“All Flourishing is Mutual”: Modeling Human Societies after Mutual Aid in Natural Ecosystems

By Tamra Benson



We are here to heal each other. We are here to honor our relationship and responsibility to the land and each other, to minimize suffering and maximize joy, and to work for the collective healing and liberation of the planet and its people. The way our economies currently function is extremely harmful to the planet and people, especially poor and marginalized communities. A small handful of folks are hoarding resources while a majority of people are being left behind and the planet’s ecosystems are collapsing. Although some will argue that this is “survival of the fittest,” I refuse to accept this as reality. Through my observations of the natural world and my studies of mutual aid systems, I have learned that an equitable and sustainable future is possible. 

It is a common misconception that our observations of violence and competition in nature are proof of social Darwinism, and this misunderstanding upholds harmful systems within our societies. Some insist that mutualism is not natural, and that competition and self-preservation are the ways of nature that we will all fall back onto eventually. I’m afraid that those who believe this have not witnessed thriving ecosystems, the health of which depends greatly upon the well-being of every creature that inhabits the space. Mutualistic relationships have been a fact of nature for perhaps even longer than violence and competition. 

Mutual aid is a term used to describe the act of giving and receiving aid within a community for the benefit of the community as a whole. Someone who gives aid at one time might need to receive it at another due to changes in circumstances. The goal of mutual aid is to build community care and resilience in the face of hardships. For Peter Kropotkin, who is often referred to as the father of mutual aid theory, mutual aid is a “factor of evolution,” meaning that the natural world, given the right circumstances, will always favor mutualism over competition. But mutual aid is far more than an evolutionarily favorable behavior observed in nature. It is also a way for us to express care and love for the people and world around us. Mutual aid “addresses the root causes of challenges we face and demands transformative change” (Méndez, 2022). It builds community resilience to combat inequality and injustice. 

Mutual aid has existed in human societies for ages, and today, many “Indigenous families rely on long-established kinships and traditions…[that] emphasize relationships and interconnectedness between oneself, communities, ancestors, future generations, and the earth” (Méndez, 2022). Because community care, resilience, and collective joy are inherently acts of resistance in societies that seem to strive to disrupt them, mutual aid has deep roots in political and activist communities. For example, “in the late 1700s, recently freed African Americans were still denied access to banks and social safety nets. So, they pooled money to buy farms and land, care for children, the sick, and the entire community” (Méndez, 2022). 

In order to move away from a world of injustice and systemic harm, human societies can and should reject concepts like social Darwinism and instead turn to the mutualistic relationships in the natural world for inspiration. We have so much to learn from the ecosystems that support the collective well-being of all who inhabit them, and we must begin restructuring ourselves to mimic their mutualism if we want to create a better future. 

“In order to move away from a world of injustice and systemic harm, human societies can and should reject concepts like social Darwinism and instead turn to the mutualistic relationships in the natural world for inspiration.”

Mutual Aid in Natural Ecosystems

In Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, initially published in 1902, he details several instances of mutualism in the natural world. He states that sociability is not only “as much a law of nature as mutual struggle” (Kropotkin, p. 3-4), but also that “the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle” (Kropotkin, 1902, p. 5). In his studies, Kropotkin observed so many instances of mutualism that he concluded it cannot possibly be the exception; rather, it is the rule (1902, p. 31). He concluded that the tendency toward mutualism exists because “better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support” (1902, p. 44). 

What would happen if we chose to uplift one another rather than compete for resources, wealth, attention, and well-being? How would our relationships with each other and the land change?

Plant-fungi Mutualism

As Merlin Sheldrake states in Entangled Life (2020), “some of the most significant moments in evolution had resulted from the coming together – and staying together – of different organisms” (2020, p. 80), such as primary endosymbiosis, a first step for the evolution of photosynthesizing plants, and lichens, the latter of which are born from a mutualistic relationship between fungi and algae/photosynthetic bacteria. Lichens are formed as a result of mutualism because fungi cannot photosynthesize and the algae and photosynthetic bacteria cannot gather the same nutrients that fungi can. In this way, “symbiosis enables the algae and the fungus to engage in a reciprocal exchange of sugar and minerals” (Kimmerer, 2015, p. 270-271). Lichen is perhaps the clearest example of natural selection favoring mutualism over competition. These individual species do not compete with each other for nutrients; rather, they engage in an intimate, interdependent relationship and behave as one.

