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Gemma, Samhain 2022:
connecting, nourishing and illuminating

Surrounded by Samhain’s autumn leaves, Gemma recorded some reflections on the unseasonable warmth of this autumn, her recent conversations with leading thinkers, makers and doers across different sectors and what we can do to restore our lost connections.

Made by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


Autumn is something I deeply love. The leaves are turning. The bracken has turned to a rakish, orangey brown. The beech are displaying that kind of technicolour spectrum that always reminds you that you’ve underestimated them over the summer. And the oaks are mellowing, mellowing in that way that signals the ancient, ancient nature of the oak and beneath the oaks are these enormous acorns.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen acorns that large and this year is a master year or a kind of bumper year for acorns. They’re so plentiful. I hope that many of them take seed and all of the autumn leaves a bit like snowflakes. So similar and yet so unique and their particular colour palettes are cascaded all across the grass at which I’m standing on, very familiar palliative autumn.

But the temperature, the temperature is strangely, oddly disconcertingly warm. Last year at Halloween, I remember being wrapped up in huge coats ready for bonfire night a few days later, and now I’m stood in a long sleeve t-shirt and I’m warm, and the sun is shining.

I’m grateful for the rain after such a dry summer. The river that we live next to, the river that you can hear in the background was the lowest people had said they’d seen it for many, many years and the rain has come and it’s taken so much to return the river to its normal levels. And it’s flowing again and the sound of that vitality is really heartening. It feels like a very different world from in bulk from those few short months ago.

Feels like so much has changed in that short amount of time, and it feels like that’s a pace at which we’re going to have to get used to things changing. Yesterday there was another climate report released, which basically said that it’s very unlikely that we will reach 1.5 degree target. Perhaps impossible and that we are currently on course even with many of the tremendous innovations and efforts that we are seeing, seeing people take to decarbonize, we are on course for a kind of 2.5 degree future, and that’s not the worst case scenario by any means.

I listened to another talk by a climate scientist the other day who said that by the turn of the century, it’s not impossible that we’ll see a four degree temperature increase, which is the same differential as between the time at which we live now and the previous ice age. By the end of the century, my kids will be in their eighties.

And I think for so many of us, many of the developments that we’re seeing at the moment just are really keep hitting that home again and again and again, and it’s hard to take. And so with this autumn, yeah, that does feel a particularly deep feeling towards the processing of composting and letting go and towards that feeling of a connection to our ancestors backwards and forwards.

Last time I spoke about the state of dissonance that so many of us are feeling, living in a world that’s kind of carrying on with business as usual when deep inside and the flotsam and jetsam of our minds, we know how fast and how far we have to change things. I think there’s about 10 climate protestors in jail in this country at the moment, in jail for protesting or demanding or desperately crying out for more action on climate.

On the one hand, I find that shocking that there are 10 people who are physically imprisoned and on the other, I know that this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg that will come. I’m sure many people have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, and in that there’s a, you know, very unsensational depiction of the depth and scale of protest that we will witness over the coming years as the climate crisis, the climate and ecological crisis bites becomes more evident and changes everything around us more and more.

And so that makes me wonder if we have 10 people in prison now, not only what will happen to them, but what we’ll start to see over the coming years as there is that increasing disconnection between the growing and ever greater wave of people realising what it is that we are facing and crying out in desperation for more to be done about it and in time and systems and institutions that are incapable as yet of enabling the kind of grown up conversations, enabling the kind of participation and bottom up engagement, including from the younger generation, including from our children and our teenagers. That gives people the confidence, credible confidence to know that this is being taken really seriously.

I was having a conversation with somebody the other day and we were discussing, I guess, the kind of thought experiment that’s often passed around in Silicon Valley circles, and it’s about the fear of an AI that is instructed to create paper clips. In order to do this, it needs to attain control of the means of production, and to start with, it becomes very efficient and good at creating paper clips, but obviously following that instruction, following that logic, it will then do anything possible to carry on creating paperclips, even if that comes at the great destruction of the planet and of humanity itself when human beings try and get in the way of the production of paperclips. And it’s a very simple thought experiment, but more and more it’s being invoked to draw a parallel with our economy.

First in relation to the corporation and without reform, how that is wired to create profit for a group of shareholders. So the corporation in a way is like the AI creating paper clips. It can’t free itself from its same logic it is incapable in its current form of creating the conditions that we need to build futures of planetary and human flourishing.

And part of what I find so tragic about the current moment is that we are falling into a trap that we’ve seen take hold in the form of what’s often described as culture wars. Also starting to be applied to the possibility of us having sensible grown up conversations about the nature of our systems as they stand and how they might need to transition and transform if we are going to build a society that yes liberates and empowers and supports the full potential of business ingenuity of scientific ingenuity of social and civic ingenuity to not only get us to net zero, but to go far beyond that, which is to create a system or to put humans in the service of the interconnected living systems of life so that we are once again in balance with each other and with the planet.

