I am working with a team exploring the emerging field of participatory sustainability.

From this new perspective, sustainability cannot be achieved without increasing the level of co-intelligent participation in all aspects of our public life – especially in our political, governmental, and economic activities.

Personally, I think we are ALREADY participating in creating conditions that promote our collective survival and thrival while at the same time creating conditions that promote our decline and collapse as a civilization and a species. I believe achieving sustainability requires more widespread understanding of how we’re doing both those things, so we can do better.

In that effort I think it wise to seriously reflect on nature’s patterns. Evolution, ecology and ancient tribal cultures all tell us – each in their own useful ways – that nature is sustained by the participation of all its life forms and ecosystems, all its elemental forces and cycles. They tell us that communities and species thrive within that vibrant association by fitting their participation harmoniously into the larger dance of life around them. Sure, they can and do shape their environment to serve their needs and dreams. But they must simultaneously serve the wellbeing of their fellows and their ecosystem or they risk being removed from the dance by elemental forces and cycles far greater than themselves.

Similarly, we find society being co-created through our participation in its dynamics and structures. The good and bad things that happen in our society don’t just happen, and we are never just victims or sole perpetrators or totally in control – at least not in the big picture. We are all participants, always.

This view is not existential, guilt-ridden fatalism. It is powerful. Gandhi empowered India’s population by waking them up to how they were participating in their own oppression. He also changed the game for the British by encouraging them to participate in the collapse of their empire by arresting him and his followers. And he invited both his fellow Indians and the British to participate in empathic “experiments with truth” involving conversations towards deeply human win-win solutions and relations.

Gandhi strategically used awareness, conversation and action to make participation more productive for the whole human ecosystem within which he worked. Our challenge is very similar.

We need to become more aware of the ways we all participate – for both good and ill – in the great natural and human dramas in which we play such potent parts. To the extent we understand this, we can use our awareness – and its resulting power – to shift ourselves and our civilizations into more life-serving, sustainable roles.

This is not primarily an individual task. We need to create systems, tools, and cultures that can help us all – individually and in our communities, groups, organizations, and social systems – become progressively more aware and more capable of generating the necessary shifts.

One of my offerings in that effort is to explore what wisdom would look like – and how it would be supported – in social systems based on conscious participation. We certainly need more wisdom to navigate our way into greater sustainability: The job is too big and too complex to be all top down, all bottom up, or all expert-driven. In fact, we’ll need a lot of heads, hearts and hands to develop and apply the wisdom we need in every part of our shared lives. So what would participatory wisdom look like?

Below is one way I’m starting to think about this, just to jog your own thinking. First, I asked myself “What qualities do I recognize in people and initiatives that seem wise?” Then I focused on which of those qualities might be useful in enhancing wisdom – and reducing folly – in our public affairs. Finally, for each of these qualities, I listed some principles and practices I was aware of that might support that quality in a system of participatory wisdom.

The outline below is an initial draft, just some notes jotted down. If you want to check it out, you might start by scanning over the A, B, C qualities first. Then look at the sentences in (1) and (2) under each quality. Then go back and explore some of the lists I offer in the (3) sections. You don’t need to plough through it all to get what I’m trying to do here. Many of my ideas about this are naturally based on my wise democracy work with which so many of you are already familiar. If you run across ideas you aren’t familiar with, just do a web search to learn a bit more.

If you have thoughts about how this might be better organized or what else should be included, by all means add them as comments on this blog post.

Thank you for being there, fellow travelers on this immense journey, co-creating our next step with everything we do. May this exploration help us move us a bit further down the road in the direction we wish to go…



Qualities of folly and wisdom – with factors that support each aspect of participatory wisdom

A. Fairness vs. bias
1. Folly comes from narrow-mindedness, bias, partisanship
2. Wisdom depends on open-mindedness, equity, objectivity
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include balanced information; attention to “broad benefit” and “general welfare”; balance of power; neutral conveners and facilitators; all voices heard; holistic thinking; attending to deep needs/interests of all parties; identifying lies and manipulation; legitimate mini-publics / random selection; citizens considered experts on community values; public visibility; transparency

B. Knowledge vs. ignorance
1. Folly comes from ignorance, denial, obliviousness
2. Wisdom depends on awareness, insight, understanding
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include balanced information; access to diverse experts; systems thinking; 21st century info access (online, open source, crowd sourced, citizen science); focus on “taking into account what needs to be taken into account”; deliberation; iteration (reviewing results); all voices heard; understandable information; free flow of information; holistic thinking; respect for science; identifying lies and manipulation

