Environmental Pacts and Commitment

Here is a short post on a topic that deserves, perhaps, a whole book to explain. Nations’ and individuals’ decisions to act sustainably for an uncertain longer term benefit, or else unsustainably for a certain gain in the short term, have been explained with the “prisoner’s dilemma“—an analogy used by game theorists to explain why makers of pacts usually defect.

Suppose you and your neighbours were to make a pact with each other, to grow your own food, not use your cars, and to only buy renewable energy. Though you may all be closer for the first few days of your pact, little defections would quickly bring on a landslide. The only motivation to honour the pact after everyone else has defected, would be to wear your sacrifice on your sleeve.

But suppose on the first day of your pact, you and neighbours all sold your cars and spent the proceeds on exquisite cycling equipment. You also dug up your street and spent a fortune planting  an edible garden. And finally you all borrowed money to install wind turbines and solar panels. Economically, each of you will have committed. You will also have become enthusiasts for gardening, cycling, bicycle maintenance, and renewable power generation technology.

One day after selling our car, I find my Primrose shopping online for overpriced bicycling pants by Outlier. Next she’s adding marino base layers and socks to my Rapha shopping cart. Perhaps she needs her own Brompton? It is the duty of the bicycling industry to have all these things ready to sell to her on day one, to stitch her up good and proper. If only the building industry and property developers could be equally geared up to shift people into more sustainable housing the day they had the idea!


  1. Luke says:

    V. Interesting ideas. It’s partly game theory and partly acknowledging we have limited self-control. The first example I know of was Odysseus telling his crew to block their ears while they sailed
    past the Sirens, while he was lashed to the mast – they weren’t tempted to sail to the sirens, and couldn’t hear him ordering them to do so (and he got to hear the sirens). He correctly judged that he had limited self-control. I’ve heard of a similar trick in finance – leaving irrevocable instructions to buy shares after a fall, ‘cos you know you’ll be panicking with everyone
    else (I lack the funds and nerve to try that one). And William the Conquerer burned his boats to tell everyone he wasn’t retreating – he couldn’t call his own bluff.

    So having a nice bike and some decent clothes aren’t the indulgences some puritans see them as- it takes little self-discipline to ride a bike if it’s enjoyable. And selling the car’s like burning your boats – you can’t use it “just when necessary” ( which comes to be most of the time).

    • Steven says:

      I should have used that phrase “burning your boats” in the title. As always, thanks for the ancient history perspective!

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