Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
by Bill McKibben
If you viewed Earth from far above (and for better or worse, this book will often take a high, wide perspective), roofs would probably be the first feature of human civilization you’d notice. A descending alien would see many shapes, often corresponding to the local weather: A-frames for shedding snow, for instance. There are gambrel roofs, mansards, hipped and gabled roofs. Pagodas and other Asian temples often sport conical tops; Russian churches come with onion domes; Western churches sit beneath spires.
Palm leaves probably topped the earliest houses, but as humans began to grow grain in the Neolithic era, the leftover straw became a reliable roofing material. Some homes in Southern England have thatch roofs five hundred years old; new layers have been added over centuries till, in some cases, the roofs are seven feet thick. Though it is harder to find good stuff to work with—the introduction of short-stemmed wheat varieties and the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer have weakened straw—thatch is now growing more popular with rich Europeans looking for green roofs; in Germany, for instance, you can now get a degree as a “journeyman specialist thatcher.” But at least since the third century BC (perhaps beginning with Greek temples deemed valuable enough to protect from fire) humans have been tending toward hard roofs. Terra-cotta tiles spread rapidly around the Mediterranean and to Asia Minor; slate roofs became popular for their low maintenance; where trees are plentiful, wood shakes and slabs of bark work well. Given that the average human being currently resides in an urban slum, it is possible that corrugated iron shelters more sleepers than anything else.
Do you find this a little dull? Good. What I want to talk about is the human game—the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram; of love and loss; of everything that comprises the experience of our species. But that’s beyond my powers, at least till I’m warmed up. So, I’ve looked for the most mundane aspect of our civilization I can imagine. Almost no one thinks about her roof from one year’s end to another, not unless it springs a leak. It’s a given. And so, it will illustrate my point—even the common and boring roof demonstrates the complexity, the stability, and the reach of this human game.
Consider the asphalt shingle, which tops most homes in the West and is itself, doubtless, the dullest of all forms of roofing. The earliest examples date to 1901, and the first manufacturer was the H.M. Reynolds Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which sold its product under the slogan “The Roof That Stays Is the Roof That Pays.” Asphalt occurs naturally in a few places on Earth—the tar sands of Alberta, for instance, are mostly bitumen, which is the geologist’s word for asphalt. But the asphalt used in shingles comes from the oil-refining process: it’s the stuff that still hasn’t boiled at five hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Vacuum distillation separates it from more valuable products such as gasoline, diesel, and naphtha; it then is stored and transported at high temperatures until it can be used, mostly for making roads. But some of it is diverted to the plants that make shingles, where manufacturers add granules of some mineral (slate, fly ash, mica) to improve durability. The CertainTeed Corporation, the world’s biggest shingle manufacturer, has produced a video showing what it rightly calls “this underappreciated process” at its plant in Oxford, North Carolina, one of sixty-one facilities it operates around the country. The video shows a ballet of pouring and dumping and conveying, as limestone arrives by rail car to be crushed and mixed with hot asphalt and then coated onto hundreds of thousands of miles of fiberglass mat. A thin mist of water is sprayed, and as it evaporates, the sheet cools, ready to be cut and then bundled onto pallets in a giant warehouse, to await distribution.1
Marvel for a moment at the thousands of events that must synchronize for all this to work: the oil drilled (maybe deep undersea, or in the equatorial desert); the pipelines and rail lines laid; the refineries constructed (and at each step, the money raised). The limestone and the sand need mining, too, and the miles of fiberglass net must be fabricated on some other production line. The raw materials are all sucked into the North Carolina factory, and then the finished shingles must be spewed back out again, across rail lines and truck routes and into a network of building supply stores, where contractors can haul them to building sites, confident that they’ve been rated for resistance to wind, fire, and discoloration. Think, again, of the sheer amount of human organization required for the American Society for Testing and Materials to produce directive D3462-87 (“Asphalt Shingles Made from Glass Felt and Surfaced with Mineral Granules”) and then to enforce its mandates.
We could, clearly, repeat this exercise for everything you see around you, and everything you hear, and everything you smell—all the infinitely more interesting activities always under way beneath all those roofs. As I write, for instance, I’m listening to Orchestra Baobab on Spotify. It was the house band at a Dakar nightclub in the 1970s, where its music reflected the Cuban beats that came with sailors to West Africa in the 1940s; eventually the group recorded its best album at a Paris studio, and now it somehow resides on a computer server where 196,847 people from across the planet listen to it each month. Try to parse the play of history and technology and commerce and spirituality and swing that make up the sound pouring into my headphones—the colonialisms layered on top of one another; the questions of race, identity, pop, purity. Or consider what I’m going to have for dinner, or what you’re wearing on your back—everything comes with strings attached, and you can follow those strings into every corner of our past and present.
