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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Southeastern Fuel Shortage -- A Disaster Plan Draft

The following is a draft copy of an emergency plan for ways in which state and local governments, businesses and individuals can deal with the immediate impacts of an energy shock... such as the fuel crisis presently afflicting the Southeastern U.S. This is only a draft – a more refined version of this plan, as well as strategies for handling the larger issue of Peak Oil, will be made available here. If you have suggestions, please post them below.

For governments, businesses and individuals in a growing swath of the United States, the shortages of fuel are becoming an increasing concern. In many smaller cities and towns, there is a real concern that an extended supply failure could endanger local economies in a cascade effect.

The short version of this nightmare is that motorists abruptly realize there is a shortage of fuel, or even the threat of one. They go en masse to fill up, and America’s already minimal operating inventory, further strained by Hurricane Gustav’s shutdowns, is wiped out locally – spurring more rumors of shortages in the surrounding region.

Not only can this effect snowball, consuming all the excess supplies that might have gone to staunch these wounds, but the situation encourages hoarding on the one hand, and can not be deflected by simply producing more fuel until more of our refineries are back online (and the public has begun to calm down).

Meanwhile, with fuel supplies tied up by frantic consumers, critical shipments of food, spare parts and other supplies begin to go astray after a few days, threatening companies dependent on Just-In-Time business models. Restrictions on travel caused by inevitable rationing and gas lines (and high prices), have a severe impact on restaurants and shops already facing difficult times as their customers sharply cut back on discretionary driving and spending. And food deliveries – the typical piece of American food traveling an average of 1,200 miles before reaching a dinner plate – could end up being cut off altogether to some out-of-the-way locations.

Clearly, many small towns, if cut off from their traditional fuel sources long enough, will see their economies go belly up if they persist in trying to do things they way they did when gas was plentiful and cheap. Which means some new thinking is called for, and quickly.

Fuel Crunch – Governments
So if you are running a local government, consider a few quick options to conserve your fuel supplies.

First, give the kids a day off. Your school buses do not have to roll every Monday through Friday just to get the kids to public school. If you’re facing a grave shortage of gas and diesel, consider giving your school kids a day off or even several (like a few snow days) and conserve that fuel.

If you do use your school buses, ideally you’ll be using them to transport your adult workforce – by reassigning them to your public transportation network, you can greatly expand the range of your existing public transit system. Or else you can create such a system from a standing start, using your school buses alone. (And remember, most diesel engines can run on bio-diesel with little or no modification, and bio-diesel is essentially vegetable oil that has had its glycerin stripped away in a mixer by ethanol or methanol. Many agricultural areas, armed with the right equipment and few other options, could easily produce all the bio-fuel they needed to run a minimal number of buses, small tractors and produce trucks.)

Second, give your non-essential workers the day off. Stocks of refined diesel and gasoline will take time to rebuild, and telling employees not to come in to work – especially if they won’t have much work to do anyway – is a simple way to reduce your area’s daily fuel consumption. You may have to shift to a four-day workweek for the immediate future, as well.

Third, if you must have certain people working, see if they can reasonably do their job from home. In some cases this will take a secure network setup, in others, just a phone, an email account and a laptop. Naturally, the local Internet will probably experience some strains if enough people are working and playing on it simultaneously, so ask the public to limit their discretionary use of the Net until the immediate emergency has passed.

Fourth, if you absolutely need certain personnel not only working but at your worksite, have them come in, if at all possible, either by walking or biking, or, failing that, by mass transit or as part of a carpool. Remember, sharing is the most powerful form of conservation.

Fifth, yes, remember all your standard conservation measures. Don't leave your car idling in parking lots. Inflate your tires properly. It all helps, especially if thousands of people do these things together. And yes, local and state governments can do more than just suggest good habits -- they set the speed limits, after all, and can mandate more fuel savings at any time. (And no, I won't even mention the word Rationing -- the Policy-that-Must-Not-Be-Named...) But leaving aside those more political decisions for the moment...

Next, remember that, ironically, transportation fuel is not your area’s most critical resource. Water, food and electricity are all at least as important, and many areas are dependent on lifelines either directly maintained by diesel and gas (such as the trucks that deliver their groceries) or indirectly supported by them (such as the electrical grid that is constantly being repaired by gas and diesel-powered vehicles and equipment... a grid that also supplies most towns’ water).

While you may not be able to shore up all of the weaknesses in your town’s electrical system, simply being aware of the most critical parts of that grid let’s you redistribute your resources more effectively. For example, you may have plenty of backup generators or solar panels clustered around city hall or the police and fire stations, and nothing around the water pumping station or the water treatment plant. Other important electrical needs include major, refrigerated food storage sites and life-saving medical equipment. Consider what your community most needs to live, and deploy your equipment accordingly.

