Why Cooperate?

Why Cooperate? – An Act of Resilience or Enabling Collapse
By Garry Claridge

Some evolutionary biologists suggest that groups of cooperating organisms have a better chance of survival than those who do not cooperate [Wilson]. What does this mean for us in a modern human society?

These evolutionary biologists also describe cooperation as “prosociality” and include descriptions of cooperating participants as either “solid citizens” or “freeloaders”. In this context freeloaders are members of a cooperating group, however they do not contribute to the group, they do receive the benefits. These groups are less likely to survive than those with full cooperation from members. And, members have a higher average survival rate than those of non-cooperating groups.

Cooperation can exist in different forms. Two of these are coordinated cooperation and subordinated cooperation. Subordinated cooperation is where a master-servant relationship exists. Juxtaposing these forms, Michael Towsey observes from the concept of coordinated cooperation, “… the dynamics that arise from the interaction of the many different groups in society should be allowed to play out naturally. Differences naturally endowed can be used to help one another.” [Towsey].

From the area of study called Panarchy Theory, we can begin to understand and model the connections between hierarchical systems [Homer-Dixon]. Thomas Homer-Dixon uses forrest development to highlight the advantages of the degree of cooperation and connectedness between the evolving system. He writes that a young developing forest consists of many individual and independent species and organisms, as the forest grows the ever greater connectedness and efficiency reduces its capacity to cope with external shocks.

Applying the forest analogy to us now we note our rising connectivity within global systems, and with this the increased risk of “deep collapse”. Some scientists believe that the collapse of ancient cities could have been contributed to by their rigidness and hence lack of ability to adapt to changing climatic conditions. Establishment of smaller diverse cooperating systems offer flexibility by their ability to adapt and hence create resilience.

For the study of cooperation a form of probability modelling is often used, this is called Game Theory. Game Theory sets up scenarios where players have a choice of either cooperating with the other players, or defecting. Some of these “games” have names such as “Prisoners’ Dilemma”, “Stag Hunt” and “Volunteer’s Dilemma”, these games can be applied to most potential social and economic scenarios for study and strategic choice optimization. [Axelrod]

We can also see practical examples of natural human cooperation developing now, such as individual garbage recyclers (catadores) in Sao Paulo, Brazil. These are the people who scavenge garbage heaps for almost anything that could be recycled. Some of them soon realised that if they worked together they could get better prices from the middlemen purchasing their goods. Hence, they formed the cooperative called Cooper-Glicerio. [Neuwirth]

Similar stories exist, including another grassroots cooperative organization in India called SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association). Their initial motivation, and hence current aim, was to empower women in business. Interestingly, they subscribe to the 100 mile resources limit concept, which they believe brings another form of cooperation.

Considering the lessons from panarchy theory we can look at the current business oriented seven cooperative principles. The fourth principle is, “Autonomy and Independence”. Hence, creating the organizational design to meet this principle can contribute greatly to the resilience of the cooperative organization.

Using the additional principles of biomimicry we can potentially extend our organization designs for greater depth. We can learn from the forests and from animal colonies. These designs become increasingly important as the subordinate cooperation of globalization extends its fingers deeper into our communities and our business systems.

To survive in the future, in a manner which is deeply prosperous, we will need to be smart in the use many design tools. The significant supporting technology for this process is a discipline called Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking provides us with underlying methods of analysis and presentation for developmental communication of systems functioning.

Cooperatives, if designed well, have potentially a long life. The need for cooperative social enterprises is increasingly important with the near potential for collapse of our global financial systems. And particularly, into the future with external shocks from global warming and resource scarcity.

Axelrod, R. (2006) The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, New York
Homer-Dixon, T. (2009) “Our Panarchic Future” in World Watch Magazine Volume 22, No 2
Neuwirth, R (2011) Stealth of Nations, Anchor Books, New York
Towsey, M. (2010) “The Biopsychology of Cooperation” in Understanding Prout, Volume 1
Wilson, D.S.(2005) “Natural selection and complex systems: a complex interaction” in Self-Organisation and Evolution of Social Systems, Cambridge University Press

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