Massive Trauma – how ecosystems respond, and what business can learn (Pt1 of 3)

Business has about 300 years of learning to deal with massive trauma in a planned way. Our planet has over 3 billion years of practice. It is likely we can learn from it.

I’ve written this in 3 parts:

  1. Trauma and forest ecosystems
  2. Trauma and business systems
  3. What can we learn?

Part 1 – Trauma and Forest Ecosystems

We live in interesting times. Major market players are being removed from the market place, through foreign acquisition, collapse and erosion of their traditional markets. The retail sector is well on the way to being returned to grass, parks, and coffee shops. Banking is in turmoil, heavy engineering refocusing, shipping seeking new routes. Software companies appear and disappear like mayflies. It seeks chaotic, slightly dangerous and unsettling for those who were educated and trained in the post war years to expect lifetime careers and to find the same brand names on the high street as their parents had come to rely on.

Stand back a little, play a video of the size of companies over the last ten years and it looks like … well, to me, it looks a little like a hurricane passed by.

I was fortunate to be taught tropical forest ecology by Prof Southwood in the early 1980’s, at a time when the mechanisms that formed and maintained the giant patchwork quilt that was the great tropical environment of Africa, Asia and South America. You know, before we destroyed the lungs and Darwinian brains of our planet with cheap wood, pulp, soya and hamburgers on legs. This is not a guilt trip (you can take your own), but the lesson of the great forests was this: large trees dominate the forest below and around them, suppressing growth of competitors, suppressing change, dominating the communications networks and locking up nutrients out of reach of other life forms. A single large tree can dominate hundreds of square metres over (at least) a couple of hundred years.

The area around them becomes dark, drier, ‘stagnant’ and monotonous. It stays that way until something changes. It won’t change because the huge dominant has massive scale advantages compared to the other smaller trees:

  • Area of canopy to trunk diameter (it shades out hundreds of square metres)
  • Ratio of canopy to trunk mass (it is more productive)
  • Root volume (it covers more ground, sucking up minerals and water)
  • Chemical manufacture (it can wage chemical war on a massive scale to defeat competitors, insects and fungi)
  • Commensals and Parasites (it has hundreds or thousands of species that depend on it, and they diligently attack and weed out competitors)
  • Network connectivity (below the soil there may be a huge mass of fungi, dedicated to the tree’s needs, and dependent on it for sugars and some rare chemicals)

Competitors really do not stand a chance once it is above them, driving out any other plants.

What changes can come in (for simplicity) two ways

  1. Morbidity and senescence: in effect the dominant tree dies of old age, rots from the inside, sheds branches and collapses in a heap;
  2. Catastrophe: the hurricane that flattens the largest trees, rips open the canopy and ploughs up the soil.

We have introduced the chainsaw and the fire to that set, two things that the tropical forest was pretty much unaware of before the arrival of man. Fire has been used for millennia by forest dwelling societies – indeed almost the whole of the Amazon and Africa shows characteristic soil deposits of charcoal that is the mark of mankind. Fire releases land and nutrients, but the next step is a man-made agro-forest clearing, and we can come back to that. The chainsaw has two key differences to the hurricane: the timber is removed and there is the building of roads that open the whole forest to an ‘edge’ as part of the extraction process. We might come back to that as well.

So, the morning after the storm, what do we have?

The dominant tree lies fallen. Hundreds of tons of timber, leaves and roots lie strewn across the landscape. A huge pond, now filling with water, silt and debris, stands where the roots have been torn out. All around, smaller, but still large trees have been smashed, torn and rent where the giant’s falling struck them. Vines that once allowed primates, insects and reptiles to cross from crown to crown are snagged and torn. Fruits, seeds and flowers lie on raw earth. Sunlight and a gentle rain fall through a five hundred square metre gap in the canopy.

Within 24 hours, and probably much quicker, millions of life forms shift gear. From dormancy and survival into full-on, turbo-charged, all or nothing growth. The insects, fungi and bacteria are going to have to wait for the final cell-death of the old giant – with its formidable chemical and physical defences – before they can really begin to feast on its corpse. While they probe and wait, all around other fungi are spreading at rates tens or hundreds of times faster than yesterday into  the churned up soil, grabbing sugars and minerals spewed from the wreckage. Seeds, exposed to the full spectrum of sunlight and fresh rain, germinate. Partnered with new fungal mychorhyza in minutes, they start a flat out sprint to cover the ground. One or two of them will be the seeds of the fallen giant, others, of relatives or competitors.

Within days, the area is green. Within weeks it is a scrubland, with hundreds of plant species in a thorny tangle. Animals not seen for decades move back in. The air is alive with insects whirling up in columns. Within years, one or two slender, leafy stems stand slightly proud of the mass. The old giant’s corpse is now covered in fungi, riddled with insect tunnels and being softened by bacteria that follow in the wake of those who can digest cellulose and lignin.

Within a decade the race is already between a few tall, competitors. The giant’s corpse is now just a soft mound, minerals and sugars leached into the soil around it. The pond now filled with silt, yet ripe with nutrition. These new spaces are covered in roots and shoots. If you put a spade through them, you find threads of fungi, insect colonies and new life everywhere. One of those tall competitors probably stands slightly taller, and is shading the others out. Below them, the mass is already falling back into the earth, shedding dormant seeds, and being squeezed out of the great game of life as light and vital minerals (Nitrogen, Sulphur, Magnesium, Manganese, Selenium, Cobalt) are locked up.

In about 25 years, there is one, tall, fierce competitor, the future dominant.

Now, from the air, you would be hard pressed to tell that anything had every happened. Yet the quilt has a new patch. The pattern of growth, catastrophe and replacement has done its work. The punctuated equilibrium is restored. For a while. Dawinism had another jolt, new patterns have formed here, things, below the crown, will never be the same.

Now, if the damage is massive enough, and it is not just one giant tree that falls, but hundreds, thousands or millions, we get a more dramatic change. Whether the cause is whether or the chainsaw, the clearance of forest over hundreds of hectares can lead to substantial changes: soil runs off in the rain, the forest ‘dries out’, peaty soils burn back to sands and rock, and the short-range seed dispersal of the larger trees can mean that no seeds can reach the centre of the area to colonise it. What we might see for a while is farmland, or grazing, or scrub. What might never come back (ever, or for thousands of years) is the broad, high, moist forest that was once there. Sometimes it comes back. Sometimes the damage is just too severe and it cannot. Sometimes it bounces back once, twice three times, but the next catastrophe tips the whole ecosystem over the precipice and it just cannot claw its way back.

All very poetic. And biological. But what about business?

It is the same.

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