The evolution of cooperation in forest conflicts: Part 2
Our failure to cooperate is killing us. It’s time we sung a more positive song about each other “What are you going to achieve with cooperation?” the tweep yelled, anger and vitriol spitting through the ether. Odd question asked unhappily; how to respond?
Back in 1995, I co-authored a paper that explored ways to generate cooperation between protagonists in forest conflicts. The research was part of my 1991 Masters thesis where I looked at the long running conflict over forests in Tasmania through the lens of Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation” .
That’s a long time ago now but I dusted off the paper recently to see if it contained any wisdom that might help as we grapple with forest conflicts around the globe. I think it does so I have summarised the findings in “The Evolution of Cooperation” Box below.
So many companies have made No Deforestation, No Exploitation commitments and are now implementing them but as we struggle to turn the Titanic, forests are still disappearing and people are still losing their lives and livelihoods, their rights not yet respected. NGOs still view company efforts through cynical eyes and for the most part stand aloof, unengaged from the change process, judges and jurists of what’s good and what isn’t. Others, initially inspired by hope that the commitments could mean a turn around are making more cynical noises in their impatience for better news, faster progress; many people watching, waiting, listening. But I wonder whether we might accelerate our journey to a better future if more of us engaged and if we all cooperated not just more but in a more productive, more compassionate way, if somehow we could find it in our hearts to trust the people opposite us; yes, to believe they are genuine and serious.
It’s tough for such cooperation to emerge and thrive when we hold so strongly to a stark dichotomous view of the world. Every aspect of our existence, across most cultures, seems to be viewed through a lens of two sides squaring off against each other in a battle for supremacy, riches, victory. Good versus evil, love versus hate, God versus the devil, my God versus your God, man versus woman, invader versus indigenous, powerful versus disempowered, modern versus traditional, business versus NGO, scumbag versus Angel, rich versus poor, winner versus loser, on and on and on, it’s the versus that’s the problem. All our stories, myths, legends, religions; all our movies and media seem to be based on this song we sing for ourselves. Yes, there are true, very real and continuing grim tales of terrible injustices, death, destruction and war, of the devastated wastelands we create not only in Nature but also in our souls, scarred forever as we suffer and struggle to our graves, grudges borne on chipped shoulders. Strangely, we seem to find comfort seeing the world this way and while that’s not going to change, our predisposition to a cynical view of the inevitability of, even the need for conflictual relations with all their negative consequences so often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we sing this future to us, over and over again.
What might we achieve instead if we sung a different song, if we cooperated?
If we hope for a better future, it often arrives. Sadly, that also works in reverse and my concern is that too many people today are singing us a bleak future because they’ve become hostage to despair and bitter, draining cynicism. Many NGOs and those that fund them believe that companies are inherently evil, unable to change. Many companies believe that NGOs are only out to cause trouble, to bleat and attack whatever good efforts they make so that they continue to get funded. We’re suffering a future sung to us by cynical voices that degrade and drain the energy away from efforts to bring change. It’s as if people want bad news, it justifies them, energises their song, chimes with their world-view, with the song they sing in their head. That their song might be part of the problem never enters their imagination.
As we surge toward a >6 degreeC warming with species going extinct, oceans acidifying, forests disappearing, water shortages, land grabbing, deaths, etc etc etc, might we not pause a moment and wonder whether our approach for the last fifty years, fighting each other at every turn, might not be worth a rethink? Yes, of course there remains too much of humanity bent on screwing everyone and everything for their own personal betterment to think that one side, putting down the sword and beseeching “come on, let’s cooperate” might lead to anything more than more destruction and horror but the growing list of companies signing onto new values based commitments just might represent something different, a breakaway from the past, an opportunity to put down our swords with at least some folk and take a risk to see what might be done if we can extend the behind the scenes cooperation that led to the commitments, into more full cooperation around implementation. If these companies take a lead on their competitors still stuck in the concrete of slash, burn and destroy, might those recalcitrant folk yet take notice and, change?
It’s a tantalising prospect, one we’re engaged in at The Forest Trust, though too easily dismissed by cynics who hold to a more despairing view of humanity. I personally hold to the belief that there is good in most folk and that if we can set it free and sing a more positive song about each other and what might be, we might get somewhere better. We may not of course but given we’re accelerating toward the edge of a >6oC cliff from which there is no prospect of return, I reckon it might be worth a try. I keep coming back to that original question posed by the tweep aggressor and, spirits raised, heart letting in a small hint of light, ask it differently, “what might we achieve with cooperation?”
I look forward to exploring this in future posts and to enjoying a discussion on how we might get there.
