We are reminded every day now—from Gaza to the Ganges to Ferguson—that civilization is but a thin layer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. If it snaps, all that we hold dear can disappear overnight. Whether this happens from belligerent and malevolent forces outside us (think 9/11) or from within—from the ferocious partisan conflicts that have deadlocked and paralyzed our governance, or from the rising temperatures of the ocean, or the collapse of ecosystems, there will be no place to hide.

Many of you have no doubt read the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he tells how the change people inflict on their environment has always been one of the main factors in the decline of civilizations. One example: The Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forests disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare made matters worse as they exhausted dwindling resources.

Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills diminishing, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they remained well-fed while everyone else was slowly starving. When the food ran out it was too late to reverse their deteriorating environment, and they became casualties of their own privilege.

They had violated the fundamental rule of civilization: We are in this together.

Gilbert McAllister taught anthropology at the University of Texas when I was a student there 60 years ago. We called him “Doctor Mac.” In my mind’s eye I can see him “¦ telling us about the years he had spent as a graduate student among the Apache Indians. They had taught him the meaning of reciprocity. He learned that in the Apache tongue the word for grandfather was the same as the word for grandson: Grandfather, grandson—generations linked to one another in an embrace of mutual obligation.

For all the chest-thumping about individuals and self-made men, he said, an ethic of cooperation became the bedrock of our social contract.

There you have the story of these islands. The natives who first lived here looked on nature as if it were their mother’s breast—their sustenance, their life. They hunted, fished, and collected shellfish, gathered plants and berries.

They were humans, of course, and not immune to the personal greed and cunning. But they survived by cooperating among themselves and with nature.

Then the Europeans came. First, Jesuit missionaries from France. The English came soon thereafter—sailing up from Virginia—bringing with them armed violence, fierce competition. They murdered three Jesuit missionaries and took the remainder back to Virginia as prisoners, then returned here to this island to burn the remaining French buildings. It wasn’t until after a century and a half of conflict that your coast was opened for settlement. Families grew. Villages flourished. Commerce took root. And cooperation brought about a way of life that violence and ruthless conflict could not.

Against great odds our own culture of democracy in America grew from shared values, common dreams, and mutual aspirations of people seeking something better. Those ideas are proclaimed in the most disregarded section of the Constitution—the preamble. This pact of partnership declares a moral contract among “We the People of the United States.” Yes, I know: When those words were written, “We the People” didn’t include slaves, or women, or exploited workers, or unwelcome immigrants. But the very idea of it, the vision that inspired it, the power of an idea let loose by the American Revolution was to change the consciousness of the world.

As well as our own way of life.

Where I grew up on the Oklahoma and Texas border, individual initiative succeeded only when it led to a strong system of mutual support. I couldn’t sit in my clearing while you sweated and strained alone to raise your barn; neighbors came together to help.

My father grew up in a family of poor farmers. My father was 14 when his father died during the flu epidemic of 1918. Neighbors washed his father’s body, neighbors dug the grave, and neighbors laid my grandfather in the earth. Even as late as my high school days, my father and others in the church would take turns through the night sitting in the parlor of the funeral home beside the corpse of a departed friend or congregant. It was their way of saying, “We’ll not leave you alone as you cross this river.”

Dad often drew the midnight shift and would go directly from his vigil through the hours before dawn to his job driving a truck. Shortly before his death

I asked him, “You had to be hard at work at sunrise driving that truck, why did you do this?” He looked at me with surprise and answered, “Because it was just the thing we did.”

Just the thing WE did.

That sentiment contains the seed of civilization: the progression from solitary initiative and tribal warfare to social cooperation—the web of collaboration weaving individuals into family, friends, communities, and country, creating in each a sense of reliance on the ecology of which we are all a part, a recognition of the self in the company of others, sharing powerful loyalties even as we retain our individual identities. Obligation. Reciprocity. Cooperation. Without them society becomes a war of all against all, and the free market for wolves turns into a slaughter for the lambs.

Civilization is the bargain we strike with one another. We can’t sustain the bargain if our fundamental philosophy is “Live and let live.” It doesn’t work. To survive and flourish generation after generation, we must “live and help live.”

Once upon a time I might have thought a small island off the coast of Maine hardly the place where a partnership could be forged that might show the world this better way—one of obligation, reciprocity, and cooperation. I would have been wrong. The future begins here and now, this evening, in this small but significant place, with each and all of us.