COVID-19 is a Climate Pop Quiz, and the U.S. Failed
One of the well-trod paths through most political science degree programs is a discussion of “collective action problems:” all the various barriers in human cognition, organization, and communication that can frustrate or completely thwart our otherwise cooperative, collective nature. This is generally accompanied by a discussion of measures that have been successful in counteracting these collective action problems.
We are witnessing a harsh lesson on collective action problems and their solutions playing out in real-time in every state, city, and home on the planet. The COVID-19 pandemic is testing humanity’s ability to cooperate, to pool our resources and expertise, and to rise as one to address a deadly threat. While many societies have risen to the occasion, it brings me no pleasure to watch as the United States has abjectly failed. Far too many of our leaders have failed to heed any of the advice drilled into political science grads for generations. And our failing is not merely governmental, but societal: We the People have spent the entire history of our nation extolling the virtues of rugged individualism, to a degree unmatched by any other nation on Earth, and are now reaping the just deserts of this culturally-ingrained selfishness. We have failed to do what is necessary to solve this collective action problem, and every one of the almost 135,000 American COVID-19 deaths (as of this writing) is a reminder of our failure.
While the death toll is enormous and heartbreaking, the most troubling aspect of our inability to meet the challenge of the COVID collective action problem is the greater failure it portends for that great looming stormfront of collective action, climate change. If climate change is humanity’s final exam on collective action problems, the make-or-break test that determines whether or not we’re cut out for the 22nd century, COVID is more of a pop-quiz. And our grades are not promising.
We’ve had several distinct advantages in preparing for COVID-19 compared to preparing for climate change. First, the timeframe is lightning fast compared to its more gradual counterpart: we first heard about this disease in January and six short months later everyone knows someone (or has even lost someone) who’s got it. Climate change will affect us all, but in a gradual way. The pot will eventually boil, but we’re going to be sitting here a while before it takes us. Further, the effects are obvious, tangible, and devastating. People are coughing their lungs out, people are getting sick, people are dying, people are undergoing surgeries and intubations and ventilations and ending up in ICU beds. Climate casualties are harder to spot: can we say that this person with malaria got it because that specific mosquito was outside of its normal range? Can we say that this specific storm wouldn’t have wiped away a farm and destroyed a family’s livelihood were it not for climate change? In some cases we can, but overall it’s murkier than “yes, this person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, and they are showing symptoms of COVID-19.” Finally (of this list, there are many other similarities), what we need to do to stop it is effortless in comparison to the sweeping changes necessary to fully combat climate change. All we needed to do was stay apart for a few weeks. Alter our behavior temporarily and partially. That would have been enough, and has been for many other countries in the developed world. Yet there are still a distressingly large segment of Americans who adamantly refuse to wear masks, based on everything from lunatic ravings of government mind-control, to dubious uninformed assertions that masks block Oxygen from getting in, to simply the principle that “no one can tell me what to put on my face.”
It’s a classic collective action problem: the “Prisoner’s dilemma.” The hypothetical presents two people being interrogated about their role in a crime. Both are being pressured by investigators to rat the other out, in exchange for a more lenient sentence down the line. Crucially, if neither one squeals, they both walk free for insufficient evidence. Even being a rat will come with some jail time. But each person is faced with the possibility that the other may rat him out, which would result in even more jail time. By trusting the other person not to rat and keeping one’s mouth shut, one risks losing everything. It’s designed to be quite a quandary, but the literature has identified two key ways to counteract this collective action problem: either by repeating the experiment (so the players learn each others’ behavior), or by introducing an external punishment for non-cooperation (“snitches get stitches”).
Here, wearing a mask is the “shutting up” option. You’re doing your part to keep everyone out of jail. But that creates a tension: will the others keep their mouths shut (masks on), or will they rat (masks off)? Many of us are the “good” prisoner, trusting in our shared bond and trying to achieve the best result for everyone (if everyone masks up, infection rates plummet, pandemic contained. You know, like most of the rest of the World). But too many of us are ratting, keeping the mask off for our own comfort or to assert that the grand conspiracy has not fooled us, putting us all (even the rats) in a worse situation than we would otherwise be (the pandemic rages on for months, trapping us all in our houses and stretching our savings/social services farther and farther).
We can’t repeat this experiment. We (thankfully) can’t predict having to respond to an infinite number of pandemics like this in our lifetimes. So, the solution is that “snitches get stitches;” there must be some external cost imposed on those who do not cooperate. In other words, mandatory mask laws. Once again, many jurisdictions are doing the right thing on this. But far too many have not imposed mandatory mask orders, or if such orders are on the books they are not enforced, or if they are enforced penalties are non-existent. (This article actually explains that governors and city governments are facing their own prisoner’s dilemmas in deciding their response to non-compliance.) And of course, the foremost law enforcement officer in the nation is saying exactly the opposite, more of a “snitches are patriots” policy. And his chorus of sycophants is gleefully humming along, making sure that rallies and other incredibly unwise gatherings are “snitch safe spaces” (while of course insulating themselves from the virus).
For COVID, we are face to face with a well-known collective action problem, which we know how to solve and have the means to solve. We did not. We proudly, gleefully did not. We’ve failed this collective action pop quiz with flying colors.
Finals week is coming, and we have barely cracked the textbook. And there are no make-ups, no repeats, and no expungements. Will we put our backs into it and make the grade, or doodle in the margins of history until it’s pencils down?