What is integral sustainability?

There are no formal definitions for integral sustainability that we know of. But, when we use the term "integral sustainability" we are expressing a somewhat complex idea.

Often when we talk about "sustainability", there are built-in assumptions about sustaining a particular bounded system or limited set of systems. As an example, recently we have heard commentators and pundits discuss financial sustainability, especially in light of the current state of the credit markets and, especially in the U.S. and Canada, the difficulties faced by the "big three" automobile manufactures. Thus, very often, the term sustainability is used in a very refined or narrow way. In fact, in my own experience, there may tend toward an "us" versus "them" component to the discussion of sustaining systems. We see this often in the language of terrorism and warfare, where sustaining national or cultural interests trump environmental or global humanitarian concerns.

My Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, from 1984, defines "integral" as "essential to completeness" and "lacking nothing essential". The word integral, as used by those of us at the California Institute of Integral Studies, tends toward the inclusion of multiple complex systems and looking at complex systems as wholes, or what have been referred to as "holons" (Fritjof Capra credits Arthur Koestler with this concept). Indeed, CIIS was formed as an institute of higher learning with the purpose of expanding the traditional western focus on, especially, the hard sciences, mathematics, and European-oriented humanities, to a more global perspective in higher learning that purposefully builds bridges between East and West, as well as including and honoring consciousness studies, the intuitive mind, and spiritual aspects of self, society, and culture within the larger Earth systems.

"Sustainability" is not defined by my twenty-four year old "new collegiate dictionary", but "sustain" is. I find it interesting and important that in the definition for sustain Webster's includes both what I consider to be positive and negative connotations of the word. In my own perception this is exceptionally pertinent in our efforts toward integral sustainability. Sustain is defined as "to give support or relief", "to supply with sustenance: nourish", "keep up, prolong", "to buoy up", and "to support as true, legal, or just". But, additionally, Webster's also defines sustain as "to support the weight of", "to carry or withstand (a weight or pressure)", "to bear up under" and to "suffer, undergo". Thus, integral sustainability includes, at least in my own perspective, bearing up under, and even suffering the consequences of a changing global environment, and therefore must include how those of us that are conscious of the problems facing our global community and environment bear up under what can often be very concerning and certainly quite depressing news, and what we purposefully do to nourish and to buoy up the well-being of earth systems as holons or gestalts.

It is my own view that integral sustainability, at its roots, grows out of a broad form of global, environmental, and cultural ethics in support of promoting ways of life praxis which sustain the global ecological, psychological, and cultural environments in ways that move toward a dynamic and holistic wellbeing; not simply supporting or sustaining a static or rigid way of life or perspective. To be sure, for many of us, integral sustainability is rooted in a broader conception of time. Some of us are not only interested in sustaining our "now". Rather, we often give our thoughts and actions perspective by considering how past generations would, or future generations will, judge our own, as well as our culture's and our species' actions. Thus, integral sustainability can be viewed as an active and dynamic ethical stance taken from a combination of multiple perspectives on our own actions today with respect to what is happening in the complex systems of our global environment with the purpose of promoting and sustaining health and well-being of the whole. ~GH

Allan Combs states about integral sustainability: "In my own thinking I tend to emphasize the four quadrants, following Ken Wilber's directive to optimize all four. This means optimizing the inner living world and the external physical and organic world. All aspects of reality, really. Another way to think about this is in terms of first, second, and third person perspectives: our inner individual experience, our shared interpersonal and community experience, and the objective world of nature."

Kelly Larson writes about integral sustainability, including the notion of "thrival", which blends the words thrive and survival into one: "In the most basic sense, I would define integral sustainability as the recognition that sustainability is part of the complex ecosystems that are our subjective and objective worlds, on the micro and macro levels. Thus integral sustainability is inclusive of the theory, practices, and actions that move us as a complex system toward greater thrival. The benefit, in my eyes, of integral sustainability is that it is not leaving anything out. So often we pursue one aspect of sustainability while blind to its effects on other aspects. With integral sustainability, we recognize the implications of personal health as well as global health, and we nurture a deep ecological sense of being as we take action. Thus we act in ways that are more informed and recognize the response-ability we have with our most basic steps."

Compiled by Gregory A. Hayes
California Institute of Integral Studies
Doctoral Student, Transformative Learning & Change
School of Consciousness & Transformation


Updated: December 6, 2008

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