Green Initiatives as Social Dilemmas
The support for green energy initiatives is a social dilemma. Even if we assume government (the Leviathan) will eventually do something to change policy, the adverb “eventually” connotes that it will be through the collective action (pressure) from citizens and special interest groups to make sure we “release the Kracken”. In particular, the support of green initiatives is a public goods dilemma. Public goods are shared resources that, once produced, can be enjoyed by everyone regardless if a person sacrificed to produce the resource. Classic examples of public goods include charities, lighthouses, and national public radio.
(the classic public good of the light house – source: http://goo.gl/ueUDJa)
What makes green initiatives particularly sticky is that these public goods have uncertainty surrounding their value. Meaning, even once collective action is achieved and the public good produced, there is uncertainty, a priori, what the value of the public good will be. The uncertainty surrounding the value of a public good – a priori to its creation – leads to many green initiatives not being funded.
Several years ago I published some experimental findings showing that – when the value of a public good contains the prospect of a loss in addition to prospective gains – the potential losses weigh more heavily on the individual’s mind than the potential gains (a la Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). The result: under-contribution towards public goods (McCarter et al. 2010; McCarter & Bonner 2013). Because of the fear of incurring a loss, individuals still resist sacrificing for producing public goods significantly more than when there is no prospect of a loss.
I recently was shown a video of a vlogger using a very interesting argument for supporting green initiatives – like policy changes to stop Global Warming. (See link: http://www.upworthy.com/one-guy-with-a-marker-just-made-the-global-warming-debate-completely-obsolete-7) The logic of the argument rests on a wager called Pascal’s Wager. Taking the words this vlogger used, Pascal’s Wager – applied to global warming (or any green initiative that I can think of) would look something like this:
1. “Global warming is happening or it is not”
2. There is a 50/50 chance that global warming exists
3. As of now, you cannot prove global warming is real or not real (at least according to this vlogger. But see Augustine et al.  research in Nature for some very interesting findings.)
4. You must choose between taking action against climate change or not taking action.
5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that there is global warming. If global warming is true, and we do nothing, then this will result in “the end of the world as we know it”. But if there is Global Warming, and we do something (through government intervention), then will stop the end of the world. If global warming is not true (he actually changes what he means by this half-way through) then if we do nothing, no harm done, but if we did do something through government intervention then any costs (social, economical, etc) would not be as bad as if global warming was true and we did nothing.
6. To end by quoting Pascal, “Wager, then, without hesitation that global warming is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain should we take action to prevent it, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss [world collapse and the end of society as we know it], and what you stake is finite [the costs of government policy and potentially a temporary global depression]. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.” (Adapted from the following online source of Pascal’s Wager: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager#Argument_of_Assumptions)
The vlogger then goes on to explain that because the effects of global warming are too horrific to imagine (and these horrific effects will always be worse than a global depression from wasting all the resources to save a boy crying wolf) that it makes complete logical sense to institute policies to stop global warming (whether or not it really happens).
(Drawing of Pascal – source: http://goo.gl/wxJW4x)
First Impression: Prepare for an Alien Invasion!
When I first saw Pascal’s Wager used in this way, I thought of how it can be used to promote action against alien invasions and the Zombie Apocalypse. Because a zombie infestation is too out there to consider, let us look at alien invasions.
We cannot prove one way of the other that aliens exist. Further we cannot prove either way that aliens, should they arrive, will be hostile. Therefore we cannot discuss (challenge) the assumptions about whether there are hostile aliens. All we have to do is decide how we will respond.
We have two choices, build a space army and invest in new weapons to protect us against an alien invasion or do nothing. Let’s run through Pascal’s Wager again.
1. If there are no hostile aliens and we build a space army with new weapons, then the only modest harm is done with all the resources we expended (perhaps! More on this “perhaps” below.)
2. If there are no hostile aliens and we did nothing, then no harm done.
3. If there are hostile aliens and we did nothing, then we are all doomed to be enslaved or eaten.
4. If there are hostile aliens and we build a space army with new weapons, then we will save our world and set a precedent in the universe that we are a force to be reckoned with.
Therefore, the only rational course of action is to institute policy that seeks to curtail the effects of Global Warming and an Alien Invasion (and a Zombie Apocalypse, what the hay!). Uh huh.
(The War of the Worlds … its possible! source: http://goo.gl/aGYsQz)
(As an aside, after writing this part of the post I found a person making the same argument. What are the odds? see link: http://www.disclose.tv/action/viewvideo/155923/Saving_the_world_with_Pascals_wager_or_NOT__Topher_VBlog_010/#.Unvvtz14fgY.twitter)
We Can’t Make Assumptions about Whether There is (Not) Global Warming, But We Can Make Assumptions about Our Actions
If I am understanding this correctly, Pascal’s Wager states that you cannot argue about the assumptions of what the future holds. The original use of the wager was to convince atheists to believe in God. If God is, and you don’t believe, you are damned. If God is, and you believe, you are saved. If God is not, and you believed, then you lived a great life doing great things. If God is not, and you don’t believe, then nothing happens to you. (Note: Pascal was Roman Catholic, so this whole wager assumes [yes, assumes] in a very particular kind of God … a Christian God which brings positive externalities for His followers.)
