Sunday, June 9, 2019

Zero-Sum Delusion

Professor John Nash received the Nobel Prize in 1994 for his contribution to the field of game theory, the premise of the zero-sum game. A couple of years later, the movie A Beautiful Mind featured Russell Crowe as Nash spiralling into schizophrenia in an ironic twist to the film’s title. Emotionally wrenching in parts, the dramatisation of John Nash’s life may have led some viewers to infer that genius is not cost-free.


Equating stereotypical mathematical brilliance to eccentricity, or worse, is a hunch that is often off the mark. No less misleading is the analysis of the zero-sum game which, at its most cynical, asserts that for one faction to win, the opposing side must be crushed. Cue the mythical TV series Game of Thrones in which noble families vie to control the Seven Kingdoms and the Iron Throne, such that you either win or die trying.

Another illustration of a zero-sum game is provided by the classic pastime Monopoly in which the amount of money, and associated properties, is constant. Since new assets are not created, one participant’s loss or missed opportunity is another player’s gain. Presumably, this represents an indulgent case where a resentful loser can contemplate, but just about refrain from, throttling the winner.

In real-life, liberal economics is more nuanced, by skewing towards a positive-sum game or a win-win outcome. By leveraging trade, novel ideas and technological innovation, economies can create something from virtually nothing, as new value generates additional wealth. In this scenario, it would be wrong to imply that individuals only get richer at the expense of others. In fact, an expanding economic pie ensures that the majority can come out ahead.

Geopolitics offers an unsettling instance of a negative-sum game, whereby all participants end up on the losing side. Ever since the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle, the world has lived in the shadow of total annihilation. At the height of the Cold War, a nihilistic technocrat coined the term mutually assured destruction, a mad phrase that conveys the certainty of synchronised genocide in the event of a nuclear exchange between the US and the former Soviet Union (now Russia).

Less destructive than the lose-lose fallout of an unimaginable nuclear war, but equally insidious, is the manifestation of a zero-sum delusion typified by a "we win-you lose" environmental strategy often pursued in plain view. As the world has grown more prosperous, the disposal of unprecedented levels of waste has heightened the basest of human instincts through "blight-thy-neighbour" policies.

To be clear, waste materials are not created equal. Some are inert while others are degradable. Many are benign whereas some are extremely toxic. At one end are those that comply with the dictum “dust to dust” by decomposing and returning to nature. At the other extreme are nuclear wastes. Consider the startling fact that the half-life (the time it takes for an isotope’s radioactivity to decay to half its original value) of Uranium-234 released from spent fuel rods is 245,000 years. Years not hours! As such, securing radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants presents a huge dilemma.

Though less alarming, electronic waste or e-waste from discarded digital appliances poses an increasing pollution challenge. While strands of e-waste are recyclable, harmful materials like lead and cadmium that usually end up in distant landfills remain hazardous. Nowadays, countries that send their trash to developing nations are being called out in the media; for instance, here and here. For decades, our oceans and marine life have been heaving and groaning under direct assault from plastics and other non-biodegradable products. While climate change has swamped the airwaves, the dominant attitude in waste management has devolved into a feckless howl of “not in my backyard!

In the long run, all parochial attempts to deflect or fend off hydra-headed threats may prove futile since, by and large, every neighbourhood is a potential Ground Zero.

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