Power to the People | Sustainability

As we think through the lessons we have learned over the past four years, one thing is quite clear: the way “we’ve always done things” is not sustainable for the well-being of our communities. We need to seek out those patterns that are emerging to systemically change the policy landscape of our society, economy and the environment and respect that leadership may look different in the coming years.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich head shot

As we think through the lessons we have learned over the past four years, one thing is quite clear: the way “we’ve always done things” is not sustainable for the well-being of our communities. We need to seek out those patterns that are emerging to systemically change the policy landscape of our society, economy and the environment and respect that leadership may look different in the coming years.

 

LESSONS FROM NATURE

Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.

Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, an evolutionary biologist and author of TEEMING: How Superorganisms Work To Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World notes that our systems—such as our two-party dominant political system and our bottom-line-centered economic system—are close to breaking down, at a time when we can least afford for them to.

What can we learn from other collaborative species that take very different approaches?

Ant colonies have existed for 150 million years, termites for a quarter of a billion years, and vast, thriving fungal networks have existed underground for more than half a billion years. They all have something in common: they do not rely on a single leader, or hierarchies of command. They are “superorganisms” - flat and flexible biological networks that behave as one creature. Dr. Woolley-Barker notes that any particular ant isn’t too impressive by itself, but together, the colony is intelligent, agile, resilient, and innovative—everything we’d like our organizations to be. These networks are hugely successful.

The secret to their success, says Dr. Woolley-Barker, is flexible intelligence: “…they work in flat, bottom-up networks, sensing and responding to real-time conditions on the frontlines. They don’t filter out diverse signals—they actively seek them out.”

Distributed leadership and collective intelligence will be a way we can thrive, despite the breakdown of political norms. Ants and honeybees don’t wait for an order, there is no prescribed plan. They have a shared goal to make each generation more successful than the last and use a simple set of rules to do so.

 

LESSONS FROM THE JUST TRANSITION

The Just Transition is a framework that provides structure for thinking through social interventions to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production to combat climate change and protect biodiversity. Joe Concra is the executive director of the O+ Festival which works to create events that provide a platform for underinsured artists and musicians, who create and perform in exchange for a variety of services donated by doctors and dentists. In a recent interview with The Guardian for an article about alternatives to capitalism, Joe is quoted as saying: “The way you change a system nationally is you do thousands of local things, and eventually the system evolves.”

The lesson here is clear: We can locally model the change we hope to see on a larger scale.

 

LESSONS FROM A NEW WAVE OF BLACK ACTIVISTS

Almost 30 million Americans have participated in protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, this year. “An unapologetically Black approach was needed, especially in Minnesota,” said Kandace Montgomery in an interview with the New York Times. Montgomery is one of six organizers of Black Visions, an organization integral to the protest movement in Minnesota.

What this meant, for their collective, was learning from Black female leaders and scholars such as Harriet Tubman and Saidiya Harman, and to catalyze a culture that wouldn’t rely on hierarchies of leadership or focus on the rights of some at the expense of others. They built upon the foundation of early Black Lives Matter activists, who structured their organization specifically to avoid what they feel had been the mistakes of previous movements, which focused and relied on charismatic Black male leaders who became targets for arrest and assassination. The loss of these central figures ultimately undermined the work of thousands of other activists.

Libraries are in every town, school, and institute of higher learning. This is a powerful, distributed network that can work locally to catalyze the local leadership and collaboration necessary to find our way forward in these coming months and years. I find solace and hope in this understanding of libraries as partners in the local work that needs to be done to make our world a better place with new energy in light of the hard lessons of 2020.


Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Executive Director, Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie, NY; a judge for LJ's 2015 New Landmark Libraries; and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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