Thursday, January 20, 2022

Lessons from the Pandemic: Tragedy of the Commons vs. Social Contracts


The recent pandemic has provided a lot of insights into how societies and governments around the world respond to the kind of collective crisis, where the potential harm faced by each member of the community does not primarily depend on their direct actions, but also on the actions of anybody around them.

We can hope to draw some lessons from these insights for the the climate crisis, which presents similar challenges but over a much longer time and at global scale.

On the bright side, lessons from the pandemic have shown that eventually most governments and communities have eventually responded quite decisively and to a level that might not have been expected. 

One specific episode that happened in Switzerland around June 6th 2020, I found particularly insightful: the question of wearing masks in public transport.

In the days leading up to June 6th, an estimated less than 5% of passengers in public were wearing masks. Despite the government having strongly recommended it and repeatedly appealed to the individual responsibility ("Eigenverantwortung - the favorite word of the Swiss government during the whole pandemic). Polls had shown that around three quarters of the population would be in favour of a mandate to wear masks in public transport. Yet almost nobody was wearing one themselves...

On June 1st the Swiss federal executive issued a statement that wearing masks in public transport shall be mandatory for anybody over the age of 12 starting on Monday June 6th. And suddenly on the morning of June 6th, a vast majority of public transport users (estimated over 95%) started wearing masks and have done so ever since, despite no particular active enforcement of this new rule.

According to expert consensus at the time, the main effect of wearing a simple surgical mask is to hold back droplets in order not to infect others and less so to protect the wearer from being infected. I.e. we are best protected if everybody else around us is wearing a mask.

However wearing a mask comes at some personal cost and inconvenience. Masks cost money - about 10c per piece, they are uncomfortable to wear, fog up glasses and maybe most significantly for western societies, wearing a mask in public carries a social cost of awkwardness and violating cultural norms.

Such a conflict between personal cost and collective benefit - or personal benefit at the expense of the community is illustrated by the popular metaphor of the tragedy of the commons.

This episode is a stark reminder of how ineffective even the most passionate appeals to reason and responsibility are, if self interests conflicts even the tiniest bit (10 cents per mask!) with the common good. Even if the majority of the population believes it would be right thing to do and something should be done.

Yet the simple act of the government changing a strong recommendation to a rule has shifted behaviour massively over night - from less than 5% to more than 95% compliance. All this without without much material difference and enforcement beyond passive-aggressive peer pressure for which the Swiss are so famous for.

I think this is a hopeful example how a collective agreement to cooperate and be reasonable is essential to overcoming to overcoming the tragedy of the commons. As the example shows, a strong symbolic signal of agreement can massively shift behaviour literally overnight.

Some kind of social contract, formally or informally, can help to overcome selfishness in favour of the common common good if we somehow convince ourselves that we are all going to do it and I won't be the only idiot in the end holding the short end of the straw. Such agreement can take many forms - from social norms, government laws, religious doctrine or moral codes - whatever works best for a given community.

However it does not seem to be enough that most of us think it's a good idea and we should all do it, there has to be a moment when a social contract is forged and the "volonté de tous" becomes the "volonté générale"

The lesson from this episode might be that our best chance to solve the climate crisis is that unless self interest becomes become fully aligned with the common good (i.e the "green premium" has to become null or negative) , we need to move from appeals for individual voluntary actions to collective agreements - e.g. binding rules and regulations on a global scale. And that might just be the hardest part of it.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Lessons from the Pandemic: The Bias towards Inaction

In the context of the climate crisis, I have been wondering why we have so far not been acting more decisively to prevent what could credibly turn into the largest civilisatory catastrophe in recent human history (at least in absolute terms). 

The pandemic has provided an opportunity to observe the rapid unfolding of a wide range of collective and government crisis responses, that could help to identify some pattern.

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment to illustrate an ethical dilemma where the needs of the many might outweigh the needs of the few : a trolley is assumed to be barreling down the track towards a group of people that it would most likely hit while a bystander has the opportunity to move a switch, which will redirect the trolley on another track, where it will likely hit a single other person.

While moral philosophers  have a more nuanced perspective on the moral equivalence of action vs. inaction, of doing vs. allowing,  the laws and norms of most communities, typically give a very simple recommendation: just don't!

If the bystander were to act, they would likely be charged with unauthorised tampering with railroad equipment and involuntary manslaughter at the least. If they don't act, they would likely not be blamed for anything and receive many thoughts and prayers for having to witness such an unfortunate tragedy.

In response to the current pandemic or the climate crisis, we can see a similar hesitation to act from politicians or even public opinion - even if the scientific consensus is solid. "Pay or suffer some more now to avoid paying or suffering even more in the future" does not make a solid plank for a re-election platform.

Most societies and liberal democracies in particular tend to weight negative rights and freedoms higher than positive ones. I.e. the right to be free from interference and infringement vs. the right to receive support. Which means that governments are typically much more hesitant to infringe on one persons freedom to satisfy another's right to something - e.g. restricting one person's right to party in order to protect another persons right to life and health.

In addition, there might be doubt about the certainty and gravity of the outcomes. Sure, the scientific consensus indicates that the people on the trolley track will most certainly (99.7%?) be hurt seriously. But in times of crisis we often find strengths in unjustified optimism or even magical thinking. Many good stories are told of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat at the last instant...

Those who act, can and will be blamed for the consequences of their actions, especially when things turn out badly. And they will possibly get no credit for the harm they might have just prevented - after all it did not happen in the end! And except for some well defined situations, inaction rarely leads to serious blame.

Hence inaction is a rational default behavior, in particular for those who care about public opinion, like for example elected officials. Which means that when faced with an unprecedented crisis which requires unpopular or painful measures, governments have a natural tendency to do too little too late - at least until they believe strongly that these measures will be expected, supported and even demanded by a majority of the electorate.

Creating a mandate for action would require to establish a consensus on tight causality between actions and inactions respectively to the corresponding outcomes in order to attribute credit or blame. Strong mandates to act in order to prevent harm are rare and exist for example in maritime law with the obligation to assist those in distress at sea. Shipwrecks are a pretty well known and routine type of disaster and the current legal framework had as catalyst a particularly famous one: the sinking of the Titanic.

To overcome our natural aversion to change and preference for the status quo, a rule of thumb in the startup community is that any new alternative needs to be 10x more compelling somehow. Which means that in order for communities and political leaders to choose action over inaction, the outcomes need not only be obvious and threatening, but overwhelmingly so.

In the meantime, we will continue to "sit tight and assess"...