natural resilience

Why Did I Write this Book?


I began this book in a place of scarcity – a world that felt stifling and finite. There was not enough of anything – not enough time, not enough money, not enough hope, not enough joy. Certainly not enough of me to go around. I’d lost a daughter, a husband, a business, the better part of my sanity, and my self-respect - and I had three small boys to care for. Friends worried, and persuaded me to try a meditation course. Not my kind of thing, but I was willing to try. It was a New Year, and I was desperately in need of a fresh start.

The program would last 21 days, beginning with the eye-rolling mantra - “I come from a place of infinite abundance.” It was Deepak Chopra, and Day One began a fifteen minute journey through sunlight and cosmic stardust, streaming endlessly through me like a rain of protons. This I could do. Sunlight is infinite, as far as small beings like us are concerned. It’s ultimately the source of pretty much all value on Earth - living things can't grow without it. The plants gobble it all day long, snatching it and mashing it with CO2 and water to make the sugar fuel that powers us all. Perhaps it was easier for me to believe, since I live in sunny San Diego. But still, on average, worldwide, it is true. Sunlight is the source of infinite abundance in our world. There is so much of it, the plants can't even consume it all, an they don't even try. They don't have to, because sunlight is everywhere. The gong sounded, to signal the end of the meditation. I thought – “I'm going to write a book about this. People need to know that scarcity isn't the way things are. We're just doing it wrong.” Immediately I began scribbling - fifty pages then and there. And so began this book.

I confess, Day Two made no sense to me at all. So much for Chopra’s stardust! It was gone, and I just kept writing instead. The surprise was not just that all these magical living stories kept coming to me - from my own life - but that I grew toward them. They reminded me of who I am and what I love most. Today, I feel the warmth of infinite sunlight all the time, and delight in watching hopeful seedlings strive to reach it - not just because I am content and hopeful about the future, but because the journey draws me back to Earth's wild places, and the riot of living things that dance there. I visit as often asI can, and I bring my children with me every chance I get. Abundance is all around us, we just have to look deeply. Everything is connected, and everything grows toward the light.

Humans do things a certain way – we lead with our brains. We imagine where we want to be, and reverse-engineer those outcomes. We know where we want to end up. We are also deeply political – as primates, everything we do is negotiated. We inherit a fantastic talent for bluster and persuasion and manipulation – we are really good at getting what we want. Maybe too good – if seven or eight billion people know what they want and how to get it, it’s easy to see why we’ve got a problem. Primates have lived in these dominance hierarchies for hundreds of millions of years, but at base it’s a pyramid scheme. The brainy way doesn't scale – when you work in an organization with tens of thousands of people, and live on a planet with seven billion of them, our pyramids are bound to get wobbly. Chaos, instability, and scarcity are inevitable – with peak everything, war, famine, and overpopulation – our lives are hopelessly complex. Any child playing with blocks can tell you this. You can only build so high before the tower falls – no matter how wide you make the base. Chimpanzees are smart, but they don't live in cities. The politics would be too much.

But as an evolutionary primatologist, I also know just how different we are from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. There’s been a very real and dramatic phase-change somewhere along the way. We may share 98% of our DNA with them, but that remaining two percent difference is a game-changer. I believe we are converging on a networked superorganism way of life - the same kind of structures we see in ants, termites, and honeybees - and even networked creatures like slime molds and the fungi underground. This happens a lot in evolution – when natural selection hits on a good idea, it tends to appear again and again. Form follows function. These other species are highly successful, and not unlike us. They, too, live in large cities, using dense communication webs to network with each other. Together they farm, herd, and milk other animals, gather resources, and build large air-conditioned structures. Their ultimate purpose is the same as ours – to make each generation more successful than the last.

Ants and termites and fungi been living this way for hundreds of millions of years, while our own parents had no idea about computers and cell phones. We have so much to learn about living in these sprawling networks – what do the ancient socieities know that we don't? Can they show us the way to resilient, adaptive, regenerative success?

I believe they can send us on the path, at any rate. These societies share a handful of deep, simple patterns that feel right to us, because we are superorganisms too. Collective intelligence, distributed leadership, swarm creativity, natural resilience, and regenerative value are fundamental to their scale-free success. When I wrote this book, my main thought was to share these ideas with you, so we cal all leverage them more consciously for a better, more adaptive, more productive future.

People have tapped this kind of intelligence in their communities and families forever - it feels very natural to us, but the challenge is scaling these techniques up globally and putting them to work in large companies and governments. It is my hope that Teeming translates these patterns into actionable habits, that we can put into motion in our own organizations. But, at its core, Teeming Is an adventure story, a journey into the parallel lives of other creatures. It's a labor of love, celebrating living things, including ourselves. It's a mirror – and a vision – of what the future could hold for us. Infinite abundance on a finite planet is within our reach. It is all around us, and all we have to do is look at what has stood the test of time, and what is working still. I hope you will join me on this expedition. Pull on your hiking boots, let's watch the moon rise.. Let's teem on together.