Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Fate of the World - computer gaming and climate change

Ever since I first heard about a new game, called Fate of the World I've been trying to find someone who could review it for this blog. I don't play computer games myself and consequently know nothing about them, so I needed someone else . . . and then Oliver Robertson asked if I'd be interested in a review . . . so of course I said, "yes, please". Oliver is currently Programme Officer at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva.

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 ‘The world really needs a reload function.’

This is a quote from one player of Fate of the World, a computer game about climate change released earlier this year. It places you in the role of President of the Global Environmental Organisation (GEO), a kind of proto-world government, or a United Nations with more clout. You have a range of policies available to achieve your goals (chiefly, curbing global temperature increases) and a limited amount of money with which to do it.

There are various reviews on the web of how the game plays, the merits of its mechanics and its educational value (the game’s designers have made much of the fact that they used real climate modelling in designing it).

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But here, I want to look at the messages it gives out, the attitudes it promotes in responding to climate change.

First, the game helped me see more clearly how difficult it will be to keep people and planet happy and healthy. Not only do you have to deal with reducing emissions and keeping global temperatures to less than 3ºC above the pre-industrial average - that's because from the starting point of a ‘business-as-usual’ 2020, keeping to 2ºC is considered impossible; you also have to deal with peak oil, peak coal and peak gas. If you fail to keep supplying the world’s farmers, factories and businesses with the resources they need (either because you ban their use, without developing alternatives, or because they run out), you'll plunge the planet into recession, famine and war. In many ways peak oil is scarier than temperature rises. But if you fail to curb emissions quickly enough (which more or less means from turn one of the game), then global warming will grow unstoppably. Even with a 3ºC limit, you have little room for error.

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However, the second message of the game is almost diametrically opposed: keep growth and innovation going and we’ll be alright. As with many games, the far future is a glorious place. You can have a world that is richer and more highly populated, despite being 3ºC hotter. The game falls squarely into the ‘techno-fix’ camp, with future technologies (all of them already predicted) allowing CO2 to be sucked from the atmosphere by artificial trees, energy needs met almost exclusively from fusion power and endangered species kept safely within purpose-built biomes. But for your people to invent and deploy these technologies, you need to keep the economy growing, which means supplying them with resources and energy. These resources can be largely renewables-based, but the need to maintain the economy is paramount for any victory strategy.

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Two less visible issues are to do with what isn’t in the game. First is 'peak everything else'. Yes, you can run out of oil or uranium, but the game doesn’t code for for soil exhaustion or for 'peak rare metal' (needed, for example, for current wind turbines). Incidentally, one of the most interesting discussions on the main Fate of the World forum is about just this, and about the merits of different agricultural approaches. You can have games where everyone in China does have an American (though low-carbon) lifestyle. Maybe this is possible, maybe we will again go beyond what we currently think is feasible with the resources we have, but the absence of game limits on other resources means they get ignored.

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The other problem is one common to all statistics, that we forget about the person behind the number. When I am told that South Asia has experienced severe flooding but that the region’s overall population and standard of living have grown, I regard it as a good turn for South Asia. I don’t think about the people who have died or seen their life’s work washed away; I don’t think about the people who will never again be able to visit the fields they played in or the place their parents are buried. But it shouldn’t be okay to say that some don’t matter because overall things are getting better – things should be getting better for everyone.

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Similarly, if the Amazon rainforest is destroyed through global temperature rise, the impact in the game is huge emission rises and news reports; the emotional and spiritual horror of such destruction is dampened. There is no string of computer code for indigenous forest peoples whose whole world literally dies around them.

So what have I learned from playing Fate of the World? Chiefly, I think, the importance of reducing emissions now, because the negative effects are so bad later on. One of the hot topics among players currently is whether it’s ever possible to complete a game without using geoengineering (primarily sulphate aerosols) to directly reduce the temperature. The only way people in the game have managed it is through sustained economic collapse. Nobody has reported successfully keeping emissions under 3ºC through emission reductions alone from 2020 onwards, unless they use technologies that are untried in the real world.  

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I have also had my ideas challenged on where to focus our limited resources. Principles of justice, including climate justice, say that people shouldn’t suffer because of the wrongs of others, which in this case would mean that low emitters don’t lose out. But in the game, as in reality, there is the pressing need to reduce emissions as much and as quickly as possible, which means focusing on the big emitters: the developed world and the large, rapidly developing regions. Which prompts the question: how much do we want to sacrifice justice for survival?  

