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  • Writer's picturekarri winn


Updated: Jul 18, 2018

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.” Ivan Illich, Introduction to Tools for Conviviality

In 1987 I was passionately impregnated by the beauty of southern Africa, which led me onto a path of inquiry first in environmental studies and then quickly to the social science of human community development. This led me to study decision-making, systems thinking, complexity science, holism and purpose-based critical reasoning.

During research for my graduate thesis “Cultural Resources, Autonomy and Sustainable Development”, I traced the evolution of the concept, sustainability, over 500 years to the present in the Western paradigm. Despite the Brundtland Commission’s definition “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future (1987)”, something was askew.

Already in the days before wide diffusion of web-based content that we enjoy today, there were myriad definitions and meanings of sustainability. In 1996, I remember reading an article that had made an inventory to date of 486 definitions. This number, 15 years later, has grown logarithmically.

My interpretation of why this is so is that the very notion of sustainable development-cum-sustainability is an example of what Daly and Cobbs call misplaced concreteness (For the Common Good, 1989). That is, sustainability conjoined to the idea of development –is not a true theory of the future.

Sustainable development was born as a well-intentioned response by Western aid to the fact that development [sic] was not yielding results. Widespread poverty, disease, malnutrition, child mortality, improper housing, conflict et al continued to escalate despite Western development aid and intervention, which is why the Brundtland Commission was formed and concluded that we need a development that is sustainable.

The origin of sustainable development was aimed at addressing the human condition and it was born before any geo-politically significant discourse synthesizing human development with environmental health. However, the origins of this idea have been widely forgotten in the West where sustainability has become synonymous with the management of natural resources; that is, sustainability has simply supplanted environmentalism.

And during this short time, while humanity’s progress has been beyond any kind of imagination, the price of civilization is impressively daunting. We are facing unprecedented global ecosystem decline, we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction and every two weeks we lose another language of the human family – this is like the library of Alexandria in a perpetual fire.

To be developed has become the default purpose for humanity, which means ironically, we, the West, exist sans purpose having already achieved.

Moreover, and I think more relevant to humanity is the fact that civilization, development and sustainability are Western ideas. This is not to imply that they are bad but that they represent only one culture’s belief system.

And yet we know that belief affects ideation and perception directly; we know that multiple views and perspectives increase creativity and enhance solutioneering.

In all of these ideas and across the wide scope of my research, one book remains outstanding, Tools for Conviviality (1992) by Ivan Illich. I first read this in 1996 and it was only this past year that the idea of conviviology emerged.

Illich defines conviviality as the capacity to live within and among one another in relationship to the natural scale and limits of a place.

Conviviology is the applied science of conviviality, that in my mind would address the watershed question,

  • How do we, a globally diverse and distributed humanity living in myriad ecosystems share a single precious planet?

  • How do we integrate oral and a-oral cultures, diverse spiritualties, epistemologies / worldviews without being hegemonic or utterly destructive of earthly life + systems?

Conviviology, the science of conviviality, in my mind is the ultimate social science. It requires participation from every human being cultural viewpoint and a rich understanding of nature and place. Inherently, it is a study of relationships; conviviality is the artful expression of understanding relationships applied to the optimization of human potential and ecological resilience.

Based on the premise that all life, indeed the universe writ large, is interpenetrated, interdependent, interrelated and co-evolutionary, conviviology as a science synthesizes diverse knowledge sets including (and not limitWant to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon.ed to) the fields of phenomenology, philosophy, semiotics, systems thinking, complexity science, sociology, biology, somatics, quantum mechanics, biomimicry, human potential, psychology, global/community development, ecological economics, indigenous knowledge systems, critical thinking, creativity, neuroscience, epistemology and spirituality.

A convivial scientific framework would allow in an unprecedented way, for diverse peoples to begin to create a truly shared vision for the future that would be modern without imperialistic virtues. Through such a framework, we could endeavour to create a new raison d’être for humanity, a purpose that allows all cultures to flourish.

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