Climate as a Collective Action Problem

30 September 2022

This week we’re thinking about Collective Action and Climate Change. With floods and fires getting more frequent and intense, and with the summer just ended shattering heat records around the globe, we clearly need to do something about climate change. And fast.

And indeed, many of us have done something, like putting solar panels on our homes, replacing our lights with LEDs, even switching to an electric car. (One of the Philosophy Talk hosts may have done just that.) But are those individual actions really enough? If only some of us do that, while others do nothing, we’ll still end up with a climate catastrophe.

You could hope that "everybody does their bit," but even that's unlikely. A lot of people can’t afford to replace their lights, much less buy an electric car; and even those who can don’t always want to—some people of means don’t seem to realize that it’s in their own self-interest to save the world.

Or maybe a better way of thinking of it is that it is in their self-interest to keep guzzling up those hydrocarbons, but that it comes at a cost to other people. Maybe it’s a classic Tragedy of the Commons, an idea that goes back to the economist William Forster Lloyd. Lloyd was thinking about common land in Britain in the 19th Century, where people could send their animals to graze. If you keep a cow on the commons, your cow is fed for free, so you benefit. Two cows will be even better. Heck, go for three!

But of course if everybody gets three cows, pretty soon all the grass will be gone. Even though every individual is doing what’s best for them, the group as a whole is in trouble. It’s like the dirty cups in the office kitchen: everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job, so the mugs sit in the sink until they get moldy. Similarly, everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job to cut down on carbon emissions, so the carbon sits in the atmosphere until we all boil to death.

So if it’s not in anyone’s individual self-interest to fight global warming, how are we ever going to solve the problem? One possible answer is that what’s in people’s self-interest can change. Right now, it’s in a lot of people’s self-interest to drive to work: people often work in the city and the cheap houses are out in the suburbs, and many towns don’t have reliable transit or safe bike lanes. But we could make it more affordable to live in the city, and we could build better trains and bike lanes.

Now obviously no one person can single-handedly conjure up bike lanes and high-speed trains (which is why some of us have been going solar and investing in LEDs)—but we can make those things happen collectively. Our governments and organizations can change things, and they’re made up of people like us. (The recent "Inflation Reduction Act" is going to pour billions into heat pumps, electric vehicles, solar panels, sustainable crops, and a bunch of other stuff.) And if the local council drags its feet, maybe we can take to the streets and make noise; that’s a form of collective action too.

Still, people have been making noise for years, and the world is still on fire. So hopefully we'll get some creative suggestions from our guest: Keiran Setiya from MIT, author of the new book, Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way.

Photo by Devon Strolovitch/Midjourney

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, October 2, 2022 -- 7:56 AM

I just don't know. Discussion

I just don't know. Discussion of this has gone on for years. Technology moves forward steadily enough---I don't think that aspect of progress is a problem. Electric cars are available and getting better...even electric bicycles. They need to be affordable, however. I don't even own a house anymore. Having liquid assets is more useful than paying taxes that have little or no relationship to my life and self-worth. It is complicated. And there are trends, changes, etcetera more immediately concerning. This is a perennial problem-always something more pressing than climate change. Collective action is an illusion. Similar to what some are saying of human consciousness.. so, we stumble and fumble.

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mirugai's picture


Tuesday, October 4, 2022 -- 8:04 AM

Here’s what I want to know.

Here’s what I want to know.
Let’s just (ridiculously) personify nature, and name her Gaia. When Gaia gets up in the morning she looks out and sees what has become of her garden. Strip malls, paved and resource punishing developments, use of higher and higher tech to destroy and up-build, over population causing the scouring humans (rich ones included) to hoard resources, and exploit it all to the both incredibly high prices (which only a few can afford) and to extinction. Princess Gaia sees the Anthracene. So what does she do? She decides to kill the species that is solely responsible for the destruction of her garden. What comes next is what I call Anthrocide. There is nothing humans can do about it except, as they say in the restaurant business, “enjoy.” If it makes you feel good to take a cloth bag to the grocery store, enjoy. If it makes you feel good to drive an electric car, enjoy. If it makes you feel good to give money to a million charities and (hedge fund run) “non-profits” who say they are “pro-conservation” or “pro-ecology,” enjoy doing what capitalists always do, throw money at problems that can’t be solved with money.

There is no way in our power to cool the oceans, for instance. So, my question is what is the philosophers answer as to what to do? What to do when nothing can be done which will ameliorate or cure the problem...any unsolvable problem. 1. Fight against the impossible-to-beat “enemy” (actually the beautiful Princess Gaia)? Why? 2. Since our days are numbered and the impact is getting horrible, live it up in the “end times” however you want, whatever you exploit that you are comfortable with? 3. Other ideas, Philosophy Talkers? But every idea must start with the fact that our game on earth is over, and we are being eliminated as species because of, and by, what we brought about. What can we do, how should we behave as we approach the end? All the stuff that the climate and geo guys said would take "40 years” to happen is happening now, three years after they said so.

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rosydam's picture


Monday, November 20, 2023 -- 7:27 PM


only up draws inspiration from classic puzzle games while adding a unique twist to the formula.

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