Marooned by that virus? Save New York with this board game

The clean energy revolution came to New York under Governor
Etosha Cave, when a group of sustainability wonks just happened to
slip into complementary leadership roles all at the same time. Over
the next five years, they faced down hurricanes, a NIMBY backlash,
and a white-knuckle election where public sentiment swung from
condemnation to approval. Advanced nuclear power flourished. The
shores of Long Island sprouted a forest of turbines. The team
reeled from one clean-energy project to the next and somehow
managed to shut down all fossil-fueled electricity in the state by
2035. Or at least they were on pace to do that, if they’d had
time to finish the game.

And I got to be in the room when it all went down — because it
happened on a board spread across my dining room table in Berkeley,
California. I’d been waiting for something like this because,
after years of writing about how to continue civilization without
wrecking the world, I kept thinking that a game might be an easier
way to help people weigh the thorny consequences that come with
every strategic choice. The classic game Monopoly, for example, is
all about balancing the risk of going broke against the risk of
sitting on cash and passing up opportunities: It’s a lesson in
optimizing for an unknown future (a challenge that will sound
familiar to climate-policy wonks). A game forces people to grapple
with tradeoffs in a way writing can’t.

So, the moment I heard that the nonprofit
City Atlas was making a climate board game called Energetic
, I
wrote one of its founders, Richard Reiss, to beg for it.

Narrative writing is great for morality tales, whodunits, and
quests. But it’s not always a great way to explain a bunch of
numbers (a well-made graph can work wonders). And it’s a
difficult way to illustrate how complex systems work, or even
not-so-complex systems. You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading
about it. And so, as I’ve labored to illustrate why
cheap renewable energy can be expensive
, why
industrial farming is an important part of a sustainable food
system
, or why
feeding people controls population more effectively than
starvation
, I’ve longed to find a way to give people a toy
model of each system that they could play with.

It was with all that in mind that a group of climate wonks
gathered around my dining room table to play Energetic, the
hot-off-the-presses board game in which players race against time
to build enough clean electricity to power New York state. It’s a
cooperative game, like a version of Pandemic
where you are trying to squelch fossil fuels rather than an
outbreak (hullo, fellow board-game geeks!).

Your team aims to build a supply of 16 gigawatts of clean energy
before 2035 while also managing money, public opinion, and grid
stability. Each player takes a role with special abilities.
There’s a politician capable of swaying public sentiment, an
engineer who can advance technological research, a money-generating
entrepreneur, an activist, and a journalist. Each turn is a year in
which players get more money from taxpayers, and two new cards
representing opportunities to work on policy, research, or a new
power plant. The game comes with explanations, but at some level
it’s up to the players to come up with their own interpretations:
When the politician uses her power to improve public opinion,
perhaps she buys TV ads or hands out bribes.

“I warn you. I’m predisposed to fucking hate this game
because I’ve been playing it for 30 years already,” said Saul
Griffith, an inventor turned political advisor. Griffith took the
role of the journalist, documenting progress (or “snarking”)
from the sidelines. Etosha Cave, whose company Opus 12 removes carbon dioxide from
the atmosphere and turns it into polymers and jet fuel, became
governor of New York. Leslie Aguayo, who works for the nonprofit
Greenlining Institute, assumed the role of engineer. Elena Foukes, a
manager at Tesla and founder of an
energy startup
, played the entrepreneur. Sam Arons, Lyft’s
head of sustainability, took the role of activist.

After reviewing the rules and unwrapping burritos from a
restaurant down the street, the game got underway. It was 2021, and
Aguayo, our engineer, started by placing half a dozen
transmission-line tiles to connect New York City to outlying areas
including Long Island Sound, where the activist and entrepreneur
worked together to erect a forest of offshore wind turbines. “Oh,
to have such eminent domain in real life,” Arons mused.

 

City Atlas

The game turned out to be a massive balancing act. As the energy
from that offshore wind farm surged and receded (depending on the
zephyrs), it was tricky to keep a constant voltage streaming to the
state’s electrical outlets. In an attempt to stabilize the grid,
the players built a reservoir in the Hudson River Valley, which would
act as a giant battery
. But residents got mad — presumably
because their farms and vacation homes were flooded — and by the
end of the second year public support for their efforts had
evaporated. Responding to public outrage, power outages, and a lack
of money would have been a lot easier if the players had more time,
but they wanted to decarbonize by 2035. Plus, it was a weeknight,
and I like to be in bed by 10:30.

As the team headed into their first election year, Griffith
excoriated the others: “Governor Etosha’s popularity is at an
all-time low, which is a little bit shocking given that she
presides over AOC’s district, who was a huge advocate for the
Green New Deal,” he said. “We are midway into the 2020s and
there’s nothing to show for it. The people are ready to
revolt.”

Maybe, Griffith speculated, that’s because Governor Etosha
should have been more ambitious. Or maybe it’s because, in
addition to building turbines and dams, the players had also been
trying to pass a carbon tax and a program to win over public
opinion. (The players interpreted this as something like a carbon
dividend or a green-job training program, while game designers had
thought of it as an
education program
).

City Atlas

If Griffith’s commentary peeved the governor, she hid it well,
responding with a plan to abandon the carbon tax and tap her
special ability to improve public opinion with a giant ad-buy.
“Governor siphons money into Facebook ads,” Griffith
crowed.

That strategy, a surge of young voters, and a lucky die roll was
enough to win the election.

“I can’t believe it! You pulled the rabbit out of the
hat,” Griffith marveled.

Other players began chanting: “Four more years!”

City Atlas

To succeed in Energetic, players have to make use of
opportunities when they arrive. So when they got the cards needed
to complete research on the next generation of nuclear reactors,
they quickly set about building those plants upstate. They
weathered two hurricanes and a storm surge but decided to pack it
in at 2025, a third of the way to their goal, as it was close to my
bedtime.

City Atlas

Griffith the journalist was not happy (“because you fuckers
failed me on a two-degree world!”), but Governor Atosha pointed
out that the gamers were on pace to build a complete clean
electricity system by 2035.

“I like that climate optimism,” said Foukes, the
entrepreneur.

Energetic isn’t going to become the next Settlers of Catan, because it’s
primarily designed for instruction, rather than addictive
playability. But it’s way more fun than reading a bunch of
scientific studies and reports — and that’s the
competition.

“It’s actually pretty impressive,” Arons said. “I kept
thinking, ‘Oh, they thought of that? Wow, they thought of
that!’”

Griffith pointed out that Energetic doesn’t provide a way to
manage energy demand — paying people to turn off their air
conditioning, for example — which would be a lot easier than
building pumped-hydro reservoirs. Aguayo wished she’d seen more
of her work reflected in the game. “I wish I could see where the
lower-income folks are on the map,” she said. “I’d build
there first.”

At the same time, the players acknowledged, too much complexity
would render the game unplayable.

City Atlas

The game map remained in its uncompleted state after everybody
had left. The players had been bold, happy to sacrifice public
support to build clean power plants as fast as possible. But they
hadn’t pushed too far: Governor Etosha won two elections while
building 6 of the 16 gigawatts of clean energy needed to win the
game. The wreckage of hurricane-ruined power lines still lay
tangled on the ground, and waves lapped a little higher against the
sea walls.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
Marooned by that virus? Save New York with this board game
on
Mar 17, 2020.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Marooned by that virus? Save New York with this board game