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Apr 9, 2013

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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Images 1 and 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.com.


Showing 1-6 of 6 comments

April 10, 2013

I believe presenting energy consumption metrics with associated greenhouse gases is acredible method to focus attention on what matters for sustainability. What cannot be measured cannot be managed.

April 10, 2013

Nya, good point about the importance of understanding and quantifying how energy use is driving climate outcomes. Thanks for the comment.

April 11, 2013

Brad we don't need a white and shining armored knight as you suggest, maybe you do who knows. What we need in the U.S. is to move ahead at the same speed as Germany, maybe double time since we are more than a decade behind. We need to decentralize all energy production and distribution - no more investors, stock or bonds, ceo's or corporate control. That(!) is the only way forward if we are ever to get off fossil fuels. BTW the German army put out a report in 2010 saying we only had 10 years before the shit hit the fan - meaning there will be a world oil shortage to the point of economic collapse. It's 2013 we only have 7 years left and I believe the European's over anyone in the U.S.. -- It's a two fold solution: convert all private homes of the average person (no rich people they've got more money than god) to PassivHaus design while installing solar, wind and methane production nation wide. Use less, then what you need comes from only renewables. --Richard Boettner, Speaker & Educator everything Sustainable

April 13, 2013

“'Climate change' is a deceptively innocuous name, one that masks the true, negative consequences of allowing its propagation."

Exactly so. One available coping mechanism is to stop using deceptively innocuous names and start using more descriptive ones, like 'climate disruption' or 'planetary overheating'. Begin with the next thing you write...

April 19, 2013

Market forces are relatively blind. They favor profitable outcomes, frequently at the expense of the common good. They are prone to manipulation and, without a lot of attention and forceful regulation, they result in gross concentrations of wealth. Where phenomena like global warming and climate disruption are concerned, we need forceful intervention by government on behalf of the common good. Short of that .... We've seen several dramatic restructurings of markets since our elites decided to" let the market rule," and we may see another with the improvements in distributed energy generation. That is certainly hopeful. But, we seem to be operating in a situation where we simply don't have the time to see if renewable energy technologies will lead to rapid enough change. Moreover, we're definitely wasting time and energy pursuing solutions that will benefits the fossil fuel and energy elites while addressing climate change. The kinds of "solutions" being proposed by Big Utility would certainly help solidify their position in the energy market. It's less clear that they will allow a shift to renewables that is rapid enough to escape monumental damage. Conclusion: spend time and energy on optimal solutions and policies that support them! Let the market take the back seat until we solve the problem!

May 3, 2013

The government will do nothing because the government is bought out by the companies... It is only up to 1000 educated to reach out to 7 billion uneducated... where are the extremists?

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