Emergent Strategy

Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

“I read sci-fi and visionary fiction as political, sacred, and philosophical text, and I engage with others who read it that way,” writes adrienne maree brown, in this astonishing, radical, and humane book (39). brown uses the work of Octavia Butler—specifically, the concept of “shaping God” from the Earthseed verses in the Parables series—to document a strategy for building a healing and sustainable approach to the world. The book is meandering—fittingly, as she sketches out the elements and principles of what she calls “emergent strategy,” it’s only after reading and rereading many of her passages, incantations, and reflections that her ideas really begin to emerge. I found her philosophies about transforming the world compelling, but even more than that, I was awakened by her choice to read Octavia Butler as gospel.

Reading notes

Change is constant

adrienne maree brown outlines the principles of emergent strategy, drawing from the Earthseed verses in Octavia Butler’s Parables series, as well as other sources as diverse as Bruce Lee, Lao Tzu, and Rihanna:

Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)

Change is constant. (Be like water.)

There is always enough time for the right work.

There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.

Never a failure, always a lesson.

Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworty.)

Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.

Less prep, more presence.

What you pay attention to grows.

brown, Emergent Strategy, page 41

That brown draws these principles from so many different sources pretty much guarantees that they aren’t revolutionary; but I find myself returning back to the collection often, and thinking about what it means to commit not to any one of them, but to them all.

Practicing the future

We read fiction because it’s fun to read, of course; but enjoying it doesn’t obviate the need to understand how it works, and to recognize which stories do harm, and which might light a path to something better:

Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice. We are living now inside the imagination of people who thought economic disparity and environmental destruction were acceptable costs for their power. It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future. All organizing is science fiction. If you are shaping the future, you are a futurist. And visionary fiction is a way to practice the future in our minds, alone and together.

Visionary fiction is neither utopian nor dystopian, indeed it is like real life: Hard, realistic...Hopeful as a strategy. Visionary fiction disrupts the hero narrative concept that one person (often one white male, often Matt Damon) alone has the skills to save the world. Cultivate fiction that explores change as a collective, bottom-up process. Fiction that centers those who are currently marginalized—not to be nice, but because those who survive on the margins tend to be the most experientially innovative—practicing survival-based efficiency, doing the most with the least, an important skill area on a planet whose resources are under assault by less marginalized people. Visionary fiction is constantly applying lessons from our past to our future(s).

brown, Emergent Strategy, page 197

It’s notable here how brown calls out why fiction should center the marginalized: “not to be nice,” she says, or not because it’s the right thing to do, to correct a long held imbalance (which is, on it’s own, a very good reason), and not because it’s more interesting and breaks up the boredom of endless Matt Damons (which I would also posit is a perfectly good reason). But because doing so maximizes the opportunities for survival, by drawing from the experiences of people who by definition have to be more creative and resourceful with the few resources they have.

Not all good fiction meets brown’s criteria; but often the best fiction does, and we would be wise to consider what kinds of fiction we draw from (consciously or otherwise) when thinking about the future we want to live in.