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#Bonus:  Beyond the Brink is the Beginning with Richard Wain – Launching 27 November 2023

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Words have the power to change worlds. Powerful words, powerfully written can open doors to the future. Beautiful words, beautifully written, can give us hope . Richard Wain’s new collection of poetry is doing all of these, with panache, and heart and soul.

We all know by now that we need total systemic change – and a central thesis of this podcast is that we’ll get there best by creating narratives that build this – both highlighting the need for it and exploring possible paths through. What’s becoming clear is that this is an emotional and spiritual journey long before it’s a logistical one. So we need to find ways to reach beyond people’s head-minds into their heart-minds and spirit-minds.

With this in mind, our guest this week is a poet, an entrepreneur and an artist. Richard Wain is founder and director of the digital marketing agency Vu Online, and of the Positive Nature Network, both committed to creating networks of businesses that can support each other in the move towards a regenerative, flourishing future. He is also a poet with a commitment to celebrating openness and vulnerability and he has now written a beautiful, generative book of poetry called Beyond the Brink is the Beginning.

I met Richard when he came to our 6 month Thrutopia Masterclass back in May of 2022 – and was struck by his capacity to grasp the big ideas. Then I began to read the poems that arose out of our classes and was really in awe of his capacity to take these big, complex ideas, find the emotional spark at their core and weave it into something that could open hearts and help others to understand what really matters. We’ve been planning this podcast for ages, but his book is coming out soon, so now is the time – though in the end, as always happens, we roamed far and wide beyond the book, to the positive nature network and how small businesses and their owners, who are often their founders and may well be the sole employee, can begin to be part of the solution. As ever, we approached our own edges, which, a bit like poetry, is what this kind of medium is all about.

Richard’s book will launch on 27th November at The Barrel House in Totnes.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create the future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host in this journey into possibility. And my guest this week is a poet, an entrepreneur and an artist. Richard Wain is the founder and director of the digital marketing agency View Online and of the Positive Nature Network, both of which are committed to creating networks of businesses that can support each other in the move towards a regenerative, flourishing future. He is also a poet with a commitment to celebrating openness and vulnerability, and he has now written a beautiful, generative, delightful book of poetry called Beyond the Brink is the Beginning. Richard and I met when he came on our six month Thrutopia masterclass back in May of 2022. And right from the start, I was struck by his capacity to grasp the big ideas. And then I began to read the poems that arose out of those classes, and was really in awe of his capacity to take these big, complex ideas, find the emotional spark at their core, and then weave through that. And with that, something that could open hearts and help others to understand what really matters at this time of transition.

Manda: Richard and I have been planning this podcast for ages, but his book is coming out very soon and so now is the time. Though in the end, as always happens, we roamed far and wide beyond the book; we went to the Positive Nature Network in how small businesses and their owners, who are often their founders and may well be their sole employees, can be part of the solution. And also where people can get stuck, where our sense of identity can be the thing that holds us back from the change that we know we need to make. And I think this applies very far beyond the margins of just small business. So as ever, we approached our own edges. And with podcasting, like poetry, I think this is what this medium is all about; we get to explore the unexpected, we get to talk about the things that really matter with people who really get it and who really care. And then we get to share with you, the listeners who also get it and who also really care. So people of the podcast, please welcome Richard Wain, author of Beyond the Brink is the Beginning.

Manda: Richard, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s a real delight to be talking to you in a podcast setting instead of on our usual zoom calls. How are you? How is Devon? How is your life?

Richard: I am tremendously well. Yeah. I’ve had a lovely day today going and seeing my youngest child having his leavers assembly and various things, sports day at primary school. So it’s been an unusual day for me. Not my usual day, but a really emotional and lovely one.

Manda: Yeah, and it sounds like your local school is not a total disaster, which is lovely and quite surprising.

Richard: Yeah. Not a total disaster. I think, you know, they do have the national curriculum. But there are positives.

Manda: Brilliant. So one of your many hats is that you’re a poet, a beautiful regenerative Thrutopian poet. And so please would you read us one of the poems from your forthcoming collection?

Richard: Of course. This is called The Future is Already Here. The future you seek is already here. It’s locked to the beat of your heart. When the world that we weave is unwoven, every thread that is left plays its part in weaving a new web of meaning, in planting the seeds of belief. A vision that follows the dreaming; the root and the branch and the leaf. All patterns are interconnected, each fractal a sum of the whole. Our world in its chaos and glory, a body at one with its soul. Its true source of power is compassion, the calling so gentle and clear. A whisper of wisdom and wonder for the future that’s already here.

Manda: Beautiful. Thank you. Goodness. So let’s take a little bit of a step back and look at your history as a poet, because we met on this Thrutopia masterclass, but you were already established with poetry as your creative form, long before you came to that particular venue. How did Richard the Poet evolve?

