The climate crisis: We need cooperation, not competition

The world needs new explanations of how complex systems evolve to save itself from catastrophe. Theories of progress must put cooperation—at all levels—in the foreground, and look beyond national self-interest

Arun Maira

[Photo from Unsplash]

Heads of governments have met many times since the Rio Climate Summit in 1992 to find a globally just and effective solution for saving humanity from the ravages of climate change: Rio, then Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris, and now Glasgow. At the same time the Covid virus, a new threat to global well-being, continues to evolve, and countries are putting boundaries around themselves to protect and vaccinate their own citizens. Nations seem incapable, and even unwilling to cooperate equitably to save everyone from natural threats, like climate change and the virus, which do not recognize national borders.

The belief that competition is good for everyone’s welfare runs through economics. The theory is that if everyone looks after themselves, some invisible hand will ensure that no one is left behind. The boards of business corporations are accountable to society for the survival, growth, and success of corporations. They are enjoined to improve the competitiveness of their enterprises in a harsh world where “only the paranoid survive”. Their greatness is measured by the valuations of their stock, rather than the values that govern their conduct. Their DNA is to look after themselves.

Adam Smith’s seminal contribution to economics, The Wealth of Nations, with its emphasis on private enterprise, is a bible for economists. Corporate strategy guru Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations also became a guide for management of nations. Is it any wonder then that national governments, who must be accountable only to the citizens of their own countries, find it difficult, even immoral, to sacrifice their citizens’ interests to achieve universal goals?

Evolution of the science of complex systems

Albert Einstein said to work harder to solve systemic problems with the same theories that have caused them is madness. The world needs new institutions designed for cooperation and not competition. The limits of economists’ theories that have guided the designs of national, and corporate, policies in the last century are becoming glaringly evident. Insights from other sciences must help the world now, rather than the views of the high priests in the religion of mainstream economics only.

The difficulty of resolving systemic problems such as climate change and persistent social inequalities has renewed interest in the science of complex systems. The Nobel Prizes in physics and economics in 2021 have been awarded for contributions to methods of modelling complex systems.

Climate changes, that are threatening human existence in this century, have been caused by misguided human activity. Therefore, solutions to manage climate changes cannot be found in models developed by any science which does not include a ‘self-awareness’ of human motivations, as well as the limitations of human minds, as factors within them. The problem with all those sciences—physics, economics, and biology and neurology too—that focus only on the composition of materials and flows of energy within complex systems, is that they do not include human motivations as primary forces of change within the systems.

In the worlds of physics, engineering, and technology (and genetic engineering and AI systems too), designers sit outside the systems they design. The purpose of the machine is determined by the designer. The machine must produce results the designer wants: the machine should have no choice. Questions of ethics do not enter these systems designers’ mathematical equations. Such as: who may be harmed by their “technologically smart” solutions. These are ‘externalities’ to the designer’s methods and measurements of success. As they appear to be in economists’ mathematical models too. 

“Self-awareness” is the essence of life. All living beings—humans, animals, and even plants—have a consciousness of their own boundaries: they sense what is external to them and what is within them.

Unlike other species, humans have an ability to project themselves into the future and to imagine what they would like to be; also, what they aspire for the world to become. Yet another uniquely human quality, linked with human aspirations, is concern about what is ethically right and wrong. Indeed, it is their concern with justice and ethics that make human beings “human” and not merely animals in their spirits.

How does self-awareness emerge? Why do questions of ethics and justice matter to human beings? These are the profound questions that ancient philosophers have been examining for thousands of years before the European Enlightenment spawned many objective and quantitative, and supposedly more accurate, theories in many sciences. 

Ethics in science

Ethical questions have concerned philosophers on many continents for millennia along with questions about the purpose of human existence. Questions of purpose, ethics, and equity must be brought to the table in global forums while shaping global solutions that are good for everyone, and not only for the most competitive, strongest, and most powerful countries.

Ethical questions do not seem to bother technologists who are mostly concerned with finding innovative and practical solutions. Technological developments have been racing far ahead of ethics. Advances in genetics are enabling humans to change themselves to defeat natural forces and extend their own lives. Those who own these technologies could make themselves supermen and overpower other human beings too.

Artificially intelligent machines can soon replace human beings, scientists promise. Artificial intelligence can never comprehend ethical questions, Thomas Fuchs, professor of philosophy and psychiatry at Heidelberg University, explains (Thomas Fuchs, In Defense of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology, 2021). Artificial Intelligence is formed by computational algorithms. The only inputs these algorithms can process are digital ones: therefore, they can do ‘big data analytics’. Whereas human minds can imagine futures without data. Human beings have common sense which digitally smart machines cannot have. Further, human beings can even wonder about the limitations of their own minds, as ancient philosophers in the East have for millennia.

