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Food production is not a problem, because for the last 20 years we’ve produced more calories at a greater rate than we’ve produced more people.^ But still 1 in 6 people in the world is hungry.* Because they don’t have enough money to buy food.^ So the 2008 food crisis is good, because higher food prices = more money for poor farmers. Except that it didn’t, and isn’t.* And calories turns out not to be a good measure of human food energy or nutrition anymore, because the raw food calories increasingly go to animals and to fuel,* and in the US continue to be wasted en masse or converted into unhealthy, non-nutritious calories.^
You would think that we’d have collective agreement about the future of food, being that we do need it to live and all. But I haven’t found much agreement or straight story or people even doing the math. I see the population projection of “9 billion people by 2050″ everywhere, for example, but never accompanied by any explanation or even theory about how those people are going to be fed. With the loaves and fishes of superscience, I guess.
The problem with the Santa Clara Magazine story, and with a lot of what I read about food, is that it talks just about food. It fails to take into account what I call the Iron Triangle, the fact that food, water and oil are today locked in an ironclad fate with each other, and it makes no sense to talk about one without at least mentioning the others. Food supply, after all, was one of the most pressing concerns raised by the World Without Oil game.
The alarming thing, of course, is that all three are said to be heading toward crisis independent of the others. For food, the crisis is arable land: the Economist reports that the thing that lifted the world out of the 2008 food crisis was Europe’s decision to rush its fallow-land reserve back under the plow. Water faces a multitude of crises, the top two may be climate change (megadroughts) and pollution. And the oil crisis, as talked about all along in this blog, is its inevitable stricture combined with the lack of alternatives and the lack of time or will to create an oil-independent economy.
Taken as a triangle, the weakness of each feeds the crisis of the others. The 2008 food crisis is creeping back in 2009, the Economist reports, due largely to the upcreep in oil prices and droughts caused by climate change. Water in turn is a huge energy consumer, and obviously essential to any food production. And as the price of oil creeps up, it sparks more food-to-fuel conversion and processes such as oil sands development, which is water-intensive and climate-changing.
The bottom line for food is that today, people are hungry – even in America, which produces so much food that as much as 40% of it goes to waste. If the system couldn’t take care of its hungry in the fat years, what will it do now that we’ve entered the lean years?
January was the “month in which, for the first time, more automobiles were sold in China than in the United States” (Harper’s Index, April 2009 issue). China passed the U.S. to become the second-largest automobile-manufacturing nation in 2008. Chevy-Chery photo by The Pocket.
As gas prices dip below $2 a gallon in parts of the U.S., the question arises: will Americans be fooled? Not if they actually pay attention to the forecasts: “Although prices may stay low for a time, ‘it is becoming increasingly apparent that the era of cheap oil is over,’” says the Financial Times about a report to be released this week by the International Energy Agency, according to this report from IEEE Spectrum. The IEA forecasts oil back to $100 a barrel and up as soon as the recession-caused glut passes.
Long-term, the IEA forecasts oil rising to $200 a barrel by 2030 – or it would forecast such a future, except that, in their words, “current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.” As Bill Sweet of IEEE goes on to explain, “ultimately the IEA is saying that what it is predicting to happen will not actually happen because it cannot happen.” The IEA is acknowledging that you cannot just extend the graph out for another 20 years, that the reality the graph depicts derails the graph’s own underlying assumptions about prices, economic and population growth, and so on.
This is a remarkable statement, and worth repeating: the world’s energy “business as usual” will not survive for two more decades, and the energy infrastructure as we know it will be changed by the turmoil caused by market pressures on oil supply. This of course is not news to those familiar with the World Without Oil game. But it is news to see it openly said by as august an agency as the IEA. Lesson: it’s not a moment too soon for the U.S. to embark on radical reconsiderations of its energy future (pdf). Photo by maistora via Flickr.
We got a friendly email from Kathryn Blume, who’s touring with The Boycott, her update of Lysistrata for the twenty-first century. In the one-woman play, the First Lady of the United States launches a nationwide sex strike to combat global warming.
Blume: “If you let yourself stop to think about it, climate change is an incredibly scary thing. But most people don’t let themselves think about it. The Overwhelm Factor is just too much. So having someone who can stand up in public and admit their fear, but then also tell a really funny story about the whole situation can be an incredibly cathartic experience, and inspire people to start taking action.”
