We gather strength as we go along
You've already, in the last years and decades, absorbed so much climate grief and loss - and you're still okay. Joy is coming, as well as pain.
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You've already, in the last years and decades, absorbed so much climate grief and loss - and you're still okay. You've already downgraded your expectations of the future, how safe and successful you expect to be in your life - and you're still okay.
Compared to what we imagined for our futures back in the 1980s, 90s, or 2000s, our visions of the future in the 2020s are grim. Our political systems are unravelling, the background murmur of ecological breakdown has risen to a roar, and our hopes for our retirement have dwindled to an expectation that we will grow old in a poor and conflict-ridden society on a scorched planet.
If your younger self from 10 or 20 years ago were suddenly jumped forward in time to this moment, they'd be shocked. The ecosystems that have already collapsed! The political extremism and corruption that has rotted our society at the root! If you read the last twenty years of headlines in one hit, you'd be devastated.
But you're okay. You're carrying on. You're devastated, but not all the time. You still feel happy, maybe more often than you'd expect. There is beauty in the people around you, in the bright moments of the day. Seeing a full moon is just as lovely now as it was back then.
What I mean is this: the coming climate shocks and ecological destruction will bring great grief to your life, not to mention inconvenience and difficulty. A life lived above 40 degrees celcius is a tough life for a mammal like you. But it won't change who you are, and it won't stop you feeling joy and delight.
You're stronger than you think. A whole lot of bad shit has happened in the last few years, and you've metabolised it all. You've soaked it up and kept on moving. You're like the little birds migrating across oceans, flying weeks at a time with no food or rest. They're blown by gales, battered by storms. Some drop out of the sky into the ocean, some freeze to death in the icy winds. But no matter what happens, they never stop flapping their wings - and they never, ever feel sorry for themselves.
Here’s the great delight of humans, the silver lining of shifting baseline syndrome: We gather strength as we go along.
In complexity science, researchers use the word 'resilience' to describe the way that systems respond to disturbances. The more resilient a system is, the bigger the shocks it can handle. A resilient system doesn't always stay the same - a person with a cold might run a temperature, and dry grassland will turn brown. But given time, a resilient system will reorganise to absorb a shock and continue functioning in the same way.
One classic way to imagine a system absorbing shocks is to think of a ball in a basin. The ball represents the system and its position in the basin represents the system’s current state.
A small shock to the system might push it around a bit, but the system wants to return to normal. The ball will eventually return to the bottom of the bowl.
A small disturbance is something that happens fairly regularly and can be expected to occur. A fire hitting a forest or an illness affecting your body are examples of small disturbances. Trees grow back after the fire - your immune system produces antibodies to fight the illness - the system returns to normal.
The lip of the basin is known as the threshold or tipping point. As long as the shock isn’t big enough to push the ball past the tipping point, the system will eventually return to its stable state at the bottom of the bowl.
The more resilient it is, the bigger the disturbances the system can absorb. A more resilient system would be represented by a deeper bowl.
Every so often, though, a shock comes along that’s big enough to push a system past its tipping point. If the ball crosses the lip it will roll out of the basin. No matter how long we wait, the system will not return to its original state. This system has a new way of operating and a new identity.
But it's worth remembering that in this world, nothing is static. Systems become more or less resilient over time. The bowl doesn't stay the same shape - it gets deeper or shallower.
The question is: if you hit a system with shocks, does that make it more resilient, or less?
On the one hand, the only way to build resilience is to be hit with repeated shocks. As the system adapts and reorganises in response to impacts, it grows more capacity to handle impact, the way that straining your muscles against resistance at the gym builds strength.
On the other hand, repeated shocks can also reduce a system’s resilience. If you keep hitting a forest with fires or a body with illnesses, you're making that system more fragile. The bowl will get shallower. Eventually, a shock that would have been minor a few years ago is enough to push the system past its tipping point.
Covid is a good example of a medium-sized global shock. By the middle of this century, we can expect to be getting shocks around that size a couple of times a decade - along with occasional bigger shocks, and many more frequent small ones.
Did Covid make us weaker or stronger?
The answer is, obviously, weaker. Covid smashed global supply chains, hammered our healthcare systems, killed millions and continues to cause massive waves of sickness and death. It left us sicker and poorer and more vulnerable. At the physiological level, repeated bouts of Covid don't make you strong as if you're going to the gym. Socially and politically, we learned nothing.