Richard: So Richard the Poet has been there for almost my entire life in one way or another. The very first kind of move towards having some kind of professional life that I made was to be in a band. I spent a year with some very, very talented musicians, tremendous musicians down here in Devon, and I wrote songs. And, you know, my favourite aspect of writing songs was always writing lyrics. I just could lose myself in the process of writing lyrics and felt entirely at home there. And I lost touch with that a little bit for a few years. I got to the end of my year out being in a band and I did the sensible thing, and my friends did the the brave thing, and went on into careers in music and have done incredibly well. I know, yeah, really remarkable people. You know, one of my friends in my band was nominated for Mercury Music Prize, and another played for Christine and the Queens, an amazing band. So they went on and did some incredible stuff, and I kept playing with words. Always. It’s always been where I find a certain amount of peace, is to be still, perhaps to take in something around me, to observe something, to listen to an idea and to go through some kind of process of synthesis and then put that back out into the world in a form that I understand and that hopefully resonates in some way.

Richard: I started getting back into doing this more regularly and with more sort of intent when I had my own children and started reflecting on some of my experiences that I’d had as a child. Some of those events that happen in life that are perhaps, with a very small t traumatic. So I started writing about things that had happened to me, incidents where I’d found myself at the end of a playground and had my pants pulled down by a friend. And I remember with absolute searing kind of everything about the emotions of that moment, of all of my friends being able to see me completely exposed like that. That was such a moment that I thought, well, I need to capture this stuff, while I’m still aware of it. I need to go back and have a look at what are the events that have actually shaped me, as opposed to the ones I talk about. Some of the things that came up through that process were remarkable. And actually, I would not have remembered them without the process, without the idea of going back and trying to write a poem about these amusing or uncomfortable events that had occurred in my life.

Manda: Right. We recently spoke to Abigail, who also was on Thrutopia, and who said that every poem started with a kernel of feeling, and it’s sounding like, with you it’s the same. I’m not a poet so, you know, a book is a very different thing. It always starts with just an idea, though. And then everything else wraps around and wraps around. I’m wondering then, when we’re looking at a Thrutopian future and the point then is to perhaps answer the question that you have in your book Ahead of the Future’s Already Here. If I step forward, what kind of future will I find? Because we’ve moved then from just toe curlingly bad traumatic events of childhood, which even just you reciting that leaves me with cold sweat and just feeling, oh, I just want to crawl off and die. That’s that’s the kind of thing that one has really bad dreams about periodically. And yet we’re facing climate apocalypse, potentially AI apocalypse. Potentially I’d like to talk about AI with you later. All of these things are are so much bigger. How do you find the kernel of an idea to build a poem around when the subject matter is the existential future of humanity?

Richard: I think that is a wonderful question and my response to that, I think is it’s all in the moment. It’s all in the observation of what’s around you. And I think, you know, many people who listen to your podcast will very strongly relate to the sense that you get in connection with nature. And I think you can find that sense in other moments, too. My most kind of productive time for finding ideas is when I’m sat, usually either in my own garden. I have a small garden here. It’s no bigger than, I don’t know, it’s probably half the size of a tennis court in total, something like that. So it’s not huge, but it’s big enough to have a little bit of life in it. And in my garden right now, I have this plant that’s grown this year that I’ve never seen in the garden before. It’s common. It’s birdsfoot trefoil. So it’s everywhere, but I’ve never seen it. Now the only thing I know about Birdsfoot trefoil is that there is a particular species of blue butterfly that lays its eggs on birdsfoot trefoil. Now, I didn’t know that before the plant grew in my garden. And the other day, two days ago, I was sat on a bench at the bottom of my garden, and along comes a female one of these common blue butterflies. And it comes and it lands on the bird’s foot trefoil and it is obviously deciding to make its home in my world. And the feeling that just observing something like that, something has come to my part of the world that I have responsibility for and I’m now responsible for this little being, for this little creature. And it’s eggs and it’s caterpillars and everything that is going to come from that. And this plant that has come from nowhere, I now am responsible for that. So how can I reflect that? How can I speak from that butterflies experience? Or how can I speak from that plant’s experience? And how can I feel that? That’s the sort of experience that I think certainly in the case of the  poems within this book, that’s where I’ve tried to go. Very specifically, I think there is quite a lot of inspiration for the book that’s come from a number of people and their writing as well. But the the initial source of ideas tends to be those kind of situations where you just notice a thing and it’s kind of beautiful and above and beyond yourself.

Manda: Beautiful. I await pictures of the caterpillars that arise on your bird’s foot Trefoil. And this recreation of biodiversity seems to me it’s really beginning to gain a toehold in people’s awareness. So that please stop using roundup, because otherwise the bird’s foot trefoil won’t be there, and then the butterflies won’t have anywhere to lay their eggs. And this is why we’re in the middle of biodiversity collapse. And as part of your poetry, I want to come back in a bit to your use of language actually, because I think it’s really interesting and really lovely. But while we’re here, you are a founder, I believe, of the Positive Nature Network. Can you say more about how that came to arise, where it’s going and how much traction you’re getting with that?

Richard: Of course. Yeah. So positive Nature Network it’s come out of a long standing kind of process of getting my head around what business networking is really there for. So for anyone who doesn’t run a small business, and has never experienced business networks, never been and stood in a room with with with 50 to 100 other suited people who are trying to sell you things.

Manda: That sounds Like hell.

