Monday, June 26, 2017

Facing the Climate Bear: The "Camper's Dilemma"

Imagine that you and a friend are facing a bear in the middle of a forest. You are both unarmed and the bear can run faster than you. What's your best strategy, cooperate or betray? I might call this situation the "Camper's Dilemma," in analogy with the well known "Prisoner's Dilemma" 

You and a friend are camping in a forest that you know is inhabited by hungry bears. Imagine that for some reason you lost contact with the civilized world and that you are on your own to get back home. You are both unarmed and bears can easily outrun you and kill you. What's the best strategy for you to survive? Here are some considerations on the "Camper's Dilemma" based on the level of danger.

1. Danger is low -> collaboration. You know that there are bears in the forest, but you have no evidence that there is one close by. You and your friend agree that you should cooperate and make as little noise as possible, leave no food leftovers, give no evidence of your presence.

2. Danger is high -> deception. You saw the bear the bear saw you, but your friend didn't. You don't tell what you saw to him, on the contrary you deny having seen any bear around. At the first occasion, you tell your friend that you will take a short walk in the forest, looking for berries, while he should take care of the camp until you come back. As soon as you are out of sight, you start running as fast as you can, leaving your friend to face the bear, alone. Your friend may run faster than you, but this strategy gives you a good start, at least.

3. Danger is immediate -> competition. The bear suddenly appears in front of you, attacking. You and your friend may try to fight the bear together, or you may fight each other so that the loser will not be able to run away. In any case, there is no space for cheating anymore: it is pure emergency.

You may know the story of the two campers and the bear which has been a source of inspiration for the idea of the "Camper's Dilemma". More than that, the camper's dilemma is closely related to the model termed the "Prisoner's Dilemma." It is an operational game in which each of the two players must choose whether to cooperate or to betray the other, without knowing what strategy the other will be choosing. Betrayal brings a benefit to one of the players only if the other player cooperates. If both defect, they both suffer heavy penalties. Below, you can see an example of the payoff matrix for this game. 

The prisoner's dilemma game has no optimal strategy; empirical studies have shown that the simple strategy called "tit for tat" is the one that performs best in the long run, but there is no guarantee that it will always work. So, the prisoner's game reflects well the complexity and the unpredictability of the real world, although in a simplified form.

The camper's dilemma, as described here, is very similar to the prisoner's dilemma with the difference that the outcome is not just a penalty: if you lose the game, you die. The camper's dilemma is also "graded" in the sense that the best strategy depends on the level of danger. In a low danger situation, both players should easily understand that collaboration is the best strategy. But, as danger becomes more and more evident and immediate, betrayal starts to look like a better strategy. 

It doesn't seem to me (but I may be wrong) that theorists have examined this kind of game, so for the time being these considerations must remain qualitative. They are nevertheless enlightening when applied to the current world situation, in particular if we think of the bear as "climate change" whereas the campers are entire populations or social strata. 

For instance, the Paris climate treaty may be seen as part of a collaborative strategy, but considering that it has been always know that it is insufficient to avoid the climate disaster, it may also be seen as part of a deception effort. At the same time, some governments have taken an more or less explicitly denialist stance; for instance the US, Canada, and Russia. These governments may believe that their geographical situation may allow them to outrun the climate bear or, anyway, that they have sufficient resources to avoid the worse, at least for a fraction of their population. As I discussed in a previous post, some of the world's elites may have already reached the conclusion that the climate bear is coming fast and that they might as well save themselves by moving to some higher ground, while letting the poor drown or be boiled alive

Of course, this interpretation cannot be proven and it may well be wrong. It is also true that there is still space for a collaborative strategy that would solve the climate problem by means of a fast energy transition. Nevertheless, the camper's dilemma game provides a perspective of the current situation that I wouldn't dismiss as impossible, and not even as unlikely. . 

Note: this post was inspired by a story told by Filippo Musumeci, published (in Italian) on the blog "Effetto Risorse"


  1. A technical point about the collaboration strategy. While you're certainly right about food leftovers (and there are several strategies/products available, like using a bear can, an "ur-sack" or hanging food from an appropriate branch) ... you've got it wrong about noise. It is generally recommended that hikers make noise in bear country so the bears know you're around. They generally avoid noisy people and alerting them is much safer than startling one.

    1. Good point: I have never been chased by a bear!

    2. What does a Florence university professor really know about bears? His "bears" are purely imaginary.

    3. Of course. Indeed, this is not a post about bears!

    4. Or you could always just use bear spray. Since I live in the heart of a prime Grizzly bear habit, I never leave home without it.

      Millions of Americans think this approach will save them when the SHTF. Hence their purchase of AR15's and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Don't think that will be enough when the last can of beans is being fought over----.

      Best post-apoplectic fiction I've ever read, for those who like that kind of thing. LOL "The Dog Stars"

  2. I am not sure that Tit for Tat is the best strategy in Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma (see, e.g.,

    1. The tit for tat is the best strategy according to Robert Axelrod in his book "The Evolution of Cooperation" (1984). The recent paper you cite says something different. I have a feeling that Axelrod has been somewhat optimistic, but it is a complex matter

  3. There is one important difference though. Climate change ultimately 'gets' everyone, unlike the bear. There is no out competing each other to escape.

    1. Not necessarily. If you are truly evil, you'll think that getting rid of a few billion people - really an evil idea - would greatly ease the problem.

    2. Yes it would, eventually GHG concentrations would fall. The big question is, would it be too late for the elites by then? As it is we are already on course for quite drastic increase in global temp, the momentum will take us further, possibly to a new steady state as we pass the tipping point.

