Linda Aspey explores abundance and scarcity and how a shift in perspective can reconnect us to what’s really important.
While Autumn brings with it the end of nature’s mass growth spurt, it also seeds new life.
In early September as I was walking with a coach I supervise through the woods near my home, we saw hundreds of acorns sitting atop the blanket of newly shed oak leaves on the ground. The acorns were bright green instead of their usual tan hue.
This isn’t unusual – the first autumn winds often cause some acorns to fall early; these won’t germinate, but the rest should when they fall a fortnight or so later. But already there were no acorns left on the trees – just this sea of little green half-cupped nuts on the ground. And the blanket of fallen leaves seemed to be quite deep, unusual for early Autumn.
Concerned that the trees were diseased, as we’ve seen in other species like ash and Dutch elm, which has resulted their near obliteration, we came back and looked it up. We discovered that the oak trees had become stressed during the extreme summer heatwave, and by shedding their leaves and acorns prematurely they could both cool down and conserve core energy, and so survive.
We felt profoundly sad, and guilty, knowing that human activity is the primary cause of their plight. And while nature is highly adaptable and trees inherently know how to preserve themselves in a crisis, we wondered about this year’s acorns and future generations of trees.
Can the oaks adapt quickly enough? Will they be as abundant in future years? If not, it has implications for the multiple species of plants and wildlife that rely on the trees for shelter, food and shade. The knock-on impacts are likely to be many.
Only a couple of weeks before this, France’s President Macron spoke frankly about the series of crises that the French people are experiencing, “each worse than the last”.1
He went on to say, “What we are currently living through is a kind of major tipping point or a great upheaval … we are living the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance … the end of the abundance of products of technologies that seemed always available … the end of the abundance of land and materials including water.”
In the global north we generally see “abundance” as a positive thing. Yet for the people of Pakistan, this summer brought floods like no other year; for them, the abundance of water was utterly devastating.
Closer to home, and on a less critical issue, independent practitioners like me often talk about “famine or feast” when it comes to paid work – yet I am now wondering if I was really experiencing famine during quiet times in my career – they meant I could reflect, reconnect and recharge; when my work was in “feast” mode I was often overwhelmed and frazzled.
It all depends on the context and the lens through which we see it, doesn’t it? Even the values underneath our perspectives.
Abundance. For me the word brings to mind the Alaskan grizzly bears who feast on thousands of salmon as they swim upstream from the Pacific Ocean to their breeding grounds 2. The salmon are so prolific that in some places the river turns pink and the bears’ fishing techniques are fascinating to watch. Some stay on the riverbank, focusing hard on the rushing water, leaping in at just the right moment. Others sit in the shallow areas of the rocky beds, grabbing the passing salmon with their claws. Yet more stand full height, expectantly, near the rapids, with their mouths open wide as a salmon obligingly leaps in. There are so many salmon that often the bears just take a few bites of the fattest, most nutrient-dense part of the fish, discarding the rest. Fortunately, the remains are quickly devoured by the flocks of hovering birds.
The bears’ techniques differ but the drive is the same, fuelled by hormonal changes in the bears’ bodies that give them an insatiable appetite, compelling them to gorge to double their body weight before they go into winter hibernation.
The extent to which they can build up fat reserves will be a matter of life or death for them. And they inherently know that the salmon will be there – it’s always been the norm; yet in recent years, because of climate change, the salmon’s usual lifecycle has been disrupted and in some places, they are only traversing the rivers every other year. Bears are going hungry and getting thinner.
No doubt some will adapt to find other food sources, but their numbers are likely to suffer. They have encountered, for the first time, scarcity 3.
Abundance and scarcity in coaching
The profession of coaching grew almost from nowhere, to reach an estimated global figure of 71,000 coach practitioners in 2019 (not including managers / leaders using coaching skills), which was an increase of 33% on the 2015 estimate, according to the ICF 4.
The estimated global total revenue from coaching went up by 21% between 2015 and 2019 to almost US$3 billion. That is indeed rapid and significant growth. If you had shares that had gone up by 21% in four years you’d probably be ecstatic!
And coaches who’ve experienced this time of abundance, of feast, might now be wondering how you are going to “survive”, if Macron is right.
Given the energy and cost of living crisis across the G7 countries, and in the UK the rapid and dramatic impacts on the economy of recent government policy, I think he may well be.
