Monday, April 27, 2009

System of Future Planning, Part II.

My post from two weeks ago generated some excellent feedback, and unfortunately it came exactly at a time that I had to stop paying attention to this blog to focus solely on a trial.  My apologies, but hopefully this post will get me back on track.  In this post, I'll recap the major themes that I have discussed in the several years I have been writing here, and I will also directly address the comments from two weeks ago.

Major Themes:

1.  System-analysis of our civilization, focusing on the core themes of Hierarchy and The Problem of Growth, and its symptoms of peak oil, energy geopolitics, and economic "wizardry."

2.  Systems-theory in general, and specifically as it informs the inefficiencies of hierarchy, alternate modes of information processing and economic organization, and 

2.  Philosophy, specifically understanding human ontogeny (how the process of our evolution dictates our current physiological, neurological, and emotional processes) as an input into human systems and as the foundation for individual happiness and fulfillment.

2.  Moving forward:  addressing the two very separate goals of optimizing the functioning of human civilization and individual human functioning in light of the systems-analysis and human ontogeny "problems."

In reality, this is one unified theme:  an attempt to create a set of instructions for operating humans, both as individuals and in groups of all sizes, in light of both internal and external constraints.  I think it is inextricably linked to the traditional studies of history, politics, economics, biology, psychology, anthropology, mathematics (specifically game theory), and physics.  But in my mind it is so much more than that.  The goal is not to improve psychology or anthropology or any of these other discrete disciplines per se, but rather is specifically to generate a synthesis, a meta-theory for humanity.  This is essentially the mission of philosophy, but I hesitate to accept the limitations commonly ascribed to philosophy.  Perhaps, though, it is accurate to view this goal as similar to the very practical philosophical approaches of, say, Plato in The Republic (though, like Karl Popper, I disagree vehemently with Plato's conclusions...).  Here is a case where, perhaps, John Zerzan's more extreme theory of language and symbols shows its strengths:  any attempt to label this process, and my goals, is unacceptably limiting.   Hopefully this brief explanation has been slightly clearer than mud!  Next week I'll take a look at this goal and evaluate what, specifically, has been accomplished and what is left to be accomplished, and set forth a roadmap for what I will address in future posts.  For now, though, I'll finish by responding to comments from last week:

Neven commented about the frustration that stems from realizing what could be done, but not yet being able to put these plans into practice.  I share this frustration.  I certainly don't live in a real-world hamlet economy that I have created for myself--far from it.  I think it's important, however, to stress that I am not a "fast-crash" proponent.  I fall generally into the "slow-crash" camp--the theory that our economic, political, and social systems will gradually degrade over the next several decades (and longer).  I don't think it is necessary to have a self-sufficient farmlet immediately--though if this is something that 1) is realistic for you, and 2) will make you happy, then by all means it sounds like a wonderful plan.  I think it is best to use an improved understanding of our civilization and its trajectory to influence every decision that we make in our day-to-day lives, but I don't think it's necessary to quit your job, sell your house, and become a neo-homesteader.  Largely I think this because the network that such efforts need to succeed is not yet established.  I think we're much better off gradually moving in these directions because this is something that we can potentially do as a group (e.g. everyone).  Any "solution" that doesn't include mass transition is essentially a blueprint to build a fortress.  That said, I'm not sure that mass transition is possible, and one of the gradual transitions that I am making is to put myself in the position to make a sudden transition when possible and if necessary...

Nick, I agree with your concern that virtual discussions of these topics is just not enough.  When I am able to have lengthy discussions in person with large groups (such as at last year's ASPO conference), the payoff is amazing.  This year's ASPO conference is in Denver in the Fall--worth considering if you can make the train trip/drive/flight/etc.  It's also interesting to hear your observation that many rural communities are already moving in the direction of rhizome without using this as a conscious model.  I think we'll see more of this as the global financial and energy systems continue to erode, become less reliable, or simply exact more transaction costs.  But I do think that establishing self-sufficiency is something where we need to get out ahead of the curve--if we wait until we're forced to establish self-sufficiency, the results will be at a minimum "expensive," and potentially catastrophic.  There are many excellent models for moving toward a higher degree of self-sufficiency (100% is certainly unrealistic and unnecessary in almost all instances).  The Transition Towns movement is a great place to start--it has an excellent model for building momentum and consensus in existing towns without everyone understanding the gravity of the situation.  Additionally, moving toward scale-free self-sufficiency is a complementary strategy:  while 100% self-sufficiency at the individual level is nearly impossible (short of a hunter-gatherer mode of production which cannot support our population levels), I think we can realistically attempt to increase our individual self-sufficiency, our community self-sufficiency, and our regional self-sufficiency by a few percent per year.  A good model might be increase personal self-sufficiency each year by 5%, and increase community and regional self-sufficiency each year by 1%?

