The Original Sin of Agriculture: Competition vs. Cooperation

There is no arguing that the revolution of agriculture changed the way that we relate to the world around us. Ishmael makes the argument that agriculture led us to see ourselves as competitors with everything that is not our food. Therefore, we kill off plants and weeds that compete with the grains and legumes that we want to harvest and eat. We then must also kill off the animals that feed on those competitors to our food. We might also have to kill off the animals that feed on those animals lest they come around licking their lips at us.

In this way of thinking we see nature primarily in terms of competition. Altruism and cooperation are really aberrations in the normalcy of competition and violence. This is the way it seems people tend to think about “survival of the fittest.” All the players in the ecosystem are competing for scarce resources against natural obstacles and barriers. Those who are able to beat out their competitors, within their own species or other species, survive and flourish. Isn’t that what we see on Discovery Channel when predators are hunting their prey and picking off the weak member of a herd?

The problem is that ecosystems are not made up of only predators, and even predators may not be as cutthroat as we think. More and more evidence suggests that cooperation is at least as powerful a force in nature as competition. In fact, it may be stronger than competition. It’s difficult for us to conceive that cooperation is a basic and primal force in nature. Our culture and world revolve around the idea of competition. Most of our economic ideas are based on the assumption that competition is the basic building block of nature and society and that when it is allowed to run free it results in the best possible results for all. Our education system is based on competition, scoring, testing, achievement and success. Sports and athletics are not influencing the rest of our culture. They are the natural outgrowth of a culture of competition.

Just as in nature, this may not be the best way to organize ourselves. Perhaps we have allowed our assumptions about the natural world to form the way we think about human society and civilization. There are plenty of examples where human societies valued cooperation over competition and flourished. Many Native American cultures made decisions based on consensus rather than voting which always excludes the minority. There are worker owned factories in Spain and Latin America (the specifics elude me) that have done very well with a cooperative approach to business.

How have our assumptions about the way the world is structured and functions on the most basic, natural level shaped the way we choose to organize ourselves and order life together? Is there another, better way? I hope and pray that there is.

This is part of an ongoing series exploring basic assumptions about agriculture, history and our relationship to creation: The Original Sin of Agriculture Part I, Part 2, Part 3.

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5 thoughts on “The Original Sin of Agriculture: Competition vs. Cooperation

  1. Brett G

    A couple of my favorite quotes on competition:

    “Christianity should help to end competition because it is immoral. … Competition as a principle is a denial of fraternity” (Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order, 178).

    “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy” (Wendell Berry, “Economy and Pleasure,” in What Are People For?).

    Reply
  2. Lory Hunt

    One thing that struck me as I read this was that our society (at least most Western culture) is very individualistic which goes hand in hand with competition. Instead, if we cherished community and lived in a communal understanding, we would be more prone to cooperate rather than compete.

    Reply

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