The ecosystems in which we live are sick and we need to restore them if we fail to do that, there is no way in which we regain our health as individuals and the society either. And so as we hear these clarion calls of the “anti-growth coalition” and we see these debates being weaponized as a reductive way of one side assaulting the other and scoring political points and creating more militant wings on the left and the right of politics that are not going to serve this moment. And instead, I think it’s so important that we find ways of coming together, of seeing the commonality below what is often, often seems to be things which are in antagonism with each other.

But we are people who love the natural world in which we live, who have a great and profound affinity to the other species, the animals, the insects that we are blessed with living alongside and with, with the ground on which we walk, there is a deep desire to reconnect to that and it’s at that substrate experience at conversation that I think we need to re-find each other and rebuild what are those common visions of the future that we desire together.

I keep coming back to John Powell, who runs the Center for Othering and Belonging in Berkeley. He talks of the four connections. And how a lot of the malaises that we’re seeing, whether in our economic or political system or how individuals are experiencing, our current moment is due to four disconnections.

And those are the connection of one’s outer experience to one’s inner experience, the connection of each of us to others, myself, to you and to others. The connection of ourselves to Gaia: Mother Earth, the planet on which we live. And the connection of ourselves between us and that which is greater than us, whether that is for many people, their faith, a belief in God, for some spirituality that they experience through other forms, for some nature, for some it’s felt in the deep web of value and affinity that comes from very deep connected human relationships. But we can all understand what we mean by that, a feeling of that which is greater than us.

And I keep coming back to these, the idea of these four connections because no matter the forum in which I’ve been over the last few weeks and months, it seems that these are threads that weave through every group that I’ve been listening into or been part of, or have been engaging, whether some of the groups that we’ve been convening to run the journey with, whether with people who are very powerful incumbent holders of wealth and capital, people who are thinking about new economic models, academics who we joined at the Royal Society recently to look at what would it take to make better decisions actually in times of radical uncertainty. A group of global leaders that we work with at Yale recently, all of these groups, no matter how different from each other, ostensibly, those threads of those four connections surfaced and surfaced again and again as things that people yearned for deeply, but also things which people believed had to be part of the inspiration of rebuilding, restructuring, regenerating, renewing.

So simple and yet so very, very different from the instructions that the current logic of our prevailing economic and political systems have been given.

And in many of the instances of individuals, projects, thinkers, those who are inspiring me at the moment. Most deeply, most vividly yes, are those who are showing the alternatives, who are part of the process of building those, but are also those who are doing it with and through groups of people who are very different from each other.

Again, in John’s words, what we’re looking at is bridging. We’re looking at building the bridges between us all, or in the phrase of Robin Baumann whose encounter we did for the old way. Reestablishing, deepening, deepening the weave of the web of connection, the web of connection between each other and between all other life on this magnificent planet on which we live.

Through the gate. I’ve just come into one of my favourite places, it’s an old woodland in the spring, it’s carpeted in blue bells and it’s very different scene right now. The carpet of leaves instead very, very different kind of beauty, branches of the trees just being able to be seen and in the background, the sound of man, the chainsaw.

I feel like there’s such a groundswell now of incredible people who have not only come to the realisation of the poly-crisis, what it’s gonna take to meet it but also have gone through the process of personal transformation and personal reflection to decide to step up in ways that are extraordinary. Deeply, deeply inspiring.

But there’s not yet the systems there to support these people. Well, the surfboards really in which people can ride these waves, and it’s very, very heartbreaking to see the disconnect between the first wave of people, the second wave, the third wave, the fourth wave in some cases for who for many, many years have been doing the hard work of transition and transformation, and perhaps in western countries more belatedly.

On Twitter the other day, it sounds, you know, it sounds like a silly example, but Immy Kaur of Civic Square posted a photograph of herself standing outside Number 10 looking joyous, post came as it was announced that Rishi Sunnak would become Prime Minister and she posted the great news that Civic Square had been appointed co-ministers for neighbourhood transition.

For more than a split second, I believe that to be true and I’m sure that there is a German word for the sensation of wanting to believe something so badly that your body exceeds to it being true before your brain has had the chance to catch up and correct it as false information. And I felt such mixed emotions about this.

On the one hand, it was a joke. You know, it was funny. And on the other, why is that so preposterous? Why is it so preposterous that one of the organisations who is doing incredible place-based work to put some of the big ideas into practice, in their case, donut economics, why is it impossible that an organisation like that would be made co-ministers for neighbourhood transition? Why not? Why are we not able to take some bigger, more riskier bets to experiment and forge different kind of alliances between different kind of actors who all need to figure out the pathways of transition, the state working in different ways with, with business, with civic society, with new forms of cooperatives, et cetera. Why not? I felt a real sadness that that was so preposterous. But you know what? I don’t think it’s gonna be preposterous soon. I think we’re gonna be seeing exactly that kind of thing in far shorter time horizon than we realise.