Eadwacer suggests making more explicit connections between my theories and existing systems models--I agree, and hope to do that in the future.

Jeremy gaiasdaughter, and TH all suggest that, while the mainstream my ignore these issues, that doesn't make them any less important.  I have often used the monastery in Dark Ages Europe as an example here:  we need to develop individual and community solutions not because they will spread voluntarily at first, but because they will exist as proven solutions to transfer knowledge when people are actively searching for this.  Additionally, this highlights how important it is that we not develop one solution, but that we develop many solutions, appropriate for many regions and sets of circumstances.

Lonnie adds that we need a new lexicon to discuss these concepts, and to counter preconceptions.  I think that, more than just a new lexicon, we need extant examples of these ideas in action to show directly that they need not conform to any stereotype...

Finally, Theo wrote a well though out response on his blog.  I agree with Theo that I have a pessimistic bias--specifically, that I don't think we can continue on our current course indefinitely, and that I foresee a gradual collapse over the next several decades.  I disagree with Theo, though, to the extent that he interprets my writing as an unending pessimism--I specifically think that our current civilizational structure is not very compatible with our ontogeny, and that we are actually presented with a golden opportunity to re-cast civilization, post-collapse (or, more accurately, through the long process of collapse) into something that is more compatible with humans and the rest of our planet.  While I commend efforts at green capitalism because I think they will ultimately soften and facilitate a transition, I disagree with Theo that green capitalism, or a green market-state system, can "save" us from the Problem of Growth.  Turning briefly to Robert Anton Wilson, I understand how Theo sees me as opposed to the basic notion of Wilson's book, but I think I actually agree with the basic premise--simplistically, that humans as individuals can take control of ourselves and our environments with nearly unlimited potential if we properly understand ourselves and our environment--because I separate individual potential and prospects from those of our civilizational structure as a whole.  I think Wilson and Leary's "Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension" notion is an artifact of the time they were writing, but that the underlying goal was actually freedom, enlightenment, and fulfillment for individuals--something that I am actually very optimistic about in a rhizome future.  To the extent that this is the "real" wealth to which Theo refers, I think the growth-based predicate for "green" capitalism and its failure to address the incompatibility between human ontogeny and hierarchal systems eliminates it as a solution--I think it is ultimately more a case of "greenwashing" as a systemic defense to internal threats to hierarchy, and one that I think will do nothing to make that system fundamentally sustainable...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Envisioning a Hamlet Economy: Topology of Sustainability and Fulfilled Ontogeny

I've just fixed the images on this post.  While I first published this just over 4 years ago, I still think that this post accurately captures much of my theory of Rhizome:

The goal of this post is to outline a concrete framework for establishing a new economy based on rhizome structure that provides negative feedback against encroaching hierarchy, that ensures environmental sustainability, and that maximizes its compatibility with human ontogeny. I will first outline my approach to the problem, then look at one historical example—how the lattice network of Tuscan hill towns created a topology that addressed its unique circumstances, then analyze the optimal theoretical topology of a modern rhizome economy, and finally discuss some real-world concerns for the conscious design and establishment of a new hamlet economy.

