Can Selfishness Save the Environment?

Conventional wisdom has it that the way to avert global ecological disaster is to persuade people to change their selfish habits for the common good. A more sensible approach would be to tap a boundless and renewable resource: the human propensity for thinking mainly of short term self-interest


FOR all these reasons, cooperation ought not to be a problem in Fowler, Kansas—a community in which everybody knows everybody else and shares the immediate consequences of a tragedy of the commons. Professor Kenneth Oye, the director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first heard about Fowler's sinking water table when his wife attended a family reunion there.

Oye's interest was further piqued when he subsequently heard rumors that the state had put a freeze on the drilling of new wells in the Fowler area: such a move might be the beginning of a solution to the water depletion, but it was also a classic barrier to the entry of new competitors in an industry. Oye had been reflecting on the case of Du Pont and chlorofluorocarbons, wondering why a corporation would willingly abandon a profitable business by agreeing to phase out the chemicals that seem to damage the ozone layer. Du Pont's decision stands out as an unusually altruistic gesture amid the selfish strivings of big business. Without it the Montreal protocol on ozone-destroying chemicals, a prototype for international agreements on the environment, might not have come about. Why had Du Pont made that decision? Conventional wisdom, and Du Pont's own assertions, credit improved scientific understanding and environmental pressure groups. Lobbyists had raised public consciousness about the ozone layer so high that Du Pont's executives quickly realized that the loss of public good will could cost them more than the products were worth. This seems to challenge the logic of tit-for-tat. It suggests that appeals to the wider good can be effective where appeals to self interest cannot.

Oye speculates that this explanation was incomplete, and that the company's executives may have been swayed in favor of a ban on CFCs by the realization that the CFC technology was mature and vulnerable. Du Pont was in danger of losing market share to its rivals. A ban beginning ten years hence would at least make it worth no potential rival's while to join in; Du Pont could keep its market share for longer and meanwhile stand a chance of gaining a dominant market share of the chemicals to replace CFCs. Again self-interest was part of the motive for environmental change. If consciousness-raising really changes corporate minds, why did the utility industry fight the Clean Air Act of 1990 every step of the way? The case of Du Pont is not, after all, an exception to the rule that self-interest is paramount.


BESIDES, environmentalists cannot really believe that mere consciousness-raising is enough or they would not lobby so hard in favor of enforceable laws. About the only cases in which they can claim to have achieved very much through moral suasion are the campaigns against furs and ivory. There can be little doubt that the world's leopards breathe easier because of the success of campaigns in recent decades against the wearing of furs. There was no need to bribe rich socialites to wear fake furs—they were easily shamed into it. But then shame can often be as effective an incentive as money.

Certainly the environmental movement believes in the power of shame, but it also believes in appealing to people's better natures. Yet the evidence is thin that normative pressures work for necessities. Furs are luxuries; and recycling works better with financial incentives or legal sanctions attached. Even a small refund can dramatically increase the amount of material that is recycled in household waste. In one Michigan study recycling rates were less than 10 percent for nonrefundable glass, metal, and plastic, and more than 90 percent for refundable objects. Charities have long known that people are more likely to make donations if they are rewarded with even just a tag or a lapel pin. Tit for tat.

The issue of normative pressure versus material incentive comes into sharp focus in the ivory debate. Western environmentalists and East African governments argue that the only hope for saving the elephant is to extinguish the demand for ivory by stifling supply and raising environmental consciousness. Many economists and southern African governments argue otherwise: that local people need incentives if they are to tolerate and protect elephants, incentives that must come from a regulated market for ivory enabling sustained production. Which is right depends on two things: whether it is possible to extinguish the demand for ivory in time to save the elephants, and whether the profits from legal ivory trading can buy sufficient enforcement to prevent poaching at home.

Even if it proved possible to make ivory so shameful a purchase that demand died, this would be no precedent for dealing with global warming. By giving up ivory, people are losing nothing. By giving up carbon dioxide, people are losing part of their standard of living.

Yet again and again in recent years environmentalists have persisted in introducing an element of mysticism and morality into the greenhouse debate, from Bill McKibben's nostalgia about a nature untouched by man in The End of Nature to James Lovelock's invention of the Gaia hypothesis. Others have often claimed that a mystical and moral approach works in Asia, so why not here? The reverence for nature that characterizes the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religions stands in marked contrast to the more exploitative attitudes of Islam and Christianity. Crossing the border from India to Pakistan, one is made immediately aware of the difference: the peacocks and monkeys that swarm, tame and confident, over every Indian temple and shrine are suddenly scarce and scared in the Muslim country.

