Wednesday, 5 June 2013

When winners write the rules

If you disturb an eco-system then it will adapt to the changed circumstances. Some species will move elsewhere others will become extinct and after a while a new equilibrium will establish itself. The two things that are unusual about the current anthropogenic changes are that they're happening extremely rapidly, over centuries rather than millenia, and that the dominant species involved in these changes is broadly aware of what it's doing. 

Now, whilst there's lots of interesting environmental and ecological science out there, I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that the real thing we need to understand is why, despite knowing about our dramatic environmental impact, we seem incapable of doing anything serious about it. Instead of geo-physics and ecology we're getting into psychology, sociology, politics and anthropology.

A few days ago I was asked to sign an online petition calling on David Cameron to "Wake up" to Climate Change. I couldn't help responding 

"Unfortunately he's not asleep. He knows damn well that the City is banking on us not taking significant action and money always comes first"

As a once upon a time physicist, I can't help trying to boil things down to a few basic principles. One of the simplest of these is that as long as we view ourselves as inevitably competitive then there is no way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons. Suppose, on the one hand, that in a competitive world you've spent $25million on a trawler with an expected lifetime of 20 years. The only way you're going to get your money back is by catching fish. If, after 20 years, there aren't any fish left then so what. You've recovered your investment, made a profit, and can simply invest it in something else. On the other, if you're in a fishing community that depends on the long term survival of fish stocks then this is clearly not the best way to make use of your resources, financial or otherwise.

I couldn't possibly deny that there are lots of competitive people. (Though a great deal of effort has gone into developing a credible theory of group selection that can account for our altruistic tendencies.) It's also clear that once you've entered into competition that there will be losers as well as winners. Indeed, so ingrained is our sense that being competitive is the natural human condition that the term "loser" has acquired its pejorative force. 

Now, one of the tacitly assumed "rules" of competition is that it ought to be fair. However, in the great "game of life", to maintain the metaphor, its quite obvious that the rules aren't at all fair. There's no way that the poor female child of an unemployed single parent in a developing country has anything like the same chances of "succeeding" as the wealthy public school educated son of a stockbroker. (See how I've employed the physicists trick of taking an extremely extreme example to prove a general point) When Tony Blair made the absurdly premature declaration that we live in a meritocracy it struck me that the main purpose of this was to boost his own ego. After all, he'd clearly succeeded and would prefer to regard this as positive reflection of his own intrinsic worth rather than just good luck.

Politics and business are competitive activities. Caring for children, the sick, the elderly or the environment aren't. Just because our politicians, bankers and businessmen tend, by the nature of what they do, to be competitive this doesn't mean that this is the most important human attribute or the one that will see us safely through the next 100 years.

Like the annoying child who shouts out "race you to the next lamp post" when they're the only one that wants to race and they're already half way there, we've allowed the "winners" to declare that we're in a race. 

Postscript: A couple of recent programmes on the BBC have reminded me of the truly great (i.e no hyperbole) Richard Feynmann. As far as I can see, he did what he did not because he was in competition with anyone else but simply because he was curious. 

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