Interdependence and cooperation: true components of compassionate and sustainable societies

By Matthieu Ricard on July 13, 2022


Our sense of belonging to one planet, to a common humanity and to a conscious awareness shared with other species has been reinforced by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. A virus of nanometric size managed in a few weeks to bring part of the world to a standstill and impact the lives of more than 6 billion humans. Our interdependence has become more obvious than ever before, at the expense of the idea that humankind « extracted itself form nature » (as if we could extract ourselves from something we are intrinsically part of). The IPCC experts unanimously and strongly call on our leaders to consider the proven links between global warming and health, security and economic risks, which are particularly exacerbated in the most affected areas. We can therefore understand the need to question our universal responsibility and the urgency to strengthen our sense of solidarity and cooperation in general. With our individual capacities and resources, each of us can mobilize in our own way and cultivate an altruist state of mind to become a link in the immense chain of cooperation that extends beyond walls and borders.

Altruism is not the luxury of dreamy utopians but a necessity to protect our planet and allow all beings to thrive sustainably and harmoniously.

It is also essential to take the recommendations of climate and environmental scientists seriously and pragmatically. State leaders no longer have the right, in view of their duty to future generations, to constantly transfer to the next governments the responsibility to take the necessary drastic measures, knowing that they will probably not be very popular at first. The future doesn't hurt, at least not yet, but it will hit hard and fast if we don't do something today, and future generations will be sure to say "you knew and you did nothing."

Though we are for the most part aware of the ecological emergency, we can also feel powerless, even anxious, in the face of the necessary commitments – both on the individual and collective levels. This sometimes dizzying realization can paralyze us and push us to withdraw into ourselves.

Mistrust towards institution leads to abandoning participation in community life. And the pathetic mistrust towards scientists opens the way to a return of obscurantism. We see here the definition of individualism as given by Alexis de Tocqueville, historian and philosopher, in the mid 19th century, who already worried about this « system of isolation from existence. Individualism [as an antonym] of the spirit of association. »

« Individualism » generally has two meanings. It can refer to the moral autonomy of individuals that allows them to act and think freely. On a philosophical level, this individualism is the basis of our democratic societies.

There is, however, an alternate view : individualism as an egocentric aspiration to be free from any collective consciousness and give « me first » priority. Individuals are thus encouraged to act on immediate impulses, disregarding other people, their own responsibility in society and the consequences of their actions.

The English economist and sociologist Richard Layard considers this excess of individualism to be one of the significant woes of our century and that « individuals may never be able to lead a satisfying life other than in a society where people care for one each other and promote the well-being of others as their own. The pursuit of personal success at the expense of others cannot make for a happy society, since one person's success necessarily implies another's failure. Today the scale tips too strongly towards the pursuit of individual interests. This excess of individualism is, we believe, at the root of a series of problems in society.1  »

There is a beautiful interpretation of the Master and Slave dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. At first reading, the master is the slave's master and can get him to do anything. He seems to have total freedom of action. At second reading, the slave seems deprived of his freedom, since he must fulfill all his master's desires. At third reading, we realize that the master is in fact a slave to his own desires, and that the slave has succeeded in taming his desires, thus becoming his inner master. Perhaps we are also at times slaves of our own desires, mental constructs and cognitive biases. Wanting to act on every whim could be a strange take on freedom which destroys the social fabric since we become – with somewhat resigned cynicism – a plaything for moving thoughts and emotions that impair our judgment.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattvaʹs way of Life 2 , the great 8th century Indian Buddhist thinker Santideva gives another example : if someone hits us with a stick, we won't be angry at the stick but rather at the person. In fact, he tells us, the person is like a stick in the hands of hatred, and that is our real enemy.

Unlike the individualist who mistakes freedom to do as he or she wills and true freedom which consists in mastering oneself, we understand the importance of considering interdependence and cooperation as essential components of caring and sustainable societies. Freeing ourselves from the dictatorship of egocentrism and the biases it carries along means being able to take our lives into our own hands, instead of abandoning them to tendencies forged out of habit.

It is fundamental today we consider the interdependence of all beings, both in the way they operate as well as in their shared aspiration to avoid suffering and experience well-being. An altruistic state of being can help alleviate inequalities and social injustice in the short term, promote the well-being of the population in the medium term, and in the long term adequately take into consideration the fate of future generations and of life in general. If a task may seem beyond our capacities at first, we can progress step by step. As the philosopher Pierre Levy wrote, « no one knows everything, but everyone knows something » ; we could say the same thing of action, « no one can do everything, but we can all do something ». The fact that journey may be long should not discourage us. The important thing is to know we are moving in the right direction. In this case, each step taken is rewarding and pushes us to persevere for the good of all beings.

Transdisciplinary studies by Gauthier Chapelle and Pablo Servigne show that it is possible to revive the key factors of change we all have in us. In their book Mutual Aid : The Other Law of the Jungle (2022), they quote an inspiring passage from Jean-Claude Ameisen's book Dans le lumière et les ombres [In Light and Shadows] : « We need to enter in relationships with empathy, with what is unique, singular, wonderful, fragile and threatened in each human being, and in nature around us. And we must ask ourselves what we can do to protect, preserve, repair, heal, and prevent it from vanishing. […] With respect for the great vulnerability of those who brought us to life, those who surround us, and those who will outlive us. »

We need an enlightened education to bring to emphasize ideas of cooperation and solidarity rather than values of competition and indifference. A vision of an interdependent and connected world can be at the heart of what we pass on to future generations. This way, we may understand how interdependency and cooperation can remedy contemporary ills, and how the continuous practice of altruism may offer solutions to tomorrow's challenges.

1 Layard, R., & Dunn, J. (2009). A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. Penguin, p. 6.

2 Shantideva. (2008). Bodhicaryâvatâra: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of Life. Shambhala