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

Valuing the future over the present

Vividly imagine value – is there a trick to valuing the future? Humans, generally, care more about the immediate at the expense of longer term. In the field of climate change it’s clear that we don’t seem to value the future as much as the present.

This future orientation is clearly important. Animals, for example, can act in response to the future:

When a mouse hides before a cat enters the room it is responding to an event that has not yet happened, and its ability to do so is one of evolution’s most remarkable achievements.

Humans have this ability too. But we also experience the future simulating it:

in our minds. We know… that it would be painful to go an hour without blinking… that winning the lottery would be more enjoyable than becoming paraplegic… because we can close our eyes, imagine these events… Unfortunately, the conclusions that we draw in this way aren’t always right. Trysts are often better contemplated than consummated, and sweetbreads are often better the other way around.

As Daniel Gilbert puts it, it’s notoriously difficult to get people to be farsighted. But you can get people to imagine the future more vividly.

Would you like to be 65 with an extra $100,000, is very different from imagine yourself at 65. Will you be living? What will you look like? How much hair will you have? Who will you be living with? With the imaginary scenario suddenly we feel like saving.

Daniel argues these techniques are marginal. But there are also many situations in which humans voluntarily collaborate to protect the future. When humans cooperate is the topic for the next short post.

Clean Production and a Lean Wasteline

It is more than two decades since we started re-imagining global and local production. By the early 1990’s, it was abundantly clear that we should not, nor could not, attempt to create a sustainable society by simply treating and collecting waste.

There are many inspiring examples of change since the 90’s. From Natural Capitalism, which shows how we should produce our goods and services, to Factor 4. The most recent demonstrates an 80% reduction of environmental impact per unit of economic output is achievable and available to us today – it’s here: Factor 5. Factor 5 covers everything from our homes and cities through to steel and cement, agriculture and transport.

But our overall society now has an even greater impact, by any of the common metrics, on the environment than it did in the 90’s. If resource use and waste avoidance makes such economic sense, as the examples demonstrate, we’re entitled to ask what’s gone wrong. Why are we 20 years down the track with so many easy wins still waiting to be implemented? And what can we learn from some of the standout examples of change?

This is the first in a series of short blog posts. We’ve set the scene, so what are some of the barriers – beyond technology – in society, mindsets and worldviews. Next blog is on valuing the future over the present.