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More than a Game

Ethics first, then climate lessons

By Moshe Rachmuth

December 8, 2022

In his summer 2022 Liberal Education article, “Let’s Get Together,” Matthew Burgess argues that policymakers and activists accomplish more in efforts to address climate change when they avoid using politically divisive terms such as “environmental justice” and “equity.” What, then, can educators do when working with students on environmental issues instead of using politicized social justice terms? I suggest focusing on personal ethics.

For five years, I have been teaching the yearlong course Power and Imagination for first-year students at Portland State University. The course provides an introduction to the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and academic writing. During the course, students and I talk about values before we tackle problems of environmental conservation. And while spending thirty weeks with the same students allows me ample time to prepare them to address big environmental questions, I believe that any curriculum revolving around the climate crisis and other planetary issues would benefit from a focus on ethics followed by lessons on game theory, resource management, and/or conflict resolution. In teaching, tweaking, and reteaching Power and Imagination, I have found that students are better prepared to take a positive role in regard to the planet only after they have reflected on their core values.

The Power and Imagination teaching team includes me in the role of instructor and a senior undergraduate student serving as a peer mentor. The thirty-six students in the course meet with me twice a week for class. Students also meet twice a week with the peer mentor in groups of twelve. This schedule adds up to more than a hundred meetings throughout the year for every student, enough to allow for ambitious projects.

During the first class, I introduce a problem: the difficult family dinner. Somewhere on Earth, fifteen years in the future, one of the dinner attendees, who recently joined the family through marriage, insults others who later vow not to share another meal with that person. After adding a few more details, I ask the students to organize the next dinner for this family and make the ethically right choice about whom to invite. In their first paper, students describe what they would do as the hosts of the next family dinner and support their choice with their views about right and wrong. Many students decide to host two events to avoid awkwardness among potential guests. As the term passes, we read Confucius, the Bible, the Talmud, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and W. D. Ross. The students then write a second paper about the dinner party from a Confucian perspective. In a third paper, they compare possible answers based on ideas from Leviticus, Luke, and Hillel the Elder. In the final paper, each student engages with the dinner for a fourth time, using it to write a two thousand–word declaration of their personal ethical credos. The answers are diverse, but many students mix elements from their two favorite readings.

In the first half of the winter term, the students revise their credos after reading about totalitarianism. We talk about systemic evil and read post–World War II ethicists—mostly Elizabeth Anscombe and Elizabeth Minnich—who emphasize resistance to manipulative autocrats.

In the winter, we move on to game theory, for which topic the students play a game involving fisheries. The field research of political scientist Elinor Ostrom on common resources inspired the rules for the game. Students share a fictional lake that has thirty-six fishing locations and thirty-six boats. Students can make a living from selling fish in the market while sustaining the fish population only if the boats rotate among the best and worse fishing spots and avoid overfishing.

“How do I win?” students ask.

I return the question to them, letting students decide for themselves; most players compete for lucrative locations. I ask those who “survived” whether they think their personal definition of winning coincided with their ethical credo. After some protests about being misled about the connection between the fall-term dinner party lesson and the winter-term fishery lesson, the students realize that with their ethical credo in mind, they can make an agreement to daily rotate the boats’ locations and monitor each other for a maximum weight of the catch. Since no student has maximizing profit as part of their credo, they all make enough money annually while sustaining the fish population in the lake.

The next step is a forestry game, which is more difficult than the fishery game because I add imaginary unethical players who don’t contribute to renewing the forest. Despite the existence of “free riders,” students have to sustain the forest. The solution involves creating a voluntary Forest Helpers Association in which the ethical players share the costs caused by the nonethical ones.

In the spring, the third and last term of the year, we play Arthe, another game I created for the course. Planet Arthe, the backstory goes, used to have an average temperature of sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In the past decade, the temperature rose to seventy degrees, leading to droughts, fires, and other natural disasters. Scientists agree that if the temperature passes eighty degrees, life on Arthe will become impossible. The five countries of the planet, each with a population of 1.5 billion people, have a choice: they can make cheap energy using a material called “olish” that they mine from deposits in the ground, or they can build wind turbines. The turbines prevent the planet from heating, but they cost more than olish per kilowatt that they yield. The game ends when the planet’s temperature rises above eighty degrees or when all countries but one collapse. Similar to the fishery game, the countries can create a bank to loan money to the poorer countries so they, too, can build wind turbines and save the planet. Students play the game during the peer mentor sessions—five students play the five countries, and the other students observe. The observers later report to the whole class if and how the players’ strategies reflected what we have been learning.

Finally, I add a sixth country, Rachmuthin, that uses olish and refuses to contribute to the bank. Rachmuthin hopes to win the game by dominating the planet. To prevent the planetary disaster that Rachmuthin will cause if the other countries dissolve the bank, the other countries make a separate political entity that compensates for the free rider. Hence, the planet population survives physically while keeping the integrity of each player’s core values. Applying the last game to real issues on Earth, the students learn that the failures of the 2015 Paris Agreement on the climate don’t spell the end of humanity. If enough organizations—governments and nongovernmental organizations—share the costs of climate control, they will bypass unethical players.

The different assignments and games in Power and Imagaination involve examples of polycentric governance—governance by multiple centers with access to agreement making, reciprocal monitoring, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. They demonstrate that when the inhabitants of a world without one central government have received an education in ethics, they can work to save the world even if they cannot impose responsible behavior on a powerful country that acts destructively. This is wonderful news that carries a clear message: to save the planet, teach ethics first.

With colleagues and students at Portland State, I have begun to develop online versions of the dinner party, fishery, and planet games. I would love to hear from others who have similar games to share or would like to contribute to making these games available free online for their use in shorter courses.


  • Moshe Rachmuth

    Moshe Rachmuth

    Moshe Rachmuth is an assistant professor of modern Hebrew at Portland State University.