What I’m calling the human game is unimaginably deep, complex, and beautiful. It is also endangered. Indeed, it is beginning to falter even now.
I’ll spend this book explaining that danger and, at the end, pointing to some ways we might yet avert it. But I think it’s best to begin by stressing not the shakiness of the human game but, instead, its stability. For humans, all of us together, have built something remarkable, something we rarely stand back and simply acknowledge. The sum of the projects of our individual lives, the total of the institutions and enterprises we have created, the aggregate of our wishes and dreams and labors, the entirety of our ceaseless activity—it is a wonder. I call it a game because it has no obvious end. Like any game, it doesn’t really matter how it comes out, at least in the largest sense of Our Place in the Universe, and yet, like any game, it absorbs the whole concentration of those involved. And even if it has no ultimate aim that doesn’t mean it lacks rules, or at least an aesthetic: by my definition, the game is going well when it creates more dignity for its players, and badly when that dignity diminishes.
Dignity, in the context of the human game, can be measured in many ways: enough calories, freedom from fear, clothes to wear, useful work. And by plenty of those measures, we’re on a roll. Extreme poverty (life on two dollars a day or less) is far rarer than it used to be. Many of the diseases that poverty helped spread have lessened, too: worms in your gut, say. Even compared to the twentieth century, violence is now far less likely to kill us—of the more than 55 million people who died around the world in 2012, war killed just 120,000 of them.2 Eighty-five percent of adults can read now, a staggering increase inside two generations.3 Women, with more education and at least a modicum of equality, have gone from having more than five kids apiece on average in 1970 to having fewer than two and a half today, probably the most rapid and remarkable demographic change the planet has ever witnessed. In the year 1500, humans managed to produce goods and services worth $250 billion in today’s dollars—five hundred years later, that number is $60 trillion, a 240-fold increase.4 The chorus of affirmation swells, from Steven Pinker insisting we’re in an age of unprecedented enlightenment to Donald Trump tweeting, “There is an incredible spirit of optimism sweeping the country right now—we’re bringing back the JOBS!”
We’re quite accustomed to this idea of progress, so accustomed that some can’t imagine anything else: the former chief economist of the World Bank, Kaushik Basu, recently predicted that, in fifty years, global GDP will be growing 20 percent a year, meaning that income and consumption will be doubling every four years or so.5 There are, each day, more ideas hatched, more songs sung, more pictures taken, more goals scored, more schoolbooks read, more money invested.
And yet. There are other authorities almost as highly placed as the former chief economist of the World Bank. Pope Francis, in his landmark 2015 encyclical on the environment and poverty, said, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Don’t consider popes sufficiently authoritative? Consider this: In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” Just like Pinker, they had charts, but theirs depicted everything from the decline in freshwater per person to the spread of anaerobic “dead zones” in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted, we face “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”; soon, they added, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” (Within six months, that warning was already the sixth-most-discussed academic paper in history.)6 The worries have grown severe enough that a NASA-funded group recently created the Human and Nature DYnamics (HANDY) program to model the fall of the Roman, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, and when they pushed the button, it spit out a disquieting forecast: “Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” (The fact that I’d never even heard of the Mauryan Empire gave me a quiet shiver.) In this model, by the way, one of the greatest dangers came from elites who argued against structural change on the grounds that “so far” things were working out.7
That “so far” is always the problem, as the man who fell off the skyscraper found out. If you want to fret, you can find plenty of indications that the pavement is approaching with discouraging speed. A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity,” according to a September 2017 report.8 We’ve displaced most everything else: if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals (all the moose and cheetahs and wombats combined) total just 3 percent.9 In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970, an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing. In 2018, scientists reported that the planet’s oldest and largest trees were dying fast, “as climate change attracts new pests and diseases to forests.” The baobab—Africa’s tree of life, in whose shade people first hunted and gathered—can live as long as 2,500 years, but five of the six oldest specimens on the planet have died in the last decade.10 Before century’s end, climate change may kill off the cedars of Lebanon—plundered by Gilgamesh, name-checked in the Bible—as snow cover disappears and sawflies hatch earlier in the heat.11
Even our arks are leaking: with a burst of foresight, the world’s agronomists designed a Global Seed Vault in an Arctic mountain, an impregnable bank where they could save a million varieties of seed covering all the Earth’s important food crops. Eight years after it opened, during the hottest year ever recorded on the planet, melting snow and heavy rain flooded the entrance tunnel and then froze. The seeds weren’t damaged, but the builders were no longer confident that they’d constructed a stronghold that would last into deep time. “It was not in our plans to think the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” a Norwegian government spokesman said.12
And yet nothing slows us down—just the opposite. By most accounts, we’ve used more energy and resources during the last thirty-five years than in all of human history that came before.13 Every economic assumption our governments make about the future requires doubling the size of the economy again, and then again, and then again during the lives of the youngest people on the planet. So, it’s hard to make the argument that past performance indicates much about the future—it looks like the same game, but it’s on new ground.
