The Practices of Systemic Sustainability
Systemic sustainability is a process of development—individual, organizational, or societal—involving an adaptive strategy of emergence that ensures the evolutionary maintenance of an increasingly robust and supportive environment. Systemic sustainability goes beyond the triple bottom line and embraces “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the Earth forever” as beautifully expressed by John Ehrenfeld. Adam Werbach defines a sustainable business as one capable of “thriving in perpetuity.” Systemic sustainability is about developing this capacity so that all human systems can co-exist in partnership with the living systems of our planet.
Systemic sustainability starts with each individual in an organization or community. It recognizes that change happens through us. Integrating systemic sustainability into the cultural fabric of an organization requires the development of practices at least four levels of intentional action.
- At the first level – sustainability with oneself; personal or internal sustainability – the practices involve centering, quieting the monkey-mind, listening with every cell of our being. These practices cultivate intuition, empathy, compassion, insight that matches outsight, and a willingness to explore and follow our deepest calling.
- At the second level – sustainability with others; community or interpersonal sustainability – the practice involves deep dialogue and collaboration. Coming together to learn with and from each other and to engage in coordinated action with considerateness, openness, and joy in order to enable collective wisdom.
- At the third level – sustainability with nature; ecosystemic or transpersonal sustainability – the practices involve communing; listening to the messages of all beings (whether they be waterfalls, animals, mountains or galaxies) and acknowledging our interdependence and ultimate unity.
- At the fourth level – sustainability with the flows of being and becoming; evolutionary or integral sustainability – the practices involve learning to read the patterns of change of which we are a part; learning to hear the rhythms of life and becoming familiar with the improvisational jam session that nature has been playing since time immemorial. These practices cultivate our ability to play our own piece; to sing and dance our own path into existence in harmony with the grand patterns of cosmic creation and to participate in the ongoing flourishing of life.
Some possible questions to guide the practices of systemic sustainability within organizational contexts are:
- At the first level (personal sustainability): Who am I and what is my life’s purpose? What are my talents? To what do I feel called to contribute? What brings meaning to my life? What supports my personal development?
- At the second level (socio-cultural sustainability): What common cares bring us together? What is our shared vision? How do we want to contribute to the flourishing of life forever? Who are our partners and collaborators? What do we need to learn? What do we want to create? What is our value proposition or unique contribution to all our stakeholders? What affirms our values, identity and culture?
- At the third level (ecological sustainability): What gifts do we receive from nature that we have not acknowledged? What relationships and connections need to be restored? How can we contribute to the regeneration of our ecosystems? What would a thriving relationship with nature look like?
- At the fourth level (evolutionary sustainability): What would our ancestors think of our work and life? What would our children’s children think of our choices? How do we honor our past and create our future intentionally? How do we become active and conscious participants in the unfolding of life?
These practices make clear that sustainability—at the personal, organizational, societal, or planetary level—is a journey, not a destination; an inquiry, not a state to achieve.