Discover more from Thinking Out Loud | Michael Ashcroft
Thinking Out Loud No. 11
On the infinite game of humanistic geostewardship and wind turbines in Germany
I just spent a long weekend in the German countryside catching up with some very dear friends in a lovely house to play games, go for nature walks and eat delicious food. We only get to see each other once a year or so, but I'm amazed by the depth of relationships that can be created even with such limited interactions.
Humans are made to connect with each other, we just need to create the right contexts. And a pro tip: the low effort / high frequency engagement of a group Whatsapp group helps a lot.
The weekend also gave me a chance to think more deeply about a topic close to my heart, so I hope you enjoy this article bringing together a few concepts I've been playing with for a while around finite and infinite games in the context of climate change.
Climate change is a finite game – what's the bigger picture?
According to James Carse, there are two kinds of game: finite and inifite games.
A finite game is one that has an end and can be won. The focus is on competing with other players who are also playing to win, where the act of winning removes the ability of all players to continue the game.
An infinite game isn't meant to be won; the aim is simply for the game not to end. There is no fixed goal to be achieved. Infinite games involve staying at the edge of a constant unknown that allows for surprise, where possibilities remain open, unknown and endlessly unfolding.
Fininte games can exist within infinite games, but recognising the context of the infinite game when engaging in the finite games is crucial. Drawing an anlogy with the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system, a project is a finite game, while an area of responsibility is an infinite game. A project, like arranging your wedding, can be part of a 'family' area. The wedding has a goal that can be achieved by a set time. The family area has standards to be maintained and improved throughout your life, but it's unlikely that maintaining your family will ever be 'done'.
The differences between the two types of game become apparent in how players of different games interact with each other.
In an argument with a partner about that wedding, finite players see the argument as something that can be won, with the other person beaten. But winning the game (the argument) means that the game ends. This can go one of two ways.
If both players are playing finite games, both will aim to 'win' the argument and lose perspective of the wider infinite game: the enduring relationship itself. If one of the pair is playing a finite game and the other an infinite game, they're likely to use different language and strategies. The finite player is still playing to win, while the infinite player tries to resolve the argument in the context of the wider infinite game – the relationship itself.
Both of these scenarios can lead to blame, hurt and potentially even risk the relationship itself. In each case the finite player may succeed in winning the argument, but lose something far more important.
On the other hand, two infinte players will immediately recognise the argument as a finite game taking place within the context of the relationship as the infinite game. Their approaches will mesh with each other so that the argument is more likely to get resolved in a way that preserves or even strengthens the relationship.
With those concepts introduced, let's veer wildly towards how they apply to climate change. I think that the current dominant perspective is of climate change as a finite game, something self-contained that can be 'won'.
This is true of course. It's perfectly possible to fully decarbonise the global economy and achieve net negative emissions for long enough to restore atmospheric carbon dioxide to safe thresholds. But just as the argument with a partner, recognising the presence and context of the infinite game is crucial.
So if reversing climate change is the finite game, what about the infinite game? I can think of two, both based on my own values, so yours may differ. For me the infinite games are geostewardship and humanism.
Geostewardship is establising, maintaing and enhancing a relationship with the Earth's natural systems that will allow life on Earth, including ours, to flourish over the longest conceivable timeframes. We have created a new geological epoch characterised by the impact of humans – the anthropocene – and we need to take responsibility for the role that we now have to play in geostewardship.
Humanism is recognising our own being as the most advanced form of consciousness and capacity for reason that we know to exist and striving to continue our growth. This may sound arrogant, but I believe we are destined to explore both the dizzy heights of the stars and the profundity of our own consciousness. Call it a personal axiom.
Let's combine these two infinite games into a single, overaching one. ‘Humanistic geostewardship’ would involve maintaining and enhancing natural systems while also allowing the continued growth of human civilisation.
Humanistic geostewardship is an infinite game because it can never end. It involves continuous and systemic cultural growth supported by responsible policy, technology innovation and engaged citizens.
My concern is that thinking of climate change as a finite game without the wider context of humanistic geostewardship could lead to similar outcomes as having an argument with a partner while forgetting about the importance of the relationship. Sure, it's possible to 'win' climate change, but at what cost?
We could halt many effects of climate change by carelessly dumping reflective particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space (solar geoengineering). We could also do it by switching off most industry and returning to a civilisational state more like agrarianism. Both of these would potentially risk the infinite game of humanistic geostewardship.
Agreeing on and maintaining awareness of this infinite game would influence how we tackle climate change as a finite game. In a severe climate emergency, a more sophisticed approach could be to deploy limited solar geoengineering for just long enough to continue vast global decarbonisation efforts coupled with thoughtful use of atmospheric carbon removal.
In this way, we could aim to win the finite game of climate change while allowing the infinite game of humanistic geostewardship to go on for as long as it possibly can.
In writing this little article I've become more aware that what drives me is not really climate change itself, but this somewhat nascent concept of humanistic geostewardship.
I want to see humans grow and explore as far as our potential takes us in a way that also creates a healthy and abundant environment. Climate change is telling us that we're not on the right path, but I believe that the way we go about solving climate change must not risk the wider ambitions of humanistic geostewardship.
I'm not yet sure how we'll do that, but I’m thinking out loud, remember? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one as a future iteration of it will probably end up on the blog, so please hit reply and let me know what you think!
Media of the week
On the drive from Berlin to the country house I noticed that there are wind turbines absolutely everywhere, so I snapped this photo of some of them from the window. A lot of people complain that wind turbines are a blight that ruin the pristine natural quality of the landscape.
Personally I find wind turbines beautiful, both aesthetically and in what they respresent (a good example of humanistic geostewardship). Besides, we've already changed the landscape far from its original pristine conditions with buildings, power lines, roads – even hedgerows and monocrop farms. I don't see why wind turbines should get any more condemnation than any of those.
That’s all from me – until next week!
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