Are You an Environmentalist? Play Minecraft

By playing Minecraft, I discovered that I am, in fact, not an environmentalist. This surprised me. I’m not exactly politically active, nor am I especially diligent in following the environmental impact I have on the Earth (I own two cars after all, so I can’t be doing so great). Even still, I tended to lean toward the viewpoint that businesses shouldn’t be able to recklessly use every last natural resource, our waterways and drinking water sources should be protected from toxins as a result of mining. That kind of thing. In the real world, I think those viewpoints still apply, only it’s a lot more obvious to me now how poorly my actions line up with my ideologies. This occurred to me as I laid down somewhere between forty and fifty pixilated cubes of dynamite, lit them, then soared hundreds of feet into the air to enjoy the chain of explosions.

It didn’t all start out this way, it really didn’t. When I loaded my first game, the goal was simple: explore the landscape in order to find a convenient place to build a structure that would fit into the landscape without standing out too much. Writing it out makes it sound like a much loftier and righteous goal than it really was. The truth of the matter was I didn’t exactly know what to expect upon playing the game. Still, there was a somewhat conscious effort on my part to build things that complimented the landscape. I didn’t want to do like others had in both the Minecraft and real worlds. Those places were riddled with gigantic, gaudy statues and mammoth cathedrals. So much effort had already been spent in order to self-congratulate. Yelling “Hey, look at how great I am!” with a thousand foot beacon in a world that nobody else would see didn’t make sense.  In my little Minecraft world the ego would be forgotten. Reason and simplicity would prevail. I had become something of  a virtual environmentalist, or at the very least, I was all about being a harmonious cog in the ecosystem.

It turns out that goal was easy to stick to in the beginning. When starting a game in Survival Mode, the thought of nightfall and the impending onslaught of zombies is a pretty good motivator to build something quickly and with as few resources as possible (just a single tree was all I need to build myself a hut and survive into day 2). On day 2 I ventured out into the wilderness, surveyed the fauna and calculated how many animal murders per day I would need to commit in order to sustain myself. This was before I realized that you could farm. The house I had built for myself was small, just large enough to fit myself in. If I didn’t want to play through all of nightfall huddled inside a wooden crate looking out at all the things that could kill me, I would have to expand. I wouldn’t need to add much. Pushing the walls out by a couple of blocks would be enough to fit a bed and then mission accomplished: I could sleep soundly during the night, then wake up to go murder more pigs with a wooden pickaxe.

How humble that idea seems now. It wasn’t obvious to me, but the very moment I decideded I needed to expand my initial home, the agreement I had with nature was forgotten. I expanded the house. I put in a bed. Then I expanded some more. I dug out the dirt floor to raise the ceiling. I broke down walls to create new, better walls made of stone. Then I made some glass using sand and a furnace. My simple home was eating more and more of the hillside I had picked. The security of my structure made me more bold. I made a bow and arrows so I could stand atop my home and snipe spiders as they approached. Instead of running wildly back to my house at the first sign of sunset, I would now leave whatever interior remodeling I’d been doing and go on the hunt for anything and everything I could kill. Free time had made me bloodthirsty and forgetful of my initial struggle to survive. And then I discovered Creative Mode.

If you ever wanted to live forever, Creative Mode can get you pretty close. Gone are the health points and with it the need to worry about trivial things like eating. Gone is the need to actually go out with tools and mine resources. Whatever you want is there in the menu for you to find and abuse. You can fly. That part is fun. For a couple of sessions I didn’t even think about building or anything and just flew around the world, investigating different areas, enjoying the topography, went swimming. Like all things except my character, the fun ended. It was time to get serious. I went back to my hut turned mansion and burned it down. I flattened a hill and decided I would build a perfect structure. The construction material of choice? Glass. All glass. All those initial goals of creating a home within the landscape and living simply were gone. It was monument building time.

My descent into a whirlwind of oblivious destruction didn’t dawn on me until I was entering caves just to blow them up from the inside out with dozens of cubes of TNT without having even the slightest clue what I was going to do afterward. Luckily, perhaps pulled back by some tiny fragment of sympathy left over from having watched Captain Planet as a kid, I stopped to think about how horrific this scene would be if it took place in real life. That gave way to remembering that these kinds of things do happen in real life. Mountain top removal, gold and diamond excavation, forest clearing: all of these things do happen. The people who have the means use them to get even more means, and that sometimes comes at the behest of the Earth.

I had to ask, what the existence of a game where you can be a one-person industrial giant say about us? Probably not very good things. Not that it’s Minecraft’s fault. It’s just a reflection of the human desire to create, even if destruction is the first step. Although horrified by the implications of my virtual actions, part of me is relieved that there is a place in a server room somewhere that is devoid of real life consequences. My innermost destructive desires can be expressed electronically rather than in the form of a bulldozer or hydraulic blaster. But then I remembered that a lot of electricity is produced by burning coal.


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