Nature Blog Network Future Earth: To compete or to cooperate? That is the question.

Friday, 13 February 2009

To compete or to cooperate? That is the question.

The "Environment on the Edge" lecture on February 12th 2009 was packed to the gunnels. Professor Lord Robert May started slowly, taking the audience at New Hall College (now renamed Murray Edwards - today as ever, philanthropy underpins research and education) back into the relaxed lifestyle of the Victorian gentleman scientist. Digressing delightfully and digging around into the personal stories under the banner of "Darwin in his Day and in ours" Lord May gradually brought us round to our modern dilemmas as a human race. In a nutshell, now that we have so successfully dislocated ourselves from natural, resource-driven selection, what is to our selective advantage in the face of the dramatic challenges looming on this planet?

The answer, that resonated around the assembled company in interrogative questioning, was cooperation. Cooperation at a scale that we have not yet demonstrated, even in multi-lateral negotiations and certainly not in the United Nations. Social science, psychology, societal choice in training our youngsters for cooperative traits rather than increasing competitiveness, use of game theory to find the right mechanisms, use of modern communications to rustle up support... and so on. Can we do it? Cooperation requires accepting a compromise, something is traded. Two contexts allow cooperation to occur readily - apparent equity, and not very high stakes. Sadly (and fatally?), neither of these apply to climate mitigation negotiations. Sorry Darwin, not much to smile about on your birthday.

But we humans remain innovative and full of fun. During the lecture and subsequent dinner Cambridge was blanketed with a surprise snowfall (snow is always a surprise in Britain, especially to motorists) and I returned home to find my biologist son had constructed his own monument to the great man...

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