Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush

To understand how individuals interact biologists use a branch of mathematics known as game theory, the central assumption of which is that entities (usually individuals) behave rationally; that is, they act in their own best interests in light of the available information about what others are doing. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s about maximizing one’s own success relative to that of others.

A famous example of the application of game theory to behaviour is the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine two suspects, held in separate cells. If they both stick with their story (loosely, “I dahn’t nah nuffin’ mate”) the authorities will have no evidence on which to convict and both will go free.

The trouble is that, people being people, trust is a major issue. If one prisoner claims that the other did it, he will be set free with a handsome reward while his partner in crime is sentenced to a lengthy period of incarceration.

So what’s the only rational course of action? Fearful of taking sole blame (and perhaps enticed by the reward), both prisoners must surely denounce each other. The result is that both serve a sentence, repaying their debt to society before being unleashed upon it once more.

This simple little game has spawned an entire discipline of scientific research into understanding how and why individuals, groups, nations, even cells and genes, can possibly cooperate. It’s driven by the observation that cooperation is a widespread phenomenon, so there must be a way to make it stick. Indeed, cooperation is sometimes essential: babies are only borne of the “cooperation” that takes place between their parents – something that for many species must continue for years if the offspring is to survive to adulthood.

The jury is very much out there, but some general themes have emerged. Of these, the importance of the threat of punishment is key. In a world without retribution why would we ever expect to see any form of cooperation? Another is that decisions are often based upon a mutual history: trust can build between frequently interacting partners to the point where risks are minimized. If our two prisoners had worked together for long enough, they might consider it worth the risk of sticking to the story as both will reap the reward of freedom.

But seeing the difficulties around getting just two individuals to rub along, imagine the complexity of getting three to agree. Many of the evolutionary games that result in emergent stable cooperation between pairs fall apart with the introduction of an additional party. It is possible to find scenarios where multiple players cooperate, but the conditions are more stringent, truces more fragile, and cooperation levels are generally lower.

Scaling up to 192, the number of nations that have spent the last two weeks in Copenhagen negotiating the planet’s future, the prospects for any sort of cooperation seem infinitesimally small. And the kind of cooperation we need is going to impart a lot of financial pain on industrialised nations.

The “n-player” problem is often characterised as the “tragedy of the commons”, another pillar of the altruist’s canon. In former, simpler times, people grazed their sheep on common land. Anyone could do so with any number of sheep, and that’s where the problems lay. The land could only support a certain number of sheep before becoming overgrazed, but each individual had the incentive to add another sheep, and another, and another: the larger the flock the greater its worth.

The rational course of action was perverse. By sticking to his equitable share of the pasture’s “carrying capacity”, a commoner’s competitors gained the edge. The only thing to do was follow suit (rather like a sheep would). In time, overgrazing would lead to everyone’s flock going hungry. No one wins, but at least everyone loses. In recent times we’ve seen the same thing happen time and again with the collapse of the world’s fisheries.

The lesson is simple and stark: a sustainable future can be had through cooperation, but the potential costs of unconditional trust are simply too great to risk. The outcome is an inevitable decline to oblivion.

What does this tell us about Copenhagen? Perhaps that we shouldn’t be surprised that the outcome was rather less comprehensive than hoped. But given that all the above theory is old hat in political circles, isn’t it just a little surprising that anyone even so much as raised the expectation that agreement would be made among so many disparate parties?

Climate change mitigation measures require global cooperation: there is little point in taking unilateral action and doing so raises a significant risk of losing out in the global scramble for economic growth. Adaptation, on the other land, is easily carried out unilaterally and could (in fact should) bring competitive advantages in the future.

One reading of COP15 might therefore be that we shouldn’t expect too much by way of mitigation: it’s only a matter of time before someone points out the fact that money spent mitigating can’t be spent adapting. If the last two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we haven’t learned much since those medieval commoners first found themselves with nothing for their sheep to eat.

Wishing you all a peaceful 2010.

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