Starting Points



Comments on Near-Future Fiction

The issues of energy sources, resources, and energy use cross all fields – science and technology, but also politics, economics, quality of life, and culture.

Writing fiction does not require comprehensive analysis. It is not a research thesis or a science fair project, but, to be effective, it should be grounded in the reality that we know.

Take one aspect of these issues and extrapolate to some point in the future. This may be an exaggerated or extreme outcome. It is the exaggerations and extremes that can set questions in stark relief so that they can be seen more clearly. For example, Ray Bradbury could have begun Fahrenheit 451 by reading about an individual case of censorship at an individual library in an individual town and wondered, "What if this were not an individual case, but spread to define our political system?" For the purposes of this contest his afterward could have described the original article, included some information or statistics about the number of such cases, and a few sentences on the issue itself.

Most speculative fiction begins with a "What If?" As noted in the section on Resources, almost every day there is some article that could be a starting point. In fact, there are so many examples that any list is out of date as soon as it is written. The week after this list was created, the news contained stories about Iran breaking the seals on its nuclear energy program, about the Ukraine parliament voting to dissolve the government because of the agreement they reached with Russia over gas prices, about the U.S. trade deficit and the implications for the future, and about a trip of China’s foreign minister to Africa to secure needed resources to "feed its growing economy".

The examples below give you an idea of the range of possibilities and the range of perspectives, valid as of January 9, 2006. Although they are one year or more old, they are still completely relevant. In some cases there are updates that show just how relevant they are.

Particular Perspectives

  • Climate and Environment
  • Political
  • Economic
  • Energy Sources and New Technologies
  • Policy and Culture

 



Climate and Environment

The year 2005 gave us hurricane-strength winds in Colorado; a record hurricane season in the south; ten inches of snow in Florence, Italy; and ended with record storms in northern California, causing flooding and mudslides in Napa Valley.

  • Update, Dec 2006: There was a light hurricane season in the Caribbean, but during the year record rainfalls occurred in many states. In June, heavy rains in Washington DC washed out many roads, stranding commuters. Although the federal government, in general, remained in business, many individual government offices were closed for a day – including the IRS, the Commerce Department and the Justice Department.

People talk about the weather in terms of “the average”, but in fact weather is a dynamic system, driven by temperature gradients and other factors. In addition to daily and seasonal changes, weather patterns over the years, decades, and centuries are oscillations around the averages, with differing contributions from the various feedback loops’ time-scales. People also talk about global warming in terms of overall temperature increases, but is this how climate change or global warming would manifest itself locally? Are the oscillations becoming more erratic? Is aberrant weather becoming more likely? What will the effects be if this continues? How will geography and population distribution be affected? What if major cities are shut down because of increased extremes in weather?

In the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, global warming actually results in an Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere due to changes in circulation of the ocean currents. According to research published in Nature (Boston Globe, Dec. 5, 2005), recent measurements indicate that the circulation of ocean currents in the North Atlantic are already diminished. If this continues, what would the world be like? What will life be like as the conditions change?

  • Update: New research published has argued with the conclusions of the first paper in Nature, and circulation does not appear to be diminished as much as originally reported (which was based on indirect measurements). This is an area of deep concern and substantial study. Ocean currents can alter as the thermohaline circulations begin to lose strength, perhaps even leading to a new Ice Age.

A standard prediction of global warming is that sea levels would rise by a few feet up to a hundred feet. What parts of the world would be affected? What would be the impact on the people involved? How would they react?

  • Update: In the movie, An Inconvenient Truth, it was pointed out that most of the Asian coast is very few feet above sea level – and also has some of the most populated areas in the world. With only 1°C change in world temperatures, the current estimates are that the sea levels would rise by three feet – the agricultural region of Bangladesh would be underwater. What would it be like if hundreds of thousands of people – maybe millions – became immigrants and refugees?