Richard: They’re not trying to sell you things. They’re feeling uncomfortable and wishing that they were somewhere else and and probably having to put on a mask and having to interact in a way that is very, very far away from a sort of true, authentic presence in the room. I think everyone knows it. And this is one of the themes that I think is interesting to me anyway, is there are so many things that I think everyone knows. And in business networking, I think everyone knows it’s a setup and it’s an odd one. And what I have felt for years going to these things, I run a small business, I need to lean into that business as usual way of doing things on occasion. And I still to an extent do. There’s there’s one foot in that world. So I need to be able to talk to people. I need to be able to establish a relationship. I need to be able to talk towards the idea of us doing some work together at some point in the future. None of that has ever held any joy for me. This is not me. This is a process that we have in order for us to perpetuate this way of doing business, in this way of seeing the world. Now how can we take the fact that people in business need to interact, need to build relationships, need to move forward in what they’re doing, face change, look to work with good people, look to engage with societal changes, environmental changes and impact and making things better. How can we take all of those aspects and get rid of all the stuff that’s about how many dollars you referred this week.

So positive nature network was started by myself, my business partner Dominic Cooper, and a wonderful couple of people who run a conventional business network that they’ve run for 30 odd years. And they are also aware of the same thing. They are absolutely rooted in running that business network, but they know that there is a new world coming and that needs to be engaged with. And they have been very open to supporting the idea that perhaps we should have a network that talks about nature, that talks about how we can deliver something not just beyond profit. So there’s a lot of talk and has been for years about people, planet profit and let’s all make sure that we’re leaning to some extent away from profit driven, from just doing the capitalist thing. And I get that. But it doesn’t feel like it quite exists. It feels like there are some businesses, like mine, who really want to do this and are really trying to do this and are making steps like joining this kind of network or spending money on local conservation projects. Or going out and taking their stuff to do this bit of volunteering or that bit of volunteering, whatever it might be.

Richard: But the number of businesses who are really able to say, yeah, we have a balance between our activities towards those three things. Even if you believe in those three things quite as being what the balance should be, if we take that as an assumption. People, planet, profit. How many people in my business are there to facilitate the people part of that? How many the planet part and how many the profit part? I think we can all guess that the balance is not even even even. It isn’t. Because at the end of the day, if I can’t pay everyone, I don’t have a business anymore. So that interests me. And that’s why Positive Nature Network, I think is a great place for people to come and actually talk about these issues and feel safe to talk about them because they’re not directly looking for business there.

In terms of the traction that it’s got, we’ve had a really good first year. We’ve had several hundred people signing up for our mailing list, and we’ve got a good few dozen people who come to each session. And it tends to be a few people who come along all the time, and a few people who are new. And then we’ve got some really good stories about people who’ve who’ve teamed up and started working together out of the back of coming together on the network. So it’s a really good story. And what it’s taught me as much as anything else is that there are a lot of people out there trying to connect businesses and trying to talk about sustainability, but relatively few trying to connect businesses with nature and how business might fit within something like an ecological civilisation. Or how business might adapt to this beyond the brink world. What all of those networks are doing is finding ways to massage business as usual in the right direction.

Richard: Which is great and I think we would have much more engagement as positive nature network if we maybe toed that line a little more. I keep on mentioning this phrase this week and I think it might have been Richard Merrick who I was talking to recently who used the phrase gentle insurgency. I feel like there’s a lot of room in many areas of business as usual for that gentle insurgency. It’s not about upturning the apple cart today. It’s about ensuring that everyone in the apple cart realises that the apple cart is going to upturn, whether I upturn it or not. So how would we best climb out the apple cart and climb into something else? That is a conversation that I don’t think is comfortable in that arena, but it’s one that I’m attempting to have on some level.

Manda: Gosh, so much here. We will come back to the poetry because there’s other stuff to talk about. But this is the crux of where we are as a species, isn’t it? That people are not comfortable with that message. A friend sent me a blog recently called Capitalism Is A Scam, written by someone called Caitlin Johnson, and she’s describing, I’ll read you the first paragraph: One of the most formative moments in my life was when I was running a small eco blog called Earth Moms in the Mid Noughts, which focussed on consumer solutions to the problem of environmental destruction. Back then, I still believed that while capitalism was driving the destruction of our biosphere, it could still be hacked into being part of the solution in some ways. And then she gets a call from a biofuels Start-Up, and she ends up in the room with a bunch of marketing people who are laughing over the fact that there is a product that she’s been promoting that does actually do what she’s wanting it to do. And the marketing guys are going, so what did you tell them? And he said, I told them to quadruple the price, of course. What else would I do? Ha ha ha. And they did. And it’s priced exactly that. It went up by four because they saw that there was a market and they could do that.

Richard: Exactly. Well, they could exploit that. And this is where, you know, you talked about the language and the poetry. And I think increasingly being involved in the business world, you know, to the extent that am; I run a small business, I’m not Richard Branson by any means. But being involved in that kind of world from a perspective of language means that you come across those words, ‘exploit’,the kind of penetrative language, the very patriarchal, hierarchical in every way. And really the language is one of the components that keeps it that way. Because as long as you’re describing these processes, you know, marketing is what I do. Well, wouldn’t it be better if storytelling was what I did? They’re not different, it’s just that we have another layer of abstraction for our dealings around extracting money from one another. Because it makes it more comfortable to extract money from one another if we don’t say that what we’re doing is telling each other stories in order to emotionally manipulate each other, so that we do things that we don’t want to do. If we talk about it in terms of actually what it is, then somehow it becomes a very, very uncomfortable place to be. And I’ve seen that place. I had an experience many years ago, my wife is an extraordinary woman, and she has done a lot of research over the years, and she used to do research in Nepal around women’s reproductive health. And I would go along with her on trips to Nepal, and I would pretend to be a research assistant because I had no skills that could possibly be helpful.