Illustration credit: Cartoon by Michael Leunig
 Poynton S.A. and Hurditch W.J., 1995: Cooperation and conflict in forest management: Applying a theoretical model to the Australian problem. Australian Forestry, Vol. 58, No. 2, pp58-64
 Axelrod, R., 1984; The Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 241pp.
Box: The Evolution of Cooperation: A Review of “Cooperation and Conflict in forest management”
I re-read the paper with some despair, noting that few of the fundamentals needed to generate cooperation are practiced by any of the parties engaged in seeking to bring change today. I also felt hope that the words crafted then still apply now. The paper notes that cooperation between global institutions, nations and individuals really is central to addressing concerns around how best to avoid the destruction of the biosphere. Those observers of the UN climate change negotiations will smile ruefully to learn that the paper suggested that “Although every nation could be made better off by mutual cooperation, the uncertainty surrounding the prospect that each will cooperate makes it a better gamble for a nation to pursue its own interests, independently of the interests of others”. Not rocket science but a fair summary of what we’ve seen in all of the climate change COPs these past years.
How then to engender cooperation? The paper used Robert Axelrod’s “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game to develop some guiding principles. Axelrod set up a situation with two opposing players; a convenient mirror of our dichotomous world-view. Each player has two choices – to cooperate or defect. Each makes a choice without knowing what the other will do and no matter what the other does, defection yields a higher payoff than cooperation. The dilemma is that if both defect, both do worse than if both had cooperated. The conditions Axelrod established means that it is not enough for players to simply say they will do this or that. Rather, they can only communicate their intentions through actions and reactions. A final intricacy of the game is the possibility that players might meet again in the future. If the game only lasts for one interaction, then it will always pay to defect. The possibility that the players may interact again in the future means that the choice made today can not only determine the outcome of this move, but can also influence the later choices of players.
Here’s a summary of Axelrod’s results:
The most successful strategy to yield the best possible outcome for each player was also the most simplest. Called Tit-for-tat it took the approach of always cooperating on the first move and thereafter doing whatever the other party did on the previous move. What accounts for the robust success of the Tit-for-tat strategy is its combination of being “nice” (i.e. never being the first to defect), “retaliatory” (i.e. it will always respond to a defection with a defection), “forgiving” (i.e. cooperating again if the other player cooperates after trying a defection) and “clear” (i.e. allowing the other player to recognise the pattern of action and adapt to it).
An interesting outcome with Tit-for-tat is that the opposing player also scored very well, so that by eliciting mutual cooperation, Tit-for-tat ensures a ‘win-win’ outcome. In his analysis of the success of Tit-for-tat, Axelrod notes:
- the most critical proposition is the importance of future interactions; the likelihood of long-term interaction is critical to the stability of cooperation.
- Tit-for-tat’s success lies in the fact that it does well with almost all other strategies. Also, in the case where one party always defects, cooperation can never be achieved so it isn’t worth attempting
- Accepting that mutual cooperation is the best strategy, each party will ask “How can I elicit cooperation from the other party?” and Axelrod has developed general behavioural principles to assist parties in negotiation to achieve mutual cooperation. These are:
- Don’t be envious: players measure whether they’re doing well or poorly compared to the other player, this leads to envy and efforts to rectify any advantage the other player has attained which can only be done by defection but defection leads to more defection and mutual punishment so envy is self-destructive
- Don’t be the first to defect: it pays to cooperate as long as the other player is cooperating
- Reciprocate both cooperation and defection: In any interaction there is a certain level of forgiveness and exploitability practiced by each participant. The success and robustness of Tit-for-tat shows clearly that reciprocity is a very powerful way of eliciting cooperation
- Don’t be too clever: complex rules and strategies yield limited success in attaining lasting cooperation.
Lastly, Axelrod, shares guidelines for applying the Tit-for-tat strategy. These are:
- Enlarge the shadow of the future: cooperation is not resilient unless the future is quite important relative to the present. You can enlarge the shadow of the future by making interactions more durable e.g. by making players know that interactions will continue for an extended period and by making interactions more frequent
- Change the payoffs: for example by making defection the worst outcome for both parties. It’s best if the payoffs can be set by an independent party e.g. the Government. If one party has the power to change the payoffs, then the resultant “cooperation” is not in the spirit of a win-win outcome and will be less durable. Agreeing to a set of payoffs prior to the commencement of a negotiation removes the possibility that one party will force, by threat, the other (or others) to cooperate
- Teach mutual caring: this can be achieved by recognising the positive role that the other party(ies) have had in bringing the negotiations forward
- Improve recognition abilities: each party must have (or develop) the capacity to not only recognise the other party from past interactions, but also to remember the relevant features of those interactions. Recognition can be fostered by each party sharing detailed information about their respective organisations or representatives and by ensuring the same personnel are involved in successive interactions over time.