What happens when a giant volcanic eruption blocks off the sun?

tabletop for startups

Before the Rising Sun – The Post-Game Report



Before the Rising Sun


An oil painting is projected on all four walls of the conference room in Melbourne as the line of attendees stretches out the door. One by one, they roll a 20-sided dice and move towards the hexagonal table they have been allocated to. Participants sit alone, staring at the painting until they meet their team as the empty seats are filled.

The painting depicts the silhouette of a lone woman standing on a precipice, her arms outstretched towards a radiant impossibly orange sunrise that breaks through a turbulent landscape. The Romantic masterpiece by Caspar David Friedrich dating from the early 19th century, provides a clue to an observant participant of the events to come. 

The Woman Before The Rising Sun was painted 3 years after the eruption of Mt. Tambora. The volcanic ash from this Level 7 Indonesian volcanic eruption sent enough particulates into the atmosphere. Thousands died from crop failures due to the reduced sunlight. The effects of the refracted light are seen in many European oil paintings of sunrises, even years later. 

208 years later, a conference room in Melbourne fills through random allocation. Participants will soon roleplay policymakers, corporate moguls, and citizen groups to grapple with an issue of seismic importance—a new volcanic eruption of Level 8 magnitude. The exercise was to mitigate the immediate crisis and long-term impacts of this cataclysmic event that threatened to cast a dark cloud, both literally and metaphorically, over the world.

BREAKING: Mount Merapi Eruption of 2 days ago leaves Airports on High Alert as Ash CloudApproaches—Flight Cancellations Imminent

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The Opening Moves


As alerts about airport closures and ash clouds filled the air, participants in their newly formed teams sprang into action. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) promptly channelled its focus towards global partnerships and real-time monitoring. Concurrently, the populace, represented by another group, spoke of mistrust in institutional frameworks while foregrounding public health. Scientific reports were released predicting  that ashfall would last years, and resulting  crop failures could be devastating


Initial Meetings


Ten days into the catastrophe, public awareness had begun to escalate, particularly concerning impending food shortages. Here, the ADF executed a bold strategy, transferring its military arsenal to Australia’s northern bulwark. In stark contrast, the Dairy and Meat Industry adopted a more pecuniary tactic: doubling beef prices and clamouring for federal intervention. The Department of Agriculture, Fishing, and Forestry (DAFF), in a robust manoeuvre, centralised agricultural governance and launched an ambitious multi-billion-dollar innovation fund. Western and Queensland governments, embroiled in a political imbroglio, endeavoured to capitalise on trade agreements with Indonesia—leading to ethical quandaries on resource allocation.


Months in Darkness


As the months rolled on and the world remained engulfed in an ashy haze, hard choices were unavoidable. The WA and QLD governments attempted to land a lucrative meat and dairy trade deal with the affected country of Indonesia, while scientists advised the cattle feed should be instead diverted for human consumption with predicted crop failures, causing political tension. Supermarket Corporation spearheaded initiatives in vertical farming while civil unrest compelled the ADF to surveil potential dissidents. Queensland, displaying both resilience and ingenuity, pivoted towards sustainable food technologies. Yet, it was DAFF’s audacious but ill-fated billion dollar agricultural fund that stole the headlines, ending in the Minister’s unceremonious exit and a subsequent public inquest. Adding to the theatrics, a rogue faction’s assassination attempt on the CEO of the Supermarket Corporation narrowly missed its mark by 1 with the roll of a dice—adding an element of unpredictability to an already volatile situation.


The Sun Also Rises


As the exercise neared its end, participants recounted the likely outcomes of their strategic gambits. While the ADF withdrew to a more subtle role, allowing societal norms to resurface, Queensland carved out its niche as an avant-garde in food technology. As conference participants grappled with the immediate and long-term consequences of a simulated disaster, The Woman Before The Rising Sun provided an existential reflection to the proceedings, providing participants with a subtle but powerful reminder of the long-lasting impacts and the double-edged sword of nature’s majesty and menace.

While the simulation unravelled complex layers of decision-making and socio-political tensions, its architects and scientific observers had their own nuanced perspectives. Ross Tieman, a researcher from Think-Tank Alliance to Feed The Earth in a Disaster (ALLFED), noted the absence of meaningful cross-institutional collaboration. “The exercise highlighted a chasm between government bodies and industries. Initial engagement was more intra-sectoral than inter-sectoral. Surprisingly, the governmental bodies barely consulted the public, a dynamic perhaps suggesting that in real crises, public sentiment could be a stumbling block to technological development.”

Tieman also mentioned the startling yet plausible rise of authoritarian tendencies as the situation worsened. “The public’s growing affinity for civil unrest, coupled with the Defence Force’s increased powers, set the stage for creeping authoritarianism. Yet, a peculiar compliance to the government narrative prevailed. One wonders if this was influenced by the conference demographic or the pre-session by ALLFED, a non-profit focusing on alternate foods.”

Game designer Dr Dan Epstein commended the fidelity of the stakeholder roleplay, “For non-experts, they stuck to the roles and the goals very well. It would be interested to see how things would change with real stakeholders in the hotseat”. 

Farrah Jasmine Dingal, an ALLFED observer, was intrigued by the level of immersion participants showed. “The earnestness with which participants assumed their roles underscores the value of such tabletop exercises in identifying and prioritising failure modes. Future iterations could be enhanced by incorporating a wider range of ‘publics’—from right-wing groups to Indigenous communities.”

Kevin Rassool, ALLFED, found the exercise to be “appropriately chaotic for the context, and was “impressed by the breadth of participants who worked at industry bodies, supply chain, and government who were able to bring their expert knowledge to the simulation”.

Overall, The exercise demonstrated the intricacies of decision-making, governance, and human behaviour. As nations around the globe face an increasing cadence of crises—from climate disasters to geopolitical tensions—such simulations serve as both a cautionary tale and a blueprint. They underscore the imperative for agile governance, cross-sectoral collaboration, and, above all, the practice in situations that contains risks that no living person has experience with.


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