SOCIAL FACILITATION, REWARDING PRUDENCE
A VARIETY OF FACTORS enable tiny coral animals to coordinate spawning with pinpoint precision. Many synchronize to inescapable environmental factors—maximum water temperature, for instance, fine-tuned to moon phase and tides. Spawners also stimulate the spawning of their fellows by the presence of their eggs in the water. Thus, among some species, local spawning triggers a cascade of spawning down current, night after night, as the gamete cloud passes overhead.
Many animals coordinate their activities through what is known as social facilitation. The howling of wolves, the twittering choruses of African wild dogs, the cawing of crows when settling to roost, all serve to synchronize the group, and perhaps to spur individuals to their best performance. In human psychology, social facilitation is defined as the tendency for individuals to perform better at simple or well-known tasks when they know they are being observed.
Interestingly, research out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that people are more likely to take action to protect the climate when they are seen to be doing so. Manfred Milinski and his cohorts used a variation on game theory, a tool born from mathematics and economics, now used across many disciplines to analyze optimal behavior strategies when the outcome is uncertain and is dependent on the choices of others.
In Milinski's version of the game, players were asked to contribute money—in some rounds anonymously, in other rounds publicly—to a common pool used to pay for a magazine advertisement warning the public of the dangers of global warming and listing simple means to limit individual carbon dioxide emissions. Some rounds enabled players to reward or not reward fellow players whose "reputations" as donors from previous rounds were revealed. Some groups received scientific information on the causes and consequences of climate change; others did not.
The results showed that almost no one was willing to donate money anonymously. Those who did had received the scientific education. Overall the largest donors were those both tutored in the science and able to donate publicly. In the reputation rounds, players generally only rewarded fellow players who were known to be donors. Clearly, we are inclined to behave as better citizens when we are educated and when our actions are visible. Perhaps if we're vigorously informed of the neighborhood dangers of global warming, we'll make sustainable and sensible lifestyle choices. Abetted by knowledge, social facilitation might begin to reward prudence.
SOCIAL LOAFING, THE MEDIA, THE OZONE HOLE
EVEN WELL-INTENTIONED CITIZENS feel helpless in the face of looming global calamities and respond by circling the wagons and focusing on family-size problems. The end result is that most of us practice denial, which appears in the culture at large as indifference, and which collectively enables us to embrace the dark sister of social facilitation: social loafing.
Social loafing is the tendency of individuals to slack when work is shared and individual performance is not assessed. There may be no better example of social loafing than in the U.S. Congress, where members cloak their lethargy regarding global climate change behind the stultifying inactivity of their fellows. And why not? After all, who's watching?
Not the media. For example, on the day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the first half of 2006 was the hottest on record in the United States, the news vaporized in the explosions of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. Though the media would never ignore another round of Middle East bloodletting by rationalizing that we've heard all that before, this is exactly what it does with environmental news.
Part of the reason is that the organizations responsible for bringing us the news fail to assess that new science stories are not the same global warming story rehashed from last week/month/year but worrisome new data. Combined, the growing body of scientific knowledge gains heft and power. But the public rarely hears it, reinforcing our denial and indifference.
A 2005 workshop at the Tyndall Centre assessed the performance of the media and found that its sensationalist approach simplified complex issues, while its "balanced" coverage ignored the consensual scientific view, awarding a few skeptics equal billing. The workshop also noted a seminal study from Philadelphia's Drexel University, which found the U.S. media subservient to (at least) or controlled by (at worst) the fossil fuel industry.
A classic example of the bad marriage between a compromised media and a slacking public fuels another of Schellnhuber's tipping points. We've known since 1985, when scientists first reported a "hole" above Antarctica, that chlorofluorocarbons deplete ozone in the stratosphere. Two years later the world mobilized to sign the first Montreal Protocol phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals.
All seemed well enough. Kofi Annan called the Montreal Protocol one of the undoubted success stories of international cooperation. Yet along with the hole over the Antarctic, and the newer ozone dimple over the Arctic, a general thinning is under way everywhere else on earth at the rate of about 3 percent per decade. Schellnhuber calls the ozone hole the mother of all tipping points since it tips even as we declare victory.
In June 2006 researchers from NASA, NOAA, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research announced findings that the hole will take 20 more years than previously predicted—that is, until 2018—to begin significant healing. This is partly the result of a paradoxical effect of global warming: It actually makes the stratosphere cooler, and a cooler stratosphere slows ozone repair. Yet the critical new findings, the snowballing data, go largely unreported.
