“Could tourism possibly create more value with fewer visitors, giving them the space to discover the things we want to share, the things that make us unique?”

This is the provocative question offered by Peter de Wilde, the director of regional tourism authority Visit Flanders. For the past two years, this inquiry has been at the center of the organization’s quest to reimagine their industry – a quest they’ve been calling “Tourism Transforms” in acknowledgement both of tourism’s potential to transform us and of the need to transform tourism.

And indeed, there can be no doubt that transformation of the industry is urgently needed. More and more areas around the world are suffering from over-tourism, with accompanying destruction of ecosystems and heritage artifacts, as well as disruptions to local quality of life. On top of that, the industry contributes 8% of carbon emissions globally, prompting a growing call for a halt to non-essential flights. Yet despite these pressures, international tourist travel continues to grow at a rate of 4% per year. In the first half of 2019, that meant 30 million more trips than the same period in 2018, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Clearly, something has to give.

The response among Destination Marketing Offices – in other words, among Visit Flanders’ peers around the world – has been to look for ways to divert tourists to less popular regions. But the model itself has remained unchanged. The conveyer belt that is the tourism industry is still going strong, continuing to churn ever more tourists through the ever more fragile human and more-than-human communities of the Earth.

In contrast, Visit Flanders has sought a more profound shift in practice and perspective, inspired by two influences in particular.

One is travel industry pioneer Anna Pollock of Conscious Travel, who has been speaking and writing on the future of tourism for decades and offering guidance to Visit Flanders for the past two years. Specifically, she introduced them to the concept of “flourishing destinations,” in which (1) places are recognized as living communities, with stories and patterns of aliveness; and (2) residents, enterprises, community, visitors and the ecosystem are all supported in their ability to thrive.

The other influence is Visit Flanders’ own Holiday Participation Centre, which focuses on ensuring that every citizen of Flanders has access to a vacation, regardless of disability or poverty. The underlying belief is that everyone has a right to a holiday, in the same way that many countries recognize a new mother’s right to maternity leave. Quite apart from the larger organization’s marketing activities, the Centre facilitates a network of more than 2,400 voluntarily participating service providers, partner organizations and citizens. Thanks to their collective efforts, more than 150,000 people experiencing poverty or disability are able to go on day trips or short holiday breaks in Flanders every year.

The lifeblood of this work – what feeds it and keeps it going – is the practice of “storyweaving.” Many of those who experience a holiday are thoughtfully interviewed about their experience, helping them reflect on and recognize what was meaningful and giving them the feeling of being seen and valued. Each account is crafted into a short, authentic story that portrays the renewing, transformative power of a holiday. And as those stories are shared across the network, commitment to the movement grows.

For Visit Flanders, these two influences – Anna Pollock’s concept of flourishing destinations and the Holiday Participation Centre’s place-based network of story-inspired collaboration and service – converged to create the sense that tourism may have the potential to be a powerful force for good.

In response, Visit Flanders launched the Tourism Transforms initiative, engaging in meetings with hundreds of tourism professionals; convening five think tanks; and conducting a listening survey eliciting more than 1,600 travel stories. The outcome has been an emerging intention to cultivate “meaningful encounters in flourishing destinations.”

To add more detail to that vision and to begin to build a movement around it, Visit Flanders collaborated with Pollock and others to convene a two-day summit called Travel to Tomorrow, bringing together close to 300 tourism professionals from across Western Europe. The video invitation (below) offers a beautiful reflection on what is needed and what is possible.

The summit featured international speakers (including me – here’s a video of my talk). But more importantly, it highlighted stories from local initiatives that were conceived and conducted in new ways. To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of World War I at Flanders Fields, for example, the local tourism office initially followed the conventional conveyer belt model: they created branding and signage that linked multiple sites together; they modeled the expected increase in visitors to ensure adequate local capacity; and they prepared to broadcast a marketing campaign across the globe. It was at that point that they were hit with a local newspaper article criticizing them for commercializing something so sacred and tragic, a sentiment that turned out to be widely felt. In response, the tourism authority made a bold move – bold because they didn’t know how it would turn out: they gathered local residents together in a series of open conversations about what this place and this anniversary meant to all of them; about what invitations they wanted to extend to the world; and about what principles they would have to abide by if the encounters were to be meaningful. The outcome was an explosion of sufficiently coherent yet entirely citizen-driven initiatives that were filled with personal connection and significance. In one case, visitors were offered poppy seeds and encouraged to plant them when they returned to their home places; the region’s Facebook page is now filled with images of poppies from around the world. In another example, hundreds of local volunteers gathered at dusk to stand along the former line of battle that snakes unmarked through the countryside; each person held a glowing torch, in a silent, solemn display.

