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Time's up

Time's almost up

A leading energy economist in the International Energy Agency reported today, in an interview with The Independent, that the world’s oil supply has been depleting almost twice as fast as their 2007 projection, and that an energy supply crisis is looming in the next five years that will choke off any economic recovery.

“We have to leave oil before oil leaves us,” said Dr. Fatih Birol of the IEA. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously,” he said.

It’s been over two years now since the World Without Oil game got people to collectively imagine our next oil crisis, and prepare for this day. For a video tour of your near future, try the official WWO videos by Kalwithoutoil. To see the full WWO archive, go here. Or for your own little refresher course in how to survive an oil crisis, review our WWO lesson plans? Photo by Napalm filled tires

Okay, here’s the story on food. (“*” is this Economist story; “^” is this story in Santa Clara Magazine)

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 supply of each is interlinked with the others

The supply of each is interlinked with the others

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?

"word"

"Don't leave anyone behind for the wolves to devour"

“The calls for food assistance to our Catholic Worker House have tripled this past month, but last Saturday we had only 1/3 our usual number of volunteers show up to deliver the food… In the meantime, besides delivery, we have another problem, and that is food to give out to the poor. Our delivery this month from the Regional Food Bank was half its usual amount. Instead of about 14 tons of food, we received 7 at the Dorothy Day Center… The Printable Flyers are online. They are basic how-to instructions for coping with severely challenging circumstances. We’re handing out the full set, since we don’t know how far down this is going to go… We’re suggesting that people combine households, move in with each other, especially small households with only one or two people. The way things are going, keeping a household going with only one or two people isn’t going to work well. Inflation is running up prices, rents are going up, we’re headed for a big spike in foreclosures. I’ve been getting calls from people I know are middle class and even upper middle class about assistance in meeting mortgage payments. We’ve had to turn all of those down. I tell them to move in with their parents, but there is a lot of denial…. I worry all this will be too little, too late… I wish all this had held off for a couple more years, but oh well, at least we are where we are now and aren’t starting from square one.” Sound like a report on what’s happening today? It’s actually an example of “isthisnotagame”: it comes from an excellent report submitted back in July by jpeaceokc for the alternate reality game World Without Oil. Happy holidays, everyone. Photo by bella love via Flickr.

Fear is a lack of imagination

Fear is a lack of imagination

Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.

Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.

We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry

This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.

Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.

This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.

Lose the game, save the world

Lose the game, save the world?

Via Philip Trippenbach’s blog, I found OILIGARCHY, a fun (and instructive) little flash game by WWO friend Molleindustria. Or should I say, “a playable commentary on the oil industry” as Molleindustria terms OILIGARCHY in their excellent dissection of their own game. OILIGARCHY, it seems to me, is a model for these types of games in that it’s transparent about its biases.

My own play result surprised me a bit, in that I did “good.” I dispossessed and killed relatively few people, and left ANWR and Iraq alone.  At game end, I weaned America off its oil addiction, set it on a course toward a better and sustainable quality of life, kept my board of directors happy (and if not happy, more perplexed than angry) and even made a killing (which Molleindustria points out is not hard) and retired happy. Instructively, the secret seemed to be (spoiler): I declined to spend cash to rig the U.S. political system. Hmmm….

Revolution is in the air

Revolution: it's in the air

The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically, socially. But that can – and must – be altered; there’s still time to change the road we’re on. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution. – World Energy Outlook 2008, IEA

Following up my earlier post, the IEA report came out on November 12, and the message is crystal clear: one way or another, we are about to have a revolution. We can choose a green energy revolution, or we can sleepwalk into a brown revolution of climatic cataclysms and energy shortages, of which the World Without Oil game is just the beginning. Energy Revolution Graphic by Ken Eklund

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.

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.

Oil is changing transit ridership

Oil is changing transit ridership

In the wake of Russia’s Georgian victory, a lot of people have taken George W. Bush to task for his statement that he had “gotten a sense of [Vladimir Putin’s] soul” and found him “straightforward and trustworthy” upon their meeting in June 2001. But I for one am willing to take the President at his word. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing that we found out via the World Without Oil game is that oil changes people.

