In 2014, a team of behavioral scientists from Harvard and Yale tried to save the future—with a little game theory.
Here’s the game part: The researchers broke up a big group of volunteers into five teams they called “generations.” They gave the players designated the first generation 100 points, or “units,” and told them to take some for themselves, up to 20 units each, and then pass the remainder on to the next generation. If the overall pool had 50 units or more at the end of the round, the next generation would get a reset—100 units to start all over, a model of sustainability. If the pool had fewer than 50 units, the next generation got what it got.
Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good: Two-thirds of players were “cooperators,” taking 10 units or fewer and ensuring the survival of the species. The bad: A minority of “defectors” always tanked the game. In 18 rounds of this Intergenerational Goods Game, just four had a first generation abstemious enough to give generation 2 a full reset to 100 units. Of those, only two reset for generation 3. Nobody made it to generation 4.
In a game designed to test how people might plan ahead for a sustainable world, all it took to reliably bring about the apocalypse were a few selfish schmucks—which sounds pretty familiar, actually, but does seem like a ruefully ironic outcome for a paper called “Cooperating With the Future.”
That wasn’t the end of the story for the Intergenerational Goods Game. (I’ll come back to that.) But this past week has highlighted the pathetic human inability to avoid bad outcomes in a possible future. You can see that in the horrifying collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, which killed at least 16 people and has left dozens more still unaccounted for. An engineer warned the building’s residents in 2018 about serious damage to the concrete and rebar holding the building up. As recently as last April, the condo board was telling residents that the damage was worsening. But the multimillion-dollar project to fix it—in the works for more than two years—hadn’t yet begun. The Champlain Towers residents of two years ago worried, reasonably, about the impact of the repairs and how much they would cost. The Intergenerational Goods Game showed how bad people are at protecting future generations; in Miami, people couldn’t even protect their own future selves.
The Intergenerational Goods Game wasn’t about buildings. It was, obviously, a ludic analysis of climate change. By 2014, plenty of people had worked on the game theory of cooperation, the authors wrote, but that canon tends to ignore the fourth dimension—time. That’s where the Champlain Towers collapse overlaps with the game, and with the climate catastrophe unfolding around the world today. Hazards are the risks that bad things will happen—an earthquake, a wildfire, a hurricane, a heat event; disasters are what happens when the risk comes to fruition and overwhelms whatever preparations people made in advance. And it turns out people are very bad at making preparations in advance. The hazard at Champlain Towers was clear—to some of the residents, at least. As with climate change, the hazard showed up long before the disaster that it made almost inevitable. It might seem almost impossibly on the nose that a deadly metaphor for how people think (or fail to think) about Earth’s broken climate would manifest in sinking, flooding Miami—a city that is, itself, a tragic metaphor for how people fail to think about Earth’s broken climate. But here we are.
The formal term for trying to protect the future against calamity is “long-term risk governance,” and it’s so hard that even the research into why it’s hard is scant. “It’s really the exception to the rule when people act before something terrible has actually happened,” says Rachael Shwom, an environmental sociologist at Rutgers University and the coauthor, with climate scientist Robert Kopp, of a 2019 paper in the Journal of Risk Research that tried to figure out what it takes to get people to act upon the warning of a potential catastrophe.
It’s received wisdom in this field of study that it often takes a “focusing event”—some big, visible, scary thing—to marshal forces and get people to take action against a future threat. But focusing events don’t always lead to change. An infrastructure of advocacy and policymaking has to already be in place, maybe left over from the previous focusing event, to make that change happen. So it takes more than just a catastrophe. It takes several, and they have to spawn a policy infrastructure.
That hasn’t happened with collapsing buildings—they’re thankfully quite rare in the United States. And the real question in the case of the Champlain Tower is, was the warning of damage to the concrete and rebar a focusing event? Maybe the actual collapse was the focusing event—which, if you extend the climate metaphor, might help explain why decades of scientists’ warnings about parts per million of carbon dioxide had little impact, where wildfires and heat domes may yet move the needle.
