Non-Zero-Sum Living is the
only way to save life on Earth
Stuart W. Rose, Ph.D.
I recently took a class that linked philosophy with movies. Given my interests in sustainability, my term paper wove movies with sustainability.
Zero-Sum situations are those which – as they say in “The Highlander” – are epitomized by the phrase, “There can be only one.” A gain for one person means a simultaneous and equal loss for another, so the sum is zero. Sporting venues, elections, product manufacturers, romantic pursuits, spelling bees – contests of any kind – all carry with them great intrigue. And intrigue attracts fiction-readers and movie-goers, year after year.
Non-Zero-Sum situations are those in which multiple entities can all “win” – can all achieve their goals. If I enjoy healthier teeth, you can enjoy equally healthy teeth. I can even offer you guidance on how you might enjoy healthier teeth without, in any way, detracting from my ability to do so. Such situations lack intrigue, as collaboration is “pleasant and heartfelt” but typically lacks the drama needed to attract movie-goers.
How do you know which situation you’re in?
Simply by asking … “If I win, can you also win?”
Now the dilemma:
If you’re in a collaborative non-zero-sum environment,
but behave competitively, as though you’re in a zero-sum
situation, the outcome – virtually always – ends up “lose-lose.”
The phenomenon is epitomized in the “War Games” movie. NORAD’s WOPR computer ran simulated attacks between the US and the USSR, trying every possible way to win, and finally concluded, “Winner: none.” Yet, in every simulation, immense loss of life and environmental destruction would have resulted; it would actually have been a lose-lose disaster for both sides.
Today, the U.S. spends more money on its military than the next seven nations, combined. Yet, we never actually “win” a war. We never achieve true peace. The fear of terrorism detracts from our lives. And the money spent on military might depletes our financial resources, and renders us less able to invest in the best education system, or maintain the infrastructure that’s essential for supporting our life quality … highways, water systems, or the arts. This is zero-sum thinking, and it’s leading to a lose-lose outcome.
One of the first ethics taught in canoe-tripping is to always leave a campsite better than it was when you got there. You don’t know if anyone else will ever use that campsite. Or if they do, you don’t know if they’ll appreciate what you did. Or if they do appreciate what you did, you don’t know if they’ll ever know that it was you who did it. You simply do it because …
“It’s the right thing to do.”
Planet Earth is our campsite. And life on Earth is a non-zero-sum situation. The following thoughts detail this phenomenon, and also point to the avenue most necessary for solving this dilemma. As this paper was written for a course that examines philosophy in relation to movies, many examples come from movies, as well as from experts, philosophers, and entities that are not part of the traditional cast of “academic philosophers.”
To begin, a brief picture of game theory from “Negotiation Outcomes: Win-Lose, Lose-Lose, and Win-Win,” by Marissa Martinez. Imagine two teams: the AB team and the XY team, located in separate spaces, to prevent communication. The object of the game is to gain points. In each “trade round” the AB team commits an A or a B, the XY team an X or Y, to a neutral third party who, afterwards, announces the outcome to both teams.
If the outcome results in an AX, each team gets three points. If an AY, the AB team loses six points and the XY team wins six points. If the outcome is BX, the AB team wins six points and the XY team loses six. And if the outcome is BY, both teams lose three points. You quickly can see that AX is the only long-term way to win points. But without dialogue, essential trust cannot be established. In virtually every instance, the outcome ends in a long series of BY decisions. Both teams end up in the hole. Lose-Lose.
Seeking movie examples, virtually all war and sports films are set in a zero-sum environment …
“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
However, in “Akeelah and the Bee,” Script’s national competition was down to the final two, Akeelah and Dylan. Akeelah was distraught by the heavy-handed badgering of Dylan by his father. To end it, she deliberately misspelled a word to let him win. Dylan knew she knew that word and was perplexed. So, he also deliberately misspelled that same word and asked for water – to create an opportunity for dialogue. Dialogue is essential.
Akeelah made herself vulnerable, a prerequisite to building trust. Dylan said he didn’t want to win unless she gave it her best effort. They ended up cheering each other on until they were declared co-winners. Akeelah and Dylan converted a zero-sum environment into a non-zero-sum environment. They changed “winning” to caring for one another, which is non-zero-sum.
