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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.

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.

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.