Winter Is Coming: Teaching Net Assessment in Game of Thrones

This image released by HBO shows Charles Dance in a scene from "Game of Thrones." The fourth season premieres Sunday at 9p.m.
This image released by HBO shows Charles Dance in a scene from "Game of Thrones." The fourth season premieres Sunday at 9p.m. EST on HBO. (AP Photo/HBO, Helen Sloan)

Is Game of Thrones soap Opera or literature? Nobody knows just yet, but we know this truth: literature has the knack of telling us who we are, just when we really need stories that tell us why we are here, and what we need to do.

Game of Thrones is a homily about a great civilization beginning to tear itself apart. In this sense it is a very sad tale. But in the life of our grandparents we have suffered many such "sad stories of the death of kings" (as Shakespeare said in Richard II).

But Martin's mythic tales are not just about the death of kings. They are about us.

HBO's film translation carries forward Martin's existential warning, whispered like a long murmur: "Winter is Coming." The planet on which fabled Westeros resides has really long winters, but no one knows how long the cold and snow will last. Martin's big civilization, inhabiting a realm the size of the continental U.S., is still at the mercy of iron facts on the ground: Namely, that Westeros is leashed to an agricultural economy on the technology plane of 1470.

So ask yourself: What would the Netherlands or Italy in 1470 (the two most developed places in Europe) need to survive a zero-harvest-six-to-eight-year (maybe less, but maybe longer) winter? Super stockpiling, faithfully administered, which we see precious little of in HBO's Westeros -- more in Winterfell, a lot less in the crown lands surrounding King's Landing.

This is because Westeros has been seduced into the pulsing rhythm of the "game of thrones." In the war over the Seven Kingdoms, the seed corn is being eaten up for a shot at the power and the glory -- the ultimate glory of the Iron Throne.

But here Martin is not simply telling us that winter is coming -- but that "winter" itself represents more. There is a Wilding invasion like the civilized South has never seen, and this surge will be agonizingly enhanced by the White Walkers. Whenever you add Zombies to a world mix, you introduce the civilization-shaking specter of human apocalypse.

You might ask, "so what?" A TV producer once dismissed his ruinous rewrite of one of my father's screenplays in the 1960s, saying, "It's just another sausage." TV critics might say the same for Game of Thrones.

Wrong. What George R.R. Martin has brought to Hollywood is nothing less than a true parable of our world. His vision is like a bible story glimpse into our own future. Fable it may be, but Game of Thrones is a dire warning -- straight-shot, heads-up, shot-across-the-bow homily about what humanity faces in its not-so-distant future.

The owners of Westeros -- the powerbrokers (or power narcissists) -- not only ignore their responsibility to prepare their people for the long winter, they also ignore all warning about what's coming down from The Wall.

These powerbrokers, or ruling realists, always default to their true faith -- the sacred calling of "interests" -- while ignoring the wellbeing and future of humanity. In this entire world-system, group altruism clings almost solely to the fraternity of The Night's Watch. Only they are true to their iron calling -- and yet they too are ignored by the corrupt politics of Westeros.

The lesson for our times is as simple as it is everywhere ignored: what counts in the precincts of our imperial city -- Washington D.C. -- is catching the same fatty drippings that mesmerize the powerbrokers of the Seven Kingdoms. Like them, what our own "realists" desperately seek is the only thing that has ever mattered in every "good old imperial city in the good old world" -- which is to say status, prestige, and the immortal glory of the brass ring.

But winter is coming.

Like Westeros in Game of Thrones, humanity faces a slap-upside-the-head as bad in reality as Martin's literary winter. And like his fictional civilization, we do not care. We in Washington are beyond caring, save for ourselves.

What actual winter awaits us, exactly? Like Martin's vision it will come as a sudden and surprising cascade.

We have climate change, which spawns pandemic, and drought and famine and migrations that flow like a river into existential wars for survival. Moreover we must cope with all the human collective actions that are driving us to crisis: making the oceans increasingly impossible for all life, promoting the grand desertification advancing in Africa and China and the Southwest U.S., plus the horrifying loss of fresh water that also awaits. As thoughtless Americans, the culmination of all this could be just a short generation away. We are creating Martin's winter ourselves -- and now Nature is helping out -- offering positive feedback loops that will make our coming "winter" the biggest ever.

Worse yet, it has all happened before. We cannot know when or how it might happen. What we can say for certain is that we cannot rule it out.

Did you know that 195,000 years ago climate change put humanity on the fast road to extinction? We humans survived on an African coast by learning to eat shellfish.

Climate change destroyed first civilizations at the end of "The Bronze Age," 3200 years ago. No extinction: But writing itself died in Europe for four hundred years.

When Rome fell our world imploded, slowly, over the course of a couple centuries. Not apocalypse, but palpable subsidence. We do not call it the Dark Ages for nothing.

Again in 1347, starting with a little ice age and then the Black Death -- Europe's population and the world system did not recover for more than two hundred years.

If you say, "It's all ancient history," it is not. Something worse was lurking in our world just 70 years ago. George Orwell's black 1984 was our almost-reality in 1940-41. And Americans today are even more strategically incapable than they were then.

Maybe it can be dismissed as "just another sausage," but why not think of it as a warning, that ...

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and the US Naval War College, teaching the art of strategy and global net assessment. He is a regular guest on the John Batchelor Show. On Twitter @JHUWorldCrisis.