But the paradox is: we learned so much. Each of us learned what it is to navigate a pandemic crisis. We learned how to live through global supply chain shocks. We learned how to survive being trapped at home for weeks and months. We learned how to cope when our plans dissolve in our hands. We learned how fringe social movements gather strength in times of dislocation, how they divide families and friends from each other. We all had a taste of something very new and very hard.
Now we might fear a new pandemic - we should - but no matter what, we won't dread it in the same way. Because we know now what it feels like to go through one, a pandemic no longer has the fear of the unknown. Even if the next one is far more severe, or has some other new horrific twists, it won't be completely new to us.
Maybe our governments and institutions won't handle the next zoonotic threat any better. But each of us individually: I guarantee, we’ll respond quicker, we’ll be more proactive, we’ll adapt faster. And any other crisis that shuts down global supply chains or forces us indoors for weeks and months - we know how to psychologically handle that.
In 2022, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 420 parts per million, for the first time in more than 3 million years. And with it came a wave of climate impacts hitting harder and faster than anyone predicted even just 20 years ago.
So are these shocks making us stronger or weaker? More resilient or less?
At the political level, the answer seems to be: weaker. Every flood, fire, heatwave, drought and storm brings with it more disruption and upheaval, costing millions to repair, damaging the legitimacy of governments and fraying the tapestry that holds society together. Political parties and institutions that are stumbling from disaster to disaster and improvising on their feet to hold it together at 1.2 degrees do not seem likely to survive a world of 2 degrees or more.
But then again: in the climate era, maybe stumbling improvisation is exactly what survival looks like? Maybe the governments that are barely keeping pace with the rate of shocks today will still be here in fifty years time, still barely keeping pace, still changing just enough each time to make it to the next crisis... we don't know.
But at a personal level, I swear: we're gathering strength.
With every year that passes, we're getting better at living in uncertainty. These shocks are teaching us about how the world is, and how the world is going to be. Slowly but surely, we’re learning to live in the world we’re in, not the world we thought we were in. And that’s a huge achievement.
With every year, we're more conscious of the fact that those around us are going through the same existential crisis that we are. We're talking about it more openly, sharing survival strategies, we're compassionate in ways we never were. ‘Those who have suffered understand suffering, and thereby lend a hand. The storm that brings harm also makes fertile. Blessed is the grass and the herb of thorn and light.’
You can’t be scared of the future, you have to welcome it. Every good thing that’s ever going to happen to you is going to happen in the future. The future is your golden land - everything you hope for is there, stretched out before you. You can find what you're looking for, you can reach out and grab that pearl. And you won’t die until you find it - I promise you.
If nothing else, you know now that in a supply chain crisis, toilet paper is one of the first things to vanish off the shelves. Use that knowledge wisely.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
New Rules for Game Design
This month I published a series of six essays exploring different aspects of my practice - how game design can be used to grapple with complex problems in different fields. It's an update to my New Rules for Modelling series from several years ago, this time exploring a whole suite of new projects from the last two years. I'm really excited about these - please dive in if you're curious.
1. Climate finance and gaming Net Zero
2. Shocks without warning: Building games to map the future of disaster risk
3. Olympic gaming: A cybernetic lens on mega-events
4. Geoengineering games: Playable interventions in the earth's climate
5. Rewilding and time travel: Hands-on tools to manage social-ecological systems
6. No trade-offs allowed: Games for Indigenous research and cross-cultural collaboration
The big thing for me this last two months is that I presented 30+ performances of You're Safe Til 2024: Deep History, first at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then at the Barbican London.
It went... really well? The Barbican shows sold out (!), I won a Fringe First Award (!) and received a brace of really lovely reviews. I shared a few in my last newsletter, but one more:
'Performance and message combine wonderfully... an emotive, energising and highly effective evening.'
★★★★ The Reviews Hub
And here’s a lovely write-up in New Scientist, too.
Belvoir Theatre in Sydney are launching the third show in the You're Safe series in June 2023. This show, entitled Scenes from the Climate Era, is a series of 66 snapshot scenes looking at the scope of the climate conversation in the 2020s - from politics to business to science to activism to people on the frontline facing impacts.
The show will be directed by Carissa Licciardello and will (I hope) feature this frog.
Finally, I was stoked to get to share the very first scratch presentation of the fourth episode in the You're Safe series at Shoreditch Town Hall this month, with thanks to Ellie Browning. This episode is entitled The Birthday of the World, and it's a dance party celebration of the new world we're building amidst the ruins of the old.
This month I got to see two stunning live gigs - Moderat at Alexandra Palace and Autechre at the Barbican. Dig a slice of both of them:
Finally, here's an incredible video of my favourite story of all time - the creation of the moon.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.