Frida* was four years old when her parents took her to soccer practice. Ever since her older brother played soccer she wanted to play the same game. After a warm up, the rules were explained and the game started. Frida was all excited. She jumped up and down and shouted at everyone to pass her the ball. Finally, she got it. She knew what to do: score a goal. And she did. Not one, but many. When she got the ball, she ran to the nearest goal. The problem was, it was her own team’s goal. She didn’t care. It was closer and her mum was the goal keeper. She shot one own goal after the other. And she would have lived happily ever after, if it wasn’t for her team mate who called her out and ridiculing her. Frida never went to a soccer practice again.
When you are four years old, you get away with crap like that. It’s even kind of cute. When you get older, this changes. You don’t get to define your own rules anymore. Instead you are rewarded for playing according to everyone else’s rules.
Sustainability requires a different game, the rules are not yet written.
Living a normal life today means playing a bunch of zero-sum-games. Zero-sum-games are a mathematical representation in game theory and economic theory, in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it. When the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. It’s a classic win-lose situation. Zero-sum-games are finite. Once someone wins, it’s over. None-zero-sum-games are infinite games. The only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end. The thing about infinite games is that the rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. As James Carse said in his famous book Finite and Infinite Games “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries”.
There is nothing wrong with playing zero-sum games. It happens all the time. If you and I both fall in love with the same person and she choses you, I lose (at least if she is into monogamy). If there is one apple left and I eat the apple, you don’t get to eat it. I win. This is part of life and, like soccer, it can be fun. Where we got confused though, is that some games are better played as non-zero-sum games. Sustainability is a non-zero-sum-game. In non-zero-sum-games, the player’s interests overlap entirely. The outcomes are good for all, or bad for all. It’s either win-win or lose-lose. Either we make the shift and the earth will be a place we can live on, or we don’t make the shift and the earth will turn into an uninhabitable place for all of us.
Although sustainability is a non-zero-sum-game, we play it like a zero-sum-game. We hold on to zero-sum rules, without considering what kind of game we are actually playing. Some people prepare their bunkers in order to be the winner of this game. The question is, are they actually winning? Will they feel like winners when they are the last 115 people on the planet? Or is it more like cheating. A bit like doping in sports. Do people who dope feel like they are winning (honest question to all the dopers out there)?
Yet, as you find the world right now, the better you are in playing zero-sum-games, the more rewarded you are. The more successful you become. The quicker you raise in the social hierarchy. There are some though, who can’t possibly understand why the game is still aiming for zero-sums. They want to play with a new set of rules. For a long time, they have been the outsiders, the once who can’t grow up, the idealists, the weirdos, the once who won’t make it in life. They are ridiculed.
Rebelling against zero-sum rules doesn’t get you to the top of the hierarchy. It can bring with it a lot of negative consequences for the individual. Friends don’t understand. Parents worry what they have done something wrong. It can lead to psychological distress, in which the game as it is played is not understood. And the game that one thinks does make sense, is not accepted on a grander scale. How to play soccer, if not all the team members accepted that the ball is supposed to go into the opponents goal? Often, the pressure becomes too big and it’s easier to move back into familiar games, the once that are played by everyone. Those who walk their own way by their own rules, who overcome the suffering that comes with it, find it incredibly rewarding.
Thanks to Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion the players following the old rules start to stumble. The frequency of new rules is increased. As the historian Osterhammel and the sociologist Malcolm Gladwell point out, once the frequency is high enough, a tipping point will be reached. The new rules become the norm. Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion show us on a regular basis, that those of us who don’t like the zero-sum rules are not so very crazy, or that at least enough people are equally crazy. They are turning the new rules of the game from a niche into mainstream. All that is now needed, is enough people who dare playing.
*Frida is my soccer-story stage name.