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Krystyn Wells is now seeing the serious challenges and expectations from World Without Oil come to reality over the past couple of weeks. Serious game, indeed.

The Facebook tweet above by Krystyn (who was Pachinko_Chance in WWO) made me realize something new about the World Without Oil game: it was a kind of Rorschach Test about the health of the country. The game did a lot to lay open the extent to which oil and petroleum-fueled energy has oozed its way into the fabric of our lives, and I’ve written about that extensively in past blog posts, and about how this oozing has become painfully clear in the year since the game ended.

The sign of things to come

The sign of things to come

But as Krystyn indicates, maybe the game also laid open the extent to which trouble was brewing, not directly petroleum-related. Commentators on the game noted how it tapped into the subconscious or the mythological. When you read stories like this one, which is full of foreclosures and belt-tightening and slipping-down lives, it reads like today – and remember, mind you, it was written back in May 2007, when there was no credit crisis, no mortgage crisis, no foreclosures, just sunny skies and prosperity forever and people thought $3 a gallon was some sort of dark fantasy.

Maybe we need to have a crisis game like WWO every year – and build something that we can pick apart at the end, and trace its various narrative threads back to the real-life cracks in the infrastructure that inspired them. And then see what we can do to fix those cracks before they spread and threaten to bring everything crashing down. Photo by respres via Flickr.

The expert monopoly

The expert monopoly

As the bailout crisis talks continue, and the common people wait to find out what particular flavor of long hard road awaits them, one might wonder if there’s any way that we the people could have foreseen this coming. The answer is yes, and the key incident to remember is: Nicholas Leeson and Barings Bank.

You may remember Mr. Leeson: he was the young trader who undertook risky deals that went bad and the resulting losses destroyed Barings, an investment bank that was over two centuries old. The incident shook the markets, but the focus at the time quickly shifted to controlling individual traders, away from the obvious lesson about the shaky fundamentals of investment banking itself, and the incident seems to have been forgotten entirely when Republicans Phil Gramm and James Leach championed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which undid the Glass-Steagall Act’s protections that had been in place since the Depression.

Thinking about Leeson reminds me in turn of Frank Corder, the man who stole a light plane on September 11, 1994, and crashed it into the White House. It does not take an expert to extrapolate from this event the events on the same day seven years later. But as we all now know any such lesson was not learned – not by U.S. security experts, anyway.

Once you begin to see the kind of myopia that afflicts experts, you can start to see it in all sorts of places. And it validates two idea behind the World Without Oil game: one, that a common citizen can see some approaching futures more plainly than experts can; and two, that a sufficiently large group of everyday citizens can outperform experts in certain challenges, especially those of imagination. The key is creating a seriously playful motivation to bring the citizens together, and a seriously playful space where they can collaborate. Should some tiny fraction of the money looming to be spent on the credit crisis go toward crowdsourcing views about what the next crisis will be? I think we should get that game started right away. Image by Mike Licht, Notionscapital.com via Flickr.

the risk is socialized

Oil drilling: the risk is socialized

“Privatize the profit, but socialize the risk” is the meme of the moment: it’s what happens when you let a company take home the benefit from operations but bail it out with public money when times turn bad, and as we all know it leads to heedless corporate behavior and eventually, to tears. You would think that now of all times our government would reject deals of this sort. But the House quietly passed yet another “privatize the profit, socialize the risk” scheme yesterday: it opened up both coasts to oil drilling.

This, despite Exxon’s successful legal action culminating earlier this year to reduce its payments on the Exxon Valdez disaster from its original $5 billion. (If you don’t remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill, you can be forgiven; it might have happened before you were born; the ship went aground back in 1989.) So, despite the most open-and-shut culpability imaginable, Exxon successfully managed to socialize the risks of oil production in Alaska, using their privatized profit to fund a 19-year delay and, eventually, bailout. We all ended up paying for the Exxon Valdez; can we really expect anything better when oil rigs start appearing off our beaches and in our fisheries? The risks are great, which is why the coasts were put off limits in the first place, and now they are yours and mine. Photo by ingridtaylar via Flickr.

While the perps express shock at how much collateral damage their greed is doing (rather like termites in a collapsing house), let’s all take a calming minute to honor the heroes of this crisis – the people who did what they could to actively counter the devastation. Who are they, you might ask?

