A Human Chain

by Colette Lebel

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On July 8th of this year, as people were enjoying the sun on a Florida beach, every single member of a family was swept away as they tried to rescue two of their own from being engulfed by strong waves. Some 80 beachgoers spontaneously decided to hold hands and form a human chain until someone reached the family in distress, and without risk to their own lives, brought them back to safety.

This heart-warming story seemed to echo the International Day of Co-operatives, which had been celebrated the week before under the theme of inclusion. The key message being that “no one is left behind”. Good for us! We live in a complex world that is increasingly unpredictable, so it’s better to trust in your herding instinct and be part of a group, to help each other and build solidarity. Humans are social beings who by their very nature enjoy cooperation as part of their behavioural resources.

In fact, a serious study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and published in 2010 established a direct link between brain development and the propensity for cooperation. Based on the brain analysis of 500 mammal species (live and fossilized), researchers demonstrated that the brains of social animals developed more than those of solitary species, which confirms that cooperation, in any shape whatsoever, requires more cerebral resources than a solo existence.

Of course, we figured as much: Cooperation is extremely efficient, but it also presents its own set of challenges. How can people work together without being exploited? How can people get their fair share of the collective efforts? How can people maintain team spirit in spite of their differences? To resolve these challenges, social beings have had to develop extensive cognitive skills that required increased brain power.

And that’s how, throughout the generations, social animals were able to develop a more refined brain that was better equipped to ensure the survival of their species. Therefore, there is a scientific basis to the cooperative advantage as viewed from an evolutionary perspective: By becoming more intelligent, the act of cooperation contributed to the continuity of our species. And yet… 

Yet there are still people who think they don’t need anyone. They are proud, lone wolves and brag about the fact as if it were the best substantiation of their intellect. They base their life philosophy on the ‘self-made man’, a person who finds success on their own without help or assistance, making their own way, climbing the ladder and becoming a shining star in their own right. Really? On their own? Pfffft… That is definitely not the case with the upcoming generation.

This is the era of collaboration, the collective, the cooperative. We now know that we are all connected and that no one is truly independent or self-sufficient. To restate the words the French journalist Isabelle Taubes, it seems that “the self-inflated self is crumbling.” As for the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek, he stated a new way of being part of his environment: “No longer as a heroic worker who expresses his creative potential by exploiting inexhaustible resources, but as a modest agent who collaborates with what surrounds him.” And then there is the Nobel prize-winning economist E. Stiglitz, who, for some time now, has been criticizing the kind of exacerbated individualism that damages our societies. “Long-term collective projects must be developed. That is where opportunity lies. The danger is not to take advantage of it.”

We can’t get away from it: Others are an essential requirement to every one of us. As I was saying, we are social beings. We are just another species among so many others, we are all interconnected in this terrestrial adventure. Strengthened by this awareness, we need to understand cooperation as a remarkable strategy of adaptation. Let’s be creative. There are a thousand and one ways to cooperate. All we need is a little goodwiIl.  

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Colette Lebel's picture

Colette is agronomist and director of cooperative affairs at La Coop fédérée. She was the first woman to be appointed as head of training of the boards of director within the cooperative network and works to improve women representativeness within the boards of directors. Dedicated cooperator, Colette had the opportunity to pass on his expertise in several missions abroad both for La Coop and SOCODEVI.