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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 12:38 PM
Original message
The conditions for success and failure in addressing big problems
Edited on Mon Jun-13-11 01:01 PM by GliderGuider
This morning I read a fascinating story on a financial investment site. It's an article about Jeremy Grantham, the British co-founder of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), a VERY large Boston-based asset management firm with more than $100 billion in assets under management. In the article he makes some remarkable statements about the state of the world.

JEREMY GRANTHAM: We're Headed For A Disaster Of Biblical Proportions

Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham of GMO has published a treatise on the root cause of exploding commodity prices.

Grantham concludes that the world has undergone a permanent "paradigm shift" in which the number of people on planet Earth has finally and permanently outstripped the planet's ability to support us.

From a societal standpoint, the news is far worse. Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion). For all of history except the last 200 years, the human population has been controlled via the limits of the food supply. Grantham thinks that, eventually, the same force will come into play again.

The hope of the optimists, of course, is that "science" will find a solution to this problem, the way it has for the past 150 years. But unless the world immediately wakes up to the severity of the problem--and makes fixing it a global priority--Grantham doesn't see that happening.

Of course it's remarkable to find a well-known investment advisor taking such a frankly Malthusian view of the world. The facts of the situation appear to be penetrating the economic and financial community at last. As remarkable as that may be, however, it's his last point - the one I bolded in the excerpt - that I would like to talk about.

The springboard for my argument is a paper on game theory that I ran across this weekend in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The abstract pushed all my buttons regarding game theory, climate change, the tragedy of the commons etc. I had high hopes that it would describe a way around the "free rider problem" inherent to the Prisoner's Dilemma game. That problem may have kept us from achieving global consensus on action to reduce climate change, as many important nations wait for others to go first. So I forked out $10 to download the full article.

"Risk of collective failure provides an escape from the tragedy of the commons"

From group hunting to global warming, how to deal with collective action may be formulated in terms of a public goods game of cooperation. In most cases, contributions depend on the risk of future losses. Here, we introduce an evolutionary dynamics approach to a broad class of cooperation problems in which attempting to minimize future losses turns the risk of failure into a central issue in individual decisions. We find that decisions within small groups under high risk and stringent requirements to success significantly raise the chances of coordinating actions and escaping the tragedy of the commons. We also offer insights on the scale at which public goods problems of cooperation are best solved. Instead of large-scale endeavors involving most of the population, which as we argue, may be counterproductive to achieve cooperation, the joint combination of local agreements within groups that are small compared with the population at risk is prone to significantly raise the probability of success. In addition, our model predicts that, if one takes into consideration that groups of different sizes are interwoven in complex networks of contacts, the chances for global coordination in an overall cooperating state are further enhanced.

The paper turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It uses formal game theory and lots of math and charts to prove the following paraphrased proposition: "When everyone in a group agrees that a risk they face is so serious that they cannot afford the possibility of failure, they cooperate to address it." At which point I wanted my $10.00 back.

On the other hand, the paper did make it quite clear why we are failing to address so many high-level social and ecological problems at the level they need for a solution. The problems are well-known: climate change; alternative energy replacing coal and oil; food sovereignty; fresh water depletion; the decimation of ocean fish stocks - the whole litany of problems we talk about on here every day. The fundamental obstacle to international cooperation is spelled out in the first part of the above proposition: When everyone in a group agrees that a risk they face is so serious that they cannot afford the possibility of failure...

We are faced with a set of situations where there is no basic agreement, let alone universal agreement, on any of the three points that clause contains: that there is a risk; that it's serious; and that we cannot afford the possibility of failure. Because there are individuals and nations who don't buy into one or more of those points, the requirement for cooperation is not met, and very little global action happens.

This situation presents the Kochs and AEIs of the world with a golden opportunity to achieve their corporatist goals. They can block change by merely convincing enough people that one or more of the points are false. In tragic contrast, those on this side of the fence need to convince pretty much everybody that they are all true before we will see a general mobilization toward a solution.

One clear illustration of this divide is around the issue of eliminating nuclear power once and for all. There is a massive groundswell of opinion throughout the world in favour of shutting it down. However, even on this board we see that not everyone is convinced about the severity of the risk or the consequences of losing that fight. These forces, with the implicit support of the industry, drive wedges into the growing consensus, wedges that block high-level cooperative action.

Another clear example is of course the climate change battle. "Scientific" mouthpiece organizations sprinkle seeds of doubt on the real science, PR firms sow seeds of fear about job losses during a recession, political think-tanks give interviews talking about the risk to national economies in the face of growing international competition, and before you know it we have Cancun, Bali and Copenhagen. It doesn't matter how many of us know in our hearts and bones that this is an existential crisis for humanity, unless almost all of us get it, they win.

The task we face is clear - it's one of education and persuasion. In this fight we face an opponent who holds many of the winning cards - money, ownership of politicians and communications media, and most importantly - they don't need to "win", they just need to stop us from winning.

We need to demonstrate that we will not "go gentle into that good night", and we need to have faith that the accumulating weight of events will eventually evolve the high-level consensus the world so urgently needs. Until that evolution is a little more mature, we must continue to fight the battles where they are already being won - in our own lives, our own living rooms and our own community centers ... and our own web sites.

What are your thoughts on this?
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 01:04 PM
Response to Original message
1. At the precipice, we change.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 01:16 PM
Response to Reply #1
2. "We"?
Edited on Mon Jun-13-11 01:18 PM by GliderGuider
Who are "we" in this case? Are "we" the ones who changed before the precipice, the ones who change at the precipice, or the ones who wave their Stetsons and yell "Yeeee-Haawww" all the way to ground zero?
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 01:24 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. To answer that I would have to predict the future
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 01:29 PM
Response to Reply #2
4. and another thing
To ride this metaphor all the way to ground zero:

I think it depends on the nature of the precipice. If the precipice is like a vertical cliff, then we are probably all going to go over it and die. I think that in real life, most precipices are more like rugged steep slopes, in which case we will fall off, roll downhill for a while, get beaten up and hopefully limp away from it.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-13-11 01:40 PM
Response to Reply #4
5. I agree that it's not going to be a cliff.
That's why I think that doing as much changing as we can, before things get at all out of hand, is a good idea. It's why I now think that change is essential rather than pointless (as I did for a long time).

I'm looking for ideas that will promote cooperation and change. It looks to me like being part of a group that shares a perception of "a major risk that has the potential for an unsupportable outcome" would do it. So maybe getting others to buy into the "doomer ethos" isn't a fruitless exercise after all...

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