Cooperation Solves Problems & Opens Opportunities

Only by supercharging our capacities to cooperate can we realistically expect to emerge from the decades ahead as a thriving country on a thriving planet. Our purpose here is to describe pathways that would allow us to succeed relatively more often at fending off our tendencies to fight each other rather than work together for common benefit. This shift, to the extent it can be brought about, will help our communities, our culture, and our institutions function rationally and in the common interest.

As Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, you go to war with the Army you have. We are fighting for our future with the human nature, the developed human capacities, and the institutions we have. Together they represent the nature and capabilities of the Army we have. What is the best we are capable of, and how can we mobilize the best in ourselves to help us succeed? How can we develop collective agency and use that agency to steer ourselves toward a better future?

It has become clear that we ourselves – our human natures and limited capabilities – are indeed a central part of the challenge we face, both as a country and as a global civilization. Pogo's "we have met the enemy and he is us" fails to acknowledge that we are far from all equally responsible for our problems. Nevertheless, it captures something many of us know intuitively. A big part of our challenge is us, with our all too human natures, and it is likely the most intractable part. How we humans act, react, think, and form opinions is clearly not a good match for the challenges we face today. We seem at key points naturally inclined to make the wrong choices.

Given this stark but realistic perspective on our challenge, it is important to stop and recognize that an effort to promote greater cooperation is not some idealistic all or nothing quest. No kumbaya moment is likely to be forthcoming. But even modest steps toward a more cooperative culture would translate into better odds of positive outcomes as local communities work to democratically implement the massive changes the sustainability transition will require.

We cannot solve our problem of too little cooperation if we don't understand it, so we must develop a much better understanding of ourselves, and specifically, of what is it about ourselves that stands in the way of both solving our problems and seizing the opportunities before us.

Just as we need a clear-eyed view looking inward at our human natures, we need an equally unobstructed view of the reality around us. If our perception of reality is distorted, it will be difficult to chart a path forward that will make sense to people now or that will work out well as time goes on. Our situation is complex. There are a whole bunch of very big threats in close-up view, but looking around again from a different angle, it also seems clear that there are a great many huge opportunities to improve our situation, if we could just figure out how to seize them for common benefit.

It's easy to sketch the outlines of worst-case futures. They practically write themselves. Best-case futures are equally easy to sketch. Most people find the narrative descriptions of each implausible – apocalyptic futures on the one hand and technological utopias on the other. Neither is particularly believable. And most thoughtful people know that predicting the future is doubtful at best. Black swans may darken the sky above, but technological innovation here on the ground makes solutions more practical and affordable with every passing day. What forces will prevail? We cannot answer with confidence.

What we can do is first identify what appear to be the most dangerous threats and the most promising opportunities, and then make plans to whittle down those problems and pump up those opportunities. But, of course, it's when we get to actually doing the whittling down and the pumping up that we get to the hard part. Getting where we need to go will require enormous cooperation and good will, stretching decades into our future.

Regardless of your vision of a good future or your understanding of the challenges we face, there are no desirable futures that won't require a major increase in our capacity to cooperate to accomplish goals. Our capacity now appears quite low. Just bringing U.S. and global cooperation capacities back to post WWII norms won't be easy, and that won't be nearly enough.

Building a vastly more cooperative culture, and increasing our capacity to cooperate politically, must be at the center of any strategy to create a future we'd want to live in ourselves or want to leave to our kids. No unity, no future.

Published: July 2019
Revised: June 2023

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