Bailout-resistant

Bailout-resistant

The people who ride bicycles. The people who take transit. The people who bought more fuel-efficient vehicles. The people who drive the speed limit or less. The hypermilers. The people who plant gardens. The people who localize their food and energy. The people who invest time in their communities. The people that took staycations. The people, in short, who did their own math, gauged the weather for themselves, and took positive action ahead of the crisis. The very things prescribed by the World Without Oil game (and taken to heart by many of our players).

How did they help? Quite simple. By reducing our demand for oil, these people have helped to drop the price of oil and thus ameliorate this year’s fuel price hike. The fuel price hike, of course, is part and parcel of the foreclosure crisis: it wasn’t just that people couldn’t afford their ballooning mortgages, it was the three-punch combo of mortgage + fuel prices + food prices that really knocked ’em down and out.

Plus of course, by adapting in a socially conscious way, these people have made their lives bailout-resistant. Individually, each contribution is small, but collectively they are quite significant. Large enough, anyway, to fill up our transit systems, calm our highways and empty our greenhouses.

The self-reliant individual used to be a proud model of American citizenship, good stewardship the epitome, and self-sufficient independence the backbone of the American character. When was it exactly that that model was replaced by the lowest-cost-at-any-price consumer, and the drill-anywhere bail-me-out spirit became our national standard?  Photo by Pandiyan via Flickr.

I’m mulling this morning about the various natures of future knowledge, and how they influence human behavior. Hurricane Ike started this train of thought, which is not surprising, as forecasts and predictions and planning (and dread) are part and parcel of our experience with hurricanes.

some things are foreseeable

Hurricane Ike, Friday Sept. 12, 10 am PDT: some things are foreseeable

After ravaging Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Ike is plotted to come ashore again at Galveston, Texas, pushing a storm surge that threatens to overwhelm the sea wall there. So once again the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck: the World Without Oil alternate reality also had a hurricane (Felix)  come ashore at Galveston, inundating parts of that city and also causing flooding in Houston.

WWO predicted this hurricane, but like many predictions, this is not remarkable. Given how hurricanes operate in the geography of the Gulf, it’s a safe prediction to make (it’ll come true eventually). Right now, the forecast calls for Ike to hit Galveston, and this is also not remarkable. Forecasts are like a chain of well-educated predictions, and if any of these predictions goes awry, the forecast suffers.

Which brings us to foreknowledge – which I’ll define here as the ability to recognize what is actually going to occur. Foreknowledge depends on two things coming together: accurate perception of the world as it is and accurate understanding of the way the world works. Unlike an event chain, foreknowledge can bypass the tactical sequence in favor of the strategic outcome. At its highest levels, foreknowledge involves a “eureka moment” when the opaque transforms into the inevitable. And foreknowledge informs and motivates more strategic human behavior: a hurricane forecast leads to boarded-up windows and evacuations; foreknowledge about the effect of global warming on hurricanes and sea level, in contrast, leads people to rebuild or relocate.

The goal of World Without Oil was to create a platform for foreknowledge about oil dependency in its players and observers. It is generating two outcomes: (1) people able to perceive more accurately the world as it is and how it works in regards to oil, and (2) people having a foreknowledge “eureka moment” and changing their situation and behavior accordingly. Both these outcomes help to lessen the impact of the inevitable transition we face as oil becomes more difficult to find, extract, procure, and burn with a clear conscience.

An unanticipated bottleneck

An unanticipated bottleneck

In the World Without Oil game, we predicted that a sudden rise in oil prices would cause a bicycle shortage. But I don’t think we adequately envisioned the crisis in bicycle repair.

Behold a sign of the times: the times being 1973, that is. The photographer, ubrayj02, explains:

“The price of gasoline in the U.S. rose dramatically in 1971. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 sent gasoline prices through the roof in the United States. The rise in gasoline prices got many Americans to start riding bikes in numbers never anticipated by bicycle manufacturers and retailers. The result? A shortage of bicycles in the U.S., and a repair queue at most bike shops that could last several months. This hand made sign, from B&H Cycles in South Pasadena, was hanging in their store window during the oil embargo. This sign is now housed at the Bike Oven.”

So add bicycle care and repair to gardening, cooking, hypermiling, community organizing, and the list of other skills that give a great return on investment in the world without cheap oil. Photo by ubrayj02 via Flickr.

