“If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn't it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived?”
The wealth of an ecosystem is the health of an ecosystem. Vulnerable populations are among those who have felt COVID-19’s devastating impact most acutely. However, it is the well-being of the entire ecosystem, not only those suffering the most right now, which is in danger.
Vulnerable groups are not “inherently vulnerable.” Rather, vulnerable populations are rooted in inherently vulnerable social and economic positions. Unless we look beneath the surface, and peer into the soil of our systems, we will not be able to take care of ourselves, and each other, to ensure our ecosystem thrives holistically.
Most of us think of bonsai as an activity of peaceful contemplation and manicured potted plants. However, when the metaphor of bonsai is applied to communities, it becomes cruel: socially disfavored communities undergo strangulation of community roots and violent pruning. Unlike botanical bonsai, “social bonsai” elicits pain in anyone who realizes the mighty oak of community has been reduced to a sickly bush.
This article was carefully nurtured by 4 BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders scattered across North America. Jerrold McGrath is curious about how declining systems are decomposed so that new growth might occur. He is the former director of innovation at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the founder of UKAI Projects. Dr. Sloane Faye, PhD is a writer, sociologist, and Director of Inclusive Economies at B Lab, US/Canada. Grounded in social theories of resistance and oppression, Faye's work explores innovative ways to foster economic and social justice through entrepreneurial and feminist approaches. Pablo Suarez is associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and his work focuses on creative approaches to risk management and unconventional partnerships. Marjorie Brans is a serial social entrepreneur and intrapreneur wondering whether any free market can be reconciled with deep care for the planet and all of its creatures.
All pictures were taken by Claudia Leisinger on location during BMW Foundation leadership programs in Brazil, China, Italy, and Tanzania.
Root systems accustomed to stretching outward and intermingling with neighbours are constrained within rigid containers. As colonial domination ripped communities out of the ground and transplanted them into terracotta, the invisible hand of unrestrained capitalism became the gardener that tends to them. Some communities are forced into very tiny spaces that do not allow much of anything healthy to grow, while others get expansive plots with plenty of room, sun, water, and fertilizer. Unsurprisingly, the most socially vulnerable groups in “normal” times fare worse in extraordinary times. Left behind, they are cut off from the economic gardener.
The seismic force of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many bonsai to fall, crack open, and be cut off from default economic systems. Communities quickly realize that they have lost the capacity to produce many of the essentials necessary to sustain life (from food to toilet paper). When those bonsai fail due to stress or shocks, the urge to re-introduce the gardener and mend and reinforce their environments is strong.
We are surrounded by shattered terracotta and exposed plants. How do we decide which areas to tend to first? How can we rebuild so that the plants can better resist the next shock? These are not the right questions to ask. The temptation post-COVID will be to narrowly frame the challenge as rebuilding to better resist future pandemics and to make ethical decisions about which plants to save. We believe, however, that it is time to say, “bonsai is not for us”.
"We believe, however, that it is time to say, “bonsai is not for us”.
1. Don’t rebuild: Dismantle to Reconfigure
Research demonstrates that when a tree is in danger in a forest, neighbouring trees will share resources through an underground fungal network. When a tree dies, saprotrophs quickly assemble to liberate resources so that new growth can occur. By placing systems and communities in rigid plots we are severing networks essential to resilience.
As Donella Meadows outlines in Thinking in Systems, a system is “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.” COVID-19 is making it starkly evident that we have prioritized the needs of the gardener and of control over inter-community connection and collective resilience. The pruning and the containers gives us the illusion of control when things are predictable but fall apart when inevitable crises occur and the gardener can’t deliver what is needed to live.
A bonsai is a living dwarf tree. The word bonsai can also refer to the art of training and growing these dwarf plants in containers. Bonsai specimens are ordinary trees and shrubs, not hereditary dwarfs; they are dwarfed by a system of pruning roots and branches and training branches by tying them with wire. The art originated in China, but has been pursued and developed primarily by the Japanese. The inspiration for bonsai is found in nature, in trees that grow in harsh, rocky places, and are dwarfed and gnarled throughout their existence. Bonsai may live for a century or more and can be handed down from one generation to another. (Merriam-Webster)
To better prepare us, we need to begin dismantling structures that inhibit the healthy exchange of ideas, resources, and learning among and across communities. We need to do this with a fierce commitment to equity and justice. We need to rewild community growth, to reconfigure the system, making space so that every community has agency to grow in the forest with direct access to all they need to thrive. Responsible Leaders need to do the work of the fungal network, making available the raw material for a new world to emerge. Rather than fixing pots or plots, can we work together to reconfigure relationships in a healthy ecosystem? Systems change, post-COVID means questioning the desire to rebuild what is being broken. Our time, expertise, and resources are best served elsewhere. We need to allow the seeds of community to grow and doing so will require us to create new conditions for a forest to emerge.
