Plenty of media, including books, podcasts, or games, can make us better armchair activists. The challenge is to remember to hold competing ideas in tension, because real-world policy doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

With international research groups routinely reminding us that our countries and non-governmental organizations are failing to meet climate change mitigation targets, what’s an average citizen to do? Every few news cycles, we’re given menacing numbers that, while arbitrary, are also informed by very real ecological tipping points. 2.8°C above pre-industrial temperatures: the best-case scenario if we fulfill current pledges in process. 2.4°C: the best-case scenario if the rest of our pledges are set into motion. 1.5°C: the actual cap we were shooting for, to protect polar ice sheets from further collapse, and a threshold we have a 66% chance of breaching in the next five years.

The number that haunts me the most, though, came from a Berlin-based think tank assessing the amount by which different countries would have to reduce their lifestyle impact to help the world meet its goal. 95%. That’s the number Hot or Cool gave my birth-country of Canada. A 95% reduction in lifestyle footprint by 2050, to do its part to heal the coming world.

Shall we throw in a unicorn too?

In some ways, I’ve already done my part, by living a much lower-impact lifestyle in Colombia. Procreating was never part of the plan for me. I don’t own a vehicle. I walk or take local transit, and keep a flexitarian lifestyle (because one does not say no to whatever an abuela serves you, in a culture where many do not have the luxury of dietary exclusions). Material holdings plummeted when I moved here, too, because there’s less of a hobby culture, the likes of which normalizes Westerners buying and showing off their latest gadgets, trinkets, and other consumer items made through industrial processes with huge imprints.

But even amid these so-called “choices”, I’m acutely aware of how much community matters. If the whole culture isn’t ready for change, it is very difficult for even well-intentioned citizens to lean into something else. Where I last lived in Canada, there were maker spaces and tool libraries, but with membership fees that often priced out lower-income citizens who might need access more. Downtown services for the houseless and those in transition from prison, domestic abuse scenarios, and rehab programs were routinely under pressure from tech and business workers who disliked the sight of struggle on “their” streets. Housing regulations and NIMBY-ism made building new forms of community difficult.

We live in cultural bubbles, in other words, and it’s no surprise that we espouse different approaches to ecological activism from them. If one lives a fairly comfortable and material existence in a culture where living with less is treated as a sign of failure, is it any wonder that one might lean toward neoliberal techno-optimism? We just need more tech! We just need to uplift everyone to the level of wealth I’m enjoying! Yes, we might be failing to reach our mitigation goals, but the machines to fix things are right around the corner! And if we need to undergo a few risky climate moves in the short term, well, what else can we do?

That last, however, is a question we could stand to take more seriously. We might not all be showing up at protests, or joining a struggle long carried out by Indigenous and local activists to disrupt mining, fracking, petroleum industry lobbying, and deforestation efforts in our necks of the woods. We might not all be actively improving climate change readiness through energy, carbon capture, and farming upgrades that require tooth-and-nail battles with regional government agencies.

But we can unlearn a cozy, armchair activist comfort with having all the answers.

We can make ourselves ready for the messy and collaborative work that real change will entail, when at last it comes our way.

Turning gamification to our advantage

I was a Sid Meier’s Civilization(s) kid. I’d spend “just one more turn” trying to optimize the development of a civilization through that sprawling philosophical labyrinth of a PC game. I favored the Cultural, Space Race, and Diplomatic victory paths, but I learned early on that one had to compromise with some military might, because other civilizations would still aim for victory by Conquest or Domination.

One history of socialism ties nicely into the lesson learned from compromise in such games. The Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath coined the term “scientific utopianism” while developing an approach to social planning that encouraged a holistic view of policy consequences. This was critical, because while capitalism sought to maximize a single metric (private profit), with the expectation of trickle-down effects for all others, socialist thinking sought to maximize multiple metrics: often in direct competition with one another, and with full knowledge that concession will always be part of the balancing act.

For instance, some liberty for all requires a cap on maximal liberty for any given citizen. Equal baseline access to food, shelter, clean water, safe transport, education, good air quality, redress for harm, and medical aid requires a cap on what individuals can sequester in the way of property and use of force for themselves.

Neurath’s scientific utopianism was about process more than outcome, and he developed it through a commitment to more accessible theoretical language, and the creation of exhibits where people could explore firsthand the interconnected consequences of various policy positions. This was a form of humanities education: a way of studying the world in which we learn to hold ideas in tension, without rushing to their synthesis.

Neurath was a strong proponent of creating a universal jargon that would allow for a greater connection with the “global polis”.

And whether in academia, a museum, or on a computer screen, some exercises in “staying with the trouble” are excellent for teaching us not to leap decisively to certain ends: not because it’s ill-advised to hold ideas strongly, but because we cannot effectively apply those ideas if we lose sight of the full landscape in which they reside.

Playing a climate-change policy simulation game doesn’t change the real world.
But it can change the player.