The Kyoto agreement has set standards for reducing the rate of CO2 emissions. How far would CO2 in the atmosphere increase if Kyoto is followed by signatory nations? What if it were followed by all nations, including the United States, China, and India? Does the Kyoto Accord go far enough? What would the world be like in 5, 10 or 50 years, if Kyoto is fully implemented right now?

  • Update: Many scientists now believe that the upper limit of CO2 in the atmosphere is 450ppb. What happens if we go above that? How much CO2 do we add in a year from burning fossil fuels? From deforestation?

How much have our global CO2 emissions changed in the last 100 years? Where does the CO2 go? Are any of these “sinks” capable of saturating? How much have we used them, and how close are they to being used up? If that happens, how would global warming be affected?

In Siberia and in Alaska we are starting to see the softening of the permafrost – not only destroying roads, homes, and other structures, but also releasing the methane held in this material. What happens if this continues?

 

Political

On January 1, 2006, Russia assumed the presidency of the Group of 8 industrialized nations. According to the LA Times, “Russia is still only a junior partner aspiring to full membership in the G-8”. Its economy ranks well below that of other member nations, but its inclusion is based on “the weight it carries as the top natural gas producer in the world and a leading oil producer.” How might political influences shift as the weight of such resources increases?

Also, on January 1, 2006, Russia reduced the pressure in gas lines to Ukraine in a price dispute, jeopardizing energy supplies to Europe. Some analysts suspected political motivation for the action, assuming that Russia was attempting to embarrass the new government, which in 2004 replaced the previous pro-Russian government. How might such political blackmail cause a realignment of alliances, or otherwise influence or change world politics?

  • Update: On January 19, 2006, the Ukrainian parliament dismissed the Cabinet over the agreement worked out over the natural gas pricing. Ukrainian government fell. In November of 2006, during a diplomatic mission from Georgia, Putin announced a doubling of gas prices to this country.

Former CIA Middle-East field officer Robert Baer, who wrote See No Evil (the book that inspired the movie Syriana), wrote a second book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude. Baer argues that we have worked against our self-interests politically in order to support and protect our interests in the oil reserves. What if there is a political change in the region that becomes anti-Western? What choices would we have? And what would be the consequence of making one of those choices?

Japan and Germany, along with many other nations, have instituted specific programs to bring alternative energy sources on-line to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. If other nations become less dependent on foreign oil and their interests are less in alignment with U.S. interests, e.g. in the Middle East, how will that change the political scenery?

In 2005, President Bush lobbied Saudi Arabia to increase oil production by 2%. What would happen, if instead, we reduced our need for foreign oil by 2%? How would the headlines change if the U.S. reduced its need for foreign oil by even more — by 5, 10 or even 20%? How much reduction is possible?

  • Update: In November of 2006, China held – for the first time ever – a China-Africa trade summit, hosting more than 40 heads of African states and ministers to Beijing to discuss trade with Africa. "Officials said that [many of the discussions] are expected to revolve around China's hunger for African mineral resources, particularly oil." How would this change the political influence of the United States in these regions, Note: Although the conflict in Darfur is explained as an ethic conflict, some say that it is also a economic struggle for this oil-rich region in western Sudan.
  • In April of 2007, a "dawn raid" in Ethiopia on a Chineseowned exploration field was the deadliest in a string of attacks against Chinese interests in Africa in recent months. 

In December of 2005, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) threatened to put sanctions on Iraq because of its energy subsidy policies. Energy and environmental issues are, in essence, a game theory problem, where everyone has to play fairly because the outcome affects everyone equally regardless. What happens in such situations when someone "cheats"? In what ways might world-wide treaties or agreements be enforced?

At the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in 2005, NASA and Japan both introduced designs for orbiting satellites that will measure CO2 emissions. The first generation satellites will provide information for carbon transport models; second generation higher resolution satellites could measure emissions more precisely. According to Takashi Hamazaki, project manager for the Japanese team, this information could be used to enforce Kyoto. Says Hamazaki,“Each country reports its inventory, but we are not sure if it is correct or not.” How might such specific information change the way a particular country is viewed?