“While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.” Frank Lake, Clinical Theology, 1966
Everyone on the planet has an unambiguously equal right to stay safe from the virus. Everyone on the planet has the same equal right to thrive in the new forest we envision. However, some trees have historically had more nutrients, light, and care than others. Accordingly, offering more resources to trees planted in barren soil will not remedy the underlying and structural factors that weaken their immunity.
Systems change centered in equity recognizes that individuals and communities are growing roots, and budding, starting from different positions. Some of us are in constrictive plots. These constraints have allowed other plants more space and nutrients on which to thrive. For those planted in more fertile conditions, the challenge can sometimes be even noticing that our plots have boundaries at all.
COVID is forcing us to notice. The Cook County medical examiner in Chicago found that although black residents make up less than a third of Chicago residents, they represent 70 percent of the city’s COVID-19 deaths. Black residents are statistically overrepresented in low-wage essential jobs like janitorial service and cooking. They also have historically poorer access to health care, which means they are coming into the COVID-19 pandemic with higher underlying rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary disease that exacerbates the virus’ impact.
It’s common to hear that, “we’re all in this together”. Except we’re not. We are in our own plots with our own histories and our own access to support. A just transition from the current system to one centered on interdependence and mutualism will necessarily center equity. We cannot build a new world on the rules and consequences of the old one if we hope to create something different.
It’s common to hear that, “we’re all in this together”. Except we’re not.
A “de-bonsaification” of our social, economic, and cultural worlds (a term we have probably just made up) won’t happen without power shifting. There are many that benefit from the care of bonsai and they will argue that stronger pots and better pruning is what is needed. Even many in the systems and social innovation world can fall into patterns, as Dean Spade describes, of providing, “direct aid in ways that often supplement, stabilize, or sustain violent and coercive hierarchies”.
We need to ensure that the most vulnerable lead the development of what a healthy forest looks like and that multiple ideas can be simultaneously supported. Forests are composed of multiple interconnected species. Monocultures, like the potato in 19th century Ireland, are susceptible to catastrophic collapse. A diverse culture provides more elements to combine in generating solutions.
A quote from Martin Luther King comes to mind about the importance of equity and agency in the dismantling of existing systems: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
All us trees, who make up our human ecosystem, are capable of thriving, together, within one shared earth. While some may criticize this belief as naive, one could posit that it is also (if not more) naive to think our current social and economic system will continue to support life without urgent and significant, structural changes.
Systems educator and author Draper Kauffman points out that dividing a dairy cow in half doesn’t give you two cows. Similarly, millions of trees, trapped inside their own restrictive containers, do not make a forest. The containers are breaking. Unless we look beneath the surface, and peer into the soil of our ecosystem, we will not be able to take care of ourselves, and each other to ensure our ecosystem thrives going forward. We must imagine a new ecosystem from a place of love and justice.
What might that ecosystem look like? As Ocean Vuong asks, “when the apocalypse comes, what will you put in the vessel for the future?” For us, love and power serving justice is what we most long to see. Before we start picking up the pieces and mending the cracks, our call to you is to consider power - or as Eric Liu describes - the question of “who decides” what happens next.
We believe, quite simply, that the people who make the decisions for our collective future should reflect the future we are creating. Too often, decisions are made on behalf of marginalized groups like those living in the global south, refugee populations, or racially minoritized populations without their involvement. Their power - the ability to choose - is taken away and put in a pot, and someone is given power over them, to choose their future without their consent.
We believe, quite simply, that the people who make the decisions for our collective future should reflect the future we are creating.
Our call to action is to abide by the principle: “Nothing about us without us” in however we act in the world and to publicly commit to this position. A commitment to this asks that any initiative designed to support oppressed groups must include a member of that group with expertise - gleaned through lived experience and/or formal training - in a leadership position. Hence, an initiative designed to support refugees or incarcerated people, should not be designed and implemented without the participation and shared leadership of a refugee or incarcerated person.
We all have bias. In a world built on oppression our commitments must correct for a history of exclusion and segregation from participation in the conversations happening about us and around us. We invite you to use your privilege in the most powerful way it can be harnessed at this time: in the service of love and justice. We are all pledging to take this one small, tangible action, and working with our companies to do the same. We invite you to share with your colleagues and identify ways you can adopt this practice as well.
This story was written by BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Jerrold McGrath, Dr. Sloane Faye, Pablo Suarez , and Marjorie Brans. All pictures by Claudia Leisinger.