Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one improves our lives?
Life is a competition for survival. “Survival of the fittest” is the way the world works and brings out the best in us.
The community of life is sustained through cooperation, which encourages wisdom, patience, and kindness in humans.
Our culture teaches a scarcity mentality about resources. In our worldview we are like pigs in a litter, scrambling against each other for access to a limited supply of mother’s milk. All creatures on earth are engaged in a battle for survival in which there emerge stronger, fitter individuals who prosper and weaker, meeker individuals who suffer and die. We consider this competition beneficial because it strengthens us by challenging us to be better than other individuals. Our culture interprets the natural world in this way and applies the same philosophy to human interactions. Because life is characterized by competition, it is considered natural for vast inequalities to emerge in human society, and these inequalities can be explained in large part by differences in people’s inherent or inherited strengths and weaknesses. To continue the pig metaphor, those piglets who are born strong and spirited grow big while those who are weak and mild become the runts. We all naturally live in fear of not getting enough milk because there is not enough for everyone, and this makes it naturally advantageous for us to work against each other in our own self-interest so that we have a chance at more milk. By extension, the reason humans have overrun the earth is because we are a stronger, smarter species and can outcompete all other predators. Our cutthroat attitude toward predators like wolves and coyotes makes sense within this cultural paradigm of “annihilate the other or die”. In our current worldview, it is a matter of our own survival that we do something to hinder our competitors. Without this kind of cutthroat competition, we believe there is no incentive for individuals to achieve greatness. We believe we need the threat of annihilation in order to grow strong and multiply.
Competition certainly does provide us with incentive to be sharp, quick, and creative. But it need not be a fight to the death. In the natural world, there are many instances in which different species compete cooperatively. Bears and humans share many food sources, for example. Over many thousands of years, both species lived off of salmon and berries in the northwestern United States. The humans did not need to eliminate all the bears or bear habitat in order to survive, nor did the bears need to exterminate all the humans in order to get enough food. The two species agreed to compete. Many tribal peoples of the region considered bears very close kin and their territory was highly respected. This doesn’t mean humans didn’t occasionally try to scare a bear off if they wanted access to fishing grounds. Likewise, bears may have approached humans to try to scavenge a fish or gain access to a berry patch. The two species might occasionally eat each other in the game, but the laws of honorable sportsmanship dictate that both should have a fair chance to play. To seek to destroy the other would be considered foul play and a major transgression against the law of life: Take what you need and allow others to do the same. In this cooperative game, competition for resources doesn’t mean someone has to be annihilated. We agree to compete with each other because it encourages us to be more resourceful, creative, humble, and aware, and because it encourages diverse life forms to flourish. We don’t try to destroy our competitors because we are not more important than them.
It is only when we seek to take more than we need that we feel we must destroy our competitors in the game of life. Civilization is founded upon generating a surplus of human population and food – taking more than we need. We think we need a bigger surplus in order to feel secure and survive. This transgression against the law of cooperative competition has brought us exponentially increasing supplies of food and population, but it has severely diminished the diversity and abundance of life on earth as well as the quality of life for most of our species. (When we spend so much time working to produce more, we lose time for play, music, self-care. And when we toil long hours to get our basic needs met, we become mean-spirited and irritable and lose touch with joy and generosity.) Eventually, we will not be able to clear more land, use more resources, or kill off more competitors in order to produce an increased food supply and our population will have to dwindle. This has already happened many times in the past when crops have failed or in years of scarcity. When our human population is inflated out of balance, the naturally restorative experiences of hunger and disease are inflated to horrific proportions of starvation and epidemic. Ancestral peoples faced hunger maybe once each decade, perhaps losing 10% of their population. Now in our current culture, there seems to always be an undercurrent of starvation among the poorest people, and each year there are massive die-offs of millions of starved children.
We cannot rely upon contraceptives and education to curb our population boom. Humans are subject to the same rules of population growth as every other species: when food supplies are up, population goes up, and vice versa. Contraceptive programs, government-enforced limits on family size, and increased access to vasectomy can assist population stabilization, but we cannot expect our species to voluntarily decline in number amidst ever-increasing food supplies (the food supply overall goes up, but it is not by any means distributed equally so many people starve despite the abundance) and economic infrastructure that depends upon a large standing army of expendable workers.
As we bear witness to suffering on an increasingly massive scale, it may serve us better to attempt to change our mindset rather than scramble to produce more food. Our culture chooses to interpret the natural world in terms of cutthroat competition (against the other pigs in the litter, for example, or against the destructive elements), but there are numerous examples of mutually beneficial relationships and cooperation. One intriguing example is the common lichen. Often confused for plant material or moss, this creature is actually a symbiosis of two or more living creatures. One is a fungus, the other an algae. The fungus provides structure and support for the algae, while the algae converts sunlight into sugars which feed the fungus. Together in the form of lichen, these creatures are able to tolerate a far wider array of conditions than the algae or the fungus alone. From tree trunks on urban streets to rocks in the tundra, lichens proliferate in almost every environment on earth! This mutually nourishing symbiosis is surprisingly common, yet it remains largely unrecognized in our culture. Lichen show us that the benefits of symbiosis include not only improved survival but also beauty and diversity.
Think about the games you know. Are any of them cooperative, or do most involve a winner or winning team? Although even competitive games and sports can be played with an attitude of mutual respect, for the most part games in our culture involve trying to outcompete others. This trend reflects our cultural emphasis on cutthroat competition rather than cooperation.
For example, many people are familiar with the basic game of “Musical Chairs” in which everyone dances around while music is played and tries to find a chair to sit on when the music stops. In the common version of this game, there is always one less chair than there are people and whoever doesn’t find a seat is “out” until one “winner” is left standing in the end. This game can just as easily become a cooperative game if instead of fighting with each other over seats, the object is to fit everyone onto whatever furniture remains. In the end, everyone has to fit on one chair and the game generally breaks down in laughter.