Wars still bring suffering to thousands, leading to desperate people fleeing to “safer” lands, often to find themselves the victims of racism and prejudice. Meanwhile, other refugees attempt to flee (especially from low-lying island states) the consequences of climate change – only to have climate-change deniers in public office ask that we bury our collective heads in the sand. In other parts of the world people are faced with multi-emergencies of deforestation, soil erosion, removal from ancestral lands, famines and drought.
Closer to home we notice that the emergencies of homelessness, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, depression or poverty, continue to plague our cities and rural communities.
Yes – the emergencies still exist. If we cast our glance forward in time we may perceive them getting worse, deepening, or becoming more entrenched. The multi-emergencies do not seem to be going away now or in the near future.
How do we face this then? Like Janus (the Roman god who gave us the name for January) we could look in either of two directions. We could look at these emergencies with despair and grief or we could face the other way and look at emergence.
There is only one letter difference between the words emergency and emergence, but there is a significant difference in how we perceive things and act on them. One tells us to analyse, plan a response, predict outcomes, implement strategies, and control the future in such a way that the emergencies will go away. This is the tired approach of technocratic innovation and intervention. We have been travelling this road for many years. We have not solved the emergencies with this approach; indeed, this approach has often only generated new emergencies.
Facing the other way, however, we work with the theory of emergence. Emergence may be well known within mathematical and scientific circles but it is still little understood, or applied, within social change movements, yet the theory has relevance here also.
What is it? Very briefly, emergence is a process whereby structures, patterns or properties arise through a self-organising process with the “outcome” not being able to be predicted from an understanding of the component parts. Take a very simple example. Here are two common chemical elements: sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). Sodium by itself is a whitish colour and, as most school pupils know, reacts explosively with water. Chlorine is a yellow-greenish, poisonous, foul-smelling gas. Neither sound particularly pleasant do they? But, what happens when you combine them to get NaCl? We all know this as common salt – something we sprinkle on fish n chips or use to flavour our cooking. A knowledge of each of these substances (Na and Cl) by themselves gives us no indication of their emergent property. That is emergence.
Emergence then is:
- Self-organising, meaning that it is a bottom-up process rather than a top-down one,
- Non-linear (i.e. it is not a simple cause-effect relationship),
- It can often be spontaneous,
- Small differences in initial conditions can produce vastly different outcomes.
How do we create those spaces? Well, that’s the subject of a book to be published later this year. Look out for it! In the meantime, here are some hints:
- Think with hearts as much as minds.
- Tap intuition.
- Develop empathy, trust, compassion, forgiveness.
- Learn to let go and go with the flow (but not in some laid-back, who-cares, way).
- Truly listen to one another – not just our friends and acquaintances, but also “strangers” and even “enemies.”
- Network, network, network. Join the dots, make the connections.
- Re-connect with nature.
- Journey into a discovery of self.
- Get creative.
Emergence – a challenging idea. Emergence – an exciting pathway. Emergence – a possible antidote to multi-emergencies.