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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?

Rollercoaster time again

Rollercoaster time again

An article in the WSJ thinks maybe not, and I agree. As noted in a NYT article last month, OPEC has succeeded in cutting production and stabilizing prices. As the price of oil climbs steadily back up to the level that held when we played the World Without Oil game, even in the face of a global recession and shaky demand, one has to wonder if we played it and now it’s time to live it…

Chevy vs. Chery FTW

Chevy vs. Chery FTW

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.

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

The always-interesting James Surowiecki’s column in the Jan 26 isue of The New Yorker is, on the face of it, about Obama’s $100B tax-rebate stimulus package. But scratch the surface and you’ll see that it’s also about the key role that narrative plays in our lives, a lesson at the heart of the World Without Oil game.

Surowiecki describes how the context of a tax rebate shapes its actual use. The easy analogy is the difference between $20 you find on the street and $20 that you earn. From an economic (top-down) point of view, they are identical $20 bills – they are fungible, as economists say. But the actual boots-on-the-ground feel of the two is very different: the found $20 is a windfall, a lucky break, and apt to be spent in a celebratory way. So it is with tax rebates, Surowiecki says, and he marshals some great examples that indicate that Obama’s plan for the tax rebate (by reducing withholding) is a smart one.

Surowiecki mentions what happened when Bush the Elder reduced withholding in 1992: even though in this case there was no actual saving to the taxpayer (taxes due were the same, just the amount withheld was less) people felt that their incomes were greater and thus tended to spend the money.

I find this remarkable, as money derives its value precisely from its fungibility, its lack of narrative, if you will. If you can (verbing alert) narrativize money, you can narrativize anything. Just another example of the power that narrative has for us humans…  and an indicator of why games and “what if?” projects that get people to narrativize an issue, as World Without Oil did with oil dependency, can be a powerful force for actual real-world change.

You can read Surowiecki’s column here (may require registration). Photo by goldmember

"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.

No one has epitomized our yo-yo economic thinking lately than Thomas Friedman, who followed a column urging let’s go shopping with another urging thrift. This is the dilemma du jour: which companies do we bail out, and which do we leave to drown?

Make every recession a smart one

Make every recession a smart one

Phrased another way, how do we have a smart recession?

The answer I think is pretty commonsensically clear: we bail out those things that lead to the future we want to have, and let the others paddle on their own.

Case in point: U.S. automakers. Are they leading us to the future? This is a no-brainer: one glance at their sales figures answers this question. If any question remains, consult The Economist, which states flatly that the future for automakers are how well they sell in India and China. Bad news, Ford and GM: China has fuel efficiency standards and India is implementing them. Turns out the years the Big Three spent opposing fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. were a bad career move and the argument that they needed low standards to be competitive was exactly wrong.

There’s a crowdsourced component to this as well. In these econocalyptic times, people are being more cautious with their money. There’s a commonsense logic at work, which is why people aren’t buying gas-guzzling American cars or cheap lead-encrusted Chinese cra- uh, goods. The econocalypse has forced people to begin thinking ahead and making the future part of their calculations. Now, if we can just extend this thinking into what sort of economy we stimulate going forward (and what kind we don’t waste our dollars on), the recession will not be another example of “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Photo by oxmour via Flickr.

The depo man does the job

The Petro Razor imposes, the depo man disposes

Signal of the times: Malia Wollan of the AP posted a story this weekend about the growing epidemic of abandoned boats. More and more pleasure boat owners are no longer able to afford slip fees, and more and more commercial boaters are being driven out of business by the double whammy of fuel costs and a sinking economy. Just as I reported earlier about hot SUVs, the solution seems to be depo men – paying people that take your vehicle out and burn it or sink it for you.

Wollan quotes Buck Bennett, a natural resources manager in Georgia: “I’m not an economist, but when putting 500 gallons of fuel in a shrimp boat costs more than the boat is worth, that is a sad thing.” Bennett knows of over 150 scuttled boats on Georgia’s coast, and guesses that’s only a fraction of the actual count.

The credit crisis dominates the news today, but invisibly for most people. What we can see, however, is how the credit crisis is concatenating with others, especially the oil crisis of 2008, and self-exposed industries are going under. US auto industries insist on making big cars right up to the end, and now their bailout is (rightly) looking less and less likely; with hulks littering the waterways, the marine industry is effectively dead.

When hulks littered the streets in the World Without Oil game, after the Petro Razor made its cuts and people walked away from cars, boats and houses, it seemed unreal – such was our mindset in 2007. In 2008 it not only seems more real, it is really happening. Photo by sunface13 via Flickr.

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.

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

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.

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.

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.

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.

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'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.

