Participatory Sustainability – a new book by Tom Atlee

I just published Participatory Sustainability and in this post you will find a description, some excerpts, the table of contents, and a link where you can buy it now as a paperback or Kindle book.

In the midst of finalizing our soon-to-be-released wise democracy pattern language website, I edited five previously unpublished essays into a book entitled Participatory Sustainability: Notes for an Emerging Field of Civilizational Engagement.  Here’s its official description:

Participatory Sustainability introduces the idea that sustainability cannot be achieved merely through top-down government policy or economic activity.  Sustainability requires the participation of all people and all parts of society, working with each other and with nature.  The book provides dozens of approaches for doing this, including guidance for generating collective wisdom, participatory leadership, inclusive participatory forms of power, and six expanded dimensions of intelligence we can use together to address the depth and complexity of the challenges we face.  Recognition of the intrinsic participatory nature of both sustainability (co-creating a good life for our grandchildren) and non-sustainability (co-creating disaster) provides both motivation and direction for making a better world, starting immediately.

Participatory Sustainability is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions, priced low to encourage folks like you to buy it, read it, give it to friends and contribute it to local libraries.  I would love any reviews, blurbs, or endorsements you wish to contribute to send it on its way in the world!

Enjoy the excerpted highlights below.  They offer a tiny taste of the full book, which also includes dozens of links to ideas, methods, and publications that provide resources for participatory sustainability.  And I’m giving you the table of contents, as well, to give you a sense of its range.

Blessings on its journey and yours…




Chapter 1. Background theory and worldview of participatory sustainability

We are all playing roles in the development of technology, race relations, gravitational fields, children, economies, planetary weather, and even the health of people in Tasmania in the year 2057. Every single person in the world unknowingly conspires with every single green plant to maintain the right mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to sustain life. Every citizen who stays home on Election Day participates – along with every voter – in electing their president, prime minister, mayor or other representative. Everyone who picks up trash on the street – or leaves it lying there – plays a role in determining whether or not the next piece of trash falls on the street.

Our beliefs, cultures and social systems shape our participation and extend the consequences of our actions in ways that can be hard to see. Our belief in the competence of a child may itself increase the competence of that child. A culture which assigns status to financial wealth and material possessions will promote our collective destruction of natural systems and exhaustion of vital resources, though we may individually experience that as simply shopping for Christmas. A regional development plan that features widespread suburbs will cause its subsequent occupants to rely heavily on automobiles and thus, in their daily life, to unconsciously influence the geopolitics around energy-rich countries, the condition of the atmosphere, and the livelihood of farmers a world away as floods, droughts and unpredictable weathers related to climate disruption destroy their crops, which in turn raise the cost of papayas and rice in distant cities and suburbs.

We are active participants in everything that happens, even when we think we’re “doing nothing” and even when we’re totally ignorant of what’s going on. We are never merely irrelevant observers, spectators or bystanders or “just living our lives”. Each of us is right now actively participating in the world’s unfolding into its future…..

Chapter 2. Participatory wisdom for achieving wiser decision-making

….Interestingly enough, we can trace the folly and unsustainability of our current civilization largely to its tendency to systematically exclude the needs, views, information and gifts of relevant parties – especially marginalized populations and natural life forms and systems – in its major decisions and systemic designs. Perhaps most notably, concentrated wealth controls both markets and governance by nurturing and manipulating people’s ignorance, materialism, insecurity and short-term self-interest at the expense of their long-term well-being and their healthy impulses on behalf of each other and nature.

The actual structures of our economic and political systems – from majoritarianism to monetized profit – increasingly enable that manipulation. Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that our current systems generate far more folly than wisdom. As crises, scarcity and polarization are increasingly generated by our collective unsustainability, this lack of wisdom promises to become more acute. The further we go along this path, the more radical restructuring of society will be necessary. And the sooner and better we promote participatory wisdom, the less traumatic that restructuring will be…..