In the romance movie, “The Prince and Me,” Prince Edvard had to assume the chair of a labor negotiation – one in which his ill father, the king, had made no progress. After listening for a few minutes, he interceded …
“You know, when I was in America, I spent some time with
Paige’s family on her farm. And they explained something
to me, that we are all interdependent. So we had better start
start caring for our opposition as much as we do for ourselves.
“I wonder if anyone at this table knows what it’s like to work
for a tiny wage. And then to see that wage get sliced up even
further by taxes. I can tell you from experience, it can be a mighty
struggle. But then I suspect it would be substantially more dif-
ficult to see your jobs – and your benefits – disappear altogether.
“Now, at the moment, we are six percent apart. Correct? Now,
if the goal is to let the workers keep more without damaging
the corporation, then perhaps there’s a third path to consider …”
Seeing this as a non-zero-sum situation, the Prince changed the win-lose dialogue, which would have led to a strike that would have harmed both the corporation and the workers – a lose-lose outcome – to a win-win dialogue.
Is human sustainability on Planet Earth
a zero-sum or non-zero-sum situation?
To begin, a few quotes from notable sources with global perspectives …
“We have to face the fact that either all of us are going
to die together or we are going to learn to live together,
and if we are going to live together, we have to talk.”
“There’s been a quantum leap technologically in our
age, but unless there’s another quantum leap in
human relations, unless we learn to live in a new
way towards one another, there will be catastrophe.”
“The reality today is that we are all interdependent
and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore,
the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving
differences and clashes of interests, whether be-
tween individuals or nations, is through dialogue.”
The Dalai Lama
Next, comments from Lester Brown, founder of the WorldWatch Institute, which produced an annual report, “State of the World.” Each chapter in the report focused on a different aspect of life on our planet … fisheries, food, air quality, water resources, economy, literacy, quality-of-life, etc. When the chapter on fisheries showed the annual global tonnage of fish, every year for fifty years, and if you saw a straight-line decline of tonnage of that duration, you knew what the coming years would be. Without major changes, we can, in fact, predict the future.
In leading this research, Lester Brown became one of the most authoritative experts on the state of our world. Some quotes bearing on sustainability …
“Among the environmental trends undermining our future
are shrinking forests, expanding deserts, falling water
tables, collapsing fisheries, disappearing species, and
rising temperatures. The temperature increases bring
crop-withering heat waves, more-destructive storms,
more-intense droughts, more forest fires, and, of course,
ice melting. We are crossing natural thresholds that we
cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize.
“No civilization has survived the ongoing destruct-
tion of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.
“We know what we have to do. And we know how to do it.
If we fail to convert our self-destructing economy into one
that is environmentally sustainable, future generations will
be overwhelmed by environmental degradation and social
disintegration. Simply stated, if our generation does not turn
things around, our children may not have the option of doing so.”
Shifting to the venue of philosophers are two opposing perspectives …
Locke’s theory on current environmental struggles:
On April 22nd 2010, in Cochabamba Bolivia, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change drafted the “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.” The document advocates the bestowing of legal rights on nature, such as: to live, to exist, to continue its “vital cycles and processes,” and to clean water and air, amongst others.
The idea of giving rights to Mother Nature has been around for some time. According to Christopher D. Stone, nature could enjoy rights – and thus be legally defended in court – on the grounds that it cannot defend itself, in the same way as a senile elder or a child are defended in court by someone acting in their stead. Thus, when citizens witness an ecological disaster, they could sue the party responsible for the damage by appealing to the ecosystem’s inherent rights.
Consistent with Locke and Stone, the approach of indigenous peoples demands that Mother Earth be recognized as “an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny,” a being enjoying intrinsic value in itself. It is based on holistic cosmology opposed to an anthropocentric understanding of nature. In this cosmology, humans are one part of a greater harmonious being that they are obliged to respect.
This approach breaks from the philosophical thought informing Western discourse. Locke built his theories of individual rights and government in contrast to Amerindian societies. Amerindians lived in the state of nature because they lacked property rights. For Locke, property rights were conferred when people mixed their labor with an object they found in nature.
Locke’s theory of property arises directly out of European practices:
Molding nature towards human needs.
Societies which do not do so are perceived by Locke as still inhabiting a superseded state of nature.
