Valuing the Whole

by Peter Willis

Peter Willis (South African, born 1954) is the South African director of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and regional chairman of the Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme. After a history degree from Oxford he worked in government and started various enterprises before emigrating to South Africa in 1993.

I predict that by 2052 a new paradigm will be strongly emergent. Leaders in both government and business will be expected to prioritize the well-being not just of their particular constituency, nation, or shareholders, as now, but also of the wider ecological and social systems that support them. I expect a generation of leaders to emerge who are skillful systems thinkers, who routinely consider the whole and work from a base of more inclusive values than have been the norm hitherto. This new leadership paradigm, I predict, will prove itself more effective in enabling society to meet its needs under the highly constrained circumstances that will characterize the next forty years.

I see three major trends that will drive this development. The first is the mounting stress and turbulence that will manifest in all the systems— particularly ecosystems and natural resources—that support our current, complex global civilization. The second is an increasingly rapid development and rollout of new, more viable forms of commercial and social organization, designed to replace the dysfunctional systems and institutional relationships associated with the causes of the first trend. And the third trend is the evolution of human values, which has been going on since the earliest times, has been accelerating dramatically over the last century, and looks as though it will continue to accelerate over the next forty years.

First, I believe the next forty years will bring crises to most regions, even sporadic catastrophe, triggered by various causes. Temporary shortages of energy, food, water, or minerals and erratic impacts of a warming climate will pose increasingly frequent challenges to our systems of well-being.

This will create a world where increasing proportions of our energy and attention will be directed at adapting our systems to fastchanging physical circumstances. It will become clear that we are in the “Anthropocene” epoch where, consciously or not, humanity is responsible for triggering planetary-scale change. In such a world the negative consequences of decisions and actions taken on a too-narrow understanding of the way the global system works will rebound more and more quickly, making it increasingly clear to voters and consumers that only skilled systems thinkers have a chance of making decisions that will actually improve people’s well-being.

My second trend is less obvious than the first. Less ecologically damaging technologies are currently gaining momentum, but less damaging systems of commerce and economy are still the territory of narrow interest groups. Plenty of new and appropriate models exist—for example, alternative money systems, employee ownership of firms, and the sharing of assets usually considered private, like cars and homes—but so far few have been prototyped at sufficient scale to draw serious attention as viable alternatives. We can be hopeful that these innovations will gather momentum and popular appeal in the coming years, driven by the increasingly frequent breakdown of conventional systems.

A defining characteristic of these new institutions will be that they are founded on an ever-broadening sense that all parts of the global system, both human and nonhuman, need to be included if satisfactory decisions and outcomes are to be achieved. This does not translate into a simplistic extension of the scope of stakeholder engagements, so that all voices are heard. That way lies paralysis and unacceptably slow decision making. Rather, I see these social and institutional innovations being automatically designed with a view to benefit the widest possible number of stakeholders, since it will be obvious that in a hot, disparate, and crowded world no group can secure sustainable well-being at the expense of its surrounding systems.

The third trend—the evolution of human values—is currently perhaps the least visible. It concerns the answer to the question “What really matters?” It must have been beyond the imagination of early hunter-gatherers moving in small family units to argue about the inalienable rights of the individual to self-determination or the idea of codified laws. What mattered most was the survival day by day of one’s nearest kin. But once survival was assured for a large minority, as in Europe in the Middle Ages, the predominant concern became man’s eternal soul and direct access to an almighty, overseeing God.

From this era there grew a strong focus on the rule of law, initially prescribed by God and his earthly agents, later by democratic vote. Next came the freedom to seek personal financial advancement, regardless of religion, and rooted in science-based knowledge of one’s world. And now the twentieth-century “me-obsessed” epoch has itself begun to be challenged by the emergence of a globalized “we” culture. The whole environmental and social justice movement has as its central value (not always observed, it must be admitted) the idea that no solution can work only for a minority of members of a system—the whole system matters and must be taken into account.

Luckily there are currently younger people who think of themselves as citizens of the world and for whom the notion of going to war to defend one’s nation or religion is simply absurd. Yet simultaneously there are plenty for whom national pride matters supremely. What seems clear is that, despite sometimes high levels of local variability, the perspective of the human population is inexorably changing in the direction of a widening, more inclusive sense of what matters. I therefore predict that by 2052 there will be a number of influential people who will take it for granted that the well-being of the whole system is just as important as their personal well-being. By definition these leading lights will be the most flexible in their thinking and thus more likely to provide effective leadership in turbulent times than those stuck in earlier value sets.

What will be central elements of the new paradigm?

In the sphere of government, we will need leaders who are both highly rational and committed to the good of the whole system under their care. But rationality has limitations when faced with fast-moving, turbulent conditions, and leaders with a well-developed intuition and a willingness to act on it will be best able to achieve system-wide benefits. Partisan and sectional politics will be less well suited, and there may arise greater willingness to accept what we today consider authoritarian government, seeking collective well-being over individual rights. This may not be an easy transition to make, as the ecological and economic crises will in some quarters stimulate strong regressions into partisan, narrow interests for survival’s sake.

In the world of business, we will need entrepreneurial businesses— perhaps collectively owned—to solve many of tomorrow’s problems, created and run by people for whom self-aggrandizement or large personal wealth is simply not a driver. Hopefully it will be increasingly understood that great wealth distances one from other parts of society, and that wealth is a dysfunctional basis for genuinely successful leadership. These people’s organizations will be flat or hierarchical as the situation demands.

Finally, we won’t see continuation of the pattern in which those who lead remain in “leadership positions” until they retire. The baton of leadership will be passed easily and often, sometimes returning many times to the same hand, as the need arises.