I’ve just read a fascinating study of human nature and sustainability.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably in agreement that we are currently over-exploiting the Earth’s resources, and need to reduce our demand for goods, growth and energy. We need to save the planet for the future, in other words.
But even though we know it, and even though more than 95% of the world’s top scientists agree that we are causing massive damage to the planet, we still have corporations and individuals who want to extract as much as they possibly can. They don’t want to save the planet for the future.
These actions have a high cost on the welfare of future generations. They are the ones who will suffer even more than us.
And those future generations cannot reciprocate the actions we take today.
Co-operating with the Future
The scientific journal Nature published a fascinating study in May 2014. The study, called “Co-operating with the Future”, set out to answer the question “What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future?”
They called it the “Inter-generational Goods Game”.
A series of groups of people (generations) are told they can each either extract a resource to exhaustion (i.e. drill all the oil out of the ground until there is not a drop left), or extract some, and leave something for the next group (generation).
Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff / benefit for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed.
The study showed huge differences in result depending upon how the decision-making was made.
Decisions Made Individually
The resource was almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future was driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far, far more than is sustainable.
Decisions Made by Voting
But interestingly, when extraction decisions are decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained.
Why? A majority of co-operators nearly always restrained the defectors.
Interestingly though, the voting only worked for co-operation with the future if it was binding for all involved. Some of the people who voted for extracting the maximum resources, only agreed to leave some resources for future generations IF everyone was bound absolutely to doing so. When people who wanted to extract the most thought that others might extract more, they instantly wanted to extract the maximum they could for themselves.
This interesting study reminded me of the Kyoto protocol, where some major countries said “I’m not going to reduce my carbon emissions if the other countries aren’t all going to too” (I always thought it sounded like kids in a schoolyard).
This study, and our progress (or lack of it) in restricting the amount of fossil fuels we extract, has implications for policy interventions worldwide.
If we don’t start now to save the planet for the future, there won’t be a planet.
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