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Our Reciprocal Lives
Issue Twelve: The Understory
On May 9, 1969, Fred Rogers demonstrated another meaningful lesson. Episode 195 opens with Mister Rogers washing his feet in a kiddie pool with a hose and remarking how good it feels. In walks François Clemmons, a Black police officer, who Rogers warmly greets and offers a seat next to him poolside. They both remark how hot it is outside. Then Rogers makes another invitation to Clemmons—to join him in cooling his feet in the pool. Lamenting the fact that “I don’t have a towel or anything,” Rogers then invites Clemmons to share his towel. The camera then descends back into the pool where two pairs of feet are being washed side-by-side—one black and one white—with sighs of relief by both of them.
While seemingly innocuous, the invitations Rogers extended to Clemmons were radical acts. First, he was counteracting the notion of societal individualism. He had a towel and Clemmons did not. Of course, he would be willing to share his towel with someone that didn’t have the same resource. The second was that Clemmons had a right to bathe his feet in the pool as much as Mister Rogers did. In this act of solidarity, Rogers was counteracting the bigotry of segregation that was still being practiced in public pools across America five years after the courts ruled it illegal.
In 1993 Clemmons reappeared on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to recreate the pool scene. Once again, Clemmons arrived towelless. But rather than handing Clemmons his towel, Rogers proceeded to dry Clemmons’ feet himself. When asked in interviews later about the significance of the act, Clemmons remarked on how the act evoked Jesus washing his disciples' feet. “I am a Black gay man and Fred washed my feet.”
In our time of seemingly dominant and inescapable individualism, it is tempting to be swept out to sea by the currents of the moment. We are participants in one of many such historic waves where the hubris of certain individuals, armies, and nations beat the pervasive drum of righteousness for their individualism. The long view of history shows that there are ebbs and flows of these moments—in hindsight, they are revealed as either massive fissures or nothing more than temporal drifts. I don’t think it is a coincidence that at this moment writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Peter Wohlleben have become bestsellers. Many of us desire a different narrative—one that connects rather than fragments us from each other, traditions, the land, and other species. One that seeks to heal past traumas rather than deepen them by remembering to remember (Kimmerer).
The Understory surfaces the often hidden connections between ourselves, the rest of the animal kingdom, and the living planet. Issue Twelve is an exploration of the millennia-old narrative of mutual interdependence as a countervailing force to competitive headwinds. Through the lens of communities stricken by disasters, mycorrhizal networks, and the corporate leader archetype, we underscore co-dependencies and acts of benevolence that bind us together. For nearly every species on the planet, whether flora or fauna, thrive because of mutualism in their ecosystems. By removing the distancing grammar of “environment” in favour of language that encapsulates our dependencies on one another and a healthy Earth, we can rekindle our reciprocal relationship with nature and each other at a time when climate breakdown is most acute.
Competitive or Cooperative?
Within the comments on Issue Eleven was a kind of visceral aversion to the competitive consumption theories of Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu. If our seemingly insatiable desires to consume were linked to an internal and external affirmation of our roles in society, it meant that not only were we pitted against each other for social standing, but that consumerism is the expression of a society that is based on competition.
As I dedicated Issue Seven on Indigenous world views to countering the Cartesian dualism in Issue Six, Issue Twelve is a kind of counterpoint to Issue Eleven. In "The Covenant of Reciprocity", Robin Wall Kimmerer offers us a choice:
"It is said that in the time of the Seventh Fire, all the world’s peoples, newcomers and original peoples, will stand together at a fork in the road, and have a choice to make. We are living in an era of profound error, which by virtue of our historical short‐sightedness we have come to accept as 'normal' when it is, in fact, an anomaly...In my imagination, one of the paths is soft, green, spangled with dew— you could walk barefoot there. The other path is black and burnt, made of cinders that would cut your feet. Prophecy has become history, for at this time, when the world as we know it hangs in the balance, we know we have reached that fork."
