Inspired by Nature: Cooperation and Sustainability

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Cooperation is human nature. Our success as a species is largely due to the ability to cooperate flexibly on large scales. Since cooperation boosts productivity, it is worth examining how we can facilitate it. A 2015 study published in Nature found that hierarchies are fundamentally detrimental to cooperation and success at a cooperative task, as it discourages investment from lower-ranked members. Since most American businesses use a hierarchical management and economic structure, there is great potential waiting to be unlocked through increased cooperation. Though some corporations have seen great success with a flat structure, one only has to look to gridlocked Congress to see that democracy is not the end-all-be-all. Instead, look at hierarchy as a spectrum. As long as employees feel that they are being proportionally compensated for increases in productivity, then they have incentive to work efficiently. This can be institutionalized through the worker cooperative model, where the business is owned by the workers, who elect a representative Board of Directors. Organizations like the ICA Group facilitate the conversion process for existing businesses. Whole economies incorporating these principles can be found in Canada and Spain.

Nature’s lessons extend past business. The concept of an ecosystem—a circular, self-sustaining, community of interdependent organisms each with their own niche—has even inspired better building designs. A community defined by cooperation promotes preservation and proliferation of cultural diversity, reduction of wealth inequality, greater job security, and increased happiness in an age of continued globalization. One example is this Seoul neighborhood, which grew organically around a child-care cooperative, preserving traditional culture and a sense of close-knit community in the city.

As globalization marches on, the growing appetites of first-world citizens sap the resources of third-world countries. To keep up, industry grows rapidly with little regulation. Though the concept of a Kuznet curve predicts that developing countries will eventually have lower pollution and income inequality once they pass a per-capita income threshold, this is not well-supported. Industrialization helps drive climate change, which increases the frequency of inclement weather and disproportionately affects low-income people. Cooperation and community is again the greatest defense. One study based on a mathematical simulation found that decreased demand and increased equality is the only way to prevent the world from reaching complete collapse… Luckily the American economy is built on the free market, where demand drives supply. You can voice your opinion by being mindful of your wallet. Looking for the ‘Local’ sticker on grocery foods, joining and shopping at a coop, investing in LEAF, and even bringing up these issues in conversation are all things you can do right now to help your fellow humans and the world.

Ben Selden