Our species now faces, for the first time in its history, a number of crucial decisions that can only be made at the global level. This is because they are all, substantially, ‘Problem of the Commons’ decisions. They’re about voluntarily reducing our environmental impact in ways that would at least slightly and temporarily disadvantage any nation-state or corporation that might otherwise be tempted to try them.
To rehash the classic problem of the commons illustration: think of a large area of common land surrounded by a number of pastoral villages. The land can sustainably support only a limited number of grazing sheep, so it’s in the overall best interest all of the villagers to figure out what that number is, and then to allocate it between themselves by an effectively binding (force sanctioned) agreement. In this way all will receive a fair share, and the resource will remain intact for their children and grandchildren. But now for the ‘problem’: This solution is not in the short-term interest of any particular village. On the basis of short-term interest each village will graze as many sheep as possible, even in the knowledge that this will destroy the resource. In the absence of an effectively binding agreement each village will rationalize its behavior through knowledge that the resource is going to be destroyed anyway; as “those greedy bastards in the other villages will certainly overgraze, so our only reasonable course is to get as much of it as we can and while we can.”
This is now our global position in reference to vital commons like our ocean fisheries, hydrologic cycle fresh water, productive arable land, and our atmosphere’s ability to function safely as a carbon sink. According to classic economic theory the selfish villagers still can come out okay; because, having destroyed the resource, they can simply move on to something else. Perhaps they’ve used the profits from their additional sheep to buy some more land in another place, and so can continue that cycle. Or maybe they’ve purchased some fishing boats and will now switch over from mutton to fish as their main source of protein. This is what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, and so are deeply confident in our ability to keep doing. But it won’t work for global level commons. There are no ‘something else’s to move on to. From the top of a pyramid you can’t climb any further. We can clearly see this, but somehow we just can’t accept it. It’s so unpalatable – in the sense of obviously requiring such deep level change in our values, aspirations and behavior – that we collectively choose to turn away from it. We open another glossy magazine, or switch our TVs back on, and escape back into that more comforting and entertaining world.
We are superbly good at believing what we want to believe, and what most of those around us want to believe. I think that we’re so good at it exactly because we’ve all been practicing it from birth; through our belief in our possession of the qualitatively better kind of knowledge (‘truth’), as which and in terms of which we can know that our particular little ideological and cultural quirks are exclusively ‘the right ones’, and that our universe is being run by the specific Supernatural Being who favors us and those who share these particular quirks with us. In my Leaving Truth essays I argue that this practice has never been, in the overall balance, a good thing.
We don’t yet have, and we still seem to be incapable of forming, an international equivalent of the inter-village council that would have been able in my example to assess and then protect the resource of the grazing common. But it’s what we desperately need. I believe that implementation of the deep level change for which I argue in Leaving Truth* now offers our last and best hope for being able to form such a body quickly enough to divert our runaway growth from its present crash course and into a relatively soft landing.
*To express this change most simply: We’ve been insisting on the pretense that we can both have our cake and eat it; and I am proposing that we stop. We’ve all been cooperating in perpetuation of the ‘noble lie’ through which we’ve been maintaining an independent knowledge basis, superior to science and reason, for our propagation of ‘facts’ that we can honestly see not to be so. We mutually assure ourselves that we can continue to teach our children about the unique existence of our particular Supernatural Being(s) and the superiority of our particular cultural delineators without such stuff short circuiting and crippling their own development of reason. We want to believe that they will be able to learn to think effectively – so, to be able to build large and coherent edifices of knowledge, within which to develop strong and mature reason, and the confidence in such reason to honestly follow where it leads – from a base of acceptance of emotionally and politically appealing nonsense as a special and better kind of knowledge. I think that this practice has instead been maintaining our planet as a ‘vale of tears’, for most of us and most of the time, throughout our species’ history; and that it’s now gearing up – through the anthropogenic climate disruption that we can so easily see but not find the clarity or coherence to oppose – to do much worse.