Zero-Sum Games in Pollution Control: Ecological Thresholds, Planetary Boundaries, and Policy Choices

AuthorRobin Kundis Craig
Chapter 2
Zero-Sum Games in Pollution
Control: Ecological Thresholds,
Planetary Boundaries,
and Policy Choices
Robin Kundis Craig
I. Introduction
As other chapters in this volume discuss in more depth, John von Neumann
and Oskar Morgenstern came up with t he concept of zero-sum games as part
of their invention of game theory.1 In game theory, a zero-sum game is one
in which no wealth is created or destroyed; one person’s gain must result in
another person’s (or persons’) loss to the same amount or degree.2 As such,
zero-sum games describe situations where there is a single unchanging “pie”
of resources available and several people are seeking to increase the size of
their individual “slices,” but they can only do so by decreasing t he amount of
pie available to everyone else.
Under this strict denition, pollution control regulation does not nec-
essarily involve zero-sum games. Indeed, because most pollution is a form
of waste, pollution laws can inspire waste reduction strategies appropriately
hailed as “win-win” solutions: Industry saves money by more eciently
using raw materials and creati ng less waste, simultaneously saving the costs
incurred in handling that waste, while public health and the environment
mutually benet from reduced pollution loads. ere are many examples of
this “win-win,” “everybody-can-be-better-o” fra ming of pollution control.
For example, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services
advises businesses that:
1. T S. F, G T II-4 (UCLA Department of Mathematics 2011).
2. Id.
Author’s Note: is research was made possible, in part, through generous support from
the Albert and Elaine Borchard Fund for Faculty Excellence. e author may be reached
12 Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism
Reducing waste by cha nging the processes t hat create wastes not only decrease s
your management cost s, it also improves eciency[,] making your compa ny
more competitive and protable.
Waste reduction involves changing be havior and attitude of all employees.
e rst step of reducing waste i s to rethink the way you look at waste. Don’t
think of waste a s an unavoidable by-product essential to normal operations.
ink of waste a s evidence of a aw in the process, which ca n be reduced or
eliminated by proper control of the proces s.3
Nevertheless, the concept of a zero-sum game has many popular
denitions as well as its technical one, and it remains dicult to avoid
this popular perception in pollution control regulation. Specica lly, the
perception of pollution as a problem—the conclusion that there is “too
much” pollution contaminating a particular resource—almost by deni-
tion simultaneously creates the perception of regulatory “pollution pies”
and hence zero-sum games, at least in a more colloquial sense. If we do
not want rivers to catch on re, industry must limit the total a mount of
oil and other ammable waste that it discharges into the nation’s water-
ways. If we do not want the air we breathe to wreak havoc with our hea lth,
we must limit the amount of toxics and other health-aecting pollutants
that can be emitted. If we wa nt to avoid disastrous anthropogenic cli-
mate change, we must limit greenhouse ga s (GHG) emissions to levels
that avoid surpassing some atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide
(CO2) equivalents— perhaps 350 parts per mi llion (ppm), perhaps 400,
perhaps 450, perhaps some other limit.4
Pollution regulation, in other words, tends to focus on limits and thresh-
olds: How much of certain kinds of pollution can a given system absorb
before something that we don’t like actually occurs or is at substa ntial risk
of occurring? e answer to the “how much” question creates the “pollution
pie,” setting the stage for a regulatory zero-su m game. e result we’re trying
to avoid generally denes the regulatory goa l.
3. New Hampshire Dep’t of Envtl. Servs., Environmental Fact Sheet WMD-HW-8: Reducing Hazardous
Wastes in Your Business 1 (2008), available at
4. e debate on what constitutes a “safe” concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere continues vigorously,
but a consensus is emerging that the world should seek to keep global average temperature increases
to 2° Celsius or less, with estimates of necessary limits on concentrations of CO2 equivalents ranging
from 300 to 450 ppm. E.g., Inforse-Europe, e Needs to Limits [sic] Greenhouse Gas Emissions—A
Path to Safer Levels of Climate Change, (Dec.
2008); David Biello, How Much Is Too Much?: Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions, S A.,
https://www.scienti (Apr. 29, 2009);
Duncan Clark, What’s the Target for Solving Climate Change?, G, https://www.theguardian.
com/environment/2011/nov/14/climate-change-targets (Nov. 14, 2011).

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