Here are some of the changes you can expect, according to the game:

  • People will toss enviro regulations. Without even a second thought.
  • People will try to dump their gas guzzlers (torching them for the insurance if necessary).
  • People will start riding mass transit and bicycles in great numbers.
  • People who are leveraged to the hilt will be devastated financially: repos, defaults, bankruptcies.
  • People who control energy will assert their power to protect their control.
  • People will turn to local sources, especially for food.
  • People will start growing their own food.
  • People will be angry – some, very angry – at being forced to change.

All of these changes are happening now, in the real world. Some of them are positive adaptive changes, but others are negative reactions to the prospect of change. What the WWO game enabled its players (and observers, even today) to do: try out those changes in advance. In the same way that a disaster drill allows people to think through the “alternate reality” of a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or epidemic, World Without Oil prepares us to recognize a calamitous event in its beginning stages and to plan a wise response.

These real-world changes are happening because more and more people are sensing the basic market truth: The world wants more oil every day, but the world’s oil production fell below demand in 2005; in fact, the recent increases in production may not even bring us back up to 2005 production levels in 2008. People are sensing that the pipeline leading to their cars and homes is shaky and growing shakier, and many of them are preparing by adapting their lives now. Oil changes people, but for better or worse? That’s up to them. Photo by drp via Flickr.

Getting past the Overwhelm Factor

Getting past the Overwhelm Factor

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?”

Bikeless in Toronto

Bikeless in Toronto

The far-reaching World Without Oil dragnet pulled in a strange fish today: Igor Kenk, arrested for being the godfather of hot bikes.

An article in The Walrus by Holly Jean Buck lays out what went down: the improbably named crime kingpin is accused of stealing bicycles in Toronto and warehousing them for resale after the oil crash.  With over 2800 bicycles on ice, Kenk would have been the pedal pusher extraordinaire in post-oil Toronto. The article cites WWO as one of its sources about the potential for a bicycle shortage in a $6-a-gallon world, and especially, Kal’s undercover video. Isthisnotagame?

As Holly Jean puts it, “there’s something there, something in his behaviour, that speaks to an essential human instinct: this pack-rat impulse, wired together with survival strategies, deep in our neural circuitry.” Part of that, of course, is a reaction to the creeping certainty that a survival strategy is going to be necessary. Photo by barely_legal via Flickr.

The World Without Oil idea of using an “alternate reality” to help us grapple with real-world problems resonated with a lot of people, starting on the day we announced the game. Now projects inspired by WWO are beginning to pop into public view. Here are four… more to come:

EARTH 2100 by ABC News. Leap ahead in time to the year 2015 (or 2050), and bear witness to the concatenating catastrophes in climate, energy, and water, based on science forecasts… A contest to support a two-hour report airing this fall.

Cassie's got good reasons to worry

Cassie, or should I say, Cassandra

SCORCHED, a TV drama for TCN Nine in Australia. It’s 2012, and Cassie’s worried: there are eight weeks of water left in Bourne, Australia… A game to support a drama series, airing this fall.

BLACK CLOUD, an alternate reality learning experience focusing on pollution and air quality, by a UC Berkeley team, running now. A game funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s digital learning initiative (and the least apocalyptic of the four).

The worthiest and most immersive successor to World Without Oil looks to be SUPERSTRUCT, put on by Kathi Vian, Jamais Cascio and WWO’s own Jane McGonigal and funded by the Ten-Year Team at the Institute For The Future. Jump ahead to September 2019 (two months before Blade Runner, heh) when a supercomputer crunches the data and announces that unless radical changes are made, human civilization has got only 23 more years to live. Holy Doomsday Clock! Gamestart is set for September 22, but you can get in game now on the practice blog.

Peak Everything

Peak Oil, Peak Everything

Found this well-titled article in GQ about peak oil. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the (inevitable) moment when the supply of oil hits its peak and then starts to decline. Although it seems like it would be an easy moment to recognize, it’s not: Britain’s North Sea oilfields, some of the best managed in the world, hit their peak in 2000, and it took the oil field managers about a year to realize what had happened. The data are even more confusing when you’re talking about global oil production, and thus you have a debate raging right now as to whether we are approaching peak oil worldwide or whether we have in fact already passed it.

The peak oil bell curve is often taken for an ironclad rule, and in many ways it is, but it’s useful to remember that its curve essentially plots human behavior. Hubbert’s curve defines how humans extract oil in a relatively free market. Humans can modify the shape of the curve, and there’s some evidence that through advanced extraction techniques, we have been pulling oil forward and extending the top of the curve a bit. What IS ironclad about the bell curve, however, is the area underneath it: there is only so much oil. If you pull oil forward to ease today’s curve, it creates a sharper drop ahead.