Richard: So I would sit in the background and pretend to take useful notes. And we met some wonderful people, some fantastic people in Kathmandu. In particular a couple of researchers who came back over to the UK at a point later on, and we were up in Liverpool with them, and we spent a few days with them. They stayed with us. We went to, I believe it may have been Asda. It was a big supermarket. We went to a huge big supermarket with Kiran and Laxmi from Kathmandu and we went to buy some chicken. And we walked into the aisle of four and a half gazillion vacuum packed bits of chicken in every possible conceivable size and shape and flavour that you could desire. And I saw the look on Laxmi and Kieran’s face and I felt ashamed. I felt a level of shame that I have never encountered in my life. It really made me think, what on earth is this? What is this? That we can feed ourselves this way, that we can actually stand it? And that was unexpected. But it does really speak to the idea that you can ignore almost anything as long as it’s normal. As long as it’s there in front of you and everyone’s experiencing the same thing. You can see how you end up with Nazi Germany. You can see how you end up with these kind of scenarios in which everyone just goes along, you know?

Manda: Yeah. There’s a brilliant book called The Half Life of Valerie K by Natasha Pulley, which is looking at Russia. Our hero wakes in a gulag at the start of the book and exactly that; that 20 million people out of a population of 100 million were picked up and taken away, and everybody else carries on as normal. Because we have that herd instinct. There’s so many examples of psychological experiments done. Let’s not go down that route. But what I’m interested then is, given that and given your capacity to see the language and the normalisation of things, that once we begin to strip away the fluff and get down to the core of what we’re actually doing, what we’re doing is obscene. And if we spelled it out to each other we might change. And so in your gentle insurgency with the Positive Nature Network, have people come to you with models of how they can begin to incorporate planet and people as much as profit? Because in the podcast what we’ve got to, I’ve looked at the future Guardian model with Paddy Le Flufy that Riversimple is using, and thinking if every single company in the country, business, whatever, regardless of size, were to take on the future Guardian model tomorrow, the day after the world would be a different place. And I wonder whether Gentle Insurgency would see that as a step too far.

Richard: I think that every single one of us is engaged in a sort of pivot. We’re putting one foot over the edge of the cliff, and the other one is just about still hanging on, for some of us. For others, the other one is the one that we’re putting our weight on. And so there are a range of conversations to be had. And all those conversations are good. And one conversation is, if we did this tomorrow, then things would change very quickly. And that’s that’s exactly the right conversation to have, as long as you’re also having a conversation that goes: it would be great now to start thinking about waving your foot over the cliff. Because if we don’t have that conversation as well, then we create a division which I think is very difficult to bridge. And I know that the pace of change needs to be fast, but actually we need as many people as possible to be starting to pivot in order for the pivot to be something that doesn’t lead to a division that could be very uncomfortable, I think.

Manda: So people come to Positive Nature Network because presumably they feel as uncomfortable as you do in the rooms of, hey, business networking. Let’s all sit around and drink cocktails and pick olives off tiny plates and talk to each other about our business, and try and persuade each other that we want to take in each other’s washing and share the money around. Is that not already an invitation to pivot? And if it isn’t, how do you start the conversations that move people to a pivoting point? What does that sort of conversation sound like in a business context? What language do you use?

Richard: What I normally do is to bring someone along who has already been through some form of transformative experience, or is running some kind of organisation that has already taken some leap in the direction of change, and I let that person talk about whatever they need to talk about for 20 minutes, half an hour. And then we separate off into small groups and we have a period of reflection. And it’s only very gently led. It’s really just an opportunity for everyone to relax into the idea of what’s just been said and how that might just somehow relate to their own experience. Sometimes those reactions are quite profound and other times there’s an ambivalence or an uncertainty about what’s being talked about, because it may not directly relate. So if we’re having a conversation around regenerative agriculture, how does that relate to me as a freelance videographer or whatever it might be? Those kind of conversations come up and there are a lot of people in Positive Nature Network who are very close to the question, so what do I do? Because my because my situation is different to X, Y or Z.

Richard: And that’s where I think your own idea around well, it’s about imagination. It’s about storytelling. It’s about getting the stories out there that are allowing people to see beyond the idea of what they currently are and into the idea of what they could be. Now, that isn’t what the Positive Nature Network can right now do, because the Positive Nature network is still about connecting businesses to one another. It’s about trying to work with suppliers and and clients who are doing things in a better way. It’s about starting the pivot and helping those people who are already pivoted to get the story out there. So that’s kind of where it’s coming from. I’m not aiming it at businesses who have necessarily already made any steps in this direction. We’re trying to make it a space where you don’t have to feel any kind of shame or discouragement for the actions that you’ve currently taken. And that, I think, is a good step for that space.

Manda: Okay. And essential because exactly, you don’t bring people with you if you make them feel ashamed of who they are. They just leave and go off and do what they’re doing.

Richard: Absolutely.

Manda: So have you yet had any people come through whose realisation is that their business is not ever going to be sustainable, that what they’re doing is not a sustainable thing?

