Monday, April 27, 2009

Rainforest Tropic Salvation

According to a recent Slate article, the current focus on climate change could make the environment worse. We may be overlooking a direr problem, which is the rapid loss of rainforest landscape. In fact, tropical deforestation may affect the climate more than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

The deforestation problem reminds me of how we greedily gobble resources in real-time strategy (RTS) games such as Warcraft and Age of Empires. A key strategy for winning an RTS match is building an infrastructure that rapidly harvests resources and produces military units. Cutting down trees not only supplies the crucial wood resource; it also clears land for building and training military units.

This strategy changes a little in the few RTS games that feature renewable resources. In Command & Conquer, for example, the resource tiberium gradually regenerates. If you’re trying to bring down a huge, heavily defended base during the singleplayer missions, it pays to let the nearest tiberium patches regrow.

The environmental effects of building bases, deploying units, and making war are not explored in games. That’s understandable since most RTS games are about the much more pressing, and hopefully temporary, concern of war.

Not every RTS game has to be about war. In 1997, Stardock created an RTS titled Entrepreneur in which the object was to win market share. In order to defeat your competitors in the chosen market (such as soft drinks or computers), you built offices, researched product improvements, and deployed sales reps and marketing campaigns.

With the Slate article in mind, let’s tweak Stardock’s game a bit. Instead of exploring the map for market growth areas, let’s explore the map for rainforests to preserve. Send representatives to these areas not to get people to buy products, but to convince them to make rainforest conversation a top priority. Conduct research and development on products and methods that don’t require the felling of old-growth trees. Your opponents, the agriculture and lumber industries, will try to outdo your progress by rapidly consuming rainforest landscape, marketing the end-products, and funding studies concluding that rainforest loss is not a big deal. You win once a certain percentage of the forest landscape has been safeguarded and CO2 concentrations have fallen to acceptable levels. Call the game Enviropreneur.

Interestingly, the game that launched the RTS genre was probably greener than any of its successors. In Dune II, you had to win a war on the bleak desert planet of Arrakis. Spice, the precious natural resource with which you built your bases and armies, could be destroyed by errant weapon fire. Your bases were fueled by “windtrap power centers.” And the price for encroaching on the sandy wilderness was the occasional unit being eaten by the planet’s native species, the roving sandworm.

Of course, it took an environment as bleak as Arrakis to force such green thinking. Let’s hope things don’t have to get this bad in the real world to change our thinking.

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