Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, June 26, 2017

Facing the Climate Bear: The "Camper's Dilemma"

Imagine that you and a friend are facing a bear in the middle of a forest. You are both unarmed and the bear can run faster than you. What's your best strategy, cooperate or betray? I might call this situation the "Camper's Dilemma," in analogy with the well known "Prisoner's Dilemma" 

You and a friend are camping in a forest that you know is inhabited by hungry bears. Imagine that for some reason you lost contact with the civilized world and that you are on your own to get back home. You are both unarmed and bears can easily outrun you and kill you. What's the best strategy for you to survive? Here are some considerations on the "Camper's Dilemma" based on the level of danger.

1. Danger is low -> collaboration. You know that there are bears in the forest, but you have no evidence that there is one close by. You and your friend agree that you should cooperate and make as little noise as possible, leave no food leftovers, give no evidence of your presence.

2. Danger is high -> deception. You saw the bear the bear saw you, but your friend didn't. You don't tell what you saw to him, on the contrary you deny having seen any bear around. At the first occasion, you tell your friend that you will take a short walk in the forest, looking for berries, while he should take care of the camp until you come back. As soon as you are out of sight, you start running as fast as you can, leaving your friend to face the bear, alone. Your friend may run faster than you, but this strategy gives you a good start, at least.

3. Danger is immediate -> competition. The bear suddenly appears in front of you, attacking. You and your friend may try to fight the bear together, or you may fight each other so that the loser will not be able to run away. In any case, there is no space for cheating anymore: it is pure emergency.

You may know the story of the two campers and the bear which has been a source of inspiration for the idea of the "Camper's Dilemma". More than that, the camper's dilemma is closely related to the model termed the "Prisoner's Dilemma." It is an operational game in which each of the two players must choose whether to cooperate or to betray the other, without knowing what strategy the other will be choosing. Betrayal brings a benefit to one of the players only if the other player cooperates. If both defect, they both suffer heavy penalties. Below, you can see an example of the payoff matrix for this game. 

The prisoner's dilemma game has no optimal strategy; empirical studies have shown that the simple strategy called "tit for tat" is the one that performs best in the long run, but there is no guarantee that it will always work. So, the prisoner's game reflects well the complexity and the unpredictability of the real world, although in a simplified form.

The camper's dilemma, as described here, is very similar to the prisoner's dilemma with the difference that the outcome is not just a penalty: if you lose the game, you die. The camper's dilemma is also "graded" in the sense that the best strategy depends on the level of danger. In a low danger situation, both players should easily understand that collaboration is the best strategy. But, as danger becomes more and more evident and immediate, betrayal starts to look like a better strategy. 

It doesn't seem to me (but I may be wrong) that theorists have examined this kind of game, so for the time being these considerations must remain qualitative. They are nevertheless enlightening when applied to the current world situation, in particular if we think of the bear as "climate change" whereas the campers are entire populations or social strata. 

For instance, the Paris climate treaty may be seen as part of a collaborative strategy, but considering that it has been always know that it is insufficient to avoid the climate disaster, it may also be seen as part of a deception effort. At the same time, some governments have taken an more or less explicitly denialist stance; for instance the US, Canada, and Russia. These governments may believe that their geographical situation may allow them to outrun the climate bear or, anyway, that they have sufficient resources to avoid the worse, at least for a fraction of their population. As I discussed in a previous post, some of the world's elites may have already reached the conclusion that the climate bear is coming fast and that they might as well save themselves by moving to some higher ground, while letting the poor drown or be boiled alive

Of course, this interpretation cannot be proven and it may well be wrong. It is also true that there is still space for a collaborative strategy that would solve the climate problem by means of a fast energy transition. Nevertheless, the camper's dilemma game provides a perspective of the current situation that I wouldn't dismiss as impossible, and not even as unlikely. . 

Note: this post was inspired by a story told by Filippo Musumeci, published (in Italian) on the blog "Effetto Risorse"


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)