The World Without Oil game had a similar premise for its approach to oil dependence – we also used “what if?” game play to get around the Overwhelm Factor – but frankly we could have used some more of Kathryn’s humorous approach. Maybe Oliver Twist could be updated for the post-oil era? “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
“When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.
“When was it? Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.”
When indeed? From an Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert, sent my way by WWO friend Cathy. Herbert is referring to Al Gore’s challenge for the U.S. to get 100% of our electricity from clean sources in ten years – or put another way, to begin to catch up to the sort of energy independence that Brazil enjoys right now and Sweden will have in a few years.
Herbert is anticipating howls of protest about the “cost” of Gore’s plan – and sure enough, everyone with a stake in the present energy system is screaming “impossible.” But Cathy also alerted me to this: Texas Approves a $4.93 Billion Wind-Power Project (Midwest wind power is a key element in Gore’s plan).
As Cathy notes, “I favor decentralized power (or shall I call it democratic power , like roof mounted solar and wind – so there isn’t a need for the transmission line – but at least it is wind.” True that – as talked about at length in World Without Oil. It’s not perfect – but: is it a sign of the return of the can-do nation? Photo by jurvetson via Flickr.
Inspiration this morning in a national press release from Germany:
Stuttgart to Launch Electric Bike Share
With gas prices climbing and the threats associated with global warming becoming more apparent, more and more commuters think two wheels look better than four…
The city of Stuttgart has announced plans to rent electric scooters from locations around the city. The idea injects an electric jolt into the bike-sharing programs like Paris’ popular Vélib’.
The city’s government has inked a deal with British firm Ultra Motor to provide the moped-like vehicles. It hopes to have around 1,200 such vehicles ready for rental and covered charging stations located every 500-600 feet around the city in about less than a year.
The LEVs can travel up to 37 miles before needing a charge – which takes about 15 minutes – and have been especially engineered to travel up steep hills.
Interested users will be able to buy a monthly LEV subscription for 15 euros ($24), which will provide them with rides up to 30 minutes, a fraction of the price for a monthly Stuttgart train pass.
I believe the LEVs are combination pedal-electric: that is, you can pedal yourself as much or as little as you want.
More info on the LEV Share program here – coming soon to more cities in Europe. We need to welcome initiatives like these and consider them for American cities, which take oil-burning vehicles off the road and help us make the transition into a more electric-powered and efficiency-oriented (i.e., more sustainable) transportation mindset. First, of course, we have to start making riding two-wheelers safer by cutting back on the car-first design of almost all our streets… Europe has a 30-year or so head start on us on this. Photo by JS North via Flickr.
People in the U.S. are starting to talk about drilling again – in ANWR, off the coasts, anywhere – and that always makes me think of Frank Sinatra. Or more precisely, his performance as a heroin addict in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.
People who want to drill for more oil are like the addict who in desperation steals his child’s piggy bank to get a fix. This is almost a perfect analogy. Except that the addict who steals his child’s money to get a fix actually gets the fix. People who push for more drilling probably won’t. If they would only examine the reality of that future:
1. No oil will actually be produced for about 10 years.
2. When it is produced, it will be sold at market rate to the highest bidder.
3. When it is produced, it will be a trickle meandering through a mostly dry riverbed. The world will be running on 20% to 50% less oil than it is today, and the new oil won’t even offset the continuing slide.
So the perfect analogy would be the drug addict who steals his child’s piggy bank to pay a runner who will go off for ten years then return with a tiny bag of dope which he will sell to the person who can best afford his astronomical price. Someone who can afford to pay multiple times what we are paying now.
So I can understand why owners of private jets are all for drilling, because they have a huge sum invested in their jets and you’ll never fly a jet on alternative power. And of course Big Oil is pushing for it (played by Darrin McGavin in the movie). But for the average person, drilling makes no sense. But then, neither does addiction.
Circumstances have conspired to create an explosion in backyard gardens. I heard this first anecdotally about a month ago from my friends in New York City, who reported that the nurseries near their farm in Vermont were just about out of everything. And now it’s hitting the newswires.
The backyard garden may conjure up patriotic memories of the Victory Gardens of World War II, but as the article notes, the last time that Americans really got serious about gardening was the Oil Shock of 1975. And sure enough, backyard and urban gardens were a central theme in the World Without Oil game – and local food and guerrilla gardening  , too.
