Balancing Co-operation and Competition in the Light of the Problems of Consumerism.
From the ‘New Business’ pages of The Sirisuk Declaration at www.sirisuk.org
In previous articles elsewhere I have written about the crisis facing consumer societies in terms of the clash between an exponentially expanding consumer economy and our shared finite and dwindling stock of resources. Climate Change, Peak Oil and a growing world population were issues that prompted me to study science as a mature student in the 1980s and have informed my work as an energy conservation consultant and environmental campaigner ever since.
Yet the process of working for local and national government, private businesses and NGOs was as frustrating as it was rewarding. Both government and private clients and employers were insistent that my environmental reports should always show a positive spin: they wished me to say that they were ‘sustainable’ regardless of the fact that achieving sustainability requires an entirely different economic model to the one that is in use by companies and governments today; they wished me to say that they were ‘saving energy’ even if, as a result of efficiency improvements and growth, they were using more energy; they wished me to say that they were ‘carbon-neutral’ even if they were purchasing carbon credits within a scheme from which no real evidence of carbon emission reduction was forthcoming. For many years I made many compromises in order to keep worthwhile projects going and to stay in work. But, eventually, my refusal to lend my name to documents that were full of spin (full of lies, to make things plain) eventually made me unemployable within my industry – and I was not the only one. My story is not at all unusual. Within all industries and occupations there is a competitive spirit that runs through globalised corporate culture, government and politics that makes liars and hypocrites of us all.
Competition is a very effective way of achieving a very limited number of outcomes. Being ‘first’ or being ‘a winner’ might mean that one is ahead in the game but it does nothing to make ‘the game’ more useful to society. The competitive consumer society gives the impression that we are all ‘better off’ regardless of evidence to the contrary. While billions of us around the world are indeed better off in many, many ways because of competitive consumerism, the number of people in abject poverty around the world (about 2 billion people) has remained about the same for many decades while the consumer society has grown ever more prosperous around them. If resources were not finite and if the laws of thermodynamics were not as they are, then consumerism would not only be a good choice but an ethical choice. But we do not live in a parallel universe where physical limits do not apply.
Competition, so good at enthusing competitive people to forge ahead, is no good whatsoever in helping to promote good ideas put forward by gentler, more thoughtful people for whom competition is both a great distraction and an unpleasant experience. Furthermore, as the greatest competition of all is for the acquisition of wealth and resources, our society is ruled by people for whom acquiring those necessities of power is more important than anything else. Not at all surprisingly, the vast number of ‘losers’ in this race are people who think the opposite or have no particular opinion. Competition is, then, a motivator par-excellence if one wishes to relegate people who are not interested in competition to the ranks of second-class citizenry.
So ingrained is the idea that competition is ‘good’ and that to be ‘uncompetitive’ is bad that even in our social services, charities and arts organisations it is the competitive people who rule, not those with the greatest knowledge, ability, experience or creativity. The cult of competition is both self perpetuating and self replicating; ‘winning’ managers employ ‘winning’ sub-managers and winning sub-managers employ ‘winning’ staff and, before you know it, the whole organisation is ‘winning’ like mad. This illusion, that we all can be winners, is just that – an illusion. Within the cult of competition only a very few people wield any significant power and the rest of us have to adopt a ‘winning’ posture in the face of real and disempowering defeat.
Those in favour of extreme competition, who think that anyone not bitten by the competitive ‘bug’ is simply missing some essential element of human consciousness and should not be trusted with anything, have not come to terms with the fact that ‘winning’ is, in itself, of no interest whatsoever to a great many people. And, in the great race that is called the competitive market, winning has become such an end in itself that organisations will take enormous risks with investors money, taxpayers contributions and even charity donations in order to be number one. The ‘winning’ culture celebrates the richest, the biggest, the fastest growing, the most expensive, the cheapest, the most complex, the simplest and the ‘best’. But, amidst all these quantified and qualified superlatives there is little room for the fairest, the most ethical, the most generous, the humblest, the most accessible or the most self-effacing; partly because ethical attributes tend to be associated with geeks and losers but more because those attributes, such as they are, are as much about process as outcome and are at odds with the very nature of competition itself.
I once put the above analysis to an employer and the response I got was that I should strive to make my employer ‘the greenest’ or the most ‘environmental’. He believed that one could apply competition to any activity to the benefit of that activity and thus to the whole organisation. In all seriousness I pointed out that there was no such thing as ‘the greenest’ and that any serious measure of sustainability would involve criticising, either directly or by implication, most of the policies of my employers’ organisation, including many of the excellent social services they provided or funded.
There is also the problem of democracy within competitive structures. When competitive people are involved in a partly democratic process, such as a board meeting or team meeting, they are all ‘fighting’ or striving to optimise their own department or area of interest. The fact is that most management staff are so intent on becoming the ‘best’ that they lost sight of how ideas fit together and how being the best at one activity inevitably makes one less than the best at another; for, along with the cult of competition, is the cult of optimisation.