I believe that we have a choice and are indeed at the fork in the road that Kimmerer identified. We can see the black and burnt path laid before us as the eventuality of a worldview that celebrates and protects the individual, or the soft green path that demarcates the worldview of interdependence. It is time to choose where we go at the fork.
The choice between a cooperative and competitive worldview has its origins in ecology theory (Douglas H. Boucher, "The Idea of Mutualism, Past and Future," The Biology of Mutualism, 1988). A balance of nature prevents species from either becoming too abundant or going extinct. Writing in the 5th century BCE, Herodotus described in History the beneficent account of the plover who was able to extract leeches from the mouth of a crocodile. “Crocodile enjoys this, and never, in consequence, hurts the bird.” According to Boucher, it was the Industrial Revolution that redirected the dialogue into the political and economic realm through the writings of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer. Malthus and Spencer concluded that competition was ultimately the source of human progress. In The Origin of Species Darwin resumed the biological expression of this argument. While he supported natural accounts of mutualism, he also shared a dominant conclusion that adaptation and specialization were best explained by competition. Over the ensuing decades, social Darwinism applied the biological findings of Darwin to the social realm and “survival of the fittest” became a dominant logic. As Boucher concludes, “Thus progress was inextricably linked to pain.”
Does progress have to come at the expense of pain? Must we compete with each other to “progress?” What is lost through social norms built on competition rather than cooperation?
Human Bonds in Disaster
In A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) Rebecca Solnit explores what happens to human communities in the aftermath of disasters: the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the 1917 explosion in the Halifax port, Hurricane Katrina, and others. The book has taken on even greater resonance this year as communities respond to COVID-19, floods, fires, and earthquakes. And as the frequency and scale of disasters will only increase as a result of climate change in the coming years, “knowing how people behave in disasters is fundamental to knowing how to prepare for them.”
When we consider how best to prepare ourselves for disaster, we prioritize the provisioning of physical supplies that will keep our families and perhaps even our neighbours afloat when systems fail: clean water, heat sources, non-perishable food, shelters. While those goods will likely be important, we neglect to invest in the very thing that will best prepare ourselves— strong social ties in our neighbourhoods and communities. It somehow feels more essential to purchase consumer items than it is to build familiarity, trust, and interdependence with those around us.
"Surviving and maybe even turning back the tide of this pervasive ongoing disaster [climate change] will require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other. It will require a world in which we are each other's wealth and have each other's trust. This world can be made possible only by the faith in the social possibility that understanding ourselves in past disasters can give us and by the embeddedness in place and society that constitutes a sense of belonging."
Solnit reminds us that we study disasters not only to better prepare ourselves for future disasters but also to understand both what we want and what we can be outside of disasters. In post-disaster communities where we would assume people have the most to fear as they typically have lost the most, Solnit discovers pervasive cultures of altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity motivated by love (often of strangers). Which begs the question—how can we engender the depth of social bonds during normal times that we find in post-disaster communities?
Solnit finds that disasters provide the context for people to exercise social bonds inhibited by a market-oriented society during normal times. A San Francisco editor who survived the quake, Charles B. Sedgwick, described disasters as a kind of social corrective to a culture “poisoned by money.” It was in a moment where money became largely irrelevant, where the walls had literally crumbled around them, that they remembered to rely on each other. Post-disaster communities are often a reprieve from the predominant cultural narrative encouraging fear of each other and scarcity, which tends to fuel more scarcity and more to be afraid of. Rather than viewing societies as a battle over scarce resources, what Solnit found in communities struck by disasters was abundance:
"The joy in disaster comes, when it comes, from the purposefulness, the immersion in service and survival, and from an affection that is not private and personal but civic: the love of strangers for each other, of a citizen for his or her city, of belonging to a greater whole, of doing the work that matters. These loves remain largely dormant and unacknowledged in contemporary postindustrial society: this is the way in which everyday life is a disaster.”
