Survive or thrive?

How people approach the nexus of nature and value is colored by how they see those terms separately. In other words, how someone thinks about nature – their perspective of nature – will affect their view of the relationship between nature and value. Likewise, how a person approaches value will affect how they view that relationship. This can have implications for decision making, and however the nature/value intersection takes shape, decisions will be influenced by the objective of the end game.

In decision science, game theory is often used to model and predict behavior. By modelling likely actions of the competition, strategy can be formed that considers potential scenarios to result from action. A commonly used tool to teach this lesson is Albert Tucker’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, as follows:

Two prisoners, A and B, are locked up and given a choice. The results of their combined responses will determine the length of their prison sentences. If they cooperate with each other and both stay silent they receive the lightest sentence (1 year). If one cooperates and the other confesses, the silent one gets 3 years, the confessor goes free. If they both rat out the other person, they both serve two years. In the Dilemma, both parties benefit the most if they trust each other and cooperate, but the fear of betrayal leads them to take the action that minimizes personal risk.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma by Albert Tucker.

There are many interesting implications regarding how this plays out. When I think about environmental condition, perhaps operating in the spirit of trust with the outcome of “greater good”, rather than fear, which might minimize individual risk, has benefits. A mindset of trust allows thinking that is aimed toward the best outcomes, while the individual or personal risk mindset aims to simply avoid the worst-case scenario.

There is nothing wrong with managing personal risk, it is a necessary part of life. But when I consider value in the greater sense, are we (society) resetting our decision mechanisms to move us away from personal risk decisions and towards the cooperative common good approach? If we aren’t doing this, we may be positioning ourselves to settle for anything better than “worst” instead of attempting to strive for “best.”

The ways that I do or do not trust people in order to avoid risk – for example, when I am driving on the highway, or managing my money, or any number of other activities – are largely designed to protect the things I value. When I consider nature and how humans might act toward it and value it, there is a different dynamic at play: nature is shared by everyone. Because it is shared by all, maybe we can rethink the prisoner’s dilemma with a different level of trust in mind to strive for the best instead of simply avoiding the worst.

When they cooperate and trust each other, Quinn and his daughter can aim for the best. Photo by Heather Turner.

Author: Quinn McColly

Quinn McColly is a post-doctoral research associate with the Socio-Economics Group at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. He has a deep appreciation of the natural world and hopes to help improve environmental conditions for future generations.

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