After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
We are Earth. We humans are Earth, Earthlings, what Octavia E. Butler called Earthseed—a variation of the mix of stardust, oxygen, cells, mating rituals, photosynthesis, and dirt that makes up everything on our planet. Our evolutionary ancestors developed a capacity to reason, which means that we have everything we need in order to find ways to be in an abundant relationship with a fertile planet that makes food from sunlight and cycles through endless iterations of beauty and regeneration.
Unfortunately, over the centuries, a growing number of us have come to feel superior to the other life-forms on this planet while simultaneously making decisions that endanger all life. In her collection Lilith’s Brood, Butler described our fatal human flaw as the combination of intelligence and hierarchy. We interact with the other species of Earth and with the planet itself as if they exist only to serve our greed, hunger, innovation, exploration, and assertions of dominance.
This is not universal, of course. We are a complex species with many many worldviews. However, the worldviews that have proliferated are those that center ownership, competition, supremacy, violence, and accumulation beyond need. And the project of the United States is the main concentration of violent values. What was rotten in Denmark, France, England, Spain, and Portugal was transported to the culture and institutions of the U.S. We are now in an age of consequences resulting from decisions made by those who relinquished a long view of human survival in favor of immediate glory and power.
The culture of emergent strategy is in many ways a critique, an oppositional culture to the capitalist, colonial living legacies of the nation and world.
Perhaps the simplest way to understand the essence of colonial culture is as destruction—destruction of Earth, destruction of communities and nations, and destruction of human bodies seen as lesser than by way of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or ability—uplifted as elegance, a scheme in which the art, design, and dominant story cloaks the violence of enacting moral and economic superiority. That culture of destruction is now in every single aspect of the U.S. experiment.
Our educational systems are set up to destroy what is unique in each of us, to teach us to police ourselves and others, and to standardize knowledge in a way that honors a limited definition of intelligence, thus creating a hierarchy of who is valuable and deserves to succeed. Our justice systems destroy our resilience, which means that our capacity to recover from harm and mistakes is constantly tested and attacked concurrent with whatever natural and unnatural disasters we must survive. Our economic system of racial capitalism destroys the threads of life and connection between us and the places to which we belong—the places that need our care and protection—and the threads of life and connection between us as a species.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Emergent strategy is an invitation into a cultural shift. According to Nick Obolensky, emergence is “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions.” It is the way our world unfolds, the way we move from single-celled organisms to nation-states. Strategy refers to how we must be and who we must become in order to navigate the constantly changing conditions of life on Earth. The culture of emergent strategy is in many ways a critique, an oppositional culture to the capitalist, colonial living legacies of the nation and world.
In this period of climate catastrophe, we must begin to grasp how our culture is not aligned with sustaining human life on Earth. And we must begin to, as Butler writes in her Parables series, “shape change” rather than seeing ourselves as helpless victims of change. We cannot control all of the conditions and consequences, both because of the power dynamics of our current societal structure and because of the humbling reality of being human. Emergent strategy is one way we can approach the difficult work of facing the consequences and committing to a survival that keeps us in a loving relationship with our home planet (even if we also end up taking root among the stars, which Butler posited as Earthseed’s destiny in her Parables series).
Toward a culture of planetary integrity—that is, toward wholeness and truthfulness in relationship to our only home—I offer these emergent strategy principles, as they tie into surviving climate catastrophes:
Adaptation with Intention.
We are an adaptive species in a constantly changing world. There are all kinds of adaptations we can make, but many of them reinforce our current power dynamics and harmful practices. The adaptation that aligns us with a future of justice and liberation is called a just transition. Change is inevitable; we have to find the ways to navigate it that are collective and visionary.
We don’t know when or where the next catastrophic moment will occur. In the weeks of brewing this essay, I have personally been in community with people evacuating hurricanes, flooded out of their homes, trying to move their families out of the path of a fire, adjusting planting schedule due to drought. It feels overwhelming, but we can be ready—or at least readier. We can begin to be in practices of community, mutual aid, communication, and resource distribution that will be reliable under changing pressures.
When it comes to climate, the element of interdependence is my bid for developing a post-nationalist worldview and perhaps even working to decentralize humans as what we are trying to save. We must begin to envision and practice a relationship with our place that isn’t reliant on or vulnerable to fickle and immature governmental bodies that remain wed to capitalist solutions when capitalism is what got us into this literal hotseat. We need to begin to practice democracy and cooperative economics among ourselves, caring for each other in ways that deepen our relationship to the planet as our home.
There are patterns of the world that repeat at scale—look at ferns, crowns of broccoli, look at the way water moves through deltas and the way blood moves through our bodies, look at our brains with their synapses like galaxies. What are the patterns of behavior and belief we need to practice at the smallest scale of relationships in order to create new collective patterns of survival and delight in our miraculous human experience?
There has been some resistance to this word lately, a feeling of resilience-exhaustion, as it is often those already most marginalized who are expected to continue bouncing back from one traumatic event after another. I want us to reclaim the heart of this word as one of the ways we understand our nature. Human nature involves change and suffering, but we can learn and grow from these experiences, be they movements, conflicts, or natural disasters. Transformative justice is a way we can practice resilience in our relationships with each other, and just transition is a way we can practice resilience in our relationship with our planet.
Creating More Possibilities.
This is the central work of each generation: to expand the field of possibility for the generations to come, weaving together the best practices and lessons from the generations that came before. In the face of narrowing minds and narrowing options for human survival, it is our purpose to create more possibilities. Some of those possibilities will come from technological evolution, but I suspect much more of it will come from an evolution of how we are in relationship with each other and from an evolution of spirit. Butler said, “kindness eases change,” and I often think of that when a massive adaptation is needed. My kindness to others in this moment of tension and uncertainty actually creates more possibilities for us to move into the future together.
I would add here that in each aspect of this change toward becoming a species with planetary integrity, we must really focus on “transforming ourselves to transform the world,” as Grace Lee Boggs taught us. It is not enough to have a scathing analysis of what others are doing, we must also be in rigorous and satisfying practice in our own lives. We must examine the carbon footprints of our own lives, organizations, and movements. We must adopt policies that are forward-thinking and aligned with the Earth and create a culture in which movements are living embodiments of the relationship we want to have with the Earth. We must bring these practices into our homes, our intimate relationships, our families, our religious institutions, our workplaces. We must bring our attention to the places we have power and capacity to grow and change and learn to trust our capacity to love the Earth, every day.
“The kind of change we are after is cellular as well as institutional, is personal and intimate, is collective as well as cultural. We are making love synonymous with justice.”