Emergent Strategy—What Nature’s Underdogs Can Teach Us about Surviving Against the Odds

. November 30, 2018.

Writer and Detroit-based black community activist adrienne maree brown envisions a better future built not through the strategies of charismatic leaders, but through collective work from everyone. In Emergent Strategy, brown, who chooses not to capitalize her name, doesn’t downplay the extent of the world crisis, nor does she get bogged down in pessimism. Instead, she draws inspiration from many sources to present a vision of how humans can draw from the natural patterns of the world to adapt to change. She’s influenced by the philosophy laid out in Octavia Butler’s Parable series. The basic idea: We can’t escape change, but we can try to shape it as it shapes us.

Looking for another experience

brown is an avid science fiction fan who finds in the genre inspiration for how to collectively “practice the future”. We could use the practice. The future today can appear grim, and it’s tempting to mentally check out rather than struggle toward something better. brown started reading science fiction when her family moved back to the southern United States from Germany. As a Black girl, she says that the cultural shift and white supremacist norms she witnessed in the American south made her long for another experience. Reading Butler’s novels opened her up to other possibilities, because Butler wrote science fiction starring young Black women who were working toward a better world. “I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination,” brown writes, “and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”

brown’s understanding of emergence was shaped by Detroit author and activist Grace Lee Boggs, whose organizing was focused on grassroots leadership, built from the small-scale up. Emergence is a concept used across many disciplines, from evolutionary biology to architecture, to explain how complex systems arise out of small interactions in what looks like chaos.

Resilience in the face of drastic change

Much of the book is built around the idea of biomimicry, or the application of biological processes to the man-made world. Humans have always used nature to shape our self-image, and brown notes that while we tend to relate most to apex predators like wolves and lions, animals at the top of the food chain are among the most vulnerable to environmental destruction and climate change. Instead, brown draws her lessons from the bottom of the food chain; species that look weak, but show resilience in the face of radical environmental change. She examines ferns and fungus, ants and starlings, searching for what makes their groups succeed and how humans can incorporate those traits to improve our own chances of survival.

In each chapter, she ties those elements to lessons from her years of activism, as well as the thoughts of other organizers, writers, and religious thinkers. For instance, in the chapter titled “Resilience,” she jumps from mushrooms that turn toxic waste into nourishment to the way that emergent strategy manifested in the German soccer team at the World Cup, and then brings them both into a discussion on transformative justice.

Facilitating activism

brown says that Emergent Strategy is ultimately about facilitation, which she defines as the art of “making it easier for humans to work together and get things done.” If the first half of the book is a zoom-out, looking at broader patterns, the second half zooms in, with activities for the reader to put emergent strategy principles into practice and improve the sustainability of individual and collective work. If you find yourself paralyzed by the news, Emergent Strategy can offer hope. It’s a book worth returning to over years, as we build our communities into a world we want to live in.

Currently, adrienne maree brown’s work is focused on black community activism and organizing. For more information about how to engage with brown and her work, go to her website adriennemareebrown.net and FaceBook page facebook.com/adriennemaree.

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