A terrific re-cap of our situation from Julia Whitty under MoJo's current cover headline "Evolve or Die", with some insights as concerns global warming, and maybe some tools that would allow us to understand our behavior as a species...
"The Thirteenth Tipping Point"
I was particularly taken with her spin on the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons. My take: if we all live in a system wherein selfish behavior almost certainly guarantees success (comfort, wealth, power, however you want to measure it), but selfless behavior provides the greatest success for all -- people will continue to act selfishly. This is the refutation of the old "industrial" notion that what's good for business is good for the nation: the calculated acts of selfish entities will serve the selfish entities, not the general welfare of the nation or planet.
And thus the tragedy is truly Shakespearian in nature. We are driven to construct and then act out our own doom. But Whitty allows this hope:
"A recent study hints at the evolution of altruism. A team of Swiss and American mathematicians and population biologists ran a variant of game theory known as a public goods game, in which players contribute money to a common pot that an experimenter doubles, divides evenly, and returns to the players. In ordinary play, if all players contribute all their money, everyone wins big. If one player cheats, everyone wins small. If an altruist and a cheater go head-to-head, the cheater wins consistently. This paradox is known as the Tragedy of the Commons.So we can see that in the short term, cheaters (the selfish) will win; but a view from the ages holds nearly certain victory for the selfless.
But in the new computer variant, population dynamics were introduced into the game. Players were divided into small groups that played among themselves. Each player eventually "reproduced" in proportion to the payoff received from play—thereby passing her cooperator or cheater strategy to her offspring. Mutations and dispersions were introduced, creating a shifting population of individuals divided into groups of changing sizes and allegiances.
After 100,000 generations, the results were surprising. Rather than succumbing to the cheaters, the cooperators overwhelmed them."
Then consider the corporation, built to compete, if possible dominate, in an environment of world-wide commercialism, often ruthlessly self-serving. It may take several human generations for the corporation to spawn and evolve; tho the span of that cycle appears to be shrinking with our post-industrial, "flat-world" globalism. Still, if it takes something on the order of 100,000 generations to see the successes of "the commons", we're in for quite a wait -- if we're holding out hope for cycle No. 100,000, how does it feel to be at cycle No. 42?
In addition, now that we've built this economy around a resource that, when consumed, is slowly destroying the planet -- can we affect the situation? Are we, like a Hamlet, destined to drive to a dark ending? If this is true, it's almost frightening to conclude: we need to accelerate the economy in order to see the true pay-off.
But, is there a way to cheat the system for the common good? Doesn't evolution require odd mutations and transformative breaks in the line? There are examples of large-scale human benefits of commercial ventures I can think of: Indian casinos, Saudi and Alaskan oil windfalls, charity branding (such as Product RED, etc). I'm sure there are more, but these examples seem to rely on our selfish natures to give a common-good payday (we like to gamble, drive SUVs, shop). Like a lottery system that pays for public schools -- how do we wean ourselves of the bad behavior once we introduce it to the system?
But if we don't capitalize on our selfishness, we are left with this puzzle: how do we commercialize and exploit our generous natures? Otherwise, what's the business model for altruism? And how do we ask our species to take responsibility for our actions without requiring frequent flier miles or the free prize in the box? What does a corporation built for the common good really look like?
I am always brought back to the Bolivian water protests. A harsh example, to be sure, but there was a time when developed countries would provide assistance to third-world nations through NGO's like CARE -- we would teach the people who were not benefiting from the knowledge how to pump their own clean water through sustainable systems that fit their economies. Now corporations like Bechtel will try to find ways to make a buck; they do not introduce sustainable systems, that is not in the interest of the corporation. But the people protested, and were able to, at least in part, take back some control; after all, unlike oil, water is truly required for life.
I dread hearing that without some incentive (money, titilation, fame), people are not driven (to work, build, create). Of course, the most efficient (and significant) economic entities in human history had access to free labor, and the best incentive is a whip and a spear -- our species has traveled some distance in 5,000 years. As in evolution, if you leave it in ocean waters long enough, a hippo will turn into a dolphin. The tragedy then, is if the hippo still thinks he's a hippo -- and that the change has taken so long, he just doesn't notice.
Eventually, we are getting better and better and the game is playing to the good. There is solace in that, but we don't have to be passive players. We can push the game to get better faster, and given the pace of global warming, we had better get on it. So I agree with Whitty in this: we do not lack incentives for this evolution. We lack leadership.