The rights-claim advanced by indigenous peoples seeks to force their world-view into the political traditions of Western discourse. It attempts to replace the Lockean idea that “nature acquires worth only when instrumental to human uses” with a holistic approach recognizing nature’s intrinsic worth.
Dr. James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis:
Gaian hypotheses, developed by scientist and philosopher James Lovelock, suggest that organisms co-evolve with their environment: that is, they “influence their abiotic environment, and that environment in turn influences the biota by Darwinian process.” Lovelock, a scientist, gave evidence of this in his second book, showing the evolution from the world of the early thermo-acido-philic and methanogenic bacteria towards the oxygen-enriched atmosphere today that supports more complex life.
Less accepted versions of the hypothesis claim that changes in the biosphere are brought about through the coordination of living organisms and maintain those conditions through homeostasis. In some versions of Gaia philosophy, all lifeforms are considered part of one single living planetary being called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas and the terrestrial crust would be results of interventions carried out by Gaia through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.
The Gaia hypothesis posits that Earth is a self-regulating complex system involving the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the pedosphere, tightly coupled as an evolving system. The hypothesis contends:
This system as a whole, called Gaia, seeks a physical
and chemical environment optimal for contemporary life.
The existence of a planetary homeostasis influenced by living forms had been observed previously in the field of biogeochemistry, and it is being investigated also in other fields, such as Earth system science. The Gaia hypothesis relies on the assessment that such homeostatic balance is actively pursued with the goal of keeping the optimal conditions for life, even when terrestrial or external events menace them.
Currently the increase in human population and the environmental impact of their activities, such as the multiplication of greenhouse gases, may cause negative feedbacks in the environment to become positive feedback. Lovelock has stated that this could bring an extremely accelerated global warming, but he has since stated the effects will likely occur more slowly.
The Gaia hypothesis states that the Earth’s atmospheric composition is kept at a dynamically steady state by the presence of life. The atmospheric composition provides the conditions that contemporary life has adapted to. All atmospheric gases other than noble gases present in the atmosphere are either made or processed by organisms. Scientific research bears this out.
And reality from “the horse’s mouth” …
As my wife is clairaudient, I asked “D”, the entity she channels, for comments that go beyond philosophy, to describe how things actually “are” …
“All are one. And all are connected. When humans
choose to see themselves as part of an ecosystem, they
start seeing the need for balance within the system.
Humans are neither more important nor less impor-
tant than all the other organisms within the system.
“And then humans can begin to see that all the
“ecosystems” are all interdependent upon each other,
therefore require win-win strategies. We would
hope that mankind will realize the fragility of
the planet … and start reacting appropriately.
“There is a beauty and a magic to this wondrous
planet, called Earth. And it deserves reverence
and time to heal from the abuse of humans.”
On three occasions, D served as a portal to an entity that introduced itself as Gaia. (That set me back!) So, Gaia is real. And now that we know what has to be done to maintain life on Planet Earth, and once we see that it’s a non-zero-sum situation, we come to our second dilemma …
How do we cause the needed change so it actually happens?
Examining our world, nation-states and multi-national corporations are always led by competitive people. They had to compete to win their respective positions. And competitive people see their environment in zero-sum terms; they had to, to get where they are. And people who see the world in competitive zero-sum terms, are not likely to be able to easily shift their thinking to a non-zero-sum demeanor and style of thinking. For example …
Of movies that depict what military-might and win-lose behavior might yield, “On the Beach” made a powerful statement as the cold war was intensifying in the 1950s. Radiation from a massive missile-based nuclear war was spreading. A U.S. submarine was searching the globe, seeking any area that was not reaching deadly radiation levels. They found none. They ended up committing suicide in Australia. The movie’s ending left audiences stunned, and scratching their heads about our future.
Could such a scenario happen today?
The U.S. used nuclear-tipped ammunition in its Iraqi war; it left areas radiated, and Iraqis experiencing higher rates of cancer. Could “renegade” leaders in Iran or North Korea, all with nuclear capability, initiate a global nuclear holocaust? Not likely perhaps, but … it’s certainly possible.
National and corporate leaders are employing win-lose strategies in a non-zero-sum environment. And populations suffer. What examples do we have of leadership that is producing positive outcomes in today’s environment?