The term peak oil is shorthand for the abrupt change caused by the shift from an upward slope, when the system encourages people to use more oil, to a downward slope, where the system takes oil away from people, when every day less and less oil is available. What worries people is that, psychologically, this is a potentially devastating transition for humans and societies to undertake with something as fundamentally useful as oil.

Easing this psychological transition was what the World Without Oil game was all about. A serious game is the perfect way to broach matters that we’d otherwise put out of our minds. It asked “what if?” and let people imagine what the first temblors of change would feel like. People played for the reasons that Sharon Astyk puts forth in her excellent blog, Casaubon’s Book, and emerged from the game better able to understand where we are, what has happened to Sleeping Beauty, and what we need to do now.  Photo by Ben+Sam via Flickr.

You're in the story

You're in the story

What began as a marketing tool has now become a lot more useful: playing with alternate realities can solve real problems.” The writer is Anne Wollenberg, her article’s in The Guardian, and she’s talking about the genre started by the World Without Oil game. Read the article; it’s really excellent and lays out pretty clearly the potential that these collaborative games have to save the world. (And let’s shout out to WWO player RockLobster, quoted in the article! Woo!)

As a result of our current concatenation of calamities, future thinking and what-if scenarios have suddenly become the thing to do. Witness a CNN Special titled “We Were Warned: Out of Gas,” sent my way by alert WWO fan Diane. The behind-the-scenes commentary, however, is more interesting and real to me than the Hollywood-style cinematic premise. The revolution will not be telescripted; it’s already begun. Video scene from Kalwithoutoil.

It's all in your mind

It's all in your mind

Recent comments by prominent figures (such as Phil Gramm) that the U.S. credit crisis, oil crisis, recession etc. are “psychological” have generated significant backlash (Gramm lost his job, for example). The World Without Oil game has a unique insight into this, actually.

It’s been well known that a sudden sharp increase in fuel prices would have a significant negative impact. Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) established this in a series of “wargame” simulations, as just one example. These top-down analyses generate outcomes such as “1 to 2 million unemployed people.” OK, fine. But do they actually produce anything of value for us, the common people? What if I don’t want to be included in that statistic? The top-down view has no wisdom for you beyond “suck it up.”

Whereas World Without Oil takes the bottom-up view, and is full of ways for a person to avoid becoming a statistic. It’s gathered hundreds of ideas expressed in over 1500 different ways, all focused on practical actions that people can take. I think any person that spends an hour or two exploring the WWO archive will come away better prepared for our oil-poor future. This is what WWO was all about – that by “playing it people wouldn’t have to live it.”

So, yeah, the problem is psychological. Policymakers who can only look from the top down are psychologically unable to see the value of a crowdsourced, collectively intelligent, bottom-up view such as WWO. They don’t truly understand the problem, and thus disconnect themselves from the solutions or any hope of meaningful individual action.

Vulture Tourism, San Diego

The Vulture Economy, San Diego

This from CNN in May:

The International Energy Agency gave advance warning that its previous forecast for supply and demand remaining in pleasant equilibrium over the next two decades was flawed. Its new projections, due in November, will say supplies may fall 10 percent short of demand, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“Stephen Leeb, an investment manager who has authored two books on oil scarcity, said Russia was already seeing a drop in production, and there’s little evidence Saudi Arabia could increase production even if it wanted to.

“If the two biggest oil producers in the world can no longer increase production, that’s a catastrophe, not a bubble,” he said.

Others say there’s no way $130 oil is justified.

“This thing has to turn around, it’s insanity,” said Peter Beutel, an oil analyst at the consultancy Cameron Hanover. “Ultimately we’ll see a huge collapse in prices.”

Beutel doesn’t know when that collapse would come, but he predicts it will be within weeks or months, not years.

But he doesn’t know just what might bring it about – perhaps the Federal Reserve increasing interest rates or a big drop in consumption as people worldwide can no longer afford to fuel their cars or heat their homes.

“If these prices stick, you may see whole neighborhoods where people abandon their homes,” he said predicting that in the Northeast U.S. it will cost $5000 to heat a home unless prices fall.