Richard: I think that’s an interesting question and I’ve not spoken to anyone who’s effectively quit and said I’m not going to do this anymore. I just can’t. So I don’t think we’re at that sort of level of transformation. I think that where we are is OK, I’ve never asked myself that question before. Right. And I think that that is the first, most important step. When I first started considering whether marketing was something that was actually useful in the world or something that shouldn’t exist, then you have to look at what you’re doing in a very different way. And I think maybe we’re opening up the start of those sort of conversations in people’s minds, where it’s like, okay, should I really be doing this? I don’t know whether you’ve seen, there was a very funny, or I found very funny sketch show called The Mitchell and Webb look a few years back. And in The Mitchell and Webb look, there was a fabulous sketch in which the two main characters, they were actually in the SS, but they didn’t really know what that meant. And they were talking to each other and looking up at each other’s hats and noticing that they had this skull and crossbones on each other’s hats. And the conversation sort of went, do you know, have you ever thought about why we have a skull and crossbones on our hats? Because that kind of kind of strikes me that, you know, it doesn’t seem like a very positive symbol. And, and the other chap saying, uh, you know, I think there’s a possibility we might be the bad guys. And it’s that kind of conversation, where it’s just like the acceptance of, oh, yeah, right. Okay.

Manda: Right. This is opening up so many doors for me. Let me float an idea past you, because this is something that’s come up for me recently, mainly in conversation with Daniel Thorson. So you haven’t had a chance to listen to that because we were recording before that came out. We were talking about AI, and the question of whether generalised AI is or is not likely to be an existential threat. And we’re not going to litigate that question again here. That’s clearly an extremely divisive concept. However, the light bulb moment that I had was the fear of AGI is that we will create the computational system which can design and cause to be built its own successor. At which point we become redundant, at least in the creation of computational systems and its successor designs, creates its successor, which designs and creates its successor. And we have a very, very rapid exponential shift, probably in a matter of hours. And that at that point it evolves to the point where it could decide to switch off humanity. And what we have created then is a system that is beyond human control and which has an imperative to grow, and which is destroying all life on the planet to fulfil this imperative to grow. And the light bulb that I had was: we already have that system. It’s called capitalism. It has to grow and it is destroying everything in its mindless need to grow. And there is no off switch. Everyone with the AGI goes ‘we just pull the plug’. And leaving aside that by the time we got an exponentially brighter AI, pulling the plug is not going to happen, sorry mate, they’re just going to rewire the wiring.

Manda: But there is no plug to pull on capitalism. And so I was thinking a little bit further down the road of that. AI may or may not be an issue, but we have a system that is destroying us by it’s imperative to grow. And somehow that shifted my frame. So our problem is not that we power everything that we do with fossil fuels. That’s clearly not good, but it’s not the only problem. The problem is not even that we power everything that we do, the Michael Dowd statement. That’s not good either and it’s also not sustainable. The problem, as I see it, is that we don’t know what we’re here for. And in default of that, we know we’re not really just born to pay bills and die, but we have a system that tells us that whoever dies having paid the most bills, the biggest and best bills by the time they die, wins. And everybody has bought into that! So then I take a step back from that. So we need to grow up a bit. We need to get beyond the child phase of see want to take, to the adolescent phase of writing poetry about the existence of reality and why am I here? But it seems you get to people and you go, we need total systemic change and we need to find a new reason for being. And that’s when the lights go off.

Manda: However much someone’s come along the line, then ‘there’s no way we can’t do that. That’s too hard’. And I think, but we already did it! We took the system of ‘all you need to do is amass huge amounts of power and wealth, and that will make you great and you’ll be really happy’, in the face of daily evidence that this is not the case. It is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. And yet it’s spread around the planet and it is running us all. And if we can do that, then we can also spread something that actually feels generative. But I have yet to meet anybody in the business, industrial, even system thinking field, who is prepared to go that far upstream. Everyone’s busy tinkering as far as I’m concerned, with the colour of the wheels on the bus as we drive over the cliff. No, they need to be red or blue or yellow or green, whatever. But actually guys, maybe, maybe it needs not to be a bus and then we just don’t have the problem of the fact that it’s going over the edge of the cliff.

Manda: So I wonder, is there a level within any of the business fields that you interact with, where that level of conversation could take place? First of all, does that land with you? Does it make sense? And second is that a conversation? Because then the I’m sorry, we’re making a product that actually the world doesn’t really need, that ceases to be a problem because we’re coming from a different place. Over to you.

Richard: Yes. So there’s a lot in there to unpack. The process of starting a business and running a business is challenging in numerous ways, and anyone who decides to do that and does it with any degree of commitment, is going to find it really difficult to hear that they probably shouldn’t be doing it, because it starts to be an identity issue. So for my experience, I think it’s slightly different because I’m fortunate to have grown up around Totnes. I’m fortunate to have lived a life of relative kind of privilege. I live near nature all the time. I have all of these things that give me some perspective on what my business is and what it’s for. But I don’t think very many people in business are fortunate enough to have that perspective. And so the business is them. The business is who and what they are. It’s what they live and breathe. They get up in the morning and all they do is run the business. And then at night they go to bed and they judge everything about their own existence and generalise. This isn’t everyone who’s in business by any means, but there are plenty of people running small businesses where it is them. And so if you if you question the validity of the the product or service on offer, what you’re doing is a bit of a stake in the heart. And I think that’s where it’s really healthy to have business conversations that detach the human being from the organisation. Because I think some people are really deep in, especially business owners, get really deep into it. Because it’s absolutely how they project into the world as the CEO of this or the leader of that, you know.

