Gaming Malthus with “Fate of the World”

I have submitted this to the Record-Bee for my December Green Chain column.


“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” – John Stuart Mill

In 1901, while searching for giant clams for dinner, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos found an encrusted bronze device near the wreckage of a 2,100-year-old Roman merchant ship. It was discovered off the southern coast of Greece near Antikythera (an-ti-ki-theer-uh) Island, so it became known as the Antikythera mechanism. Sophisticated imaging has revealed its elaborate gears and the inscribed names of places and months. It is an orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system. In a letter, Cicero describes such a mechanism which, “at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night.” It also computed equinoxes, solstices, phases of the moon, and eclipses of the moon and sun and, as an added benefit, the timing of future Olympiads. The Antikythera mechanism was a computer.

Stadiatos dived for dinner and discovered the past, now you can dive into the dystopian future—which a new video game purports to reveal—unless you can prevent it. The scenario for Fate of the World (FotW) starts in the year 2020 when climate change induced disasters strike. Then the “World Environment Organization,” (a turbo-charged United Nations), makes you the climate czar to “decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.” Here’s an example from a review in Britain’s Guardian:

“Put an emissions cap on a growing economy, stifling growth, and they’ll get fed up and throw your agency out of the area. Encourage investment and prosperity and there’ll soon be environmental consequences. Each turn sends you forward five years – and you’re informed as the game progresses of the many changes that take place in the world as temperatures increase.”

Gabion Rowlands of Red Redemption, the game’s development company, claims FotW provides realistic glimpses at scary futures because it relies on current scientific models. He believes climate change will cause “population issues, land issues, possibly resource wars, mass migration; a whole range of disasters and impacts, in fact.”

Color me skeptical.

I could point out that 98.5 per cent (210 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2 is the greenhouse gas most mentioned) entering the atmosphere comes from natural sources in the world’s carbon cycle, while people add only 1.5 per cent (3.2 billion metric tons) to the total.(Christy 2002) (The IPCC says the the human caused CO2 figure is 7.2. Still a small fraction of natural.)

I could point out global warming is not likely to precipitate world chaos; after all, using previous warm periods as guides, the earth should be wetter (because of greater evaporation from the oceans), with fewer droughts, with more drinking water, and with higher crops yields. (Ridley 2010)

And, I could point out that all the models use a positive feedback to amplify effects. Without these yet unproven feedbacks doubling CO2 produces a 1C degree change over the coming century—hardly cataclysmic. (Lindzen 2010)

I will point out FotW’s undercurrent of misanthropy—people are the problem. FotW beats a familiar rented mule: overpopulation. Boil down the babble, this drives FotW: lower the number of people and you lower the output of CO2 thus saving the world. One of the game’s producers posits that a player could fix things by deciding to decimate much of the planet’s population with an engineered super-virus. “The first thing to say about this is the obvious, that killing every last person in Africa would have less impact on climate change than getting Westerners to use 10% less energy.”

So that’s the idea: damage occurs in direct proportion to the number of people and their affluence and technology. More effluence with affluence. It is “not rocket science,” according to biologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich. “Two billion people, all else being equal, put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than one billion people. Two billion rich people disrupt the climate more than two billion poor people.” Which is why North Korea makes a shining example and Eden-esque paradise.

The idea of people being mere consumers and not innovative producers is probably as old as humanity. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death (through famine, war, or disease must) visit the human race.” In other words, people breed until they exhaust all available food and all natural resources; so keeping human population in check is necessary. Note that in Malthus’s time, population stood just shy of one billion. Today it exceeds six billion.

Malthus went onto computer chips in 1972 when a think-group calling itself the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth.” It is based on World3, an MIT professor’s computer model. The code that girded World3 followed the precepts of Thomas Malthus. Author Peter Huber explains one of World3’s subroutines: “Agricultural investment increased agricultural output, which increased birthrate but also pollution; pollution decreased agricultural output, and so on.” Instead of predicting higher temperatures as FotW does, the Limits to Growth predicted crippling shortages of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas within a decade. The shortages never happened.

To me, FotW looks like Malthus on a computer chip again—it is misanthropy cloaked in science. They conjure climate change as the latest trump card requiring draconian remedies. And, for being ‘just’ a game, it’s serious stuff. According to an opinion piece in the journal Nature, “Over the past decade, evidence has grown that computer-based play can support learning in schools.” A British government study “found that students whose lessons included interactive games were more engaged in curriculum content and demonstrated deeper understanding of concepts than those who did not use games.”

Now I have no window into our future and we should not be complacent, but let us consider what has actually occurred on this earth—not a model—since 1970. Despite the world’s population nearly doubling since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms); the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped more than two-thirds; we are better fed (the average person in a developing country eats nearly one-third more calories); forests still cover 99% of what they did in 1970; known mineral reserves have not grown too scarce; and, rather than shrinking, petroleum and natural gas reserves have more than doubled and quadrupled respectively. By the way, the world’s population growth rate has been falling since the 1970s; it is not expected to double and reach 12 billion, ever.

The users of the Antikythera mechanism set their model of an earth-centric universe in motion by turning a crank. At the front, pointers indicated the future location and phase of the planets and sun and moon. Because they had the earth at the center, planets went into “retrograde,” that is they appeared to move backward in the heavens. The most learned minds fashioned the orrery to mimic the way they believed their celestial sphere worked. (Though many had speculated about a heliocentric system, it took more than 15 centuries to upend the old model with Copernicus declaring the sun to be the center of our solar system.)

So too, do World3 and FotW give flawed answers via their electronic gears and cogs.

I am recommending a “Don’t Buy” for Fate of the World. Get a DVD of the old Soylent Green instead; in 40 years FotW futures will look as realistic as that movie does now.

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A pox on humanity…and just in time for the holidays too!

Earth Hour 2008

Image by labanex via Flickr

The Fate of the World rests in your chip-laden hands.

The holidays have arrived and you still don’t know what to get that dystopian gamer in the family, do you? You know the one: the moody, militant, and misanthropic neo-Malthusian who says that SimCity is for pussies. He’s sure that humanity is sucking down the earth’s resources faster than Gary Busey snorted cocaine, and we have overpopulated, overused, and under-appreciated all that the earth has done for us.

Well look no further, that gift will have to be the new game released today, Fate of the World. According to the game’s designers, gamers will be able to “Decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.” You heard correct: Global warming and overpopulation. Not since Y2K‘s earth destroying threat (you remember, the world’s computers were going to reset to year zero on January 1, 2000, plunging everyone (except those still analog such as North Korea) into chaos as planes fell from the sky and…Don’t remember huh?) has an impendo-catastrophe gripped us the way global warming has. And, toss in three billion more people on the planet, who in the words of the game’s developers, “are demanding ever more food, power, and living space,” and well it just gives one chills, does it not?

On second thought, get him a DVD of Soylent Green. It’s more reality based.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Pk3QDC84Go&w=320&h=194]

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