Stories like these and those shared by the Holiday Participation Centre are fundamentally at odds with the concepts of “tourism” and “industry” – those lifeless abstractions that demand our subservience. As a bridge concept, Pollock talks about the “visitor economy,” inviting a focus on the human visitor. But the presence of “economy” reminds us that it is about money above all else. As tourists or visitors, we are encouraged to show up with our money and our immediate, uncompromising demands. Ours are the only needs and wants to be considered.

Yet a place is more than a destination for demanding tourists. It is first a story and a shared home. Or it could be, with some support. Many communities have been ravaged by individualistic capitalism. They don’t know who they are together anymore. They have lost touch with their shared story, with the soul of their place. But what we have seen in the examples of Flanders Fields and others is that it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Indeed, what if we talked not about the “local tourism industry” but about the “local hosting community”? Imagine if the emphasis were on helping hosts understand who they are together in community, in this place, at this time in history. Imagine if they could be brought together in regular reflection about the invitation they want to extend and what flourishing might look like for everyone involved. What if they could be supported in discovering “sufficiently coherent yet entirely citizen-driven initiatives that are filled with personal connection and significance,” as we saw with Flanders Fields? Imagine if a local self-organizing network could be enlivened and set into motion, powered by stories of meaningful encounter and transformation, as the Holiday Participation Centre has demonstrated? What if the mandate of Destination Marketing Offices changed from “marketing destinations” to “hosting the hosts”?

Such a shift in perspective has implications for those being invited, too. If you are hosting me for dinner, I will arrive with a certain measure of respect for you and your home. I will come ready to see the many gifts in the experience. This is quite a contrast to how I would show up to your home as a tourist, unthinking demands in hand, seeking only to extract and consume.

In these ways, our hosting and our visiting might become far more human, thoughtful and personalized. And importantly, we might feel less need to venture to places that require a carbon-heavy journey. We might discover that the rest and re-creation – the transformation through meaningful encounter – we’re looking for can be found close to home. As we work together locally to develop the skills and orientation of hosting visitors from afar, we may also find new openness to hosting our own neighbors in conversation and in shared participation in society, even when our opinions differ. We may also find that our hosting practice more readily extends to those who come not with money to spend but with need for refuge and support.

“If you ask me about the opportunities with regard to the tourism of the future,” says Chené Swart, author of Re-authoring the World and an advisor to the Holiday Participation Centre, “I think that tourism is part of a larger transformation across the world. It is coming back to the connections with one another, coming back to the connection with the earth. Then tourism will become participative citizenship.” Visit Flanders’ own Peter de Wilde adds, “I have hope, since every journey brings more tolerance and opens our minds to the rest of the world so that we know and recognize others and have a better understanding of what’s really precious.”

What are your thoughts and stories about the future of hosting?

I’ve just returned from a four-day strategic gathering focused on the global movement to regenerate the planet’s soils. By drawing down carbon and water, science – and practice – have shown that large-scale soil regeneration is the best way to reverse climate change, reduce droughts and flooding, support biodiversity, and improve the nutritional quality of our food. But such dramatic outcomes call for major changes in how we all interact with the land, particularly for farmers.

I came away from the strategic gathering with the sense that three things need to come together to support this massive transition. Read more

I decided to take a chance and ask the group of farmers a bold opening question. These times call for boldness, I find. And overalls notwithstanding, I had reason to believe there was more to these particular men and women than popular stereotypes would suggest. Read more

I was a little surprised to see this text that a conference organizer “helpfully” added to the description of the workshop I would be offering at his event:

“This is a practical course and not a discussion of theory. You exit this 90-minute Workshop with new knowledge, a step-by-step plan and tools you can use when you return to your leadership and coaching work.”

This conference organizer is also a friend and colleague, so I sent him a candid reply.