Manda: How do you do that detaching? How does that play out in your world?

Richard: Enough people do it. Say you have a business like Patagonia, who come out and say something that is radical enough so people take note of that as an idea. And you see a response to that. And there are lots of different layers in that. So one of the layers is a layer that’s around the sort of publicity and attention and all of the sort of negative things, in a way, around what that could lead to. ‘Oh, look, if we take our business in this direction, potentially we can get ourselves seen and and heard’. That’s the bit that you can’t get away from, but at the same time, there’s also plenty of people who see those things as genuine leadership and who who go ‘I didn’t realise we could do that. I didn’t realise we could put nature on the board. I didn’t realise we could structure a business in that different way’.

Richard: A lot of it is momentum and a lot of it is identity. So you have many, many people who love being in business, enjoy what they’re doing and really don’t want it to have to end. And then you have many, many, situations in which, and you’ve discussed many of these on the podcast before, I know, with Simon and many other people. Situations in which the markets and the responses and the chains of supply and resources, and everything is so enmeshed that you can’t stop it all at once, because what’s happening over here is, is going to impact on this and this and this and this and this and this. So you’ve got a huge network of nodes all interacting with one another, very much in the way that a living system would. And you can’t just pluck out a single species and expect the whole thing to collapse. At the same time, at some stage you pluck out enough species so that the whole thing collapses. It’s very similar in a way. And sometimes I see these two potential civilisations in some kind of combat, and other times I see these two civilisations as being the same. They are reflections of the same thing. You have a technological civilisation that’s trying to evolve itself beyond what might be seen by that civilisation as some kind of prior state, some kind of historical place where we used to have to rely on the world and nature and resources. That we somehow used to have to do that.

Richard: And now we’re going to get to this point of technology you see in science fiction. In Star Wars there’s a planet called Coruscant. And Coruscant is entirely city, the entire planet, there’s nothing else. There’s just shiny metal, you know. And I think some people genuinely see that as a possible future. And then I think many people genuinely see the idea of everything technological and everything that has come out of that way of thinking disappearing, and us going back to a state of something that is almost entirely a living system. And the reality is that the future that is already here is somewhere in between those two things. And it’s very possibly closer to the living system side of things than many people are yet to acknowledge. But it’s not a complete rejection of some of the aspects of what’s come out of the civilisation that we have now.  I’m going on. There’s a nuance there. 

Manda: It’s really good. I’m curious, have you done the thought experiment to take ourselves forward 30, 40 years, whatever time frame works for you. Have you an image of a future where the natural world and human technology are working in some kind of symbiotic partnership? Because that seems to me the only one possible. But I really don’t know what it looks like. I’d be really interested to know.

Richard: Well, I think that there are many technologies, most of which are to one extent or another alarming to us, AI being one of those, that have the potential to create some kind of bridge between those two civilisations. And all of that is terrifying in the sense that that is a change that no one feels comfortable with. But I think sometimes you need to stop and look at the civilisation we already live in, where we already have technology in our own bodies. Many, many people have technology in their bodies to keep their heart running or to keep their their hips and knees working. There are many, many ways in which we are already embracing technology as a way to augment living things. Now, I’m not saying for a moment that I think that that is the right path, but what I am saying is that we’re already doing it. We’ve been doing it for ages, and that we shouldn’t be too sort of freaked out by the prospect, because it’s already there.

Richard: I think is is similar in the sense that we have numerous technologies available to us that can destroy the human race. Nanobots and nuclear, technology and all kinds of things that have been there for decades and decades. And AI is the newest and potentially could be the swiftest to dispatch us without too much of our knowledge. But at the same time, it’s not the biggest threat to us. The biggest threat to us is the thing that sits behind this conversation. As we record this, the world was the hottest it’s ever been last Monday. And then it was the hottest it’s ever been on Tuesday. And then it was the hottest it’s ever been on Thursday. Rome is literally burning. It’s a different world I think to the one that we imagined sometimes.

Manda: Definitely. I really want to segway back to the poetry. However, I have one last question. Because this comes up for me a lot, listening to people in business they have 20, 30, 40 year plans, or people in politics ‘we will be zero carbon by 2050’, which conveniently is long after the lifetime, certainly the political lifetime of anybody currently in Parliament. And I wonder whether in any of the conversations in Positive Nature network, there’s a sense of a timeframe within which action has to happen.

Richard: Yes. So I think absolutely there is. I think that there are, again, two sets of people who end up, I think, playing along quite nicely within Positive Nature Network. And those are people involved in organisations and businesses that have already got their heads around the fact that we are way past, we really need to change things incredibly quickly, if not quite a long time ago, in order to make a real significant difference. And then other people who are just grappling with the idea that we might need to change things. And so we absolutely have those conversations. What we don’t necessarily do is bring everyone with us when we have those conversations, you know, because for some people it’s just not possible to live in that space yet. It’s just not possible to admit that actually, oh, this thing might really happen or this thing is already happening. It takes a little while. Yeah, it’s too frightening. And, you know, people are quite literally living in different states of Evolution.

