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Cooperation or Competition (Understanding Conflict)


I have proposed that there is an urgency that the countries of the world work together, or cooperate more, in the presence of our unfolding technologies. Can the countries of the world gravitate toward policies of cooperation versus competing over their economic interests and belief systems? Can an argument really be made that supports whether the best approach for humanity is cooperation versus continuing with our traditional competitive nature? Life seems to survive either through competition or cooperation, or a combination of the two. What is the difference between cooperation and competition though? In the following I attempt to answer this question and make it clearer that countries should gravitate more toward cooperation.

The idea of competition suggests that life forms compete and that the one that endures displays the condition of "survival of the fittest". On the other hand the idea of cooperation suggests that life forms work together to survive. We are often faced with the dilemma of whether to cooperate or compete so I feel it is important to understand how they are different and why they BOTH work.

The following is an analogy that attempts to show that the best approach between competition or cooperation depends on the situation. Even more important though is that either method does not necessarily work all the time. Further, it becomes clear that cooperation and competition are not just choices we have created exclusive to human beings. They are inherent conditions that occur due to the flow of matter and energy, in the so-called reality that we move around in. In other words they are conditions that exist as a part of the universe. We can only choose which one works best for our survival. Just as the planets go around the sun, or a ball falls to the ground because of gravity, competition and cooperation are just different options of how matter moves, how we move, and other life moves in order to meet the objective of survival. If all that sounds a little confusing let's get on with the analogy to make it clearer.

Assume that the objective in life is to cross a wall, or barrier, in order to survive. In addition assume the world is composed of 100 bowling balls of which you and I are two of them, all on one side of the barrier. I have used inanimate objects like bowling balls instead of human beings so the human component does not complicate understanding the difference between cooperation and competition. Our objective is to roll down a slightly inclined surface from the same starting point. At the bottom we make contact with the barrier then we must get to the other side of the barrier in order to survive. The barrier represents any obstacles that we may face in order to survive and endure. It might be a natural disaster like an earthquake, climate change, or a volcano. It could also represent our struggles against other forms of life or even struggles we may have between ourselves. Now let us draw out a few scenarios.

Scenario 1

First let us assume the barrier is just a thin piece of glass, like a window. In such case it would not matter how we act. All 100 bowling balls simply roll randomly down the incline into the barrier and break through it when and however each of us pleases. In such case we all have total freedom and we can achieve the objective and break through to the other side. Success is imminent simply because the challenge we face is not much of a challenge. It is too bad life and survival could not be so easy but this is not always the case.

Scenario 2


Now let us assume the barrier is a sheet of wood about 1/2-inch thick. In all cases the 100 bowling balls, including you and I, roll into the barrier randomly and none can penetrate the barrier no matter how much we try. Is there another way? Yes. Instead, using our "intelligence", we all get together and cooperate. We magically combine together as one large "cooperative ball" 100 times the size of a single ball and concentrate all our momentum and energy together hence we are able to crash through the 1/2-inch thick barrier no matter where we penetrate it. We find that in this scenario we are only able to break through the barrier by combining forces. Cooperation is the only solution.

Scenario 3

Scenario 3 is a bit different. Let us say that the barrier is now a 12-inch thick steel wall. We do not know how thick the wall is so we decide that our best bet is to combine our forces as we did in Scenario 2. Unfortunately we fail repeatedly, unable to penetrate the wall with all our combined energy.

We do notice though that on the bottom of the wall there is a hole wide enough just to fit one single ball, but our "cooperative ball" is 100 times as big as a single ball, hence it cannot get through the hole. The cooperative approach is futile and we are unable to penetrate the wall. Instead though, we go back to the competitive approach where each of the 100 bowling balls takes a different route and attempts to get through the hole. Many miss it but two are able to go through the hole. Let us assume that the two bowling balls that succeeded are the organisms that get through to the other side. They reproduce and survive carrying on the species. While the cooperative approach put us all on one path that was incorrect, variation and remaining competitive allowed two of the balls to slip through one of the cracks and succeed in the quest to survive. Competition and the variation that followed with it was the only solution for Scenario 3.

The above example simplifies the concepts of cooperation and competition and makes it obvious that cooperation sometimes has it's place in life while the approach of competition can in some circumstances also be the most efficient way to succeed. Hence we find that both approaches are found in the dynamics of survival for life in Nature. Very often we will hear someone suggest that we should work together or cooperate, then at other times someone will suggest that competing and going our own way is the best approach. It is not so different than a parent telling a child that they should "cooperate" and follow the norms in order to be a success in life, yet at the same time another parent might suggest to the child to go their own way and be different. Both can work.

Given that it appears that success through cooperation or competition may be dependent on the situation, then what situations suggest greater success with either cooperation or competition? Possibly we can apply the above analogy to understanding why it might be better for countries to cooperate more in dealing with risks that may come from side effects of our technologies.

Scenario 4

Scenario 4 is the wild card I have referred to where we add to the environment the side effects of technology. Let us assume that in the bowling ball example above there is one spot on the barrier that if any object touches it then everything will be destroyed. We could call this area the "danger zone" resulting from the side effects of our technologies, a circumstance that has never existed before. This new wild card gives everything a new twist because the impact of our technologies affects the entire environment. It affects the barrier, the incline we roll on, and all of us. Basically the struggle is no longer just to cross the barrier in which case we just choose to cooperate or compete. Instead we now have an even larger threat to our survival, hence it would appear that our cooperation to specifically avoid it is the best alternative. It seems that we may need to take the cooperative ball approach as noted in "Scenario 2" to deal with this new larger problem that affects all of us. Should we all take the cooperative route like the big ball and agree never to go into the danger zone thereby preventing any chance of destruction of the entire game? The answer would seem to be yes.


