I have recently rediscovered the work of Margaret Wheatley and the Berkana Institute, which seek to help people organize in ways that mimic rather than oppose living systems. (In an unusual adherence to principle, the institute is currently resting.)
I’ve been particularly struck by something they call the “lifecycle of emergence,” which describes “how living systems begin as networks, shift to intentional communities of practice, and evolve into powerful systems capable of global influence.”
Along similar lines, we have much to learn from the structure of a forest. I believe I’ve started to learn these lessons from my own time in the woods, but first reading Wheatley’s work a half-decade ago may have influenced me to the point that I subconsciously plagiarized some of the following while applying it to economic organizations.
In any case, Wheatley deserves much foundational credit for my understanding of how our current economic and social systems resemble a mature forest, as well as what that teaches us about the cataclysmic changes that are now underway from the individual up to the global level.
First, some forest background:
Forests do not simply pop into existence. They develop through a process called ecological succession, through which open space (such as a grassland) becomes a mature forest. In the case of bare earth exposed by a retreating glacier, there is initially a scarcity of materials with which to gain nourishment, and lichens are usually the only beings that can eke out an existence with the water, sunlight and bare rock.
But these minute organisms break down the rock and process it into soil, which gathers in cracks until it is sufficient to support mosses and small plants, which attract small animals. These animals occasionally leave their waste products, and further build the nutrient base. Shrubs and small trees move in.
The first trees are generally fast-growing broadleaf trees like alders and maples. These trees build the biomass that will sustain what is known as a climax forest, sheltering the more shade-tolerant conifer seedlings that take much longer to grow than broadleaf trees but eventually crowd out their predecessors.
At climax, the forest has essentially reached maturity as a system. While individual trees come and go, the makeup of the forest then remains relatively stable and can remain so for centuries. The forest becomes a two-tiered place, in which the canopy blocks out the sun while the forest floor becomes an open place with most nutrients locked into tree trunks, sparsely populated by ferns and small shrubs.
Compare this to how giant banks are now hoarding capital while small businesses are unable to secure loans.
Climax forests are sometimes likened to cathedrals. And, like cathedrals, they are relatively quiet places. Most of the time. However, climax forests do not live forever. Their stability yields to stagnation. The average age of the trees increases, and diversity decreases until sometimes a forest canopy will consist of a nearly homogenous stretch of one species, stretching for miles.
This forest becomes increasingly vulnerable, and eventually it collapses. The trigger can come from fire or beetle infestations, but often these weakened forests are simply brought down by wind.
When trees fall, they often fall in clusters. This may be the simple result of one tree’s pushing over others on its way to the ground. The new opening in the canopy then allows the wind to drop down and catch the other trees that were previously protected by each other. In extreme cases this is known as blowdown. And here’s where we come in: Our economy is ready for a big renewal, but old things must fall first.
On occasion, blowdown turns into a chain reaction, transforming many acres of tranquil old-growth forest into a cataclysmic jumble of trunks and branches. At first glance, this looks like a horrible mess. And from the point of view of the trees, that’s just what it is.
However, the collapse of one order paves the way for another, as the cycle starts anew.
Sometime around when I discovered Wheatley’s writing, a huge Douglas fir went down in a forested park near where I lived. It took about a half dozen smaller trees with it. When I discovered it in the spring, this new clearing was already home to a riot of new growth. The old trees were still bleeding sap, but already the forest floor was covered with a thick growth of nettles and elderberry, taking full advantage of the sunlight’s return.
Once again, the land was a place for rapid growth and flexibility. And as the years pass, the old trees that fell will decompose and release the nutrients that they hoarded for so many years. Once again, flexibility and vitality will be important assets until the climax forest returns. I’ll write more on this in my next post.
The development of human civilization has tended to follow a similar path. In exploring these parallels, it is helpful to view individual forest organisms as analogs to human organizations. This analogy applies equally well to everything from a single individual’s career or household’s finance, up through independent businesses (including co-ops!) and associations, to nations and international bodies. For example, it is not hard to see the parallel between half-fallen trees and the Eurozone, where the walking wounded hold each other up but their fate is more or less sealed.
At first the new system’s progression favors small and aggressive entities, which can adapt to changing conditions. These pioneers put a premium on rapid rates of reproduction. They fail often, and when they do, they are rapidly reprocessed to serve the next generation, adding to the soil base on which the system depends.
These pioneers have parallels in the simplest organizations. Their structures are simple, their size is small, and they do not have much specialization among their parts. Over time, more complex structures evolve and because of their complexity they are able to crowd out their predecessors. Smaller, simpler structures are broken down and integrated into their replacements, much like how local businesses have been absorbed by chains.
Height is an important part of the succession, and something like it functions among organizations. This is not literal height, although the physical structures created by organizations often reflect their relationship to the world. Rather, it is marked by variations in rank and compensation.
In the same way that a tree’s crown needs a lot of trunk to hold it high enough to catch the sun, many workers are required to elevate the management to the heights that give it an advantage over its competitors. The lower parts may benefit from being part of the structure, but on the whole a huge amount of inert material is required to facilitate a relatively small amount of vitality and growth.
A 100-foot tree and a huge corporation have an important quality in common: They are not going anywhere. These giants do well in times of basic stability, or at least change that is linear and constant. But as soon as turbulence strikes—whether gusting wind or political upheaval—they turn out to be much weaker than they appeared.