Keanu Reeves, John Cleese and, er, global level non-zero-sum co-operation


So there I am on a long plane flight home, in need of something to watch. Hailing as I do from the Global Dashboard stable, the preferred option was clear: a disaster movie. And lo, what should be playing on BA routes this month but the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

My expectations were along the lines of I am Legend or The Day After Tomorrow. You know how it goes: massive catastrophe, civilisation collapses, a veritable smorgasbord of SFX, a couple of doughty folk live to fight another day, and (as the credits roll) the prospect of a gradual rebuild.

As it turned out, this was not the case.  In a nutshell: Keanu Reeves is an alien. He has been sent here by a confederation of highly evolved alien civilisations to “save the earth” – by wiping us out, given that we’re cheerfully running our own mass extinction event. Pretty scientist Jennifer Conolly, initially part of the US government scratch team of scientists (“We need you to come with us right away, ma’am. It’s a matter of national security”) comes to befriend the alien, and must persuade him of humanity’s case; and so it goes for the next hour or two.

Where it gets fun, though, is when she takes Keanu to see her mentor, a Nobel Prize-winning uber-scientist – played, somewhat improbably, by John Cleese – whereupon the following dialogue ensues:

Boffin: Well, there must be alternatives. You must have some technology you have that could solve the problem.

Alien: The problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.

Boffin: Then help us change.

Alien: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.

Boffin: But every civilisation reaches a crisis point eventually.

Alien: Most of them don’t make it.

Boffin: Yours did. How?

Alien: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.

Boffin: So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now.

Alien: Yes.

Boffin: Well, that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction, and you’re right.  But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change; only on the precipice that we evolve. This is our moment – don’t take it from us. We are close to an answer.

That’s right, readers: I spent ten minutes doing pause and rewind on British Airways’ crappy touch screen entertainment system, juggling a laptop and an economy class meal, and I did it all for you. Why, you ask? Because when was the last time you saw a movie that expounds the necessity of crisis for global-level non-zero-sum co-operation – and uses Basil Fawlty to do so?

Admittedly, John Cleese is not the first person to expound this theory.

Robert Wright sets it all out very neatly in his Non-Zero: History, Evolution and Human Co-operation, in which he notes that historically, the main reason humans have co-operated more has been war. So “when social organization moved to the supravillage level of the chiefdom, fighting very often, if not always, figured”; it took a war to prompt the US to begin its confederation; World War Two led to the European Union, and indeed to the UN.

But now that we’re running a globally interdependent world, he wonders, what will be the prompt for further co-operation? (Or as he puts it, presumably having watched the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, “If space aliens don’t attack the planet, yet it nonetheless moves towards firm supranational governance, the transition will be without known precedent.”) But in fact,

As it happens, the end of the second millennium has brought the rough equivalent of hostile extraterrestrials – not a single impending assault, but lots of new threats that, together, add up to a big planetary security problem.

GD readers are well aware of the list that follows, so I won’t quote it in full. But here’s the thing:

The timing is convenient. With economic organizatin reaching the global level, and governance showing faint signs of doing the sme, the great historical congealer of governance – an external enemy – disappears by definition. Meanwhile, a whole slew of non-zero-sum problems arise that are rather like an external enemy; they push people together, to escape common calamity.

Wright’s key point is the same as the Nobel boffin’s in the movie: as Wright puts it, “trauma has a way of making the unthinkable widely thought”. He gives the example of how during WWII, Arnold Toynbee persauded future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles – a conservative man by instinct – to sign on to a document proclaiming that

“As Christians we must proclaim the moral consequences of the factual interdependence to which the world has come. The world has become a community, and its constituent members no longer have the moral right to exercise ‘sovereingty’ or ‘independence’ which is now no more than a legal right to act without regard to the harm which is done to others.”

Wright argues that all this points ultimately towards a hopeful conclusion. He says:

Whole new species of chaos will indeed arise, but – assuming we respond to them wisely – they will drive the world to a new level of political organization that is capable of preserving order. What the “chaos” theorists fail to see is that chaos is just a non-zero-sum problem, something people are good at solving. [emphasis added]

Once again: enough with the collapse narratives. More about transformations and renaissances.