“you play Worldrun, and you learn that you can’t sit on your ass and let things go to hell. You can’t just take a salary, make a profit, be a dead weight in the system.” ~ Islands in the Net
Elizabeth Kolbert popularised the idea that we’re in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, and coined one my favourite phrases; that this time “we are the asteroid.”
In her latest piece for The New Yorker, Kolbert investigates using carbon capture to address climate change. In it she explains why this is necessary, how the “extent to which the world is counting on negative emissions is documented by the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”
To peer into the future, the I.P.C.C. relies on computer models that represent the world’s energy and climate systems as a tangle of equations, and which can be programmed to play out different “scenarios.” Most of the scenarios involve temperature increases of two, three, or even four degrees Celsius—up to just over seven degrees Fahrenheit—by the end of this century. (In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two climate scientists—Yangyang Xu, of Texas A. & M., and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—proposed that warming greater than three degrees Celsius be designated as “catastrophic” and warming greater than five degrees as “unknown??” The “unknown??” designation, they wrote, comes “with the understanding that changes of this magnitude, not experienced in the last 20+ million years, pose existential threats to a majority of the population.”)
When the I.P.C.C. went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically—pretty much down to zero by the middle of this century. (This would entail, among other things, replacing most of the world’s power plants, revamping its agricultural systems, and eliminating gasoline-powered vehicles, all within the next few decades.) Alternatively, humanity could, in effect, go into hock. It could allow CO2 levels temporarily to exceed the two-degree threshold—a situation that’s become known as “overshoot”—and then, via negative emissions, pull the excess CO2 out of the air.
The I.P.C.C. considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions. In many below-two-degree scenarios, the quantity of negative emissions called for reaches the same order of magnitude as the “positive” emissions being produced today.
When I was a teenager I loved playing the computer game Sim City. In my late teens that was replaced with Civilisation. In my early 20s that was in turn replaced by the board game Risk. And much later there would be Spore, which, well, I really wanted to like. These games – mixing education with entertainment – helped me think about how cities work, how civilisations rise and fall, and how global geopolitics (kinda) work.
In Bruce Sterling’s novel, Islands in the Net – which continues to be a touchstone – one of the supporting characters, David, plays a game called Worldrun.
The screen was running David’s Worldrun game – a global simulation. Worldrun had been invented as a forecasting tool for development agencies, but a glamorized version had found its way onto the street. David, who was prone to sudden enthusiasms, had been playing it for days. Long strips of the Earth’s surface peeled by in a simulated satellite view. Cities glowed green with health or red with social disruption. Cryptic readouts raced across the bottom of the screen. Africa was a mess. “It’s always Africa, isn’t it?” she said.
As David later explains, playing this game enabled the people of this cyberpunk world to grasp its workings.
“There’s a game in the States now called Worldrun. I play it a lot, it’s very popular… Protein tech, like this, is one of your major tools for world stability. Without it, there are food riots, cities crumble, governments go down. And not just in Africa, either.”
“This is work,” Andrei said. “Not a game.”
“We don’t make that distinction,” David told him seriously.
“We don’t have ‘work’ in Rizome just things to do, and people to do them.” He smiled winningly. “For us, play is learning… you play Worldrun, and you learn that you can’t sit on your ass and let things go to hell. You can’t just take a salary, make a profit, be a dead weight in the system. In Rizome, we know this – hell, that’s why we came to Grenada.”
It’s something that motivates them to take action.
World R U I N
This was all in the back of my mind as I considered what Kolbert wrote about the IPPC’s energy and climate models and their scenarios to reduce carbon emissions.
I want to play that game.
And I don’t think I’m the only one.
Instead of Worldrun though, this would be more like World R U I N.
As the IPPC report makes clear: there are so few paths to a better state for the planet that we’d learn more by playing through to its death.
As we saw, in her article Kolbert summarises the IPPC’s recommended changes as “replacing most of the world’s power plants, revamping its agricultural systems, and eliminating gasoline-powered vehicles, all within the next few decades.”
A game engine running these energy and climate models, that made these various scenarios – for starters – playable would effectively dramatise the escalating climate chaos awaiting us, and the difficulty of navigating a path through it.
Icons of cities flooding. Bands of refugees crossings seas and continents. Landscapes ravaged by wildfire. New pandemics and old diseases alike decimating populations. Charismatic megafauna vanishing.
All displayed on a global map displaying vital stats like human population and CO2 levels, with a countdown clock to near-human extinction.
God Mode for the end of the human era, and what can be done to mitigate it.
Planetary R E S U R R E C T I O N
Seeking further information for such a game we have this selection from the more extensive recommendations in World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, who advise that to “prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual.”
- prioritizing the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitat.
- maintaining nature’s ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats.
- restoring native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes.
- rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics.
- promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods.
- further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking.
- devising and promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels.
- estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.
I want to see the scenario where the overall carrying capacity of the earth can be restored to pre-Anthropocene levels thanks to ecological restoration.
Where a next-level civilisation integrates technology with nature.
Where humanity actively encourages the continued existence of species that aren’t food, pets or entertainment.
An Earth salvaged from ruin, turned garden world. Homo Sapiens its caretakers, not destroyers.
Let’s call this end goal Planetary R E S U R R E C T I O N.
But what else might be required to achieve that?
This is the strength of such a game. Witnessing the effects of change… and the unintended consequences that accompany it.
Of all the recommendations above, talk of reducing human population size to a ‘sustainable’ level is the most alarming. Because if we’re playing a word association game, I say EUGENICS to that.
Such a planetary simulation would demonstrate how different scenarios impact Earth’s population (of humans). Such as:
- mass deaths from natural disasters and subsequent epidemics.
- ecofascist regimes enforcing a depopulation policy.
It enables different explorations and extrapolations. For example:
- What does a timeline look like when coastal cities are surrendered in advance, before the sea claims them, and their populations relocated inland?
- Can you simulate a future where significant population pressure is reduced by off-world migration… without also accelerating the destruction of the planet that’s being left behind? Should you then extend the simulation to include the Moon and Mars… and every single asteroid?
- What happens to a region when it turns away refugees for purely political reasons? What happens when that tactic dramatically backfires, and how many ways can that happen?
- How do you best manage demographic shifts from massive population change, regardless of cause?
Watching all these feedback loops intersect would be equal parts educational and motivational. It would be both informative and macabrely entertaining.
It would create something like a worldwide think-tank dedicated to planetary survival.
The great tragedy is that we’re only learning how a world works by destroying one.
Having the option to play through the end of the word before it happens – seeing what happens when attention is only given to the environment alone, or industrial concerns are prioritised above all else – might be the turning point in its salvation.
It offers the possibility of agency when to so many there only seems denial or wilful ignorance.
The closest thing my research has turned up is a decade old Flash game the BBC has left in its archive, Climate Challenge, and its scope is limited to the political control of the European Union.
It’s beyond my resources to do any more than try to imagine this into existence.
Instead, I’ll be focusing on fleshing out my own dramatic set of intersecting scenarios here.
I don’t know how the apocalypse will play out, only that it’s already in motion… and not for the first time.
As for what comes after us, or if we’ll even be remembered, I can only speculate.