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The third thing I learned is that we need to change, not just for ourselves but also for our political leaders. In the game you are reluctant to undertake some emissions-reducing projects until people have adopted a greener outlook, because too many unpopular moves will get you thrown out of office and lose you the game. You will sacrifice some things that you ought to do so that you can stay in power and then try to do the right thing later. But as the game shows, we can’t wait for later. So we need to change our attitudes now to empower those in power to take the big steps they are currently reluctant to take. We need to do what we can, so that they can do what we can’t.

You can view these images (and more) and watch a trailer of the game.

Fate of the World costs $9.99 / £9.99 / €9.99 and is currently available for Microsoft Windows (XP, Vista, 7), with MAC version coming soon. You can buy it for someone else as a gift certificate. And you can buy it plus donate to Oxfam at the same time.
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Many thanks to Oliver for this post.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

To all Friends everywhere . . . Epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting 2011

In the early years of the Quaker movement (mid and late seventeenth century) there began a practice that gatherings of Quakers would send word of their deliberations to other Quakers around Britain, and later around the world. They revived a usage from the Christian Gospels, where the word "epistle" means an letter of advice or admintion, sent to a group of people - think of 'Paul's epistle to the Corinthians' and other such books in the Christian scriptures.

Quakers today still compose such epistles at the end of Yearly Meetings and some other significant gatherings. You can see a selection of such epistles on one of Jez Smith's blogs.

At the end of the recent Yearly Meeting Gathering in Canterbury (see previous two posts on this blog), Britain Yearly Meeting agreed an epistle. It picked up the Gathering's sustainability issues that I've been writing about here, as well as other themes that arose during the week. Here is the text of the epistle:
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Epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering, held at the University of Kent at Canterbury,
30 July – 6 August 2011

We send our loving greetings to all Friends everywhere.

Friends from Britain, together with Friends from other countries, gathered in Canterbury, a city with a special place in the Christian history of our islands, to reflect on “Growing in the Spirit: changing the way we live to sustain the world we live in”.

We can no longer ignore the fact that our planet is finite. We have not only inherited the earth from our ancestors: we have borrowed it from our children and from their children.

We see the connection between changing the way we live and growing in the Spirit. What is God calling us as Quakers to be and to do? Early Quakers were seen as radical religious extremists, living beyond the ordinary in their simplicity and their direct engagement with the divine. Are we, on the other hand, sliding into ordinariness? Can we reconnect with our roots, to live a religious life and proclaim a message the world needs to hear?

With joy, our Yearly Meeting has made a commitment to becoming a low carbon sustainable community. The time to act is now. We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we produce. We are called to challenge the values of consumer capitalism. Between us we have already made changes with which we are comfortable: now is the time to make uncomfortable changes. Yet through transformative action we have much to gain: a simpler life can be a richer life.

Individual action is not enough. Corporate action is needed too. It was good to hear what some of our Quaker departments and charities are doing for economic and environmental justice, and helping empower the poorest people and affirm their dignity. We must try to uphold all the people who will be working hard, individually and collectively, to take forward the commitment we have made this week. We have been encouraged to promote more publicly, Quaker work and values, and celebrate them in every way we can. We also need to contribute more money to support this and other centrally managed work of our Society.

We value the community of our local and area meetings, as well as of Britain Yearly Meeting and Friends world-wide. Acting together, and with others who share our concern, we can make a real difference, promoting simplicity, peace, equality, truth, and care for the environment. Some practical ways to do this are set out in the book of our inspiring Swarthmore Lecture 2011 – Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in challenging times.

This week has been an opportunity to practise living as a community of all ages. Sometimes all 1,500 of us gathered together, but mostly we met in smaller groups: in the Children and Young People’s programmes, Junior Yearly Meeting, Yearly Meeting sessions, and a wide range of other events. We have eaten together and prayed together; explored and created; worked and played – and tried to do it more sustainably than we have done before. This hasn’t always been easy, but it has often been fun and exhilarating.

We have held Friends around the world in our hearts, especially those who have faced hardship, oppression and loss in the last year. We are glad that some of our number will be taking messages and love from us, to Friends at the World Conference in Kenya in 2012.

The task we have set ourselves has the potential to renew our Quaker community in Britain.

Signed in and on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting.

