Connecting people to save our world

The start of new collaborations that have the value for free-flowing rivers as a starting point during the Students for Rivers Camp in Slovenia 2019.

Cosmic Networking could be a new strategy for changing how we can work together across cultures in the era of global change.

Cosmic Networking proposes you can achieve much more by sharing contacts than working by yourself. By relinquishing ownership, you are giving collaboration across the Cosmos a fighting chance.

Astronomer Carl Sagan is often credited with making the study of our universe cool. Sagan talked to us about our ever-expanding universe and the duty we owe to all the life on our planet, our only home, through books, lectures, and an award-winning television show.

In his book Cosmos, Sagan gave us an ultimatum: “If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.”

Sagan’s work inspired a generation of people, at least in the countries where we grew up. But there is still much work to do. Now 40 years later, we are still learning how to broaden our loyalties. The Covid-19 pandemic is just the beginning of the global tests we will face in the future.

River

In a world increasingly thrown further off balance, facing drought and disease and daily injustices, spinning through yet another mass extinction event, what can we do? 

We can start by reconnecting with each other. We can heal some of the deep divisions we have created. But with that foundation in place, we must learn to broaden our loyalties further than they’ve ever gone. We must go beyond empathising with and caring for each other. To meet the challenges of the future, we need to work together. 

This article looks at a growing number of global movements and coalitions and asks: how can we continue expanding our understanding of what it means to be part of not just the human community, but the entire planet?

We introduce the idea of Cosmic Networking as one way to think about our ever-expanding responsibilities to work with each other. What follows are a few concepts and some stories that might help us understand what Cosmic Networking is all about.

Like many ideas both good and bad, the idea of Cosmic Networking was born on a river. In this case, it was the Butaleubu, or Great River, in Mapudungun - known elsewhere as the Biobio River in Chile - on a warm winter day in the Andes Mountains.

Friendships

In 2016, two recent college graduates from Chile - including one of the authors - were trying to bring people closer to the river. On weekends they took residents of the coastal city of Concepcion upriver to the mountains.

There they would meet the mighty rapids of the Butaleubu and talk with people along the way. Several Mapuche residents - Chile’s largest indigenous people - had been forcibly relocated by the Chilean government in the 1990s to build large dams, including the Ralco Dam.

From those conversations sprouted ideas for building a movement. A river festival to connect more people to the river and call for the dismantling of the dam. Even better, a national circuit of river festivals to connect across watersheds. A coalition to help young Chileans around the country set up and manage environmental foundations.

A documentary to tell the story of the Mapuche and why their deep understanding of nature may offer answers for the rest of humanity. A campaign to establish legal rights for rivers based on indigenous knowledge worldwide, thus joining the global Rights for Nature movement. Introductions and invitations, freely given, to anyone who expressed enthusiasm at the ideas.

One by one, the ideas took root. They sprouted new ideas. Community leaders on the Butaleubu connected with leaders on the Futaleufu River (South of Chile), the Klamath River (USA), the Soča River (Slovenia), and many other places. The friendships forged across cultures and continents, and the ideas themselves were self-funded or free. Anyone could join if they had ideas and wanted to work.

Collaborate

And eventually, we realized we needed a name. What would you call the altruism of idea-sharing, of giving away knowledge free of charge without knowing where it would go, only that it might keep expanding further as time went on?

Why didn’t the work feel like the usual ways people connect, such as at conferences or via LinkedIn or alumni networks or some other platform? Why were people so much more excited about this work than their own careers?

The name we had given to this, as a joke, was cosmic networking. We didn’t really care much about its meaning, until a friend said to us: “That’s actually a really cool name! But what does it actually mean?”.

Our goal in this, before you read further, is to propose a playful term for dreadful times. Introducing a concept that goes beyond practical networking means being someone whimsical. It is not designed to be efficient, or profit-oriented, or some form of career development. 

These goals are short-sighted. They do not inspire people to collaborate. Nor do they help an individual detach themselves from their own self-preservation so they can think about the greater good.

Cultures

One of the defining features of the Cosmos is that it is ever-expanding. Things happen far beyond our own personal purview and control, without our personal knowledge. 

Much like Creative Commons aims to have ideas shared far and wide, beyond whatever borders the original artist may have conceived, Cosmic Networking is an ethos for those of us who spend a lot of time trying to develop and test solutions but need a nudge to get out of the more siloed way our world tends to operate.

Cosmic Networking recognizes each of us is small, insignificant, and individually imperfect. Our best chance in making a better world is by joining forces, whether we know each other or speak the same language or not. It is community-building at the larger planetary level.

For all of the river festivals and coalitions and stories, Cosmic Networking was the guiding principle hidden beneath the surface. We just didn’t know it at the time. In each instance, we never knew where things would go, only that they would.

Think about the last time you had a really valuable contact, for a job or a project. Maybe you found yourself thinking, “this is mine. if I share it with someone else I may lose this opportunity.” In most cultures you are encouraged to think this way.

Tandem

Cosmic Networking proposes you can achieve much more by sharing contacts than working by yourself. By relinquishing ownership, you are giving collaboration across the Cosmos a fighting chance.

Cosmic Networking is not a hard rule. There is no Law of Cosmic Networking (as cool as that sounds). Instead, Cosmic Networking is a code each of us can follow to maximise our contribution to the world, whether now or in the future.

It’s a way to see the world not as one of competition and struggle, but one of collaboration and mutual aid. Perhaps nowhere is this concept more important than in building social movements for change.