Similarly, we hear about the connection between ozone depletion, skin cancers, and cataracts but very little about the fact that increased ultraviolet radiation will also impair or destroy phytoplankton. Without these tiny marine plants turning inorganic sunlight into organic life, none of us would or will be here.
Although they live underwater, phytoplankton mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide more powerfully than any other known agent. They are critical counterweights to another tipping point: the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which circulates 34 billion gallons of water around Antarctica every second, carrying nutrients from the depths to the surface.
A 2006 Princeton study identified this current of the Southern Ocean as the key global player in the balance between the nutrient and carbon cycles of our planet. Put simply, the more nutrients in Antarctic waters, the less carbon dioxide in earth's atmosphere, because the nutrients fuel the phytoplankton that absorb CO2. Moreover, when these phytoplankton die, they sink, taking their CO2 load with them to the cold bottom of the ocean and sequestering it there. But global warming is predicted to slow the nutrient upwelling, affecting phytoplankton populations in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, too.
Just as the oceans affect the atmosphere, so the land affects the oceans. In another of Schellnhuber's tipping points, global warming is expected to shrink the Sahara by increasing rainfall along its southern border. A greener Sahara will emit less airborne desert dust to seed the Atlantic and feed its phytoplankton, to suppress hurricane formation, and to fertilize the CO2-eating trees of Amazonia. Hardly a neighborhood on earth will look the same if Africa tips.
THE GAME THEORY OF COCKROACH DEMOCRACY
Recent research out of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium shows that cockroaches live in a democracy composed of individuals with equal standing that consult to reach consensus on decisions affecting the whole group. These decisions are made nonhierarchically and in the absence of perfect knowledge. Somehow these simple creatures balance the inevitable conflicts between cooperation and competition in ways that benefit all.
Some dolphins manage this social dilemma ingeniously, too. At 5.5 feet long and 150 pounds, Tahitian spinner dolphins are among the world's smallest cetaceans, inhabiting the tropical waters of the globe, often in close proximity to coral reefs. They live in flexible, ever-changing groups composing what the late Ken Norris of the University of California-Santa Cruz called "a society of remarkably cooperative friends."
This day in French Polynesia, a group of about 25 spinner dolphins is sleeping behind the barrier reef protecting Moorea's lagoon from the open sea. Like all dolphins, they remain conscious during sleep, resting only the hearing parts of their brains while relying on their sight to identify predators. In this state, they move as stealthily as ghosts, surfacing quietly, breathing low. But by the late afternoon the school begins to awaken and the dolphins pick up speed, with individuals bursting through the surface to perform the dramatic aerial leaps and spins for which the species is named.
Then almost as quickly as they awoke, the dolphins slow down again. The spinners have entered the phase of their day Norris and colleagues dubbed "zigzag swimming," with the group oscillating between sleep and wakefulness, as some individuals wish to awaken and others wish to lounge abed in the lagoon a while longer.
Underwater, the split in intentions is even more obvious. When the group is persuaded to sleep, the dolphins fall silent. When the group is urged to awaken, the sea explodes with the whistles, clicks, quacks, moos, baahs, barks, and squawks of their varied calls. In short order, these sounds are accompanied by an artillery barrage of dull booms and hissing bubble trains: the percussion of belly flops and back flops at the surface.
Like howling wolves and cawing crows the spinners are consolidating their intentions, using zigzag swimming to cast and recast their votes until consensus is reached. As the afternoon progresses, their phonations grow louder, eventually merging into the congested cross talk that Norris et al. jokingly called the Yugoslavian News Broadcast. This is the buoyant clamor of true democracy. Since there is no leader or hierarchy in this or any other aspect of spinner life, every dolphin is awarded the same voting power. However many individuals reside here today is the same number that must now agree on when to leave and where to go.
It's no easy decision. At stake are their lives. By leaving the lagoon the spinners face real danger. To catch fish they must venture offshore and dive alone or in mother-calf pairs to depths of 1,000 feet or more in the nighttime sea. They will be hunting alongside many larger predators, including sharks hunting them.
Throughout the night the school maintains auditory contact as members share information (location of a food source) and resources (the food), even when that sharing might diminish their own wellbeing (less food left for them). This trade-off enables individuals to survive conditions they could not survive alone.
Curiously, cockroaches and spinner dolphins have learned to share in ways both prudent and wise—despite the predictions of game theory, which in its simplest guise posits that cheaters will beat altruists every time. Clearly, nature knows otherwise.