The last few months for me has been almost like going on a mini journey, the Constellations journey, but the kind of mini one of my own, because prior to this autumn, we’d focused a lot of time on developing the methodology and running it with different groups. And over the last few months I’ve spent quite a lot of time, you know, out there in the world, engaging in different processes with, in different events, running different things with different people, you know, from established, very much first horizon or incumbent, wealth and capital holders who, yeah, I think it would be fair to say, are beginning to reflect more deeply on their personal responsibility. I think still some way to go, but those conversations are starting to happen in a way that feels to academics and practitioners looking at making decisions and medical uncertainty to groups of leaders looking at new economic models. To groups of leaders looking at what it takes to be an effective leader or steward in the crazy 21st century in which we live.

And what I found interesting in cheering and actually synced up with, resonated a lot with what we are hearing in the encounters. All of the encounters that we’ve recorded in the second series was very much affinity. with these four connections, the four connections of John Powell. And we recently had the great pleasure of running the journey for the Yale World Fellows, the Yale International Leadership Center. And we created a kind of combined methodology using the journey with Hrund’s work on intuition and Insaeii.

It means to see from the inside out.

What’s been so interesting across all of the groups that have been part of over the past few months has been this growing recognition on the one hand that yes, nothing happens without us investing much more in the personal transformation that’s needed.

But second of all, this idea that we are in this white water world as John Seely Brown would say, and that there’s no way that we can navigate our way through it without becoming much, much more depthly connected to our inner intelligence.

There is so much uncertainty and complexity, and so if you imagine you are out on the ocean, rule number one is to keep your head up, otherwise you drown. And then it’s about carving your own way or navigating your own way. You know what your compass is because you know yourself and you’re connected within.

That intuition actually is a very, very important source, not exclusive source, but a very important source of how we make good decisions in uncertainty.

I was asked to share a conversation at the Royal Society with a number of people looking at how to make good decisions in radical uncertainty. Gus O’Donnell, who ran the civil service for many years, John K, who wrote the book, Radical Uncertainty with Mervin King. And in that book, they basically look at how so many of the systems on which we rely, particularly economic ones, are based on probabilistic modelling.

So if this happens, what is the probability of something else happening afterwards? And put very simply, it’s worth reading the book, but put very simply what this means is that we are now living in a time when it’s impossible, given the degree of complexity and the degree of interlocking complex systems in which we’re situated, it’s impossible to use probabilistic modelling to give us good judgements on what outcomes might be.

In fact, it’s dangerous because it imbues people to hire degree of faith that the answers they are getting are right and solid. In addition to that, we know based on what we are facing, that the future cannot be an extrapolation from or a deduction from our past. And so no matter how rich a data set we have on the past, it cannot give us the future that we want.

Because if we use the past to create our future, the patterns of the past will perpetuate into the future, will trap us in the vicious cycles that we are seeing play out all around us. So here you had, you know, these are not kind of radical fringe activists. Here you had some of the most established, I guess establishment thinkers in some ways looking at the dire need for us to flex our muscles and try very different forms of decision making, opening our minds again, not to this very, as John said, in the past, you know, a very gendered idea that the logic and the masculine is superior and the feminine I’m saying this as qualities not necessarily gender, that the qualities of the intuitive, the feminine are subordinated and devalued, and how we will only be able to find our way through to ride that white water if we’re able to.

Yes use statistical information to generate that in real life, in live timeframes, but also to just let go of the vice-like grip we have on probabilistic modelling. To understand that these are the times in which we live are gonna require something very different from us. And I think if we accept that which I do, then the importance of looking at models which involve values, what we value, what we measure, what we direct the systems to do. Like that paperclip example, we have to look at things at the value level, and that involves us freeing ourselves up from the power that the old values had over every aspect of our lives.

In New Constellations. We talk about these values as stars, right? These are the guideposts that are pointing us in one direction or another. So it is absolutely essential that it’s not aligning around. The means by which things are done. It’s a process of discussing and finding our way through to common visions of what the new values, the new guide stars are that can point us in a better direction and around them laced in and between all the individual stories of ourselves, of each other, of our communities, of other species on earth that help us understand what the better, more beautiful futures might be and might look like.

And it’s essential that when we look at creating new decision making frameworks, when we look at the models that we are using, not only to deal with our present, but to anticipate and to build our futures, that we are very much looking at that value stack and we are very much looking at the importance of breaking free from the power of old narratives and finding new ones together.

So at this moment of the shedding of the leaves and the turning of the seasons, the temperature not turning frankly as it should, but the leaves, so beautiful. Just brings me back to such a simple framework, again from the Berkana two loop model, but such a simple one, but so important. This idea of connecting nourishing and illuminating, connecting all those who are or who want to be part of building those new futures.

Nourishing, with energy, with care, with financial resource, with new systems that can uphold and sustain them and illuminating them because we need that illumination in these dark times. And there are so many more people who are beginning or are far down the track of this work than we let ourselves believe and we have to be serious and we’ve gotta be ready.

And we will be.