OK, so this is scary. To my ears, this amounts to an admission that what was foreseen in the WWO game is indeed on the way. One of the experts says oil supply has failed, and so there will be a “catastrophe” as people worldwide run short of oil. The other expert says, no, the “catastrophe” is the high prices, which will cause people worldwide to abandon their cars and their homes. Either way, catastrophe ahead? Photo by gruntzooki via Flickr.

\'The situation has declined dramatically\'
“The outlook has darkened dramatically”

Another article in the paper that’s straight out of World Without Oil: “Between surging oil prices, food inflation and a credit crunch that’s depressed global growth, leaders from the Group of Eight face the gravest combination of economic woes in at least a decade when they meet next week. The outlook has darkened dramatically since last year’s summit in Germany, when leaders declared the global economy was in ‘good condition’ and oil cost $70 a barrel – which seemed high at the time… ‘Now you have a financial disorder where the epicenter is the U.S.,’ said Robert Hormats, vice chairman at Goldman Sachs in New York. And fuel and food inflation ‘are serious matters that affect large numbers of people.'”

“On oil, analysts are skeptical that the G-8 leaders – representing the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy and Canada – will come up with much beyond urging major petroleum producers to boost output” – um, does it strike anyone else as naive to ask sane businesspeople to work harder and invest more money so as to undercut their own price for a commodity they only have a finite supply of? The reaction to these pleas, BTW, has pretty much been what any pusher says to his john. Photo by rednuht via Flickr.

Envisioning a World Without Oil

Envisioning a World Without Oil

The mainstream media is catching up to World Without Oil’s vision for an oil-challenged future. Experts are “shuddering at the inflation-fueled chaos” and “foreseeing fundamental shifts in the way we work, where we live and how we spend our free time.” “You’d have massive changes going on throughout the economy,” said Robert Wescott, president of Keybridge Research. “Some activities are just plain going to be shut down.” Push prices up fast enough, said Michael Woo, a Los Angeles Planning Commissioner, and “it would be the urban-planning equivalent of an earthquake.” And S. David Freeman, president of the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners, said “The purchasing power of the American people would be kicked in the teeth so darned hard that they won’t have the ability to buy much of anything.” Do you remember the abandoned cars in WWO? Experts support this and offer a rough number: 10 million abandoned cars.

Read all about it in this LA Times article by Martin Zimmerman. Graphic from the article.

For Sale - To Let signsThe Petro Razor: one of the useful precepts to come out of World Without Oil. In the game, once the global oil shock began, the Petro Razor went to work slicing away the things that depend on oil. And then the things that depended on the things that depend on oil. And then the things that depend on the things that depend on the things, etc. And it cuts away with an inexorable logic all its own. As Inky_Jewel put it: “The Petro Razor is trying to shave us clean. But nobody knows how to use it right, so it keeps cutting us instead.”

Here in the real world, the Petro Razor is also busy. I think a lot of its work has been masked by the subprime mortgage crisis, and certainly the two are working together to cruel effect. But hearing about the rise in abandoned pets and children’s activities being cut and people hiring hoods to torch their gas guzzlers and people setting fire to gas stations in protest and so on, sounds to me like the keen snick-snick-snick of the Petro Razor. Photo by I See Modern Britain via Flickr.

As the effects of high fuel prices play out around the world, many people are commenting on the predictive power of the World Without Oil game – and it is remarkably eerie to see the events described by WWO players appear in real-life headlines and news stories.

But the real power of the game, I feel, goes beyond anticipating external events – i.e., telling the external truth of our relationship with oil. The real power is in activating internal truth: enabling people to see events and understand their connection to petroenergy. To pirate an old saying, telling external truths is giving people a fish, i.e. feeding them for a day; enabling internal truthtelling is by TrekkyAndyteaching them how to fish, i.e., feeding them for life.

As an example, let’s look at a comment to the previous post by WWO player PeakProphet: he relates his experience trying to find a home for two abandoned puppies. This is not a story that on its face has anything to do with oil. But once he scratches the surface we see it has everything to do with oil: $4.50 gasoline has really impacted people in rural areas; many families are seriously stretched; pets are expendable. And PeakProphet knows from the WWO game that the oil crisis burden will not fall equally, that alas it will fall mostly on anyone less able to scramble out from under it: the poor, the sick, the stretched, and yes, the defenseless family pet. From two half-starved puppies we come to see an entire region overloaded with abandoned pets, and thus we begin to apprehend the ways in which our oil crisis has already kicked the legs out from under so much that we take for granted. “Tiny Little Kitten” by TrekkyAndy via Flickr.

