The End of the World Event Tree: Why We Are Likely to Do Nothing

Australian economist John Quiggin posted a high level event chart of the how Seriously Bad scenarios might play themselves out (from a talk by sustainability expert Chris Moran) and what the policy response might be. It includes probability estimates from 80 students.

However, as the chart shows, the rational calculus doesn’t bode well for forestalling a crisis. Doing nothing or free riding dominate as strategies. Quiggin takes us through the logic:

Last Tuesday 17th of April, the Environmental Engineering Sustainability Seminar Series hosted Chris Moran, from the Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry (CWiMI) and Sustainable Mineral Institute, University of Queensland, on the intriguing topic of sustainability in a doomed world. The main message from Moran’s talk is probably summarised in this figure:

The figure describes a series of events, starting now to an unspecified future. The numbers are average subjective probabilities assigned to the outcomes of each event by a sample of 80 students in engineering. The tree starts with considering the probability of an event of global and catastrophic consequences, such as climate change, oil scarcity, or meteor impact, etc.. According to the sample, it is a very likely event (94%), while there is only a 6% probability that it isn’t and that it is good to keep doing the same things (Business As Usual).

If a catastrophe is looming, an Action Plan A is clearly needed–say a binding, reinforced Kyoto protocol. The outcome of plan A is a Light/Soft feet society, that is a society that drastically reduces its footprint on the planet. Would it work? The sample is quite pessimistic. They assigned a probability of 26% to successful global plan to save the planet. If Plan A doesn’t work, would Plan B? Only with a 29% probability. And the outcome is a New Global Order, probably accompanied by resource conflicts. The failure of plan B would either bring human extinction or survival by sheer luck.

Leaving aside the actual numbers in the figure, the event tree makes clear that there are no strong reasons to adopt a plan. If you are optimistic and believe there is no real global treat, no plan is needed. But if you are pessimistic all the way, a plan is pointless. Survival would be a matter of luck. And if you partly pessimistic–that is, you believe in a global threat and are optimistic on the success of plan A¬–your best move is free-riding. But then, how could you be optimistic on plan A? If free-riding is best for you, it is also for anyone else, and plan A cannot succeed. What is left is plan B. Conflicts over resources, environmental crisis and a new, unstable world order are its outcomes. Can we call it a desirable plan?

We are left with a pretty dismal picture. Not surprisingly, as remarked by Moran, lots of people in the mining industry are digging as fast as possible.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One comment

  1. John Quiggin

    Just a note that this post was actually by Nanni Concu, a member of the RSMG group


Comments are closed.