At some point, every one of us thinks, “I want to eat that, but I also want to lose weight” or “I want to go out and have fun, but I also want to get a good grade.” We have to cut back on calories and exercise if we want to lose weight, but when there is a delicious meal or snack right in front of us, it’s hard to control ourselves. Getting a good grade requires that we read the textbook and answer practice questions, but we’d rather just go with friends or play video games. And if we indulge in too many snacks and gain three kilos, or fail a course because we were playing video games all day, the problem is ours alone to deal with.
Though we may be able to get by with simply laughing off our personal problems, there are situations where individual problems end up affecting society as a whole. For example, if everyone else does what you do—starts overeating and packing on pounds—medical care costs go up throughout society, which in turn has a tremendous impact on our social welfare systems. Examples like these demonstrate how people acting in their own best interests in pursuit of convenience or comfort can lead to consequences that are not in the best interests of society as a whole. Situations like these are called social dilemmas.
There are many social problems that can be framed as social dilemmas, from illegal parking to war to environmental issues. Let’s consider our environmental problems as one example where personal behavior places a burden on society.
Individuals within a society tend to choose actions that bring them personal convenience and comfort while minimizing time, money, effort, or other costs. In other words, instead of taking the time and effort to reduce our personal waste output, sort our garbage for recycling, or walk whenever possible to limit vehicle use and prevent global warming, it is more convenient and more comfortable to buy things left and right and generate large amounts of unsorted waste. It is easier for us to just take the car. But if everyone in society thinks and acts this way, the amount of garbage increases, final disposal sites become overloaded, and waste treatment costs go up—all of which takes a heavier toll on individuals. Similarly, the excessive use of vehicles accelerates global warming. No one person acts with the intent to harm the environment; instead, it is simply the result of each of us acting in our own personal best interests.
At the same time, there is a tendency for people to believe that their individual actions have little impact on society as a whole. We think that even if I don’t reduce my individual waste output or sort my garbage—if I take the car—the effect is not that great. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we feel that we can’t solve social problems even if we personally do the right thing. At the same time, if there are other people out there doing the right thing, we think we can get by without expending the time and energy if we simply take a free ride on their actions. No matter what the situation, the problem never gets solved as long as individuals perceive a benefit from choosing comfort and convenience. Environmental issues like waste disposal and global warming are the collective result of individual actions like these.
So if environmental issues are framed as social dilemmas, what are some possible solutions? Broadly speaking, there are two types of methods. The first are structural solutions, which set up new systems and frameworks that make it more difficult for people to act in convenient and comfortable ways. The second are individual (or motivational) solutions, which change the way people think and thus change their behavior.
Let’s take the issue of garbage. In terms of laws designed to promote recycling of Japan’s ever-increasing waste, the country has established the Basic Act on Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society, the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law, the Home Appliance Recycling Law, the End-of-life Vehicle Recycling Law, the Food Recycling Law, the Construction Materials Recycling Law, the Small Home Appliances Recycling Law, and so on.
Based on these laws, each municipality has to decide on a method of garbage collection that makes it possible to recover resources from its waste while also figuring out how to get residents to cooperate with this process. Some local governments try to minimize the effort residents must make in order to get as many people as possible to cooperate, while others set up numerous sorting categories in the hopes that the effort involved will get people to think more about garbage-related issues.
But no matter how wonderful a system may be, it will stop functioning properly if there is nobody to go along with it. Ultimately, what matters is that we as individuals do our part to reduce waste and sort garbage—even if doing so requires some effort. For this to happen, we know that giving people feedback in the form of information about how sorted garbage is utilized, or creating widespread awareness that gets people to take an interest in environmental issues and realize that sorting garbage properly is in the best interests of the community, are things that have a positive effect on cooperative behavior.
Waste reduction and garbage sorting are things that we can see with our own eyes. We get a real sense of the effect of our actions when we have small garbage bags instead of large ones, or when we’ve picked three milk cartons out of the household waste. Also, because each municipality can identify its garbage volume, it is easy to figure out the extent to which different systems reduce waste. We can easily see the results of the systems put in place as structural solutions, as well as of the information used as an individual-focused solution. When it comes to global warming, however, things become more difficult. We can’t really determine how much we’ve reduced greenhouse gases by switching to an LED bulb, and because greenhouse gases move beyond national borders, it is difficult to measure the effects of any given system. So how can we get individuals faced with a social dilemma to cooperate more? We must continue our search for something that will motivate people to exercise a bit of restraint when it comes to personal convenience and comfort.