Tales of Our TimesBy JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
The computer is a bringer of prospects. But how did it get stuck with the name “computer?”
Few in the crowd compute. Many more think of video games, texting or maybe e-books. “Greens” think of smart cars and paperless records.
Rare is the breed hooked on sustainability games, a many-sided teaching tool. Yet, games may be the best hope we have that coming generations will work out the problems we pass to them.
“Sustainability games” are computer games that test a player’s skill at stretching the world’s natural resources of every kind. The games take many forms.
Players may strive to outdo each other or one player can try to beat his own best score. Players make choices in utilizing resources so that people’s needs and popular wants can be met as far into the future as possible.
People’s needs include sufficient food, drinking water, shelter, heat, light and transportation (energy).
Popular wants include seashores, mountains, coffee, chocolate, pet food and animals of all habitats.
“Sustainability” is like most everyday words: the image that pops to mind depends on the scene from our window. On the near horizon, the word means maintaining forests, shores, marshlands and jobs. It means cutting waste of land, energy, materials and life forms. The near horizon is in the news every day.
On the far horizon, things get hazier. A big, hazy question is world population. Will it keep increasing or will something amiable cause it to stabilize?
The more people fill the earth, the more demands are put on the land to fill multiple needs and wants. One day world population may push efficient use of land into the news as often as energy and water.
Nature has its say. It is a fact that fossil fuels and nuclear reactors are more concentrated, or more “dense,” forms of energy than wind and solar.
Is it better to use land for crude oil, natural gas or nuclear than for wind or solar? Keep in mind the means of transmission, too. Every increment of population increases the competition among needs, wants and land available to supply them.
Competition for items in short supply drives up prices. The competition is real. Already farmland to raise corn for food competes with raising corn for fuel. Already solar power projects compete with habitat for endangered species in the Mojave Desert.
Sustainability is a matter of juggling many factors, which humans do so poorly.
Computer games, or simulations, excel at juggling. They keep close tabs on lots more factors at once than we can.
Computers also track uncertainties far better than people can.
Large uncertainty is when world population will stabilize, at what level. Factors are afoot that may constrain the supply and use of fossil fuels. The uncertainties are which factors come into play, when, at what levels.
Computers cope easily. A game can start by dialing in a medium value of population and a low level of constraint on fossil fuels. For the next game, dials can be reset to a high population and high constraints on fossil fuels. And so on.
Each game played has an outcome in consequence. The first insight is that uncertainties matter.
Games do not tell us which real-life decisions to make. Yet little by little, players get a sense for strings of decisions that are connected with an outcome. It is called learning.
Sustainability games give a feel for the boundaries of stretching the Earth’s resources to keep more people doing well enough.
They are just games, as are military games, Monopoly, and sports competitions. They all teach useful lessons faster than life teaches.