Saturday, June 15, 2013

John Nash versus the environmental movement.

       A little-covered event took place a month ago.  CO2 concentrations in the air reached 400 ppm.  It is not good news for our planet and all its inhabitants.  From the moment measurements of CO2 concentrations in the environment started being taken in 1958, when CO2 concentrations were 315 ppm, till now, we added another 85 ppm, which is an increase of 27%, and CO2 concentrations increased by almost
45% since the industrial revolution began.  The worst part is that the rate at which we are increasing Carbon Dioxide concentration in the environment is actually speeding up, and so things will only get worse.

            In 1958, we were consuming less than half the petroleum we now consume.  Same thing goes for coal.  Natural gas was almost absent in our energy mix.  Some people expressed hope that at least the rate of increase in emissions will slow, given the current economic environment since the 2008 crisis, but the rate of emissions actually increased by over 10% since 2007 according to EIA data[i].  It is hard to say with certainty at what rate we will continue to increase the Carbon Dioxide concentration in our environment, and it is even harder to predict accurately the effects.  What we do know for a certainty, is that the next milestone, which will be 500 ppm, will be reached in just a few decades (around 2035 at current rates of emissions increase).  We will not be prepared to either prevent us from racing towards the next milestone, which will be 600 ppm, a thing that will most likely happen within my expected lifetime, nor will we be able to deal with any of the negative consequences.  We simply do not have the global institutional capacity to meet this potential threat to our lives.

The Obstacle:

            This month will mark one year since Rio + 20.  It was an event, meant as a follow-up to the original Rio summit in 1992, which was supposed to help change the unsustainable path of the global economy.  Some die-hard optimists left with the illusion that something did indeed happen at the summit.  In reality, it was an even more colossal failure than the first one.  The first one managed to convince a few nations to at the very least undertake the futile attempt at saving the world unilaterally, at the price of undermining their own economies, as is the case with Europe and its commitment to the Kyoto protocol.  The second one brought no new agreements of great relevance into place, aside from a few private companies such as Microsoft, pledging to go carbon neutral and some of the wealthier countries pledging some aid to the developing world, which is good, but it is not planet-saving good.  The fact that unlike the first summit, where most of the leaders of the relevant world attended, this time around, the leaders of countries such as the United States and Germany shunned it, says it all.  I just started publishing on my blog last year and I wrote an article each month leading up to the event, to try to warn as many people as possible about the impending failure (and the root of it), and then one more to sum up the results.  Through this exercise, I realized an important thing that I already suspected to be true.  It is not the global business elites or right-wing politicians who are our main obstacle to sustainable development; it is in fact the environmental movement and their idealistic and ideology-based platform, which is to blame.

            The failure of the summit was mainly due to the same obstacle that guaranteed the failure of every other attempt to get a global framework in place to deal with sustainability issues.  The fact that it fails to register after all these decades of trying it their way, that it does not work, baffles and saddens me at the same time.  The basic formula that environmentalists use to approach this problem is convincing the world that urgent action is needed; therefore, everyone should get together and agree to do their part.  In trying to create this sense of urgency, they often tried to make an argument for urgent action, due to imminent danger.  This claim has not always been 100% truthful, giving ammunition to the opponents of such actions.  So, like I said, it is the environmentalists, not the perceived opponents who are the main obstacle

Here is why:

It is something I mentioned in my book, published already one and a half years ago, and it is proving to stay true with every passing day, because there is always evidence reinforcing it.  Environmentalists tend to have an opinion of being on average smarter and better informed than those they perceive as the obstacle to sustainability. In fact, on this one, they allow ideological points of view to relegate them to supporters of foolish, unviable solutions to our problems, while the ones who frame their own ideological view that we are already on a sustainable path, may be wrong in their view, but are right and logical in choosing to oppose environmentalist initiatives.

            What makes the environmentalist agenda so flawed and unviable is a rather simple concept, which we all act on, through our instincts as human beings, but it took a mathematician to describe.  I am referring to John Nash (known better to the masses from the movie: “A Beautiful Mind”), whose main contribution of relevance to our discussion is Game Theory.  It is a rather simple concept, which I really wish the environmental movement would bother to apply to its ideological agenda to make sure it is viable.

The basic concept:

Imagine two criminals working together, who are caught in the act.  The police do not have enough evidence to be certain they can convict them, so they put them in separate rooms and lean on them, in order to get them to testify against one-another.  If neither collaborates, chances are that they both walk.  If both of them make a deal, chances are that they will both get convicted and receive a reduced sentence.  If one talks, while the other does not, the one who does not collaborate ends up getting a full sentence, while the other one gets a reduced sentence.

Choices (do, do not snitch)
Collaborate (suspect2)
Do not (suspect 2)
Collaborate (suspect1)
3,3 years in prison
3,10 years in prison
Do not (suspect1)
10,3 years in prison
0,0 years in prison
Note:  given the combined choices, the most likely outcome will be three years in prison for each.