Fungi also engage in mutualistic relationships with the roots of plants through mycorrhizal networks.  Plants would never have been able to grow on land if it had not been for these mycorrhizal relationships, because “the algal ancestors of land plants had no roots… it was only by striking up new relationships with fungi that algae were able to make it onto land” (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 124). These networks now allow for the transfer of nutrients and information in the form of hormones and other signal chemicals. Robin Wall Kimmerer (2015) writes about pecan trees in Braiding Sweetgrass, and specifically how their fruits all ripen at the same time, no matter how far away the trees are from each other. She writes that “the [pecan] trees do not act as individuals, but somehow as a collective… We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual” (p. 15). 

What would happen if we structured our societies around the goal of collective flourishing rather than individual success and capital gain? We have much to learn from lichen and mycorrhizae. 

Plant-animal Mutualism 

Animals also engage in mutual aid in natural ecosystems, such as the mutually beneficial relationships between pollen-producing plants and their pollinators. Plants attract pollinators with sweet and rancid scents, bright colors, and other means. Some plants provide their pollinators with nectar, and in return, their pollen is dispersed by the pollinators. Plants can also engage in mutually beneficial relationships with other plants. For example, the “striking contrast when [goldenrods and asters] grow together makes them the most attractive target… Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone” (Kimmerer, 2015, p. 46). Goldenrods and asters are neighbors, and they are more likely to survive and flourish when they grow together rather than separately competing for the attention of pollinators. 

Many plants also depend on wildlife to disperse their seeds, so their offspring have a chance to grow away from competition. Ecosystems depend on seed dispersers to ensure the ecosystem can continue to thrive in the future by giving plant’s offspring a chance to germinate and grow into the next generation. In return, plants provide their seed dispersers with nutrients in the form of sweet fruits and nutrient-rich seeds. 

What would happen if we dedicated ourselves to nourishing the communities that care for us? 

Animal-animal Mutualism

Animals also engage in mutual aid with other animals, whether that be animals of the same species or different species. One way this occurs is through organization into “societies.” Kropotkin (1902) observes that “the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life” (p. 175). Living in societies is often favored evolutionarily as well, as he also states that “those communities… which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best” (1902, p. 2). Living in a community in which members support each other through various stages of life and adversity increases the survivorship of an organism, or at least allows the organism to expend less energy on self-defense and resource collection, as these factors are greatly improved by life within a community or an organized society. 

Circular Ecosystems

Resource distribution is an important factor of mutual aid. In the natural world, many resources, such as water and carbon, are carried through cycles. Even the earth’s crust is in a continuous cycle of being pushed down, melting, being pushed upward, and recondensing into solid rock. These cycles are fueled by energy and nutrient gradients. As Merlin Sheldrake states in Entangled Life, “as long as there is an energetic slope, energy will move from source (at the top) to the sink (at the bottom)” (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 158). Ecosystems tend toward cyclic rather than linear patterns. 

Mycorrhizal networks aid in the facilitation of these cyclic patterns due to their ability to connect complex systems of plant roots and fungi. These networks are often referred to as mycelium, which functions as “ecological connective tissue” (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 46) by transporting phosphorus, carbon, and other nutrients from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 137). In this way, mycelial networks beneath the soil can function like mutual aid networks by facilitating the distribution of resources in the soil, moving nutrients from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity, such that “a plant’s surplus carbon passes into a mycorrhizal network where it is enjoyed by many as a ‘public good’” (Sheldrake, 2020, p. 159). Much like the resources in mutual aid funds, the nutrients stored in mycelial networks can be contributed by members of the connected community in times of excess and drawn upon in times of need. 

What would happen if we actively facilitated an equitable distribution of resources, ensuring that no one is hoarding more than they need and no one lacks what they need to survive and thrive? What beautiful things would be able to grow that are currently being stamped out by a lack of equitable distribution of resources? How can we build these systems of mutual aid in a way that alleviates systemic harm and builds community resilience? 

Mutual Aid Between Humans and Nature 

No matter how intelligent we are, we would not be able to survive without the water, nutrients, and shelter provided to us by the land. The land gives to us, and we should give back however and whenever we can. Mutual aid with the natural world has been practiced by Indigenous peoples for as long as humans have walked the earth, and we have much to learn from those who still practice these forms of mutual aid despite colonizers’ countless acts of genocide and attempts at forced assimilation. 

Indigenous peoples of what we now call North America had been managing the land for generations before Europeans settled. In many cases, they engaged in a “relationship that does not separate people or culture from land, nor creates anthropocentric hierarchies within nature” (Gilio-Whitaker, 2019, p. 136), and when possible continue to do so today. The rest of humanity can do the same. To engage in these relationships, we need to acknowledge that “humans are only part of the natural world, neither central to nor separate from it” (Gilio-Whitaker, 2019, p. 140). It is our responsibility to give back to the land. 

What would happen if we as a collective society gave back to the earth instead of ruthlessly extracting from and exploiting its resources and care for short-term capital gain? 