In times of depravity, we derive our sense of purpose in helping others rather than in competing against them. In these post-disaster communities, Solnit shows us how cultures of interdependence not only can provide for everyone, but also create greater meaning through the social bonds that are required for that very equality of distribution.
Behaviour in Nature
Solnit’s thinking about disaster communities was influenced by the theories of Peter Kropotkin, specifically Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902), which espoused the essential goodness of an unregulated humanity. Kropotkin refuted the interpretation of Darwin’s predecessors that natural selection was driven by competition. Instead, Kropotkin argued that those societies that were most rooted in mutual aid were the ones that thrived. Furthermore, individuals were predisposed towards altruism because natural selection favoured them for it.
“But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each person from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s [sic] happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.”
Kropotkin's refutation of social Darwinism was largely drawn from first-hand observations of long journeys across Siberia where he witnessed abundance rather than scarcity of resources, and cooperation rather than competition to adapt to the harsh weather. Kropotkin is often seen as the forefather of behavioural ecology, which includes mutualism and altruism. Since the 1970s, research into animal and plant behaviours have validated many of Kropotkin's observations.
Mycelium by Mike Smith (Shared by CC BY2.0)
In “The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web” (2016), Robert Macfarlane wanders the Epping Forest with mycologist Merlin Sheldrake (Entangled Life, 2020) discussing the “research revolution that is changing the way we think about forests”:
“For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza: itself a growing-together of the Greek words for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). In this way, individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.”
This mutualism between plants and fungi enables both organisms to benefit from their association. Since fungi cannot photosynthesize, they gain carbon-rich sugar from the trees. The plants in turn get nitrogen and phosphorus from the fungi, which they cannot produce. The hyphal network is also how plants send one another warnings. “A plant under attack from aphids can indicate to a nearby plant that it should raise its defensive response before the aphids reach it.”
Suzanne Simard discovered that within a single teaspoon of soil you could find up to eleven kilometres of hyphae (Nature, 1997). Mycorrhizal research discoveries have had profound implications on the way we think about relationships in the forest, and how to ensure they remain healthy. It has led us to consider whether forests are actual single superorganisms rather than independent, individualistic ones. And, in turn, we have a revised picture of the forest as a system of thriving interdependencies rather than species in competition. In “Arts of Inclusion, or How to Love a Mushroom,” Anna Tsing advises, “next time you walk through a forest, look down. A city lies under your feet.”
Our Leadership Archetypes
While biological, political and social theorists have been writing about interdependence for decades, you might assume that management literature on leadership contradicts these findings. After all, Issue Eleven described the dominance of homo economicus in neoliberal economic theory, which centres on individual need fulfillment in response to competitive market forces. Leadership literature is overflowing with examples of the archetypical relentless CEO—individuals who became famous for their cruelty rather than their humanity. When I was doing my MBA in the early 2000s, Jack Welch was still revered as an admirable leader for his “rank and yank” program in which General Electric fired the managers performing in the bottom ten percent every year, regardless of how well they actually performed or the circumstances for their performance.
Just as in the disciplines of science, sociology, political science, and anthropology, we can elevate models of cooperation over competition in management science. In doing so, we also find that mutualism thrives in corporations just as it does in nature.
Herman Miller is known for some of the most iconic modern furniture designs of the 20th century, as well as for stewarding strong relationships with their employees and designers. Alongside his brother Hugh, Max De Pree took over leadership of the company in 1961 after their father fell ill. During his decades at Herman Miller, De Pree became synonymous with the idea of the inclusive corporation—a company where over-communication was the norm, and all voices were respected and sought out. In contrast to the golden parachute that ensured significant payouts for terminated employees, Max De Pree proposed the idea of a silver parachute in which terminated employees who had been with the company for more than two years would receive benefits according to the number of years served regardless of their role in the company.
