Trees, Viruses, Businesses, Careers and ‘Enough”

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

I wake early. I like that brief period in the day before too many people start using it as a time to think.

I listen to “Farming Today“, one of my favourite programmes and a source of constant inspiration from those who deal with more critical business uncertainty in a week than many of us face in a year, and who live with systems thinking as reality, not a course to be taken.

It makes a great reference point before listening to the news headlines until 7:00am. Often I listen to them in the background, and listen for the themes that connect the individual items, rather than get sucked into the details.

Today, the theme that emerged was the accelerating reversal of scale, as globalisation retreats in the face of fragile supply chains, fractious geopolitics and business models that just assumed scale, as a right that once initiated just keeps going. In sector after sector, from technology to the food chain, we can see the casualties of short term hubris explaining why the problems they are facing are “unprecedented” (perhaps the most overused word of the decade so far).

There’s a reason that trees don’t scale quickly, and take decades, if not centuries, to reach maturity. Trees live for the long term. They grow at the rate that resources allow them to, cell by cell. Over centuries. Sustainable communities develop in similar fashion.

Viruses on the other hand are in it for the quick win. Short term impact and eventually either die out, or mutate and become part of the background ready to flare up as opportunity allows. Viruses, I suspect, are mostly a signal of unhealthy systems.

Somewhere, in the course of this century, virus businesses have become attractive. They target consumption, find an opening, grow quickly and sell to those who want a short cut to growth. They leave society to pick up the pieces as they consolidate or disappear entirely leaving hollowed out communities in their wake. It feels like a sort of community deforestation.

When we build an I.T. system, resilience and redundancy – essentially designing cell by cell, as would a tree, is part of the process. The entire system is supposed to be able to tolerate unexpected failure without damaging the system it is supporting. There is ample evidence we don’t always get it right of course, but at least the intention is there.

It seems a shame that we don’t adopt a similar approach to business and society. Instead, we seem to have ended up with virus politicians and businesses, operating on short term cycles, playing the odds and relying on a temporary overdose of marketing to get finance or re-elected.

If they fail, whether parties or business opportunists, they recede, mutate and await their next opening. It’s a “hunter killer” mentality. It’s what happens to those who work in them that I find challenging. And when we treat social infrastructure like the NHS as businesses, we really need to think again when we end up with them operating their own food banks.

Indications are though that the virus mindset is encountering increasing resistance. A revulsion of the attitude to those in power who see them as “customers” or “resources” rather than citizens, and run society as a production process – “U.K plc” – where the shareholders reside in walled communities with neatly designed “hahas”

A ha-ha is a type of sunken fence that was commonly used in landscaped gardens and parks in the eighteenth century. It involved digging a deep, dry ditch, the inner side of which would be built up to the level of the surrounding turf with either a dry-stone or brick wall. Meanwhile, the outer side was designed to slope steeply upwards, before leveling out again into turf. The point of the ha-ha was to give the viewer of the garden the illusion of an unbroken, continuous rolling lawn, whilst providing boundaries for grazing livestock

Source. National Trust.

It seems that the “great resignation” is not going away, but it is rather evolving and seems to be involving, in different ways, each generation. Each has different motives, but the active disengagement is common.

The cost of living crisis, with all its elements, is not some economic blip but a sign of deep systemic dysfunction. The increasingly felt realities of the damage we have done to our natural environment is becoming continual, rather than episodic experience, and these different elements are gathering together in ways we cannot ignore. Scale requires surplus resources that are becoming ever more scarce.

The Downside of Scale

When scale deflates, it does so like a balloon – not gradually, but suddenly, accompanied either by a “bang”, rupture and instant deflation, or by a chaotic journey round the room as it expels what it is full of.

“How did you go bankrupt?” 
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.

One day we’re in the Peloton, next day we’re in the ditch at the side of the road. We’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve just not been looking round.

The same is true of our careers. We can have “tree” careers – building slowly, resilient, capable of withstanding redundancy, and guided by a sense of purpose, or we can have virus careers – going where the action and the money is. The latter is great if we make enough before the balloon bursts, not so clever if we don’t.

The Rise of “Enough”

I guess wealth is relative. Personal balance sheets are important right now as we hear balloons deflating all around us and although “enough” is a relative term, handled well it gives us a platform with the the resilience as a society to go round again. If more people have “enough”, then having a few with way more than enough matters less – but when we don’t, it’s a problem.

So I’m wondering about how we go about “enough”. Enough income, enough mental health, enough confidence and enough skills to go round again as what has brought us to now deflates. “Enough” will not come from growth when the proceeds of growth a distributed so assymetrically, it needs something altogether more systemic.

I think the work of the “New Citizenship Project” has a lot to recommend it, as does the “Do Build” approach to businesses, but to make either of them work it needs us to step up and join in and make our voices heard.

However we go about it, ‘enough” is not a great deal given our capabilities and resources, but less than enough is destructive.

Whether in business, or at home, pethaps we should pay more attenton to how we build “tree” communities, not just host viruses.

Mindless consumption is a choice.

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