Care for another slice?

Serving suggestion

A banker, Daily Mail* reader and immigrant worker are sat around a table looking at a large chocolate cake. The banker leans forward, takes a knife and makes two cuts that creates a 20% segment. He then takes the other 80% and puts it on his plate. After a while he turns to the Daily Mail reader and between mouthfulls says “I’d be careful if I were you. He’s after your piece.”

Competition for fixed or finite resources can lead to conflict. The simplest form of competition is a zero-sum-game in which me having more means you having less. I have +1 you have -1 so the sum of the competition is 0. Zero-sum, non-zero-sum and all other sorts of games have been studied extensively. Lots of clever people doing lots of clever maths. There are many applications in economics, politics, evolutionary biology amongst others. There’s even been a film made about one: the Nash Equilibria. OK, the film (A Beautiful Mind) was about John Nash, but Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory.

The outcome of a game can depend on the rules, who is playing it (and how well) and luck. There are some games for which the only sane strategy is to simply not play

Things can get very complicated when it comes to some of the games that are played every day in real life.

For example. A hospital or health authority has a finite amount of money to spend on medicine. Each medicine will vary on how effective it is for treating a particular condition and how much it costs. How much money should be spent on a very expensive medicine that will only help a few? Well, not that much surely. But what if there is no alternative to this medicine and without it someone’s prospects are very bleak? Or to put it this way: how much do we value saving one or two people’s lives, against improving the wellfare of a great many who aren’t at risk of actually dying?

How could you answer such a question? You can’t put a value on a single life let alone a large number of lives can you. Can you? Yes you can. Or rather it happens all the time. The value of a life can be given in quite specific monetary terms. Readers from the USA may be interested to learn that they (on average) are worth around six million dollars. This is not an international average value. That is much less.

What do you think the global average daily income or wage is (the amount that someone who is working takes home each day after taxes)? A quick and ready answer is to divide total world income by world population. That produces about $17 dollars a day. However that doesn’t mean a great deal given that one dollar in the UK will buy much less than it will in Indonesia. The relative purchasing power can be more useful and it will typically increase this average. But there is a lot going on that is hidden in a single average number. Here are a few quite illuminating statistics:

  • Over half the world’s population live on less than $2:50 a day.
  • A billion people live on less than $1:25 a day.
  • The poorest 40% of the world’s population have 5% of income, the richest 20% have 75% of income.

    2005 poverty levels. Source:

For many (probably most) countries there are no monetary values calculated for an average life. If such values did exist they would be less than six million dollars. Much less. Being confronted with these sorts of statistics may make some people shift uncomfortably. It doesn’t seems very fair. That is, the rules for the games that we play at a planetary level don’t seem to produce equitable outcomes. How can so many go with so little, whilst a few go with so very much? At this point someone much more sensible and pragmatic than me may take you to one side and say something like “Look, we know these inequalitites are not good, they are wherever possible to be challenged. Indeed classical economic theory can be understood as one tool to try and maximise the quality of life for the greatest number of people. But at the end of the day, it’s just not our fault or our problem if some people in the world do not experience the same rewards of our economic success.”

But how were such successes won? Essentially by exploiting natural resources. Our lives in industrialised countries are so far removed from primary production that we forget that everything we use or eat was previously in the ground and a good deal of energy was required to get it out from there and fashion it in ways that we wanted. To what extent our exploitation of natural resources is linked to the resource limitation of other people in other countries is a very interesting question. In fact it can be understood as many related questions that can be phrased in political, historical or economic terms. Some of the answers are hotly debated and very controvertial.

Athabasca oil sands field. Source: Greenpeace

Here I just want to point out a seemingly trivial point, but if accepted has profound implications. There is only one Earth and there are physical limits as to how much of it we can consume. Nonsense someone may cry. History is full of examples of innovations allowing us to further exploit a resource or opening up entirely new ones. A good contemporary example is tar sands and other unconventional oils. The tar sands of Canada hold more oil than that under the ground in Saudia Arabia. However, whilst the oil there can literally come gushing out of the dessert, tar sands need quite sophisticated techniques to get the usuable oil out of the sticky, gloopy, sandy state that it naturally exists in. Previously there was plenty of relatively cheap oil to make tar sands uneconomic to mine. Not anymore. What’s more this innovation was the result of market forces (says an economists rubbing his hands together and getting quite animated). Resource scarcity increases the price of the resource and so makes it more attractive to exploit it. Here I simply want to state that even these new deposits of fossil fuels will eventually run out. It’s an open question as to whether we will stop using fossil fuels because they become exhausted or because we wreck the climate to such an extent that we can’t exploit them anymore.

There is only so much stuff on planet Earth. Some of it like phosphorous is essential for life itself. Unlike coal or oil that can be replaced with solar or wind (don’t ask me how exactly!) phosphorous cannot be substituted. The best we can hope for it to use it more effectively with more efficient farming practices, breeding new crops and improving recycling. But even then there will be limits. Taking a planetary perspective, we can see a number of physical or biological limits and boundaries. These are not only limits as to material resources but limits to how much we can effect the Earth system. The central issue of global warming is that the Earth system has a finite capacity to absorb the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere. This along with eight other planetary boundaries were proposed in a very influential Nature article in 2009. The take home message from this paper was that if we want to continue to live on planet Earth in ways that we have grown accustomed to, then we need to reevaluate what we take from it and how we affect it.

Rockstrom et al (2009) Nature 461, 472-475

It showed how our global industrial civilisation is having planetary-scale impacts. The red sectors in the figure on the right are a visual representation for how far we are stressing important elements of the Earth system. It is now widely appreciated that if we push any of these boundaries too far they will cross thresholds which would produce feedbacks and consequences that we and future generations would struggle to deal with.  Taking climate change again, when looking at the figures for global per capita emissions (how much carbon on average a person in each country produces) it is clear that some people are taking a much larger slice of the cake than others. Quatar tops the list with over 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide per-person whilst an average person in Mali produces hardly any at all (less than 0.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide per-person).

The irony with carbon dioxide emissions is that those responsible for most of the emissions are very often those that are most able to protect themselves from the worse impacts of global warming whilst those that contributed least to the problem are the very same that will be most vulnerable. Those of us taking the largest slices have sufficient resources to protect our shares or find another cake when things (literally) heat up. The rest may be left with nothing more than crumbs.

The planetary boundaries concept is powerful not only because it makes clear the finite nature of the biological and physical systems that we all depend on but because it leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the effects of some taking more than their fair share will have dramatic consequences for others. The outcome of the game is not fair. Unfortunately the rules to this game can’t be changed easily or quickly. At times one wonders if they can be changed at all. Continual economic growth, consumerism, accelerating energy and material consumption. These seem to be hard-wired processes to the extent that some find alternatives simply unimaginable.

No one said it was going to be easy and a world that will have one or two billion more people on it with increased pressures for food, water and energy will give us even less room for manouvre. The risk is to batten down the hatches when faced with this perfect storm. Avoiding that happening, planning a safe course that respects the rights of all people and where possible limiting the damage to natural and human systems is the job we are faced with. Cake is likely to be in short supply, but it’s my fervent hope that tea will always be on hand.

*non-readers of the Daily Mail UK newspaper may wish to substitute their ‘right of centre’ tabloid of choice in order to preserve the humour of this gag, the source of which (like many jokes I suppose) I have been unable to find.

2 thoughts on “Care for another slice?

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