The Scrabble Board Syndrome

The ability to act in a given environment is very dependent on what moves are available and what ones are blocked or otherwise precluded within the existing rules.  With many of the most important challenges facing us today, we are becoming aware that key actions we would like to take now are not accessible because of prior actions we took (or didn’t take).

I liken this condition to the game of Scrabble.  Early in the game, there are many rows and columns that can be used to play one’s tiles, and long words are possible, including extensions of existing words and access to extra-point squares (such as double- and triple-word and letter scores).  As the game proceeds, more and more rows and columns are blocked.  The extra-point squares are generally occupied or are otherwise inaccessible.  Also, high-point tiles, such as the letter Q, may not be able to be used because you don’t have a letter U available at the same time.  Late in the game, only small incremental scores can be obtained.

We are very late in the game for many of humanity’s biggest present-day problems—climate change, storm intensification, ocean acidification, fisheries depletion, keystone species extinction, cropland damage, sea level rise, fresh water scarcity, nonrenewable resource exhaustion, and many (many!) others.  The game board is becoming full, and the high-score moves we could have played earlier aren’t possible now because of interacting constraints.

Many of the constraints are imposed by different players pursuing narrow self- interests—for example, powerful corporations and industries that use their political influence to forestall any effective regulation of the harms their activities impose on the greater society.

I believe we have to renegotiate the rules of the game society is playing so that the constraints and rewards can be modified to maximize the benefit of the whole group of players—the human population.

Unlike Scrabble, we don’t get to tally up the score, dump the tiles off the board, turn over and shuffle the tiles in the box, and pick tiles to start a new game.  We only get one time to play this game.


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