As world’s climate changes, so must economy

By the time you finish reading this editorial, there is a high chance that you will judge me for being either naive or too easily convinced. Despite that possible outcome, I will be candid about something that happened to me over winter break. I had a conversion experience. Well, maybe not a real conversion experience, because I didn’t pick up or drop some religious belief; nevertheless, the foundation of my worldview changed dramatically — because of a movie. As you may have guessed, the movie I’m referring to is “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The argument for why climate change is a reality, as well as a basic outline of policies that can prevent it, were thoroughly and, dare I say it, charismatically presented by Al Gore in the movie. Yet global warming does not simply involve the conspicuous scapegoats such as the energy industry, the American car culture and imbalances of economic prosperity. The solution to the problem, as alluded to in the film, requires a widespread recognition of the severity of the possible outcomes and a consequent change in the way we pursue economic gain.

In his book “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” Robert Wright argues that much of human innovation has been driven by zero-sum games — rivalries and competitions in which the prosperity of one group necessitates the loss of that prosperity by a different group. He also argues that in an age of globalization, where the problems of one society can easily leak into others, an increasing number of interactions are nonzero-sum games. In other words, more often than ever, everyone can win together, or everyone can lose together. Examples of this type of game include international trade, terrorism, toxic-waste management, the international spread of diseases and environmental sustainability. Adapting best to the exigencies of this new age may require a fundamental paradigm shift in human society.

Competition fuels trends that exacerbate climate change. Companies and shareholders derive profits from widespread car use and gas consumption. Competition among companies to provide cheap energy allows Americans to have inefficiently insulated houses at low cost. More importantly, nations find little reason to legislate solutions when other countries benefit from unregulated industries. Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva announced plans to allow for legal logging in the heart of the Amazon rain forest; while he claims the move is to stop illegal deforestation, he also was re-elected on a campaign promise of growing the economy at 5 percent per year — a goal certainly not unrelated to the recent decision. America’s disproportionate use of resources stands out as a template: If you want to have an economy like ours, you had better consume resources like us. Why shouldn’t developing nations follow our lead? In order to combat climate change, individuals, factions and countries must realize the stake every person has in the issue.

Gore tries to sell the idea of sustainability by demonstrating how America must act for the posterity of our nation. More importantly, the world must act together for the posterity of the world. Each person must be willing to sacrifice, or simply to change habits, in recognition that he affects every other citizen of the world, and that their actions affect him. For example, while I must admit that as a San Diegan I can find little cause to complain about a relatively mild winter and wouldn’t mind if New Haven had weather like my hometown, I’m willing to forsake that because I recognize that my responsibility to our global community outweighs my desire not to wear long underwear in the winter.

This shift from competition to cooperation requires every involved party to recognize their responsibility to each other. This was the awakening I experienced while watching “An Inconvenient Truth.” Climate change will not be the last problem that the world faces communally. More nonzero-sum games will arise, so we might as well get practice playing them now.

(Disclaimer: I have in no way, shape or form received compensation from Al Gore or Robert Wright, though I wouldn’t refuse it if it were offered.)

Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.