Climate crisis: Human nature does not explain everything

When I told relatives that I questioned the idea that people are inherently selfish, I was pointed out that I had bad timing in the days of vaccine apartheid, the Ostrogoths on vacation, and the “freedom convoy.” Belief in humans has been tested many times since the beginning of this pandemic.

The idea that humans are evil is not new. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, great thinker of the theory of the social contract in XVII.and century, was based on the premise that “man is a wolf for man”. The Scotsman Adam Smith, one of the most important thinkers of the market economy, believed in the following century that selfishness was for the benefit of all, since each one was the source of economic prosperity.

Faced with the convergence of crises – pandemic, climate and others – this selfishness is often invoked to justify our inability to respond in a rational way to the collective: each individual’s short-term interests would conflict with the long-term interests. group. .

But is egocentrism really the main characteristic of man and the source of all their ills? An entire literature shows the opposite.


One concept often pops up among both economists and climate activists: “the tragedy of the general public,” a performance put forward 50 years ago by Professor Garrett Hardin of the University of California. He took the example of pastures in public areas, where shepherds who feared that their neighbors’ cattle would graze on the best grass quickly sent their flocks on grass. The conclusion goes without saying: very quickly there was no grass left for anyone.

In economics, we call “collective action problems” those dilemmas where it is to everyone’s advantage to cooperate, but where conflicts of interest deter joint action. Such problems can lead to the emergence of free riding – when some gain access to a resource without having to pay for it, either directly or through a tax.

The tragedy of the general public and parasitism often come up as explanations for the passivity of the climate. What interest would an individual or business have in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions if the others do not? Why should China not pollute its path to status as an industrialized country while the United States struggles to adopt dignified climate policies with the government’s Build Back Better Plan, the government’s social and ecological reform program? Biden?

But is that really the reason why we still have not succeeded in flattening the greenhouse gas emissions curve? Elinor Ostrom’s work, the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, illustrates the opposite. Ostrom’s research has shown how common resources – forests, fisheries, pastures, irrigation systems and even petroleum resources – can, under certain conditions, be effectively managed by the people who use them. In the absence of hierarchical authority enforcing the rules, the establishment of local institutions promotes the interplay between reciprocity, reputation and trust of the participants in the management of a local resource, and this is what encourages cooperation.

Despite its ubiquity, the conceptualization of climate policies as a problem of collective action has been subject to very few empirical evaluations. In an article published in 2020, professors of political science Matto Mildenberger and Michaël Aklin wanted to help fill this knowledge gap. After analyzing a large number of polls, surveys and surveys, the two Americans conclude three things. First, domestic policy action is taking place, even in the absence of institutions to control free riding: the withdrawal of the United States (and Canada) from the Kyoto Protocol, for example. did not change the pace of reforms that the other signatory states had acceded to. . Second, despite how often we hear the argument “Yes, but China?”, It Professors do not find that public support for climate action would be reduced by the presence of free driving or be conditioned by the actions of other countries. Third, the behavior of national political parties is mostly unconditional, that is, they do not depend on the actions of other participants in international climate policies, but rather on their own goals and rhetoric.

So if parasitism is not behind passivity in the climate field, then why are global greenhouse gas emissions still rising? For Professors Mildenberger and Aklin, climate change is more of a distribution problem, a conflict between winners and losers (the powerful lobby for fossil fuels) of climate policies.


The difficult question of human nature remains. Does our supposedly fundamentally selfish nature – which would therefore be immutable – condemn us not to solve the serious problems we face?

Neoclassical theories taught in microeconomic courses includeHomo economicusa model of a hyper-rational human being whose sole purpose is to optimize his self-interest – in economic jargon, his utility.

But behavioral economists, who combine economics and psychology, have shown that people are not as calculating in maximizing their preferences as the models presuppose. On the contrary, an extensive literature reveals that a significant proportion of the population, in many different societies and conditions, adopts prosocial behavior (ie beneficial to the group), especially when there is reciprocity, in experiments in which subjects participate in games that simulate collective action problems.

Experimental data also show that people are very aware of social norms and that they are ready to reward those who follow these norms and to punish those who violate them, even to the detriment of their personal interests.

It is doubtful whether these laboratory experiments are representative of real life. But this supposed elemental egoism is also difficult to reconcile with the ability of unrelated humans to cooperate, which sets us apart from other species. According to anthropologists, this collaboration would have played a key role in human evolution, which e.g. made it possible to repel predators that could have eliminated us individually, to hunt prey that is impossible to defeat alone, and later to organize itself as an agricultural society.


Going through all this literature lifted my spirits, shaken by a fifth pandemic lockdown and a busy weekend with the “freedom convoy” in Ottawa.

Selfishness motivates certain behaviors, people, and institutions, with an abundance of historical and contemporary events to illustrate this. But the certainty with which this property is claimed as the defining essence of the human species is overestimated – especially with such thin evidence.

Humans are not inherently evil; I also do not believe that the basics are good. What defines them at the bottom is their unique ability to collaborate. In the light of what the social sciences teach us, basing institutions and policies on an unfounded conception of human nature is an approach that is not only inadequate, but is likely to exacerbate this much-condemned selfishness. In Elinor Ostrom’s words, we live in “a world of opportunity rather than necessity. We are neither caught in relentless tragedy nor relieved of the moral responsibility to create and maintain incentives that facilitate our own achievement of mutually productive results. It is it is high time that we seize this opportunity.

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