Part 1: Methodology

This post aims to take the theoretical structure of rhizome, and flesh-out how a real-world economy will be built upon that model. Rhizome, in short, is defined as a non-hierarchal network of self-sufficient but interacting nodes. Within the context of a hamlet-economy, defining the threshold of self-sufficiency is the key theoretical step. It would be unrealistic to suggest that each individual be totally self-sufficient—while perhaps possible, it would result in an unacceptably low standard of living, as well as lack the resiliency necessary to prevent the accretion of hierarchy. It would be equally unrealistic to place the threshold of self-sufficiency too high, for that would create uncontrollable dependencies internal to the economic structure that would trend, eventually, towards a kind of feudal hierarchy. The exact location of the threshold of self-sufficiency may vary, but it must be at the lowest level, under the circumstances, that can:

1) Leverage the de-facto division of labor without dividing the knowledge to perform that labor. This permits raising the potential standard of living above individualized self-sufficiency, without creating dependency on the knowledge of another that can lead to hierarchy and exploitation.
2) Provide adequate redundancy to absorb sufficient systemic shock. For example, if self-sufficiency is placed at a level of two-person groups, then in the face of a shock that incapacitates one person, the other must absorb the full shock. Similarly, because this model will be based partially on horticultural modes of production, it must have enough diversity that it can absorb failures of certain crops or resource production processes brought about by weather, disease, etc.

In this model, I have placed the threshold of self-sufficiency at the familial group level. This threshold leverages the existing, biological human tendencies toward kinship, and creates a basic rhizome node that consists of roughly 10-40 people, or about 4 extended, nuclear family units.
The mode of production for this model is a hybrid of horticulture, gathering and hunting, with emphasis on a highly diverse system of horticulture (based on permaculture, fukuoka, and forest-garden concepts) to maximize standard of living, but with continual maintenance of significant spare capacity (geographic space and knowledge) to both hunt and gather to act as an absorber of systemic shocks.

Finally, the issue of specialization and specialty production must be addressed, where each node, in addition to providing minimal self-sufficiency for themselves, also produces one or more specialized product to facilitate economic interaction with other nodes, as well as to leverage the communication and information processing capability of rhizome to organize economic interaction in a way that generates much higher standards of living than can each node on their own. This latticed economic interaction is the glue that holds together the rhizome structure, ultimately serving as the strongest defense against encroachment by hierarchy—a single node cannot likely hold out against expanding hierarchy, but a well connected rhizome society of nodes can.

Part 2: Topology Lessons from a Tuscan Hill Town

This discussion of nodes and lattice is all very theoretical—it can be difficult to envision how it would actually take shape in the “real world.” For that reason, an extant, historical model that illustrates many of these concepts is useful. Tuscan hill towns are an interesting example—certainly not a perfect example of rhizome, but they are a decent example of a networked economic topology that consisted of many relatively self-sufficient nodes. They are, as with all vernacular physical geography, a unique product of their circumstances: fertile terrain punctuated by rough forests and hills, Mediterranean climate, an ancestral fabric of small farms, and a disintegration of rule by outside powers that led to the many social, economic, and technical innovations of the Italian city-states. My personal favorite is Lucignano, a relatively small and insignificant hill town depicted below. I will use it as the model hill-town for purposes of this discussion, so take a moment to familiarize yourself:

Figure 1: Here’s a map of Lucignano. Note the defensive arrangement of the housing and the patchwork of small fields.

Figure 2: Here’s an artist’s sketch of Lucignano…both the map and the sketch below depict the town in its modern form, which as far as I could tell hadn’t changed much in several centuries.

Figure 3: A picture Lucignano that I took from the Fortezza Medicea (see map above) where I stayed for a week in May of 2002.

I trust that you’ve enjoyed your brief virtual-tour of Lucignano…

It is interesting to note the impact of the continual wars between Florence, Siena, and other renaissance city-states in Italy on the architecture of the classic Italian hill town. Is this kind of inward-looking, defensive posture necessary in an envisioned future? Can a more open design, oriented to capture passive solar possibilities, be viable? What sizes of settlements are necessary—small familial farmhouse clusters, hamlet clusters of families oriented for convenience or defense, or trading or craft-industrial villages that produce local specialty products? In the case of Lucignano, many or most farmers lived within the defensive walls and walked to their fields each day. Additionally, the degree of hierarchy—resulting from the high-level threshold for self-sufficiency (which was located at the level of the hill town—in this case over a thousand people)—was certainly not optimal. The specific architecture and economic structure will vary by climate, resources, level of defensive need, etc., but the basic network structure of the hill towns remains instructive: the hundreds of hill towns that dot the map of Tuscany formed a powerful and resilient network of localized economic interaction. Today, this same region is demonstrating a resurgence of the very kind of sustainable, “fulfilled ontogeny” economy that is the goal of this model, even though it exists within a largely hierarchal and industrial society. The “Slow Food” movement was, in fact, initiated by the mayor of Greve-in-Chianti, one of the more famous hill towns of this region, and is now spreading around the world. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Tuscan hill town is an important symbol of the “good life” that may ultimately be achieved through this kind of rhizome economy—it is something that is desirable even within our modern culture, that can be readily understood, and that promises not “a return to the stone-age,” but a positive vision of “moving forward with an eye to the past” that is nearly universally preferable to the experiences of modernity. Since this can be such a difficult theoretical concept to sell, the ability to relate it to a well-known example is invaluable. There are certainly other examples, but within Western culture, this one may carry the most weight.