Formerly vibrant neighborhoods

Formerly vibrant neighborhoods

The credit crisis is grabbing the headlines in America, as Fannie and Freddie starve on the empty calories of their bad loans, IndyMac Bank goes into federal conservatorship, and so on. The latest Harper’s Index gives the underlying numbers:

Chance that a U.S. home is currently vacant: 1 in 35

Rank of this among the highest recorded vacancy rates in U.S. history: 1

An article in The Economist (July 12) backs up the numbers: 18,600,000 U.S. housing units stand empty. It goes on to say that “formerly vibrant neighborhoods have taken on the dilapidated air of ghost towns” and “municipal taxes go unpaid” and “boarded-up homes invite looting, drugs and other criminal activity” – all outcomes foreseen in the WWO game. What we didn’t foresee: that cities would respond by demolishing the homes. But that’s actually being contemplated, according to the article.

The media hasn’t yet connected the 2008 credit crisis to the 2008 oil crisis, but again WWO teaches us the connection is there. As explained in an earlier post, the Petro Razor is at work here. Communities with forced commutes are on the wrong side of the Razor are likely never to recover; I’ve already heard anecdotal evidence that this process is underway.

Meanwhile, in a short article on Page 10A, we learn that Russia has reduced oil flow to the Czech Republic without warning or explanation. The move comes three days after the CR inked an agreement enabling the U.S. to build a missile-tracking radar station on Czech soil, So now begins the petropower plays among nations, also foreseen in WWO? The event that set off the global oil crisis was this: oil suppliers “unilaterally renegotiated their contracts,” delivering less oil than promised, which is exactly what’s happening to the Czech Republic. So is this a one-off, or a canary going thud in the coal mine? Stay tuned. Photo by judepics via Flickr.

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.

How to reduce oil dependency
<< How to reduce oil dependency

David Kirsch, an oil analyst at PFC Energy, said that if the most promising areas off Florida and California were opened for drilling, their peak production in a decade could be as little as 250,000 barrels a day — less than a quarter of what the gulf produces now. “It’s almost a desperate attempt to take advantage of the political climate brought on by high energy prices to steamroll through legislation that won’t fundamentally address those high energy prices,” Mr. Kirsch said. (As reported in the New York Times)

250,000 barrels a day – to put this number in perspective, it’s the amount that the Cantarell oilfield in Mexico declined in the last six months (and its decline will continue).

Steep decline

Cantarell: Steep decline

It’s the amount that North Sea oil fields declined in the last year (and their decline will continue). It’s the amount taken offline recently when rebels in speedboats attacked an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria. It’s a little over 1% of our current oil consumption and maybe a third of a percent of the world’s. It’s spit in the bucket.

Meanwhile, conservation methods offer us a way to reduce our dependence on oil by as much as one-third. That would be 28 times as great an effect. Twenty-eight times. We wouldn’t have to spend anything, or spoil anything, to do it. We could start right away, rather than waiting 10 years. And perhaps most tellingly, it would be a benefit that actually accrued to squeezed U.S. citizens, rather than a benefit that accrued to oil companies and whoever will bid the highest for the offshore oil.

It’s what the other developed nations of the world have done. Maybe we should take advantage of the research they’ve done in this area? Or must we live through the World Without Oil scenario first?

U.S. lags in conservation measures

U.S. lags in conservation measures

\'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.

Global Oil FactsCourtesy of New Scientist, an interactive graphic about oil flows (and chokepoints) across the globe. Nice, but I wish it had included how oil flows will be changing in the next ten years… and I can’t believe their security risk assessment does not mention Nigeria at all, where oil flows are regularly disrupted by rebels. Most recently, a few men in a speedboat managed to take about 200,000 barrels a day off the global market.

by wallygIn the public forums you often hear concern expressed about “the economy” – what will we do to “the economy” if we take measures about changing our energy systems, if we take action about climate change, etc. And to measure what’s happening to “the economy” people invariably use the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.

But as Jonathan Rowe spells out in a speech to Congress, the GDP was never intended to be used in this way, and actually the guy who developed it warned – nay, begged – government never to do so. But that warning went unheeded and now here we are: as Jonathan shows, the hero of “the economy” is someone with a heart condition going through a bitter divorce, and the villains are people who conserve, grow their own food and share with others, care for their own children, and so on.

Where GDP really gets it wrong, however, is when it tries to assess a resource such as oil. Its accounting is unable to apprehend the idea of limit or depletion, so again in Jonathan’s able phrase, it’s like a fuel gauge that reads fuller and fuller as it empties. I can’t help but think of the historical lessons in Collapse, the book by Jared Diamond, in which this sort of negative feedback loop spells doom for previous human civilizations.

Take a few minutes and read the transcript of Jonathan Rowe’s speech (pdf). And thanks to Harper’s Magazine, which published the speech in its June issue (subscription needed). Photo by wallyg via Flickr.

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.

Friday wrapup: a month’s worth of headlines. They could all be part of the World Without Oil game (and many are dead ringers for ones that were) but no, they’re from our local paper, the San Jose Mercury News. Read ’em and weep, as they say… (thanks Deb for the clipping services)

A month\'s worth of World Without Oil

Uptick in auto arson, by KalwithoutoilThe truth can finally be told. Those weren’t anarchists torching cars in Kalwithoutoil’s video for Week 4. That was a smokescreen (so to speak) to cover up arson fraud. And reality slips another few notches closer to fiction.

