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It's got a cup holder and everything

It's got a cup holder and everything

WWO fan Leslie and others alert me that an interview I did last year for NPR with Jim Fleming has been recycled as part of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge segment on going green. You might give it a listen – not for my segment necessarily (about 40 min in) but for the fascinating (and WWO-echoing) early segments with Colin Beavan and Jeff Ferrell and right after mine, the “kid’s future” segment by Anne Strainchamps.

Leslie notes, “The host asked about your favorite WWO posting. One of my favorites was from a pharmacist who worked out a delivery route to serve his customers who lived at a nearby retirement home. I also appreciated the folks who were digging up their lawns to put in vegetable gardens. We have a couple of beds and will probably add more in time. My mother-in-law’s neighbors in Dubuque landscape with vegetables tucked in and around the shrubs. Very pretty.” Photo by tofutti break via Flickr.

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No Gas 4 U

No Gas 4 U: A World of hurt Without Oil

I learned a new WWO statistic, thanks to Krystyn: 3 mph.

That’s the speed that gasoline moves through a pipeline, apparently, and it’s one of the reasons that a full-on WWO experience has erupted for real in the Southeast. Have you heard about this? It’s been largely swallowed up, newswise, in the mortgage meltdown, the credit crisis, the bailout and other fiascoes.

Krystyn points me to this AP story about the gas shortage, which details how the disruption to the gasoline supply in the Southeast U.S. has led to gas lines, suspended business and school operations, price gouging, panic buying and hoarding, and so on. And even violence, as this Biz Week story relates how the area is abuzz with stories about “fistfights and fender benders among drivers jockeying for position before the gas runs out.”

The root cause is Hurricane Ike and its effect on the power grid. The hurricane disrupted refinery operations in Louisiana and Texas, but that was fairly brief. The power disruption lasted much longer, and without power, the oil companies were unable to move the gasoline through the pipelines and thus, a gas shortage on the other end that’s lasting much longer than experts realized it would.

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an authority on the fuel system prior to launching the World Without Oil game. I asked him if the U.S. had any contingency plans in place to guard gas stations in the event of a crisis (as the UK does, for one), and he seemed to think I was crazy. “There won’t be any trouble at gas stations,” he said. “Why would there be?”

WWO players understood the street reality of the situation far better, and everything we’re seeing in the Southeast now was successfully foreseen by the collective imagination of WWO players back in May 2007. If this is what happens when a transitory shortage passes through a region, what will happen when a permanent national shortage comes to stay? And what can we do to prevent that from being a disaster? That’s what the World Without Oil project was all about, to “play it  – before we live it.”

Photo by B Rosen via Flickr. The Atlanta Gas Crisis photo pool is here.

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.

The stability of oil supply takes another hit

The stability of oil supply takes another hit

The all-out war in Georgia finally moved from page 14A to the front page in my local paper today: about time. But the story leaves out entirely one of the most important elements of the conflict: the oil factor. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia and, with a one-million-barrels-per day capacity, is a key provider of energy for the EU and the United States. In fact, along with the sister Baku-Supsa Pipeline, it’s the sole supply link for oil resources in this area that wasn’t controlled by Russia or Iran.

Bonus points for you if you recognize the destruction of this pipeline as the world-shattering MacGuffin in the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.

News reports in the U.S. seem to downplay the oil angle, probably in hopes of maintaining the recent slide in oil prices. But the threat is very real – not just that hostilities will damage the B-T-C pipeline (which is already shut down for the moment due to PKK insurgency last week in Turkey), but that Russia will seize control of the pipeline and use it as a tool to control prices and exert power over the West. Indeed, that may be a prime reason for the Russian attack on Georgia. As noted in earlier posts, in the World Without Oil game, players predicted aggressive moves such as this by the new petropowers to consolidate their energy control…. As with Iraq, if oil is not the #1 reason given for invasion, it will be a faithful and constant #2. Photo by YourLocalDave via Flickr.

