You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2008.

Summerfield, Texas, 020XXOver at the sceptical futuryst, futures researcher Stuart Candy is posting a new WWO photo series, and he and Jake Dunagan mull over what characterizes an image that gives us the long view. It’s fun to envision things that will work better in the future (ref the futuristic duds in Back To The Future, if anyone remembers that old movie), but more useful perhaps to foresee what won’t work out so well (Los Angeles, 2017, if anyone remembers that old movie). And one of the ideas driving World Without Oil was indeed the idea that the future, like the present, is never anyone’s idea; it’s what happened while we were making other plans.

Your crisis and oil crisis go hand-in-handA bit of feel-good ephemera from the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.

Article by Bob Keefe begins as follows: “Federal and state energy officials are planning a major investment in new technologies in an attempt to make Hawaii the nation’s first state to get the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources. U.S. Department of Energy officials are expected to announce the unprecedented plan Monday, just before the opening of a U.S.-sponsored international summit on climate change in Hawaii.” If serious, this would be a sea change indeed: as WWO players might remember, Hawaii gets 90% of its energy from petroleum, and thus is on the end of the whip (or is the canary in the coal mine, pick your metaphor) when it comes to oil price increases and shortages. So, yeah, it’s the logical first choice to play Lindsay Lohan and check herself into rehab for oil addiction.

“General Motors has formed a new global engineering group to speed up development of electric and hybrid vehicles and get them to market more quickly, the company said Thursday.” Meanwhile, the Toyota Prius began its 11th year of production with demand for the hybrid car continuing to exceed supply.

Our web guy, Mark Bracewell (aka Yucky Muck) pointed my face at this one:, a crowd-sourced citizen nerve center plotting incidents of violence in Kenya. The site receives reports via SMS from cell phones, plots them on the site, and then NGOs in the area check them for accuracy. It’s a fabulous use of technology to counter a crisis, and I’m corresponding with the Ushahidi folks just in case there’s anything valuable in the WWO experience that they can apply to their humanitarian efforts.

Amid all the economic doom and gloom, you might have missed the little wire service blurb about the gas station clerk in Nitro, West Virginia (I am not making this up) who was caught selling gasoline to family and friends for 0.1 cents a gallon. We saw a lot of this sort of thing in WWO. It may seem relatively minor (although this clerk apparently pumped $50K worth before being caught) but it has a deeper significance: WWO players pinpointed this sort of fraud as the reason that any gas rationing scheme would likely fail in the U.S. – the lure of the black market would just be irresistible.

The saying goes: If you owe the bank $10 billion, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $10 trillion, you own the bank. That is, you owe so much that if you default, the bank goes under too.

Since the USA consumes one out of every four barrels of oil produced in the world, we own the oil bank, so to speak. Or thought we did, maybe, until yesterday, when President Bush went to Saudi Arabia, met with King Abdullah, and asked him to please produce more oil or else the US economy would slow down and thus we would buy less of his oil.

Leave aside for the moment the absurdity of anyone giving the King of Saudi Arabia a lecture in Economics 101, and focus on what this means: Bush is saying “we buy so much, we own the bank.” The Saudi response? According to an article in the New York Times, the Saudi oil minister said that Saudi Arabia shared Bush’s concern that a recession in the US would have profound effects, but “Saudi Arabia would raise production only when the market justifies it.” In short: “No, Mr. Bush, actually the bank owns you.”

Quite understandable, from the Saudi point of view. Why invest money in additional infrastructure and sweat to pump a gallon of oil to sell this year at $100, when without any additional effort you can pump that barrel next year and sell it for $150? So what if the US goes into a recession and buys somewhat less oil? China and India are standing by, cash in hand. And the World Without Oil scenario continues, scarily, to become more real.

…but here comes the cruel part: I don’t spend the money on you, or anywhere near you, so no trickle-down either. I give it to Saudi Arabia and Russia instead.
That’s what’s happening right now, according to yesterday’s article by Steven Mufson in the Washington Post. Climbing oil prices have all of the negative effects of a tax increase with none of the benefits. “Clearly contractionary” and “Quite a wallop,” the pundits say, especially as the U.S. economy heads into recession. And this: “stagflationary.”

Makes me wish that we had begun taxing fuel a few years ago – starting out small but increasing over time, giving the economy a chance to adjust. And spent the tax revenue on meeting the demand for mass transit as it increased. Wouldn’t that have made our economy more resilient?

The World Without Oil scenario is possible. But if you ask me what the likely scenario is, I will point you to this post by Anne Tagonist. As a number of WWO players noted, the crisis will not be Hollywood-worthy – a significant part of its pain will be how quickly catastrophe becomes pedestrian.

Horsepower, at the Long Island Museum.

The price of oil surged over $100 a barrel today. That’s not really news, since it’s been hovering near there for weeks. A report questions OPEC’s ability to meet the world’s long-term demand for oil. That’s not really news, since various reports have been doing that for years, except that this report comes from OPEC itself. And airlines are pulling out the stops to save fuel, even to the point of lightening drink carts (how long before they start doing away with drink carts altogether?), because fuel costs have risen from one-quarter of airline operating costs to one-third in less than a year. The high fuel prices are starting to pull airlines into bankruptcy.

I can go on, citing growing violence in Nigeria, record unanticipated petroleum stock depletion in the US, unexpectedly high oil demand in China – but WWO players already get the point. It’s like the World Without Oil scenario is coming true, but slowly, slowly, so as not to wake the frog dozing uneasily in its overwarm bath.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.