essays & posts

Killing the Golden Goose

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

August 6  ∼ 6 minute read

How the cult of ‘more’ is

taking down the living world.

During my research into responsible corporate behaviour, the CEO of a global telecoms company made a casual remark I’ve never forgotten:

“Even if my salary was halved, I wouldn’t notice.”

He was so undisturbed by his own observation that, two decades later, his words stay with me and have been rattling around my head since the controversy surrounding RTE and Ryan Tubridy ignited.

Ryan Tubridy appears before the Public Accounts Committee

Image: Irish Times

Like brittle tinder awaiting a spark, the Tubridy Incident is merely a tipping point, focusing anger on corrosive behaviour that’s not confined to RTE but part of a pattern that dominates corporate life, with implications for all of us and for the future of life on Earth.

Because while the shenanigans at our national broadcaster were being unearthed, Earth was experiencing the hottest day, the hottest week and the hottest month in human history.

In the stark words of UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”

“The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”

Image: ‘8296’/Pixabay

The cult of ‘more’

The deadly pattern is extractivism: the policy of mining something — everything — even to the point of killing it.

To those narrowly focused on the short-term and blissfully unaware of our systemic reality, extractivism makes complete sense. 

Day to day, it plays out as individualism — the individual presenter, agent, CEO, company, nation, whatever. When you see yourself as separate from larger systems, the logic of extractivism works. Because it works for you.

Until of course, it doesn’t.

And it doesn’t work. Not in the long-run. Because in reality, there are no individuals. Everything’s connected. We’re all embedded in larger systems upon which we absolutely depend. And in the living world the unit of survival is not the individual but the individual-in-its-environment.

Ultimately, every other strategy fails.

That’s what Darwin’s theory of evolution teaches us. It doesn’t matter that our current form of economics says otherwise. It doesn’t matter that we live inside the cult of ‘more is better’. 

Nature works the way nature works, regardless.

Photograph: Fetako/Pixabay

The cult of the ‘star’

Referring to the ‘star’ system, one politician asked: “How has RTE made gods of a small number of its workers?”

The ‘star’ system is a human error rooted in the same systemic blindness. And it’s not unique to RTE. Like an invasive species, ‘star’ logic has colonised corporate thinking, expressing itself in the growing gap between the ‘stars’ and everyone else.

How much is a ‘star’ worth, exactly?

The answer is: much much more.

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC, in 1965 the ratio of CEO pay to the average worker was 20 to 1. In 2021, it was 399 to 1. In other words, the average CEO in corporate America now earns in a year what the average person earns in a lifetime.

The average CEO in corporate America now earns in a year what the average person earns in a lifetime.

Image: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

Across the world, inequality is surging as personal deals become a global pattern. 

Oxfam reports that over the past two years the richest 1% bagged nearly twice as much wealth as the rest of humanity combined. These can sound like statistics about some other people — until a living systems lens reveals this pattern playing out in a workplace somewhere near you.

Extractivism kills

This sucking-up of resources from the many to the few has real world consequences. In RTE’s case, Emily O’Kelly, protesting on behalf of the staff, recited those impacts.

We’re constantly told there’s no money.

People can’t get crews.

Remote controls in the newsroom don’t work.

People are working on zero hour contracts.

People are working on bogus self-employed contracts.

People are working without maternity or pension or sick pay entitlements.

There are continuous calls for pay restraint because there’s “an existential crisis”.

And yet there’s no crisis for a ‘star’ in receipt of an already “totally exhorbitant salary”.

But this story is so much bigger than Ryan Tubridy.

The same extractivist logic that’s eroding organisations from the inside is devastating the larger systems in which they operate. 

For decades it appeared that the logic of more-and-more was working. Until suddenly, it’s not, and we find ourselves overwhelmed by tipping points — the breakdown of the planet’s climate, the collapse of its biodiversity and ocean populations, rampant pollution — all driven by a logic so endemic and pervasive it has brought an entire planetary system to its knees.

Extreme heatwave across Europe – July 2023.

Image: TVM News

A living system dies slowly at first, then rapidly. At first we don’t notice the decline because complex systems send weak signals, but deep down its capacity is eroding and it’s ability to sustain itself is weakening. And as with RTE, an inciting incident can light the spark that takes down an entire system, sometimes overnight.

Life is a team sport

Making a radio or TV programme — much like running a school, or a hospital, or a government department — is a team sport. The ‘star’ system that often surrounds human endeavour is a manmade illusion.

The truth is, we’re radically interdependent and everyone’s contribution counts. And deep down, we know it. Our human need for equality is biological, baked into our DNA since we lived in hunter gatherer tribes.

That’s why communities marked by equality — nomatter how impoverished — succeed in ways that unequal communities never will. It’s why inequality knaws at our bones, quietly eroding social trust, the necessary precondition for all collaborative human effort.

If we want our social systems to endure, fairness and equality must prevail. To wave this away as idealistic or unrealistic or some form of latter day Marxism is to admit ignorance of powerful system dynamics at work.

To borrow an old Montrose mantra: No one is bigger than RTE. Nothing is more important than the whole system. And no individual should be allowed to undermine it.


Inequality knaws at our bones, quietly eroding social trust, the necessary precondition for collaborative human effort.

Safeguarding these boundaries and regulating the health of the whole system is what leadership is all about.

Real leadership is about making choices that maintain healthy human and natural ecosystems, conscious of our duty of care for the well-being of those systems upon which our own well-being depends, places we’ll never know and people we’ll never meet.

And in complex human systems, leadership is not confined to those at the so-called ‘top’. Like the RTE Director General who said ‘No’ to his job’s full salary, or the sports pundit who gave back part of his because he, too, felt overpaid, we can each exercise the principle at the heart of life itself.

The principle of ‘enough’.

This essay was first published in the Sunday Independent.

Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

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