Collective good

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(HOST) For some, the term “collective action” is an oxymoron. For commentator Bill Shutkin, it’s the next frontier in the effort to combat global warming.

(SHUTKIN) It’s one of the great questions of political science, if not human civilization. Assuming that most of us act in our own self-interest most of the time, under what conditions can the collective good take precedence over individual gain? For a century scholars and policymakers have struggled to find an answer, with few practical results.

For those of us concerned about global warming, this question is particularly vexing. To confront it is to ascend a precarious high-wire, balancing on one side individual citizens, companies and nations, each in pursuit of what they think will help them get ahead – a bigger SUV, more coal-burning power plants. On the other side is the common good, not particular to any single interest and often elusive. There is no simple method for these acrobatics and, regretably, little precedent.

Until recently, much of human history has been a record of individuals simply striving to survive, to fend off predators and tyrants alike in a Darwinian cycle of kill or be killed. Meanwhile, for thousands of years, people’s belief systems were governed by a central premise: that our fate is not ours to determine but is instead the sole province of the gods or, worse, mere chance.

But with the Enlightenment three hundred years ago, western civilization put forward a bold new proposition, that human beings could create their own fortune, alone and collectively, through their powers of will and reason. We devised new technologies to improve our daily lives and communication, new laws to promote shared goals like peace and human rights, new institutions to celebrate our common bonds and heritage.

So why, then, three centuries into the Enlightenment experiment, are we still so unskilled when it comes to acting in advance on the common good?

It seems we’ve only recently arrived at a new evolutionary threshold, that the Enlightenment’s promise of human emancipation and social welfare is still unfolding, still in the process of shaping our brains, beliefs and behaviors. After all, in evolutionary terms, three hundred years is but a blink of an eye.

But perhaps a tipping point is not far off. More and more people are finding that the usual ways of doing things are no longer working and that a new mental model is needed, one in which the line between I and We, local and global, present and future is more elastic, less rigid.

I think Al Gore’s recent movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” is evidence of this, uniting everyone from suburban soccer moms to Fortune 500 CEOs in a shared concern about the environment and our future. Global warming, it turns out, is not so much a threat as an invitation, to a new commons known as Planet Earth and a new consciousness we call community.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT.

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