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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.

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I’m mulling this morning about the various natures of future knowledge, and how they influence human behavior. Hurricane Ike started this train of thought, which is not surprising, as forecasts and predictions and planning (and dread) are part and parcel of our experience with hurricanes.

some things are foreseeable

Hurricane Ike, Friday Sept. 12, 10 am PDT: some things are foreseeable

After ravaging Haiti and Cuba, Hurricane Ike is plotted to come ashore again at Galveston, Texas, pushing a storm surge that threatens to overwhelm the sea wall there. So once again the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck: the World Without Oil alternate reality also had a hurricane (Felix)  come ashore at Galveston, inundating parts of that city and also causing flooding in Houston.

WWO predicted this hurricane, but like many predictions, this is not remarkable. Given how hurricanes operate in the geography of the Gulf, it’s a safe prediction to make (it’ll come true eventually). Right now, the forecast calls for Ike to hit Galveston, and this is also not remarkable. Forecasts are like a chain of well-educated predictions, and if any of these predictions goes awry, the forecast suffers.

Which brings us to foreknowledge – which I’ll define here as the ability to recognize what is actually going to occur. Foreknowledge depends on two things coming together: accurate perception of the world as it is and accurate understanding of the way the world works. Unlike an event chain, foreknowledge can bypass the tactical sequence in favor of the strategic outcome. At its highest levels, foreknowledge involves a “eureka moment” when the opaque transforms into the inevitable. And foreknowledge informs and motivates more strategic human behavior: a hurricane forecast leads to boarded-up windows and evacuations; foreknowledge about the effect of global warming on hurricanes and sea level, in contrast, leads people to rebuild or relocate.

The goal of World Without Oil was to create a platform for foreknowledge about oil dependency in its players and observers. It is generating two outcomes: (1) people able to perceive more accurately the world as it is and how it works in regards to oil, and (2) people having a foreknowledge “eureka moment” and changing their situation and behavior accordingly. Both these outcomes help to lessen the impact of the inevitable transition we face as oil becomes more difficult to find, extract, procure, and burn with a clear conscience.

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.