Chavez in Russia

Chavez in Russia: all smiles

Another WWO pre-ja vu moment this week, reading this article by Megan Stack of the LA Times about Hugo Chavez’ visit to Russia, and what can only be described as the petro-drunk antics that he and Vladimir Putin indulged in. The two oil-rich nations signed energy security agreements, oil business deals, and arms deals, and expressed a common interest in establishing the ruble as a major reserve currency, replacing the dollar. The two spoke of Fidel Castro and waved off a report that Russia would begin to use Cuba as a base for nuclear-capable bombers.

These real-world actions mirror what players of the World Without Oil game foresaw as happening: the rise of a new world petro-order. And just to slam the point home, read this article by Norma Love about New Hampshire’s abrupt u-turn regarding Venezuelan oil. The upshot: for a number of years Chavez has offered free oil to keep America’s poor warm in the winter; New Hampshire has refused it on principle, led by Republican Senator John Sununu; except this year, not so much. “Live Free or Die,” except when it’s oil.

Made poignant by the fact that Gracesmom, probably WWO’s most beloved character, was a young single mom living hand-to-mouth in New Hampshire.

The turn of events points up something else that WWO got right: the government’s paralysis, and especially the Administration’s. Looking at the dive in oil prices the day after Al Gore issued his energy challenge only serves to highlight how unable the Administration is to generate any vision of a way forward. Thanks, Laurel, for the lead!

Fuel Efficiency Standards by Country

Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

“Over the last 25 years, opportunities to head off the current crisis were ignored, missed or deliberately blocked, according to analysts, politicians and veterans of the oil and automobile industries. What’s more, for all the surprise at just how high oil prices have climbed, and fears for the future, this is one crisis we were warned about. Ever since the oil shortages of the 1970s, one report after another has cautioned against America’s oil addiction.” (The World Without Oil game, ahem.)

The “Asleep at the spigot” article in the New York Times goes on to show just how the U.S. has gotten itself out on the limb as far as it has – and who led us out there – it’s good reading for those who hope we don’t get fooled again.

Plus I’ve got an excellent article summarizing the global oil situation, also in the NYT, courtesy of reader PeakProphet. It’s 2 months old but still nails it. (Image from the New York Times)

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.

Photo by Ken EklundCircumstances have conspired to create an explosion in backyard gardens. I heard this first anecdotally about a month ago from my friends in New York City, who reported that the nurseries near their farm in Vermont were just about out of everything. And now it’s hitting the newswires.

The backyard garden may conjure up patriotic memories of the Victory Gardens of World War II, but as the article notes, the last time that Americans really got serious about gardening was the Oil Shock of 1975. And sure enough, backyard and urban gardens were a central theme in the World Without Oil game – and local food and guerrilla gardening [1] [2], too.

It’s easy to see why – A garden turns some dirt, some water, some seeds, some weeding and some sun into food – the most efficient solar power device known to man. And as many WWO players cautioned, it’s good to start now: gardening is a skill that takes years to acquire – best not to count on a lifesaving bounty your first (or second) time out. Photo of the Farmers Market in Union Square, June 2008.

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.

as gas prices climb over $4“A top Ford Motor Co. executive urged the government to make a greater commitment to the development of plug-in hybrids on Wednesday… Mark Fields, Ford’s President of the Americas, said at a conference on plug-in hybrids that bold incentives are needed to speed up the development of advanced batteries that are key to the green vehicles….’This is a race we absolutely must win,’ Fields said,” then went on to say, ‘It seems clear that a business case will not evolve, in the near term, without support from Washington.’ Hunh?

Meanwhile, in an adjacent article, Toyota’s president Katsuaki Watanabe demonstrated a plug-in hybrid car, with a next-generation lithium-ion battery, at the Tokyo Environmental Forum. Toyota said its plug-in hybrid should be in the U.S. market by 2010; last year, Ford estimated its time to market at 5-10 years, or presumably never, if the government doesn’t help them out. Perhaps, if Ford had diverted one-tenth of its marketing budget for SUVs to hybrid research over the last 5 years, it wouldn’t be in such an embarrassing palm-out situation today? Bold never quits, but apparently it’s not above whining. And cutting pay and jobs; Mark Fields announced a 15% cut for white-collar workers last week. More reverberations of WWO themes, from AP articles on Thursday.

by Robert WhitlockSo said Peter Carroll, a representative for the trucking industry in the UK, about fuel prices, shortly after he parked his big rig on the A40, closing that major artery into London. The blockades are beginning again in Europe, in a manner prescient of the Petrol Wars of 2000, which pretty much shut down France and the UK at that time.

