Scarcity, Abundance, and Community, Part 2

Submitted by Chris Mills on August 4, 2013 - 6:34am
The Prisoner's Dilemma

In the previous blog of this series: "Scarcity, Abundance, and Community - The Band as Microcosm", I looked at our rational (and commendable) impulse toward collaboration and cooperation in times of crisis, on the principle that benefitting the greater good also benefits the individual. However there's also a competing impulse, to which, particularly if fear gets the upper hand, we can succumb. It's an impulse against which we do need to be on our guard, becaue it can scupper our nobler impulses toward cooperation and community in just those times when we need it the most. 

To put this into perspective, I offer you...

The Prisoner's Dilemma - A Parable

Two men are arrested, suspected of having committed a recent bank robbery. But, the evidence against them is flimsy, and the police are afraid that, in the absence of something more substantial, at the end of the twenty-four hour detention period, they will have to let both suspects walk, or at most, charge them with a misdemeanor, possession of locksmithing tools without a permit, which at most would net the pair 3 to 6 months in jail.


So, the police split them up, placing them in separate interrogation rooms. They tell each suspect that, if they inform on their accomplice, they will walk out of the police station a free man, while the accomplice will go to jail for ten years. Should they both "rat" on each other, they would each go to jail for five years.

Well, what's the outcome? Realistically speaking, both prisoners would end up doing the five year stint. In other words, they would sell each other out. Sadly, human nature dictates that in such cases, people will generally act in their own self-interest, even in situations where to act in the common good would produce a better outcome for all concerned.

This simple tale goes a long way to illuminate the current crisis in our human story. For example:

The oil companies know -- unequivocally -- that by continuing to extract oil from the dwindling global reserves at the current rate, we will deplete our supply long before we have time to transition to viable alternative sources of energy. They also know that this will create an unprecedented global energy crisis that could well trigger a cascading collapse throughout global civilization, potentially resulting in anarchy, starvation, disease, and catastrophic dieback in the global population.


Obviously, the smart course of action to avoid such a cataclysm is to institute a controlled reduction in extraction (as described in The Oil Depletion Protocol, by Richard Heinberg, and elsewhere), thereby extending our reserves and allowing time to develop alternative, renewable, non-fossil fuel based sources of energy. But to do so is not acting in one's own self-interest. To continue to exploit oil reserves to the limits of our capacity to do so benefits the oil companies themselves, at the expense of the general good, so that becomes their chosen course of action.


A recent report from the FAO Committee on Fisheries has revealed that nearly 90% of all food-fish stocks in the oceans are gone. Obviously, the sensible course of action would be to severely limit fishing from now on, thus allowing at least some species to recover (although it may be too late for many of them.) However, to do so violates the principle of maximizing one's own benefit, so to date no such action, voluntary or legislated, has been undertaken. Even the Canadian moratorium on cod fishing on the Grand Banks has had limited effect, since many countries do not recognize Canadian sovereignty in the region, and continue to fish the area to the maximum capacity of which they are capable.

There are numerous other examples:

  • Canada's own stonewalling of the recent series of climate talks -- in the furtherance of unhindered tar sands development. 
  • The fact that people still routinely fly to the Caribbean and other tourist destinations, despite the dire warnings from climate change awareness advocates that flying is by far the highest per capita contributor to greenhouse gas emissions of any human activity. 
  • In order to feed the United States' growing hunger for coal (which is, of course, an enormous source of pollution and greenhouse gases), coal extraction companies have now taken to the technique of "mountaintop removal" in the coal-bed areas of West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio, irreparably destroying entire ecosystems, and poisoning watersheds and rivers in the process. In doing this, they are rendering huge areas of the country uninhabitable, not only by animals, but humans as well. As in the Athabasca watershed (prime tar sands development region), varieties of exotic new cancers, lymphomas and autoimmune diseases are beginning to show up among the human and non-human population. The social and environmental costs are devastating. Yet mountaintop removal continues, simply because it is more economical than digging mineshafts through the coal seams, and this benefits the company's bottom line, at the expense, yet again, of the common good.
  • The same general argument applies to fracking: hydro-fracturing extraction of gas and oil. Yet fracking goes on, and it's escalating.
  • It is now common knowledge that eating meat, particularly beef, has a very high per capita carbon footprint. Huge tracts of Amazonian rainforest have been clearcut to make grazing land, which not only destroys huge, irreplaceably complex ecosystems and reduces carbon sinking capacity of the planet, but pumps enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere from clearcut burning. Methane emissions from grazing beef cattle also account for nearly half of the human-sourced methane (an extremely potent greenhouse gas, up to 30 times more effective than CO2) in the atmosphere. The David Suzuki Foundation, and many others, has said that by cutting back on our red meat intake, perhaps by having two or three vegetarian meals per week, we could reduce our individual carbon footprint by as much as 15%. Yet there has yet to appear a significant dent in the sales of beef in the U.S. and Canada. People do love their steaks.
  • We're losing about 50 billion tons of topsoil per year, across the planet, mostly from bad agricultural practices: monoculture farming, heavy chemical fertilizer use instead of healthy soil management, deep till farming, etc. etc. The solutions are obvious, yet to transform our farming systems to more sustainable methods requires a significant upfront cost, which industrial farming corporations would rather not pay. It financially benefits the Cargills and Monsantos of the world to perpetuate a heavily industrialized, heavily chemicalized system.

