Time for the Understorey

When it comes to sustainability, regeneration and growth, forests have been practising for a long time. The oldest and healthiest forests have a mix of many varieties of trees, vegetation and wildlife, all supported by extensive underground networks of mycelium that act as conduits for nutrients and communication which recycle fallen deadwood and other waste quickly (in tree time) and efficiently. Nothing goes to waste.

The trees in the understorey – those beneath the canopy – grow slowly and develop strong, dense structures until such time as a gap appears in the canopy when they then compete to take their place.

When we grow trees commercially of course, we don’t want any of that inconvenience. We grow trees as monocultures, keeping the forest floor clear of undergrowth and making sure there is enough space between the trees to ensure enough light for them to grow quickly and for the harvesting machines to move around freely. The result is trees with a much shorter life that are much weaker in structure. We grow “Battery Trees”.

To coin an old expression, we cannot see the forest for the trees. We focus on the cash crop to the detriment of the ecosystem, and ultimately ourselves.

If this was a strategy, it would be understandable, but it’s not – it is a culture we also apply to our businesses and those in them. Our “canopy” businesses and executives prefer a nice, tidy forest floor and certainly do not want potential replacements lurking around beneath them as they do not have any concept of their own inevitable mortality. They will have a file somewhere in HR labelled “succession planning”, which they take out now and again to make themselves feel better, even as they know succession is something in business that can rarely be planned. Forests know better – they ensure healthy succession by developing a vibrant understory that will cope with the various unexpected challenges life will send their way. 

The Human Understorey

As we face the decline and extinction of many of our “canopy” businesses in the face of the complex natural challenges we face, we have to look to the understory. It will provide the sort of businesses and people who will rise to the opportunities of the sort outlined by RethinX in their latest report, which points the way to rapid reduction in carbon emissions, but which will require the felling on many of the “canopy” businesses. The felling will, of course, be resisted far more vigorously than we have opposed the removal of natural forests.

The human understory comprises talent, creativity and generosity, connected by a mycelium of relationships, stories, poetry and purpose. Within it is the leadership we need as we find our way out of the mess we have wittingly created during the last few decades. We have come to believe that we can somehow grow instant canopy on demand without paying attention to the understory from which it comes or taking the time to recognise the ecosystem of which it is part.

It is time for us to pay attention to and develop the understorey – the vibrant variety that falls outside the dull routine of “profits above all” that impoverishes our humanity – to give our society the space to shine.

Those in the canopy seem unlikely to lead (though they may yet surprise us as their existence is threatened), so it is down to the rest of us, one small action at a time.

It is time for the understorey.

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