The problem is this: ordinary citizens can adapt to rising fuel costs by using transit or cutting back miles driven. But truckers, fishermen etc. have no such elasticity to their lives, and now that diesel is near $10 a gallon they’re not about to suffer alone.

Which brings up the question: when can we expect renewed blockades and truckers’ strikes in the US, where truckers are similarly stretched past the breaking point? Expect no warning, as these events, loosely organized by CB and cell phone, are classic flashmobs.

Photo by Robert Whitlock via Flickr

Gathering Information Technology ideas from around the world

Here’s a map showing the home locations of the finalists in the 2008 Stockholm Challenge. There are some great ideas and great works going on all over the globe, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of them in Stockholm next week and exchanging some knowledge.

Plus: Corrina McFarlane (Bodi Lane in WWO) pinged me on Saturday, which was Pangea Day – an exciting day of global connection. She’s collected reader comments on her blog.

May 10, 2008

He bent the locking cap, but it held.Varin (who some of you know as Illiana_Speedster, or maybe his daughter) told me about fuel thefts in Indiana. I had just seen an article here about fuel thefts in California. So I Googled it. Not surprisingly, with diesel well over $4 a gallon and gasoline also in many places, there are reports of fuel thefts all over. Not just gas-n-gos, either, but pretty major stuff: Pump reprogramming. Tank drilling. Fleet and storage tank drainings. The sort of stuff, I’m thinking, that never appears in official scenarios but which impacts people’s lives hugely, the World Without Oil experience tells us. So I’m off to the store to buy locking gas caps, if any are still in stock. As Varin says, “It’s like we’re playing the game all over again.” 😮

Jump at the Pump…is fuel prices, according to a study released by the New York Times this week. David Leonhardt, who writes about economics for the Times, tells Renee Montagne of NPR that “eight in 10 people said they’re staying even or falling behind,” which basically means they understand what’s actually going on. “Household income set an all-time record in 1999, and we still haven’t returned to that record. That’s really remarkable. There is no other economic expansion in history that failed to give most people a raise.” And thus the worry about fuel prices: the jump at the pump is cutting directly into the income that’s already failed to keep up with prices; it’s the tangible sign that people are falling farther and farther behind; and as we found in WWO, it’s the thing that has the power to get people to change their lives. (Thanks, Laurel, for this lead.)

Across the country, truckers are beginning to engage in roadblocks or rollingblocks to protest the squeeze caused by high diesel prices, now over $4 a gallon nationally. Independent truckers in particular (1 out of 10 trucks is an independent) have been caught without a mechanism in place to compensate for rapidly rising fuel costs, and for them rolling down the road has become a lose-lose proposition. The alert “WWO Lives” reader will flash back to this post on this blog and wonder just how deep this resentment runs, and how far this protest might go.

Meanwhile, testifying before Congress, oil company executives characterize their recent profits as “in line with those of other industries.”

Here in Phoenix, I’m waiting for 8 pm to roll around, so I can power down.  It’s Earth Hour, time to turn down the energy consumption, if just for an hour. This is a great idea, very playful, and people are getting into the spirit by getting the candles ready, camping out in the back yard, and so on. And the lesson is right out of WWO: c’mon, there’s life with less energy, and we can make it a good life if we act rather than react. OK, that’s enough – it’s so cool I’m powering down ten minutes early. See you in the dark!

Finalist, Stockholm Challenge 2008!Cool beans. The Stockholm Challenge has selected World Without Oil as a finalist in its 2008 program, in the “Environment” category (subcategory: Energy and alternative technologies). The Stockholm Challenge is all about using Information Communications Technology (ICT) to help counteract social and economic disadvantage. If you look at the finalist list (and you should) you’ll see two main areas: groups that are extending known technologies into underdeveloped regions (often in innovative ways) and groups that are coming up with new technologies or approaches for serving the public good (WWO is in this second area). Here’s the WWO brief at the Stockholm Challenge.

