Maybe Life Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

When did life become a zero-sum game in that for someone to win, another must lose? Maybe there are roots of this thinking in misapplied understanding of natural selection evolutionary theory in the form of social Darwinism. Deeper in the intricacies of natural selection are actually many elements of collaboration and collective action. Life is not always dog-eat-dog. In fact, it usually isn’t–though it might be dog-eat squirrel. But then of course it is also bacteria-eat-dead dog. The whole circle of life thing.

We hear much now about tribalism, meaning a form of hyper-tribalism that pits one group against another; but tribalism doesn’t have to be a zero-sum competition between groups. We do all want to belong and tribal cultures have a history of collective action and collaboration. And I would suspect that many histories of tribal cultures contains more examples of tribes trading and living alongside one another than warring with one another–though of course that did occur as well.

So here we are at a seemingly important inflection point in history; a moment of crisis. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and the loss of unity of purpose of our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.

We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. We always believed that we were a part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom; and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose.

However, human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of this country a majority of our people believe that the future will be worse than the past. And what we see now is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.

We must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation.

A significant, and often over-looked aspect of that faith in each other is truth telling about our past. It has largely been a zero-sum game and a significant segment of the population, have been marginalized, pushed aside, even eliminated by genocide and then erased by attempted elimination of their story, history, language–their culture as if it no longer exists or even ever existed.

I confess that much of the above five paragraphs actually comes from Jimmy Carter’s “Energy and the National Goals – A Crisis of Confidence” speech, otherwise known as those critical of the former president as the “malaise speech.” I purposefully didn’t cite those sections so you’d read them with an open mind. Google it and read it the whole speech. We were warned and we’ve done this to ourselves. This means we can also correct this direction we are heading.

I live in a town, work at a university, and attend a church that have all written land acknowledgment statements. This is crucial truth-telling and necessary reflection on our history and past. This is an essential component of renewing our relationships with each other. It requires the hard work of honest story telling of our past and the harder work of honest listening to one another. Hopefully these statements won’t become like mission statements–wordsmithed to get just right and then set on a shelf and repeated as rote-learned empty words, but nothing more. If they don’t lead to difficult conversations involving truth telling and truth listening, then they maybe haven’t served their purpose.

There’s many other examples of where we need to renew our relationships with one another so that we can collaborate moving forward for not only betterment of all, but frankly for survival that allows one another to thrive. The alternative is a dystopian future that is a return to some form of feudal society. We can do better.

Key to this is also renewing our relationship to the places where we live and the ecosystems in which we live. This connects to the concept of land acknowledgement statements as cultures that evolved over thousands of years in an ecosystem possess great amounts of ecological knowledge that evolved with their culture that still exists today (where it hasn’t been already eliminated and erased). Be careful here though. I’m not advocating that the dominant imported culture use and appropriate indigenous cultures like a resource to perpetuate our own survival. These cultures still exist and will and should continue to exist. Honestly, I’m still wrestling with how this works with honor and humility.

Maybe a addressing our crisis of confidence, and our retreat into dangerous forms of tribalism requires rediscovery of humility. And this might be found in better understanding of and renewing our relationship with where we live and the ecosystems within which we evolved among the other species with which we depend upon and interact. A commodification of the natural world and an ecological identity built on rules of a zero-sum game have been disastrous and we are seeing the result of that relationship. Yes, we can do better, because we must.

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