Successful Land Conservation: Neither Zero-Sum Nor Win-Win

AuthorJessica Owley
Chapter 8
Successful Land Conservation:
Neither Zero-Sum Nor Win-Win
Jessica Owley
I. Introduction
Policymakers and economists have found game theory helpful in decision-
making rega rding natural resources and other practical problems.1 Not
only do policymakers draw upon some of the underlying economic theo-
ries, but they also adopt langua ge and framing from economics. In some
cases, such framing can be helpful. In ma ny situations, however, policy-
makers and others adopt the terms and general g uidelines of game theory
without fu lly understanding the assumptions underlying t he concepts and
neglecting an eva luation of whether the terms t the circumstance. ey
take terms developed in simplied scena rios with few players and minima l
external forces and use t he concepts when constructing policy with many
players and intersecting forces. Such is the case with the terms zero-sum
and win-win.
is chapter examines t he use of the concept of a zero-sum approach in
land conservation, outlining some examples of where the zero-sum concept
appears both in the context of game theory and as a rhetorical device. I
highlight some examples of where and how the concept is used and then
provide examples of why I think it is generally a mischaracterization of land
conservation strategies and decisionma king. In a direct contrast to zero-sum
scenarios, conservationists and others have suggested we craft land conser-
vation eforts as win-win projects. us, af ter discussing zero-su m and its
failures, this chapter explores the win-win framing of conser vation strate-
gies. e overly simplistic framing of both strategies ts poorly in the land
conservation context and is not helpful in policyma king. Such phrases may
1. See Takashi Maeda, On Characterization of Equilibrium Strategy for Two-Person Zero-Sum Games With
Fuzzy Payos, 139 F S  S 283, 283 (2002).
Author’s Note: Many thanks to Matt Dimick, Sarah Krako, Melissa Powers, and
Jonathan Rosenbloom.
174 Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism
sound good in speeches but the world is a much more complex place than
these simple sound bites would have us believe.
II. Meanings of Zero-Sum
inking about zero-su m approaches to land conservat ion requires articu-
lating the denition of zero-sum. e concept of zero-sum as developed
in game theory diers from the rhetoric of zero-sum, which diverges from
the straight mathematica l game theory use of the term. I discuss each in
turn below.
A. Game Theory
A mathematician, John von Neumann, and an economist, Oskar Morgen-
stern, developed the theory of zero-sum games in 1944.2 It usually applies to
two-player games like chess, poker, or ipping coins, although multiplayer
games may also be zero-sum.3 e marked characterist ic of a zero-sum ga me
is that the wins of one player exactly oset t he losses of another.4 is means
in a zero-sum game, the a mount at stake does not change throughout the
game. It is a xed amount, and it is never shared. In zero-sum games, there
are no advantages to cooperation because e ven when working together, the
players will not be able to improve their outcomes without directly harming
the other players.5
e use of zero-sum analy sis, however, is not that helpful for ana lyzing real-
world environmental problems. Economists and others readily agree that a
zero-sum ga me situation rarely exists.6 e world is composed of much more
complicated multiplayer ga mes, played simultaneously, where cooper ation
improves outcomes and harms rarely exactly counterbalance. As one com-
menter explained: “[Z]ero-sum thinking is not much use to an economist.”7
2. J  N  O M, T  G  E B (revised
in 1953). Zero-sum games may also be labeled constant-sum games. K L-B  Y
S, E  G T: A C, M I 5 (2008).
While this phrase appears in game theory texts, it does not appear in rhetorical zero-sum discussions
in the next section.
3. Michael Bacharach, Zero-Sum Games, in T N P G T 253, 253 (John Eatwell
et al. eds., 1989).
4. Id. at 254-55.
5. is works in contrast to a prisoner’s dilemma, where there are gains to be had by cooperation. Anatol
Rapoport, Prisoner’s Dilemma, in T N P G T, supra note 3, at 199, 200.
6. See, e.g., Tim Harford, Trump, Bannon, and the Lure of Zero-Sum inking, E, Aug. 25,
2017 (“[i]t is surprisingly hard to nd a zero-sum game in the real world. Most commercial transac-
tions oer benets to both sides, otherwise why would they take place at all”).
7. Id.

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