Unity: Indicator of True Success
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Paper prepared for the ebbf International Conference
Rethinking Success: a Way to Save the Planet and Ourselves
A virtual event, 14-17 May 2020
Success has been set, particularly in our dominant materialistic culture, as a favourable outcome, the ultimate goal to aim for. Who is the richest, the fastest, the most powerful, the most liked, with the most followers? It becomes a principle instrument of marketing, selling objects that signify success. In business, success is being the largest or richest company, with the highest market value, the most desired products, or rising to the top of the management hierarchy. Yet this view of success has ethical implications that are rarely discussed, and consequences that are threatening our future. Rethinking success has become a moral imperative.
Success for whom?
A good first question as we rethink success is: success for whom? Everything depends on the perspective. In what framework do we define success or what would be successful? Success for one might be failure for someone else. In our Western individualistic society, the first perspective is usually me, myself and I, individual success or the success of the individual company or nation winning out over others, a domination kind of success. In a zero sum game, success for one means someone else is losing. In this case, the set of values within which the question is asked is usually focused on some part of the whole, only a fragment of the whole, and the state of the whole is irrelevant. The assumption is that there is no relationship between individual success and responsibility within any larger system.
Complex systems science sheds a different light on this question, discussed for example at a conference I attended in Stockholm last December (https://iefworld.org/node/1016). The premise of the meeting was that the world is heading for catastrophe and we are going to experience collapse, and then asked how can complex systems science help us to navigate through the challenges ahead? From this perspective the framework is the success of the whole system, including everything within it.
An example of this problem is the 2008 financial crisis. Economists and investment managers had found very effective ways of measuring the risk of each financial instrument or derivative product that they were investing in, but nobody thought about the behaviour of the overall banking system. When the knock-on effects of weaknesses in one place started, the whole financial sector collapsed because nobody had looked at the requirements for success of the whole system. Each one was trying to maximize their own success in specific areas and not acknowledging that they were part of a larger whole.
Another example came from the climate change conference COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, where many countries were defending their self-interest, which made it very difficult to come up with a solution satisfactory to the whole in a context where decisions are taken by consensus. Too few there were looking at the common global interest. Governments are always having to balance what they think might pass at home, what will be politically possible or not possible, or answering to the vested interests of influential lobbies. They are measuring success in those narrower terms of self-interest, and ignoring what it means in consequences for the whole to bring on a climate catastrophe through the cumulative impact of many selfish actions.
So when we look at the issue of rethinking success, what good is success for an individual if the result is everybody else dying off, and as a consequence, the individual too eventually dying? In ecology we have the concept of overshoot and collapse. Flour beetles are a good example as they very successfully eat more and more flour and reproduce more and more, until suddenly, when they have eaten up all the flour, they all starve to death. Short-term success led to long term failure. Very often what is wrong with definitions of success today is that they are always partial and are not asking about the behaviour of the overall system on which everyone depends.
The time-frame is another dimension that we often get wrong, favouring the present over any possible future, just as we generally prefer ourselves over others. In businesses, it is the daily stock price, or the quarterly or annual financial report that measures how you are doing relative to the previous quarter or year. This is a very very short perspective. You wonder how often do people think about the future of the company? Look at past market leaders such as Westinghouse, Kodak or Pan Am. Because they didn’t innovate, perhaps they were poorly managed, but most importantly they were not planning long enough into the future. They were too comfortable in their present dominant position. Suddenly they were left behind when it became too late to take any corrective action, and they went extinct like the dinosaurs.
We really do need to choose the appropriate time-frame to determine whether or not we are successful. Success is not something you achieve and then have it forever after. It is a dynamic question of balance: how long have you kept your balance and how long have you continued to progress?
If you look at the Baha’i perspective, the time-frame is a dispensation of a thousand years, and a cycle of fulfilment over 500,000 years. So if we were to look at sustainability in that time context, we would really be laying the foundation for an ever-advancing civilization. We need to think of success that at least stretches beyond the extreme short term that is the common framework that most people use today, and considers future generations.
Within systems science we look at the complex interactions and relationships of all the parts of the system and seek how to achieve some dynamic balance among all of them. Systems have emergent properties that appear beyond what you might predict looking at any individual part of the system. They can evolve to achieve multiple levels of complexity and efficiency within nested sub-systems. The rules of interaction are important. Competition can lead to domination and instability, winners and losers, while cooperation and reciprocity facilitate higher levels of interaction, integration and efficiency, with everyone winning.
This approach can be applied in many contexts. For example, the Bahá’í Faith offers a systems approach to religion through its explanation of progressive revelation. Its concept of unity in diversity is all about the world as one country and all humanity its citizens, emphasizing cooperation and reciprocity, clear systems characteristics, along with solidarity, with each individual being a trust of the whole. All of these are systems ways of looking at all of humanity and how it fits into the natural world. In spite our technological prowess, we are still totally dependent on the good functioning of the biosphere, as the natural disasters resulting from the climate crisis remind us only too often. Our inner and outer environments interact both for each of us as individuals and as part of families and communities.