As you do so, keep electrical conservation in mind as well as fuel conservation. While everyone’s minds are focused on the oil predicament, many of our complex systems will be under strain during this energy shortage, including our much beleaguered grid. Make a point of taking austerity measures, shutting down unnecessary lights, computers and other appliances after hours, and cutting back even necessary uses where possible. If you can, recharge batteries and otherwise power things at night using the excess charge maintained on the grid during the "downtime" when no one is normally using it.

Where food is concerned, see how much food you can buy from local sources who will be shipping over much shorter distances. If a farm is located just outside your town, you are far more likely to receive its produce than you are if a trucker has to bring that food on a several hundred mile trek through territory with increasingly spotty diesel supplies.

Finally, make a point of communicating with your citizens, as calm, logical planning and discernable progress are the best antidotes for panic. Use the local newspapers, television broadcasts, websites and radio stations to get your message out.

Fuel Crunch – Businesses
The first step for businesses is to protect their staff, and their core business. Depending on your company, you may be able to fold up shop and wait a major oil shock out, or you may already be in triage, shedding unnecessary workers or marginal business locations in an effort to get your enterprise down to scale manageable and profitable enough to survive the current environment.

Obviously, you have to make sure the employees you keep on are able to handle the financial crisis stemming from the supply disruption, and that they are still able to work for you, whether or not all of them can make it to work. (See the employee suggestions for governments, above.)

After that, "Know your game plan." What preparations have you made if the sky falls? How will you continue to operate? Will you? Those are not rhetorical questions – while some businesses will go into hibernation during a shock, or radically restructure, other, failing organizations will simply be forced to face reality and pull the plug – hopefully while there’s still something to salvage from the ruins.

Ask yourself, What bare minimum do you require to stay in business – customers, spare parts, energy, water, raw material, employees, transportation? Can you meet those demands if the energy situation persists? If not, simply be aware that you may have to make some painful decisions in the near future... or circumstances will make them for you.

Next, "Choose your ground." Of course, you’ve already chosen your ground at this point, but if you’re fighting to keep your footing – and possibly paring down excess locations or markets – you still have the chance to decide where to deploy your resources. Where do you think your best bets are, especially if this short term "crash" continues? In the event of catastrophic reversals of any kind, where you are has a dramatic impact on the threats and opportunities facing you.

Ask yourself some basic questions about your present location or locations. What dangers does your geographic position expose you to? Not all the perils here are energy related. Are you exposed to major storms and hurricanes, particularly in the event of global-warming-driven climate change? Flooding?

How about water shortages? Will climate change endanger your local water supply – springs drying up, reservoirs (which are vulnerable to evaporation) draining or simply running dry? Are you in or near a city that could be fatally disrupted by an interruption in its supplies of food, water and energy?

What resources are available as a result of your location? We often think of geographically dependent resources in terms of metals, energy supplies such as oil or perhaps timber or other agricultural products. But for some, the most critical element is people – many businesses could not survive without being located in a city that can supply the necessary employees and/or customers. Even more require at least some kind of urban area – if only a small town or much trafficked crossroads or off-ramp supply their requisite customers.

But even in terms of physical resources there is more to think about than steel, oil, timber and grain. Water, of course, is important for more than just keeping your population alive. Is your farm dependent on some level of irrigation? (Probably yes, unless you’re a cactus wrangler.) How strong are your local communities and institutions? The degree to which your town or city or county is able to hold together and keep functioning, and to which its neighbors can also hold together, is a major factor in assessing your risks during a serious disaster.

Does your urban or rural community have any plans for dealing with problems on this scale, especially if they continue? How well will your local businesses and institutions hold together, particularly those providing law-enforcement and other major service providers (electricity, fuel, water)? Do local organizations need to be alerted to these issues? Or alternatively... Should you move?

Fuel Crunch – Individuals
For individuals, your biggest immediate option is to simply be as responsible as possible in your use of fuel and other vital resources, such as food and electricity. And you’ll want to start looking just a bit further into the future.

Ask yourself, can you get to work without your car? Can you ride the bus or subway? Carpool? Ride a bike? Ride an electric-assist bike? Walk?

Where will you get food if huge trucks are no longer delivering your groceries to supermarkets every day like clockwork? There’s only a three-day supply of food on the average city’s market shelves. What happens when that "Just-In-Time" system fails? I suggest you find your local farmer’s market, and for that matter, any other local farmers you can bargain with. And feel free to plant a winter garden if you haven’t done so already. No, that won’t fix your present quandaries, but it may give you a little piece of mind.

And while you’re looking for the local farming community, now would be a good time to start looking for the rest of your local community, and trying to make friends. When our technology fails, all we have to fall back on is each other, and prayer. But that’s one safety net all of us would do well to start weaving together.


Future Imperative

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