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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)

People surging into cars in a transit stationThis just in from Jane McGonigal (otherwise known as mPathyTest) who’s in New York for the Stories From The Near Future conference: an article in the New York Times titled “Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders To Mass Transit.” Apparently, gas prices are motivating people to take transit in record numbers, catching transit planners by surprise. “Nobody believed that people would actually give up their cars to ride public transportation,” says the executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. “The whole NYT article reads like a KalWithoutOil report,” Jane says.

The biggest surges are occurring in metro areas in the South and West – the very strongholds of American driving culture. The article says Denver ridership is up 8%, for example, and several routes now run at capacity at rush hour.

Now this is no surprise to WWO players. Player Ararejul explicated this very situation in her video posted from Denver, titled “Is Public Transportation Ready?” Posted over a year ago, I might add. “This was the first thing our players predicted and documented when gas hit $4 a gallon,” Jane notes. “Dude, WWO seriously worked as a forecasting device.” One that looked not to the past for answers, nor to experts, but to the future and the collective imagination.

Photo by caribb 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

Character icons from the WWO game.The World Without Oil game centered on a website (www.worldwithoutoil.org, now archived here) which gathered all the in-game ideas and expressions of the players. In the fiction of the game, the website had been put together by eight (eventually, 14) ordinary citizens who had reason to believe the oil crisis was coming. They called themselves the 8TSOC (8 To Save Our Country).

Like the game itself, the 8TSOC characters were fiction but just barely. WWO’s gamemasters (“puppetmasters”) played them, but for the most part they were alternate realities of who we are (or might have been). Like the game itself, they come across as pretty real.

So it’s fascinating, a year later, to read these characters’ Manifestos – the characters’ thoughts as the reality of the oil crisis loomed larger and larger. Take a moment and check them out.

(To learn who in real life played each character, go here and scroll down to Puppetmasters.)

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.” 😮

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.

Gas Lines - Oil CrisisCherie Davis’ article about World Without Oil  in the Turlock Journal brings up a point to ponder: the particular vulnerability of exurbs such as Turlock to an oil shortage. Turlock’s recent growth is largely due to people fleeing the housing pressure cooker of the San Francisco Bay Area, and an awful lot of people in Turlock need to get to someplace else pretty far away on a regular basis, and do so by putting fuel in their cars. What happens when the fuel becomes unaffordable or simply unavailable?

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!

Venezuelan tanks rumble toward the Colombian border. Fuel costs inch upward as money bails out of the sinking dollar into petroleum futures. Oil over $103 a barrel. But who cares? Nothing we can do about it. We at WWO would rather focus on this:

This video by Kaivido wasn’t done for World Without Oil, but it sure could have been!

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

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

Horsepower, at the Long Island Museum.
Horsepower

“Oil futures rose Thursday after the government reported larger-than-expected declines in crude and heating oil inventories… Inventories of distillates (heating oil, diesel fuel) fell by 3.3 million barrels, more than the .8 million expected… Oil supplies have declined more than expected for several weeks running, exacerbating a perception that supplies may be inadequate to meet winter demand… ‘Stocks are just plunging’…”  Pre-echoes of WWO as reported in today’s San Jose Mercury News.

Dick Gordon, host of The StoryToday on The Story, the subject is “oil games.” It’s worth a listen: go here and click the “LISTEN HERE” icon at top right to grab the MP3.

The first segment of the radio show from American Public Media deals with a simulation called “Oil Shockwave” put on by SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) in early November. I think that WWO followers will find it very interesting – and eerily alarming in its familiarity. “We found that once the crisis has started, there’s not much that the government can do…” The second segment is all about World Without Oil, and it’s a good summary of what the game was all about. Featuring starring roles by Rocklobster and other players! Thanks to Cori Princell and host Dick Gordon of The Story, and to North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC where the show is produced.  And to bloggers like Annette in Anaheim who are already picking up on and amplifying the story.

France-Belgium border, 2000 - BBC NewsI posted earlier about the oil mini-crisis in Europe in 2000. Reading some more about it today… fascinating stuff. Especially this analysis by Will Hutton of the Guardian, which pegs this crisis as a “smart mob” before that term came into vogue. Also pay attention to the lessons about “just in time” supply and how worker loyalties fall, when push comes to shove. From his article: “In other words, the new mania to maximise shareholder value above any other strategic corporate objective has exposed the whole delivery and supply system… If the Government wants more protection against a repeat, it will need to calm down the British corporate sectors’ increasing preoccupation with profit and self-interest.” As I said, fascinating.

Photo from BBC News archive

Matt Arnold is the WWO fan who invented the term “historical pre-enactment” to describe what WWO does. Which is just brilliant on so many levels. In this post, he reveals that running such historical pre-enactments would be one of his dream jobs, and the Society for Creative Anachronism is a model for what us Serious ARGers could become.

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.