Nautilus

How Inequality Imperils Cooperation

Last year news came that Indian billionaire Gautam Adani was set to exploit Australian coal reserves. The deal, The New York Times reported, was the result of a successful campaign by the Adani Group, a vast conglomerate with diverse interests, to capture the hearts and minds of Queenslanders, who occupy Australia’s second-largest state. It’s a project that will, in the short term, help power development in India and Bangladesh, where renewable sources of energy can be too costly to implement. India, unlike the United States and Western Europe, “doesn’t have a choice” about whether to use coal, Adani told the Times.

In the long run, relying on coal will exacerbate efforts to stem global heating, as burning coal is one of the main drivers of climate change. One billionaire’s endeavor, in other words, represents a social dilemma of global proportions. India’s reliance on coal threatens to destroy public goods—clean air, favorable weather patterns, national security—and upend cooperation efforts to develop and implement renewable energy.

It’s always the case that if endowments are too unequal, you’ll never get cooperation.

Christian Hilbe, a mathematician, directs a group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in Germany, where he studies the conditions under which people cooperate. His group builds predictive models inspired by social dilemmas like climate change, which involve cooperation dynamics too complex to

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