Albert Einstein once said: “Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals." Alas, when it comes to joining together to conserve Earth's resources and protect our planet for future generations, we humans have proven to be a decidedly uncooperative lot.
"There has been a great deal of work on how people cooperate with those they see every day –- their colleagues or friends," Dr. Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University, said in a written statement. "But an open question is how people cooperate with future generations. How do you make altruistic decisions today that benefit people tomorrow?"
For those who worry that we'll never come together to protect our planet, a provocative new study involving game theory, conducted by Nowak and a colleague at Yale University, offers a glimmer of hope.
For the study, 480 men and women took turns playing a"public goods" game, in which five players at a time divided a pool of resources among themselves. (For a delightful, candy-illustrated explanation of how the game worked, check out the video above.)
Each player was allowed to collect a maximum of 20 "units" of the resource, out of 100 units total. The players were told that if they collected all of the resources, none would be left for future people who played the game. They could only "harvest" up to half of the resources if they wanted to preserve the resources for future players.
How did the games play out? Players exhausted the resources in almost every game. In most cases, four of the players would cooperate and make decisions to preserve the resources, while one rogue player took a big share.
The researchers said this suggests that most people actually are cooperative, but they only want to cooperate if they are certain other people will do the same -- essentially, no one wants to be the sucker.
"In some sense, this illustrates why the free market fails to solve problems like climate change," Nowak said in the statement. "Even if you want to cooperate with the future, you may not do so because you are afraid of being exploited by the present."
Then the researchers had 370 players play the game, but this time, vote on how much of the resource should be given to each player. They took the median of the votes and distributed that amount -- and what they found next was pretty surprising.
"When we implemented this system, virtually every resource was saved," Nowak said in the statement. "The surprising observation is that while there is a minority of people who don't want to cooperate, the majority of people vote altruistically. They are not voting to maximize their own benefit, and that's what allows for cooperation with the future."
This version of the game also reassured cooperators that they would not become "the sucker," and it allowed cooperative players to keep the rogue player in check.
So, how can policymakers take the study's findings and apply it to the real world?
"Allowing people to vote for consumption/extraction limits may be an effective way to create... regulations," Dr. David Rand, Nowak's collaborator and professor of psychology and economics at Yale University, told The Huffington Post in an email.
In fact, democratic countries do have more sustainable energy policies, the researchers noted in a paper describing their study, which was published online on June 25 in the journal Nature.
"A substantial majority of people are willing to bare costs to benefit future generations," Rand said in the email. "Among other things, this suggests that a lot of the division regarding sustainable practices involves differences of opinion about what is actually best for the future, rather than some people caring about the future and many others not."