Example: The water quality and volume of fish life in Chesapeake Bay were both plummeting. Two efforts began changing the picture …
- Environmental groups formed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and began tracing the source of water pollutants to specific industries that were discharging toxic waste at upstream locations. Rather than waiting for governmental environmental agencies to act, they began working with those industries directly, and stopped the flow of toxic waste into the rivers.
- The Bay watermen got together and agreed upon a voluntary limit on their annual catches of Blue Crab, Rock Fish, Bass, Oysters, Bay Scallops, etc. They knew if they didn’t do so, no one would have anything to catch within a very few years.
“Chesapeake Bay Report Card Shows Steady Health Recovery”
“The overall health of Chesapeake Bay improved in 2016,
a positive sign that recovery efforts are working. The lar-
gest estuary in the nation scored a C grade (54 percent)
in the 2016 report card, one of the highest scores calcu-
lated by scientists at the University of Maryland Center
for Environmental Science. In addition, fish popula-
tions greatly improved to an A (90 percent).”
Example: Wangari Muta Maathai was an internationally renowned Kenyan environmental political activist and Nobel laureate. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. In 1984, she received the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
She caused the planting of thousands of trees, which stabilized land, improved the watershed, improved the quality of farmland soil … and led to the subsequent increase in the production of healthful food. Why do thousands flee their homelands to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy craft?
Because they’re starving!
Maathai’s efforts didn’t solve the whole problem, but they made a significant start. Other non-profit organizations, such as “Tree Sisters,” raise money and organize groups of (mostly) women in several countries to raise and plant millions of trees … year after year. And movie stars pitch in …
Example: When Kevin Costner was filming “Water World” he experienced how polluted the ocean had become. He personally funded a man’s ocean-cleaning invention, which not only helped in the area of the filming, but was later used to clean up the Deep Water Horizon mess in the Gulf of Mexico.
Example: In the movie, “Shoes of the Fisherman,” Anthony Quin is elected pope. Before his inauguration, he is asked by the Russian Premier to meet with Chairman Peng, of the Peoples Republic of China. China was experiencing mass starvation – which is actually a real-world situation today – and would soon be forced to attack neighboring countries to acquire the food they needed. In the meeting, Peng challenges Quin, who offered to send letters to heads of state, requesting support (paraphrasing) …
“So you send letters and make appeals. They’re
all refused, politely, of course. What have you
gained? You’re seen as a noble man, a peace-
maker who, unfortunately, failed to make peace.
“When I return to China, my head may be cut off.
That’s the price I may have to pay for being here.
A stunned Quin returned to the Vatican. And after considerable meditation, he decided to commit the wealth of the church – buildings, land, works of art, cash – to feeding the starving people in China. When he shared his intention with his advisors, all Cardinals of the church, they were alarmed!
They considered his plan dangerous to the future of the church.
As the sentiment seemed overwhelming, Quin offered to abdicate … to step down from the highest position he could attain in his church. His commitment stunned the Cardinals. They relented. And after the coronation ceremony, in his balcony address in St. Peters’ Square, he pledged all of the churches wealth to feed “the starving Chinese people.” Explaining his decision, he said …
“Though I have all faith so that I could remove
mountains and have not charity, I am nothing.”
He challenged the hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s square, and the millions watching globally on TV, to …
“Shell out something from your own abundance
to help these people … who have … nothing.”
His speech received thunderous applause from the crowds packing St. Peters’ Square … and relieved smiles on the faces of the Cardinals.
Each example features individuals, and groups of individuals, who take action because of personal concern for the health of our planet. Personal passion led Akeelah to offer the championship to Dylan, because she cared more about him than a trophy. Personal passion caused people to band together to clean up Chesapeake Bay. Personal passion is causing hordes of women all over the world to plant millions of trees. And personal passion led Kevin Costner to make a personal cash investment in a device that could help clean up our oceans.
Might we open dialogue with North Korea, Iran, and others – as dialogue is prerequisite to achieving trust – and send them food or other things they need? It would be a lot less expensive than building missiles! Win-Win.
You can now see how a non-zero-sum approach to saving life on Earth is both essential and, from all signs, has to be a “bottom’s up” grassroots approach … spurred by the personal passion of many people. (Dear reader, what’s your passion? And how will you use it to better our world?)