Economic


10/30/2006: Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, left, speaks at the Stern Review as Prime Minister Tony Blair, right, and Sir Nicholas Stern look on, at the Royal Society in London on Monday. The report by Stern warns that rising temperatures could cut global economic growth by as much as one-fifth.

 

The year 2005 was a record year for hurricanes in the United States and certainly a record year for the cost of these storms. Hurricane Katrina caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the New Orleans area. In addition to the damage to homes, it disrupted the oil, seafood, agricultural, and tourist industries, and affected both the local and the national economies. One of the concerns in the storm in northern California in December was the 1,100 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that protect 700,000 acres of land. How much of this land is agricultural, and how would the country be affected if this levee system were breached? Although we expect such events to be fifty year or hundred year events, what if they become twenty, or even ten, year events? How well can the economy bear the costs of these storms?

  • Update: There are an increasing number of reports on economic sectors that would be affected by the changing temperatures: the ski season in Switzerland is shortening considerably, as is the growing season for premium grapes in Napa Valley. What if you depended upon of these industries for your income? When would you decide to move or change? How long would you try to keep going?

In an interview in New Scientist, Oct. 2005, Dr. Myles Allen of the University of Oxford argued that the best way to get climate change under control is to stop arguing about stabilization of greenhouse gases in ten or twenty years, and instead use product liability laws to take oil companies and others to court to sue for damages caused by global warming. Using the European heat wave of 2003 as an example of the first event that can be specifically linked to global warming — a heat wave during which 30,000 people died — he maintained that climate change doubled the risk of such a heat wave occurring. Doubling the increase is the rate at which civil liability begins. What would happen if such suits did begin? Have such suits or the threat of such suits affected other industries?

  • Update: In August of 2006, the New York City area reported record temperatures, and the resulting power consumption records resulted in power outages and brown outs in the area. The New York Times reported that at one point 91,000 had lost power at some point. Several hundred customers — a few thousand people, in the Fordham section of the Bronx — had little or no power for days. What is the economic effect of undependable power? Of the stress on residents and the city’s infrastructure?

Much of the research in alternate energies, e.g. solar, wind, and hybrid technology, began in the 1970s by American companies after the oil embargo. Today two of the biggest solar panel producers are Japanese: Sharp, the familiar consumer-electronics company, and Kyocera. The first hybrid car was developed under an EPA program but Toyota now dominates hybrid car production, with Honda close behind. According to a patent analysis in 2005, Asian firms are now dominating the organic semiconductor sector in terms of numbers of patents (Optics.org).

America’s economic dominance in automotive, computer and other industries is partially responsible for our sway in the world arena. What would it mean if tomorrow’s technologies are dominated by countries other than the U.S.?

In 2004, Russia froze the bank accounts and assets of YUKOS, which then produced a fifth of Russian oil. The potential small drop in world-wide supply of about 2% caused a much larger spike in oil prices (about 20%). In September of 2005, after Katrina disrupted industry capacity in the U.S. Gulf Coast, gas and oil prices rose by as much as 50% in less than one week. Why are the prices for these energy sources so sensitive? What other events could cause similar, or even larger and more permanent disruption?

As of 2005, energy per capita use in the United States is 340M btus; the energy per capita use in China is only 35M btus. What will happen as developing economies such as China, with a population of 1.3 billion, begin to compete more strongly with the U.S. for energy sources? What are the implications for world-wide energy demand and what will happen to energy prices? What will be the political, economic, or cultural impact of this competition?

In the past five years, the U.S. dollar has fallen 30% against the Euro, making purchases in the United States less expensive for other currencies, and also motivating other countries to find uses for the dollars that they have been holding. The Fleet Center is now owned by a Canadian bank, John Hancock is now owned by a Canadian company, Citizens Bank is a subsidiary of a Scottish bank, and Mass Electric was recently purchased by a British company. Does foreign ownership matter? What will happen if it increases?

