutions, and governance systems.
Through my research, I diagnosed systemic thrivablity barriers by the presence of specific degenerative behaviours and polarizing organizational dynamics. These dynamics reveal mechanistic systemic archetypes based on an extractive expansive growth model that constraints our collective capacity to become future-fit and future creative for a thrivable world. The hypothesis of this dissertation also suggests that we need a new narrative that is not defined by the concept of sustainable development for transforming the unhealthy unsustainable growth dynamics of our conventional societal systems.
The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have gained a lot of traction over the last decade. The Brundtland Commission in 1987 defined sustainable development as; development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland et al., 1987). Sustainable development safeguards the Earth’s life-support systems, on which the welfare and wellbeing of current and future generations depend.
In order to go further than minimising harm and sustaining a situation, we need concepts and narratives that can provide a stronger vision. The following concepts can provide this greater attractor for transformational change: regeneration and thrivability.
Regeneration refers to the act of healing, improving, and enhancing a place, system, or relationship with the conditions needed for life to thrive. Life is regenerative by nature. But as a species, we seem to believe we are free to reject nature by ignoring the means by which it enables life to regenerate. We create systems and impacts that are degenerative by design, and not sustainable. As a leadership concept, regeneration demands that we take responsibility for the extensive damage and imbalances that our actions have inflicted on our planet’s life.
Thrivability includes the concept of regeneration, but elaborates on it by also focussing on how we can co-create new conditions for our species’ future evolution. To thrive means to flourish and blossom. Thrivability combines two words, “thrive” and “ability.” By making the verb to thrive into a noun, we emphasise that thrivability is a systemic capacity, and not merely an outcome. Accordingly, thrivability is increasingly used to replace the more commonly known concept of sustainability, to emphasise that it is not sufficient to merely focus on minimising harm or sustaining something. I have come to describe thrivability as follows:
Thrivability is our innate ability to develop our capacities and actualise our potentials in ways that are generative, life-affirming, and future creative.
The greatest challenge of our human development experiment is to create regenerative conditions that make it possible for life, and each of us, to thrive together. When thrivability with life becomes our vision and focus, we start to shift the dualistic and separatist thinking that is at the core of the global sustainability crisis. When we view life dualistically, it means that we do not realise that life is fundamentally unified at all levels of existence.
A thrivable civilization is thus naturally ecologically sustainable, yet goes much further than merely safeguarding the planetary boundaries. Thrivability is also self-actualising and emerges from the healthy and connected expression of our innate growth desire, giving rise to very different kinds of archetype dynamics than our conventional systems.
A thrivability narrative, by being growth inclusive, can invite the main investors and stakeholders of the mechanistic paradigm to commit to our societal and human transformation through a new thrivability growth model in ways that the sustainability narrative has failed to do. A thrivability growth model is based on the growth patterns and infodynamics of living systems as thrivability systems. It is time for the development of new and regenerative growth models that are inclusive of Life and thrivable by design.
Deepening our Understanding of Transformational Change
The study of the systemic barriers in the case-studies of my research, revealed dynamics of dualistic polarization, hierarchical organization, distrust between people, rigid learning and action tasks, little inclusion of qualitative indicators for growth, dominance of progress indicators via achievement of preset goals, deliverables, standards, and lack of internal collaboration. This affected the way people approached issues, made decisions, and were able to learn, grow, and develop. There was often a narrative of due to the other or the system to explain the barriers encountered, which was a narrative that further contributed to the dualistic tendencies of those systems, preventing collaborative solutions and development of mutuality and reciprocity.
The more I started to explore these systemic barriers, the more I realised that these barriers have existed in our societies for hundreds of years, if not longer. Without an evolutionary learning process, behavioural change for stopping global ecosystemic and civilizational collapse requires constant corrective inputs (see Smitsman, A. and Smitsman, A.W., 2020).
The integral framework that forms part of this dissertation provides principles and guidelines for designing a deliberate and strategic change process, based on evolutionary learning and development.
Tomorrow began about 13.8 billion years ago. Tomorrow is already given to us now, as was yesterday, too. Thrivability emerges from within and 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.
It is time to become the future creative human that we can be, each of us is a point of singularity. Together by connecting the dots we bring the pattern of thrivability into being, and this is what attracts a future of a more thrivable version of ourselves into being, here and now — thrivability begins within.
They say the longest journey is the distance between the head and the heart, academia has long increased that distance. It is time we reduce this 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, yet it is time and necessary that we explore a more complete growth model than the one we have promoted for the growth of our modern societies.
Our indigenous cultures already have the principles and practices for a growth model where Life is and remains at the centre. Perhaps we can listen now and include their knowledge in the knowledge bank and protopias of our modern societies to grow wise together. Thank you for joining me and millions of others from around the world on this Journey Into the Heart of Systems Change for a thrivability world and future.
Author: Written by Anneloes Smitsman, PhD.
Brundtland, G. et al. (1987). Our Common Future: Report of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lane, P., Ramer, J., Longboat, K. D., and Moldow, D. (2019). Prophecies, Dynamic Change, and a New Global Civilization: 2020–2030–2050. Retrieved 3 March 2019 from https://goo.gl/Lomwav
Smitsman A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Doctoral dissertation, International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS), Maastricht University. https://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.28450.25280
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. & Lane, P. (2019). Calling the Future Creatives — YOU! EARTHwise Vimeo Channel. Retrieved 12 July 2019 from https://bit.ly/2JDhuyX
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., Martens, P. & Laszlo, A. (2019). The Polarization Effect: Healing our Worldviews. Systema, Vol 7 (1). https://bit.ly/2wWg6Bu
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. & 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.
Wahl, D.C. & Smitsman, A. (2018). Into the Heart of Systems Change with Daniel Wahl. EARTHwise Centre. Retrieved 14 June 2019 from https://youtu.be/mTF_CGeQXYk