Unity as an indicator
Unity means forming a complex whole, the state of being one, and could therefore be seen as the ultimate goal or indicator of success in any complex system, describing the highest levels of integration. At the human level, our cells are united in tissues making up organs performing functions in a unified system we call life. As social organisms, we are born and live within families and communities, form businesses and institutions, create nations, cultures and economic systems, and are now evolving into a global civilization. At all these levels, unity is what makes these systems work best. Social cohesion is an indicator of integration, and fragmentation a sign of disintegration. The same is true in nature, where organisms belong to species forming communities and ecosystems together making up the planetary biosphere. This unity expresses itself in space, with multiple levels of integration up to the global level, and in time, with unity expressed as a dynamic balance in constantly evolving systems, achieving higher levels of diversity, efficiency and complexity (Dahl 1996).
One characteristic, then, of unity is sustainability as the system persists over time through cooperation and reciprocity. Another characteristic is moderation, since no system can grow forever in a finite world, and should instead seek the optimal size for its particular function. In human societies, unity is also expressed as gender balance between the sexes, where every individual contributes to the well-being of the whole, as one dimension of the justice that is essential to a united community. This unity is facilitated when everyone is motivated by a spirit of service to others, seeing work as worship to create wealth for all.
How to contribute to unity?
This complex systems framework highlights an important point for every individual: that we can best contribute to unity through complete abnegation. This is the exact opposite of present concepts of success. It is selfish desire and material attachments that contribute to disunity. The only success an individual should seek is spiritual success, and this comes through humility and selflessness driven by a love of the Divine reflected in everyone and everything. Human nobility comes from contributing one’s qualities and talents, one’s capacities for creativity and innovation, in service to the common good.
It follows that the institutions of society, whether of government, business or civil society, should have as their primary purpose to contribute to the unity of the whole by performing some useful service efficiently. Since every individual has a capacity to create wealth through some kind of meaningful work, all those capacities should be united in the joint effort of wealth creation. Wealth in this context means much more than material wealth, but should include other dimensions of civilization such as knowledge, science, art, beauty, and harmony with nature. At the collective level of enterprises, the aim should be to employ all those human capacities to provide goods or perform a function or service that best fits some purpose in a unified system. Together the economic system should fulfil the needs of all within it while implementing social justice and environmental responsibility, since unity with nature is also important. Thus, at all levels, success comes from maximizing unity, cohesion, cooperation and reciprocity, expressed at the spiritual level as love.
Putting unity into action
The essence of both the scientific and Baha’i approaches to rethinking success is really acknowledging that success is collective. Unity is not an individual characteristic. What good is success to you as an individual if everybody else around you is failing? We all need to be successful together or we shall all fail together.
In our globalized world, we need to explore how to look at planetary success. We have no alternative to succeeding on this planet, as we have reached planetary boundaries, overshooting many of them, and upsetting the balance of natural systems. How can we bring our impacts back into balance with planetary limits? This means achieving balance and sustainability in our accounting of natural capital and human capital as well as financial capital. We should abandon the wrong measures of success such as GDP or other purely economic or monetary statistics. These fail to measure success but drive the system towards endless growth regardless whether it’s constructive or destructive.
For an enterprise, that means considering how it contributes to greater unity for the employees within it, the people it serves and the wider community. It needs to assess how it manages positively and responsibly all the material and energy flows with which it interacts. It should rethink every part of its system, so that success is not how many more plastic packages it has sold, but can it find alternative packaging that can be recycled or become part of the closed cycles of a circular economy? A company that looks at its individual short term success in terms of financial growth without looking for innovative ways to rein in its production of greenhouse gases or to produce fully sustainable products will no longer have clients. Both its poor reputation and the practical climate consequences of its actions will eventually leave it without people who will want to buy or consume its production. Its survival will depend on how well it integrates into a green and circular economy, as one efficient part of a united, coherent system of production and consumption. Unity would be measured as integration up and down a supply chain, sustainably managing inputs and ensuring that wastes are reused or recycled, providing meaningful work for everyone in a community, and creating and distributing wealth so that everyone is wealthy and no one is poor or left behind. Profit should just be one measure of efficiency among others, maintaining an adequate financial flow to allow the enterprise to perform its core functions in service to society.
Everyone should start thinking about how to take a systems approach to this idea of success, recognizing that success is a dynamic process in interaction with others, that success is really achieving unity in continuing balance, a balance of the necessary material needs we all have while also aiming for uplifting spiritual nourishment for all. Success requires continuing processes of action, learning and reflection as we advance in a spirit of service, where hopefully, instead of diverging towards catastrophe, we will be converging towards a more sustainable society both in material and spiritual terms.
Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1996. The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis. London: Zed Books Ltd, and Oxford: George Ronald.
Also published online at https://medium.com/@ebbf/unity-indicator-of-true-success-20c381885622
Last updated 9 March 2020