Plague Inc: Facing the Fossil Fuel Epidemic
My wife, Ineke, plays a strategy game called Plague Inc. on her iPad. The objective is to kill off the world’s population with a contagious disease. Morbid, don’t you think? You design disease parameters such as symptoms and their severity, contagiousness, propagation method (airborne, waterborne, human-to-human, via rodents, insects, birds, etc.), target nations, and resistance to cure. Humanity (the computer) rallies against the existential threat by working to find a cure when the severity becomes obvious. Meanwhile, you—seeking humankind’s annihilation—continue to mutate the disease. A bit sadistic, but that’s the gist.
Not surprisingly, Ineke’s winning plan is to create a disease that spreads rapidly, exhibits minimal initial symptoms, and has a long incubation period. Once the world’s population is infected, and right about the time humans notice it enough to rally against it, she begins to mutate it to cause real damage.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to see parallels between this plague and climate change driven by fossil fuels. The fossil fuel economy we’ve created and upon which our prosperity up until now has been built has the dangerous side effect we call global warming (among so many others). Like Ineke’s plague, it has been spreading for years. As opposed to the game my wife plays where people, birds, or rats can be the carriers, we are the real carriers of the plague. We’re lured into the false belief that our lifestyle—our cars, planes, factories, homes and offices, power plants, and much more—must be provided thru a fossil-fueled energy system. The call of that siren song causes us to perpetuate the problem through our energy choices, but we can also provide the cure.
“Climate change” is a deceptively innocuous name, one that masks the true, negative consequences of allowing its propagation. Essentially, the threat is building while the disease incubates and spreads. Think about it. Climate change wasn’t recognized as a real problem for much of the time of the world’s industrialization. It has long been recognized as an issue, but it took until the 70s and 80s for the U.S. and many others to begin to pay real attention to the related challenges for humanity and the planet. Like Ineke’s plague, it was a sleeper threat, with minimal initial symptoms that left us none the wiser … until now.
Today, while almost all credible sources accept that global warming is occurring, a surprising number of people still question if it’s only a natural phenomenon or anthropogenic. Even though we now see signs of the burning fever that follows this plague’s over-long incubation—startling record temperatures, droughts and floods, storm intensification, an age of mass extinctions—rather than mount a full-scale assault for solutions, entrenched interests, the apathy of inertia and the status quo, and the short-term lure of fossil fuels are ensuring its spread worldwide.
In Plague Inc., my wife plays the role of an obvious villain. With fossil fuels and global warming, things are significantly more complex, and there isn’t a mastermind that actually tries to irreparably damage the world. Numerous players manipulate the outcome—all in ways capitalism and our current political process encourage—to perpetuate, even expand, the status quo for self-interest with lesser regard for the long-term social and environmental consequences. These actors don’t wake up and say, "I’m going to destroy the environment and break down its life-sustaining ecosystems."
There are groups, however, that are more invested in fossil fuels than the average person. Almost all of us can value a quality, efficient car for transportation, reliable electricity, or a comfortable home and office, but the wealth of executives and shareholders in these and other industries, and the politicians who call them constituents, depends on versions of the status quo. Given the economic stakes, we can expect many of them to continue to create and exploit uncertainty around the human cause of global warming to counter what they see as pressure to move against their self-interest.
In Plague Inc., you win by infecting a critical mass of the world with a disease before a mild fever turns into volcanic boils and more. With climate change, we must avoid the point of no return, whether the oft-cited 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration or another threshold. Our opportunity is now; we mustn’t wait until it is fatalistically too late.
But who will be our metaphorical Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin and saved millions of lives? Who will help us avert the climate and energy plague? Many are trying, and RMI is one of them leading the way. Our market-based approach taps into businesses, academia, governments, and others as the “hospitals” and “health care providers” that spread the cure. Whereas Ineke mutates her plague for ultimate death and destruction, can we now “mutate” away from fossil fuels and make cleaner energy choices? Can we accelerate bold transformations? I believe the answer must be, and is, yes.
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