As an example of a side effect of our technologies that might be handled best through cooperation, consider global warming, a potential danger zone. If the countries of the world conclude that we are creating specific risks from global warming that may affect all countries, it would seem the best approach is that countries (the 100 bowling balls) cooperate. They should set rules to avoid the associated risks of global warming that may damage Life and the planet.

Consider the global warming "danger zone" example above but instead of cooperating, the countries remain as the 100 competitive bowling balls all taking different directions. This parallels to 100 countries on the planet all competing with each other while using technology that creates the side effects that may be related to global warming. Even if we are all aware of the danger zone, the probability of the 100 balls impacting global warming, or straying into the danger zone whether by accident or intentionally, exceeds the risk of the cooperative effort where we all agree to avoid the danger zone. In the example of global warming, if global warming is indeed caused by the side effects of our burning of fossil fuels, it would seem countries are not recognizing global warming as a danger zone because they all have their own economic interests as a priority. This lack of cooperation makes them more vulnerable to the impact of the danger zone. The countries of the world need to understand the probabilities of any significant risks due to the side effects from technologies that lie ahead of us so that they can react to them together. They need to cooperate.

Cooperation examples in life

The above example using bowling balls and the cooperation ball to explain cooperation may seem a bit simplistic, but it does make the point that cooperation is really just the combination of forces to resolve a problem. A similar example to the bowling balls would be raindrops falling down on an awning on the street. Each drop simply drips or bounces off the awning and runs down the side but if a pool of raindrops collects on the awning their combined, or cooperative pressure, might actually break the awning. Analogies like the raindrops on an awning can simplify what we often consider complex ideas, like competition and cooperation.

The choice between cooperation and competition to resolve a problem is just physics - the flow of matter and energy - but making the correct choice between competition and cooperation may mean our survival. It is clear that sometimes cooperation can be the only way to resolve a problem and it seems that, if the problem is big enough such that it affects everyone, and we can isolate it to either stop it or avoid it, then cooperation is preferred. This would seem the nature of many of the side effects of our technologies because their impact can be relatively significant on a world level.


I think one of the best real life examples of cooperation that comes to mind is that of penguins who will huddle together to keep warm in the Antarctic. Though the penguin photo on the right does not show penguins huddling to keep warm, Emperor penguins gather together in order to contend with Antarctic temperatures of -60 F and heavy gusts of wind. One could simply imagine the penguins as the black bowling balls combining together as the cooperation ball in order to create heat in order to face the barrier of the cold Antarctic temperatures. This type of cooperation is naturally the most efficient way to resolve their problem.

Cooperation is found all around us in Nature. Many creatures cooperate by hunting as a group. This is easily seen in wolf packs and in orcas that will herd their prey, often seals, into the shallow waters of a beach where they are less able to defend themselves. Of course human beings cooperate as well. This can be seen from the simple fact that we create libraries to collect all our knowledge in the form of books and digital records which then allows us to cooperatively pass on knowledge that has been accumulated by previous generations. Even schools could be considered a way through which we cooperate so that each of us are not required to relearn the knowledge that has been amassed over the centuries.

Cooperation is something we inherently do every day in order to survive. The big question is "why do we need to wait for a problem to be large enough before countries decide to combine their resources and cooperate?" Clearly countries must acknowledge the risks of the side effects of various technologies and combine their efforts to neutralize these risks even if there is a cost involved. Given the underlying risks that may come from the impact of our growing technologies that affect all of us, it might be wise for countries to redirect their resources used to maintain their economic interests and belief systems, toward policies and values that are more focussed on global concerns.

Summary - The benefit of cooperation

Ultimately, if there are side effects from our technologies that affect Life and Earth dramatically, there really is no way to avoid the risks with a 100% probability. Even cooperative efforts are no sure way of avoiding the danger zones since we can still have accidents or simply misjudge the danger zone under consideration. Something can always go wrong. One might suggest that our best option is to simply not explore technologies that might create side effects representing major risks to Life and Earth. The problem with this approach is that if we do not continue to explore our technologies, we will not find the "good" technologies such as space travel or the ability to avoid the impact of another planetary body (e.g. asteroid) that might destroy the planet. It would seem that the only choice humankind has is to accept the risks related to moving forward with our technologies and try to take the route that offers the greatest probability of completing our objective, which is to survive.

Clearly then, greater cooperation between countries regarding the use and development of new technologies is going to be essential as we move forward into the future. Countries will need to approach new technologies with greater consideration than they have in the past, and with global interests as the priority. Countries must agree that their objective is to preserve the welfare of life and the planet and they must gravitate toward a cooperative approach. Jointly they must study the risks related to the side effects of new technologies then set specific global policies which will prevent any country from independently developing or using technologies that can potentially damage Life and Earth. They must combine their knowledge and science to create the best policies that will lead to the highest probability of survival.

Maybe we have not yet created technologies with side effects that can threaten the planet or life on a grand scale but, given the rate at which we are moving forward with technology, the probability is only increasing that they will come to exist. We might as well learn to work cooperatively now before we face such scenarios in the future.

Image 100206664.jpg courtesy of Stuart Miles at
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Image 100283134.jpg courtesy of Stuart Miles at
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