In surveying people's attitudes around the Kosi Tappu wildlife reserve in southeastern Nepal, Joel Heinen, of the University of Michigan, discovered that Brahmin Hindus and Buddhists respect the aims of conservation programs much more than Muslims and low-caste Hindus. Nonetheless, religious reverence did not stand in the way of the overexploitation of nature. Heinen told us, "Sixty-five percent of the households in my survey expressed negative attitudes about the reserve, because the reserve took away many rights of local citizens." Nepal's and India's forests, grasslands, and rivers have suffered tragedies of the commons as severe as any country's. The eastern religious harmony with nature is largely lip service.


IN recent years those who believe that the narrow view of selfish rationalism expressed by economists and biologists is a characteristically Western concept have tended to stress not Buddhist peoples but pre-industrial peoples living close to nature. Indeed, so common is the view that all environmental problems stem from man's recent and hubristic attempt to establish dominion over nature, rather than living in harmony with it, that this has attained the status of a cliche, uttered by politicians as diverse as Pope John Paul II and Albert Gore. It is a compulsory part of the preface in most environmental books.

If the cliche is true, then the biologists and economists are largely wrong. Individuals can change their attitudes and counteract selfish ambitions. If the cliche is false, then it is the intangible incentive of shame, not the appeal to collective interest, that changes people's minds.

Evidence bearing on this matter comes from archaeologists and anthropologists. They are gradually reaching the conclusion that pre industrial people were just as often capable of environmental mismanagement as modern people, and that the legend of an age of environmental harmony—before we "lost touch with nature"—is a myth. Examples are now legion. The giant birds of Madagascar and New Zealand were almost certainly wiped out by man. In 2,000 years the Polynesians converted Easter Island, in the eastern Pacific, from a lush forest that provided wood for fishing canoes into a treeless, infertile grassland where famine, warfare, and cannibalism were rife. Some archaeologists believe that the Mayan empire reduced the Yucatan peninsula to meager scrub, and so fatally wounded itself. The Anasazi Indians apparently deforested a vast area.

History abounds with evidence that limitations of technology or demand, rather than a culture of self-restraint, are what has kept tribal people from overgrazing their commons. The Indians of Canada had the technology to exterminate the beaver long before white men arrived; at that point they changed their behavior not because they lost some ancient reverence for their prey but because for the first time they had an insatiable market for beaver pelts. The Hudson's Bay Company would trade a brass kettle or twenty steel fishhooks for every pelt.


WE conclude that the cynicism of the economist and the biologist about man's selfish, shortsighted nature seems justified. The optimism of the environmental movement about changing that nature does not. Unless we can find a way to tip individual incentives in favor of saving the atmosphere, we will fail. Even in a pre-industrial state or with the backing of a compassionate, vegetarian religion, humanity proves incapable of overriding individual greed for the good of large, diverse groups. So must we assume that we are powerless to avert the tragedy of the aerial commons, the greenhouse effect?

Fortunately not. Tit-for-tat can come to the rescue. If the principles it represents are embodied in the treaties and legislation that are being written to avert global warming, then there need be no problem in producing an effective, enforceable, and acceptable series of laws.

Care will have to be taken that free-rider countries don't become a problem. As Robert Keohane, of Harvard University's Center for International Affairs, has stressed, the commons problem is mirrored at the international level. Countries may agree to treaties and then try to free-ride their way past them. Just as in the case of local commons, there seem to be two solutions: to privatize the issue and leave it to competition between sovereign states (that is, war), or to centralize it and enforce obedience (that is, world government). But Keohane's work on international environmental regimes to control such things as acid rain, oil pollution, and overfishing came to much the same conclusion as Ostrom's; a middle way exists. Trade sanctions, blackmail, bribes, and even shame can be used between sovereign governments to create incentives for cooperation as long as violations can be easily detected. The implicit threat of trade sanctions for CFC manufacture is "a classic piece of tit-for-tat," Paul Romer observes.

Local governments within the nation can play tit-for-tat as well. The U.S. government is practiced at this art: it often threatens to deprive states of highway construction funds, for example, to encourage them to pass laws. States can play the same game with counties, or cities, or firms, and so on down to the level of the individual, taking care at each stage to rig the incentives so that obedience is cheaper than disobedience. Any action that raises the cost of being a free-rider, or raises the reward of being a cooperator, will work. Let the United States drag its feet over the Rio conventions if it wants, but let it feel the sting of some sanction for doing so. Let people drive gas-guzzlers if they wish, but tax them until it hurts. Let companies lobby against anti-pollution laws, but pass laws that make obeying them worthwhile. Make it rational for individuals to act green.

If this sounds unrealistic, remember what many environmental lobbyists are calling for. "A fundamental restructuring of many elements of society," Lester Brown proposes; "a wholly new economic order." "Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle," the Pope has said. These are hardly realistic aims.

We are merely asking governments to be more cynical about human nature. Instead of being shocked that people take such a narrow view of their interests, use the fact. Instead of trying to change human nature, go with the grain of it. For in refusing to put group good ahead of individual advantage, people are being both rational and consistent with their evolutionary past.

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