Mutual Aid in Human Societies 

Mutual aid can be a method of political participation where people work to “build lasting alternatives to state-sponsored systems of care by organizing grassroots networks of support that are reciprocal, transparent, and guided by participants’ resources, skills, and knowledge” (Arani, 2020, p. 3). Those who engage in mutual aid are giving to and receiving from their community in a way that builds community engagement, solidarity, and resilience, providing avenues for both surviving the present and building a better future. 

Mutual aid has always been a method of overcoming injustice in the United States, especially among communities that have been historically marginalized and exploited. One instance is the use of mutual aid among Chinese immigrants to overcome issues caused by racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination. (Méndez, 2022). Similarly, “organizations like the Black Panther Party… leveraged mutual aid to expose racial inequities by building care and resource distribution center” (Méndez, 2022). The framework of mutual aid as a way to alleviate inequality and injustice was popularized in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by the virus and on average have less sufficient access to healthcare resources, so relief funds and resources became central to the fight against systemic racism and healthcare disparities. 

Circular Systems

Much like the circular systems we see in nature, we can structure our societies and economies in a way that ensures that everyone involved has access to the resources they need and nothing is being hoarded or wasted. A circular economy is one in which most resources and energy are reused, as opposed to a linear economy which does not reuse any resources or energy, and everything eventually goes to waste. In Doughnut Economics, Raworth (2017) proposes an economic model where we strive to stay within the inner and outer boundaries of the “doughnut” to ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need and we don’t extract too many resources from the earth. Falling outside of the inner boundary is considered a “shortfall” and exceeding the outer boundary is considered an “overshoot” (Raworth, 2017, p. 38). We need to build these sorts of systems and economies if we want to create a more equitable and sustainable future for humanity and the planet. 

What needs to change

It is important to acknowledge that mutual aid is not a solution to all of the world’s problems. Extraction, exploitation, and all other forms, of social, political, economic, and environmental violence are embedded into the fabric of our current societies. Mutual aid is not a substitute for systemic changes and policy changes, but rather a method for alleviating the effects of the harm caused by these systems, building a safety net for those within the systems, and inspiring community organizations that might gain enough power to change the systems. Creating mutualistic relationships and systems of mutual aid can be a difficult task that will always be met with resistance. We need a paradigm shift, and engaging in mutual aid efforts will be a part of this shift away from harm and toward an equitable and sustainable future. 

“Mutual aid is not a substitute for systemic changes and policy changes, but rather a method for alleviating the effects of the harm caused by these systems, building a safety net for those within the systems, and inspiring community organizations that might gain enough power to change the systems.”


Based on our observations of the natural world, we have learned that we can function as a collective. Like plants that depend on animals to disperse their seeds, we can uplift one another rather than compete for resources and well-being. Like lichen and mycorrhizae, we can structure our societies around collective flourishing rather than individual success. Like plants and pollinators, we can dedicate ourselves to nourishing the communities that care for us. Like fungal mycelium, we can facilitate equitable distribution of resources and ensure that no one is hoarding more than they need and no one is lacking what they need to survive and thrive. Like nature’s nutrient cycles, we can create circular systems that reuse energy and resources rather than letting them go to waste. We can also learn from Indigenous peoples and give back to the earth instead of ruthlessly extracting from and exploiting its resources. We can do all of these things, and we should. The natural world is teaching us how, and we need to listen. 

We are here to heal each other. It is possible to build new systems within our societies that will honor our relationship and responsibility to the land and each other, minimize suffering and maximize authentic joy, and work toward the collective healing and liberation of the planet and the ecosystems and people that inhabit it. A better future is possible, and the earth is waiting for us to learn from her.



Arani, Alexia. “Mutual Aid and Its Ambivalences: Lessons from Sick and Disabled Trans and Queer People of Color.” Feminist Studies 46, no. 3 (2020): 653-62. https://doi.org/10.1353/fem.2020.0033.

Gammage, Jennifer. “Solidarity, Not Charity: Mutual Aid’s An-archic History.” The Blog of the American Philosophical Association. Entry posted January 25, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2022. http://blog.apaonline.org/2021/01/25/solidarity-not-charity-mutual-aids-an-archic-history/.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. N.p.: Beacon, 2019.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015.

Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Dialectics university edition. ed. Saint Louis, MO: Dialectics, 2013.

Méndez, Victoria. “What Is Mutual Aid, and How Can It Transform Our World?” Global Giving. Last modified February 3, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2022. https://www.globalgiving.org/learn/what-is-mutual-aid.

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-century Economist. Place of publication not identified: Chelsea Green, 2018.

Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life. N.p.: Random House Publishing Group, 2020.