Cosmic Networking is about sharing values to come up with the best solutions, rather than starting with an envisioned result. Looking at environmental movements, it could mean finding people who love rivers (a value), rather than people who want to stop dams (an action). Shared values then open up the movement to evaluating many actions that work in tandem over time. 

Travelled

Campaigns to stop a dam might be one action. Another action might be partnering with pro bono lawyers to draft legislation that protects wild and scenic rivers, or building out research partnerships to get science into the hands of local communities.

It may mean tapping into our thirst for stories by carrying out expeditions, producing films, or writing articles that shift the narrative on what rivers mean. 

Each of these actions is fine on its own– we have tried them all– but shit happens. People run out of steam. Legal systems corrode. Dams get built. Film projects don’t reach as wide an audience.

One reason we think Cosmic Networking has staying power is it works based on common beliefs, rather than envisioned results. Failure to achieve a particular action does not extinguish the belief. And if we’ve shared the values widely, it won’t matter if some people pack up and move on. If all three of us were to quit caring tomorrow, value-sharing would still continue throughout the Cosmos. Our ideas have travelled beyond the banks of the river.

Cosmic Networking throughout History

Challenging society’s values cuts to the core of our social systems. New ideas, even when backed by science, may not get the chance to expand without a network to support them. 

When biologist Rachel Carson became the first person to prove toxic harms caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides in agriculture and published her book Silent Spring, she was attacked and vilified.

The chemical companies responsible for poisoning people and wildlife attempted to discredit her, rather than change. But Carson and close friends like Shirley Ann Briggs, an artist and editor of the Audubon Naturalist Society, fought back. 

Armed with both knowledge and networks, they not only defended Carson’s work but inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Without the networks they had built up around the country, it’s possible Carson’s science would never have shifted public opinion.

When Carson succumbed to cancer, Briggs continued her work of expanding knowledge about environmental harms.

Naturalist

Building coalitions that cross traditional barriers is dangerous. Coalition-building poses a threat to group identities and the status quo.

When Berta Cáceres successfully organized both indigenous and non-native communities to oppose large dams in Honduras, she was murdered. Cáceres lost her life not because of her stance against hydropower, but because the coalitions she inspired were a threat. Stopping a dam is one thing; stopping a belief that human progress depends on continued expansion of power capacity is a totally different beast.

Throughout history we can identify countless Cosmic Networkers, people who inspire and connect. Take for example Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist who dedicated his life to the exploration of nature. Humboldt was one of those people who immediately grasped the potential of those around him, botanists, geologists, zoologists, etc.

He would write letters of recommendation for young scientists looking for support for their research and connect them with other renowned scientists. Humboldt wasn’t afraid of giving away his most precious value: contacts. He even went to the extent of funding expeditions with his own money while on the verge of bankruptcy - several times. This great naturalist wrote a series of monumental works about nature - some of his best. What did he call it? Cosmos.

Networking for The Planet

Many questions remain, and necessary critiques. Connecting people to no end can be a waste of time and energy. How do we measure impact? How many of the connected people end up actually doing something together? How can anyone manage such a big network? The end result may grow so large it generates confusion or appears random, with no real plan or purpose.

It is hard to assess the future impact of connections being made in the present. When Carl Sagan invited a young kid named Neil to his lab and spent a whole day talking about stars and galaxies, he had no idea that kid would follow in his footsteps. Decades later, a passionate Neil DeGrasse Tyson would show us, one more time, the wonders of the Cosmos.

Ultimately, the need for Cosmic Networking stems from realising we are on this exuberant blue dot of a planet.

Our natural systems have limits to how much clean water they can circulate. Our climate has limits beyond which species including our own will go extinct. Our ability to empathize with other life, even within our own species, has limits.

And our own human lifespans have limits. Faced with limited time and resources, how can we build coalitions that strengthen over time? How can we ensure the work continues despite whatever happens to individual members? 

From the Cosmos back to Chile

It’s now 2021, and we are back in Chile. Five years after a joke was first made about one of us being a cosmic networker, the river is calling.

The Butaleubu, still dammed in 2021, may be granted legal rights by the local Pewenche people. The dam will eventually be dismantled. What started as a playful rafting trip expanded outwards. It birthed a river festival, the formation of a female indigenous rafting team, and now the possible creation of a law for the protection of rivers. 

Countless people were involved in each of these activities, all of them connected by the love for free-flowing rivers. In the future, more people we have not met will join. And through it all, their ideas will continue expanding far beyond our view.  

Mutual

By connecting with others, sharing our knowledge, and building camaraderie over the issues we care about, we are taking one step further. We are planting what we’ve learned in more fertile soil, giving it a chance to be nurtured by others and expanded upon.

Be it protecting public goods, putting the brakes on endless accumulation, or promoting socio-environmental responsibility and mutual support between humans and other species, our values are out there in the Cosmos, being shared.

As more and more people join the movements they care about and get to work, the importance of our own lives relative to the ideas we create and share will diminish. This is a good thing. We should ask ourselves, not 'what can my planet do for me?' but rather: 'What can we do for our planet?'

By shifting our focus towards collaboration and becoming our best Cosmic Networkers, we can build a different future built on mutual support between Homo sapiens and the rest of the life hitchhiking across the galaxy together.

These Authors

Jens Benöhr, Patrick J. Lynch and Vera Knook are environmental advocates from South America, North America and Europe.

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