Why Environmental Zero-Sum Games Are Real

AuthorJ.B. Ruhl and James Salzman
Chapter 1
Why Environmental
Zero-Sum Games Are Real
J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman
Politicians and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) love to talk
about the glossy world of “win-win scenarios” in the environmental
eld. Battling climate cha nge will grow the renewables sector and
create thousands of green jobs. Catch share programs will increase the sh-
ing community’s incomes and also conserve sheries. Energy conservation
saves fuel bills and drives eciency improvements. Famed Harvard Business
School Prof. Michael Porter even hypothesized that countries with stricter
environmental regulations are more competitive in the global ma rketplace.
Choose the slogan—“Environmental protection is not only a good thing to
do, it’s good for you!” or “You can do well by doing good!”
e win-win theme has become perva sive in environmental rhetoric.
Indeed, in Nonzero: e Logic of Human Destiny,1 Robert Wright oers a
sweeping view of human evolution that culminates in his argument that
modern society has become so complex and interconnected that there are no
true “zero-sum” games to be played between people or institutions. While
an attractive proposition at the general level, in this chapter we push back
and argue that from the perspec tive of the lived experience and local politics,
zero-sum games are not only present in environmental policy, but unfor-
tunately frequent. Indeed, the dynamics of environmental protection make
zero-sum scenarios par ticularly challenging. As a result, a number of strate-
gies have developed—whether nancial, rhetorical, or regulatory—that seek
to soften the impact on losers or change their perception of the unfa irness of
their loss.
Economists and game theorist s use the zero-sum game concept to
describe a situation in which each participant’s gain (or loss) of util-
ity is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other
participant(s). In a very real sense, this equilibrium is where markets are
driving participants. When buyers and sellers haggle in t he bazaar, they
1. R W, N: T L  H D (1999).

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