Eco-resource management and policy games

In 2011, I played a Steam game called Fate of the World. It was a maddening experience, and I don’t think I ever won. But I was playing this resource management game, which invites you to imagine setting international policy to mitigate climate change, at a time when global warming denialism was still platformed by mainstream news. When average well-intentioned people, fresh from a decade of 9/11 trutherism and mired in further cultures of other false-flag paranoia, were still consigned to wasting precious time haggling with those who insisted that 97% scientific consensus meant there was a relevant debate about whether or not human processes had accelerated the Earth’s warming.

Somehow losing over and over and over to this simulation, which was dedicated to imagining ways of healing our planet, felt like the less futile waste of time.

And it was, because even in losing I was learning key skills.

The game, after all, didn’t just imagine policy platforms. It also incorporated the human side of the equation. That’s why I kept losing: because of the difficulty of trying to implement scientifically sound climate change policy in a way that humans dealing with immediate regional crises would accept. On paper, we armchair activists might think that the “right” thing to do seems obvious, but there’s a pragmatic mess of red tape, political ego, and civic panic and impatience that especially undermines our efforts to get costly long term projects off the ground.

For example:

Take, for instance, our present issue of accelerated heating. Consider all those broken heat records that we know are going to be broken again very soon.

It’s scary, isn’t it? Power grids failing for want of proper investment in alternative energy. Infrastructure built for cooler climates leaving whole cities ill-prepared for modern heat waves. Raging forest fires exacerbated by atmospheric conditions worsened by oil and gas industry.

Even if more locals are finally cluing in on the fact that we have a problem, are they going to have the maturity to support long term solutions?

Our two worst greenhouse gases have very different timescales and levels of impact. In the short term, methane levels (elevated this year by El Niño’s return) are causing a more immediate spike in global heat. If we can drastically reduce methane emissions, from coal mining sites especially, we’ll see a significant drop in methane-derived heating in nine years. For CO2? We’re looking at another order of magnitude in our timeframe to reduce existing damage. For CO2, the drive is to drastically reduce further damage, but that’s going to be a tall order culturally without the easy reward of heat figures dropping any time soon.

Oh, and it gets worse, because many technologists are champing at the bit to deploy an even shorter-term solution: solar geoengineering. This is an extremely risky body of quick fixes that aims to reduce the amount of solar radiation entering our atmosphere to be trapped as heat at all. Early modeling suggests that it would negatively impact rainfall and overall weather patterns (much like the supervolcanic disruptions it’s inspired by: think about what happened to the world’s crops in 1816, the “year without a summer” in Europe). There’s also a strong chance that it could aggravate suffering among some of the world’s already hardest hit regions: a chance that some Westerners are very willing to take to conserve their own quality of life.

To be clear, there are also responsible business-oriented approaches to climate change. For pragmatic conversations about private sector initiatives, I highly recommend Climate Rising, a podcast out of Harvard Business School that explores the best in the “green growth” push for decarbonization: including how to meaningfully achieve net zero targets, and what conversations around climate change actually look like in major corporate enterprises. In a recent episode, two energy resource experts with international policy experience offered thoughtful advice to businesses seeking net zero emissions, stressed the difference between annual reductions and optimal hour-by-hour decarbonization, and highlighted times when mass electrification (while trendy and therefore good PR) is not actually the most effective way to achieve energy reforms.

But business is also filled with bad actors, which is why even some of the best advocacy for solar geoengineering, such as Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering, first calls for the public to “[seize] the means of climate production”. Tech and agriculture lobbies love solar geoengineering not because it’s the most responsible option, but because it reinforces industry centrality in climate change mitigation, and plays into the assurance that bigger tech fixes are right around the corner.

This will just be a stopgap, they promise: as if a stopgap is ever a neutral policy move; as if a stopgap doesn’t spend the political will that’s needed to invest in bigger changes. Unfortunately, even if a few companies are pursuing more ethical internal approaches to energy consumption and overall environmental impact, we still need to push elected officials to do what’s necessary to bring down not only methane levels in the short term, but also CO2 in the long term.

What’s to be done instead?

Half-Earth Socialism, degrowth, and more

Last year, Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese published Half-Earth Socialism. It’s by no means the first book to imagine solutions to our current climate crisis, but it’s one that presents a nicer spin on a much-maligned phrase in policy circles: degrowth. The problem with degrowth, some contend, is that it has a negative connotation; it invokes the idea of humans losing access to material liberties, without highlighting all the increased direct democracy and social support that transformed, hyper-local communities reclaim in the process.

“Half-Earth socialism”, conversely, is a term that suggests both transformation and the world beyond it. A world where we’ve massively rewilded our planet to boost climate recovery through natural ecological processes. A world where we’ve changed our lifestyles to better suit an energy system built solely on renewables. A world where production, especially for food, is both sustainable and enough. A world where we’re at reduced risk of further pandemics and other extreme diseases thanks to reduced biodiversity pressures, too.

Is it a sorry sign of our times that we’re haggling over terminology while the world boils, burns, and floods? Absolutely. But if better messaging is all we really need to onboard whole cultures to more meaningful change, well, so be it. Pendergrass is an environmental engineer pursuing a PhD at Harvard in refining supercomputer models of the Earth’s atmosphere. Vettese is an environmental historian and humanist whose dissertation explored histories of neoliberal environmentalism with a focus on energy systems and animal life management.