It’s easy to see why – A garden turns some dirt, some water, some seeds, some weeding and some sun into food – the most efficient solar power device known to man. And as many WWO players cautioned, it’s good to start now: gardening is a skill that takes years to acquire – best not to count on a lifesaving bounty your first (or second) time out. Photo of the Farmers Market in Union Square, June 2008.
“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” says Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.” Nice article about Alternate Reality Games in Education by Katie Ash. Reminder: you can find WWO lesson plans for high school teachers at
01SJ began last night with giant tentacled aliens invading City Hall, so you can only imagine how sorry I am not to be there. World Without Oil did its part in the festival opening, receiving an honorary mention for “making a sustainable difference by challenging the norm and melding ideas, art and technology” in the Green Prix Award for Environmental Art sponsored by Salas O’Brien. If you’re in the San Jose area this week, check out 01SJ. Photo by cookieevans5 via Flickr.
The Stockholm Challenge has brought together people using information technology for civic purposes from all over the globe. Naturally we’ve been networking like mad. In this quick video, the finalists in attendance from the Environment category list their partnership needs. Anybody know of a potential resource?
The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) is “a one-week multimedia interarts extravaganza that reboots the environment and sustainability into a larger global conversation, embracing issues ranging from wars, health, diseases, music, digital arts, cinemas, popular cultures, fine arts, experimental media, literature, economics, archives, AIDS, women’s rights, and human rights.” I was pretty delighted to find that World Without Oil earned a place in the exhibition of serious games at FLEFF this year, curated by Ulises Mejias of SUNY Oswego. From his notes: “World without Oil… was entirely a discursive, transmediated experience, as open as human expression itself. The goal, according to Sebastian Mary, was to facilitate ‘collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.’”
In keeping with the day, no bad news such as the new highest ever price for oil. Just good news such as the new electric car coming to the U.S. from Norway (named the Th!nk, more on that in a moment) and ESolar’s announcement that it has raised $130 million to make and install 33 megawatts of small prefabbed solar-thermal power plants in California. The smaller plants can be situated closer to where the power is consumed, thereby cutting transmission waste. Converting transportation energy from oil to electric is a big step forward in sustainability and resiliency, as electricity can be a renewable resource.
If the name “Th!nk” sounds familiar, this is why: it’s a Ford car, one they killed in 2002, citing lack of demand. Here’s a news report from 2002.
01SJ is the Zero One art-on-the-edge digital festival here in San Jose, and it’s chosen World Without Oil as a finalist for its Environmental Art award. That is so cool as to render me speechless. We are shoulder-to-shoulder with such WWO simpaticos as The Miss Rockaway Armada and The Yes Men. See the entire list of finalists here. And if you’re in the area, come on down to the 01SJ Opening Ceremony in San Jose on Wednesday, June 4 – that would be a great way to celebrate the first anniversary of the close of the World Without Oil game.
Here in Phoenix, I’m waiting for 8 pm to roll around, so I can power down. It’s Earth Hour, time to turn down the energy consumption, if just for an hour. This is a great idea, very playful, and people are getting into the spirit by getting the candles ready, camping out in the back yard, and so on. And the lesson is right out of WWO: c’mon, there’s life with less energy, and we can make it a good life if we act rather than react. OK, that’s enough – it’s so cool I’m powering down ten minutes early. See you in the dark!
Cool beans. The Stockholm Challenge has selected World Without Oil as a finalist in its 2008 program, in the “Environment” category (subcategory: Energy and alternative technologies). The Stockholm Challenge is all about using Information Communications Technology (ICT) to help counteract social and economic disadvantage. If you look at the finalist list (and you should) you’ll see two main areas: groups that are extending known technologies into underdeveloped regions (often in innovative ways) and groups that are coming up with new technologies or approaches for serving the public good (WWO is in this second area). Here’s the WWO brief at the Stockholm Challenge.
I find three other game approaches among the finalists, both in the Health category: Freedom HIV/AIDS,which uses mobile games to raise awareness in India, and Reach Out Central (Australia) and SmartUs – Games in Motion (Finland), both aimed at health awareness. This is a good showing for serious games, folks, showing their rise globally. I look forward to meeting all the finalists in Stockholm during Challenge Week, May 19-22. The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) does select winners in each of its six categories, but it seems the real prize is to meet and share ideas and aquavit with some really innovative and dedicated people from all over the world.