Part 3: The Optimal Topology of Rhizome and the Hamlet Economy

Rather than try to explain the optimal topology of a rhizome structure in words, I will try to more effectively illustrate this structure in the captions of the following graphics:

Figure 4: The above illustration is the theoretically optimal topology for a single rhizome node, representative here of a familial cluster. Close and strong connections exist within the node, representing the connectivity inside the extended familial group. Outside links are variously looser and weaker connections, the closer connections with the local hamlet, and the distant connections creating inter-hamlet ties, and creating the “small-worlds” situation where weak and distant connections greatly enhance the overall efficiency of connectivity. The green region denotes the geographic space required by the node to achieve minimal food self-sufficiency.

Figure 5: The above illustration shows a hamlet, or a cluster of familial nodes. The groupings in terms of 4:4:4 is not fixed, but merely a convenient way to convey a flexible structure. Close and strong connections exist within the hamlet, and variously looser and weaker connections reach outside, replicating in a fractal manner the same “small-worlds” theory as seen in individual nodes. The larger, lighter green region represents the geographic space required for “wildlife, hunting, and foraging,” or permaculture’s “Zone 5,” which is controlled “in trust” by the hamlet for their non-exclusive use, but available for their use as a reserve-bank should their horticultural scheme underperform.

Figure 6: The above illustration represents the broader landscape of a lattice-structure of clusters of rhizome nodes. It represents a theoretical distribution, and demonstrates that there are no “super-hamlets,” towns, or villages—the landscape is “flat” at the hamlet level, because any accretion to a higher order settlement would open the door to hierarchy. Instead, more complexly coordinated functions are facilitated by temporary groupings, as shown in the next illustration.

Figure 7: The above illustration denotes the ability of transient connection, fairs, festivals, etc. to affect longer-distance, weak connectivity that greatly enhances the overall efficiency of the lattice’s communication and information processing capability. Because more distant nodes are brought in contact with these occasional events (shown as dashed blue, red, or purple lines), the number of nodes that information or exchanges must transit to span large distances is greatly reduced (as illustrated by the black line transaction, where only two steps are necessary to bridge a distance that would otherwise require 8 steps in neighbor-to-neighbor transfer). These larger, weaker, and transient networks facilitate more complex activity and more specialized economic exchange without facilitating hierarchy. For example, even if only one node in 50 actually breeds goats or brews beer, all 50 nodes will have easy access to these products through seasonal fairs, transient markets, etc. In theory, there is no limit to the technological or industrial complexity that can be handled by such transient groupings of a still “flat” rhizome lattice. This format prevents more complex projects (defense, highly specialized goods like metal working or glass, social richness) from acting as a catalyst to the creation of hierarchy.

Figure 8: The orderly geometric lattice structure must, in reality, be draped over the natural geography, to include terrain, climate, resource distribution, etc.—as illustrated above with regards to a simple topographical map. While the theoretical and geometrically symmetrical lattice illustrated in Figure 6 provides easier initial conceptualization, the lattice illustrated in this figure is more realistic. In reality, several different “conceptual terrains” will each simultaneously impact the actual geospatial structure of the lattice. For example, physical terrain, difficulty of travel, resource concentrations, water availability, soil richness, etc. will all influence the layout.
Part 4: Reality, and the Implementation of a Hamlet Economy

