Beyond GDP: change the game’s incentives by making it more like an open source community (Olympics for the Earth)

Gross domestic product (GDP) has been a crucial metric for individual countries to know how they are doing from year to year. The International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) recently invited essays on this topic. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish writing by the deadline, but here are my ideas.

If we are all to continue reaping resources from the Earth and benefit from the land and living things, there has to be some consideration for what humans are doing collectively that detract from our ability to continue on doing this in the future. Game theory principles would suggest that the current state of the world economies incentivize competition and dishonesty rather than cooperation, especially when it comes to natural resources.

If the economy is a game with many players, each country is a player and the GDP is their annual score. Each country is competing to increase their score as quickly as possible, and at all costs never let it decrease. Instead, we could measure contribution to global prosperity and well being, rather than individual country-based measures. Much like how open source initiatives benefit from many contributors who share their code, having a global metric for progress could be contributed by all countries in different ways.

One way to create a global measure is by aggregating several measurements on how the earth is faring. For one, we could start by calculating area of forest conserved, or additional area added to legal protection schemes for that year. Each country could contribute by either conserving their own land, or adding to efforts to contribute in other countries. A proportion could be calculated from the total conserved that year. Other measures could include how many fisheries were managed sustainably. Or how much material was recycled or up-cycled. There are many possibilities, but would take some effort to compile and standardize.

Each country could focus on their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, if the area that needs most improvement is child hunger, then they could contribute quite a lot in relation to what other countries could achieve. In the end, each country would be competed to solve their own and the worlds problems in collaborative and constructive ways, rather than in destructive and monetized ways.

How would we get countries to buy into this metric? Tie it to something that already has value, or use that in addition to pride and prestige. Somehow the Olympics is a simple example of how countries will spend millions to get a piece of metal. We could call it the Olympics for the Earth, or something similar. The events would be recycling, education for girls, human rights, etc. Medals go to the top 3 every 4 years, and losers go home to train harder for the next Olympic year.

Maybe it is optimistic to think that governments will want to participate, but then how can we continue to do what we do and expect different results? That is the definition of insanity. Maybe the signal is a little muffled or lagged in time, but it is there. We can’t keep doing everything to the Earth and expect it to continue on providing as it always has. Ask anyone who studies desertification and they will tell you. Perhaps this type of “Games” would help rehab us back to sane harmony with the planet we live on.


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