Richard: There is some work that one of our clients at View Online, my marketing business, one of the clients that we have is a woman called Mary Ann Allison in the US. And she’s done an amazing piece of research around effectively the evolution of society and the fact that there are, in her view, several kind of eras of humanity living side by side. And that has very little to do with the technology or the level of development in a particular country. It has to do with the particular kind of social circumstances and upbringing, and effectively the circumstances that different families have found themselves in over a period of time. And you end up with a spread of several hundred years of perception of where we are, because of this natural kind of almost lag that occurs over time. And sometimes you’re talking to someone whose perception of where this might take us is 70, 80 years away from the reality in some respects.

Manda: Away from our perception of the reality.

Richard: Away from our perception of the reality. And if you take all of those perceptions of the reality and line them up, some people ain’t going to be ready for the conversation. Some people are going to be having a conversation that I’m not ready for. And there might be someone in the world somewhere who’s having a conversation that you’re not ready for.

Manda: I hope so!

Richard: But it’s a real continuum. And nobody knows what that distribution is. Is there a normally distributed thing where we just get to 50% and everything tips over? Is it doing this? What’s it doing? We need to get enough people with one foot over the edge of the cliff and their weight tipping in that direction so that everyone tips. People say 20%. People have different ways of viewing that. So my feeling is you chip away and you also blow things up, you know, metaphorically. You, make as big a noise as you can in the frame of reference that you’re in. And that helps people to pivot. And if we look at it as pivot more people if you can and find ways of having the conversation that helps to pivot people. And then it’s enough. Once we get to enough, then everyone has to turn around. There’s no other way, you know.

Manda: Because even people who don’t get it and don’t want to get it, if the whole of the culture moves, then they have the choice of stepping outside the culture or moving with the culture. And if we get it right, what the culture moves to is more generative and more fun to be in. And then you come along for the ride because you’re enjoying the ride, not because you’re ideologically either with or against the ride.

Richard: Absolutely. At some point, it’s just a better idea. And what I would say is in positive nature network, that everyone who comes along there recognises some elements of ‘it’s just a better idea’. There’s a big tie to a kind of whether it’s like a Protestant work ethic, whatever it is. There is a big tie to ‘I must work hard in order to deserve to do something that is out of the realm of having to do a job I hate. 

Manda: Oh interesting. Right. Okay, so I, small business owner, have got a business that I’ve made and I love and it thrives and I have to work every hour of the day because otherwise I’m going to end up stacking shelves in Amazon.

Richard: Yeah, and I’m proving something to my parents. Or I’m proving something to myself. I am working through my stuff. And in order for me to have value in this world, I have to work through my stuff. And other people can’t define what my stuff is for me, so. Yeah.

Manda: Oh, God. The apocalypse is going to happen because we’re all still busy doing stuff we didn’t do in therapy in our 20s.

Richard: I think that’s another thing, though you know. Same terror and I relate to that. But the thing that I think is important to recognise is the apocalypse is going to happen. We all know that. Now it’s going to happen at some stage, and we have influence over the when, but we don’t have influence over the event. Because we all know that happens. That happens at the end of your geography lesson, when somebody tells you that the sun’s going to expand and the earth’s going to burn to dust. It’s time. It’s really just what lens of time do we want to look at this problem over? Because at the end of this, all living things disappear. That will happen. And that’s a question of do we grieve for that now? Do we deal with that now? Do we look at it as a problem that is solely of our creation, and that we are the only ones who could make that happen? Do we recognise that, just as you and I get to the end of this podcast, just as you and I get to the end of this day, just as you and I get to the end of our lives, the world gets to the end of its stuff and everything dies. And that happens. Sorry, that’s not an uplifting thought. 

Manda: Several billion years from now, so we can probably hold our breath a bit longer.

Richard: Well, it’s several billion years from now, if that’s what happens. But we also know a number of other bizarre happenings that could come along and wipe us out at any given moment. And I think sometimes it helps to live in that space, because it’s kind of like, yeah, you know, we could have some massive solar flare that wipes us out far before the current problem that we’re trying to solve. I think it adds a certain kind of sense of, yeah, we’re not going to be here forever, so let’s try and use it, you know?

Manda: Interesting. Okay, so we are running out of time. I want to come back To Beyond the brink is the Beginning. Because it’s a beautiful book in its language and it’s also beautifully laid out. I was really struck between the very first edition that I saw and the most recent one, with the illustrations that you have made. Partly because I listened to Daniel Thorson and I had internalised AI’s evil, stay away from it at all costs. And yet you have created absolutely beautiful images, and I gather you have achieved them with AI. Can you tell us a little bit about the process just of making the art for the book?

Richard: Of course. Yeah. It’s one of the aspects of doing this, that I had to do a bit of soul searching around AI. Now, AI is something that really is very closely related to what I do in marketing, and it gets used all the time for all kinds of different purposes, which I won’t go into now. But in the case of the artwork for the book, I used a tool which is called Mid-journey. Now Mid-journey is freely available and it will generate images from text. Now, that’s not all that it does. It also allows you to effectively augment or alter existing images by providing an image and a text prompt. So for example, if I feed into it a photo of a snail shell, and then I ask it to change the image in a particular way. So I might say ‘take this shell and rotate it by 90 degrees and put it on a solid white background. And I want it to be in black and white, and I want to have the effect be like an inkblot kind of picture’. Then you can produce an image, and that image will be maybe 20% like the image that you want it to be.