  • Update: In November, it was projected that the trade deficit between the U.S. and China would reach a record $140B for 2006. China's total surplus for the first 10 months of the year was US$133.6 billion, already exceeding the US$102 billion deficit for all of 2005. Although the dollar was only slightly lower vedebt rsus the Euro, and it now takes two dollars to buy an English pound. Shoppers apparently are taking “long weekends” to shop for bargains in New York City.  What does it mean if our economy becomes more and more dependent on tourism, and it becomes more and more expensive for us to travel abroad?
  • Update: In November, 2006, China announced that it had broken the one trillion dollar level in holdings of U.S. currency. What are the implications for our economy? What could happen if China decided to divest itself of some of these holdings? What if it used this money to buy into U.S. corporations instead?

Studies show that insect, plant, and animal populations are affected by weather changes as drought and temperature patterns shift. How could this affect agriculture or other industries? What populations or countries are most vulnerable?  As species move into new areas, they may begin to cross-breed with other species that they have never met before.  What might this mean? 

In lieu of government control on industry, the administration has introduced the concept of energy and pollution credits. The Kyoto Accord also allows for buying and selling of carbon credits. Is this working? How might this evolve into an energy/environment credit economy?

In 2005, CNOOC Ltd, a state-run Chinese oil company, failed in its bid for UNOCOL, partly due to opposition and concern from members of U.S. Congress. On January 9, 2005, (Reuters) CNOOC announced the purchase of a stake in a Nigerian oil and gas field for about $2 billion, in the largest overseas acquisition to date by this company. As the Chinese economy grows, how will China compete for ownership of resources? Will we be successful in preventing sales of U.S. companies to China in the future?



Energy Sources and New Technologies

Used by permission from Bill Griffith, www.zippythepinhead.com.

A Chevron ad that frequently ran in The Economist read: “The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered. .. So is this something you should be worried about?” What are the current known global energy reserves? What are the forecasts for how long these reserves will last? What supplemental sources do people believe might be available and what would be required to access them? What if the most optimistic predictions turn out to be valid? When will shortages become important if the more pessimistic predictions turn out to be valid? Given levels of CO2 generated by fossil fuels, can we afford to use this oil?

As China and other countries develop, what energy sources are currently available for them to use? What sources are they currently developing? What will be the environmental impact of the increases in the use of these sources? How much might their energy use increase over the next two, five, or ten years?

What alternatives already exist for energy sources? What is required for them to be implemented? What if we maximized the use of all resource-free energy sources such as wind, solar, or geothermal?

In many discussions, the emphasis is on new energy sources. How much could we reduce energy consumption by using energy more efficiently? How large of an impact could this have? How do we consume energy irrationally – where could we easily substitute a better approach? What about daylighting for schools and offices? What about the Dark Skies movement? How much energy do we send up into the sky across the world each night?

What energy sources lie on the horizon? What technical and infrastructure changes need to take place for their implementation? What is their time frame? Are there any technologies that are already developed, but not yet in widespread use, that could be adopted to produce the same type of disruptive change that personal computers or the Internet did as they moved into general use?

In December 2005, the September 11th commission released its report card, mostly with Ds and Fs. In particular, they stated the government had done nothing about the highest priority threat — that of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons. If nuclear energy is relied on for energy, how do we solve the problem of preventing these materials from being enriched into weapons grade materials? Do such plants present a threat in and of themselves?

Policy and Culture

“On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.  No! no!  Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.  I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse I will not retreat a single inch AND I WILL BE HEARD. . . , William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of the abolitionist journal The Liberator (1831) 

The United States has built its economy on the assumption of cheap and abundant energy. This is the assumption underlying the layout of our towns, the population distribution, our expectations for consumption, and the commute times to work. How might these patterns change if energy becomes more expensive?

