Prophets, wizards and games that never end

Two books on how to think about the future of the climate

Finite versus infinite games

A football game ends. It has a clear set of rules, a precise length and a mechanism to select the winner. Whichever team follows the rules to score the most goals by the end of the ninetieth minutes wins the game. Players are crowned champions in front of a fawning crowd, while losers slink away into the darkness. 

This is what the religious scholar James Carse calls a finite game in his book finite and infinite games.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Infinite games are not about winners or losers. Instead, they are about the evolution of the game itself, flowing in whichever direction the game takes them. In football culture, for example, there is no winner per se but a continuous motion. Those involved work to keep the culture alive. The referee's whistle never signal’s the end. 

It's not to say that one type of game is better than the other. Instead, splitting life into a series of finite and infinite games can be a powerful way to look at the world.

The climate as a game

Titles like The New Climate War and The climate crisis is our third world war position climate change as a finite game. A game to be won. A problem to be conquered once and for all. In some ways, these warmongers are not wrong. We all know what losing means.  

However, there is no definition of victory — we play this game so that we can continue to play.

Continuing to play means keeping the population alive, healthy and happy. The infinite game is the never-ending endeavour to use technology and policy to maintain the planet's ability to sustain us. An endeavour that needs to respond to our growing population, our growing quality of life and our increasing desire to chomp through fine steaks around the world.

Charles Mann created two opposing camps of players in this infinite game in his book, Wizards and Prophets.

Prophets

William Vogt is a prophet because he sees the world as a petri-dish. A petri-dish that is finite and depleting.

Humans are just the bacteria growing within it. At first, this bacteria grows slowly. Start with a speck of bacteria on the surface of the dish's culture. Give it a few minutes, and it divides into two. Another few minutes pass and there are four. Give it a few days and there is a six-foot film of bacteria smothering the entire surface of the planet.

Prophets proclaim a similar fate for humanity. Books like Vogt’s Road to Survival, Dr. Erlichs’ population bomb or Limits to Growth reach the same conclusion - humanity is on a death march up the exponential curve to inevitable doom.

Each step in growth means a step closer to the depletion of a critical resource. The world has a finite carrying capacity. An upper limit to what it can sustain. Greater populations and economic growth propel us towards that line.

Prophets would like us to stay away from such lines. To turn our trajectories around or else fall victim to our biological nature of growth followed by collapse. 

Wizards

Wizards see the same hurdles but continue to leap rather than turning away from them.

When the prophets first ran the numbers a hundred years ago, our petri-dish was a sad sight. The growth in farm productivity was plateauing, there was no new land to farm and the supply of Europe’s primary fertiliser - bird excrement mined from Peruvian islands - was looking dangerously low. However, wizards saw it differently.

The true problem was not that humankind risked surpassing natural limits, but that our species didn't know how to tap more than a fraction of the energy provided by nature.

Harnessing more than was available at the time required new technology. For agriculture, this was the Haber–Bosch process. Instead of waiting for bacteria to slowly fix nitrogen from the air into plant friendly compounds in the soil, two chemists side stepped nature. By reacting freely available Nitrogen from the air with Hydrogen at industrial scales, fertiliser could be shipped across the world. The vanishing Peruvian bird faeces was no longer a limiting factor to growth.

The magnitude of the change wrought by artificially fixed nitrogen is hard to grasp. Think of the deaths from hunger that have been averted, the opportunities granted to people who would otherwise not have had a chance to thrive, the great of works of art and science created by those who would have had to devote their lives to wringing sustenance from the earth... how many are owed to Haber and Bosch? How many would exist if this Wizardly triumph had not produced the nitrogen that filled their creators' childhood plates?

Alas, there is no such thing as a free meal. For each plate we farm, there's a wake of destruction left behind. Just over half of the fertiliser is consumed with the remainder spilling into lakes, rivers and what were once our boundless oceans. The result: a boom in microbes that suck the ocean dry of oxygen, and with it more wildlife than we would care to imagine. All this while, our population continues to increase.

Wizards just see this as the next problem to solve. From making new breeds of plants to absorb more sunlight to creating factories that may one day feed our planet. There are plenty of moonshots in motion. Each of the cascading effects is yet another problem to solve. 

Our future

Wizards and prophets have one unifying belief: our ability to fight our nature. Whether by fighting humanity’s growth trajectory or by fighting nature’s ability to withstand it, there’s an implicit assumption that we are in charge of our own destiny.

Charles Mann concludes his book with an annoying question: Are we special? Are we of nature or above it?

Alas, the answer comes at the end of the game.

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