We’ve heard about global warming…but what about global trusting?

“In God we trust.”

You’ve heard this before, right? It’s the motto of the United States. Coins have displayed this wording dating back to the Civil War. [But it has been official and on paper currency only since the 1950’s.]

How about this one? “In God we trust; all others pay cash.”

Have you seen this slogan in a diner, or a store? Far more common back in the day before credit cards came into widespread use (when the only alternative to cash was a check). And it contains both a little bit of humor and also a seed of cynicism. Takes our lofty national motto and brings it right back down to Earth, doesn’t it?

Trust has never been more important to the world’s seven billion people. It, or its lack, can make or break our relationships – as couples, in families, at our places of work.

We’re told that trust operates most effectively in very small groups – the family unit, or maybe a platoon of soldiers, a workplace, or a church. Scale up to much larger communities, and the trust level starts to fall. And yet it is at this much larger level that we need trust the most – in our domestic and international politics and economics.

As in, say, the United States Congress. If we’re going to get anywhere on the upcoming debt-ceiling discussions, and on long-term fiscal reform, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will need to trust each other a bit more than they showed during the recent run-up to the brink of a government shutdown. All that fuss over a few billion dollars? Trillions are at stake now.

As in, say, relations between the United States and China. Even as our two nations engage in awesome levels of trade, we haggle over our currency exchange rate. The Chinese resent projection of U.S. power in the western Pacific, and we mistrust their intentions in that same theater.

And in no arena is this more true than our international efforts to understand the Earth as a resource, victim, and threat – and our attempts to act in concert on that shared knowledge. Are we going to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and head off what looks to be an unacceptable level of global warming? To do so will require that nations trust each others’ observations and models, trust each other to work toward the common good and compensate for any unequal burden. What about trans-boundary transport of pollutants – say the sulfates and nitrates from coal burning that are the precursors of acid rain? How about our water resource policies, both domestically (e.g., across state lines in the United States) and internationally (e.g., those water resources shared by India and Pakistan, or Jordan and Israel)?

Or how about something that should be less threatening…developing and sharing data on these issues, as discussed in the April 12 post? We freely and regularly share weather data, under the auspices of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. But the data exchange needed here extends far beyond atmospheric parameters, to comprehend all manner of biological data, most of which can be obtained only at ground level, in country, in-situ. To achieve such trust will require that the residents of The Gambia, say (to pick a country at random), trust that allowing the United States to help gather and share their locally-gathered, place-based data on biomass, biodiversity, etc. with the United States, China, etc., will help them more than it will benefit the United States or China.

It’s sobering to realize that the best models for negotiations on these subjects come from game theory – and the pernicious games, like the famed “prisoner’s dilemma,” and variations on the theme.[1]In most of these games, it turns out that “trust” is nowhere to be seen, unless compliance is enforced by means of monitoring and international law.

In fact, it would be interesting to poll the public: do people believe that trust – or global environmental trust – is increasing or decreasing worldwide? Would such a question, or attempts to measure global trust, engender vigorous, heated debate, much as we’ve seen with global warming? Or would virtually everyone prove pessimistic – quick to agree that globally, trust is on the decline?

Before you answer too quickly, consider these (admittedly few) rays of hope. First, we show an amazing ability to display trust in the most unlikely places, as a matter of course. In a fast-food restaurant, for example. Eat that food and you’re putting your life in the hands of a teen-aged youngster who you’ve never met before. And yet, we all do it, every day. Make a left turn in the face of oncoming traffic? You trust those other drivers, don’t you? Most of the time, that trust is vindicated. Most of the time. Examples abound across the whole of everyday life.

Second, the future prospects would improve markedly were we here in the United States, for example, unilaterally to place more emphasis on being trustworthy ourselves than on finding reasons to doubt others.

“In God we trust.”

[1] As best articulated by Scott Barrett in his book, Environment and Statecraft, which examines over 300 international environmental agreements.

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