Why 'South Park' Doesn't Understand Climate Change

©. Courtesy of Comedy Central

The show gets a lot right about climate change, but it misses something major about human nature.

"South Park" just ran a couple episodes about climate change. The show gets a lot right about the history of the problem, but it screws up a key factor of human nature in the process, one that could completely flip the future.

In the recent episodes, the main characters — a few schoolboys — discover that past generations made a deal with a demon (a thinly-veiled symbol for climate change). Old people traded the environment for cars and ice cream.

"It's here because of their greediness," explained one of the boys.

"Everyone's greedy!" shouted the boy's grandfather.

In the end, the demon offers the citizens of South Park a deal: He'll go away forever ... If they give up soy sauce and their favorite video game.

"Just ... plain rice?" murmurs one resident.

The citizens of South Park turn down the deal, opting instead to sacrifice future generations and lives of children in third world countries so they can keep playing video games and eating tasty rice.

"Yeah, I thought so," jabbed the grandfather.

The message is as simple as it is hopeless: humans, or at least Americans, won't give up their luxuries to save the planet.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show's creators, are beloved by libertarians, and this philosophy shows through in the episodes. The show regularly suggests humans are completely selfish and incapable of banding together to make a better world. Thus, when it comes to climate change, humanity is doomed.

I've been watching "South Park" all my life, and I agree with a lot of the show's ideas — such as that humans, individually, may not make enough sacrifices to save the environment. But I take issue with the idea that we can't band together to make these changes as a group. In fact, the scenario "South Park" ended with is the precise scenario that could save the world.

No one wants give up something they like on their own. But the game changes when a whole society agrees to make a sacrifice. Think about it: you may not often buy meals for hungry people. But Americans tax themselves so the hungry can have food stamps. It's all about knowing everyone else is making the sacrifice too.

We can organize to act collectively rather than relying on everyone to behave individually. I may not stop buying soy sauce on my own. But if I knew my giving up soy sauce would save the world, I'd do it in a heartbeat. That's the beauty of collective action — everyone pitches in knowing that, since everyone else is doing it, the problem will actually get fixed.

Humanity can handle collective decision-making, even when economic sacrifices are involved. During the Great Depression, the government shut down the banks for a few days to prevent bank runs. The government was terrified that, when the banks reopened, people wouldn't trust them and hoard their money, collapsing the economy. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on the radio for a "Fireside Chat."

"The success of our whole national program depends, of course, on the cooperation of the public -- on its intelligent support and its use of a reliable system," FDR said. "After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work."

And that's what happened. When the banks reopened, Americans returned "more than half of their hoarded cash to the banks within two weeks and by bidding up stock prices by the largest ever one-day percentage price increase," explained William L. Silber, an economics professor at New York University. "Contemporary observers consider the Bank Holiday and the Fireside Chat a one-two punch that broke the back of the Great Depression."

Trust convinced people to risk their savings. It wouldn't happen in the fictional town of South Park, but it happened in the real world. Humans also routinely band together to build roads, fund schools and pay firefighters.

"South Park" sees the world as zero-sum: my win is your loss. In a zero-sum world, no one would ever sacrifice soy sauce to save the planet, or money to build roads. But climate change isn't a zero-sum problem. Instead, it might be what economists call a "collaboration problem."

In collaboration problems, people can act selfishly, and all end up worse, or they can collaborate, and end up better. Neither choice is inevitable; it all depends on trust. If people trust each other, they'll collaborate to make themselves and everyone else better off. Americans trusted FDR enough to return their money to banks. That took a greater leap of faith than making provisions to deal climate change. Losing your life saving is a much bigger risk than giving up beef, making planned obsolescence illegal or building bike lanes.

This isn't to say that government, or other groups, actually will take the steps necessary to end climate change. Just that we could. But that possibility is a big deal, and it means we needn't give in to cynicism.

Humans can act together. We can inspire each other or, more simply, we can pass laws that make companies and individuals act in everyone's best interest. Even if it means plain rice.