What Cities: Skylines does-and doesn’t-say about our dying world

When a player finishes her first game in Cities: Skylines, her metropolis will be a model of modern development, with glittering high-rises dominating broad avenues and prosperous industries filling her coffers. And as trailer trucks stream in and out, trash incinerators belch smoke, and sewage pipes dump sludge, it will be inescapably high-carbon. Skylines is a child of the economic paradigms that have pushed our environment to the brink, and it prevents players from constructing a carbon-sustainable cityscape in what should be the creative space most open to it.

Skylines is a child of the economic paradigms that have pushed our environment to the brink

In her nonfiction book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that neoliberalism has caused the explosion in carbon emissions since the 1990s, and that it’s presented the most formidable obstacle to change. Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism is the nigh-religious faith in the virtue of unfettered, globalized trade and unregulated corporate action. It holds that all social and environmental problems can be solved by the invisible hand of the market and vilifies any state involvement in the economy.

Despite the good intentions of developers Colossal Order, and despite that city-builders by their nature deal with central planning and government economic involvement, Skylines falls into the neoliberalist trap. The last great citybuilder, SimCity 4, came out in 2003, and in the interim it’s become far more difficult to ignore the carbon elephant crowding every metaphorical space in the world. For decades, two degrees centigrade has been the international consensus on the temperature rise that we can absorb with only a moderate risk of creating a Mad Maxian hellscape. We’ve put off tackling that figure for as long as we’ve had it, and time is short. The International Energy Agency’s chief economist has said that “the door to reach two degrees is about to close. In 2017 it will be closed forever.”

Most of it comes down to trade. The developed world has managed to lower its industrial carbon emissions in the last decades by exporting its production to the developing world. The problem is that when you buy a t-shirt for a dollar at a chain department store, that dollar doesn’t reflect the carbon costs needed to truck it to the store, ship it to a US port, or produce it in China, where electricity and production methods are more carbon-intensive than in the United States. Consumers win; the whole world loses.

While Skylines doesn’t address trade explicitly, it is still built into the fabric of the game. The player has to maintain a six-lane highway connection to the outside world for her town to function, and whenever her industrial production falls below her consumption, container trucks flood in to close the gap. If production outpaces consumption, trucks pour out, shipping goods to what is literally (in the game’s terms) the rest of the world. Skylines counts industrial rail and port connections as a prerequisite for developed, “cleaner” industry. The game cannot imagine a city maturing without outsourcing its carbon emissions and does not allow for the possibility that low-level production could be clean.

tractors trundle around in service to whimsically named corporations

The player can opt for farmland instead of factories. Semis still stream back and forth to the highway, but at least the game’s pollution overlay reads all-clear as tractors trundle around in service to whimsically named corporations. In the real world, though, industrial agriculture accounts for “between 19 and 29 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions,” according to Klein.

We think of farming as bucolic, not destructive, but the encyclopedic selection and year-round availability of fruits at a place like Whole Foods creates massive carbon outlays in shipment. Westernized industrial mono-cropping requires constant inputs of mined fertilizers and pesticides, the extraction, manufacture, and distribution of which are carbon expensive, and whose implementation destroys soil’s fertility and carbon retention. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says that “the globalization of agricultural systems … [is] one of the most important causes of overall increases in greenhouse gas emissions,” but Skylines, like us as a society, leaves the carbon costs off-screen, to be paid by who knows who.

The game allows the player to install bus lines, subways, and light rail, but her city cannot survive without that highway, and internal combustion engines will pour from it no matter how plentiful or cheap the public options. She might hope that all those vehicles are electric, but the game’s pollution overlay makes it clear that they aren’t, and its only solution is reminiscent of the real world: build tree-lined streets so that your citizens can ignore the problem.

There was a game that Skylines could have been, a vision that it could have offered its players. Klein’s basic idea—the overthrow of the world economic system—sounds radical, but her vision in practice less so:

It is eminently possible to transform our economy so that it is less resource-intensive, and to do it in ways that are equitable, with the most vulnerable protected and the most responsible bearing the bulk of the burden … [but] this scale of economic planning and management is entirely outside the boundaries of our reigning ideology.

It didn’t and doesn’t have to be outside the imagination of Colossal Order.

Rather than buying into the paradigm that describes globalization as the only avenue to development, Skylines could have allowed players to restrict trade in favor of local production, even if that were slower. Rather than public transit being about traffic reduction, Skylines could have let players use buses and bike lanes and walking paths as an alternative to cars, even if their citizens took longer to commute. Instead of forcing players to install incinerators and to dump into rivers, Skylines could have allowed them to encourage less wasteful consumption, to implement composting and real re-use and repair, rather than the lip-service recycling ordinance, which results largely in increased property values.

Industrial agriculture seems like an intractable problem, told as we are that bigger farms and more GMO crops are the only way to feed a growing world. But agronomists are discovering that adapted agro-ecological traditional methods “produce nutritious food—more than industrial agriculture does, per unit area—and limits the need for farmers to buy … chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and patented seeds,” according to Klein.

Then there’s electricity. The player can put down windmills from the start, but they’re so expensive to build, and produce so little power that they play the permanent stepchild to coal and its cousins. Hydro and solar come later, but dams bring a host of environmental and carbon problems and solar only exists in centralized plants, likewise expensive. Fission is top of the heap, by definition extractive and unsustainable, and while fusion exists, its presentation as an end-game reward implies that truly renewable energy is, in Skylines’ view, something that belongs to the future.

Distributed, community-based solar and wind is a real option, right now. Germany and Denmark draw much of their electricity from distributed renewables, and two American scientists detailed in 2009 how, by following a similar trajectory, “100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water, and solar resources, by as early as 2030.”

Why not let players subsidize solar and wind?

Moreover, Skylines’ energy industry is privatized. The player pays to install power plants and then pays to maintain them, but power production is a lucrative business. The implication is that taxpayer money is subsidizing an industry that then privatizes the profits—maybe an accurate portrayal of the world as is, but a pessimistic one when it’s the only option in a game whose fuel ought to be imagination. Why not let players subsidize solar and wind, allowing their inhabitants to install panels and turbines on their houses and businesses? Why not let the players municipalize their energy industry, so that their city could reap the rewards of renewables, rather than treating them like a penalty? Munich has, and is on track to be 100% clean by 2025. Going green would look more feasible. Even favorable.

In her review of Klein’s book for the New York Review, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote that This Changes Everything fails to present a coherent vision of its favored future. Klein never lays out bullet points, but I saw what she was getting at. That may be because I literally see it every day where I live in Mexico. (I’m a Peace Corps volunteer.) The traditional agro-ecological technique here is the milpa, in use since before the Aztecs took up in Tenochtitlan. It mixes four main and up to dozens of ancillary plants to produce a huge variety of food on small plots without industrial inputs or fertilizers or poisons or GMO seeds. It repels pests with native plants, fertilizes with nitrogen fixers, crowds out weeds with its biodiversity and sequesters rather than releases carbon. As part of my work, I see people install efficient stoves, solar ovens, water catchment systems, dry toilets, hanging gardens, composts, and all the other thousands of eco-technologies that turn a carbon-heavy lifestyle into a sustainable one with a minimum of pain.

It’s hard to imagine what Klein imagines unless you’ve already seen it, and we can’t put the world into the Peace Corps. But Colossal Order could have—and with mods and patches still can—give players the tools to discover that it’s not all that hard to save the world. The media has famously failed to convince us of the seriousness of the environmental crisis or the possibility of its solution, but Skylines, by letting players build a sustainable society with their own hands, could make a more powerful argument than any that have gone before.