….possible within two years, says Sachs Goldman via Bloomberg and widely reported. Folks, less than a year ago “$200 a barrel” was shorthand for catastrophe. Witness our fellow simulation, OilShockwave, which in September 2007 posited a global geopolitical crisis precipitated by oil at $150 a barrel.

I’m reprinting here a letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, April 22, 2008.

In 50 years the oceans will be stripped clean, yet we keep fishing. Species extinction is the fastest in world history, yet the rain forests burn. Our oil supply peaked, yet we drive SUVs. The world’s food supply collapsed, yet we idle on ethanol. It’s terrifying to see the zombied indifference around me. So what dreams will I be allowed to have? My future won’t resemble anything the world has ever seen let alone prepared for. This is the world that’s been left to my generation. I wish I wasn’t going to live long enough to see it, but I’m afraid I will, and I’m afraid I don’t know what to do. Daniel Dixson, San Jose.

Was this not a game? Was World Without Oil indeed a look at the shape of things to come?

This article by Jacob Adelman in today’s paper tells of farmers in America who have seen the cost of fertilizer jump 20% a week in recent weeks. “We’ll get four or five price increases in a single day,” says a fertilizer distributor. In 50 years in the business, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s like there’s no end in sight. It’s very scary,” one farmer says. The cause? Competition for fertilizer from China, India and other rapidly growing countries – and the rising cost of petroleum energy, which in turn is diverting natural gas from fertilizer manufacture into (more profitable) use as fuel. As we’ve already seen with corn-based ethanol, our demand for energy won’t stop even if it means less food for the table.

Instability growing as food prices jumpAnd make no mistake, there is less food for the table. “Global food prices surged 57 percent last month from a year earlier, according to the United Nations, and the World Bank warns civil disturbances may be triggered in 33 countries,” reports Bloomberg.com.

“Recent weeks have seen Philippine authorities scramble to augment rice stocks in the country, Indonesian officials warn of possible social unrest due to skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs, irate Egyptians protesting bread shortages, and international food aid programs unable to buy enough goods to meet their food distribution targets for vulnerable populations,” Voice of America reports. “This is the world’s big story,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, reports CNN.

Doesn’t this sound like WWO? The alarming dependence we have on oil in order to grow our food was one of the major themes of the World Without Oil alternate reality game, and explored in depth by our players. We use oil to plant our food, to fertilize and pesticide it, to harvest it, refrigerate it and transport it great distances. We use oil to truck in its pollinators and pump in its water. Irrigation lines, row cover, and other essentials of the farm trade are made from oil. In the game, when the price of oil jumped up and its availability went down, the price and availability of food inexorably followed.

What to do? Get educated, especially about local sources of food. One of the WWO Lesson Plans can help.

Meanwhile, oil hit $117 a barrel, and experts say oil prices may remain high even if demand begins to fall. Photo by mattlemmon via Flickr.

Oh Hai. I Ran Out

Continuing a theme I started in January – is the WWO scenario coming true, but slowly? In the news today: retail sales sink as consumers wrestle with rising fuel and food prices; GM announces gas-guzzler incentives to try to move stock in the face of an industrywide slump; major airline shakeup brewing, in the wake of plunging share prices due to skyrocketing fuel prices; and the foreclosure crisis in suburbs continues. These are all headlines pulled right out of the events in last year’s World Without Oil oil crisis scenario.

Also today, Congress approved an economy boost package of $152 billion. Compare that dollar figure with the estimated economy drag of last year’s oil price hikes – $150 billion, as reported earlier here. In other words, the  boost is calibrated to counter the  damage being done by last year’s oil prices. What will happen this year? Sooner or later, we’re going to stop being able to spend our way out of the problem, and will need to address the underlying causes.


Our web guy, Mark Bracewell (aka Yucky Muck) pointed my face at this one: www.ushahidi.com, 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.

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.

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.

Today marks the end of the World Without Oil alternate reality –  32 weeks after the start of the oil crisis, April 30, 2007.  You can relive that moment  in (alternate) time by going here. A good time, maybe, to plan your garden for next spring?

As reported in the Gonzaga U. paper today.

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.