I remain amazed by a BBC documentory I saw several years ago on social structures in the South Pacific. All about the islands and atolls sprinkled across this area, along with the deep blue sea.
This is what struck me as I watched an episode on human habitation across the islands: cooperation wins in the long run. The narrator (Benedict Cumberbatch—great voiceover dude, although this show does hide his visual fan-girl appeal) compares the human cultures in two of the islands with what happened in one of the most isolated, Easter Island.
The Cooperation Path
These islands are small, and food and other basic resources are limited. Human groups seem to have different ways of dealing with this situation. In the two “cooperation” islands (can’t remember their names), all food caught or cultivated is shared in the group, and over-hunting or -farming seems to be avoided. There’s a sense of balance that naturally makes sure that resources will be available tomorrow and a hundred years from now for the humans to use. And it’s not like there’s a sense of sacrifice for the group; they’ve just chosen a sharing culture, and it seems to work well over generations.
Death by Competition
In contrast, on Easter Island, a culture of competition grew up a thousand years ago or so. The people became focused on moving these large stone figures to the shore to have the best portrayal of the gods for their own benefit as individuals or factions within the group. The problem was that a whole lot of wood was necessary to move these statues. The people depleted the original tropical forest that had grown on the island until the whole ecosystem it supported collapsed; there was no way to support humans or any other animals. The result was war among the tribal factions and a dramatic drop in human population (which was aggravated even further by European discover and transmission of disease). Unfortunately, it takes a very, very long time to naturally create flora and fauna on these isolated islands, so Easter Island may not recover from this human competition for another few million years. A shame.
Only the stones are left to mark this cemetery of human pride.
Finding the Balance
Friendly competition has its place in encouraging innovation, but in the day-to-day use of resources, cooperation wins over time. I think my American homeland’s focus on individualism and competition over cooperation does not bode well for the longevity of our sociopolitical experiment, but that openness to innovation can also create a new and more balanced society.
How have cooperation and competition worked for or against you in your own life (not the bigger political picture, but your own career, relationships, etc.)? I’d like to know.