Why game theory is our last hope to avert Armaggedon

We can spot catastrophes that could kill us – but can we come together to stop them?

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It’s easy to raise the alarm but who is supposed to respond to it? Over the past couple of months, we have heard dire warnings from the Pope, the International Energy Agency (IEA), Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and the B612 Foundation, a non-profit organisation monitoring asteroid threats. They all tell us that doom is coming unless we implement fundamental changes. Although we know that there is good reason to be worried, however, there is a gap in our knowledge: we don’t know what to do about it.

Pope Francis writes in his recent encyclical that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system”. His recommendation? He wants to “bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development”. It’s a laudable aim – but who will make that happen?

The IEA, meanwhile, has issued a report in anticipation of December’s international climate-change summit in Paris pointing out that the next few months “could be decisive in determining our energy and climate future”. It asks: “Will countries take on and abide by commitments that will make a meaningful impact?” The answer is probably no.

In California, Ehrlich and his colleagues announced: “. . . we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.” They report that over 40 per cent of amphibian species and just over a quarter of all mammal species are under threat of extinction. Many are already doomed – Ehrlich calls them “the walking dead”. Species are currently going extinct at 100 times the “background rate”, the speed of species’ extinction between fast mass extinction events. If things continue at the present rate, we will be among the species facing an early exit.

That could be accelerated by our inability to watch out for killer asteroids. Asteroid Day falls on 30 June. It’s designed to raise awareness of how we still don’t have anybody keeping watch for the kinds of events that wiped out the dinosaurs. The B612 Foundation has failed to reach funding targets for Sentinel, its space-based asteroid spotter. You might think that Nasa could save us – after all, the US Congress has instructed the agency to find 90 per cent of all near-earth objects 140 metres in diameter or bigger by 2020. But it is becoming clear that Nasa will miss that target.

All of this might seem a little frightening. If the research literature on collective responsibility is anything to go by, the truly frightening thing is that we aren’t able to save ourselves. When a group of Swedish and Dutch researchers analysed the problem of climate change, for example, they classed it as a “problem of many hands”. It is, they said, “very hard, if not impossible, to hold any individual reasonably responsible”.

The same goes for other areas of concern. While it is laudable that the US has attempted to show leadership over asteroid threats, there is no obligation to do so and the project has predictably fallen short. When it comes to climate change, there is a shared responsibility but none of us – even when the “us” is a body such as a nation state – has the means or the motivation to fix it.

This suggests that although science has done a good job, we now need to divert efforts away from identifying catastrophes and into relevant aspects of mathematics and economics. We need game theory to give us the optimal response to our predictions. As things stand, scientific analysis shows that some of our problems are just too overwhelming to solve. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2