Labyrinth on the University Campus at Canterbury, with view of cathedral in the distance

Thursday, 11 August 2011

More from Yearly Meeting Gathering at Canterbury

Our week together at Canterbury (30 July to 6 August) had two components. One was the annual business (Yearly Meeting in session), a kind of Quaker AGM; the other was the 'Gathering' - a mixture of festival, summer camp, tribal gathering . . . and much more. There were many threads running through the 'gathering' component of the week, and they included a great deal of work on sustainability issues in the broadest sense. Additionally, this year's Swarthmore Lecture was on the theme of sustainability.

The agenda for the business of the week was prepared ahead of time for the first few days, but the Friday morning session was to be 'as led' - this meant it would take note of all the other happenings during the Gathering. All through the week there had been a mechanism for groups to submit suggestions, proposals or minutes to the co-ordinating group.

The Big Top
On Thursday, in the Big Top (where all the plenary sessions were held) there was a process involving everyone to bring all these disparate ideas together, to sift them, and decide which ones should proceed to the 'as led' business session on Friday. One of these proosals was about Britain Yearly Meeting formally adopting a sustainability programme. This was accepted, and Minute 36 of the Yearly Meeting reads:

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Minute 36 : As led (Gathering up the threads)

“Sustainability is an urgent matter for our Quaker witness. It is rooted in Quaker testimony and must be integral to all we do corporately and individually.”
(A framework for action 2009-2014).

A concern for the Earth and the well-being of all who dwell in it is not new, and we have not now received new information which calls us to act. Rather we are renewing our commitment to a sense of the unity of creation which has always been part of Friends’ testimonies. Our actions have as yet been insufficient.

John Woolman’s words in 1772 sound as clearly to us now:
“The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.”
Quaker faith and practice 25.01

So we have long been aware that our behaviour impoverishes the earth and that it is our responsibility both to conserve the earth's resources and to share them more equitably.

Our long-standing commitment to peace and justice arises in part from our understanding of the detrimental effect of war and conflicts, in damaging communities and squandering the earth’s resources. As a yearly meeting we have considered this before, and in 1989 we adopted The World Council of Churchesconcern for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, minuting that this concern
grows from our faith, and cannot be separated from it. It challenges us to look again at our lifestyles and reassess our priorities, and makes us realise the truth of Gandhi’s words: Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.
In 2009 the Yearly Meeting endorsed the statement made by Meeting for Sufferings on ‘A Quaker response to the crisis of climate change’. This statement was addressed to the Copenhagen Conference and all Friends and meetings were urged to take up its challenges.

In preparation for this yearly meeting gathering, in the background reading, in many of the events and activities, in the Swarthmore lecture and in yesterday's introduction and threshing groups, prophetic voices have prompted us to wrestle once again with the immensity of the challenge we face.

We are grateful to those Friends who have responded in their own lives and who have encouraged and informed us. We know that some Friends and meetings have made changes to reduce their impact on the environment, and that there is much more which may yet be done.

We need to arrive at a place in which we all take personal responsibility to make whatever changes we are called to. At the same time, we need to pledge ourselves to corporate action. The environmental crisis is enmeshed with global economic injustice and we must face our responsibility as one of the nations which has unfairly benefited at others' expense, to redress inequalities which, in William Penn's words, are “wretched and blasphemous” (Quaker faith and practice 25.13).

The action we are ready to take at this time is to make a strong corporate commitment to become a low-carbon, sustainable community. This will require a process to establish a baseline of current witness and a framework in which individual Friends and local meetings can share their successes.

We need to allocate adequate resources to this process. This process needs to be joyful and spirit-led, with room for corporate discernment at local, area and national level. We believe this corporate action will enable us to speak truth to power more confidently. Growing in the spirit is a consequence of taking action, and action flows from our spiritual growth; here is the connectedness we seek. Only a demanding common task builds community.

“Whom shall I send?” We hear the call to this demanding common task. How will we answer it?

We have been reminded of the current work of Quaker Peace and Social Witness. We ask Meeting for Sufferings to work with area meetings and our staff to make better known our current witness and to give thought to appropriate aims for our corporate commitment and the framework which will allow our successes to be shared. We ask them to look at the priorities in A Framework for Action and ask Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees to see where there are resources that can be allocated to these priorities to support our corporate commitment and to take our action forward. In addition we ask Meeting for Sufferings to look at the issues of public policy that we might be led to adopt and advocate in the political arena.

