I’ve been writhing around writing a column on greenhouse. I find columns on greenhouse hard as I complained here. But rewarding when you get what you wanted to say said in the exacting form of an op ed. I’ve just finished writing an op ed for the Oz on Bali and was contemplating writing something beginning with an explanation of the prisoner’s dilemma. I ended up not even mentioning it. That’s the way it goes with op eds.
So I was amused, intrigued and pleased to find that Peter Martin had done it for me. Like so many of his columns, it’s a good one. I would have liked to have said all he’s said. And I would have begun almost exactly as he began.
But I would have pointed out a crucial difference between the prisoner’s dilemma and greenhouse. And in addition to Peter’s worthy comments on the various psychological vicissitudes that make human beings not act as the simple modelling of the prisoner’s dilemma suggests is in their interests, my column focuses on something else. Peter points to the various ways in which humans behave ‘well’ in genuine prisoner’s dilemma situations. They divide their spoils in sharing games and generally behave more decently than the simple incentives require them to.
But there’s more. One of the most powerful building blocks of human co-operation is not just this kind of positive altruism or sociability. There’s also ‘negative altruism’ which is sufficiently strong to start wars. People just can’t stand that feeling that someone is doing them down and they’ll sacrifice their own interests to get even – in a big way (just ask Adolf Hitler or the latest road rager). As you will learn when I post the Oz op ed when they publish it, I think there are two kinds of fairness – fairnesses to the developed and developing countries respectively that are preconditions for success. Without them the citizens of the developed and developing world will feel ripped off and any chance we have of co-operation will break down. Their ‘negative altruism’ will see them baling out and trying to punish those who are being unfair to them, even if it’s ultimately at their own cost as well.
And there’s another thing that seems germane to point out. Hard as the problem we have is – as Ross Garnaut has said it’s ‘diabolical’ – there’s a crucial difference between the classical prisoners dilemma and the situation we find ourselves. The prisoners in the original dilemma can’t communicate. We can communicate with other ‘prisoners’ – in this case countries. And so our offers should be conditional. We should offer to be very generous if we get decent engagement. And we should offer up the usual face saving tokens if that’s all we’re being offered in return – though perhaps to keep good will alive we should also try to do a little better than most.
Of course this doesn’t suit the breast beating of the lobby groups – the greenies want to berate us for not being altruistic enough, the coal lobby for being ‘naive’ and selling out Australia’s economic interest. Conditional goodwill is the way out of jail if you can talk to the other prisoners!