“I’m uncomfortable with the final couple of sentences you proposed,” I responded. “I find that theory and philosophy are underrated. That isn’t to say people won’t leave with concrete stuff to do, but I don’t like workshop and conference claims that boast – in male, chest-thumping ways – about being practical tools, in six easy steps, for real-world, concrete blah blah and not useless theory, discussion, philosophy. This whole orientation is part of what’s wrong in the world.” Read more

Historically, labor unions have existed to champion the rights and needs of individual workers. These days, there is widespread debate over whether they continue to play a useful role. But the question that may be even more timely and relevant is: what form of collective organizing is needed if we are to protect the rights and needs of all life? Can we expand the concept of “union” beyond those individuals directly involved in the work? Can we organize collectively in union – in communion, even – with everything that is alive, fully conscious of our deep interdependence? Read more

[Traduction par la merveilleuse Aimée LeBreton de Traditions Global Expressions, avec des conseils et des encouragements généreux de Gene Bergeron]

Je suis revenue depuis peu du Symposium Sols vivants organisé par Régénération Canada, auquel j’ai eu le privilège d’assister à titre de co-animatrice. En dépit de la grande fatigue que j’éprouve à la fin de ces quatre jours de rassemblement, je n’aurais voulu me trouver à nulle part ailleurs. Les méthodes de régénération de l’agriculture et d’aménagement des terres proposent la solution la plus prometteuse aux changements climatiques, quoiqu’elle soit possiblement la plus méconnue. Elle propose d’activer la capacité innée des sols sains à séquestrer des milliards de tonnes de carbone chaque année. Cette pratique offre également la possibilité de contrer de nombreux enjeux, dont l’insécurité alimentaire, la pollution et la pénurie de l’eau, la perte de biodiversité, la désertification et les risques à la santé publique. Contrairement aux méthodes conventionnelles d’agriculture qui détériorent activement les sols, les méthodes régénératrices sont axées sur la création de conditions qui favorisent le développement sain des microorganismes vivants dans le sol. Il s’agit de travailler avec plutôt que contre la vie. Pour toutes ces raisons, le Symposium a attiré 500 participants, dont des agriculteurs, des éleveurs de bétail, des transformateurs alimentaires, des détaillants, des scientifiques, des journalistes, des bailleurs de fonds et des décideurs politiques, tous empreints d’un sentiment d’urgence et d’un espoir prudent. Read more

I’ve just come from co-hosting Regeneration Canada’s Living Soils Symposium. As tired as I feel right now at the end of the four-day gathering, there’s nowhere else I would have chosen to be. Regenerative approaches to agriculture and land management offer the most promising – and perhaps least known – solution to climate change, activating healthy soil’s ability to sequester billions of tons of carbon each year. These practices also have the potential to address food security, water pollution and scarcity, biodiversity loss, desertification, public health, and more. Unlike conventional methods of agriculture that actively degenerate soil, regenerative approaches focus on creating the conditions for the living microorganisms in the soil to thrive. It’s about working with life instead of against it. For all these reasons, the Symposium attracted 500 farmers, ranchers, food processors, retailers, scientists, journalists, funders, policymakers and others, each with a sense of urgency and cautious hope.

Over the four days, there were many separate sessions covering a range of topics and practices. But in conversations between sessions, I heard one frequent refrain: we understand the importance and value of regenerative approaches to soil; but how do we convince the others? How do we get them – consumers, politicians, retailers, but most of all farmers – to change their thinking and behaviors? Read more

The most important thing we can do right now, individually and collectively, is to change the game we’re playing.

“The game we play” is another way of thinking about the story or worldview we’re living out. Adopting a new game (or worldview) changes the conversations we have and the questions we consider worthy of exploring. It alters what seems reasonable to do, or not do. It changes who gets to play the game and who controls the bank.

For decades (if not centuries), much of human civilization has been structured as if it were one big game of Monopoly, where hoarding is the aim and beating down all the other players is the winning strategy.

And that has brought us to where we are now: the edge of extinction.

Clearly, what we need is a game whose very rules and structures don’t lead inexorably to ecological collapse, social turmoil and personal trauma. A game that instead puts us in natural alignment with life’s universal design principles.

You’d think that would be The Game of Life (pictured above). But alas: that one is just another hoarding, dog-eat-dog competition.

Apparently, we need to get more specific: we need a game whose objective is enabling life – all life– to thrive.

Let’s imagine that we might call this game “Thrivability.” Instead of hoarding, the goal of this game is healing, a word whose root is “to make whole.” “Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity,” as I wrote elsewhere. “Healing our hearts and bodies. Healing our relationships with each other and with the Earth’s countless other species. Healing the soils and the waters. Healing our communities.”

Within this game, the playing field is understood to be our every organization, institution and community as living systems within the larger living biosphere.

Instead of beating down all the other players – and all other forms of life – the winning strategy in the game of Thrivability is to cultivate the fertile conditions for all life to thrive, as an ever-expanding, ever-evolving practice.

Where the inevitable dynamic of Monopoly has proven to be reductionist, channeling wealth to the very few, Thrivability is expansive, creating ever more possibilities and more wealth, in all its forms, for all. That is the true nature of nature, after all: to be generative and even re-generative, creating ever more diversity, connection and possibility.

