Your support is buffering: Soccer in the Anthropocene 

When climate change renders playing and attending summer soccer matches impossible, will digital experiences be the only solution?

Despite the endless bemoaning of performatively outraged men in brightly lit TV studios, the FA Cup remains an emotional high-point of the English soccer season. Leicester’s 2021 FA Cup win provided an exhilaration the competition had not seen for several years, mainly due to the absence of fans from soccer games for so long because of Covid. The 21,000 allowed into the stadium created such an intense atmosphere of collective expression it was simply overwhelming.

Similarly, the recent 2022 final between Liverpool and Chelsea offered more of the same; a packed Wembley with its towering, spiraled arch gleaming in the iridescent spring sunshine, as 90,000 fans watched in tense awe at the hyperactive display of relentless soccer that was decided in the deep-end of a sudden-death shoot-out. These afternoons, when history holds out its hands and beckons teams to join it, allow a huge, communal display of joy and despair that no other cultural mode can even come close to matching.

How will these days, these games that can define a life, look to us in the future? Despite the first concrete declaration that climate change exists and is affecting the planet at the Earth Summit in 1992, very little about our day-to-day lives have changed.

Yes, there have been micro-alterations; we recycle far more than in 1992, for example in the USA, paper recycling increased by 90 percent between then and 2010. In 1994 there were roughly 500,000 vegans in America, there are now 9.7 million. In the U.K. the generation of electricity from renewable sources has gone from below 2 percent in 1990, to 40.2 percent in 2020.

These statistics, while obviously desirable, create a picture of a green world that does not remotely exist. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the atmosphere since 1751 have come after the world knew about climate change. Think about that, it’s the equivalent of setting your house on fire with cooking oil and then building a gas station while it burns and continually spraying your house with gasoline.

George Monbiot, the writer and environmental activist, has written, with extreme provocation that “flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse.” That analogy may be difficult to stomach but the underlying point is right — flying is the single biggest contributor an individual can make to climate collapse, which is going to kill and displace millions of people.

According to data from the International Energy Association, in 1990 there were 1.2 billion total airplane passengers, in 2020 that number had reached 4.6 billion. The data is varied but only 5-20 percent of the world’s population has ever been on a plane. As wealth continues to grow globally, and those from developing countries who have that capacity will understandably want to see the world, these numbers will increase with devastating consequences for the environment.

Those facts have been in front of us for decades but we are still speeding towards the cliff-edge with a 10-ton boulder on the accelerator. We have lived in a bubble, being lulled by vested interests to make these little adjustments to our lives while nothing of significance has ever changed.

This will not last forever. The climate is changing with a rapid intensity that neither we, nor science can keep up with. The historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 sought to force nations to adopt policies that would keep global temperature rises to 1.5 by reaching net zero by 2050. Yet, the World Meteorological Office has stated there is a 48 percent chance we hit 1.5 of warming in the next five years, let alone by the end of the century.

Let’s be absolutely clear, the changes this will bring will make Covid look like going out with no umbrella to find it starts raining. When the floods begin in earnest, ‘wet-bulb’ temperatures become normal, tarmac melts with the ease of ice cream cones and mud-slides rain down mercilessly on the world’s most deprived people, things will have to change.

Dana Powell-Smith uses an Oculus headset at home in Indianapolis, Thursday, April 7, 2022, where she paints, accesses the metaverse and works on promoting her NFTs.

Are you ready for soccer in the metaverse?

Mark Zuckerberg is talking to a camera in a digitally constructed living room. It is achingly modern; huge windows instead of walls letting in fake gleaming sunlight, an iron furnace throwing glitchy embers into the air, and for reasons beyond human comprehension, a big grey stone. It offers very loud echoes of the toxic modernity of the Park’s family house in Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece Parasite.

The Facebook founder and CEO is inside the metaverse.

The metaverse, a digitally constructed world you enter via VR, is not Zuckerberg’s invention. It has existed in various forms for several years; from creating avatars of yourself online to VR explorations of the colossally successful game Fortnite. What is central to the contemporary conception of the metaverse is the totality of the digital world you are entering. It is, especially within a social media context, an attempt to recreate fully the analog world. Or the real world as it was previously known.

With 2.9 billion members, Facebook’s user base comprises around a third of the world’s global population, so the company’s decision to center its future around life digitization is significant. Zuckerberg announced in October 2021, in a video that created an uncanny creepiness Charlie Kaufman could only dream of, that all of Facebook’s social media companies like Whatsapp and Instagram would be folded into a larger company called Meta.

It seems Zuckerberg’s intention is to take the interconnectedness of social media and create a replicated virtual world. So rather than group chats or video calls, you will presumably use a VR headset to step into this digital space and connect with other people as if you were still within an analog framework.

Why would Zuckerberg, or any tech company, actually want to do this? Well, these companies generate profit from you, the user, mainly through the sales of targeted advertising. Imagine a world in which when you log onto Facebook, instead of seeing a scrolling mass of Great Replacement memes, too much information about people’s relationships, dog videos, you enter a perfectly rendered replication of anywhere in the world, potentially past, present or future.