 In real life, the reason law enforcement relies on this practice is because it works, in other words, they know that they can make the partners in crime turn on each other, even though clearly the best choice for both is to not collaborate.  The catalyst that makes this possible is the desire to avoid the full sentence.  It is no different from our desire to get insurance.  We lose some money through the regular payments, and in fact, we tend to pay more for it than we will likely get back over a lifetime, because after all, insurance companies are profit-based institutions, so they will never pay out more than what they take in.  So, if we all refused to insure ourselves for health, natural disasters, and other calamities, collectively we would be better off, but we do not, because we do not want to end up being on the losing end, when a disaster does happen.

            Applying the same concept in reverse, because in the case of reducing emissions collaboration is in fact the potentially dangerous path, which may leave one or more parties holding the bag, we get the same “prisoner’s dilemma” which John Nash described.  In this case, however, we should replace criminals with countries, divided into developed and developing and years in prison with something more appropriate such as manufacturing jobs gained.  So, just like not collaborating would have brought the best result for the two criminals, in this case collaboration would most likely bring the best result, for we could still have growth and development, without the negative side effects of our unsustainable path.  No one collaborating, in this case means that we would keep going and initially benefit from exploiting the environment, until something will give, and we will eventually experience total collapse of the current world order, with terrible consequences for all.  One side collaborating, while the other side does not, in this case would mean that the side trying to mitigate the impending disaster would self-sacrifice itself, while the non-collaborative side would initially gain two-fold, while in the end, this route will still lead to eventual collapse, only perhaps somewhat later, because of the partial collapse of  the collaborating side of the global economy.

Choices (do, or do not unilaterally self-sacrifice)
Developing world (do)
Developing world (do not)
Developed world (do)
100, 100 (million jobs)
-50, 150 (million jobs)
Developed world (do not)
150, -50 (million jobs)
150,150 (million jobs)

Note:  Applying the Nash concept to this problem, in reality would lead to what will be the most likely scenario in the long-run, which is that neither side will self-sacrifice, because as I indicated, it would lead to most jobs created initially (not taking negative effects of unsustainable development into consideration.  As we can see, collaboration is not as enticing for either side, because it would mean losing out on the possibility of gaining an extra 50 million jobs, even though collectively it would lead to the second largest initial increase in collective gain, and it would be done responsibly, with fewer side-effects.  The environmental movement, through its call for voluntary self-sacrifice for the greater good, in fact advocates for the least attractive scenario, therefore their agenda is doomed.

            It is therefore understandable why the Rio + 20 summit failed miserably, and why most other such initiatives will fail as well in the future.  It is such a basic concept, yet through my experience over the past eighteen months, since I started writing articles and published my book, I found that even though no one can put up a relevant argument against it, everyone finds a way to reject it.  Based on face-to-face conversations I had about the problem, and my proposed alternative of implementing a standardized global trade tariff, designed to encourage sustainability uniformly around the world, with consequences in place for those who refuse to collaborate, I found that it is impossible to move people who care about this issue from their ideological line.  After carefully explaining the problem and the solution, I found that even though there was no counter-argument, eventually, after a while, the other parties found themselves facing some discomfort and a desire to move back to their ideological views.  I had responses, such as “yeah but if we don’t all do something, we will all be worse off, while doing something will benefit everyone”.  Thus they decided to simply ignore the very relevant “prisoner’s dilemma”, even though they fully understood it, in order to get back to their old convictions.  It was almost like a drug addict justifying one more hit.  It is a testament to how powerful and effective ideological indoctrination can really be.  We are fully ready, no matter how intelligent we are, to defend our line, even if we have to turn ourselves occasionally into mindless morons, and ignore the evident facts to the contrary.

            So, in the end, this is what it comes down to.  A fight to free people from their ideological indoctrination and it is unfortunately not the ones who oppose sustainable development who are the main target that needs to be re-programmed.  It is the message of the environmentalist movement that is sending people to the other side in droves.  It is one thing to tell a US factory worker that he/she should agree to sacrifice his/her own well-being and that of their families, for the greater good, even though even the most ignorant of them know that even if the US and Europe were to slash emissions by 50% in the next few decades, it would not be enough to offset the growth in emissions from the developing world.  They also know that cutting emissions aggressively here, makes emissions levels grow faster elsewhere, because of outsourcing.  It would be an entirely different thing, if one were to tell them that we should fight for a standardized global trade tariff that would end the outsourcing of jobs by firms looking for the place where they can maximize profit, because other countries allow for the maximum exploitation of the environment and their people that is possible, while putting the planet on a sustainable path.  Now, who could argue with that?  Unfortunately the environmentalists do.      


  1. "The environmental movement, through its call for voluntary self-sacrifice for the greater good, in fact advocates for the least attractive scenario, therefore their agenda is doomed."

