Watch the watchwords and catchphrases used by movements and causes. They shift, as language does, and also as people’s reactions are recognized. Sustainable was the word for several years. It was replaced by thriving. The real topic is how many people will be surviving. On a personal level, that’s the basis that we all work from, and how aware you are of the fact is a measure of where you’ve been in this life. At the level of survival, needs versus wants are not academic concepts. Necessities become starkly apparent, and valuable lessons that are hard to ignore or forget. Knowing your true needs makes sustainability, and then thriving more realistic. Self knowledge is one of the most precious lessons learned from the hardships encountered when survivability is challenged.
Several years ago I had a conversation with a noted new economy pundit who will remain nameless. The topic of poverty came up, and my paraphrasing of their response is that “while the poor may be in poverty, their culture sustains them.” I had one of those jaw dropping moments when trying to respond to a concept so disconnected from reality. The assumption was that even though the poor don’t have enough to eat, or a place to sleep, or healthy conditions, a song will carry them through. Nope. The human body needs sufficient calories, vitamins, and minerals to survive. Every climate requires some protection from the elements. No place on Earth is safe from disease because a person without enough food, or under too much stress will not survive long.
A simple fact is that, the generally accepted scientific observation is that humans are mortal. A wonderful source of science fiction, fantasy, and conspiracy theories suggest immortality is an option; and they may be right, but let’s assume that most of us are going to die. The fact should not be a shock, even if stating it is shocking. I’m over 55. As the saying goes, old age is not for sissies. That’s become obvious. Mortality also means that survivability for an individual is a limited time option, at least until the immortals or the digital singularity decide to change things.
My life for the last few years has been a journey through economic turmoil. One bit of evidence: I’m only going to conferences if someone else pays my way. I’ve been pleased, and several folks have applauded me, for being able to survive losing 98% of my net worth, avoiding foreclosure, and building up a business because for some reason I wasn’t able to get a job after trying for years. I accept the applause because I’m still here. Many folks assume that the result is obvious. As with anyone who’s been through a similar situation, we know different. We know the people who didn’t survive. The harsh reality is that lives are shortened either through stress or from more active means. This gets into a dark place, but the suicide rate dramatically increased after the economic downturn that became the Great Recession.
It is time to step up past survivability to sustainability. Sustainability was too dire for some early media campaigns, but it is a step up from bare survivability because it extends the concept of surviving out to a more typical lifespan. There is an ease to sustainability because the systems in place are reliable and replicable. Do this that way with these kinds of systems and life will get its chance to run a natural course. The stress and anxiety of survival are eliminated, leaving a great relief and an opportunity to enjoy the song that is culture.
Sustainability wasn’t enough, at least within ambitious America, and I am not surprised. As a species we can do amazing and good things. To do that we must do more than survive or sustain; we must thrive. By thriving and by remaining aware of our needs from our experiences surviving, we can realize our collective dreams whether that is improving everyone’s lives, expanding into the universe, deeper into our selves, or all of that.
Our civilization can thrive, but first it must become sustainable, and we must find a way for all people to survive. If thriving is only for a few, it is less likely to survive.
Like a lot of people I know, I am in survival mode. By working seven days a week, usually from about 8am to about 8pm, I can make enough to pay my bills; though I have yet to figure out how I am also going to pay the self-employment tax. Like I said above, I join the applause that I’ve reached this level, as have so many others. Survivable, however, is not necessarily sustainable. I’m only taking a day off every two months. My body has symptoms of carrying too much stress, a weakened immune system, and days when my diplomatic reserves are at a minimum. I strive for sustainability. I believe I can reach it because an extra client or two, or a windfall can dramatically improve my situation. I’m enough of an optimist that I know that eventually I’ll find the right combination of what I can supply to an existing unmet demand and that I’ll be compensated enough to thrive. I look forward to that day; and it could happen any day.
We find it convenient to classify people into lower class, middle class, and upper class. We are a class-based society, but at least we don’t require folks to stay in the class they were born to. One definition of lower, middle, and upper that comes to mind is housing:
- lower = must rent,
- middle = able to buy,
- upper = able to buy more than one.
Roughly speaking, lower, middle, and upper could also be: surviving, sustaining, thriving. Sadly, there’s a fourth distinction that we treat as statistics and don’t talk about much and that is the not surviving. I’m glad I’m not there, but I can see it from here.
As we try to develop a society and civilization that will thrive, it may be best to look to the people who’ve learned how to make things sustainable, and even more to the people who are intimately aware of what it takes to survive. They’re the people who learned best about what matters most. Our modern irony is that the people with the most precious life knowledge have the least monetary wealth. Maybe it is time that what they can supply meets the demand to thrive in a way that helps them do much more than survive.