Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What if cooperation doesn’t scale up to nation states?

Here’s a bad thought.  What if cooperation doesn’t scale.  What if what works for interpersonal relationships doesn’t work for nation states. 

Why did I wake up with a start thinking about this?  Well, we know that (as I’ve written about here and elsewhere before) that cooperation requires some degree of recognition and memory (you need to identify those who cooperate and those who don’t) and you need some mechanisms for incentivizing cooperation, detecting those who do not cooperate and then and punishing those who cheat.  All of this can, when properly, employed lead to stable, cooperative systems.

However, what works at for individuals or small groups may be more difficult to scale up to nation states.  And this woke me up with a jolt because the major environmental problems we face now are ALL about cooperation between sovereign states. 

Consider the whole Euro-zone crisis.  Just because Germany has it’s house in good financial order doesn’t mean that they can force other Euro-zone countries to comply—even when the cost of failure is an economic collapse that is too terrifying to consider.  Or consider the screams for protectionism that accompany each economic downturn.  These make sense in that politicians must represent their constituents, but again, when the scale of our problems is global, we need new political mechanisms that answer to the Earth to create this global cooperation.

Discussion questions

Given that many claim the UN as a governing body has failed to create the sort of system required to manage global environmental problems, what are the elements of the UN that have been responsible for this failure.  After identifying those shortcomings, then discuss what attributes you’d want for an effective international cooperative system charged with helping us prevent a catastrophic environmental collapse.

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