And here's the part of all this that’ll make you cry: If a collapsing building that kills dozens of people is both warning and crisis—which is to say, too late to save anyone—so too are those wildfires and heat domes. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries; climate change doesn’t manifest itself as disasters until it’s nearly too late to fix.
And even those disastrous events somehow fail to focus us. Maybe this week’s extraordinary temperatures in the Pacific Northwest will shake policymakers loose from their lethargy. But why would they? Superstorms and hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy didn’t do it. The wildfires of 2020 didn’t do it. Seasonal flooding in Miami hasn’t done it. All those events and more were signals not of a system on the brink, but of one that’s already broken. “You could say that in this building collapse, they had gotten some information that it may be unstable. But it wasn’t acted upon,” Shwom says. “There are two different cases. One is where there’s not much idea at all, or not many warning signals that something could happen. And the other is where people have some information but don’t act to do anything.”
Clearly the residents of the doomed tower knew enough to act. Their board had finally figured out how much money a repair would cost—a primary obstacle, since those costs would get passed on to every resident. These were the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. Pretty clear. Everyone there had to figure out how much money they were willing to spend today to avert a potential threat tomorrow. As with climate, the hazard at the Champlain Tower was getting worse with the passage of time—harder to fix and with a greater chance of catastrophic failure. “This is about public safety and who’s looking out for near-term and long-term public interest. Everything from the early inspection was, ‘This is bad.’ Then, whose responsibility is it to take action?” asks Constantine Samaras, a climate and energy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. That’s kind of like what’s going on with climate change. “Are climate scientists the engineers in this situation? For 30 years, climate scientists have been looking at the atmosphere and saying, ‘It’s cracked.’ And then who’s the condo owner? In a democratic society, it’s everybody.”
Which is to say, part of the problem is getting the people with power on board to make the necessary changes. “People in the Pacific Northwest are suffering in the heat dome, but next week, somebody’s going to go out and drill more oil or whatever,” Samaras says. “It’s not like the climate Pearl Harbors are moving the needle in widespread public demand for the type of action that’s necessary.”
Though as Samaras also points out, the story of public opinion on climate is a little more subtle. The demand for change is there: According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and 57 percent believe it’s mostly caused by humans. (It is, for Pete’s sake.) And 70 percent believe corporations should do more to fix it; 60 percent think Congress should. So … something should change, right? Except no. Regulatory systems remain firmly captured by carbon emitters and all the companies that depend on burning fossil fuels. Carbon and methane keep heading into the atmosphere, where they basically just stay. Even in the face of lots of smaller efforts to decarbonize, the disasters keep coming.
That brings me back to the Intergenerational Goods Game. Because those researchers did come up with a solution.
First, some complications: Four years after the paper came out, it got caught up in the crisis of reproducibility in the social sciences. A whole other team of researchers tried to run the IGG experiment again, using volunteers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, and the numbers didn’t bear out. (One of the original researchers said that by the time those other guys tried to replicate it, too many people were savvy to those kinds of games, and the new group of gamers didn’t play naively enough. Maybe!) Oh, and then one of the Intergenerational Game authors turned out to have gotten money from the now-dead serial sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. So that’s not great.
But put that aside, if you can, because the solution to the long-term risk governance issue the game hints at was a simple one: democracy. When the Ivy League dungeonmasters changed the rules just a little bit, forcing every generation to take a binding vote on what their individual unit-take would be … it worked. Every generation took its fair share and left enough for the next generation to get theirs too.
We can do more than cooperate with the future. We can shape it. Telling every individual human to recycle more (even if most folks don’t have access to a municipal recycling program) and drive less (in places where they have no access to good public transit, and housing and services are 45 minutes away from their jobs) won’t avert a single focusing event. The instructions and responsibility have to go in the opposite direction. Every one of us has to demand that our nominal leaders, the people with the authority and resources to fix the infrastructure of human civilization, respond. Their inaction has become murderous—they’re ignoring warnings about failing concrete, and we’re the ones who live in the building.