No matter what your context, no matter what the scale, this is the game you need to be playing from now on.This is the game we need to structure our civilization around.

If we don’t fully understand the nature and rules of this new game, then we risk making only incremental change within the same old game of Monopoly – adding more energy-efficient houses and hotels or swapping out the Community Chest cards for a digital version. These piecemeal adaptations won’t get us where we so urgently need to go.

To avoid that shortfall, I offer these five simple rules for playing the game of Thrivability, as I understand it. They can be summarized as: (1) the informed (2) intention (3) and practice of (4) stewarding (5) life.

Here’s how that breaks down.

Rule #1: Get informed:What does it mean for life to thrive – and what does it take? If we’re going to create the conditions for thrivability, we’re going to need some information about what that involves. Some kind of theory of change will be useful.

To get there, we can find guidance in models and frameworks, in our own experiences and intuitions, in conversations, in art and poetry, in indigenous languages and perspectives, in nature, in spirituality, in many things. Each of us will have our own ways of exploring and integrating the emerging, expanded story of life. Here’s a link to my version of life’s universal design principles, as they appear in our organizations, communities and economies. Find what seems like useful guidance for you.

Rule #2: Set a Clear Intention:If we don’t aim for thriving, we’ll never get there. As a civilization and as organizations and individuals, we are generally setting our sights on something far less than thriving and, as a result, we’re falling catastrophically short of that goal. Instead, we need to hold the explicit intention to enable thriving for ourselves and for the whole community of life. This objective has to be front-and-center in everything we do – in every conversation, every meeting, every project, every strategic plan. Life is the new bottom line.

Rule #3: Embrace the Ongoing Practice:We don’t play the game of Thrivability to get to some end-point or to “win.” Instead, thrivability is an ongoing design practice, a continuously unfolding inquiry, in which we ask: “What would bring the most life to this situation? What conditions are needed in this moment, within these circumstances, to support life’s ability to thrive as fully as possible at every level?”

Inspired by these questions, we can design and prototype new structures and systems to hold, nurture and propel us – and all life. We can imagine new ways of being together in community, in organization, in family, in learning. And we can celebrate, let go of and mourn the structures and systems that no longer serve us fully, creating space for new life to emerge in their place.

At the foundation of our design practice is a personal practice, like a martial arts or spiritual practice. In this way, thrivability is a craft developed over time. It is the lifelong journey of growing into wisdom, compassion and the ability to sense what is needed and to respond with effective action.

Rule #4: Step into a Stance of Stewardship: In our civilization-wide game of Monopoly, we’ve seen ourselves as managers, controlling the pieces on the board, moving along a simple, linear trajectory. In the game of Thrivability, we recognize that life is complex, emergent and self-organizing. It can’t be controlled, but it can be invited and nurtured. And so our role is to be gardeners and stewards, listening for what we are called to care for and tending to life’s fertile conditions with reverence and responsibility.

Rule #5: Honor Life:In stark contrast to Monopoly’s single-minded worship of money, the game of Thrivability is most of all an acknowledgement of the precious gift of aliveness, source of our kinship with all existence. To play this game is to savor the experience of life – the joy, the pain and everything in between.

These are the rules of the game of Thrivability, as I understand them. Embracing these rules changes both the nature and the quality of our conversations, as we ask in every setting and every sphere of our lives: “How can we enable as much thriving as possible?”

As I write in my book, The Age of Thrivability:

“We need to see ourselves more fully as active stewards of life’s unfolding process and as part of a larger living world. With this broader view, we can see that our organizations [and communities] have the potential to be places where we are nourished by our relationships and by the opportunity to contribute and develop our gifts…. Where we can experience beauty, wholeness and healing within our communities and our workplaces. Where we can grow into wisdom alongside each other, with trust that this is the most direct path to effective action. And where these are the express purposes of coming together.”

Who’s ready to play?

Our economic belief system is designed around hoarding – accumulating ever more stuff, in constant fear of not having enough and especially of not having as much as our peers. And look where that’s gotten us: to the edge of extinction, among other ills.

In place of hoarding, what if we designed for healing?

The root of the word is “to make whole.” Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity.

Healing our hearts and bodies. Healing our relationships with each other and with the Earth’s countless other species. Healing the soils and the waters. Healing our communities.

If we tune in, we all know intuitively where healing is needed and where we can contribute. We are wired to care, unless our belief system tells us we should not.

What would feel healing and nourishing to you today?

