Why I don’t like the “game over” language

Posted June 25th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Why I don’t like the “game over” language

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

I don’t like it because it is a message of inevitable despair, an end point in time when it’s all over, and that time coming soon. Here’s how it goes…

Science indicates that 350 ppm is the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere (it was 280 at the dawn of the industrial age). Anything above that (and we have surpassed 400 this spring) puts us in grave danger. At 450-500, where we are now headed inevitably, life will become very difficult indeed. Beyond 550 (increasingly likely), it’s “game over” for the planet. Or, if global temperatures rise another 3-4C this century, the climate will really destabilize and it’s “game over” for the planet. Or, if the Keystone pipeline is approved and the Alberta oil tar sands industry continues to expand, it’s “game over” for the planet.

Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program

Uh oh! “Game over” for the planet? Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program

But all these things and more are probably going to occur, so why get out of bed in the morning?

China is intending to move 250,000,000 more people out of rural areas into the cities over the next decade. Just imagine the energy this will require, and the pollution, even as China does more than we do in terms of developing renewable energy? Even with that, their emissions are going to rise.

How about India which is now the third largest producer of emissions by country and growing – a large part of this driven by HCFCs from booming room air conditioner sales? This is an especially nasty greenhouse gas – as is all that methane leaking from fracking wells. Are we going to sit in our air conditioned homes and offices and tell people in India that they can’t have these units? And if we can’t stop this, well, gosh, this must mean, “game over” for the planet.

Think I’ll just go back to bed right now…

Here’s another thought: what if it’s not game over? What if all this means that we are headed for a terribly difficult time on the planet and, rather than the game being over, we are going to have to live through it – what then? What will we do when we discover that the game goes on, but we have to figure out another radical way to “play” it if we want to have decent lives and a promise of healing and regeneration for our descendents?

What if it means that the “game” is not over, just civilization, just life as we have known it – and expected it to be? What if it means that all our plans to have a nice stable, secure life as handed down by the expectations of the past few generations are no longer possible and are likely to fall apart in the near future? What then? Civilizations have crumbled before – often because of the inability of those civilizations to cope with reality, with limits, or the vulnerabilities and humble place of the human within creation. Check out Easter Island (see Jared Diamond’s account) or Rome as apt metaphors for the predicament in which we now find ourselves.

The game was not over for the planet, just for those cultures and empires – because they overshot their environment, or created resentment, rivalries and bitter legacies of oppression, because hubris won over their psyches and refused entry to the fact that how they were living, the bases of their civilizations, were not tenable, not realistic, their belief systems not consistent with the truth of the living ecosystems in which they were embedded.

The game was not over for the planet; it was over for those civilizations.

What I fear is that this language blocks our view of what is to come, rather than clarifying it. You see, even if we stopped all our greenhouse gas emissions today, the CO2 now in the atmosphere would grow and linger for a very long time making those “game over” levels close to inevitable. But we won’t stop now, and not for a long time – because we are not going to plunge the world into global economic catastrophe, which would mean unimaginable human suffering, by doing anything that sudden.

Turning this industrial ship around, this supertanker of a global economy, will take time – time we had starting back in the day of this Walter Cronkite news story, but which we no longer have. There is no way to bring this industrial world down gently anymore. Even now, we are how many generations away from a global consensus about what is necessary – especially as we move to 10 billion humans on the planet by 2050 – all of whom expect to eat and drink and have housing and work and schools and ways to get around.

Walter Cronkite on Climate Change: 1980

So we’re headed for a very bad time. If the inevitable means “game over,” then why bother? May as well retreat to a hermitage in the woods and read poetry for the rest of my life. At least I would seriously reduce my carbon emissions!! which would contribute nothing at all to ease the suffering to come.

A “game over” slogan leads to at least two things: frantic desperation as we get closer to the end point for Mother Earth; a sense of helplessness and resignation as we realize there is nothing we can do to keep the game from being over. It also brings many people to simply opt out of the struggle, to clear their conscience and become guilt-free via lack of participation. But back in my old Roman Catholic growing-up world, we learned that there were sins of omission as well as commission. Since we are all part of this one living system that is our Earth, we all have a responsibility to the future of life within it.

So then what happens when we discover even in the chaos and crisis that the game is not over, but that instead we will find ourselves living in a depleted world running out of what we need for life, including beauty? What happens when huge impacts and tragedies begin to manifest (they already are), and yet here we still are – or most of us anyway. I mean, maybe there will be a huge human die-off along with the Sixth Great Extinction event already underway, but human communities will be around a while – and what do we want them to look like, how do we want life to be, as we move through this time of planetary instability and collapses of ecological communities that have nurtured us for so long, until we started ripping them to shreds?

Here’s a fairly dire description of the bad news about, you know, not the planet, which is simply going through yet another huge climate transition among many in its 4 billion year history, but about how rapidly conditions for the acceleration of climate change are shifting beyond some of the more dire predictions.

Climate change: Is it game over for earth?

Does the article answer the question in the headline? Would it be better to write: “Climate change: can we face this truth and begin the quick transition to a way of life consistent with this knowledge”? Is this possibly a more empowering headline or theme for a news article – or an activist or culture-shifting campaign? Can we look this truth full in the face and then sit down with our communities of all kinds and start the process of envisioning and creating the ways of life consistent with the need for rapid mitigation of the drivers of climate change, and then adaptation in the form of new human communities resilient enough to live through this transition?

"The Children Area Asking" - art by Mary Southard, CSJ

“The Children Area Asking” – art by Mary Southard, CSJ

I think getting rid of that slogan, and maybe even the impossible 350 target (no hope of getting back to that in any graspable time frame) may help us think differently, and feel differently, about what we need to do. Setting an impossible goal with a despairing message may not be the best approach to encouraging social and cultural transformation.

What we do need are the kinds of approaches that light inspiring and creative fires among us. We can’t see the future clearly, or how this will unfold. The atmosphere and biosphere are both being destabilized at the same time and we are certainly in for some surprises. Maybe one of those surprises will come from the human. You just never know. But it’s time to unleash our visionary best, and our most unselfish best. It is time to look upon the era coming as one of the biggest transitions in human evolution. It’s going to come from crisis and chaos and collapse, rather than from forethought, deliberation, and careful planning. The western industrial part of our species has never done well with the latter. Maybe that’s the part of the species that needs to go extinct – so that the rest can figure another way to be.



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