One has to note, at this point, that the majority of managers within industry and government are management and arts graduates with little or no basic scientific training. I am not denigrating the arts (indeed, I am an arts graduate myself) but I am highly critical of arts-oriented management that is not also scientifically literate. Whether one is in the employ of a service industry, commerce, manufacturing or government, ones activities will require energy and resources. And I am not talking about ‘mystical’ energy or the resources of the mind. I am talking about measurable energy and real physical resources. And as any engineer will know, if one optimises one attribute of a physical system, another part of the system will suffer unless more resources and energy are added. But, even then, one is faced with the same dilemma; for when the system is further resourced the problem of optimisation still exists; one part of the system will always be more favoured than another. If one was to wish for parts of a system to be equally favoured then the competitive optimisation of each part is the very worst strategy.
The introduction of new ideas within democratic structures that are resistant to change is not easy. Not only are new ideas unable to compete fairly with old ideas that might have been blessed with huge practical and cultural investment, they are faced with extreme competitive vigour from those whose job it is to protect the status quo. For to allow a change in direction one necessarily has to cease going in one’s original direction and managers wishing to optimise their own projects are unlikely to vote for anything that makes them less competitive. While my observations are not new, they are also not sufficiently appreciated. Most corporate managers still think it possible for every function of a business to be optimised while also thinking that they must oppose new ideas that might make their own projects seem sub-optimal; such double-think is at the heart of competition.
Another area of double-think surrounds the idea that resources are limited. Accountants tell their organisations that money is tight while management trainees are told that the only limits to their success lie in their imagination. Management trainees are also told about the price mechanisms involved in the interfaces between supply and demand due to the scarcity of resources yet they are told that the growth of their company is paramount. Governments tell us to cut back on expenditure and to tighten our belts yet they are forever concerned with maximising their country’s access to materials; indeed, in all walks of life we are expected to believe in optimising conflicting ideals at the expense of interdisciplinary co-operation.
Consumerism, perhaps the most obvious of global ideals that has permeated our culture over the past century, relies on the idea of limitless resources regardless of what scientists, engineers and accountants might tell us; in that sense consumerism is as much mystical religion as it is big business. And though Climate Change and Peak Oil have captured the public imagination and are becoming considered aspects of global strategies within some multi-national corporations, most industries and governments continue as if such inconvenient truths were quite imaginary; growth, competitiveness and optimisation are still the mantras of managers everywhere. It is my hope that mechanisms like the Sirisuk Declaration will help to bring about a fundamental change of emphasis.
A New Role for Idealism and Activism
It was popular in the West for political activists to say, in the mid 1960s through to the mid 1990s that the “personal is political.” The idealism of those decades made the point that everything we do as individuals has a political impact, from the food that we eat to the clothes we wear and from the consumer goods with which we indulge ourselves to the political parties we support. But that idealism has not transferred well over the past 30 years and it is the fault of my generation; those born in the two decades following the Second World War who, in the words of one British post-war Prime minister, Harold Macmillan “…never had it so good…” And for Britain it was true. We didn’t suffer the horrors of war and we had the Welfare State to catch us if we fell; consumer products were becoming cheap and plentiful and even the old Empire was becoming a thing of the past. Modernity and technology promised to rid the world of poverty and disease, and the optimism was profound. The only worthwhile battle left, it seemed, was Civil Rights and at least some of my generation helped our elders in that incomplete and ongoing struggle.
But what many of us did not anticipate was that technology would be used again and again for such crass and horrific purposes. We did not realise that our politicians would be so unbending, so eager for their personal prizes, so corrupt of mind and wanting in ethics. We knew they were bad but we thought, because we were better, that our idealism would shift the moral compasses of even the toughest adversaries. We thought that the lessons of WW2 were bound to attach a warning clause to every psyche on the planet, “never again, never again”. Perhaps, after the Korean and Vietnam wars, after Poll Pot, after Bosnia, and after so many other tragedies perpetrated in the name of tribal cohesion, many of us lost heart and failed to convince our children and grandchildren that these things matter; that power is corrupting, that wealth does bestow power, that violence is done in the name of cohesion, that consumerism is limited by resources, that science is the model of reality that can relied upon and that poverty will not be solved by modernity and technology without an ethical electorate from which our politicians are elevated. Instead of ringing the warning bell as loudly as we could, my generation retreated into the selfish realms of personal growth, personal ambition, spiritualism and personal hippie-consciousness. Our sad, sad legacy does not bode well.
And now, with the confluence of the environmental crisis, the economic crisis and the resources crisis it is time for us to wake up. We must make the personal political again: we need new ethical ways of doing business; we need new ethical banking services; we need new ways of creating sustainable agriculture based on proper, sound research; we need a more secular and open society and we need an ethical code of conduct to limit our greed and our profound desire to compete and optimise. And, above all, we must co-operate in this venture and peacefully oppose those traditional forces that would have us continue along our self-imposed, mystical path as if all was well. It is no accident that global corporations support the mystical ideals of consumerism because we evoke them with every useless purchase. We must stand up and be counted, we must make our mark; we must ring the bell.
Nick Nakorn, Samut Prakarn, July 2010