I find three other game approaches among the finalists, both in the Health category: Freedom HIV/AIDS,which uses mobile games to raise awareness in India, and Reach Out Central (Australia) and SmartUs – Games in Motion (Finland), both aimed at health awareness. This is a good showing for serious games, folks, showing their rise globally. I look forward to meeting all the finalists in Stockholm during Challenge Week, May 19-22. The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) does select winners in each of its six categories, but it seems the real prize is to meet and share ideas and aquavit with some really innovative and dedicated people from all over the world.

late March, 2008Real Life headlines from just the past week. Thisisnotagame?

…the price of gasoline in the U.S. broke records, pushed higher than it’s ever been by the high cost of oil (now at $110 a barrel) and the ever-weakening dollar. “Analysts see little reason for the dollar to stop falling, or for oil and gas prices to stop rising, any time soon.” “Strong global demand for oil will keep prices high despite a downturn in demand in the U.S., two prominent forecasters warned.” Was this not a game?

Price of a gallon of regular gas in Gorda, California: $5.19 a gallon. I’m just sayin’!

Now if the oil-producing nations of the Middle East began to invest in alternative energies, would that signify anything, do you think?

Listen closely to the reason that Tom Petrie gives for why he thinks oil prices will decline in the next months: “Look, this economy can’t take $100 a barrel oil right now.” Which might be compelling to oil sellers, if we were the only buyer in town. Isthisnotagame?

Thanks to Leanan for posting the video.

$4 a gallon - coming to your neighborhood soon!Presented without comment, from the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

Uh-oh. Fuel surcharge surpriseThis is what happened in WWO: as rising fuel costs impacted businesses, they passed them on to consumers, often with very little warning. (More and more consumer contracts today have a fuel surcharge clause in them somewhere)

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.

Henry Jenkins, Wikipedia, and WWOI’m cribbing today from these notes that Doug Foxgrover made of a talk by Henry Jenkins, transmedia/new media guru at MIT, at Educause. The talk was on “What can Wikipedia teach us about new media literacies?” The talk itself is podcasted here.

I bring it up because education was (and is) very much a goal of WWO. It’s part of the mission of ITVS, our sponsor, and very much on my mind these days as I work to shape the WWO lesson plans for high school teachers. (Looking at first drafts now; ready in about 3 weeks?)

This gets important, as Jenkins, Jane McGonigal and others say that “new media literacy” is exactly what people are going to need to be capable learners and contributors as the world moves into a participatory digital culture. Jenkins’ checklist for that culture maps really well onto World Without Oil:

  • Low barriers to artistic and civic expression (people played WWO by email or even by phone)
  • Strong support for creating and sharing what you create
  • Some kind of informal mentorship (peer to peer, mostly, but our WWO characters filled this role)
  • Members feel their contributions matter
  • Some degree of social connection between members

The new media literacies are social skills and participation skills, and there’s nothing like a shared crisis to get people talking and working together – even if that crisis is of the “what if?” variety.

Three other things in Jenkins’ talk resonated with me: one, you must take the students’ participation seriously – it must matter. In WWO we pretty much let our “students” drive the bus, to really good effect I think. Two, you should let the participation emerge from students’ own cultural life – again, something WWO explicitly did. And finally, Jenkins identifies a core challenge as ethical: as the traditional forms of professional training (such as journalism) break down, how do you prepare ordinary citizens, and young people in particular, for their increasing role as participants? This is exactly the big deal about WWO, I think: to democratize real-world problemsolving, to empower people to collectively forge their own solutions.

Jenkins lists “four big ideas”: Collective intelligence, Judgment, Networking and Negotiation. And cites WWO as an example of the first big idea. WWO Lives!

In other news, the price of oil – not. Anyone else noticed how it has completely fallen off the news radar lately?

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

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


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

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.