In part, that’s because the past is so short. We are the first acutely self-conscious species, so wrapped up in our own story that we rarely stop to remember how short that story really is. Day to day, we forget that if the billions of years of life on Earth were scaled to a twenty-four-hour day, our settled civilizations began about a fifth of a second ago.14 That short burst covers the taming of fire, the development of language, the rise of agriculture. On the time scale of a human life, these changes seemed to take forever, but in geological reality, they occupied the blink of an eye. And now we see shifts (the development of nuclear weapons, the rise of the internet) that change many of our assumptions in real time. So, the fact that even over this short span we’ve seen the routine and often sudden collapse of one civilization after another might give us pause. And in some ways, it does—books such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse intrigue us with their stories of past calamities, from Greenland to Easter Island.
But these warnings also somehow seem to give us confidence, because, after all, things continued. Rome fell, and something else rose. The Fertile Crescent turned to desert, but we found other places to grow our food. The cautionary tales about transcending our limits (the apple in Eden, the Tower of Babel, Icarus) seem silly to us because we’re still here, and we keep transcending one limit after another.
Sometimes we scare ourselves for a season, but then we shake it off. As the postwar explosion in consumption spread across much of the planet, for instance, modern environmentalism also took shape, questioning whether this trajectory was sustainable. That movement reached its first height in 1972, with the publication of a slim book called The Limits to Growth. Without specifying precisely how and when, the authors of that book, and the computer models they built, predicted that our pell-mell growth would, “sometime within the next hundred years,” collide with many natural limits, and that without dramatic change, “the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” Alternately, they said, the nations of the world could “create a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future,” a task that would be easier the sooner we began.15 Needless to say, we’ve not done that. Though we’ve taken the environmental idea semi-seriously, passing the laws that cleaned air and water, we’ve never taken it anywhere near as seriously as we’ve taken further growth. On his way to the theoretically groundbreaking Rio environmental summit in 1992, the first President Bush famously declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,”16 and as it turns out, he was correct—and speaking for much of the world. And so far, we’ve gotten away with it: even as we keep accelerating, the game spins on.
So, why should you take seriously my fear that the game, in fact, may be starting to play itself out? The source of my disquiet can be summed up in a single word, a word that will be repeated regularly in this book: leverage. We’re simply so big, and moving so fast, that every decision carries enormous risk.
Rome’s collapse was, of course, a large-ish deal. But given that there were vast swaths of the world that didn’t even know there was a Roman Empire, it wasn’t a big deal everywhere. Rome fell, and the Mayans didn’t tremble, nor the Chinese, nor the Inuit. But an interconnected world is different. It offers a certain kind of stability—everyone in every country can all hear the scientists warning of impending climate change, say—but it removes the defense of distance. And the sheer size of our consumption means we have enormous leverage of a different sort—no Roman emperor could change the pH of the oceans, but we’ve managed that trick in short order. And, finally, the new scale of our technological reach amplifies our power in extraordinary ways: much of this book will be devoted to examining the godlike powers that come with our rapid increases in computing speed, everything from human genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.
We are putting the human game at risk, that is, from things going powerfully wrong and powerfully right. As we shall see, humans have now emerged as a destructive geologic force—the rapid degradation of the planet’s physical systems that was still theoretical when I wrote The End of Nature is now under way. Indeed, it’s much farther advanced than most people realize. In 2015, at the Paris climate talks, the world’s governments set a goal of holding temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius and, at the very least, below 2 degrees; by the fall of 2018 the IPCC reported that we might go past that 1.5 degree mark by 2030. That is to say, we will have drawn a line in the sand and then watched a rising tide erase it, all in a decade and a half.