Real-world implementation of this conceptual “hamlet-economy” requires efforts to guarantee resiliency, coping with the existing built landscape, and achieving coordination and standardization of this fractal pattern without a top-down hierarchy.
Rhizome lattice is great, in concept. However, if it does not demonstrate adequate resiliency, it will only last until the first major systemic shock—and systemic shocks have always and will continue to impact humanity, from weather, war, technology, famine, disease, etc. The hamlet-economy fosters resiliency by using long-time-horizon resource cultivation techniques, as well as planned redundancy in resource cultivation. For example, the forest garden concept is illustrative: while all horticultural and agricultural schemes vary in annual return, failure of a forest garden scheme one year does not propagate failure in future years. With a forest garden, after establishment, large quantities of resources are stored and available for harvest to make up for shortfalls in other areas. Similarly, maintenance of spare capacity in foraging and hunting, used only minimally in years where horticulture produces well, provides a safety net for years when horticulture produces poorly. This built-in redundancy is critical to maintain the viability of horticulture—along with its normal benefit of increased standard of living—through years when horticulture performs poorly.
It is also important to recognize that the implementation of this kind of hamlet-economy will, in most circumstances, require adaptation of an existing landscape—in most cases a landscape that is not sustainable, that is hierarchal, and that is not compatible with human ontogeny. This introduces an artificiality, in the sense that the theoretical structure may be impacted by existing hierarchal infrastructure (like towns and highways). Perhaps the best way to circumvent this is to begin to “plant the seeds” of a hamlet economy in existing rural areas, and then expand into prior towns and cities as they become non-viable.
Finally, it is important to address the issue of enforcing this structural pattern without utilizing top-down, hierarchal means. One key tool in this effort will be the use of open-source arguments to explain and justify the reasoning behind adapting this pattern—such as, hopefully, this post. Another will be the use—perhaps in modernized format—of the traditional norm enforcement tool of myth. Stories explaining the pitfalls of straying from this basic structure will help to keep the core principles intact. Finally, and I think most importantly, the success of this theoretical structure will depend on the ability of the pioneer implementers to demonstrate that it provides a better standard of living than other structures. If the average American could live the “good life” of living in a stereotypical Tuscan villa, and if they are shown how they, too, CAN have this lifestyle, then people will literally flock to this structure. Ultimately, this is a POSITIVE vision of the future—not a reversion to feudal serfdom, but a progression to a more egalitarian and human-compatible life…

Monday, April 13, 2009

A System of Future Planning.

Unlike last week, this post is not about developing a model for decision making (more on that later), but rather my thoughts on the future of this blog.  No giant changes in store, I’ve just been thinking about what to write about next, and part way through my thinking I decided it would be best to make this process itself into a post. 

In part, that’s because, at a meta-level, the purpose of this blog is as a tool for my own use.  This blog serves as a development platform for my own thinking—it forces me to keep thinking in order to meet my self-imposed weekly publishing schedule; it forces me to put my thinking in at least semi-coherent form; it allows me to get feedback from a very interesting, diverse, and intelligent group of people all over the world; and it gives me a platform to engage in dialogue with these and other groups of people in many different contexts (through The Oil Drum, at conferences, by discussions in blogs that I find through links to this site, etc.).  All the while, I get at least the occasional feeling that I’m reciprocating by helping others with the same process of intellectual development with which they help me.  That’s pretty amazing when you think about it—this is a process that was historically available to only a very select and lucky few who lived in the right place, at the right time, with the right friends:  a few elites among medieval religious orders (which reminds me of the prayer "God, give me chastity and give me constancy, but please Lord don't give it to me quite yet), the “moveable feast” of Fin-de-Ciecle Paris, the RAW/Timothy Leary/Hakim Bey network (beginning to show signs of a dispersed and mobile network, but certainly not “open”), Aldous Huxley’s Los Angeles circle, etc.  Today it’s available to anyone with access to the internet. 

Which leads me to my thoughts on where this blog is going.  This starts with what I want from this blog:  discussion and exposition of ideas on topics that interest me 1) where I have something original to add and 2) that is important to many individuals if not humanity in general.  I don’t want to be a news aggregator—many others are already doing that, and probably much better than I would.  Commentary on news items, something I do engage in on occasion, is something I hope to do less of, though there’s a fine line between the analysis of a phenomenon as reflected in several news stories and simple news commentary.  What I want to do is write stand-alone essays providing critical analysis from a systems-thinking perspective and provide novel system-oriented proposals for the future.  This, of course, can be a bit difficult on a weekly basis, so I will probably increase the practice I’ve used frequently in the past of publishing a series over several weeks to cover a given idea.  In the next post is a brief recap of some of the core analyses and proposals I’ve made so far, my thoughts on where these previous ideas need to go next, and in an interim conclusion, a post with a list of ideas I hope to explore in the future.  I’m not writing this just to see my thoughts turned into words—there are two goals here:  1) in keeping with the intent of this blog to be a meta-tool for my own thinking, these post force me to compose my thoughts on this topic in a more coherent manner; and 2) to solicit feedback (either via email or in the comments, as usual) on these ideas.   

