8 February 2021

PEXforum 2021 – The social life of forests: Takeaways for the co-creation of the PEXcommunity

I find the forest metaphor for the PEXcommunity powerful. Growing up in the Alps, I always loved forests.  As a child, an Alpine forest, ever changing through the four seasons, is a mythical realm to discover the power of your five senses, you learn to listen to the little sounds, to smell the presence of wildlife, to feel the universe around you and the serendipity of a different dimension of time. Growing older, through connecting to an ancient forest you learn to slow down and relativize yourself, to discover your own way to concentration, single-mindedness, presence, resilience, endurance, purpose, gaining a completely different perspective of the world and your place in it, and of the difference you want to make.

Differently from the homogeneous plantations produced by deforestation all over the world, an old-growth forest is much more than a collection of trees. The scientist Suzanne Simard[1] gave thirty years of her life to demonstrating that, underneath the soil, a vast interconnected network of life links the trees, even of different species, through their root systems.  She discovered that the trees, only apparently isolated and motionless on the surface, are in fact all connected through a complex subterranean system of infinite biological pathways that enables them to exchange water, carbon, nutrients, hormones and warning signals: the mycorrhizal network.

The mycorrhizal network is a living system based on negotiation, compromise, reciprocity, cooperation, connectivity.  The denser, more extended and developed the mycorrhizal network is, the healthier, more resilient and spectacular the forest. Since Darwin, one of the most established principles in biology is that all individuals compete for space and resources and that this competition drives evolution. In line with the dominant paradigm of competition in biology – corresponding to the ones of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith in economics – for centuries, trees were considered as competing individuals.

The perseverance of Suzanne Simard, a pioneer derided for decades, changed the way we think about the fundamental nature of forests, shifting the perspective from collections of self-interested individuals to living systems. The emerging complex systems science is now starting to explore the potential of mycorrhizal networks in preserving our planet fragile ecosystem, biodiversity and climate. This might lead to a reversal of the extractive models that shape today systems of production and consumption – not only with regard to the timber industry.

The pandemic with its legacy of uncertainty and losses taught us the deep meaning of Ubuntu[2] “I am because we are”, all is interconnected: humanity and nature. The pandemic has shown how connected we all are and how vulnerable we become when those networks of connectivity are non-existing or weak.

Illustration by Marina Roa from SenseTribe

Debriefing the ongoing co-creation process of the PEXcommunity through the lens of the mycorrhizal networks might be useful to avoid using old templates for new circumstances and to avoid focusing on the past or actual contributions instead of untapping the potential and being aspirational.

The PEXforum 2021 was powerful and inspiring in asking clear questions, such as: is PEX just infrastructure, connecting organizations that support individual foundations? Are we just supporting our respective members in achieving their individual results?  Or, 10 years from now, do we want to be part of a broader, collective, multiplied impact in terms of social change? If we do want to directly contribute to a new model of sustainable development, how can we move to the next level of connectedness? If the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, what is the identity of that whole? How can PEX identity be sufficiently open and inclusive and at the same time sufficiently defined in order to enshrine the values and guiding principles that we believe in?

Allow me to share some takeaways on the identity, vision, values, mission and guiding principles derived from the PEXforum. Far from being neutral, inanimate, invisible as an infrastructure, PEX is like a mycorrhizal mighty network, by nature, (bio)diverse and organically complex, able to embrace diversity and a variety of arguments to engage different types of constituencies and all forms and shapes of philanthropy support organizations working on the continent.

The inclusivity and diversity of the PEXcommunity can lead to a huge collective impact.

On global challenges, such as climate change or rampant authoritarianism for example, the diversity and inclusivity of PEX can enable us to go beyond the bubble of environmental funders or human rights funders and reach out and engage mainstream funders outside of those circles. This exactly what PEX is already provoking with the National and International Philanthropy Commitments on Climate Change.

On key strategic issues for European philanthropy in the coming decade, such as endowments investment policies and funding practices, the diversity and inclusivity of PEX can enable another level of impact, through the development of collective thinking and the adaptability of a variety of arguments, spanning from legitimacy to effectiveness, from credibility to social innovation, from impact to protecting civil society space.

As a living system organically growing to include and embrace complexity, PEX can scan and face, maybe through unusual alliances, the intersectionality, indivisibility and interdependence of the epochal civil, cultural, economic, environmental, social challenges in front of us: inequalities and new technological paradigms, population movements and demographical changes, democracy crisis and climate.

As for a mycorrhizal network, delimitation is not constrained by space and borders, and embraces Europe as a continent, from Turkey to Norway, from Russia to Portugal.

Shared values – such as the fundamental values enshrined in the Council of Europe’s European Convention on human rights and its additional protocols – became vital vis-a-vis such a broad, inclusive and diverse constituency, to bond together the PEX participants and exclude organizations that do not align with those fundamental values of fundamental freedoms and justice and with the operating guiding principles of equality, participation, power-sharing and co-leadership, collective care, adaptability and learning.

Similarly, to a mycorrhizal network, PEX is forged by an open and informal on-going co-creation process.

At the present moment, the mission of forging and fostering cooperation and collaboration in light of the values of a sustainable and just Europe is inspirational.  For too long plantations of stand-alone trees – characterized by individualism, the logos, siloes, egos mentioned several times during the forum – were spaced in upturned soil stripped of most underbrush. The thinking was that, in a competing world, bowling alone and navel gazing individualities would thrive. Instead, they were frequently more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees embedded in mycorrhizal networked forests.

Forging and fostering collaboration as a mission is very different from listing activities to do together. It is an enabling approach (not a planning one) that includes cherish a safe space for scenario thinking and uncomfortable conversations and implies investing sweat and blood in the creation of collective intelligence, collective imagination, co-creation and collective impact. Social change is made not by a stand-alone hero or genius or a dominant individuality, but by a collective effort.

Exactly as, through the mycorrhizal network a forest becomes much more than a collection of trees, it is the collaborative paradigm that overcomes competition for fees, visibility, recognition, funds and incubate impact. We have to become much better in making the case for our own value and improve our capacity to plan, assess and communicate our impact.

The world is burning and it will never be the same. This is our window of opportunity, and our responsibility, to shape the world we want, to be humble and brave at the same time to embrace complexity and be aspirational, to look for the powerful potential we can achieve together to build the power[3] of a more informed, connected, effective European philanthropy for a more sustainable and just Europe.

Carola Carazzone

Secretary General of Assifero and Board Chair of Dafne. She is also Board Member of Ariadne and ECFI as well as member of the Alliance Editorial Advisory Board.

[1]You can read or listen to the story of Suzanne Simard by Ferris Jabs, The Social Life of Forests: trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another? on The New York Times Magazine, December 2020 or listen to Suzanne Simard TED TALK How trees talk to each other. Suzanne Simard was also key inspiration for the visionary botanist Patricia Westerford, a central character in Richard Powers’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory”.

[2]Ubuntu is an African philosophy that focuses on loyalty and mutual relationships of people. It is an expression in the Bantu language that is based on empathy and compassion, respect for the other: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” “I am what I am by virtue of what we all are”. Ubuntu urges each other to support and help each other, to become aware not only of our rights, but also of our duties, since it is a value towards the whole of humanity, a desire for peace and harmony also with nature.

[3] For an against the tide vision of power you can watch Riccarda Zezza TED Talk Power: what womanhood has to with it?