Chapter 3. Participatory sustainability and power

….Power-with is the heart of participatory sustainability. It enhances our capacity to handle complexity and scope through massive information gathering and knowledge sharing, distributed parallel processing, and “many hands make light work” dynamics. In addition, when power-with is applied to working with natural dynamics rather than dominating them – as we see in renewable energy, recycling, and organic agriculture – we find less waste and damage generated and less input ultimately required because the life forces of nature are supporting rather than impeding our efforts.

Power-with manifests in many ways – as a participatory worldview, as a cooperative attitude, in collaborative activity, and in nature- and people-friendly technologies, as well as in the design of buildings, landscapes, communities, group processes, social interactions, and political, governmental, and economic institutions that encourage its exercise. We see power-with wherever the resources of the many are being brought together by the many in the service of the many.

In this last sentence we see the potential for integrating power-with and power-over. The dynamics of consent, delegation, and answerability allow a group to distribute its power-over among its members to serve their shared ends. This is the fundamental principle underlying advanced forms of democratic organizational power where, in a context of shared purpose and more or less explicit responsibility to the whole, individuals and subgroups can perform tasks without micro-management or even with full self-organization – especially where their capacities or passions make them particularly qualified to provide certain services to or on behalf of the whole group. The strongly shared purpose and a certain level of consultative interaction keep the whole group’s activities aligned….

Chapter 4. Participatory sustainability and leadership

…. Sustainability is a monumental project. It seems to require profound expertise and management skill to pull it off. It seems to beg for a top-down, educated, powerful meritocracy of highly qualified elite leaders to make it happen against all the odds pushing against it.

But that is an illusion – an illusion fed by our efforts to impose our linear maps on the dynamic complexity of the world. That illusion not only undermines our efforts at sustainability, but has actually been one of the drivers of the profound non-sustainability we find in our current civilization. Rather than partnering responsively with the human and natural aliveness around us, we have sought to control it and reshape it for our own purposes, going to extreme lengths to prevent ourselves from being limited by its limits, needs and demands. We know what we want, we figure out how to get it, and we go for it – increasingly empowered by linear science, technology and global economics.

While this oversimplified narrative applies most directly to society’s elites, it also applies to those of us in the “developed” and “developing” worlds who seek to use linear science, technology and economics to improve our lot, and to the systems that help us do that. Wherever we hear that it is “uneconomical” to do things in a sustainable way, we know that this illusion of domination and expertise is controlling the minds, hearts and behaviors of those involved. Our narrative of rightful dominance over nature – including human nature – depends on our assumption that we can directly cause what we want and that we can directly “fix” any consequences of that effort.

But the dynamic, nonlinear complexity of the world and its living systems – both human and natural – does not always so obediently comply with our linear machinations, especially in the long run. A sustainable relationship with living systems requires that our initiatives and responses have a comparable dynamic complexity and responsiveness as the systems we are working with. We need to see ourselves as partners with the life around us and with the vast potential of life’s rich nonlinear aliveness.

In particular, we need to engage the gifts and energies of as many people and drivers as possible – including a wide variety of specialist fields, sectors, stakeholders, countries, networks, and ordinary people – in pursuing sustainability initiatives in their own locales and areas of influence while communicating and collaborating with each other across boundaries. The more self-organized such engagements can be, the more we will the tap voluntary resources of self-motivated people and communities and the more eyes, ears, and minds will be applied to the monumental task of understanding and tracking changing conditions at every level of the systems we are addressing….

Chapter 5. Co-intelligence and participatory sustainability

….It is useful to view intelligence as a cognitive feedback system, a cycle that includes perception, reflection, memory, action, and – as those functions iterate – learning.  We use this cognitive cycle and the feedback it gives us to generate a sort of ongoing congruence between our mental models – our ideas, beliefs, stories, conceptual understandings, and so on – and the real world around us. The more our mental models match the realities around us, the more appropriate our actions tend to be. And that, significantly, means we are maintaining a better “fit” with our environment.

