I just finished reading an article about sustainable communities, in which the priorities were equity, the environment and economics. This seemed to be a rephrasing of the triple-bottom line factors of people, planet and profits. Seeing it this time raised a question: why do economics and profit get equal billing with the living systems (people and planet) of which they are a part?

Yes, people need money, and projects need resources. Truly, the economics must work if sustainability (or any) initiatives are to succeed. But doesn’t listing profit/economics as a player at the table in its own right separate it from the humans it serves? Instead of being a servant, doesn’t it become a master?

Instead, why wouldn’t the priorities be planet and people, with economic viability as a subset of both? In this case, “economic viability” is not the same as “profit” – I’m not against profit, but it seems dangerous to consider it a goal, rather than viewing it as one of many resources that may be necessary to enable human projects to be carried out. Why wouldn’t economic viability be viewed as one of many possible conditions necessary for thriving people and thriving planet… other conditions being absence of violence, for example, or presence of joy, or physical feasibility, or legal compliance, or individual and collective learning, or community cohesion?

Might the problem with the sustainability movement be that we’re serving three masters, when really we should be serving two – or maybe even just one (life)?

Or maybe the three pillars of the current sustainability formula are the right ones after all, with two important adjustments (mostly to the lens through which we view them).

People/planet/profit and equity/environment/economics could be viewed as variations on the three facets of the Living Systems Model that I teach; the model notes that all living systems feature parts, wholes and relationship. In this case, what is meant by relationship is the dynamic, ongoing process of internal and external interactions and exchange that enables a living system to be viable (meaning “capable of life”).  Economic exchange fits within this definition, as do the other conditions I mentioned above (learning, physical feasibility, etc.).

In this way, the Living Systems Model helps us recognize that, in order to support a thriving living system, we must nurture the parts (primarily “people,” in this case); we must nurture the wholes that they exist within (the organization, the affected community, and the encompassing ecosystem – in other words, “planet”); and we must also nurture the dynamic web of relationship and exchange that enables the state of being alive. Adjustment #1, then, might be to expand the third part of the sustainability formula beyond profit or economics to include the broader concept of ongoing relational viability.

What the Living Systems Model also adds is recognition that we’re not engineering a machine – we’re cultivating and stewarding a complex, ever-emergent living system. We can’t control something that is alive (not with good results, anyway), but we can thoughtfully and continuously create the fertile conditions for it to thrive. I find much of the conversation about sustainability to be quite mechanistic, and the word itself risks being misunderstood as the desire to achieve (and sustain) a steady state – which is impossible within the context of a living system. Adjustment #2, then, might be to acknowledge that the overarching goal is to enable life to thrive – in other words, to cultivate the system’s ongoing “thrivability.”

On the surface, these two adjustments seem quite subtle. So why are they important?

First, looking beyond profit to the broader concept of viability might allow other important conditions of success into the equation. It might also keep these conditions in their rightful place — in service to us and to life, rather than the other way around.

Second, maybe a focus on life and thrivability would generate more energy and support — I certainly feel more excited about the idea of thriving rather than simply sustaining. Of course, sustaining is preferable to extinction, but fear of extinction keeps our vision focused on what we don’t want, rather than opening our imagination to what could be. I also wonder if fear has a tendency to divide as much as it unites. And besides, the fear-driven call-to-action has only worked to a limited degree, so maybe it’s time to try a carrot instead of a stick.

Third, I believe even sustainability is not possible as long as we think and talk about ourselves and our ecosystem as isolated parts within a grand machine. Shifting the conversation to one in which we openly recognize that we’re cultivating the emergent, unifying property of life would also move people closer to understanding themselves as integral parts of an indivisible living whole. And I believe that it is only with this understanding that we will develop the level of compassion needed to solve the problems that threaten the survival of humanity.

Ultimately, my sense is that humanity is not going to achieve long-term viability until every business conversation is also a conversation about thrivability. Maybe these adjustments to the sustainability formula would help bring about such a shift in focus beyond profit-as-goal to “making life-enhancing contributions” as the goal.

What do you think?

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