C. Responsiveness vs. arrogance
1. Folly comes from arrogance, hubris, dogmatism
2. Wisdom depends on humility, judiciousness, responsiveness
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include focus on learning; listening; integrating multiple viewpoints; iteration; collective intelligence; dialogue; systems thinking; holistic thinking; identifying lies and manipulation; citizens considered experts on community values

D. Caring vs. selfishness
1. Folly comes from selfishness, thoughtlessness, cold-heartedness, insensitivity
2. Wisdom depends on compassion, concern, resonance
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include attention to “broad benefit” and “general welfare”; hearing each other’s stories; attention to deep needs; all voices heard; triple bottom line; internalized costs; citizens considered experts on community values; support for emotional expression; opportunities to take responsibility for who and what you care about

E. Responsibility vs. carelessness
1. Folly comes from carelessness, negligence, rashness
2. Wisdom depends on mindfulness, judiciousness, responsibility
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include deliberation; focus on “taking into account what needs to be taken into account”; invocation of citizens to service on behalf of the larger
community; triple bottom line; internalized costs; transparency; public visibility; opportunities to take responsibility for what you care about

F. Prudence vs. shortsightedness
1. Folly comes from shortsightedness, immediate gratification, impatience
2. Wisdom depends on prudence, foresight, vision
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include focus on long-term benefit; systems thinking; ecological thinking; scenario work; visioning work; iteration (periodic and ongoing conversations); internalized costs; triple bottom line; focus on resilience (often contrasted with narrow efficiency); the precautionary principle; attention to each others’ concerns

G. Inspiration vs. convention
1. Folly comes from convention, habit, conformity
2. Wisdom depends on imagination, creativity, inspiration
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include choice-creation; moving beyond partisan/traditional boxes; access to spirit; multiple viewpoints; all voices heard; creativity/visioning exercises; listening to multiple viewpoints; using diversity creatively; awareness of assumptions and narratives; supporting self-organization; group “flow”; opportunities to take responsibility for what you care about

H. Integrity vs. corruption
1. Folly comes from corruption, profiteering, manipulation, adulteration of good process
2. Wisdom depends on integrity, trust, dependability, faith
3. Factors supporting this aspect of participatory wisdom include random selection / legitimate mini-publics; ad hoc citizen deliberative councils; supporting self-organization; transparency; identifying lies and manipulation; penalties for corruption; protection and validation for whistleblowers; public visibility and broad public engagement; citizen watchdogs; considering multiple viewpoints fairly; citizens considered experts on community values

3 thoughts on “Participatory wisdom and sustainability

  1. I have contributed to your work over many years, Tom, and am sorry that this year I don’t have any extra for you. Value and admire your work, creative talents, and quality thinking. I’m for a whole new world, really.

  2. Hello Tom,I haven’t read through it all, but there is something ‘bi-partisan’ about these ‘x versus y’… I think we have to go beyond these ‘versusses’… there is something beyond that. Wisdom is not versus folly; integrity is not versus corruption. Wisdom embraces more of the whole than folly… integrity is bigger in a way than corruption…philosophers call this new thinking ‘post-dialectical’ and I learned a whole lot from them (especially Bonnitta Roy). Wholeness, wisdom, collective wisdom, participating in life – it is all beyond the dialectical…With love,Ria

  3. Thanks, Ria. <br/> <br/>There’s always something beyond every polarity or category. "There’s always more to it than that." and "All maps are misleading; some are useful." I suppose my dichotomies would be better placed on a spectrum or in a Venn Diagram. But I do want to make a statement in this post about how wisdom differs from folly and integrity from corruption and, if we wish to have more wisdom and integrity in our public affairs, there are things we can do to further that goal. <br/> <br/>Wisdom is bigger than folly because wisdom learns from folly. But we can usefully contrast that quality of wisdom with the way folly doesn’t learn from folly. While I agree with you about the value of focusing on wholeness (and have lots of notes for a book on the subject), I have found that an awful lot of people can’t quite grasp where that is taking us. They need something to work with that doesn’t fuzz off (in their view) into philosophy. <br/> <br/>So I move to the awareness that wholeness – which includes EVERYTHING – includes polarities and dialectical dynamics, especially when they are framed in a way that doesn’t make someone or something evil but rather clarifies directions we can go for greater wholeness (even when that isn’t explicit). i try to walk that line in my work. It’s a fine line and my balance isn’t always good, so I sometimes fall off…

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