Disclaimer: I am posting this more to hear back from other folks who can point me
to actual library journal articles on this subject than to suggest that
we’re screwed, although I suppose I can do both. That said . . .
I admit it: I’ve jumped on the peak oil bandwagon. Which is probably not a great decision for my psyche, concidering that I’ve been fighting a running gunbattle with depression since my early 20’s, and this is a class A-1 depressing subject, but more on that in a moment. Part of my interest is the fact that I happen to be a sucker for a good disaster story, and the more popular thinkers on the topic seem to live up to their subject matter in a way that’s just plain fun. (If you’re not sure what I mean by that, read this article by Aaron Naparstek called "Peak Freaks" to get a better idea.) The end of the world is a compelling tale and we as a species seem to like stories about the end of the world. We just like them better when they’re abstractions. Nobody local enjoyed evacuating New Orleans last year, for example, or worse, having to stay for whatever reason. On the other hand, the Katrina saga did wonders for ratings for all manner of mass media outlets.
Now than I think of it, "jumping on the peak oil bandwagon" is a poor choice of words. I have acknowledged that things are going to get much more interesting in the future. Probably more interesting that is really worth thinking about on a daily basis. And I have decided that it’s better to have too much information from people who seem to know more about the subject than I do than too little, so I’m reading what I can. Not being a sociologist, I have no more hope of trying to imagine how 6+ billion people in the world (or even the 300+ million in the USA) are going to deal with the fact that cheap energy will slowly but surely transmute into not-so-cheap energy than anyone else. But I am (or was) a science fiction writer and am still a sci fi fan, and so maybe I can imagine a few plans of my own. Just in case.
As an aside, I just finished "Make Room, Make Room!" by Harry Harrison . . . Gaaaahhh! (That’s the book they loosely based the film Soylent Green on for those of you who are not Harrison fans.) Harrison made some good guesses based on the available information about population growth, agricultural production and energy supply, but got his time line wrong. The story ends on New Year’s Day 2000, where the world population is teetering on 7 billion and the U.S. population passes 355 million, about one-tenth of which live in New York City. No cheap energy is a big part of the rather hellish life folks in that world lead, but as I said, he got his time line wrong. That’s not such a big deal, since future time lines based on current events are notoriously difficult to get right. On the other hand, M. King Hubbert came to the conclusion that U.S. oil production would peak and then recede about 10 years before MRMR was published in 1966. If Harrison projected his vision 34 years into the future and saw the collapse of the cheap oil economy and everything it supported, MRMR is not a bad guess.
I bought copies of James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown and read them both straight through in that order over a week or so. (As an aside I’ll note that Powerdown is really the second of two consecutive works on this subject–The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies is Heinberg’s discussion of the peak oil phenomenon and what it means for us as a society.) They are both excellent books, highly organized, eminently readable, and their authors know their subjects, have done the research, and have a compelling message. Of the two, I think I prefer Kunstler’s work, mostly because I like the gravitas that Kunstler projects in his writing. Heinberg writes with a cautious optimism that all is not lost just yet, but at the same time comes out and says that if all things remain as they are now, we’re heading off a cliff at warp speed.
I have no idea what a not-cheap energy future means for libraries. I can imagine some very obvious problems. Public libraries will be the first public services to be shuttered, but private and corporate libraries might least for a good deal longer, but there, too, are problems as unreliable sources of electricity will throw any electronic collection into utter chaos, for example. Libraries might have to resort to installing their own battery backup systems in the future–systems that would have to power their networks for days rather than the half hour it would take to shut the system down properly. Book and journal production will probably rely on local publishers to a far greater extent than is now the case–how the major publishing houses will deal with a dramatic drop in cheap highway transport that gets their products to customers, I can’t imagine. Print would get more expensive, and that might spur hundreds of libraries who’ve resisted the migration to electronic resources thus far to take the plunge. But then, how will Ebsco, Ovid, Gale and the rest make sure their own electricity stays reliable? We can forget climate controls for all but the biggest and well-funded institutions, I guess. Will PCs still sit on every desk? Maybe–the older monitors are huge power suckers, though, so maybe LCD monitors will completely replace them. But then the price of all that equipment would go through the roof, since current manufacturing processes rely on oil, and lots of it, and it can’t be too expensive or the product becomes too pricey to build in large numbers.
I may be overstating the case (I like to think that I am, but I don’t know!) but you see where this is headed. Out of curiosity I decided to see what I could find on the subject on yonder Intarweb and I couldn’t find a lot. A lot of libraries stock their shelves with books that deal with the subject of peak oil: Kunstler’s and Heinberg’s books are popular and a number of places carried (or had ordered) Twilight in the Desert by Matthew R. Simmons, and I found a few websites such as Externalities of the Digital Library that wonder what the future of digital libraries will be in an age of not-cheap energy. The International Foreign Libraries Association has sponsored one paper on the subject that I could find. And the Digital Library Guide mentions peak oil in passing and suggests it’s a problem for digital libraries, but doesn’t go into real depth.
I kept looking and trying different search strategies in a few search engines and I came to one sort of embarrassing conclusion: the only folks out there in Libraryland who are wondering where all this is leading work for (or with) organizations that study and teach about peak oil. A sampling includes:
The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) has one of the less informative websites I found but they have a considerable collection of archives and their site is fully searchable.
The Energy Bulletin was a gold mine of info–a tidbit that floated to the top of the results page and led me to them was this article entitled "Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge", which ironically was being hosted by The Post Carbon Institute. Go figure. (The original was here.) More ironically, the discussion of actually preserving knowledge starts on page 12 of a 16-page document.
Matt Savinar’s website, titled Life After the Oil Crash, is just plain fun. They’ve got their own book store and decent archives of past (and current) articles to boot. Ground Truth Investigations is another wonderful site that doesn’t deal with peak oil primarily, but it does deal with natural resource preservation, and some of the photography is amazing.
Finally, I found a number of web sites that insisted that peak oil is just another fad/hoax/plot to extract money from taxpayers/etc. I won’t link to any of them because, well, if they’re right, I don’t have to. And if they’re wrong, I still don’t have to, since I linked to the peak oil guys already. (How’s that for circular logic? Huh? Huh?) But in all fairness, go to Google and type in "peak oil is a hoax" and you’ll get tons of material.