A recent study hints at the evolution of altruism. A team of Swiss and American mathematicians and population biologists ran a variant of game theory known as a public goods game, in which players contribute money to a common pot that an experimenter doubles, divides evenly, and returns to the players. In ordinary play, if all players contribute all their money, everyone wins big. If one player cheats, everyone wins small. If an altruist and a cheater go head-to-head, the cheater wins consistently. This paradox is known as the Tragedy of the Commons.
But in the new computer variant, population dynamics were introduced into the game. Players were divided into small groups that played among themselves. Each player eventually "reproduced" in proportion to the payoff received from play—thereby passing her cooperator or cheater strategy to her offspring. Mutations and dispersions were introduced, creating a shifting population of individuals divided into groups of changing sizes and allegiances.
After 100,000 generations, the results were surprising. Rather than succumbing to the cheaters, the cooperators overwhelmed them.
This is because cooperators flourish in smaller groups where their high investments begin to pay off, says Thomas Flatt, one of the study's authors. They reproduce at higher rates, gain a toehold in a group, eventually come to dominate it, then launch their offspring to spread their altruism to other groups.
Cockroaches have been on earth about 300 million years and dolphins about 50 million years—what amounts to millions of rounds of play. During those eons they have evolved what ethologists call "obligate cooperation": an evolutionarily stable strategy that reflects the individual's inescapable dependence on the group.
Somewhere along the way, these two very different life-forms found the tipping point and slipped from selfishness toward altruism, transforming what we perceive as the Tragedy of the Commons into something more like a triumph.
SEQUESTERED KNOWLEDGE AND SNOW MIRRORS
KNOWLEDGE CAN BE VIEWED as a commons. At the moment, science knows far more than it "tells" to the larger world, in effect hoarding its resource. Not all scientists agree with this strategy, leading the community to play out its own version of zigzag swimming.
At a recent meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, members argued over whether they should simply publish their findings in their scientific journals or advocate solutions—by forcing their results, conclusions, and suggestions in front of lethargic policymakers and the press. Some vigorously oppose the proactive approach as one that sullies research. Others believe the time has come for the man behind the curtain to step forth. A survey in the wake of the conference found that 70 percent of the 300 members favored increased advocacy. At the moment, however, the behavior of most researchers is still largely non-advocatory, depriving the lay world of the right to zigzag on its own through global warming issues.
Sequestering scientific knowledge is the equivalent of piling lead weights on the scales of the tipping points we hear little or nothing about. Take another tipping point: the Tibetan Plateau, a million square miles of steppe, mountains, and lakes. This roof of the world is home to fewer people per square mile than any land besides Greenland and Antarctica. Rising an average of 15,000 feet above sea level, its snowy heights act like an enormous mirror reflecting the sun's warming rays back to space. But global warming is forecast to melt these snows and uncover dark soils ideal for absorbing sunlight and warming the earth in a positive feedback loop.
The Tibetan Plateau acts like a powerful chimney between earth and the sky, connecting tipping points in both places. It cools the stratosphere by drawing water vapor and chemicals upward via thunderstorms. A cooler stratosphere rearranges the jet stream, resulting in warmer winters in North America and Europe, and exacerbating the Greenland and ozone-hole tipping points.
The source of Tibet's thunderstorms is the Asian monsoon, which drives oceanic moisture up the flanks of the Himalayas. Geoscientists expect a warming climate to either weaken or strengthen the monsoon, perhaps one after the other. Either effect is potentially catastrophic for the more than half the world's population adapted to and reliant on the monsoon as it currently exists. For this reason, the monsoon is another of Schellnhuber's tipping points.
The health of the monsoon is critically connected to the ocean, notably the faraway North Atlantic thermohaline circulation. Working with fossilized plankton and ancient iceberg debris, scientists from India and America have concluded that periods of a cooler and less salty North Atlantic corresponded to—or else produced—weaker monsoons. This suggests a warming climate might strengthen the monsoon, perhaps ruinously, then weaken it below present levels if and when the THC shuts down.
Other studies hint that the connective tissue between the monsoon and the North Atlantic is none other than the Tibetan Plateau. Normally, spring warms the air above Tibet and powers the pressure gradient driving the monsoon. But a cooler North Atlantic might cool the plateau lying downwind, stalling the monsoon's ignition.
No matter how badly it manifests for us, nature evolves toward efficiency, balancing the spinning plates at the point of minimum effort, rearranging them with ruthless dexterity.