In 2014, a A team of behavioral scientists from Harvard and Yale tried to save the future with a little game theory.
Here’s the part of the game: The researchers divided a large group of volunteers into five teams they called “generations.” They gave designated players in the first generation 100 points, or “units,” and told them to take some for themselves, up to 20 units each, and then pass the rest on to the next generation. If the global pool had 50 or more units at the end of the turn, the next gen would get a reset – 100 units to start all over, a durability model. If the pool had less than 50 units, the next generation would get what it had.
Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good: two-thirds of the players were “cooperators”, taking 10 units or less and ensuring the survival of the species. The Bad: A minority of “defectors” have always tanked the game. In 18 rounds of this intergenerational merchandise game, only four had a first gen sober enough to give Gen 2 a full reset to 100 units. Of these, only two have been reset for Gen 3. No one has reached Gen 4.
In a game designed to test how people could plan ahead for a sustainable world, all it took to reliably bring about the apocalypse were a few selfish assholes – which sounds pretty familiar, in fact, but seems to be a sadly ironic result for an article titled “Cooperate with the future. “
This was not the end of the story of the intergenerational goods game. (I’ll get to that later.) But last week highlighted the pathetic human inability to avoid poor outcomes in the possible future. You can see it in the appalling collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, which left at least 16 people dead and dozens more still missing. A knowledgeable engineer residents of the building in 2018 about severe damage to the concrete and rebar that holds the building together. As recently as April, the board of directors of the condominium was tell residents as the damage worsened. But the multi-million dollar project to fix it – underway for more than two years – had not yet started. Residents of the Champlain Towers two years ago worried, reasonably, about the impact of repairs and their cost. The International Goods Game showed how bad people are at protecting future generations; in Miami, people couldn’t even protect their own future.
The intergenerational game of goods was not about buildings. It was, of course, a playful analysis of climate change. By 2014, many people had worked on cooperative game theory, the authors wrote, but this canon tends to ignore the fourth dimension: time. This is where the collapse of the Champlain Towers coincides with the game and with the climate catastrophe unfolding in the world today. Hazards are the chances of bad things happening – an earthquake, a fires, a hurricane, a Heat Event; disasters are what happens when risk materializes and overwhelms all the preparations people have made in advance. And it turns out that people are very bad at preparing in advance. The danger at the Champlain Towers was clear, at least to some residents. As with climate change, the hazard manifested itself long before the catastrophe it made almost inevitable. It may seem nearly impossible to the nose that a deadly metaphor for how people think (or don’t think) about Earth’s disrupted climate would manifest in shipwreck, flood Miami– a city which is, itself, a tragic metaphor for how people do not think about the degraded climate of the Earth. But here we are.