There is no doubt we are live in challenging times. There is a 93% chance that the planet will be more than 4ºC warmer than today by 2100. June was the hottest recorded month ever. The hottest single day was so intense that temperatures were as much as 10ºC higher than normal across France, Germany, northern Spain and Italy. In 2009, the Four Degrees Beyond International Climate Conference in Oxford, attended by 140 scientists, government, NGOs and private sector, concluded that a planet that is 4ºC warmer may only be survivable by small, resilient and indigenous groups of people like the Inuit or the Kuna in Central America.
We need a 20% decline in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2037 to hold an increased global temperature of 2ºC and we need to halve our GHGs every 7 years: this means a reduction of 4 billion tonnes of CO2 annually by 2040. Confronting the possibility of our extinction is an intelligent response – it is imperative that we challenge and awaken people – to use the language of Cultural Emergence. Yet for those of us who are already informed and activated, we also need to balance the science and our sense of urgency with tested strategies and solutions. I am concerned when the language of Climate Emergency and Deep Adaptation is predominantly fear based. Terror can paralyse and we need to also think in terms of Climate Emergence.
Whilst we have to face facts and rebel, we need to communicate a toolkit and skill set of both ecological and psychological resilience. If we promulgate a vision of the future that is beset by fear, then we risk terrifying and disempowering a new generation of activists. Yes, we are in a political and ecological emergency: our politicians fiddle with national matters whilst the planet burns. We urgently need to build a coherent pathway to a zero carbon world, and we need to do this calmly and strategically. When we respond to any emergency from a place of fear and anxiety, we are not at our optimum. We therefore need to gather our resources, anchor ourselves and strategise. Whilst expressing urgency, we also need to communicate the many low and zero carbon skills and technologies that we know are effective and create a roadmap towards a coherent, interconnected vision for the future.
Living systems have emergent properties: they are greater than the sum of their parts. They contain flows and feedback loops and are never static. The natural world is made up of systems, from the minutiae of electrons within an atom, and atoms in compounds, to larger organisms and ecosystems, to planetary and solar systems. Take water, for example. Comprising of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen, H2O is more than its sum and can be a liquid, gas or solid. Examples of emergent living systems in the natural world are phenomena like the murmuration of birds, swarms of honeybees, and tornadoes. Emergent properties beget entirely new properties and new behaviours ‘emerge’, with no one directing and no one able to foresee the new characteristics from knowledge of the constituents alone. In the human world, cities self-organise as they grow and become emergent. As communities shift and change, new fusions of art, music, food and culture emerge. Neighbourhoods are created as new people from different cultures move in (like Stoke Newington in London or the Bronx in New York, the home of hip hop)
Our brains are also an extraordinary example of emergent properties. Several billion neurons relay messages across synapses collectively firing and creating the conscious mind. Yet consciousness cannot be defined as solely the collective interaction of neurons. People who have technically died and are revived (Near Death Experiences) can sometimes recall the scene of their death from above or remember word for word conversations of bystanders at the scene. Consciousness is the ultimate emergent experience, and we use such a small proportion of our large brain. There is potential for emergent human evolution.
In order to avoid our collective extinction we need to harness zero carbon skills, technologies and techniques fast. Many are already known to us. You can find the top 100 carbon conserving and sequestering solutions at www.drawdown.org. Some, like marine permaculture, are nascent, and some techniques are not fully understood yet. For example, permaculture design applied to a farm with forest gardens, hugelkulturs and biointensive beds sequesters far more carbon than expected. This demonstrates that when we design systems holistically and develop relationships between beneficial nodes in those systems, emergent properties arise like exponential carbon sequestration.
Whilst we face dire challenges, we must not panic or dive deep into depression and disempowerment. We need to dedicate ourselves to the lifelong study and practice of regenerative solutions and psychological resilience, remembering that the ‘more than human’ world is intelligent, sentient and has experienced millions of years of evolution. As relative newcomers to the planet, we are best served by learning from Nature, thinking in cycles and systems, and laying foundations to create cultures of emergence.