  4. Or wait for technology to come and save you? I was once up in northern Canada, biking along a dirt road, and saw a little cub off to the side up ahead. Where there's a cub there's a mama bear, and there's nothing more vicious than a mama bear. I didn't want to pass it and startle it and end up having to find out if I could bike faster than an enraged mama bear could run, so I waited and waited. Then a car finally went by and scared the cub away, and I quickly passed through.


    One guy I read about accidentally scared a little cub, and had to deal with mama's wrath. However, if it's a black bear they're "small" enough that you might be able to get away by punching it on the nose. Or as this guy put it, "I knew it would swing first with its left but it would really come with its right, because most bears are right-handed". Helps of course if you're a former boxer:

    So the moral of the lesson is... If technology isn't going to save you anymore, better start pumping some iron and getting fit?

    p.s. Some bears are pretty chill. I woke up one morning to find out a friend had left out our food and that a bear was munching on my cucumber that had been left out, so I got out of the tent, and while keeping my eye on Smoky who was no more than 10 meters away, I grabbed the cooler and brought it in the tent.

    So the moral of that story is... Kumbaya? (That was a black bear though. I don't think brown/grizzly bears know of Kumbaya.)

  5. Ugo
    Lets state the obvious; I guess your simple models are relevant.

    We have a legacy of geopolitical arrangements (empires and world wars, existential threats and all that) that pre-date consciousness of climate change as a factor. Strategic policies derive from that history.

    These include our dealings with friend or foe. And these are interchangeable categories, happy campers that we are. Just now in Britain we are being invited to regard the rest of the EU as an opponent.

    It has never been clear that policy makers understand the basics of the system. The ‘disconnect’ that leads to financial meltdowns might be a relevant example, although one hqas to admit some Bankers have been laughing all the way to the ... err ... Bank. To complicate matters further, there is more than one real 'bear' - Mama Nature - catching up with us. Panic, or 'hard decisions' - why do I keep thinking of Tony Blair? - trip us up.


    1. Mother Nature: we've had repeated warnings,and still persist in offending.

      So,she's going to give us a good smacking and send us to our beds without any dinner.

      As we all know, bears can be avoided or killed, but there is no appeal against Mother's verdict.......

  6. Stephen Hawking wants humanity to leave Earth as soon as possible. This seems like one elite exhorting other elites. To the elites, the elites represent humanity, so it is not betrayal.

  7. Hi Professor Bardi - this was a great post. I think it is an 'ir al grano' rendering of the issue and very explanatory for what is well underway vis a vis those who know the bear is here, and have or are corralling the resource, and the rest, as we undergo an irregular collapse scenario set... thanks again for such an interesting post.

  8. Thanks for the post. When I stumbled upon Axelrods Work I put up a somewhat similar post in my blog about why I think the world is unable to change course in the face of collapse

    Political theory makes widespread use of game theory and there is a special "chicken game" situation in geopolitics: "the security dilemma".

    The "chicken game" is a game theory scenario referring to the famous scene in "Rebel without a cause", where James Dean and his antagonist race their cars towards a cliff and the driver that stops or gets out first is "the chicken" and looses.

    The dominant strategy in geopolitics, as it has been applied by the USA for many decades, is "realism" (or neorealism today). In short, a country that has a "realist" outlook onto the rest of the world sees anybody else as a factual or potential enemy.

    The security dilemma is usually used to describe strategies like the "two power standard" of the British empire, where countries are increasing their military strength and are committing to use weapons or threatening alliances that lead other states to respond with similar measures, producing increased tensions that create conflict, even when no side really desires it.

    The great wars (WW I and II) have been basically decided by the winning side being able to outproduce the other. In this situation of industrialized warfare, where the GDP output is the deciding strategic factor of any conventional war between "equal" nations, GDP growth becomes the dominant goal of geopolitical strategies. Nobody will want to be the first to deviate from pursuing growth, even if this growth will drive us down the (seneca) cliff.

    Persuing a competitive rather than a cooperative strategy means that we will rather steer down the cliff than give away our ostensible tactical advantage of a higher GDP output by i.e. applying a degrowth (chicken) strategy as it would would ostensibly "weaken" us in the anarchistic playing field of world politics. This is, in short, the basic security dilemma we face with resource depletion.

    The competitive strategy in this "security dilemma" is obviously driven by fear, by the anxiety of the general public. The more fearful a country and its citizens, the more mistrust of others is to be found in the overall intersubjective behaviour of its people and thus in its geostrategical behaviour.

    "Security dilemmas are not given by anarchy or nature" but, rather, are "a social structure composed of intersubjective understandings in which states are so distrustful that they make worst-case assumptions about each other's intentions", writes political scientist Alexander Wendt, in "Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics".

    Note that Alexander Wendt (as a social constructivist) is not talking about the leaders or the representatives of nations, but its people, or at least those that make up the majority that puts leaders into their places. You can find his whole text here:

    I would say that there is at least a basic symmetry, driven by fear, in climate change denial, xenophobia, right wing politics and militaristic imperialism, not only in US politics.

    As this dynamic plays out today in a world in a fundamental crisis, the competitive strategy is very depressingly self defeating but hard to change. The closer to "the cliff", the more fearful we get and the less likely we are to change from a competitive to a cooperative strategy.

    To not to contribute further to the fear, I will end on a positive note. If game theory has anything to say in the future of our world, cooperative strategies will be the more successful in the long run. The cliff is threatening, but it is not the end, and could very well be a new cooperative beginning as the competitive strategies are selected out.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017