Brian Gallagher in Nautilus:
Last year news came that Indian billionaire Gautam Adani was set to exploit Australian coal reserves. The deal, The New York Times reported, was the result of a successful campaign by the Adani Group, a vast conglomerate with diverse interests, to capture the hearts and minds of Queenslanders, who occupy Australia’s second-largest state. It’s a project that will, in the short term, help power development in India and Bangladesh, where renewable sources of energy can be too costly to implement. India, unlike the United States and Western Europe, “doesn’t have a choice” about whether to use coal, Adani told the Times. In the long run, relying on coal will exacerbate efforts to stem global heating, as burning coal is one of the main drivers of climate change. One billionaire’s endeavor, in other words, represents a social dilemma of global proportions. India’s reliance on coal threatens to destroy public goods—clean air, favorable weather patterns, national security—and upend cooperation efforts to develop and implement renewable energy.
Christian Hilbe, a mathematician, directs a group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in Germany, where he studies the conditions under which people cooperate. His group builds predictive models inspired by social dilemmas like climate change, which involve cooperation dynamics too complex to model realistically. “We want to distill the essence or the logic of this problem, make it as simple as possible, and then understand this very simple model,” Hilbe told me in a recent interview. “We are all aware that by solving the simple model, we don’t solve the climate change problem. But still we want to understand some of the strategic calibrations taking place in the whole game.” I caught up with Hilbe shortly after he published results of his explorations in the journal Nature. In his paper, “Social dilemmas among unequals,” Hilbe—along with his co-authors from the University of Exeter Business School, the Institute for Science and Technology Austria, and Harvard—found that, among other things, extreme inequality prevents players from cooperating to provision resources for public goods. “Our findings,” the researchers concluded, “have implications for policy-makers concerned with equity, efficiency and the provisioning of public goods.” In our conversation, Hilbe broke down the thinking behind his model and the consequences of his results.