The insights and ideas presented in this essay are inspired by the work of James P. Carse and Daniel Schmachtenberger.
Today’s most challenging global issues have a common root cause – the prevalence of rivalrous (zero-sum) systems over anti-rivalrous (positive-sum) systems. Rivalrous systems fuel scarcity and competition, while anti-rivalrous systems foster abundance and cooperation. It’s essential to acknowledge the unsustainability of rivalrous systems if we hope to tackle humanity’s most pressing concerns and move towards a more sustainable and cooperative future.
The Dilemma of Rivalrous and Anti-Rivalrous Goods
Rivalrous goods, such as gold, are valuable due to scarcity, while anti-rivalrous goods gain value through abundance, like clean air. This creates a paradox in our economic system where abundant resources are considered worthless, even though they are essential for life. On the other hand, scarce resources are highly valued, despite having little intrinsic value to our survival.
This paradox incentivises individuals and organisations to artificially create scarcity and avoid abundance, resulting in what is known as “multipolar traps.” These multipolar traps occur when actions that benefit individual agents in the short term directly conflict with long-term global well-being.
Examples of Multipolar Traps
Multipolar traps can emerge in various contexts where short-term individual gains are prioritised over long-term collective well-being. The following examples of of environmental conservation, geopolitics, and artificial intelligence development showcase how multipolar traps occur.
- Environmental Conservation: The global fishing industry illustrates a classic multipolar trap in an environmental context. Trawler fishing, driven by the need to maximise profits, often harvests fish at unsustainable rates, depleting fish stocks and threatening the long-term viability of the ecosystem. Though each trawler benefits from catching more fish, the collective result is a depleted resource that negatively impacts the entire fishing community and the marine ecosystem. In this scenario, the individual incentive to catch as many fish as possible directly conflicts with the long-term well-being of the environment and the industry itself.
- Geopolitics: Multipolar traps are also prevalent in the realm of geopolitics, where nations often act in their self-interest at the expense of global stability. For example, countries may engage in arms races, accumulating increasingly powerful and destructive weapons to maintain or expand their influence. While each nation may feel more secure by amassing a formidable arsenal, the overall result is heightened global tension and an increased risk of conflict. Here, the pursuit of individual national interests undermines the broader goal of maintaining international peace and security.
- AI Development: The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology can also create multipolar traps. Companies and countries compete to develop increasingly sophisticated AI systems, hoping to reap the benefits of being at the forefront of this emerging field. However, this competitive environment may lead to a race prioritising rapid development over ethical considerations and safety precautions. In a rush to outpace competitors, developers might overlook crucial safety measures, increasing the risk of unintended consequences or malicious use of AI technology. In this context, the short-term goal of gaining a competitive edge in AI development is at odds with the long-term objective of ensuring the safe and responsible application of AI for the benefit of society.
These examples demonstrate the far-reaching implications of multipolar traps, which can hinder progress, exacerbate environmental issues, and compromise global stability. Recognising and addressing these traps is crucial for promoting cooperation and sustainable solutions in various domains.
Addressing Rivalrousness and Multipolar Traps
To overcome multipolar traps and transition from rivalrous to anti-rivalrous systems, we must address the underlying issues and make fundamental changes. This includes:
- Encouraging Cooperation: By promoting collaborative efforts and shared goals, we can reduce competition and foster positive-sum relationships among individuals, organisations, and nations. For example, international treaties and agreements on climate change or disarmament can serve as platforms for nations to work together towards a common goal.
- Reevaluating Resource Valuation: Reconsidering how we assign value to resources can help us prioritise sustainability and the well-being of our planet. This may involve recognising the importance of abundant resources and reevaluating the significance of scarce ones. For instance, embracing renewable energy sources can shift our focus from finite fossil fuels to sustainable, abundant alternatives.
- Internalising Externalities: Ensuring that markets and systems account for the impact on the commons can help create positive-sum outcomes for all participants and the environment. By implementing policies that account for the social and environmental costs of production, businesses and industries can be incentivised to adopt sustainable practices and minimise negative externalities.
Transitioning to Anti-Rivalrous and Positive-Sum Systems
What would an anti-rivalrous and positive-sum system look like? Consider the human body: the heart and the lungs are not rivalrous. Both organs function cooperatively, supporting each other and the overall health of the organism without competing for scarce resources. Drawing inspiration from this natural example, we can envision a society that promotes collaboration and harmony instead of competition and rivalry.
Throughout history, rivalrous games and multipolar traps have played significant roles in the downfall of civilisations. However, our current situation stands out historically, as these same pressures bear the unprecedented potential to not only eradicate a single civilisation but annihilate ALL CIVILISATION and the planet itself.
What is the driving force behind this extraordinary threat? Exponential technology. While exponential technology provides unparalleled opportunities for progress, it also amplifies the risk of devastating consequences if misused or inadequately controlled. To address this threat, we must fundamentally alter the rivalrous nature of our systems. A monumental task, yes, but an entirely necessary one.
By understanding the unsustainable nature of rivalrous systems and the prevalence of multipolar traps, we can begin addressing the root causes of many of our most pressing concerns and start moving towards a more sustainable and cooperative future. This way, we can aim at creating a world that prioritises the well-being of all individuals and the planet over short-term gain and profit.