The Short-Lived Triumph of Selfishness

By Matthieu Ricard on December 27, 2009

Imagine a ship that is sinking and needs all the available power to run the pumps to drain out the rising waters. The first-class passengers refuse to cooperate because they feel hot and want to use the air-conditioner and other electrical appliances. The second-class passengers spend all their time trying to be upgraded to first-class status. The boat sinks and the passengers drown having thought only of their comfort, instead of saving their lives.

Normally a captain would take the necessary measures to prevent the wreck and saves his crew and passengers. But on this ship, the passengers wanted to remain their own bosses.

The present approach to climate change and other pressing challenges of our times--disarmament, controlling the greed of unregulated free-market--is similar to that of tribes fighting over the ownership of a sinking ship, a burning forest, or a time bomb. At Copenhagen, they have gotten it to go their way, for now.

The heads of state behaved like chiefs of very big tribes. Some might be wiser than others, but they have little power over the other tribes and sometimes not even over their own tribe.

Transnational institutions can only tackle global issues. In a global world such as ours, heads of states should act more like provincial governors taking care of local affairs. They should defer to a transnational authority when the whole world is at stake. No one seems to be willing to work like that. Fine. Enjoy your last swim.