It’s not zero-sum. It never has been. The notion that there must be a winner and a loser is applicable in sporting events and other contests, which have strict rules and time limits and operate on the premise that the result will provide a designated winner. Beyond that, in the more important sense, the idea that there must be a winner and a loser is not only wrong but dangerous.

Zero-sum works as a concept only if you assume there will be no progress, new inventions, new collaborations, synergistic applications, scientific discoveries, or increased efficiency. In short, you must assume a static universe, which is the complete opposite of reality. Everything changes. That is the normal state. Zero-sum assumes the opposite, confining itself to a short-term view. This is so limiting as to make it a useless framework from which to make decisions.

Historical evidence does not support zero-sum. Calculations based on the assumption that things will not change lead to conclusions like the 1890s study that postulated a coming crisis for London, England based on the limits of how much horse manure could be removed from city streets each day. Looking 50 years into the future and assuming no new inventions (the automobile, in this example) leads to ludicrous conclusions.

It doesn’t take more than a casual look at much of what passes for discussion of the issues and problems we are grappling with at present to see that quite a bit of it is based on a zero-sum model. If I win, you lose, and vice versa. Therefore I can’t cooperate with you because that potentially makes me a loser. This is a dangerous road to travel; it can lead to stereotyping, cheating, and denigration of the “opponent” or, in the more extreme cases, the “enemy.”

We have been accomplishing more with the same amount of energy, producing more food from the same amount of land, using raw materials in a more efficient way than before, and supporting an increasing population on a planet of finite size. The pocket computers (mistakenly referred to as phones; they are so much more) that we carry are several orders of magnitude more powerful and efficient than the ones that were used by NASA to accomplish the moon landing and safe return 50 years ago. The internet has changed and is changing the world in ways we are only beginning to suspect, much less understand. The list goes on, and includes progress in music, education, philosophy, and other areas of human endeavor. We understand things in a way that would have been inconceivable not too long ago. This is the norm; zero-sum is not. This is not to say that we should not keep addressing problems. There are plenty of those around that need our attention. We should not assume that the way things are now is the way things will be next decade, next year, or even next week. If we assume that we will certainly be wrong. We can and should act to nudge things in a direction that benefits not only ourselves but our fellow humans. That’s what we do, after all. We change the world, all of us, every day, just a little. And we are our brother’s keeper, just as our brother is ours.


A recent report that the London’s Design Museum 2020 prize for best design went to the groups who turned a section of the border wall between the US and Mexico into a temporary base for see-saws with the wall itself as the fulcrum made me laugh out loud. The idea of children using what was intended to be a barrier as a basis for play is a wonderful example of the power of art to redefine the world we live in. One of the definitions of the word fulcrum is an agent that causes change, and in this sense as well the installation of the see-saws may bear unexpected fruit among the people using them. You can’t play on a see-saw without cooperating with the person on the other end (or in this case, the person on the other side of the wall).