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Will environmental threats result in new world cooperation?

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He explains two types of interaction between people: the non-zero-sum interaction, and the zero-sum interaction:

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A tennis match is a zero-sum interaction. There are two players, but only one can take the trophy prize home. Whoever wins does so at the other player's expense. "I win, you lose," and the net gain is zero.

Then there's the non-zero-sum interaction. People trading goods in a marketplace is the prime example. In non-zero-sum scenarios, the self-interest of all parties is aligned, so they benefit more from cooperation than antagonism. All parties involved presumably come away better off than before.

Perhaps more importantly, they gain more by working together than they would have by working alone. It's not "I win, you lose"; it's "I win, you win, and we both win more than we would have alone." Thus the term "non-zero-sum."

Wright argues that human history has seen a growth in social complexity — institutions such as the ones the authors of the Science article reference — that promote non-zero-sum interactions. That's not because Homo sapiens is a peacenik species, or because it's inherently altruistic — although we display both qualities at various times. It's simply because non-zero-sum interactions are more productive and therefore better for all involved than zero-sum interactions.

(See Wright's earlier book, "The Moral Animal," for an exploration of Homo sapiens' character — why we do tend, in fact, toward altruism, and why, on the other hand, we can so quickly turn against those who don't reciprocate our altruism. As a social animal, we have an inborn sense of fairness precisely to deal with the age-old problem of the freeloader when it arises — the same problem the authors of the Science article mention may arise between  nations as as we work to resolve global problems)

In "Nonzero," Wright makes another observation that's pertinent to these mutually reinforcing crises mentioned in the Science article. The institutions that protect our non-zero-sum interactions — the councils, treaties, and general coming-togetherness of cities, peoples, and nations — often arise and/or are strengthened in the face of an external threat.

Which makes sense: When there's a menace to the order that benefits everyone, it's logical for people to band together to protect it that order.

A good modern example: the European Union. The threat, in that case, was war. In the wake of World War II, Europe endeavored to preclude that such a war could ever happen again. The EU's approach: Increase economic interdependence to such degree that war becomes untenable.

It's probably safe to say — and Wright does say it — that the environmental problems facing humankind constitute a major threat, perhaps of a scope greater than any we've faced before. And addressing them, as the Science authors argue, will necessitate new kinds of governance.

What's interesting: if Wright is correct, these new forms of governance will have ancillary benefits. They'll bring the world closer together and they'll enable new kinds of non-zero-sum interactions from which all will reap further benefits.

Editor's note: For more about the environment, see the Monitor's main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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