by TK

The waters are rising. Long before Al Gore placed the issue front and center by ascending on his forklift we have known that the world is on a collision course with inevitability. If unchecked, climate change may well become the greatest threat we have faced as a species. Yet so far, our response has been lacklustre at best.


Despite the Kyoto treaty, carbon emissions have risen more than four times this millennium compared to the decade that preceded it. In Copenhagen and Durban world leaders failed spectacularly to come together, and the populus has been slow to take any actions beyond driving hybrid cars.


Yet this shouldn’t baffle us. Faced with such a problem, it is in our nature to choose an outcome that is disadvantageous to all.


Adam Smith famously argued that selfishness ultimately benefits society as a whole. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Smith pontificated.

However, this ‘invisible hand’ also compels the homo economicus to not choose for the optimal outcome. Rather, he will prefer the best option at the lowest price. And as such, the environment has become a prisoner’s dilemma.


Thought up in 1950 by mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in a work on game theory, it predicts that, when brought in for questioning, two suspects will knowingly choose to serve time rather than trust each other and risk a longer sentence. They do this fully aware that trust would result in both of them being acquitted. The possibility of a more severe punishment is too high a price to pay.


Environmental policy has become locked in the same rational trap. Governments are fully aware that the best possible solution would be to drastically cut carbon emissions even though this may hamper economic growth.


Yet this makes it sensible to ‘betray’ the nations. Even if it turns out that the others are also not to be trusted, this is still more beneficial to both economically. Thus,

when acting out of self interests, the consequences will inevitable be to everyone’s disadvantage.


Philosophically, this has become known as the tragedy of the commons. The economist Garret Hardin argues that anyone who lives up to his responsibly makes it more tempting for others to forsake theirs.  If 136 signatures of the Kyoto treaty observed their commitments it becomes all the more tempting for the last one to defect. The consequences of one country doing so would be minor, but since the advantage of the freerided is equal for everyone, no one will take responsibility.


The environmental impasse is therefore a perfectly rational decision. One way out would be consider the matter on a superrational level, give each other the benefit of the doubt. But, as Hardin puts it, this would require a fundamental shift in our morality, away from the rational of the home economicus and the basic principles of our capitalist system.