Updated: May 25, 2019
Organic pima cotton seeds emerging on my windowsill as the gingko trees outside show signs of budding. (Photo: © 2016 B. Lorraine Smith)
In the land of systems thinking there is a principle called “emergence.” It refers to the interaction of the parts of a system, whereby characteristics arise that cannot be found in any of the system’s individual parts.
In other words: something new forms.
This word, “emergence,” reminds me a lot of its etymological relative, “emergency.” In fact, these two words are starting to blur for me, as I notice a lot of new things forming (emergences), sometimes in response to rather pressing and serious situations arising (emergencies). And in spite of sometimes feeling overwhelmed, I’m learning to love all this emergency.
Why? To be sure, the scope of the challenges that I and many of my colleagues are facing in the field of sustainable business — challenges such as human-caused climate change, ecosystem degradation, etc — have an emergency-like feel to them (because, well, they are emergencies). Further, this feeling of alarm has been fueled by—how shall I put it? — “current global political events,” coupled with a recognition that many seemingly political issues such as immigration, armed conflict, and inequality are ever more interconnected, and businesses are often involved in both the causes and the solutions (sometimes at the same time). It feels huge and messy.
Yet even though this is all very unsettling, I have learned that if I put my energy towards the promising emergences (which sometimes directly respond to the emergencies, though sometimes not), I discover that a new and better path is more present and real than I had initially understood.
In other words: I notice things are happening that will quite possibly change the world, fundamentally and for the better.
Energizing Good Energy
For example, it’s a bit a of meme these days to bash Big Oil and retweet pipeline protest news, and I get why (see also: “human-caused climate change”). But it turns out there is a lot more going on in our global energy system than incumbent fossil fuel majors building pipelines and hoping people get tired of protesting. There is well-funded, innovative thinking and action afoot to make our energy system resilient in a carbon-smart future. Imagine energizing that as it emerges. No protesting required.
Don’t buy it? Have a look at this video of the amazing work of the Energy Futures Lab in Alberta, Canada (scroll down a bit at that link). This is a collaboration funded by various actors, including government (that’s you, if you’re a Canadian tax-payer), universities, and even dreaded Big Oil. My favorite line from this video is: “…people who disagree with one another, working together…” I know some of these people. They are real and this is serious. Progress in this arena is really emerging.
Okay so maybe — maybe — a new and improved energy system will emerge but what good will this do us, if we’re awash in chemicals from all the stuff we consume, throw into our oceans, and worse? Hmm.
And yet again there is an emergence of sorts here, as leaders who make decisions affecting their companies’ actions and impacts blaze trails that the “chemically-concerned” among us would surely applaud, if we choose to notice.
This brief video featuring Patrick Thomas, CEO of a global chemical company that touches more value chains and products than one can imagine, gives a glimpse into what’s emerging. His company, Covestro, is serious about addressing global issues like climate change and pollution through better chemistry as the core strategy of their business. And Covestro is by no means alone on this journey. The amount of resources — human and financial — put behind these emergent practices is alarming, in a good way.
Where The Trees…
Then there are other really cool emergencies emerging more obviously in harmony with nature, where the trees are being tasked to help meet basic human needs in new and different ways. For example, consider this architectural feat currently under development in China. It involves erecting buildings that incorporate more than 20 tree species as part of the office and residential structures, creating urban forests like we have never seen before.
There are also more somber yet nevertheless hopeful emergencies, where the trees reveal their potential for surviving incredible stresses, only to reemerge with strength and resilience for generations to come. A soulful article by Joe Shorthouse, a Professor Emeritus in Biology at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ontario, sheds light on this particular emergence, comparing the adaptation of the trees of Northern Ontario after years of stress from the pollution of large mining concerns, to that of the sole surviving tree at the site of the 9/11 memorial here in New York. It’s these sorts of post-emergency emergences that really give me hope.
I may not always understand the ways in which new and different possibilities open up to gradually take hold and eventually become the norm. But I do recognize that this emergence is playing out around us, all the time. There is much to love in the emergency of it all.
Yours in connectedness,
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Banner photo: Organic pima cotton seeds emerging on my windowsill as the gingko trees outside show signs of budding. (Photo: © 2016 B. Lorraine Smith)
This piece first appeared as a Medium article in Februay 2017.