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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.
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?
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.
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?”
“When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.
“When was it? Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.”
When indeed? From an Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert, sent my way by WWO friend Cathy. Herbert is referring to Al Gore’s challenge for the U.S. to get 100% of our electricity from clean sources in ten years – or put another way, to begin to catch up to the sort of energy independence that Brazil enjoys right now and Sweden will have in a few years.
Herbert is anticipating howls of protest about the “cost” of Gore’s plan – and sure enough, everyone with a stake in the present energy system is screaming “impossible.” But Cathy also alerted me to this: Texas Approves a $4.93 Billion Wind-Power Project (Midwest wind power is a key element in Gore’s plan).
As Cathy notes, “I favor decentralized power (or shall I call it democratic power 😉 , like roof mounted solar and wind – so there isn’t a need for the transmission line – but at least it is wind.” True that – as talked about at length in World Without Oil. It’s not perfect – but: is it a sign of the return of the can-do nation? Photo by jurvetson via Flickr.
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.
In 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.
The 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.
“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.
One of the core messages of World Without Oil is that happiness does not depend upon petroleum (but unhappiness may). Think, for example, of a highway gridlocked with solo drivers, each of whom would identify “loneliness, isolation” as the thing that is making them the most unhappy.
Here’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about: check out what the New Digital History Education blog has to say about the Ciclovia idea, and then watch the video by StreetFilms. There are elegant solutions to a world with less oil.
Thanks, John Thackara, for alerting me to the City Eco Lab being planned for November, in st. Etienne, France. City Eco Lab are “design steps to a one-planet economy”: by demonstrating a full range of projects that rethink a city’s consumption of fuel, food, energy, water, etc., CEL moves the focus beyond an individual’s choices to the systems that citizens depend on for their livelihood. It’s a really great idea and one that should be extended to cities in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Is it possible, however, that an oil crisis will strike St. Etienne even as the City Eco Lab gets underway? And citizens of St. Etienne will be phoning in reports live as the crisis progresses? It’s certainly possible, given the current state of fuel protests spreading like wildfire across Europe. And it’s possible in a WWO sense too (and maybe you can help). Stay tuned. Photo of St. Etienne tram by Michallon via Flickr
I’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)
The Colbert Report takes on James Howard Kunstler, who is the John the Baptist figure of peak oil – a voice that’s been crying in the wilderness for a long time, that is. For all the talk about Kunstler’s new book, “World Made By Hand – A Novel,” nobody seems to be talking about it as a fictional work – as with the World Without Oil game, it’s a veneer of fiction painted on a cold hard potential reality. Watch the Colbert report segment.
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.
…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.)
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:
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.
Here’s a chart showing the energy alternatives for the U.S. moving forward to the year 2025, plotted by their effect on energy security (horizontal) and climate effect (vertical), as well as by scale of effect (size of circle). So: options that move us up and right from center improve our situation over business-as-usual, and those which move us left and down from center produce more negative effects than business-as-usual. Two things of note: (1) advancing our auto efficiency standards to 30 mpg is the clear winner in every respect, yet seems rarely talked about, and (2) why does the chart not include raising the tax on fuels to stimulate efficiency across the board, as most other oil-importing countries of the world have done?
The saying goes: If you owe the bank $10 billion, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $10 trillion, you own the bank. That is, you owe so much that if you default, the bank goes under too.
Since the USA consumes one out of every four barrels of oil produced in the world, we own the oil bank, so to speak. Or thought we did, maybe, until yesterday, when President Bush went to Saudi Arabia, met with King Abdullah, and asked him to please produce more oil or else the US economy would slow down and thus we would buy less of his oil.
Leave aside for the moment the absurdity of anyone giving the King of Saudi Arabia a lecture in Economics 101, and focus on what this means: Bush is saying “we buy so much, we own the bank.” The Saudi response? According to an article in the New York Times, the Saudi oil minister said that Saudi Arabia shared Bush’s concern that a recession in the US would have profound effects, but “Saudi Arabia would raise production only when the market justifies it.” In short: “No, Mr. Bush, actually the bank owns you.”
Quite understandable, from the Saudi point of view. Why invest money in additional infrastructure and sweat to pump a gallon of oil to sell this year at $100, when without any additional effort you can pump that barrel next year and sell it for $150? So what if the US goes into a recession and buys somewhat less oil? China and India are standing by, cash in hand. And the World Without Oil scenario continues, scarily, to become more real.
…but here comes the cruel part: I don’t spend the money on you, or anywhere near you, so no trickle-down either. I give it to Saudi Arabia and Russia instead.
That’s what’s happening right now, according to yesterday’s article by Steven Mufson in the Washington Post. Climbing oil prices have all of the negative effects of a tax increase with none of the benefits. “Clearly contractionary” and “Quite a wallop,” the pundits say, especially as the U.S. economy heads into recession. And this: “stagflationary.”
Makes me wish that we had begun taxing fuel a few years ago – starting out small but increasing over time, giving the economy a chance to adjust. And spent the tax revenue on meeting the demand for mass transit as it increased. Wouldn’t that have made our economy more resilient?
Check this out. Mita refers us to Rebecca Solnit’s ode to Detroit, rebirthing. Is this what will happen to most, if not all, of our cities as they reach the end of their growth arcs and begin to tumble back to the green earth?