open book
Photo: Simon Cocks via Flickr.

Having read enough books with Hubbert curves and charts of barrels-per-day to last us until the second Bristol Palin administration, we’re now into powerful stories that explore peak oil through suspense, romance and humanity.
But so you won’t feel guilty having so much fun at the expense of the whole premise of industrial civilization, we’ve thrown in some more fact-y tomes too. Peak oil stalwarts from James Howard Kunstler to Richard Heinberg to Robert Hirsch made the list along with some surprising newcomers.

  1. Player One: What Is to Become of Us by Douglas Coupland. Imagine if you were sipping a whiskey at a tacky bar at an airport hotel. Maybe you’d flown in for a romantic tryst with someone you’d met on a peak oil online forum. Maybe you were a minister who’d lost your faith in God and run off with the church building fund. Or maybe you were a beautiful but socially awkward girl who drove out from the city just to get laid. And then imagine seeing on the bar TV that, after an OPEC meeting that day, the price of oil jumped to $250 per barrel, then $350, and then it hit $900. Then the power went out. And then things got interesting. Coupland’s compelling story pulls the reader plausibly from today’s normal life straight into what could become the new normal in just a few hours when the next oil crisis hits. It gave me nightmares.
  2. The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler. The second book in Kunstler’s neo-Western “World Made by Hand” series, like its predecessor Witch is set in the upstate New York town of Union Grove a decade or so after the collapse of industrial society. Kunstler brings back some of the same characters to a world that is living partly off the salvage of the old order and partly from the sweat of the human brow. The story revolves around a 11-year-old runaway, the sociopathic ballad-singing bandit the boy falls in with, the leader of a religious cult and a bona fide witch. In Kunstler’s new world, the livin’ is not easy, but offers the consolations of a warm, caring community.
  3. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. The founder of and author of the first popular book on global warming, The End of Nature published in 1989, McKibben pioneered the movement to fight climate change. A fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, McKibben is one of the few prominent climate writers who also accepts peak oil. In Eaarth, McKibben brilliantly argues that industrial civilization has so fouled the atmosphere as to create a planet different from the one that has nurtured the evolution of our species so far. Now, we’ll face all the dangers of a warming climate at just the time when the energy we need to try to adapt and survive is running low. McKibben’s book shows us what hell looks like. And then he brings us up into his vision of human society beyond economic growth that sounds a lot like the re-localized world envisioned by the Transition movement.
  4. The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises edited by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch. This 500-page volume shows an outsized ambition to present all areas of practical human knowledge from the viewpoint of peak oil. Its 34 essays by two dozen authors including Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Gloria Flora and Chris Martenson impressively cover subjects ranging from the relationship of humans to nature, what really happens to our trash and how community colleges can save civilization. Finishing The Post Carbon Reader can give you the same sense of accomplishment as if you’d polished off Aristotle’s Poetics, Gargantua and Pantagruel and the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica between dinner and bedtime. It’s like graduating from Post-Carbon University. And all without the student loans.
  5. Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl. Written with policymakers in mind, this book will also appeal to the transportation geek in us all. If we are to avoid a future like Kunstler’s world made by hand where transportation is mostly by foot or on horseback, then we will need to implement some of the recommendations of Gilbert and Perl, such as running passenger trains on renewable electricity, flying solar-powered airships and launching high-tech clipper ships to sail the Atlantic and Pacific.
  6. Peak of the Devil: 100 Questions (and Answers) about Peak Oil by Chip Haynes. Haynes’s primer on peak oil seems designed for those who have either never heard about peak oil, or have just been introduced to the topic. The easy to skim Q&A format plus a liberal use of (clean) humor help make an intimidating subject accessible. But this doesn’t prevent Haynes from dealing with such serious topics as peak oil vs. peak export, how to prepare (“should I buy a gun?”) and scary future scenarios (“the ‘Dim’ Ages”). Haynes ends on an optimistic note, predicting that we’ll be able to take the best of Western civilization into a future lower tech society.
  7. Communities, Councils and a Low-Carbon Future by Alexis Rowell. Since Rowell’s book focuses on the UK, North Americans will find Daniel Lerch’s 2007 guide Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty more immediately useful as a handbook for working with local government. But Rowell’s book makes a good supplement, going deeper into issues that any local Transition organizer will need to know about, from local biodiversity and energy to planning regulations to procurement and recycling. Rowell brings valuable insights gleaned from his time as a councillor in the London borough of Camden to his advice on how to make local officials care about peak oil enough to do something about it.
  8. Prelude: A Novel About Secrets, Treachery and the Arrival of Peak Oil by Kurt Cobb. Another good book for someone new to the subject, Cobb’s story is set in Washington, DC and revolves around Cassie, a young analyst at a high-powered energy consultancy (shades of Cambridge Energy Research Associates) and her attempts to obtain a secret report on the true oil reserves of the world’s largest exporter (shades of Saudi Arabia). Aided by a wry Russian musician who knows about peak oil and has experienced societal collapse back home (shades of Dmitri Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects), in search of full disclosure Cassie faces off against her firm’s craven boss, an oily ambassador and her own non-commital boyfriend.
  9. World Energy Outlook 2010 by the International Energy Agency. After years of hedging, the IEA has finally acknowledged that peak oil has come, at least for conventional sources. But don’t worry, they say, when you throw in unconventional oil like Alberta tar sands and deepwater oil, world production won’t peak for another couple decades. The full report will set you back about $200, so why not just read the 18-page summary?
  10. The Impending World Energy Mess: What It Is and What It Means to YOU! by Robert Hirsch etal. Hirsch, along with one of the current book’s co-authors Roger Bezdek, authored a now-famous report for the Department of Energy in 2005 saying that America needed to start preparing for peak oil 20 or 30 years in advance. This earned Hirsch deep respect in the peak oil community that helped create a sense of anticipation for this book, which has little new except a chapter trying to debunk climate science that will put off many readers. But if you’re looking for a plan to implement gasoline rationing, this is the book for you.

And as a bonus, here’s a book from a few years back whose chapter on peak oil may turn out to be a beloved classic:

  1. An Inconvenient Book: Real Solutions to the World’s Biggest Problems by Glenn Beck. Yes, THAT Glenn Beck. Though this book is already three years old, I didn’t know until finding it the other day that Beck may be America’s most articulate popular analyst of peak oil. Consider what he says about the impending energy crisis: “Depending on how bad it gets, gasoline will be rationed, severe rolling blackouts will be common, food prices will skyrocket, and the economy will begin a long fall. But all of that is the only the beginning.” You go Glenn! Skip his silly chapter on global warming and head straight for “America’s Oil Dependence: the Peak of Stupidity” and the section “Scaring the Bat Crap Out of You.” And if you don’t like his short-term solution — that we should ramp up synthetic oil from coal to replace today’s liquid fuels — you’ll still root for Beck to convince his massive audience of mid-Americans to care as much about peak oil as they do about “the fight against radical Islam.”