    This betrays reality by lumping "environmentalists" as if they were a single ill-informed group. For one, I DO NOT advocate reliance on voluntary self-sacrifice. The article makes a good point as to why that won't work. The most effective measures will include not only cleaning our own house but establishing enforceable trade policies. The article also mentions that outsourcing would circumvent some measures. It happens now but no institution should be allowed to use foreign soil to avoid sustainable practices.

    And in the long run humanity can't afford to exclude measures to reduce the global population. The biosphere's carrying capacity has been exceeded by many measures. As fossil fuel resources diminish it will become all the more critical.

  2. Thanks for your comment Phillip. I did not mean to paint each and every individual who cares about the environment as fitting the exact same ideological mindset. You have to agree with me however that the movement as a whole has shifted heavily towards idealist beliefs in the ability to tackle this and other problems related to global sustainability, by relying on grass-roots eforts to push for local action, whether at municipal, regional or state level. This shift has come about after the realization set in, that there is no chance of getting a viable and meaningful global agreement in place. Thus, increasingly we see presure exerted on local, corporate or national leaders to do exactly what I pointed out as being counterproductive and harmfull economically speaking.
    You also have to agree with me that there is currently no acknowledgement of the problem that John Nash's "prisoner's dillema" raises, when aplyied to the concept of local action and sacrifice in the name of the greater global good. As I mentioned in the article, I find it hard to break through the obstacle that is being put up by most who I interacted with and exchanged ideas with on this topic. I found that people who do care about sustainability, tend to react negatively to my alternative proposal, of a global trade tariff, designed to promote sustainable development and include everyone (whether willing or not). I believe it has to be the lack of idealism involved in it. It involves "only" convincing members of the developed world that such a tariff would be beneficial to our competitiveness given that we are more eficient at producing at a lower level of environmental cost per unit of GDP produced to get things going. There is also the coercive aspect of my proposal, which would lump every country that refuses to sign on and evaluate them collectively in order to determine the tariff level that should be imposed on them, based on their collective GDP/amount of environmental damage.
    So, even though few seem able to defend their concept of unilateral self-sacrifice in the name of the greater good, when it comes to global sustainability issues, given the problems I have been raising, it seems nevertheless no one is willing to own up to the problem. People tend to find a way to move back to their ideological line, and pretend that the problem of their irrational, ideology driven agenda does not exist.
    I hope we can find a way to move people away from this mindset, because if not, we will continue to fail in tackling the problem of global sustainability, with increasingly dire consequences.

    PS: I believe that my proposal for the sustainability trade tariff, which would affect countries based on their ability to keep the level of environmental damage per unit of GDP produced as low as posible, would lead to many countries adressing the population issue as well in a sensible way, for I included a proposal for a human rights component to the tariff level, in order to prevent countries from shifting from environmental exploitation, to human exploitation.

  3. Employment opportunities for oil and gas drilling in oklahoma is massive. Oklahoma is all about oil and natural gas. Unemployment rate is way below than national average, and it’s because of this industry. Nearly one-quarter of all jobs in Oklahoma are tied to the energy industry.

  4. Dear Zoltan,
    Thanks for the refreshing angle on environment, game theory. Indeed it is difficult to sell an inconvenient truth, and as a whole, all environmental movements have great difficulty getting the message of sustainability across. My problems with your statements are as follows. (1) Keeping energy use as if on even-keel, without any corrective action, will not create any new jobs in the intermediate term. Frantic exploration, drilling etc are very limited. Petroleum based industries, as well as coal mining, are experiencing a continued overall decline. "Many new O&G jobs in Oklahoma", and elsewhere, are going to be blown away in less than 4 years, when US proven reserves (26.54 billion BBL) are going to dry-up. For the entire US, coal industry workers are less than 90,000. There is no gain whatsoever (for more than the next 15 minutes or so) to Energy use on Even-Keel. (2) There is a lot to gain from sustainability, and not just jobs: energy security, national security, positive balance of trade. Growing biomass (Miscanthus or switchgrass or energy-cane) on marginal lands, or replacing corn (40% of current total US production of 12.4 billion bushels, on 84 million acres-- is used for ethanol, a crappy fuel additive which we are forced to pay ADM for) will require considerable additional man power. building and operating new biomass to standard fuels facilities will add numerous construction and industrial jobs-- all in support of sustainability. New wind turbines, small-scale distributed generation, even locally-produced solar panel industry, will further boost the local economy creating numerous new jobs and tax revenues. Not having to import just half of 23 million BPD=barrels of oil per day (US alone) will reduce dramatically the US negative balance of trade. So, there seems to be a lot to gain commercially from a unilateral bold move into energy sustainability. As a matter of fact, China is currently outspending the US in its effort to curb emissions, without any cry for international cooperation (of course, they are suffocating in their own er, exhaust). The greatest thing to overcome is the large amount of calcium deposit in the conservative skull, displacing gray matter.