Seeing past the Zero Sum Game in Environmental Policy – Harder Than It Looks

5 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2017 Last revised: 28 Mar 2017

J. B. Ruhl

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: February 20, 2017


In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright offers a sweeping view of human evolution that culminates in his argument that modern society has become so complex and interconnected that there are no true “zero sum” games to be played between people or institutions. Indeed, much of environmental policy rests on the promise of improving the greater good by leveraging the ubiquitous presence of nonzerosumness.

But Wright’s thesis turns back on itself. There is no question that social-ecological systems (SES) are highly complex and interconnected, making true zero sum games hard to find. But the sheer complexity of massive SESs is what also makes it excruciatingly difficult to connect all the dots of the nonzero sum game within the SES. At a macro scale, nonzero sum rules; at the micro scale of the farmer seeing more water go by the farm in the river, it looks like zero sum.

In this short essay I outline six reasons why seeing past these micro zero sum game is so difficult, particularly for those caught in them who consider themselves the losers: (1) mixed metrics; (2) multi-scalar nature of SESs; (3) temporal transitions; (4) distribution of costs and benefits; (5) imprecise valuation; and (6) polarizing effect of government intervention.

The essay was written before the 2016 election. An Epilogue offers thoughts on its meaning.

Keywords: Zero Sum Game; Environmental Policy

Suggested Citation

Ruhl, J. B., Seeing past the Zero Sum Game in Environmental Policy – Harder Than It Looks (February 20, 2017). Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-18. Available at SSRN: or

J. B. Ruhl (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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