In the earlier part of the twentieth century, Nobel Laureates Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Nils Bohr, and Louise de Broglie took physics across the boundaries of rational knowledge into realms of relativity, uncertainty, and unknowability. They shook physics out of the Newtonian paradigm that had ruled physics for two centuries. In the Newtonian worldview the Universe is a machine composed of distinct parts. Whereas these pathbreakers pointed to the need to understand the relationships among the various parts of systems, including the human minds within them. They also grappled with fundamental concepts of space and time. They were compelled to acknowledge that the human mind is inherently limited in its capacity to understand the complex world around it which has created it. Because, a part of a system cannot fully know the whole of which it is a part.

These physicists sought to break science out of the Newtonian paradigm of a machine-like world in which engineers can locate levers to pull to improve the machine’s productivity. Economists also model economies as machines with inputs and outputs; within which they try to find smart levers to pull to improve the economy’s performance and increase its size, such as interest rates and carbon prices. They are like medical specialists who may unintentionally kill a patient with strong medicines they sometimes prescribe to solve only the problem they understand within a complex system.

Without a full understanding of the complexity of social systems, including human motivations for power and control, scientific solutions can have unintended consequences for the system that they expect to improve. The scientists’ own motivations, and mistaken beliefs in science’s certainties, are great risks for the health of complex socio-economic systems.

Competition and cooperation

Garrett Hardin’s premise of “The Tragedy of the Commons”, a foundational premise in economics, states, erroneously, that citizens cannot govern a resource that belongs to everybody. And, therefore, anything that is not somebody’s private property, will be ruined. This is a justification for the foundational principle of capitalist economies, viz. “private property rights”. Hardin’s theory seemed to set aside historical evidence from all continents that human beings have developed methods of governing resources that belong to nobody and are therefore the responsibility of everybody.

Elinor Ostrom, who was the first woman to get a Nobel Prize in economics (in 2009, fifty years after the first Prize was awarded), found evidence of communities who have nurtured “common property resources”, such as forests, water sources, fisheries, and grazing lands, sustainably and equitably (Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, 1990). In fact, such resources were destroyed when they became private property. Mono-culture plantations to produce palm oil and industrial timber on scale, and large-scale farms for sugar cane, cereals, and cotton, which enable corporations to improve their productivity, by applying more capital and mechanization, destroy diversity; they have upset the ecological balance in the Earth’s resources. They have also displaced human beings who were managing their commons sustainably; and who are hardly ever equitably compensated for their losses of livelihoods and habitats. 

Examples of cooperative governance of the commons are available everywhere to learn from, if only we would look for them. However, they are looked down upon, even if noticed, because they do not “scale”. They do not spread and scale because they fly in the face of mainstream theories of economics and management and therefore are suppressed by the dominant paradigm.  

Local cooperation to solve global problems

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) list chronic problems in many social, economic, and environment systems that must be solved to improve the all-round well-being of all citizens of the world.

The 17th SDG is a goal for improving the quality of partnerships at all levels of the global system. Cooperation is also essential among the experts and multi-stakeholder teams operating in silos on separate goals. Because there will be no use in achieving a global goal for carbon reduction for example, if the solutions for net zero carbon make goals for poverty reduction harder to achieve in many parts of the world.

Sadly, we have learned that solutions for saving people from dying from Covid alone can kill many more people from other conditions that are aggravated by the diversion of attention, and resources, to prevent deaths from Covid. We are also learning that communities that have suffered the least all round during the pandemic appear to be those where local stakeholders collaboratively found solutions for all the problems affecting them simultaneously. 

Every human body is unique, even though all human bodies are composed of organs with similar shapes and compositions: hearts, livers, lungs, brains, etc. Therefore, good general physicians, who are sadly becoming a rare breed in a world of hyper specialization, don’t jump too quickly to any conclusion about the problem to be solved. They try to understand what, “all things considered”, will be the best course of treatment for their patient. They know that all humans are not the same, and that even the same person’s condition changes over time. They know that “one size fits all” solutions, which may be prescribed for the sake of efficiency in healthcare, are likely to be wrong for many patients.

Every country in the world must improve the conditions of its society, economy, and environment. However, the shape of complex socio-economic-environment systems is different in different parts of the world—even within countries. Therefore, specific local systems solutions are necessary for solving the global systemic problems enumerated in the SDGs. “Acting local while thinking global” is the only way the climate crisis can be averted (and the SDGs achieved), effectively and equitably.