To stay true to the rule of no assumptions can be made whether Global Warming is true (or whether there is a God), we now turn to the actions we can take: we can do nothing or something. The “something” is what I want to focus on.
The vlogger who uses Pascal’s Wager assumes that the action taken to curtail global warming will not end the world as we know it. The vlogger assumes that policy can be put in place that will not make life worse than if we did nothing and Global Warming occurred.
Garrett Hardin (1985) reminds us, when it comes to policy, that “you can never do merely one thing”. The other things that policies do can vary from minimal to extreme. A case and point of the extreme (where Leviathan took action and REALLY made a difference) is Easter Island.
To make a long story short, Easter Island was once a thriving tropical island that reached about 7,000 people. The society, from my understanding of it, believed in higher powers that controlled the seas. There was uncertainty about whether the higher power would ever send typhoons or create other environmental hardships to destroy the people. Here we have a society that faced Pascal’s Wager. The uncertainty lies in whether there exists higher power (like Global Warming) that will destroy them unless they take action. Now we have two choices, take action to appease the powers that be or take no action. If we don’t take action and there is (not) a power that will destroy us all, then we are (fine) doomed. If we do take action and there is (not) a power that will destroy us all, then we are (a little worse off from preparing, but) saved. It is this part about being “a little worse off” that was a bold assumption.
Easter Island decided to take action … they took Pascal’s Wager and decided to prepare for the worst. What did they do? The policy their government instituted, as I understand it, was to build large stone platforms (the ahu) and place large stone statues on them facing out toward the sea to appease the gods. The ahu and statues required incredible amounts of collective action to construct, move, and erect (around 1/4 of the islands human capital, daily). In fact, as reviewed by geographer Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, to complete the action the policy required, they had cut down every tree on their island for fuel (for feeding the stone cutters and movers) and to move the large statues to their final resting places. Yes, by about 1640 AD every single tree was cut down on Easter Island.
So what? How bad could it be compared to if a typhoon hit the island caused by the gods? Pretty horrid! After the trees were all cut down, soil erosion sky rocketed, crops became hard to grow, and there was little firewood. Homes (originally built from timber) could not be repaired and news ones built. The people resorted to living in caves. Without long timber, sturdy canoes could not be repaired or built. This resulted them being unable to fish in deeper waters for larger fish, further putting strain on the food supply. Civil war from food shortages and scarcity of resources (used up to build the ahu and statues) began and resulted in massive amounts of death. By the time European explorers arrived (to make first contact) in the 1700s, the remaining inhabitants of Easter Island lived a primitive life struggling to survive. With their population already very low because of starvation and war, it was very easy for later visitors (like the Spanish) to enslave the islanders. Small pox was introduced by European visitors as well (they had not considered this possibility or applied Pascal’s Wager to this either). At one point the total number of islanders remaining on Easter Island was 111 (it had originally been 7,000 at its peak before they took Pascal’s Wager).
(One of many ahu at Easter island – source: http://goo.gl/koFgrL)
The point here is that while we cannot (I guess) make assumptions about whether or not there is Global Warming, we can (and must) make assumptions about the effectiveness of the actions we choose (not) to take. For the people of Easter Island, they took action, a typhoon never came, and they experienced over 200 years of terror, pain, suffering, and horror. Indeed the social, political, economic, and health implications of taking action was JUST AS BAD (or worse?) than if they had taken no action and the gods got angry. (Of course I can’t prove this comparison but can guess that the 111 people (of the 7,000) remaining on the island had wished the action their ancestors had taken had been different.)
Well, you may say, those islanders were idiots! Our governments would (could?) never issue policies that result in something that catastrophic. We need more government, more rules and more regulation than ever before. We know more than those primitives that carefully constructed those extremely intricate statues after 1000 years of civilization.
Really? Well let me put forth a wager. Imagine there is a fifty-fifty chance that a government could pass policy that destroys us all. Remember, you cannot prove one way or the other that this could happen. Only the future will tell. So, now we are left a choice between educating our selves taking action and keeping Leviathan in check by supporting thoughtful, responsible, accountable policies or we can do the opposite and allow Leviathan to thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, and without accountability enact policy. In other words we choose to do nothing.
What do you wager?
In the end, do I like Pascals’ Wager? Yes but I think it works best when thinking about Christian God(s) and not environmental problems. Do I think we need green initiatives? Yes, but before we take action, we must educate ourselves and others on the issue, to make sure the two outcomes make sense. Then we can take action and not leave it to Leviathan to make up our minds for us.
Augustin, L., Barbante, C., Barnes, P. R., Barnola, J. M., Bigler, M., Castellano, E., et al. 2004. Eight glacial cycles from an Antarctic ice core. Nature, 429(6992), 623-628.
Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, NY: Penguin.
Hardin, G. 1985. Filters against folly. New York, NY: Penguin.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1979. Prospect theory. Econometrica, 47(2): 263-291.
McCarter, M. W., & Bonner, B. L. 2013. Glad tidings and grave warnings: The role of advice on cooperation in public goods dilemmas with value uncertainty. Organization Management Journal, 10(1): 4-21.
McCarter, M. W., Rockmann, K. W., & Northcraft, G. B. 2010. Is it even worth it? The effect of loss prospects in the outcome distribution of a public goods dilemma. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 111(1): 1-11.