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BooksJune 25, 2018

A professor of psychology has an epiphany and discovers how we can save the planet


Niki Harré, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, explains how we can make the world a better place by playing something she calls “the infinite game”.

You probably know the drill: people are failing to recycle, driving their cars too much, or eating the wrong food. But changing the behaviour of other adults has always seemed to me both patronising and misguided. What we need, if we are going to promote human and ecological flourishing, is people working together on creative solutions, not experts training others like circus animals.

I’ve given talks and workshops to numerous groups of inspiring, struggling people full of energy and generosity. They all wanted to contribute in some way to the common good, although the focus of each varied. I met young climate-change activists, social justice-oriented school teachers, volunteers who maintain the health of their local stream, people with a ferocious love of animals who push to abolish factory farming, unionists advocating for a living wage, and eco-fashion designers.

Still, I sensed that we, as people who care about the common good, were missing something. We certainly had the issues covered. You name it, someone is working on it: climate change, child poverty, women’s rights, housing insecurity, protecting native plants and animals, wealth inequality, indigenous people’s loss of land. Where there is injustice and harm, you will also find people refusing, in one form or another, to accept that our current practices are good enough. There are also people demonstrating alternatives to the status quo by living in tiny houses, designing low-carbon urban transport systems, harnessing sustainable energy, farming organically, running cooperative businesses, implementing democratic decision-making, and constructing self-sufficient buildings.

And there is no shortage of knowledge, energy and intelligence behind these efforts. Figuring out how to live well together is, after all, our most challenging task. It therefore attracts people who have the imagination and stamina to take on hard problems. Smart people are not all attracted to high status, money-making positions. Really smart people – even in the conventional sense – want to be part of creating new games, not just winning the old ones.

But, it seemed to me, tackling the various issues that infuriate and inspire us isn’t enough. What if we won the war on climate change? What if women led 50 per cent of the major corporations? What if we found a renewable energy source to run the entire transport system? What if the cooperative became the favoured business model? What if every farm was organic? Is the creation of the collective good life simply the sum of its parts?

I don’t think so. Something must hold those parts together. Otherwise, in our rush to solve this or that problem, we pull against each other and create (sometimes horrific) collateral damage. We sacrifice yet another river to create clean energy, we support yet another military intervention to restore human rights, we get caught in destructive debates about whether jobs or an endangered species are more important, and we compete with each other for funding and attention. Is that really the best we can do? Surely not. It became increasingly obvious to me that the entire debate needs to shift; and it cannot do so unless we figure out what it is we are reaching towards – the underpinning values that we want to live by and the vision of where we are going that makes our actions make sense.

Hence: the infinite game.

If we approach life as an endless game with mini-games embedded within it, maybe it would liberate us to be braver, more imaginative, and more generous in our support for each other.

When we worship winning and hand leadership to the victors of cut-throat, competitive games, what do we expect to be valued in our chambers of power – compassion, wisdom, inclusion, beauty? Hardly. This, I have come to believe, is a key reason why it can be so irrationally difficult for leaders of organisations to implement deeply cooperative, democratic processes. It is not because these leaders are bad, but because they have been trained in a completely different type of game. My book is for anyone who is concerned about how we, collectively, are going about life and is looking for alternatives.

Several years ago, early on a Sunday morning when I was on the back deck of our house, I experienced a profound shift in perspective. Suddenly, while gazing over the garden, I felt, overwhelmingly, inarticulately, how fundamental cooperation is to life. I looked intensely at the small pōhutukawa tree growing off the corner of the deck and saw how its leaves were oriented towards the sun and appeared to suck in the light, capturing it for life on Earth. The thicker branches were home to patches of lichen, and I saw a bird gathering twigs and flying to the neighbouring tree with them to build a nest. In my imagination, the bird was helping clear away dead material to allow new leaves to form. I got up, walked around our garden, and saw numerous other exchanges between life forms: a soft lemon that was dissolving into the soil, the outer leaves of a cabbage that had large holes from a caterpillar’s meal. There were even bumblebees hovering inside bright red poppies. Well, it was spring.

This may not have been the first time I properly and profoundly noticed just how much interdependence there is in nature. I suspect my feeling of discovery was a product of my building obsession with theories about the deeper nature of life, in combination with the week’s events in which my hopes of winning had been relentlessly mocked. And the realisation made me intensely happy. Everything still had its identity – I did not sense that life was one continuous blur, in keeping with claims that the boundaries between individuals merge when you look at them on a microscopic level. But the idea kept popping into my head that life is based on radical cooperation. Cooperation fitted because the actions of each life form supported the growth of other forms; and it was radical because these actions were at the root of both individual survival and the functioning of the entire ecosystem.

The idea of radical cooperation started bouncing around my brain and expanding my focus from the importance of my own life to the importance of life. I realised that even when I died, what mattered to me would continue. The dread of death is, after all, the unthinkable horror that your world will end. It assumes that your world is equivalent to your existence as a conscious participator and observer. During this experience, my world was out there instead of in here.

Radical cooperation involves trying your best to let go of the belief, trained into us by our society’s emphasis on self-promotion and self-acquisition, that security lies in what you have cordoned off for you and your descendants. Insofar as security exists at all, it is better understood as lying in how well we cooperate with each other and the natural world in which we are embedded. If you want to be an infinite player here and now – which is your prime opportunity – that involves unilateral disarmament. You will need to let go and give, in the face of numerous disorienting messages that you should be holding on and taking. And you can draw strength from the vision that, generally speaking, life nurtures that which gives life.

Radical cooperation also means helping others grow, which is different from helping them survive. You can help people survive by giving them food when they are hungry or medicine when they are sick. You can also help them survive by training them to play a standard finite game. We do this when we encourage those entering our profession to learn the rules in order to get ahead.

If you look a little, you will see numerous opportunities to support people’s growth, as the world is full of people tentatively, boldly, offering their creativity to us. It comes in the form of knitted baby cardigans on sale at community markets, local theatre performances, environmental and social justice events, novels by writers in our community, a local bakery that has carefully crafted handwritten labels for its wares, poetry readings at the library, and school musicals. When we support these activities, we open up life. When we support the cookie-cutter or high-glamour alternatives, we restrict life; helping to push it into a monotone format. The radical cooperator, I suggest, is like a discerning bumblebee that pollinates only the plants she senses bring vibrancy and colour to the system as a whole.

Radical cooperation is not an insipid, self-sacrificial martyrdom, in which you only give and consequently run down your own emotional and material resources. You must care for yourself and your family. Cooperation comes from a place of strength in which you assume you have something to offer. In a gentler world, and in more gentle oases in our current world, this is helped by others’ nurturing, which provides recipients with the self-assurance and trust to focus outward. In the world that many of us live within, the player striving to cooperate as deeply and broadly as possible may, ironically, often feel alone and foolish. That is the deal, I am afraid – you give, you feel awkward, and then you sometimes find, as if by magic, that something comes back to you. Not sackfuls of money or a winner’s trophy as in – do good and you will get rich! – but the warmth of feeling that your life matters because it goes beyond its limited little self.

This extract is taken from The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together by Nikki Harre (Auckland University Press, $29.95), available from Unity Books.

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