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Image from Kalwithoutoil video

fuel shortages“Americans are angry about the economy, I’ve come to believe, in a new and profound way…. our anguished cries may be fueled by our unwillingness to accept an unmistakable message the economy is now sending us: We must fundamentally change our behavior.” From a column by Chris O’Brien in Sunday’s San Jose Mercury News. He goes on to prescribe the ‘casserole economy’: “Simplify. Have more discipline. Begin to do the things you’ve known all along you should be doing, but haven’t either out of denial or inertia or because cheap gas allowed you to avoid them.” He quotes Kit Yarrow, economic psychologist at Golden Gate University: “Oddly enough, I think there is a huge silver lining. I think people will be less wasteful.” And Chris calls for government leaders to restore our tattered social safety nets and to galvanize the Victory Gardens of the 21st century.

In short, he sounds just like the voice of experience talking about the lessons of World Without Oil.

This is the point, folks, where the World Without Oil game wants to cease being prophetic. We were supposed to play it first, then live it differently. As the next stage of the crisis looms ahead, let’s focus hard now on that “differently” part.

by DigitalHowie via FlickrI’m mulling this morning over the similarities between the subprime mortgage crisis and the high fuel price crisis. Both strike me as little garden paths that the unwary were led along, by people willing to make a buck over the inability of others to visualize the future.

In both cases, people were sold a dream of the unaffordable made affordable, and sold the products that go with it: big new homes in the suburbs and plush low-mpg vehicles to make their long commutes comfortable. Now however the payment rates are being radically readjusted and the balloon payments are coming due. The purveyors of this dream – the subprime lenders of U.S. energy policy, the oil and auto companies and others aided and abetted by a subprime administration – are escaping with their gains and leaving people made destitute by their deception.

What’s needed is action that materially reduces our dependence on oil forever – higher fuel efficiency, plug-in hybrids, alternative energy. Solutions such as drilling for more oil are merely a continuation of the cruel deception. For starters, it will take about 10 years for any new well to actually produce any oil – no help whatsoever to those being squeezed hard right now by high fuel prices. But the main point is: more oil, from any source, amounts to no more than taking out a second mortgage on a subprime energy policy, something that only puts the inevitable foreclosure off another year or two.

Photo by DigitalHowie via Flickr. Click through for his narrative that sounds eerily like World Without Oil. All rights reserved by DigitalHowie.

Warning symbol showing a fuel gauge on E“Oil prices raise cost of making range of goods . . . Hard choices all over . . . profits suffer, prices rise, workers’ hours are cut . . . airlines, shippers and car owners are no longer the only ones being squeezed . . . companies that make hard goods are watching their costs skyrocket . . . unpleasant choices . . . the sense that many companies may be hitting a wall is palpable . . . cutting jobs at an accelerating pace . . . more dire action may be in store . . . since last spring, the average profits of the nation’s corporations have declined at an annual rate of nearly 6 percent . . . ‘starting to be confronted with unprecedented price increases’ . . . ‘these surges in energy prices are just one surge too many’ for companies to handle. More news that sounds eerily like World Without Oil, from a front-page above-the-fold article today in the New York Times.

photo by bogers via FlickrI’m traveling, slowly making my way to Stockholm for Stockholm Challenge Week next week, noting the irony as gallon after gallon of petroenergy turns to vapor in my wake. Looking for something to do to while away the hours while our fully loaded plane sits idling on the tarmac for hours, I look in the seat pocket for a magazine – nothing.

So I find a flight attendant and ask her if there are any extra issues, and she says no, they get one per pocket these days and nothing more. Any other magazines? No, they were the first frill to go, she tells me, way back in 2001. I make some sort of sympathetic noise, about how it must be tough to try to do her job with less and less, and now with oil prices rising so fast, and suddenly her guard goes down and I see how terrified she is. She practically grips my arm.

She knows that soon she is going to lose her job.

The thing is, I know this too. It’s right out of World Without Oil. If only she had played the game, I can’t help thinking, she would at least be more ready for this, might feel less alone. She and OrganizedChaos might have really bonded. As it is, all I can do is tell her not to worry, I’ll scrounge up my own magazine.

(photo by bogers via Flickr)

Here they are again: real-life headlines that look as though they come right out of World Without Oil. I don’t want to see headlines like these. The question is: is the WWO game helping people adjust to the new economic reality they describe? And – is the game helping to create other realities as well?

Recent Headlines Ripped from WWO

Suddenly everyone’s talking about it: rice rationing in the USA. Coming seemingly from nowhere, although that’s just a bit of American myopia. The faulty rationales behind food-based fuel have been apparent to some from the start, and WWO player GailTheActuary laid them out pretty clearly in this post back during the game. But it’s still strange to see this sort of unintuited ramification of oil addiction burst onto the scene – it’s in eerie parallel to the World Without Oil game itself, when this sort of thing occurred every day. As we approach the first anniversary of the start of the oil shock, it’s preja-vu all over again. (Thanks Marie)

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.