Articles, Poems, Resources & Networks

Emergence and Power-With

Extracts from the book Active Hope by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy

Hereunder are some of my favourite extracts from the book Active Hope, some which we used for our online Gaia Speaking course “Active Hope in the Great Turning” this month during the Seeing with New Eyes session. I am drawing inspiration again from this section of the book as I prepare the section Going Forth, as it indeeds fills me with Active Hope.

It illustrates so well how we can Go Forth with the joy of being an synergetic part of humanity, one through who inevitably emergence with happen. And if we align with the concept and practice of “power-with”, this emergence will most certainly be produced in the direction that we personally wish humanity to follow. I hope these words provide as much relief as they do to me in these challenging times where we feel called to make a difference. – Joanna Tomkins

While the conversations between Mandela and de Klerk played a pivotal role in bringing apartheid to an end, this historic change wouldn’t have happened without a much larger context of support. Within South Africa, people risked their lives daily to engage in the struggle for change. Around the world, millions of people played supporting roles by joining boycotts and campaigns. If we focus only on each separate activity, it is easy to dismiss it by thinking, “That won’t do much.” To see the power of a step, we need to ask, “What is it part of?” An action that might seem inconsequential by itself adds to and interacts with other actions in ways that contribute to a much bigger picture of change.
Remember our example of the newspaper photograph? When seen under a magnifying glass it appears as just a collection of tiny dots, but when, from a little distance, we see the photo as a whole, the larger pattern comes into view. In a similar fashion, a bigger picture of change emerges out of the many tiny dots of separate actions and choices. This link between small steps and big changes opens up our power in an entirely new way. Each individual step doesn’t have to make a big impact on its own — because we can understand that the benefit of an action may not be visible at the level at which that action is taken.
Shared visions, values, and purposes flow through and between people. Nelson Mandela was deeply committed to a vision for his country that many were holding; the power of that vision moved through him and was transmitted to others. This type of power can’t be hoarded or held back by prison walls; it is like a kind of electricity that lights us up inside and inspires those around us. When a vision moves through us, it becomes expressed in what we do, how we are, and what we say. The alignment of these three creates a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The words below, from Mandela’s defense at his trial in the 1960s, mean so much more because of the actions that followed them:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”


The concept of power-with contains hidden depths; so far we’ve described four aspects. First, there is the power of inner strengths drawn from us when we engage with challenges and rise to the occasion. Second, there is the power arising out of cooperation with others. Third, there is the subtle power of small steps whose impact only becomes evident when we step back and see the larger picture they contribute to. And last, there is the energizing power of an inspiring vision that moves through and strengthens us when we act for a purpose bigger than ourselves. All these are products of synergy and emergence; they come about when different elements interact to become a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
At every level, from atoms and molecules to cells, organs, and organisms, complex wholes arise bringing new capacities into existence.

At each level, the whole acts through its parts to achieve more than we could ever imagine from examining the parts alone. So what new capacities emerge when groups of people act together to form larger complex social systems?
Our technologically advanced society has achieved wonders our ancestors could never have envisioned. We’ve put people on the moon, decoded DNA, and cured diseases. The problem is this collective level of power is also destroying our world. Countless seemingly innocent activities and choices are acting together to bring about the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history.
Seeing with new eyes, we recognize that we’re not separate individuals in our own little bubbles but connected parts in a much larger story. A question that helps us develop this wider view is “What is happening through me?” Is the sixth mass extinction happening through us as a result of our habits, choices, and actions? By recognizing the ways we contribute to the unraveling of our world, we identify choice points at which we can turn toward its healing. The question “How could the Great Turning happen through me?” invites a different story to flow through us. This type of power happens through what we say and do and are.


The concept of emergence is liberating because it frees us from the need to see the results of our actions. Many of our planet’s problems, such as climate change, mass starvation, and habitat loss, are so much bigger than we are that it is easy to believe we are wasting our time trying to solve them. If we depend on seeing the positive results of our individual steps, we’ll avoid challenges that seem beyond what we can visibly influence. Yet our actions take effect through such multiplicities of synergy that we can’t trace their causal chain. Everything we do has ripples of influence extending far beyond what we can see.
When we face a problem, a single brain cell doesn’t come up with a solution, though it can participate in one. The process of thinking happens at a level higher than just individual brain cells — it happens through them. Similarly, there’s no way that we personally can fix the mess our world is in, but the process of healing and recovery at a planetary level can happen through us and through what we do. ”

For this to happen, we need to play our part. That’s where power-with comes in.


All the individuals on a team may each be brilliant by themselves, but if they don’t shift their story from personal success to team success, their net effectiveness will be greatly reduced. When people experience themselves as part of a group with a shared purpose, team spirit flows through them, and their central organizing principle changes. The guiding question moves from “What can I gain?” to “What can I give?”
We can develop a similar team spirit with life. When we are guided by our willingness to find and play our part, we can feel as if we are acting not just alone but as part of a larger team of life that acts with us and through us. Since this team involves many other players, unsuspected allies can emerge at crucial moments; unseen helpers can remove obstacles we didn’t even know were there. When we’re guided by questions such as “What can I offer?” and “What can I give?” we might sometimes play the role of stepping out in front and at other times that of being the ally giving support. Either way, we think of the additional support behind our actions as a form of grace. Based on an interview with Joanna, this poem, edited into verse by Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, expresses well the grace that comes from belonging to life:

When you act on behalf
of something greater than yourself,
you begin
to feel it acting through you
with a power that is greater than your own.

This is grace.

Today, as we take risks
for the sake of something greater
than our separate, individual lives,
we are feeling graced
by other beings and by Earth itself.

Those with whom and on whose behalf we act
give us strength
and eloquence
and staying power
we didn’t know we had.
We just need to practice knowing that
and remembering that we are sustained
by each other in the web of life.

Our true power comes as a gift, like grace,
because in truth it is sustained by others.
If we practice drawing on the wisdom
and beauty
and strengths
of our fellow human beings
and our fellow species
we can go into any situation
and trust
that the courage and intelligence required
will be supplied.


Here are three ways we can open to the kind of power we’ve been describing. We can:
• hear our call to action and choose to answer it.
• understand that power-with arises from what we do, not what we have.
• draw on the strengths of others.

There will be times when we become alerted to an issue and experience an inner call to respond. Choosing to respond to that call empowers us. Once we take that first step, we start on a journey presenting us with situations that increase our capacity to respond. Strengths such as courage, determination, and creativity are drawn forth from us most when we rise to the challenges that evoke them. When we share our cause with others, allies appear; synergy occurs. And when we act for causes larger than ourselves, the larger community for whom we do this will be acting through us.
We can experience our call to action in many different ways. Sometimes the uncomfortable discrepancy of realizing that our behavior is out of step with our values motivates us. Our conscience calls, and when we step into integrity, more of who we are heads in the same direction. At other times our call is more of a powerful summoning. We just know, even if we’re not sure how, that we need to be somewhere, do something, or contact a particular person.
If we think of ourselves only as separate individuals, then we understand these intuitive calls purely in personal terms. Recognizing ourselves as part of the larger web of life leads to a different view. Just as we experience the Earth crying within us as pain for the world, we can experience the Earth thinking within us as a guiding impulse pulling us in a particular direction. We can view this as “cointelligence,” an ability to think and feel with our world.

Developing a sense of partnership with Earth involves listening for guiding signals and taking them seriously when we hear them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s