Introduction to Participatory Sustainability – Part 2

In this post and the previous one , I share the first chapter of my short book PARTICIPATORY SUSTAINABILITY. The book contains a remarkable amount of my current thinking, exploring what it means become CONSCIOUS, LIFE-SERVING PARTICIPANTS in a universe that is intrinsically participatory – AND to create social systems that make it natural to play that role.  – Tom

III.  Co-creating Sustainability

Participatory sustainability involves aligning ourselves with reality and acting in accordance with the fundamental interrelatedness and co-creativity of life.

Sustainability involves thinking and sensing beyond linear causation which acts as if any one cause causes only one thing and as if any one event or condition has only one cause or only a few readily identifiable causes.  Sustainability also involves thinking and sensing beyond separateness which acts as if we are not connected to – and can thus ignore – each other and the rest of creation.  And thus it involves taking responsibility for our participation in the larger field of life – the all-encompassing web of mutuality – which so powerfully shapes our destinies for good or ill, just as we influence that web of life.  And it involves waking up to these things, becoming more conscious of the truth of interconnectedness and our role in it.

We can co-create sustainability, participating in activities that align us, our communities and our social systems with the fundamental interrelatedness of life – supporting the dynamics of life that we depend on to support us.  Or we can co-create unsustainability, participating in activities that ignore, degrade or devastate the mutuality of life, thereby cursing our lives and our future.  Or we can do some mix of these which, by definition, will only work to a certain extent and for a limited period of time.  To the extent sustainability (persistence) is partial, it is not actually sustainable (lasting).

Whatever we do, we don’t get to NOT participate.  We are participants by virtue of our existence in this densely interconnected world.  To paraphrase the Beatles, although we feel as if we’re in a play, we are anyway.  And, like their Fool on the Hill, when we see the sun going down, we would be wise to step back and use the eyes in our heads (and in our scientific models and our sensitive hearts) to see the world spinning ’round, and to see ourselves as part of that life-supporting dance…

IV.  The scope of participatory sustainability

Participatory sustainability embraces many dimensions of human activity, notably including:

•    Individual and collective narratives, lifestyles and behaviors;
•    Communication, information, knowledge, and learning systems, including education, science, research, media, and journalism;
•    Economic systems, including all forms of production, use, distribution and service – and the resource systems and cycles upon which they depend; and
•    Decision-making and implementation systems, especially politics and governance.

And, as we have shown, all these are participatory; all of us are co-creating all of them all the time.  Participatory sustainability calls on us to make them all consciously participatory, to design into them ongoing (sustained) conscious participation that serves systemic health and resilience (sustainability).  PARTICIPATORY SUSTAINABILITY particularly focuses on the last – politics and governance – primarily because it shapes (and properly should shape) all the others.  But it is also true that all the others, in their roles in this participatory universe, also shape politics and governance, and thus cannot be neglected.

V.  Participatory democracy for sustainability

If we define democracy as rule by the people (rather than by some particular democratic mode such as voting or representation), we can see the importance of democracy for sustainability.

Perhaps most significantly, democracy generates legitimacy of governance.  In democratic political theory “legitimacy” derives from a population’s willingness to abide by a decision, vision, leader or governing system – even if they disagree with aspects of it – because they have had (or could have readily had) a role in influencing it.  To the extent that their voice can play a role in shaping what happens, they “buy into” that direction and its implementation.  Their willing cooperation reduces the amount of force, resources and external incentives governments must invest to align the public to communal policies, making it potentially more efficient and sustainable than purely top-down approaches.

Another source of “buy-in” is how much government behaviors and policies make sense to the populace.  Democracy ideally provides an environment rich with good information, diverse perspectives, productive conversations and other resources with which diverse citizens with diverse values and interests can deliberate towards more united public judgment, or what we could call true common sense and actionable common ground which serves the well-being of all.

A culture of deliberative public judgment further supports sustainability through the collective intelligence capacity it generates, enabling communities and societies to respond resiliently to the changing internal and external challenges they face.  This capacity enhances sustainability to the extent we ensure that society’s information systems and deliberations help citizens take a long term view and understand systemic dynamics and interconnections.  This enables true, legitimate public wisdom to emerge, for the public then has the expanded insight needed to sustain a co-creative relationship with more of the complex evolving web of mutuality around them.

Note that mythos and manipulation often play a role in generating consent, especially in more top-down governance systems.  But top-down manipulation strategies do not benefit to the same extent from the distributed collective intelligence and engagement generated by more participatory approaches.

Systems that support both cooperative participation and deeper understanding help distribute collective perception and implementation initiatives more broadly throughout the population, reducing the need for external management and formal bureaucracy.  As this capacity for self-organization becomes increasingly embedded in the culture and functioning of society, that society’s ability to foresee, monitor, and respond well to diverse challenges and opportunities scattered throughout its evolving complex environment rises as well.  Their collective sense of agency expands with confident innovation tempered by humility and the caution, light touch, and often sacred sensibility indigenous to those who recognize the basic mystery and aliveness of the participatory universe within which they are immersed.  The factors described in this paragraph are arguably the most potent in ensuring ongoing societal sustainability.

Rapidly developing social, digital, information, and communication technologies can enable increasing scope and sophistication of collaborative participation in making a society not only more sustainable but more vibrant.  These technologies can be integrated to augment diverse modes of engagement – face to face and virtual, local and global, synchronous and asynchronous – with greater opportunity for leadership and expertise to find their most useful manifestations, rising and subsiding in response to evolving needs and circumstances.  Such capacities for sustained self-governance provide a level of complexity comparable to that of the complex realities and issues we face, allowing intelligent responsiveness throughout the relevant systems.

A participatory approach to sustainability also addresses the diversity of definitions, views on and approaches to sustainability. Instead of serving as an impediment for action, this diversity can inform and be collectively digested by the society’s thinking, dialogue and action as described above, moving through relevant complexity into greater insight and capacity, evolving as it goes.

VI.  Participatory sustainable lifestyles

All the above can be considered the active aspect of participatory sustainability.  On the receptive face of participatory sustainability we find its greatest attractor: social systems and lifestyles that hold tremendous potential for meaning, agency, joy, and belonging – qualities that are difficult to find in the mediated, alienated forms of engagement that characterize top-down economics, politics and governance.

As people find technologically-enhanced life-serving ways to satisfy their most basic needs more directly and collaboratively – including sharing, caring, co-creating, gifting, simplifying and taking responsibility for what they love, individually and collectively – they naturally find greater satisfaction in life.  They become less dependent on powerful, heavily monetized and increasingly unstable social forces, systems and institutions beyond their control.  They become more engaged with the alive reality and abundance of natural and human communion, experiencing a shift in their center of gravity from compulsively acquisitive materialism to a deep and creative partnership with the life in and around them, which they come to value in a very profound and personal way.  We see this in the emerging voluntary simplicity movement.  We would tend to find a remarkable quality of life wherever participatory sustainability has taken root in an individual, group or community.


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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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