In the previous blog of this series: "Scarcity, Abundance, and Community - The Band as Microcosm", I looked at our rational (and commendable) impulse toward collaboration and cooperation in times of crisis, on the principle that benefitting the greater good also benefits the individual. However there's also a competing impulse, to which, particularly if fear gets the upper hand, we can succumb. It's an impulse against which we do need to be on our guard, becaue it can scupper our nobler impulses toward cooperation and community in just those times when we need it the most.
To put this into perspective, I offer you...
The Prisoner's Dilemma - A Parable
Two men are arrested, suspected of having committed a recent bank robbery. But, the evidence against them is flimsy, and the police are afraid that, in the absence of something more substantial, at the end of the twenty-four hour detention period, they will have to let both suspects walk, or at most, charge them with a misdemeanor, possession of locksmithing tools without a permit, which at most would net the pair 3 to 6 months in jail.
So, the police split them up, placing them in separate interrogation rooms. They tell each suspect that, if they inform on their accomplice, they will walk out of the police station a free man, while the accomplice will go to jail for ten years. Should they both "rat" on each other, they would each go to jail for five years.
Well, what's the outcome? Realistically speaking, both prisoners would end up doing the five year stint. In other words, they would sell each other out. Sadly, human nature dictates that in such cases, people will generally act in their own self-interest, even in situations where to act in the common good would produce a better outcome for all concerned.
This simple tale goes a long way to illuminate the current crisis in our human story. For example:
The oil companies know -- unequivocally -- that by continuing to extract oil from the dwindling global reserves at the current rate, we will deplete our supply long before we have time to transition to viable alternative sources of energy. They also know that this will create an unprecedented global energy crisis that could well trigger a cascading collapse throughout global civilization, potentially resulting in anarchy, starvation, disease, and catastrophic dieback in the global population.
Obviously, the smart course of action to avoid such a cataclysm is to institute a controlled reduction in extraction (as described in The Oil Depletion Protocol, by Richard Heinberg, and elsewhere), thereby extending our reserves and allowing time to develop alternative, renewable, non-fossil fuel based sources of energy. But to do so is not acting in one's own self-interest. To continue to exploit oil reserves to the limits of our capacity to do so benefits the oil companies themselves, at the expense of the general good, so that becomes their chosen course of action.
A recent report from the FAO Committee on Fisheries has revealed that nearly 90% of all food-fish stocks in the oceans are gone. Obviously, the sensible course of action would be to severely limit fishing from now on, thus allowing at least some species to recover (although it may be too late for many of them.) However, to do so violates the principle of maximizing one's own benefit, so to date no such action, voluntary or legislated, has been undertaken. Even the Canadian moratorium on cod fishing on the Grand Banks has had limited effect, since many countries do not recognize Canadian sovereignty in the region, and continue to fish the area to the maximum capacity of which they are capable.
There are numerous other examples:
Perhaps part of the problem has to do with our innate genetic survival mechanism. As a species we have, over millennia, developed a highly sophisticated, and effective, system for dealing immediately with immediate threats. This is our so-called "fight or flight" response. If we are attacked by a predator, or another human intent on doing us harm, we have an immediate response to that immediate danger. And, while not perfect in all situations, it has stood us remarkably well over time, allowing our species to survive and thrive against what has, at times, been rather daunting odds.
But we lack a survival mechanism that forces us to act immediately to combat a threat that may not manifest its effects for several years. That is not to say that we are unaware of such delayed-action threats. Many people routinely exercise, eat healthy diets and quit smoking in order to reap health benefits that may not fully manifest themselves until much later in life (lower risk of heart disease, cancer, emphysema, and so on.) But this "survival mechanism" is intellectual. It is based entirely on a logical, linear thought process that has little, if anything to do with our intrinsic, instinctive nature.
If a real, deep-down awareness of the risk of continued high levels of carbon emissions produced an immediate adrenalin response similar to an attack by a bear or knife-wielding mugger, then perhaps we'd be more likely to act now, to safeguard our future.
But, until that time comes, we are stuck in the Prisoner's Dilemma, and everything it implies. It may be that what will save us from the Prisoner's Dilemma is an immediate crisis, in which it becomes apparent that the collective good is also the individual good. But we also need to be aware of the fact that our choices are very much up to us. We can rise above our instinctual behaviours, if we so choose. In doing so, we can preserve the greater good, from which we, as individuals, will also benefit.
It's up to us.