However, before I delve into the details, there’s one more purpose of compiling these lists:  to evaluate whether they have done anything, either for my self or for a broader community.  I’ll comment more on this later, but have the ideas I’ve previously written about gained any traction?  Have they moved me or others to take action that would not have been taken without these posts?  Have they spurred anyone else to thoughts that have had an impact?  And, of course, my future writing plans must be influenced by these answers.  My goal, to the extent that this blog is a tool for my own thinking, is to impact my own life.  I’m increasingly of the opinion that “we” as a society will not take the steps necessary to “solve” our problems, so is there any broader value to my writing, or am I just entertaining myself while shaping my own plans?  Is there value in shaping the plans of others even though they will never constitute the mainstream or the power elite?  Should I, in fact, with it no other way (as I tend to think)?  What, specifically, is the broader value of this blog (which, it seems, must be one of my future topics…)? 

Your thoughts are not just permitted (the comments are always open), but encouraged.  If you have read this blog for one day or for years, I'd love to hear what you think of it, if it has been of value, if I'm drifting off course, and what that course should be.  Or even if you just have topic suggestions.  As always, I take comments and emails at and do my best to respond directly to all (though last week's 34 was a bit overwhelming, especially since I'm preparing for trial this week)...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Planning for the Future

Predictions are difficult, especially when they're about the future.

There's an interesting new website up, Wrong Tomorrow, that strives to track and report on the predictions of various pundits and prognosticators. Turn out that my prediction that the Mexican state won't see 2012 is up for testing--though, highlighting one weakness of the site, it takes my prediction out of context, dropping the first half of my prediction that some form of state-shell may exist in Mexico for decades. I didn't intend my prediction to be inherently testable or not testable--perhaps in the future I will be more careful to conclude with an empirically testable prediction...

While predictions and record-keeping can be interesting, and can even serve an important purpose by highlighting the past inaccuracies of someone offering a new prediction, I'm more interested in the methodology of prediction. After all, each of us, every day, stakes our lives and our family's lives on our ability to predict the future. I talked briefly about my theory of prediction in my essay Hedging the Future Solution Space, which highlights that, while predictions may be fun, the more utilitarian approach (until I can figure out how to be 100% correct in predicting everything) is to outline the possibilities and then see how we can make choices today that will fare best regardless of the outcome. If you check the investment theory outlined in that article, it would have worked out quite well over the past 18 months. I only wish I had followed it more closely myself (I was leveraged long oil and short the S&P500, but excessively weighted in the former so that my gains in my S&P super-bear fund didn't cover my recent losses in oil--though I'm holding my 2011 crude oil calls because I still think there's a good chance of the price shooting up again).

So, over the next few weeks, this will be the focus of my posts: the development of a future modeling and decision-making methodology that will maximize outcomes in a very uncertain future. I'll be focusing on a decision-making system for the individual, but many of the principles will work equally well for Nation-States and Corporations. In my mind, the key difference between these actors is that it is always the individual (as opposed to the currently reigning politician or CEO who can just walk away) that ultimately must carry the bag for failure to integrate the need for resiliency into our decision making. Therefore a goal of my methodology will be to optimize future resiliency in the absence of perfect knowledge of the future outcome.

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

"Economically Recoverable" Threshold for East Coast Oil Exploration

I haven't written (or really thought) too much about oil lately (too busy), but the discussion surrounding the recent announcement opening the US eastern seaboard for more oil exploration and production needs to be rounded out with a discussion of net energy, something that has been almost entirely lacking to date.

I won't wade into the discussion of whether this is a good idea or not, except to say that I think it's generally a good idea to permit seismic exploration, and I doubt the environmental impact of the decision will be significant for the simple reason that I doubt much, if any production will actually take place.

