Humans have to collaborate to address climate change. It’s a self-evident fact and often used as a reason for doing nothing – don’t act until everyone agrees; action, by any one individual, group or country, can be negated by another.

Yet many carbon neutral companies including Google in 2007 , News Limited Internationally by 2010, PwC in 2008 and HSBC in 2005 must see an advantage. And are willing to act beyond what many would say is the immediate self-interest of the company.

These companies hold out market results, staff and stakeholder engagement, profile, publicity and, innovation on products and services as benefits. But is there also an altruistic element? Are humans wired to collaborate?

Some of evidence comes from experiments. Give people two options:

  1. to work together for the benefit of a group; or,
  2. not to work and rely on everyone else in the group.

Not surprisingly there’s a tendency not to work – no benefit for anyone. But if the experiment allows individuals to punish non workers, suddenly everyone tends to work. Even when there is an individual cost for those who voluntarily sanction non workers.

Importantly, if you then allow people in a group that has no sanctions to freely shift to another group they will very quickly move into the one where there are sanctions. That is we seem to prefer just systems which is something the seemingly altruistic carbon neutral companies may also be benefiting from.

So we can cooperate for better lives and the next post’s focus is¬†groups and societies that have, historically and¬†voluntarily, collaborated. There’s many examples of this with groups answering shared resources issues similar to our greenhouse gas problems.

Details on collaboration experiment here. Picture: J. Sutliff from Henrich, Cooperation, Punishment, and the Evolution of Human Institutions, Science 7 April 2006