We ask Meeting for Sufferings and Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees to report back to Yearly Meeting each year on the progress of this concern.

We ask area meetings to consider how truth prospers with regard to sustainability, taking care to relate this to all our testimonies – peace, truth, simplicity, equality and care for the environment.

We encourage local and area meetings to practise speaking truth to power at local level by establishing relationships with all sections of local communities, including politicians, businesses and schools, to encourage positive attitudes to sustainability.

To individual Friends we issue a clear call to action to consider the effect of their lives on the world’s limited resources and in particular on their carbon usage. We ask Friends to keep informed about the work being done locally, centrally and throughout the Quaker world and to educate themselves.

But above all that Friends keep in their hearts that this action must flow from nowhere but love.

If we are successful in what we set out to do, we will need to be accountable to one another, but we will also need to be tender with one another, and to support one another through the grief and fear that radical change will provoke.

“I may have faith enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing… Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth. There is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance. Love will never come to an end.”
 1 Corinthians ch. 13: verses 2-8 (parts), New English Bible.

Gathering Tent at YMG

"grows from our faith, and cannot be separated from it. It challenges us to look again at our lifestyles and reassess our priorities, and makes us realise the truth of Gandhi’s words: 'Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is' ".

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sustainability at Yearly Meeting Gathering in Canterbury

This press release was issued by Britain Yearly Meeting press office

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News Release
05 August 2011

Low carbon future for Quakers

Quakers in Britain have today committed their whole movement to becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community. They have always tried to lead simple lives but this decision goes further. It means every Quaker in Britain will be urged and supported to reduce their carbon footprint.

A plan is being drawn up to turn this commitment into action and members have agreed to support each other and hold each other to account to achieve it.

“We can no longer ignore the fact that our planet is finite,” say Quakers. “We have not only inherited the earth from our ancestors: we have borrowed it from our children and from their children.”

More than 1,500 Quakers made the decision gathered at the University of Kent in Canterbury for their annual Yearly Meeting to discern the way ahead for Quakers in Britain. The eight-day programme for all ages, from 30 July to 6 August, was an inspiring mix of worship, business, spiritual growth and fun.

Recording Clerk Paul Parker said: “We met to grow in the Spirit. We listened to God and we discovered with certainty that what the world needs of us at this time is to change our lives. Our decision is exciting. This involves every child, every adult, every person in our Quaker community.”

The decision is rooted in Quakers’ longstanding work for a peaceful and more equal world. Quakers understand that many global problems are connected: speakers during the week highlighted the fact that the environmental crisis is inextricably linked with global economic injustice. The meeting also decided to challenge the values of consumer capitalism and engage with politicians and other decision makers to develop policies to safeguard people and planet. “We believe this corporate action will enable us to speak truth to power more confidently,” says the minute recording the decision.

The same theme of sustainability and spirituality in challenging times was explored by Pam Lunn, of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, in the Swarthmore Lecture, traditionally delivered during Quakers’ Yearly Meeting. She said: “We need to take with utter seriousness the place of theology, religion and spirituality as necessary to our human response to the challenges now facing us. People of all faiths have a crucial role to play.” She spoke about Quakers’ practice of spirituality and about the “absolute need for serious and sustained spiritual discipline if we’re to develop the inner resilience to meet the challenges and demands that face us.”

Yearly Meeting focused on many aspects of Quaker life. During one session a woman who recently celebrated her marriage expressed profound thanks to Quakers for campaigning on same sex marriage. Many listening shared the joy of the two women as she movingly described the “profound step on our spiritual journey”. This was one of the first marriages of same sex partners since Quakers decided at Yearly Meeting in York in 2009, to seek a change in the law so that same sex marriages can be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, reported to the state, and recognised as legally valid, in the same way as opposite sex marriages are celebrated in Quaker meetings. Quakers are clear that changes they are making will stay within the law.

Quakers’ Yearly Meeting decision in 2009 asked for a revision of Quaker Faith and Practice – the book of Christian Discipline which guides Quakers in Britain. And those gathered in Canterbury have updated text on marriage and acknowledged further changes will reflect future changes in the law. Quakers, who were given the right to conduct marriages in England and Wales in 1753, do not have clergy. They do have registering officers who are present at the solemnisation of a marriage at a meeting for worship.

The Gathering tent at Canterbury