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Sustainability as an Emergent Property: What Can We Learn from the Super-Organisms?

Leafcutter ants are one of several species that use leaves to fuel massive underground fungus gardens, which the ants use for food. | Image credit: Wolfgang Hoffman

In the ongoing drive to create and communicate about sustainability in the emerging economy, it can be useful to conceive of sustainability not as a quantifiable end goal, but as an emergent property. An emergent property arises when individual components or actions, combined together, collectively generate a higher-level aggregate experience. Think democracy. Or plague. Or community. One does not "do" sustainability anymore than one "does" community. One co-creates community through all of the little deeds — hosting the potluck, planning the carpool, sharing the tool shed. Like community, sustainability — or any emergent property — arises out of the contributions made and conditions created in service of a shared reality.

Those of us in the business of sustainability therefore find ourselves, at least partially, in the business of emergence. This fact has two implications for our work. The first is that sustainability, like any emergent property, must be developed collectively. Like an ant in his colony, the individual's primary value is as a component of the whole. The second implication is that sustainability, as an emergent property, cannot be mandated from above. It arises, to some extent inexplicably, from the ground up.

Let's look more closely at each of these implications. First off, when it comes to sustainable branding, there is really no point in doing what brands typically do, which is to claim and defend their attributes, to cordon off their consumer fan base, to tout their carbon-offsetting athleticism. Competition is the enemy of emergence. Instead, we strategists must continue to share our intelligence rather than stockpile it. We must create buzz and benefit for the other guy as much as for ourselves. For sustainability to take on a life of its own, for it to truly become emergent, our success must be shared.

Similarly, we have to at least match, if not exceed, our "top-down" mentality with a "bottom-up" orientation. As CSR professionals we should spend as much time on our ground game as we spend on formulating new mandates. While conservation and compliance are an important step in the right direction, they are precisely that — mere steps on our shared migration away from an exploitative economy and toward an interdependent one. In an exploitative economy, mandates are essential in order to curb, check and control a culture of extraction. In an interdependent economy, choices are driven by an instinctive understanding of "simple rules," the encoded behaviors that drive the swarms, flocks, schools and colonies that we are so desperately trying to protect.

We could learn a thing or two from the collective creatures, the super-organisms, for whom emergence is no big deal or whom sustainability is given, understood and inevitable. The bees that pollinate half of our food supply never collect more nectar than they need. Stockpiling is impossible; the size and structure of the hive will not tolerate unnecessary excess. Schools of fish don't swim. Swimming is inefficient. Instead, they surf, reading and riding the others' vortices and creating their own collective currents. Ants build intricate, customized cities one grain of dirt at a time, without blueprint or architect. What's more, one ant species farms mycelium, the fungus of life, carrying and cultivating strands of hyphae in their nests. Some ants "keep" aphids as insect livestock, living off their nutritious secretions. So not only are they builders, these tiny ants are farmers and ranchers. But unlike us, their work aerates and enriches the soil instead of depleting it. As a species, these ants, and many other species like them, have mastered the art of ground-up generativity, of creating more life out of the life they are given.

One look at the teeming world beneath our feet reminds us that the emergent property of sustainability is already there. The thirty million species with whom we share the planet are already embedded in a successful, sustainable system. We humans are the only species that does not already run on renewable energy, slow food, green chemistry, locally sourced materials, and closed supply loops. Our opportunity now as businesspeople is to give sustainability its full billing, to bring about its emergence because of us, rather than in spite of us.

We may never embody the collective intelligence of hive mind, of the starling swarm, even of the slime mold. We are young yet as humans, new players in a 4.5 billion year project. But we're migrating in the right direction. Our instincts are kicking in. The very existence of this vibrant community of sustainable brands means that an emergent property is taking hold of us, inspiring us to share our resources, our intelligence, and our audiences. It is inspiring us to bring the ends of our supply chains together to form closed loops. It is requiring us to comply, yes, but we don't just stop with compliance. Instead, like ants building a colony, we busy ourselves with the creation of ever-more efficient and elegant products, processes, and best practices.

As we analyze and strategize, as we conserve and count, as we convene and conference, let us remember this: We are in the emergence business. The emergent property that we wish to bring about already successfully exists. All we have to do is find and follow the vortices of our better nature, of the better nature of business, and let the current flow.


Victoria Kindred Keziah is a twenty-year brand strategist committed to serving organizations that are in the business of meaningful change.  She provides comprehensive brand strategy for the paradigm-shifting, change-making, long-term-thinking brand leaders that the world needs now.  From 1995 to… [Read more about Victoria Kindred Keziah]