Will environmental threats result in new world cooperation?

The numbers of Arctic foxes has decreased as red foxes move northward.

A study reported last week in the journal Science detailed dramatic ecosystem changes in the rapidly warming Arctic.

The Arctic has warmed by 1 degree C over the past 150 years, more than double the global mean temperature increase of 0.4 degrees C. In the past three decades, summer sea ice has decreased by 45,000 square kilometers per year (17,400 square miles).

And various species that need ice are showing the strain. The authors note a decline in Pacific walruses, hooded seals, and narwhals, among others. Spring rains arrive earlier than they once did. The rain melts the snow earlier, causing lairs of polar bears and ringed seals to collapse. Both species, say the authors, lose many pups in this fashion to the earlier spring rains.

More southerly species, meanwhile, are moving in. The red fox now lives in territory formerly occupied exclusively by the Arctic fox. And a winter moth has extended its range northward as well.

Some populations are benefiting from the changing weather: In Norway's Svalbard Archipelago, nonmigratory reindeer contend with less snow in the winter and more plants during the summer. That population is growing.

But in Greenland, migratory caribou are finding themselves out of sync with the natural cycles. Spring comes earlier and the caribou now arrive, calves in tow, late — after the most nutritious growth has already occurred. That population is declining.

In the same issue, a different team of scientists warns that the intertwined crises now facing humankind  — energy, food, water, climate, fisheries, ocean acidification, the growing number of emerging diseases, and the problem of antibiotic resistance — are outpacing our ability to effectively deal with them.

These issues are simply too large and too mutually reinforcing for any one nation to deal with them alone, they say, and for any one problem to be approached in isolation

To solve the problems at hand, a new level of international cooperation is necessary. That implies new — or perhaps the overhauling of existing — global institutions:

"To address common threats and harness common opportunities, we need greater interaction amongst existing institutions, and new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract," the authors say.

But even in the endeavor of saving the world as we know it, they add, the age-old problem of freeloading rears its head:

 "The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to free-ride on the cooperation of others."

That's another reason for global institutions. Talk of global governance gives many a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, of course. They imagine an Orwellian future where personal freedoms have vanished, and society is managed from the top down.

But there's another, more instructive take on how it might work:

In his book "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," author Robert Wright uses game theory to explain how and why governance contributes to the collective good, and to argue that global governance of some kind is a near inevitability.

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

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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