Richard: And then you can take that image and you can once again have a have a conversation with the AI about how you want to alter the image, to bring it closer to what you’re expecting, or what your vision is for the image. So it’s a process of taking something that exists and then augmenting it through working with a computer. Now the tool in this case, rather than doing that through a series of filters on a program like Photoshop, I did it with a series of written explanations of what I’d like to happen to the image in AI. And the difference in those processes is largely speed. The tools are not too different. I couldn’t paint the pictures myself, I may have been able to produce them on Photoshop and it would have taken me longer than I had. Using Mid-journey as an assistant to producing the images was the most effective way of coming up with something that sort of matched the vision I had for for the book.

Manda: And in this particular case, we’re never going to replace the designer because the aesthetic decisions were all yours. You decided the look that you wanted, and when you got there and all of the images I can see, I looked at the snail shell as you were talking. I could imagine more or less the process of that, but I’m not a designer. I wouldn’t even have begun to think that you could do that with a snail shell. So in this case you weren’t asking for opinions or asking for it to tell you what to do. You were just using something that can parse your written language and turn it into images, and then refining the image. Which I’m daring to say is probably not too unsafe? And it’s beautiful. The end result is gorgeous, I think. So let’s go with that. I love the Fox, the last one in the book. I love all of it actually. They’re just really strikingly beautiful.

Richard: Thank you.

Manda: And so we’re heading towards the end. I wanted to have a tiny conversation about language, partly because it’s my thing and I’m always fascinated. Particularly with poetry, how every single word matters. And however much in a novel we try to weigh every single word, there is still in the end going to be some sentences that are sharper than others, and some where each word might only be doing one thing. And yet in a poem each word is part of a multi-layered event. And there are very rarely words that are only linked to one concept, one idea, one feeling, one thing. I also noticed with yours, and this possibly comes from your singer songwriter history, you seem to have alternated between effectively blank verse and then others where we have iambic pentameter or something, a rhythm and rhyming couplets, or some kind of rhyming structure. Was that a deliberate alteration, or is that just the way that it comes out?

Richard: To an extent it’s deliberate. What I find when I write is that I’m reading. So I’m interested in the way that the words sound, as much as I’m interested in the way that they come together on the page. And because of that, I think that there’s a certain sort of emotional resonance and an ability to tell a story, that comes out of moving between the two. Not having everything conform to a particular rhyming structure allows you to tell the story in a different way and to kind of change gear emotionally. And I think that’s a really useful tool from my perspective. And certainly the experience of reading the poems and reading the book, I think it benefits from changing things around like that. I love writing words that rhyme, as I said earlier on, you know, writing songs, that’s where I come from. But I think that there’s a power in both and it’s fun to sort of challenge myself to try and do things a little bit differently and not to be afraid of trying something that may not stick to any particular rules.

Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. And I’m in awe again of your capacity to find good rhymes and good rhythms, because it seems a very particular skill. Given that we’re right at the end, I would really love it if you would read us another poem, and the one at the end of the book, In The Eyes Of Another, seems to me to be a good one to end with. Would you be able to read us that?

Richard: Of course I would love to. Thanks, Manda.

Richard: A life for ourselves. A life for the people we love. A life for all that breathes and sets roots in the soil. A life for this fragile earth. Look for this now in the eyes of another. Smile. Let them see you. And know that you both stand at the brink. That there is no turning back. And that real change comes when you know this in your heart, when you let go of this fractured world and find your place within this web of life, this perfect living earth.

Manda: Well, there we go. Wasn’t that beautiful? The whole book is beautiful. I am revising my antipathy to AI simply because of the beauty of Richard’s illustrations. They’re gorgeous and his poetry is so moving. And I realise I am wholly biased because I know where some of it, at least, came from. Also, full disclosure, I wrote the foreword. Forgot to say that in the intro; I did write the foreword. So I am somewhat intimately bound to this book. But I do think it’s a really important addition to the Thrutopian canon, to what we’re trying to do in terms of using all of our creative powers, all of the language at our disposal. To help people understand where we’re at and where we could be and how we could get there. And for those of you listening, to give you more tools in your toolbox, you can buy this and give it to friends who are on the brink. As Richard says, they have one foot ready to pivot over the edge, ready to walk forward to something different. Poetry is so accessible. It’s not as if you have to read 180,000 words to get it.

Manda: One poem can be enough to take people to where they need to get to. So links in the show notes of where you can get this, and I will put in the show notes the date of publication, because at the time of recording this, I don’t actually know what that is, but it will be somewhere online, readily accessible to you by the time you hear this. So that’s it for this week. Go out, buy lots of copies, give them to your friends.

Manda: In the meantime, we will be back next week with another conversation. Huge thanks to Caro C for the music at the Head and foot. To Alan Lowells of Airtight Studios for the sound production. To Faith, for the YouTube, the website, the Instagram and all of the conversations that keep us moving. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. And as always to you for listening. If you know of anybody else who loves language, who loves exploring ideas, who would appreciate Richard’s book, then please buy them a copy and send them this link. And that is it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.

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