House rules should favour cooperation over competition in a crisis

Mark Delaney examines why it's imperative to look after each other in a crisis rather than go it alone.

By Mark Delaney

Fostering an attitude of cooperation rather than competitiveness, right from childhood, would help strengthen society to face the many challenges ahead, writes Mark Delaney.

At school, I remember being put into “houses” for sport, after which teachers and older students would actively promote how good “our house” was compared to the others.

The indoctrination of competition over cooperation had begun.

In the years that followed, we were taught to compete with other students in exams, other candidates in job interviews, and other companies in business.

Jump forward a few years, and we see our learned-from-childhood tendency to compete, rather than cooperate, playing out in dangerous ways with respect to the two biggest threats of our time: COVID-19 and climate change.

“We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism!” President Trump derided the idea of global cooperation quite succinctly in a speech to the United Nations in 2018. Essentially, Mr Trump opined, if agreements you make with others (in this case agreements with the rest of the global community) don’t benefit you – get out.

Fuelled by the joint stressors of a climate emergency and a pandemic, recent years are awash with governments pursuing more isolationist and less cooperative policies. The US is leading the way, with President Trump:

  • announcing an intention to exit the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change because it won’t allow US to extract and sell as many fossil fuels as it desires;
  • exiting the US from the World Health Organisation, purportedly because it is too bureaucratic and hasn’t done enough to stop COVID-19 in the US;
  • overriding a commercial contract for face masks being delivered to Germany in order to keep the masks in the US; and
  • attempting to buy out a German pharmaceutical company to secure exclusive preferential access if its coronavirus vaccine succeeds.

Here in Australia we are not immune to the “compete at all costs” urge. Queensland Senator Matt Canavan expressed similar anti-cooperation sentiments in May when he wrote in The Australian:

“I made the mistakes too. I have been a supporter of the Paris Agreement because Australia has benefited from international agreements. But things have changed. With the need to secure our manufacturing industry and the clear breakdown of international co-operation, we must face the fact that era is over.

“We should end our participation in the Paris Agreement, given the more immediate need to secure our manufacturing jobs. And we should rule out any moves to net-zero emissions or a future global agreement on carbon until other countries, much larger than us, demonstrate real reductions in their carbon emissions.”

In other words, Senator Canavan suggests that when things are difficult, and it seems no one else is cooperating, we should look out for “Number 1”. The logic seems compelling: if cooperation isn’t benefiting you, why do it?

Here are five reasons, despite the impulse to look after oneself during a crisis, it is even more imperative to cooperate with others:

  • Solutions are more likely if we cooperate

Chinese scientists mapped the COVID-19 genome early in the pandemic and placed that information in the public domain. That gave scientists the world over a head start on finding a vaccine, which will ultimately save countless lives. The scientific community is now attempting to create an intellectual property regime so that any vaccine found will also be in the public domain.

  • If you take competition to its logical conclusion, we all lose

When we treat everyone else as a competitor to be beaten, history and human nature teach us that things end very badly. Initially the strong people and nations (US, China, Australia) may win, but as they force their will on poorer nations and people, resentment builds, and it’s only a matter of time before their power crumbles. By contrast, a much more cooperative and compassionate view was put by the great Mahatma Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” I suspect the Mahatma would not mind extending his principle to: “The world’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest nations – especially so during a crisis.” 

  • It’s simply not true that everyone else has stopped cooperating

Despite Senator Canavan’s assertion that the bigger nations are not doing anything to reduce emissions, that is simply not true. Virtually every nation still holds to the Paris Agreement, and some, like Germany, are doing so even more vehemently since Mr Trump’s announced exit. Consequently, German and European emissions are falling as they embrace renewable energy, so benefiting the whole world which shares the atmosphere. Even China and the US (under Obama) reached an agreement on emissions – China’s to peak by 2030 and the US’s to reduce by 28 per cent by 2025. In fields other than climate change, too, most nations are holding to global cooperation, knowing that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Most of western Europe, for example, is still in the EU, knowing that it has helped Europe achieve stability for the last 75 years.

  • It’s the right, and biblical, thing to do

Jesus taught us not to be served, but to serve. Why? I suspect Jesus knew that dominating others leads only to pain, whereas compassion and cooperation create a much healthier, happier world. In fact, all major religions have a version of the golden rule: “Treat others as you would have them treat you” (Matthew 7:12). If we use our power to compete with and dominate others, the cycle of oppression, hatred, and revenge goes on and on, ending in misery for both the oppressor and oppressed. However, if there is empathy, compassion and cooperation, the cycle is broken, which in turn proves good for us all.

  • Who is “in” and who is “out” in a competitive world?

Senator Canavan advises Australians to not cooperate with other countries because they’re not “pulling their weight”. However, by Senator Canavan’s logic, why stop at international competition?

    • At an intra-national (state) level, Queensland and NSW might compete against Victoria: “You’ve got too many COVID infections. Don’t expect any medical or logistical help from us.”
    • At an intra-state level, the urban population might compete with regional areas: “You don’t pay as much tax as we city folk, so we’re not going to build any more roads for you.”
    • At an intra-family level, the main income earner might compete with the partner and children: “Why should I support you! You’re not getting my money anymore.”

Once you start down the competitive path, where do you stop?

Reforming ourselves

If cooperation works to create a better society, especially in dealing with an emergency like COVID-19 or climate change, then it calls into question the way we inculcate in ourselves and our children the value of competition. Instead of being put into “house” teams at school, and taught to compete against others to have a winner (and therefore a loser), could we instead encourage children to help each other achieve their personal best in sport and exams? The popular Park Run is a lovely example. Each Saturday morning, prior to COVID, thousands of Australians gathered together in their local neighbourhoods for a 5km run in which there’s much encouragement of each other, the only competition being to beat one’s own personal best time.

Now in the age of COVID-19 and climate change, could we learn to cooperate for the benefit of all, rather than compete to win, at any cost? Clearly that is not the path advocated by Senator Canavan and President Trump.

Incidentally, President Trump’s statement on rejecting globalism is, in this two-minute clip, compared with the leadership style of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who instead expounds the virtues of compassion and cooperation. Who would you rather follow as we face the twin threats of COVID-19 and climate change? I suspect thousands, if not millions, of lives will depend on the choice we make.


Mark Delaney lives in Brisbane. He and his wife Cathy and sons Tom and Oscar have lived and worked with the poor in slums in north India for much of the last 24 years. With his son Tom, Mark co-authored Low Carbon and Loving It, which was published in 2018. Visit https://lowcarbonandlovingit.wordpress.com/


See “Linking care for planet with care for poor” by Oscar Delaney here.