Together, they may not have found the solution, but they have most certainly presented a compelling framework for policy discourse.

And they’ve done this not just by writing a book, but by turning their book into a game, which has of course reached a much wider audience.

Half Earth Socialism is a card-based resource management game, much like Fate of the World. But while the two share research, tech, and policy strategies, they differ in some of the mechanics you’re meant to monitor during your global reign.

In HES, you have to keep enough political will to protect your position from internal threats, and enough public contentment that average citizens don’t drive you from office. All the while, you’re trying to invest in research, policy mandates, and infrastructure reforms without overloading electrical, power, crop, and livestock production processes that you’re also trying to transform as you go. Your aim is to reduce biodiversity pressures, emissions, and overall temperature. Each play-through is made a touch different not only by your actions but also by probabilities you’re always gambling on, with respect to avoiding plagues and nuclear meltdowns to achieve your research outcomes in time.

Along the way, ecological disasters come with tidbits about their origins, to improve player understanding of what issues in our systems will lead to collapse.

The game is constructed so that you can take quite a few approaches to achieve your goals. If you want, you can ally with the Malthusians, Authoritarians, Consumerists, and Accelerationists, pushing for planetary transformation by rigid public mandates and reliance on fancy new tech and industry. But my strategy hasn’t much changed since my Civilization days, when I almost always tried to win peacefully. Here I leaned into the Utopians, Fanonists, Environmentalists, Ecofeminists, and Animal Liberationists. I also leaned into recommendations from the book: so, rewilding, reducing energy consumption, and swapping out food systems as quickly as I could.

Still, it took me quite a few tries to figure out the right balance of establishing policy, pursuing infrastructure reform, and investing in further research. Many times, the world was doing much better by environmental stats, but I’d pushed change through too quickly and drastically, and the people rose up before I could finish my work. Other times, I’d kept them content, but I wasn’t making enough meaningful change to achieve my technical goals in time.

I did figure it out, as the above stats in a near-endgame scenario attest to. But one item on that list was a last-minute accelerationist play, just in case my other reforms didn’t get temperature below 1°C. In the preceding play-through, I’d come close, but temperature had been stuck. One concession on ideals became necessary to win.

The really sneaky trick, though?

I realized after a few play-throughs that my problem came from listening to an in-game advisor who suggested I try everything: that something would eventually stick.

This advisor’s argument came from the same urgency that fuels the rush to quick and reckless fixes here and now. After all, the temperature is rising! Everything is getting worse! We have to try everything if we’re going to make it better… right?

Holding ideas in tension to make better choices

I’ll accept many changes in our new world order, but I’ll still be a stickler for certain grammar conventions within it.

Playing a climate-change policy simulation game doesn’t change the real world.

But it can change the player.

And the story that this game was telling me offered two key lessons:

  • One: whether or not I agree with the authors’ proposed vision for a path through climate crisis, I live in a world where multiple visions of crisis mitigation are clamoring for attention and priority. And,
  • Two, relatedly: even though they must all be kept in mind, some can only be pursued at cost to others. Some are too risky, and will only undercut the benefits of the rest, no matter how well-intentioned their proponents might be.

OnlySky‘s Captain Cassidy has written on the value of gaming to defuse frustration with the state of our world. Her discussion included reference to a whole host of scenario-based games that can improve our understanding of ecological, human rights, and civic state disasters.

But we can lean into podcasts, books, or games in ways that will open us to new possibilities, or in ways that only entrench existing points of view. The key is to recognize where our approach is closing us off to the consideration of alternatives. Even if we’ll ultimately reject them, the point is to remember that they exist, and are embodied by others actively pursuing changes, too.

Much as I loved the Civilization games, there’s a core failing in their mechanics: the rigidity of research pathways. To grow as a society one always had to go through the same causal chains, no matter what civilization you were playing. Even the Native Americans couldn’t bypass eras of ruinous tech; one had to discover oil and ruin the world with it, before gaining the environmental know-how to do better.

This game mechanic reflects a sense of inevitability that many people bring to real history: a view of our past that doesn’t adequately reflect the fluidity of our ancestors’ movements into and out of production processes as they saw fit. From this mechanic, one can also see where technologists get their pseudo-scientific optimism: if you believe in the existence of a set development path with teleological endpoints, then of course one simply needs to keep creating. The better ends of modern tech are guaranteed because they’re just a little further down the road.

That same sense of fated outcomes can afflict us as we experience the news today, especially as average citizens with little agency to respond to climate change disaster. It’s not that we throw up our hands and do nothing; it’s that we often throw up our hands and give over to the first fix that comes along. Because it’s urgent, right?

The world’s burning now, is it not?

But with urgency comes the necessity of learning how to act responsibly.

Learning to sit with failure, and keep going.

Learning to sit with multiple approaches, and accept that they can’t all be reconciled.

Learning to sit with new intel, and let it guide us to try things a different way.

These are skills that we can hone even from our armchairs, to defend against the sort of impulsive decision-making that desperation yields.

And then put into real-world practice, wherever our limited agency yet allows.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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