In the Darwinian worldview, environmental fitness is the sine qua non of survival. Our “fit-ness” – a congruence continually adjusted by our intelligence and the ongoing learning it supports – allows us to persist, to sustain ourselves and our communities, to maintain our civilization and our species. To the extent we fail to maintain that fit-ness – especially collectively – we fail in our life activities and ultimately die off. Hence, we find that our intelligence capacities are intimately related to our sustainability.

Co-intelligence is intelligence that takes wholeness, interconnectedness, co-creativity and participation seriously. Co-intelligence is collective, collaborative, synergistic, wise, empathic, heartful, and connected to greater sources of intelligence. It is often marked by how creatively it uses dissonance and diversity.

We find co-intelligence – and its opposite, co-stupidity – in:

  • Individuals
  • Groups
  • Organizations
  • Communities
  • Networks
  • Societies
  • Processes
  • Systems
  • Institutions

Intelligence in each of these domains can be co-intelligent to the extent it calls forth collective wisdom in and around it, i.e., when it accesses the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole….



Chapter 1. Background theory and worldview of participatory sustainability

Participatory sustainability is strong sustainability . . . 9
Acknowledging interrelationship and participation . . . 11
Co-creating sustainability . . . 13
The scope of participatory sustainability . . . 14
Participatory democracy for sustainability . . . 15
Participatory sustainable lifestyles . . . 17

Chapter 2. Participatory wisdom for achieving wiser decision-making

Wisdom? . . . 19
Folly and its antidotes . . . 20
Sustainability and wisdom . . . 21
Basic principles . . . 22
Participatory civic wisdom . . . 23
.   Quality Diversity . . . 24
.   Quality Information . . . 26
.   Quality Interaction . . . 28
.   Quality Wisdom . . . 30
Participatory economic wisdom . . . 31
.   Participating in real value . . . 31
.   Becoming part of healthy feedback dynamics . . . 32
.   Aligning human activity with nature . . . 33
.   Co-generating the power of peerness . . . 33
Conclusion . . . 34
.   Figure 1: Factors related to collective wisdom and folly . . . 35

Chapter 3. Participatory sustainability and power

What kind of power do we need? . . . 37
Forms of power . . . 38
“Power-over” and its alternatives . . . 39
.   Power-with . . . 40
.   Power-from-among . . . 42
.   Power-from-within . . . 43
Foundations of participatory power for sustainability . . . 44
.   Peerness . . . 44
.   Diversity . . . 45
.   Interaction . . . 45
.   The commons . . . 46
Moving from power-over to holistic, participatory power . . . 47
Reducing obstacles to the emergence of participatory power . . . 49
Tools for challenging and transforming power-over . . . 51
.   The Power Cube . . . 52
.   The Movement Action Plan . . . 53
Enhancing the emergence of greater participatory power . . . 56
.   Participation with each other . . . 56
.   Participation of, by and for whole systems and communities . . . 57
.   Participation with nature . . . 58
Guidelines for participating in building participatory power . . . 59
Conclusion . . . 60

Chapter 4. Participatory sustainability and leadership

Participatory leadership? . . . 63
The logic of participatory leadership for participatory sustainability . . . 64
Levels of participatory leadership . . . 65
What does participatory leadership look like? (a future story) . . . 68
Guidelines for leaders who promote public engagement . . . 76
The transition . . . 77

Chapter 5. Co-intelligence and participatory sustainability

We need to expand intelligence . . . 79
Intelligence and evolutionary fitness . . . 80
What is co-intelligence? . . . 80
Six dimensions of co-intelligence . . . 81
.   Collaborative intelligence . . . 83
.   Multi-modal intelligence . . . 84
.   Collective intelligence . . . 84
.   Resonant intelligence . . . 85
.   Universal intelligence . . . 86
.   Wisdom . . . 88
Conclusion . . . 89

Acknowledgments . . . 91
About the author . . . 91


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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