The architecture of complex organic systems

Many complex organic systems have “fractal” structures. A dominant pattern in the system is revealed at many levels of scale. The waves in the coastline of a river seen from an airplane reappear in the details of the coastline when it is seen from closer on ground. The same phenomenon is observed in the shapes of vegetables and clouds too. The shape of the whole reappears in the shapes of its parts.

However, all parts are not identical: just as all the leaves of an oak tree are recognizable as leaves of an oak though each is unique. They are similar, not the same. Though the ingredients that compose all of them are the same, one size and shape does not fit all.   

The reason for this “self-similarity”, systems scientists have discovered, is that the patterns that ‘scale’ are created by the interaction of a few rules/algorithms in the system by which it constructs itself. This minimal set of fundamental rules creates the same pattern at multiple levels in the system.

Studies of naturally constructed systems (such as those that proliferate in Nature), as well as the structures of institutions designed by humans, such as corporate enterprises, reveal four basic architectural principles that can enable complex organic (and human) systems to cooperatively adapt to their changing environments. Each principle applies to an essential ‘structure’ to complete the design of an institution.

  1. The structure of its Boundaries: Permeable Boundaries
  2. The structure of its Resources: Flexibility in Resources (with three sub-principles: Requisite Variety; Adequate Redundancy; and Latent Valency)
  3. The structure of its Processes: Minimal Critical Rules
  4. How the system discovers its Strategy (a path for its evolution): Aligned Aspirations

Like fractals, these principles apply at all “scales” of human enterprises.

The basis of these principles is explained in Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (Arun Maira, 2014).

Elinor Ostrom has distilled eight “Common Design Principles” from her research of self-governing communities. They are congruent with these four architectural principles. The four principles apply to the overall architecture of institutions. Ostrom’s eight principles explain the process of ‘governance’ within them.

Every unit must have sufficient variety of resources within it to enable its own innovation. Units must have permeable boundaries within themselves and permeable boundaries with their environment. Aspirations of those above who govern agglomerations of units must be aligned with aspirations of the units; and members of units must be internally aligned too. Units must apply only critically necessary rules in their internal governance, and those above must apply only a few critically necessary rules for the governance of the agglomerations of units below them. 

A battle of ideologies

The West and the Soviet Union competed to develop weapons of mass destruction during the long Cold War. John F Kennedy also rallied US public and private institutions to collaborate to put a man on the moon ahead of the Soviets. Another Cold War has begun. Now the US and China are racing against each other to develop digital weapons. Sadly, the same leaders who must cooperate to solve global problems are once again appealing to their own country’s citizens to unite to defeat an external enemy.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, political scientist Francis Fukuyama prematurely declared the ‘end of history’. According to him, the ideologies of private capital and multi-party electoral democracy had defeated the opposing ideologies of large government (along with government provisioning of public services) and one-party political systems. Capitalism and democracy had finally prevailed over socialism and totalitarianism it seemed. 

History has returned. The ideological conflict continues, with the US and China as the antagonists this time. Moreover, the history of ideological conflict had not ended even within the Western victors of the Cold War. Resistance to reduction of the role of governments continued from social movements in the West, speaking on behalf of people being left behind by the “free market” of private enterprise. Other voices on “the Left” came from environmental movements. Meanwhile “the Right” advocated for more freedom for capital to roam the world; and the World Bank rated governments on how easy it was for capital to do business in their countries.

The fundamental conflict between the principles of capitalism and democracy—between the rights of owners of capital and the rights of all humans—continues. It is a conflict between political conservatives and progressives—between those who want to retain their power to fix the rules of the game from which they have benefitted, and those who want to change the rules for the benefit of those left behind.

The story of human institutions is a story of power: of the means to acquire power; of the ways of using power; and questions of equity in the acquisition and use of power. It is a story of the interplay between competition and cooperation.

The world needs new explanations of how complex systems evolve to save itself from catastrophe. Theories of progress must put cooperation in the foreground and competition in the background.

Much more cooperation is required, rather than competition, at all levels on the Planet—locally within communities, and at the top among heads of nations. Excessive competition to improve the fitness of individuals, firms, and nations is destroying the world for everyone.

Theories of governance must change fundamentally. They must be guided by a new science of complex self-adaptive systems, with an understanding of the motivations, and the limitations, of human beings as forces within them.

Finally, the evolution of the ‘human self’ is integral to the evolution of healthy social systems. The purpose of a human life cannot be limited to merely being a resource for an economic machine. Moreover, concern for the well-being of others rather than only oneself, which is an ethical principle in all religions and spiritual traditions, must guide human actions rather than rational self-interest and competition. 

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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