And humans have simultaneously emerged as a massive creative force, in ways that threaten the human game not through destruction but through substitution. Robots are not just another technology, and artificial intelligence not just one more improvement like asphalt shingles. They are instead a replacement technology, and the thing’s that’s going obsolete may well be us. If we’re not humans, then the human game makes no sense.
Over our short career as a species, human history has risen and fallen, gotten stuck and raced ahead, stagnated and flourished. Only now, though, have we achieved enough leverage that we can bring it to an end, both by carelessness and by design. As a team of scientists pointed out recently in Nature, the physical changes we’re currently making by warming the climate will “extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”17 And as the Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Harari recently wrote, “Once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.”18 That is to say, the game that we’ve been playing may end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the burble of a rising ocean and the soft beep of some digital future being birthed.
The outsize leverage is so crucial because, for the first time, we threaten to cut off our own lines of retreat. When Rome fell, something else was there. We had, to draw on pinball, perhaps the most delightfully pointless of games, another silver ball, another chance. But our current changes are so big that they’re starting to tilt the whole machine, at which point it will fall silent. And as we shall see, because of the radical inequality we’ve allowed to overtake our society, the key decisions have been and will be made by a handful of humans in a handful of places: oil company executives in Houston, say, and tech moguls in Silicon Valley and Shanghai. Particular people in particular places at a particular moment in time following a particular philosophic bent: that’s leverage piled on top of leverage. And their ability to skew our politics with their wealth is one more layer of leverage. It scares me.
It scares me even though the human game is not perfect—in fact, no one gets out of it alive, and no one without sadness and loss. For too many people, it’s much more tragic than it needs to be—indeed, it’s wretched, and often because its rules have been rigged to favor some and damage others. Given that I’ve been in the luckier fraction, the game may seem more appealing to me than to others. And perhaps its loss will not feel as acute to those being born now: certainly, they will not mourn the absence of things they did not know, just as we are not wrenched by the loss of the dinosaurs. If you back up far enough, it’s possible to be philosophical about anything—the sun is going to blow up eventually, after all. But that’s more philosophy than I can manage; for me, and for many others, the loss of this game is the largest conceivable tragedy, if, indeed, we can conceive it.
And so, we will fight—some of us already are fighting. And we can, I think, see some of the ways out, even if the odds of their succeeding are not great. Success would require real changes in thinking from both conservatives and progressives. (Conservatives, oddly, tend not to worry about conservation; progressives tend to think all progress is good.) But if those changes came fast enough, the game could roll on: scientists estimate that we have five billion years until the sun turns into a red giant and expands past Earth’s orbit. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just realistic—enough to know engagement is our only chance.
I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end, but it does come with two logical imperatives. The first is to keep it going, and the second is to keep it human.
1. Youtu.be/3UgGVKnelfY CertainTeed Roofing, “How Shingles Are Made,” youtube.com
2. Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p. 15.
3. Nicholas Kristof, “Good News, Despite What You’ve Heard,” New York Times, July 1, 2017.
4. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 247.
5. Kaushik Basu, “The Global Economy in 2067,” Project Syndicate, June 21, 2017.
6. “Scientists’ Warning to Humanity ‘Most Talked about Paper,’ ” March 7, 2018, sciencedaily.com.
7. Nafeez Ahmed, “NASA-Funded Study: Industrial Civilization Headed for ‘Irreversible Collapse’?” Guardian, March 14, 2014.
8. Baher Kamal, “Alert: Nature, on the Verge of Bankruptcy,” September 12, 2017, ispnews.net.
9. Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), p. 42.
10. John Vidal, “From Africa’s Baobabs to America’s Pines: Our Ancient Trees Are Dying,” Huffington Post, June 19, 2018.
11. Anne Barnard, “Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon,” New York Times, July 18, 2018.
12. Damian Carrington, “Arctic Stronghold of World’s Seeds Flooded After Permafrost Melts,” Guardian, May 19, 2017.
13. William E. Rees, “Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse,” TheTyee.ca, July 17, 2017.
14. Eelco Rohling, The Oceans: A Deep History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 15.
15. Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report of the Club of Rome (New York: Universe Books, 1972), abstract.
16. “A Greener Bush,” The Economist, February 13, 2003.
17. Peter U. Clark et al., “Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change,” Nature Climate Change 6, no. 4 (February 2016): 360–69.
18. Adam Gopnik, “The Illiberal Imagination,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2017.
Copyright © 2019 by Bill McKibben