What if the next conversation you have with someone contributes to just a little healing? What would that look like? It might be as simple as a smile or a thoughtful question. Or it might be more profound.

What if our every purchase were guided by the opportunity to contribute to healing? What would you buy? How would you buy it? Maybe you would recognize that, as I wrote, it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur,” and so you would buy something locally.

What if each meeting were designed as an experience of healing? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. I wrote about it here.

What if each company dedicated itself to offering healing to people and planet, in its own special way? Patagonia, Interface and others are leading the way. Regenerative farmers, too.

What if elected officials saw themselves most of all as healers, creating more wholeness for citizens and communities through connection, participation and maybe even play? The UK offers a pioneering example – not at a national level but in its local community efforts.

From hoarding an ever-expanding quantity of stuff to cultivating an ever-deepening quality of healing. From fear of never having enough to delight and curiosity in discovering what more is possible.

Let’s design for that.

“Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

This is what the “mother” had told them.

My client was a small, dynamic company that produced kombucha, a natural fermented drink believed to have significant health benefits. The group had asked me to help them figure out how to respond to a huge upsurge in demand without losing the soul of their beautiful little company.

What I loved about these people was their embodied connection with life and living systems principles. After all, kombucha is a living product, made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that forms a gelatinous substance known as a “mother.” Great personal and ongoing care goes into tending to the mother, since it (she?) is what actually does the work of producing the kombucha.

As the group explored various ways forward, one of the questions I invited them to reflect on was, “What would the mother advise?” And the answer that emerged from their reflection, as if in a clear and gentle voice, was: “Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

Was that even an option?

It was a shocking, unsettling message. And yet its wisdom was undeniable.

As the group wrestled with this advice, their exploration led them to the compelling option of propagatingrather than growing. They excitedly imagined cultivating a network of local partners: small brewpubs housed in hubs of entrepreneurship, creativity and conversation, in which kombucha infuses the space — and the community — with health and inspiration. What if, instead of gathering around alcohol, people could gather around a healthful drink? What if kombucha’s unusual collaboration between bacteria and yeast – hostile to each other in other circumstances and conditions – could be offered as an inspiring metaphor for our own potential to collaborate across difference? Instead of the soulless, over-prescribed franchise model, what if their network of partners could be locally responsive and self-organizing, like kombucha itself? Instead of simply growing their own production capacity and wealth, what if the group could grow the generative capacity of their company – its ability to generate new possibilities, new offshoots, new life? And rather than making them sick, what if such a move actually had a regenerative effect, making them and the community more healthy and whole?

None of this vision could have come into view without first expanding the group’s understanding of what it means to be a company. Rather than something fundamentally separate from the people within it – simply a production and output machine that must be grown at all costs – they came to see their company as something personal, alive and embedded in a living world.

Their experience begs the question: what other possibilities lie beyond the limits of our existing assumptions about growth?

And in fact, the region of Flanders in Belgium is engaged in just such an inquiry. My friend Anna Pollockhas been working with VisitFlanderson what she calls “regenerative tourism.” As part of the project, CEO Peter De Wilde recently narrated this breathtaking video about their project, Travel to Tomorrow. Growth in tourism, he says, “means lots of money, true, and… is that always a good thing? Perhaps the cost is higher than we might expect.”

“Could tourism possibly create more value with fewer tourists. Giving them the space to discover the things we want to share. The things that make us unique.”

“Who are we, the people who live and work here? Generous givers, who really want to enrich one another? Or do we just want to make ourselves rich?”

Just a few years ago, those questions would have been unthinkable.

Unlike the kombucha company, the team at VisitFlanders doesn’t have answers yet. Their destination remains undefined. But importantly, they’ve launched an ambitious campaign to engage people across Flanders in meaningful conversation to imagine together what more is possible, beyond assumptions of growth at all costs.

Here in Quebec, we can see growth for its own sake in the plague of blue-green algae we’ve experienced in our lakes in recent summers. Over-fertilized by human activity, the algae takes up all the oxygen, preventing other species from thriving. The water becomes toxic to all forms of life, including humans. This is where we find ourselves with today’s monopolies, mega-banks and ubiquitous franchise chains. At some point, scale and efficiency become degenerative rather than regenerative, actively working against life’s ability to thrive.

If we don’t pause to shake loose the assumptions that guide our actions, then we won’t see the many unimagined options available to us. We’ll continue to operate within the same ruts that are leading us steadily toward destruction, despair and ecosystem collapse. In place of growth as our goal, why not aim for more learning, more creativity, more love? Why not set our sights on thrivability, actively cultivating life’s ability to thrive wherever we find it?