Perhaps part of the problem has to do with our innate genetic survival mechanism. As a species we have, over millennia, developed a highly sophisticated, and effective, system for dealing immediately with immediate threats. This is our so-called "fight or flight" response. If we are attacked by a predator, or another human intent on doing us harm, we have an immediate response to that immediate danger. And, while not perfect in all situations, it has stood us remarkably well over time, allowing our species to survive and thrive against what has, at times, been rather daunting odds.

But we lack a survival mechanism that forces us to act immediately to combat a threat that may not manifest its effects for several years. That is not to say that we are unaware of such delayed-action threats. Many people routinely exercise, eat healthy diets and quit smoking in order to reap health benefits that may not fully manifest themselves until much later in life (lower risk of heart disease, cancer, emphysema, and so on.) But this "survival mechanism" is intellectual. It is based entirely on a logical, linear thought process that has little, if anything to do with our intrinsic, instinctive nature.

If a real, deep-down awareness of the risk of continued high levels of carbon emissions produced an immediate adrenalin response similar to an attack by a bear or knife-wielding mugger, then perhaps we'd be more likely to act now, to safeguard our future.

But, until that time comes, we are stuck in the Prisoner's Dilemma, and everything it implies. It may be that what will save us from the Prisoner's Dilemma is an immediate crisis, in which it becomes apparent that the collective good is also the individual good. But we also need to be aware of the fact that our choices are very much up to us. We can rise above our instinctual behaviours, if we so choose. In doing so, we can preserve the greater good, from which we, as individuals, will also benefit.

It's up to us.

Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for sharing this, Christine.

I had not heard about he prisoner's dilemma before. Your blog inspired me to do a little me reading about it.

I think this serves as a beautiful metaphor for how we can be in community- it serves us all better to work cooperatively, rather than acting in one's own self interest. As we come to know our community in deeper ways, the relationships we form will hopefully allow us to form a collective identity in which acting in ways that benefit the whole (cooperation) take priority.

Thanks for the image and for sharing this lesson in the context of our environment- wow, we have much to learn and much to work on together!

Community Overcoming the prisoner's dilemma

Christine, how can community help us overcome the prisoners dilemma?

Overcoming, huh?

Ah Derek, you don't let me get away with much, do you? :) You're right (by implication, that is) that my blog is basically a moan about this facet of human nature without offering much in the way of a constructive solution. And the reaon for that, to be honest, is that I don't have one. I suppose awareness of an issue is the first step to combating it. But what's step two? Or step three? I guess the thing I am trying to do with these (and other) blogs is trigger some sort of debate. Maybe by talking the problem over we'll begin brainstorming possible approaches to a solution. I don't know. It's a hope, anyway.

I am aware that in recent years there has been an as-yet small, but noticeable (and ongoing), exodus to the country by some Transition Guelph people, who've left the city behind and purchased out-of-the-way rural property and begun some sort of homesteading, to a greater or lesser degree. (Greater degree: growing as much food as possible, going off-grid, working toward self-sufficiency. Lesser degree: moving to the country but still working in the city, still buying food at Zehrs and Market Fresh, etc.) I know for a fact that for at least some of these folks, the move to the country has been informed by a basic mistrust of the power of community in a crisis, and the fear that if/when things get truly dicey people will turn on each other, rather than cooperate. They've made the decision to get out of the way.

So, what do we do with this information? It is emphatically NOT a given that people will turn on each other. Historically it's gone both ways, in different circumstances, different cultures, different peoples. I believe that it should be of paramount importance to build the kind of community that WILL cooperate, and help each other, even (or perhaps especially) in a crisis. That's what we're trying to do with Transition Guelph. Are we going about it the right way? Damned if I know...

But let's get a dialog going. Let's face it: at no other time in history has it been more true than now that: we're all in this together.