At school, I remember being put into “houses” for sport, after which teachers and older students would actively promote how good “our house” was compared to the others. The indoctrination of competition over cooperation had begun.
In the years that followed, we were taught to compete with other students in exams, other candidates in job interviews and other companies in business. Jump forward a few years, and we see our learned-from-childhood tendency to compete, rather than cooperate, playing out in dangerous ways with respect to the two biggest threats of our time, Covid-19 and climate change.
“We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism!” President Trump derided the idea of global cooperation quite succinctly at a speech to the UN in 2018. Essentially, Trump opined, if agreements you make with others don’t benefit you (in this case agreements with the rest of the global community), get out.
Fuelled by the joint stress of a climate emergency and a pandemic, recent years are awash with governments pursuing more isolationist and less cooperative policies. The US has led the way:
- Announcing an intention to exit from the Paris Agreement on climate change, because it won’t allow the US to extract and sell as many fossil fuels as it desires.*
- Exiting from the World Health Organization, purportedly because it is too bureaucratic and hasn’t done enough to stop Covid-19 in the US.*
- Overriding of a commercial contract for face masks being delivered to Germany in order to keep the masks in the US.
- Attempting to buy out a German pharmaceutical company to secure exclusive preferential access if their coronavirus vaccine succeeds.
Here in Australia we are not immune to the “disregard thy neighbour” urge. Queensland senator Matt Canavan expressed similar anti cooperation sentiments last year when he said, “I made the mistakes too. I have been a supporter of the Paris Agreement because Australia has benefited from international agreements. But things have changed. With the need to secure our manufacturing industry and the clear breakdown of international cooperation, we must face the fact that era is over.
“We should end our participation in the Paris Agreement, given the more immediate need to secure our manufacturing jobs. And we should rule out any moves to net-zero emissions or a future global agreement on carbon until other countries, much larger than us, demonstrate real reductions in their carbon emissions.”
In other words, Canavan suggests that when things are difficult, and it seems no-one else is cooperating, we should look out for Number One. The logic seems compelling: if cooperation isn’t benefiting you, why do it?
Why cooperation trumps competition in a crisis
Here are five reasons, despite the impulse to look after oneself during a crisis, that it is even more imperative to cooperate with others:
1. Solutions are more likely if we cooperate. Chinese scientists mapped the Covid-19 genome early in the pandemic and placed that information in the public domain. That gave scientists the world over a head start on finding a vaccine, which will likely save hundreds of thousands of lives. The scientific community is now attempting to create an intellectual property regime so that any vaccine found will also be in the public domain.
2. If you take competition to its logical conclusion, we all lose. When we treat everyone else as a competitor to be beaten, history and human nature teach us that things end very badly. Initially the strong people and nations (US, China, Australia) may win, but, as they force their will on poorer nations and people, resentment builds and it’s only a matter of time before their power crumbles. By contrast, a much more cooperative and compassionate view was advocated by the great Mahatma Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” I suspect Gandhi would not mind extending his principle to: “The world’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest nations—especially during a crisis.”
3. It’s simply not true that everyone else has stopped cooperating. Despite Senator Canavan’s assertion that the bigger nations are not doing anything to reduce emissions, that is simply not true. Virtually every nation still holds to the Paris Agreement, and some, like Germany, are redoubling their efforts. Consequently, German and European emissions are falling as they embrace renewable energy, thus benefiting the whole world which shares their atmosphere. In fields other than climate change too, most nations are holding to global cooperation, knowing that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Most of western Europe, for example, is still in the EU, knowing that it has helped Europe achieve stability for the past 75 years.
4. It’s the right thing to do.Jesus taught us not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Why? I suspect Jesus knew that dominating others leads only to pain, whereas compassion and cooperation create a much healthier, happier world. In fact, all major religions have a version of the golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). If we use our power to compete with and dominate others, the cycle of oppression, hatred and revenge goes on and on, ending in misery for both the oppressor and oppressed. However, if there is empathy, compassion and cooperation, the cycle is broken, which in turn proves good for us all.
5. Who is “in” and who is “out” in a competitive world?Senator Canavan advises Australians to not cooperate with other countries because they’re not “pulling their weight”. However, by his logic, why stop at international competition?
- At an intra-national (state) level, Queensland and New South Wales might have competed against Victoria during its second wave: You’ve got too many Covid infections. Don’t expect any medical or logistical help from us.
- At an intra-state level, the urban population might compete with regional areas: You don’t pay as much tax as we city folk, so we’re not going to build any more roads for you.
- At an intra-family level, the main income earner might compete with the partner and children: Why should I support you? You’re not getting my money anymore.
Once you start down the competitive path, where do you stop?
If cooperation works to create a better society, especially in dealing with an emergency like Covid-19 or climate change, then it calls into question the way we inculcate in ourselves and our children the value of competition. Instead of being put into “house” teams at school, and taught to compete against others to have a winner (and therefore a loser), could we instead encourage children to help each other achieve their personal best in sport and exams? The popular Park Run is a lovely example. Each Saturday morning (prior to Covid), thousands of people around the world gathered together in their local neighbourhoods for a five-kilometre run in which there’s much encouragement of each other, the only competition being to beat one’s own personal best time.
Now, in the age of Covid-19 and climate change, could we learn to cooperate for the benefit of all, rather than compete to win, at any cost? Considering the crises our world is facing right now, thousands, if not millions of lives will depend on the choice we make.
*Denotes policies that have been repealed under President Joe Biden following publication of this article.
Mark Delaney is a lawyer by training. He and his family lived and worked with the poor in India for more than 20 years. Since returning to Australia in 2019, he has worked part-time for the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.