For those of us used to living with abundance who then encounter the idea of scarcity, it can all too easily turn into a ‘we are all doomed’ mindset, which can sap our energy, imagination and sense of agency. As it will our clients’.
Like the bears, we might want to gorge (eat frantically while you can), or hoard reserves (for when it’s all gone). Or like the oak trees, we might feel compelled to shed everything to conserve our energy. It’s an understandable response.
For example, at our next supervision session the coach shared that she was really struggling to secure new business (she knows I am writing here about it). She was at the point of giving up and going back to her old job in finance (which had ultimately depleted her so much that she was depressed and ill) when she suddenly had a shift as we were talking. She realised that for many people around the world, a state of scarcity is their norm. That includes those living just a few miles from her, as well as on the other side of the world.
She thought that her potential experience of scarcity would probably be very different, at least for the foreseeable future, and that she had gone into a state of polarised thinking. (Of course it might not in this tumultuous world – but the odds are currently a lot lower than those already living in extreme poverty.)
And through her ruminations she realised that the oak was doing far more to survive than just shedding leaves. It has a number of collaborative and competitive strategies to draw on – communicating to other trees through the network of fungi and bacteria, warning them of danger, or producing pungent enzymes to deter invading insects from eating them.
She reflected that in the single-minded pursuit of “building up her city practice” she had become quite isolated and separate from many of the other systems around her. Systems involving relationships with nature and other people. This included those in her local community – right on her doorstep.
She spent the rest of the session thinking about how she could find and build new networks with small local businesses and community groups. She might earn much less, and would most certainly need to make significant and sustained cutbacks in spending, but the benefits of giving something back and feeling part of her community could far outweigh that. She left the session with a greater sense of purpose than I had seen in previous sessions.
The ‘D’ word
Some say our way forward is planned ‘degrowth’. I’m with them. While the idea is a challenge to our now almost taken-for-granted pursuit of economic growth as the most important measure of prosperity, it has a rather deeper meaning. Its roots can be found in Latin languages, where la décroissance in French or la decrescita in Italian refer to a river going back to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.
So how do those of us in affluent, abundant societies get back to a normal – and more equitable – flow?
I think we look to our purpose and values – our own and our clients’. As Jason Hickel explores in Less is More: How degrowth will save the world 5, for so long now we’ve valued an economy that’s purposefully organised around domination and extraction. We may not have been fully aware of that fact, but many of us are waking up to it. So instead of a world that is hell-bent on having and doing, perhaps we need to focus on our relationship with being – with the whole of the living world. This focus has the potential to flow into an economy built on reciprocity instead.
In her beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass 6, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about “the Honorable Harvest” – the indigenous Native American set of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life. She sums them up as:
- “Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself.
- Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
- Ask permission before taking.
- Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first.
- Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Take only that which is given.
- Never take more than half.
- Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use it respectfully.
- Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”
What might our lives, both personal and working, look like if those of us with such great privilege adopted these principles? Robin’s words speak to me of treasuring: treating what we have with reverence, as precious and as a gift.
This is a big challenge to business as usual, but I think it’s already happening, and will continue to, at an increasing pace. And it doesn’t mean taking on the whole world, just focusing, intentionally on what we can individually and collectively do to move from a state of almost permanent abundance to one of potential scarcity, while not falling into the trap of a scarcity mindset.
We and our clients will be encountering multiple challenges as we move through Autumn into Winter, and towards the toughest years some of us have ever known. The “Honorable Harvest” can teach us much, if we are prepared to listen.
- Linda Aspey is one of the panellists at the Coaching at Work annual coaching conference on 17 November. She will be speaking on the nature-based coaching panel on Learning from the Oak Tree
1. Macron warns of ‘end of abundance’ as France faces difficult winter, The Guardian, 24 August 2022: https://bit.ly/3yMg3sn
2. R E Fuller, Filming Grizzly Bears on the Alaskan Salmon Run: https://bit.ly/3yLeivN
3. C G Andrews, Natural Habitat Adventures, Climate Change Is Affecting Alaska’s Salmon – and Its Bears: https://bit.ly/3SceuLg
4. ICF Global Coaching Study 2020: https://bit.ly/3CCUOKM
5. Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World: www.jasonhickel.org/less-is-more
6. R W Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (page 183): www.robinwallkimmerer.com