How much oil actually gets produced off the eastern seaboard is a function of two things (once it's made legal):  how much is there, and the net energy of producing it.  We don't have a good answer to the first question--undoubtedly there is some oil off the eastern seaboard, and very likely not hugely significant amounts.  I've heard the figure 3.4 billion barrels floated around, which is significant but not forecast changing.  Of course, that's just a guess.

However, even if there's 30 billion barrels there, the question is how much can be economically produced.  If it costs $200/barrel for everything beyond the easiest 2 billion barrels, none of that will be produced (except, perhaps, as the accidental byproduct of a failed exploratory well).

It seems to be common practice to estimate the cost of production per barrel for reserves--these are figures that are critically important for understanding whether or not a new "discovery" or newly opened production territory will actually result in any significant increase in oil production.  It doesn't matter if there's 200 billion barrels of oil, or if there's oil that can be produced at $2 a barrel--what matters is the combination, e.g. there's "1 billion barrels of oil that can be produced for $40/barrel."  We simply don't have this information for the US eastern seaboard, and until we do the discussion of the impact of that region is purely posturing.

None of the above is really interesting (at least not to me), but what I do find interesting is what it sets up:

The other complication for US eastern seaboard oil production is that it will take many years to complete seismic studies, drill test wells to confirm reservoir quality/size/location/etc.  Optimists think that we'll have oil flowing out of this region in 7 years, whereas pessimists (realists?) argue that there will be no significant production for well more than 10 years.  Right now, "economically recoverable reserves" tend to be those reserves that can be produced for less than the current price of oil.  More conservative E&P companies won't start a project unless they think they can produce for significantly less than the current price of oil (they don't want to bear the risk that prices go down), while others say that, because the price of oil will go up over the long term, even oil that can be produced at "current price +$10" or so is economically recoverable.  All of this misses some important considerations.

First, to rephrase the assumption a bit, I agree that the scarcity of energy globally will continue to increase over the long term (that's not the same as saying that the *price* of *oil* will mirror that trend).  This is significant because the cost of producing oil is, when it is reduced to its core components, nothing but energy--the energy needed to provision/train/pay the workforce, the energy needed to construct the production platforms/tenders, the energy to perform survey work, even the energy representing the inevitable management/legal/political/regulatory/etc. overhead associated with any project of this kind of scale and complexity.  For that reason, and especially, as here, when it will take so long to even get to the production phase, we need to keep in mind the backdrop of continually increasing energy scarcity.  That energy scarcity will, ultimately, make the cost of producing oil increase (if not in absolute terms, then at least relative to the value of the energy produced).  How much will it increase over the next 7-10+ years that it will take to begin to produce oil from the eastern seaboard?  I don't know the answer to that, either, but it certainly seems reasonable to suggest that it is likely to double.

So what?  Well, if oil is roughly $80/barrel today, conventional wisdom is that oil producible at $60-70 a barrel is the threshold of what is economically recoverable.  However, if the cost of producing oil doubles, then 7-10+ years from now oil will only be economically recoverable if it could be produced today at $30-35 a barrel.  That's a long winded way of saying that, when we finally get preliminary numbers on whether oil off the eastern seaboard is "economically recoverable," I would be very skeptical.  If there are 3.4 billion barrels of theoretically recoverable reserves, of which 2 billion barrels are deemed (by interested parties) to be "economically recoverable," the reality is that in 7-10+ years the amount of oil actually economically recoverable may be much, much less than 2 billion barrels.  It could be 0 barrels.  If an impartial source says that a billion barrels are recoverable at $20/barrel (very, very unlikely), then I'd say that oil is likely to actually get produced.  Beyond that I wouldn't count on it...

Of course, this notion of "economically recoverable" is really just a different way of discussing net energy.  However, the net energy analysis I've seen so far has offered little insight in to future projections for the net energy of newly opened/explored reservoirs--it tends to focus on existing producing reservoirs where actual energy input/output data is available.  With newly opened territory like the eastern seaboard, it's more clear than ever that we'll need to take financial forecasts of input costs and then convert them (imperfect process, to say the least) by comparing to the price of the energy produced to reach any kind of prospective net energy calculation.  If any EROI experts have thoughts on prospective net energy analysis, I'd certainly be interested to hear it...