De Pree is probably best known for his contribution to management literature, specifically his book Leadership is an Art (1987), in which he wrote:
“Leaders owe a covenant to the corporation or institution, which is, after all, a group of people. Leaders owe the organization a new reference point for what caring, purposeful, committed people can be in the institutional setting. Notice I did not say what people can do—what we can do is merely a consequence of what we can be. Corporations, like the people who compose them, are always in a state of becoming. Covenants bind people together and enable them to meet their corporate needs by meeting the needs of one another. We must do this in a way that is consonant with the world around us.”
De Pree believed that the needs of the employees and those of the corporation were mutually beneficial, known as a symbiotic relationship in biology. He saw this symbiosis as a kind of covenant held between management and the employee. It was the role of the leader to create this reference point for upholding that covenant with care, purpose, and commitment.
De Pree’s writing joined an ongoing debate on the role of managers and executives within the organization. Should the manager and executive be directed by their internal convictions, or are they stewards to others first and foremost? Does dependence on others demonstrate weakness, as it seemingly runs counter to independence?
De Pree believed that a leader was both a servant and a debtor—someone who is there to serve the needs and possibilities of others, while also being in debt for their contributions. But the concept that I found most striking in his writing was his notion that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” This significance of defining reality influenced the work of Peter Senge and can be identified within his landmark book, The Fifth Discipline (1990), as systemic understanding within the organization. Senge found that by and large, most leaders tended to focus on events and patterns of behaviour in their organizations. But leaders in learning organizations predominantly focused on purpose and systemic structure.
“Our traditional views of leaders—as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions, and energize the troops—are deeply rooted in an individualistic and nonsystemic worldview. Especially in the West, leaders are heroes—great men (and occasionally women) who "rise to the fore" in times of crises. Our prevailing leadership myths are still captured by the image of the captain of the cavalry leading the charge to rescue the settlers from the attacking Indians. So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces and collective learning...The new view of leadership in learning organizations centers on subtler and more important tasks. In a learning organization, leaders are designers, stewards, and teachers. They are responsible for building organisations where people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models—that is, they are responsible for learning.”
Have we embraced Senge’s vision of the leader as a designer, steward, and teacher? Have we seen the new era of organizations where people continually expand their capabilities and are responsible for learning?
It’s been thirty years since Senge first wrote these words. Despite being named one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years by Harvard Business Review in 1997, I suspect that De Pree and Senge still sound as radical today as they did when they originally wrote their theories. In the move from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism, we need to augment our competitive worldview to make room for the cooperative. As Max De Pree said, the last responsibility of a real leader is to say thank you.
Fred Rogers' ultimate invitation that framed every episode was “won’t you be my neighbour.” Rogers embodied a way of being that everyone was a neighbour, and with that acknowledgement was a dedication to the tenet of loving thy neighbour whatever their political party, class, race, and even morality. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously remarked, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think the arc of history also bends towards mutual interdependence.
Many of us desire a different narrative—one of connection and interdependence rather than fragmentation and independence. Communities stricken by disaster show us both what we want and what we can be. The mycorrhizal networks of our forests demonstrate harmony and resilience in a system based on mutualism. A corporation guided by covenants between leadership and employees inspires care, purpose, and commitment.
At the end of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, Mister Rogers leaves us with a final reminder of the care that is worthy of our reciprocity:
"From the time you were very little, you have had people who have smiled you into smiling. People who have talked you into talking. Sung you into singing. Loved you into loving...Let's just take some time to think about those extra special people. Some of them might be right here. Some of them might be far away. Some of them might even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they've always wanted what was best for you. They always cared for you beyond measure. And have encouraged you to be true to the best within you."
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
In between issues I share my own reflections and those I have heard from readers. While the term community is often overused and thus abused, The Understory is a community of readers who value the comments of others. Please reply to this email or leave a comment on the website with any reflections you feel comfortable sharing 🙏.