Now more than ever

Citizen contributions, now more than ever

Responding to the crisis of the World War I and II years, people planted Victory Gardens. By raising their own food, citizens cut the demand for outside food and saved the fuel that would otherwise be needed to bring food to them. More important, they increased the resilience of the economy (by decentralizing food production, by being able to make their own decisions about distribution, and so on). And most important of all, they thus became an active part of the war effort – “Food is Fighting!” as several government posters succinctly put it. One result: an extraordinarily unified country.

Now we fast-forward to 2008. Whether or not the government chooses to acknowledge it, there’s another crisis going on – or more precisely, a concatenating and synergistic series of crises with feet already in the door. And many people are responding appropriately: by planting the Victory Gardens of 2008, by riding bicycles and taking transit, by driving efficient cars and hybrids, by eating locally, by building green, by cutting waste, by building communities and debating solutions, and so on.

The differences between then and now are notable – and to my mind, ominous. Then, these citizen actions were actively encouraged by The Powers That Be, which tallied their contributions and recognized them as important. Then, the White House boasted its own Victory Garden. Today, however, these citizen actions are actively discouraged by the government in favor of Consumerism As Usual, and the contributions these citizens are making are not recognized or even tabulated.  Instead, we hear the “drill!” mantra, even though the citizen conservation approach has the potential to produce (via saving) more than 10 times the energy that drilling would net, in a quarter of the time. And once again the potential to unify the country, not divide it further.

Support the military, now more than ever

Support the military, now more than ever

In the World Without Oil project, we simulated the first 32 weeks of an global oil shortage. In the simulation, the government did very little and it was up to the people to crowdsource their own solutions to the crisis. Unfortunately, as with many other revelations from World Without Oil, government inaction seems to be coming true. Will it be up to the people to crowdsource their way into a viable and better way of life? The good news is, we’ve already started.

The game of politics is an alternate reality game (and has been all along), and so it’s fascinating to see how  ARG techniques are challenging traditional political gameplay. The most striking example I’ve seen is the Anne Kilkenny email about Sarah Palin. I don’t think the strategists behind her nomination reckoned on the power of WWO-style crowdsourcing to answer the questions about the nominee so deeply, so quickly and so plainly. They must not have played the World Without Oil game.

Librarian reading "The Handmaid's Tale," a banned book

Librarian reading a banned book

In World Without Oil, people told the truth as they saw it, from the perspective they were at, about the days when oil was no longer cheap. It’s important to note that they were the experts at this: no official can say what any given person will do when oil prices go higher. And it’s turning out, of course, that this means that no official can say what individuals in the aggregate will do: every week it seems there’s some new story about an agency or a business or an organization that’s struggling to adapt to some change in public behavior that they had not foreseen.

The old political ARG manipulates the media to keep its spins spun and its secrets secret. A nominee or an officeholder can refuse to meet the press or answer questions or even appear in any forum that’s not tightly controlled. To use Clay Shirky’s term, the model is “filter, then publish.” But the Internet is all about “publish, then filter,” and this is a whole new game. Photo by hatcher.library via Flickr.

Cutting education to save fuel

Losing muscle: saving fuel by cutting education

It’s my last day of vacation here in Arlington, Vermont, where gasoline is $3.79 a gallon or so (it’s still over $4 back in Cali) and the winters are long and warmed with fuel oil. Our hosts had friends over last night, and I asked a man named Hamilton what the winter would be like. “Cold” was his laconic answer.

At current prices, winter can cost residents here $6000 or more in fuel oil. Hamilton went on to relate that a fuel-oil supplier he knew was already carrying about $750,000 in debt from last year, when suppliers faced customers unable to pay who are facing freezing temperatures. Who will step in this year, I wonder. And the next, and the next.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times describes how schools across the nation are dealing with the triple whammy of skyrocketing fuel costs and more foreclosures and the recession: cutting bus service; cutting hours (and in some cases, days); restricting travel; generally saving money any way they can. “The big national picture is that food and fuel costs are going up and school revenues are not,” said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, according to the article.

As the school year begins, teachers will be playing oil mini-crises with their students in their classrooms, using the World Without Oil lesson plans. Students not of driving age may have difficulty relating to gas prices, but underheated houses and four-day school weeks will connect them more directly, alas.

In the World Without Oil game, the players imagined what would need to be done if petroleum suddenly became more expensive or otherwise hard to get. In the game, the players wrestled with cutbacks of essential services. What does it say that schools across the country are going to four-day weeks? The oil crisis of 2008 continues. Photo by bitzcelt via Flickr.

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.