We would step out of the confines of the bidirectional engagement between human and screen and become fully entwined with the virtual; finally evolving into what writer Will Self calls ‘the Homo-virtual.’ Users might pay extra to sit in a perfectly executed replica of a Reinscensse tavern or an ancient Greek kapeleia. Companies could license their precious IP so now you’re having your coffee not in a bistro but in the T.A.R.D.I.S or Bilbo’s bungalow in Bag End. The money-making possibilities are endless because if the relentless upgrading of technology in the super-modernity we inhabit has taught us anything, it’s that people will always pay more for more.

However, perhaps there is another reason these virtual worlds are being created, where the demarcation between real and digital is scrubbed away until it’s a half-remembered nostalgia. Maybe it has something to do with what is going on in the analog realm, the world of outside.

Soccer, Anthropocene

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 30: Bill Walton, Paul Pierce, Dwayne Wade, Ray Allen, Paul Gasol, Former President Barack Obama, Shaquille O’Neal all in the virtual fan stands in Game One of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 30, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This finally brings me back to soccer. As climate collapse wreaks havoc, our lives will be reimagined beyond the bounds of what we can envisage, even after Covid. Soccer will continue in a post-climate collapse society, it continued during the Second World War, it was played in secret by black South Africans during apartheid and in defiance of the brutal misogyny of the Taliban, the Afghanistan women’s soccer team regrouped and moved to Australia to continue playing. Soccer is endlessly malleable, reforming itself into new shapes in the face of ever-changing obstacles.

Of course, dramatic changes in climatic conditions are distinct from extreme political and social impositions, but it offers a sense of soccer’s innate durability. Soccer will survive even the most dystopian outcome of climate collapse because of its extraordinary simplicity; to play the game in its purest form you just need a foot and something round to kick.

However, soccer in the Anthropocene will invariably be forced into radical changes in response to a drastically altered climate. Once countries like the UK regularly reach ‘wet bulb’ temperatures, things we consider utterly normal and mundane today will become intensely regulated. A wet-bulb temperature is determined by placing a wet thermometer in a shaded area and seeing how easily water evaporates from it. By contrasting this with a dry thermometer in the same area, we can understand the levels of humidity the atmosphere is creating and the potential heat stresses that will induce in people.

Once a wet-bulb temperature reaches 87.8 Fahrenheit (31°C) it becomes impossible to do physical labor and by 95°F (35°C) a human exposed to it will be dead within a few hours. By 2050, the UK could be regularly reaching average summer wet-bulb temperatures of 78.8°F (26°C) and peak of 96.8°F (36°C), with summer heat waves occurring 50 percent of the time.

This will make both playing and watching soccer under the conditions we have enjoyed for the last 150 years impossible. Under these wet bulb conditions, both players and fans would simply die under all that merciless sun.

So, how will soccer survive if it is literally impossible to play without everyone melting away? How soccer responded to the banning of fans from games at the height of the Covid pandemic is instructive. There were various ways clubs attempted to visually replicate a packed stadium; literally placing cardboard cutouts of fans on every seat, creating a giant with fans effectively zooming onto it live from their house and an attempt to digitally impose fans onto seats during televised games.

None of these attempts were particularly successful — the digitally imposed fans during La Liga games were smudges of garish color shaped like scarcely believable humanoid blobs. At least the cardboard cutouts of fans, while primitive, have a sense of real-world humor to them.

This is where the metaverse and climate collapse will collide in the shattering demise of mass collective emotional expression. As the analog world is bathed in the fatal beams of a pitiless sun, we will take shelter in the weatherless safety of digital landscapes.

Even when it becomes literally life-threatening to exit your house, soccer will live on and fans’ emotional engagement will not waiver. Technological improvements will have to exist to make this happen; stadiums will need to be enclosed from the vicious sun and insanely air-conditioned to create a version of the world in which physical activity is possible. This is not a sci-fi abstraction, it is something that is very slowly coming into existence.

As soccer players compete in a domed sphere of artificial air, the fans will take their seats inside the stadium but without leaving the Kafka-striped interior of their houses. They will place the tiny VR headsets and step foot into the metaverse to find themselves sitting in the once familiar hallowed ground of their beloved second homes.

They will see a perfectly realized pitch, the waft of freshly skimmed grass will fill their nose and it will smell more real than real. The game will play out in front of you in real-time. It will be flawless, virtual as analog, suspension of disbelief made seamless.

You will see old friends and sing the old songs and the lonely echo that fills your living room will be transformed into a collective roar of 50,000 others just like you, all trapped but together.

This is an imagined idea of our future but to me is completely plausible. Once the worst of climate change arrives, and provided civilization doesn’t collapse, it is entirely reasonable to think we will retreat further into the digital world. VR has already improved at dramatic speed and will eventually be able to fully replicate reality and once going outside becomes so hazardous it will kill you, it is logical, even reasonable that we will reconfigure the outside to become inside.

Soccer will be one small part of that realization but one that will happen because this sport is one of the great survivors. So instead of singing the song much beloved of fans:

Your support

Your support

Your support is f*****g shit

Your support is f*****g shit

People will be sat in their homes, wishing with all their hearts that they could shut off the small part of their brain reminding them this isn’t really real, and sing loudly:

Your support

Your support

Your support is buffering

Your support is buff-er-ing

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