IS IT IMMUTABLE HUMAN NATURE to prize personal gain—a bigger car, a higher investment return—over the collective bottom line, over even the very survival of the species? Evolution is understood as the result of random mutations; those individuals whose mutations are well suited to their environment survive and pass on their traits, while the genetically unfortunate die out. But what of a species that does not respond to the environment, but instead radically alters it? Given time enough, polar bears might adapt to a melting Arctic, eschew white coats for brown, trade in seals for berries and ground squirrels. But the change humanity has unleashed on the planet’s climate defies biological (or, for that matter, technological) adaptation. It is simply moving too fast. So fast that while news of the polar bear’s plight has finally broken through the media noise—too late, probably, for the bear—Americans are still profoundly deluded about the threat that global warming poses to all of us. Scientists have identified 12 interlocking climate tipping points, any one of which, as Julia Whitty writes in our cover story (page 44), could “initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.” If that makes you want to throw the magazine against the wall, don’t. Whitty’s story is not an encyclopedia of doom but a search for the 13th tipping point—the human one. As she notes, dolphins, cockroaches, and vampire bats have learned to work together to survive; so can humans, and game theorists and sociologists have begun to identify how our instincts can be channeled so as to “balance the inevitable conflicts between cooperation and competition in ways that benefit all.”
Perhaps the greatest antagonist of our better instincts is the obsession on Wall Street and in Washington with pursuing short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability. Against this backdrop, the push of a few visionary CEOs toward corporate social responsibility has been met with much fanfare. Marketers have been quick to capitalize on the buzz, and these days the appearance of doing good is seen as an invaluable brand extension (“beyond petroleum”), a liability shield (“drink responsibly”), or an opportunity to wring profit from misfortune (“shop for the cure”). Cynicism is an easy but incomplete response; the next step is to leverage the facade of do-goodery into the real thing. This means wielding both the carrot and the stick. Companies that really clean up their act, such as carpet maker Interface, which overhauled one of the world’s dirtiest businesses (page 56), should be supported; those that respond to domestic pressure by offshoring dirty habits, such as lead producer Doe Run (page 58), should be called to account. In the end, corporations can adapt, but only if consumers and governments push them to—if, as Bill McKibben points out (page 52), cooperation reins in competition’s ruthlessness.
With this issue, we begin exploring cooperation in another way: Mother Jones now is being led by a pair of editors, who also happen to be women, making our leadership doubly different. In deviating from the Great Man model, we invited some hoary clichés: One columnist warned of a “power vacuum”; another salivated at the prospect of “catfights.” Actually there’s plenty of precedent for successful editorial partnerships; take The New York Review of Books, where Barbara Epstein served as coeditor with Robert Silvers until her death this year. There’s not much precedent, however, for women running what industry marketers inelegantly call “thought leader” magazines; at the dozen-odd such publications, ranging from the Atlantic and The New Yorker to The Nation and the Weekly Standard, only four women have ever served in the top spot. Here, too, it’s time to evolve.