Big Thinkers on Co-operation

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Robert Owen (1771-1858)


‘There is only one way people can be perfectly happy – that is by everyone working together to help everyone’ People see this Welsh industrialist as the father of the modern co-op movement. Owen made his money from cotton. After he saw how early capitalism created such terrible suffering and poverty, he developed a different plan – ‘villages of co-operation’. Here, people could work and live together in a sharing, humane environment. He had many new, strong ideas: he attacked the family, private property, the market economy and organized religion, and he hated the idea of consumer co-ops. He started his co-operative experiment at his textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland on the River Clyde. It was a success – eventually 2,500 people, including 500 children, lived in Owen’s cotton mill village, many from the slums of Glasgow and Edinburgh. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to start similar community groups in Orbiston, Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana. He thought that co-operation would lead to financial independence and self-government. He thought that competition and capitalism would eventually go away and lead to a classless society.

Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1818-88)


‘When you help others, you help yourself.’ German businessman Friedrich Raiffeisen was a Christian with little money and education. He was in the military and was then mayor of several small towns, then started a cigar factory and a wine business. When he was mayor of Flammersfeld in 1847, he thought deeply about the terrible poverty and money problems of local farmers. Many of them were forced to work on farms before, and could only borrow money at high-interest.

During the famine of 1846-47, Raiffeisen asked for donations to buy flour and gave out bread to the poor. Eventually, his ideas about self-help led to the first rural credit union in 1854. Members put all their money together to buy shares in the business. In this way, they helped each other and didn’t rely on money from private banks or rich individuals. Raiffeisen convinced farmers to work together and support each other. He proved that poor people can pay back credit. By 1913, over two million Germans were members of credit unions, mostly in small communities. The idea quickly spread to Canada, the US and other European countries. Today, about 186 million people in more than 100 countries are in credit unions.

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)


‘We have learnt from evolution that the only way we can stop the human race dying is by conservation, interaction and networking, not domination.’ This Russian naturalist, philosopher and anarchist did a lot of writing and brilliant thinking. He had a lot of different interests. In 1902, Kropotkin said in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution that species survive if the individuals co-operate. Co-operation, he said, is good for and essential to human society.

‘Animals which help each other and fight less alone, usually survive better, live better, and progress better. The way they protect each other, the greater possibility of getting old and of getting more experience, the higher intellectual development, and the development of sociable habits, all make sure that the species survives and progresses. The unsociable species, however, die out.’ Now, a century later, biologists and zoologists study many examples of animals co-operating – bees, birds, ants and even microbes.

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011)


‘Life did not take over the globe by fighting, but by co-operating.’ In 1966, when Lynn Margulis tried to publish her paper on evolutionary changes in single- cell micro-organisms, the main science journals ignored her. Eventually, of course, they published her ideas and her research changed the course of evolutionary theory. Margulis, who taught geoscience at the University of Massachusetts, said that co-operation is more important for evolution than competition. She did research by looking at evolutionary changes in single-cell creatures billions of years ago, not at fully formed species. The way to evolutionary success, she said, was through “symbiosis”. This is where simple cells join to form new higher order creatures. Organisms that work together to help each other become one, and then reproduce. This idea disagreed with the belief that random mutation was the main force of evolution. ‘We have evolved more than micro-organisms, but, more important, we complex creatures are surrounded by micro-organisms and made of them. New knowledge of biology changes our idea of evolution from strong competition among individuals and species..... Life forms multiplied and grew more complex by working together with others, not just by killing them.’

Elinor Ostrom (1933 - )


‘There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians with good intentions are better at problem solving than the people, who have the strongest motivation to get the solution right’ This political scientist from the University of Indiana won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics after the global financial crisis. Good timing. While most economists believed that self-interest was most important, Ostrom found that co-operation is often far more important in managing common resources successfully. Greed is not always good.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin said in The Tragedy of the Commons that shared resources are usually over-used and eventually destroyed. Ostrom proved the opposite. She showed how shared resources like water, supplies of fish, land for cattle and forests could be well managed by groups.

Ostrom’s work shows that people can work together to do things for everyone. That’s an important lesson today when so many problems – global warming, air quality, lack of underground water and global pandemics – need us to work together. The commons doesn’t have to end in tragedy.

David Sloan Wilson (1949 - )


‘Selfishness might be better than co-operation inside groups, but co-operative groups are better than selfish groups’ Is co-operation the most important force in nature? David Sloan Wilson thinks so. His ideas are against the bio-determinists’ idea that humans are selfish competitors, who are motivated by greed and self-interest. Wilson is a professor of biology and anthropology in Binghamton, New York. Many academics still argue against his idea of ‘co-operative evolution’ based on ‘multi-level selection’, but his ideas are getting more support. His theory is about natural selection but at a group level, both between and within groups. ‘For decades, scientists have said that evolution is based only on individual and genetic self-interest, which does not include groups. Is it surprising that we now have so many business leaders, financiers and politicians who think self-interest is a natural law? The truth is that individuals can evolve to do things for the good of their groups and that co-operation is the particular adaptation of our own species. Selfishness might be better than co-operation within groups, but co-operative groups are better than selfish groups.’

Published on July 10, 2012 by Wayne Ellwood. Illustrations by Alan Hughes.

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