  • As energy becomes more expensive, some of the solutions for increasing sources become more elaborate, such as drilling at increasing depths in the Gulf, or opening up the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. What is the cost of such projects? How do they stack up against the costs of investing in non-fossil-based energy sources?

As labor has become more expensive, we have begun to use “productivity” as a measure of economic efficiency and progress. What about energy productivity? How might things change if this becomes an important measure of manufacturing and corporate efficiency?

In October, 2005, Mitt Romney, then Governor of Massachusetts, announced he was considering easing restrictions on oil-fueled power plants in order to produce more electricity to stave off potential catastrophic blackouts and gas shortages this winter. What will be the environmental and public health consequences, if such policies are implemented on a widespread basis?

  • Update: In Texas, the state is seeking "fast-track" permitting for 16 new coal plants to ease the energy crisis in that state, against tremendous opposition from environmental and sustainable energy groups. What new facilities are being proposed in your state? Are they part of the problem or part of the solution?

As energy prices and costs increase, what measures might be instituted to encourage — or even enforce — more efficient energy use?

Although the Untied States has failed to sign or implement the Kyoto Accord, several cities in the United States have decided to adopt Kyoto goals, including Seattle which has already met them. What is the experience of these towns? What have they done? What factors enable the implementation? Are any of these towns in your area?

What government programs have we implemented in the past and then abandoned? What if the Federal Clean Car Initiative Program had continued? What if the policies that followed the oil shortages in the early 1970s had been continued? What if, instead of the Space Program, Kennedy had challenged the nation to make us free and independent of resource limited energy sources? If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be and what would be the impact?

The 2004 Annual Report on New Jersey's Clean Energy Program explains that the program addresses a variety of problems. It improves energy efficiency, produces peak demand supplies and reduced peak load on the system. It builds a stronger economy and reduces pollution. The program is viewed not as a subsidy, but as cost reimbursement: in addition to the infrastructure cost savings, there are substantial environmental and public health improvements. The view is that traditional energy sources result in costs that are carried by the society as a whole. Therefore, it is appropriate that the individual consumer be reimbursed for the cost savings that are realized by the entire community.

Some argue that implementing strong energy efficiency or environmental regulations would be too expensive for individual businesses and our economy. Is this true? To what extent are different energy sources subsidized either directly or indirectly? What are the true costs over time of traditional energy sources?

What is your idea of a utopia of energy? How could we get from here to there? What policies would have to be implemented? What global cooperation would have to take place? What suggestions do environmental or industry analysts have and how would they play out?

What cultural assumptions do we operate from in looking for solutions? How much do we value complicated technical achievements versus exploiting simpler or more natural solutions? For example, why do we emphasize artificial light when studies show that productivity in schools and offices improves with natural light? Why do so few new homes take advantage of passive techniques for improving energy efficiency or for heating and cooling? What might a different culture be like? What might happen to change our perspective? Why do we look for solutions that are ten and twenty years away when there are so many technologies that are currently available, but supply-chain limited? What inspires new investment in existing technologies?

On Documentaries

As stated in the guidelines, there are many different possibilities if you are considering a documentary. Look for the following in your community, region or state:

  • Green Schools – where are the green school projects?
  • Green Energy Businesses
  • Green Energy Installations: What was the process? What would have made it easier? What did the people involved learn?
  • Dirty Energy Installations: What are these like?
  • On subjects – How does the grid work? How does it meet fluctuating demands? What agreements need to be reached to make green energy more accessible? What about jobs in clean energy? Talk to an installer – do they have all of the people that they need? What skills should they have? Where can they get training?
  • Projects and Programs: You can also document projects that your friends or peers are working on. Is someone in your community working on an Envirothon project? Or on any other clean energy program or project?

These are just some ideas – start looking around, and see what you can investigate!

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