Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Peak Oil and Yellow Pages

Peak oil and local search may seem a strange combination but it is one that is very much on my mind as an individual working in the Yellow Pages industry, in what may be the twilight of the industrial age.

Everyone knows what Yellow Pages are, the large book that is dropped on the doorstep once or more a year.  A lot of people do not realize that there are many Yellow Pages, the epoch of lumbering dinosaurs owned by the telephone company are well in the past.  The market now dominated by the leaner, more nimble and responsive independent puiblishers; competition bringing costs down and greater choices for everyone.

What many do not realize is how sustainable the Yellow Pages industry has become in the twenty first century. More trees were cut down to support the infrastructure needed to allow me to write this post than went into the seven billion pages of advertising we printed last year.  

In an industry that is moving from the a relatively low energy modality of print to one that requires the modern infrastructure of internet and mobile, how will businesses change if the energy available to society significantly changes?  How will buying patterns change when oil prices spike again?  What will $5.00 a gallon gas do to the way people shop?   

Of course, it's possible that humanity may find a solution to the increasing scarcity of oil.  It won't be biofuels, tar sands, solar or wind power; in fact there is no fuel source we currently know of that can compete with oil and its products.  But who knows, humanity has overcome many challenges in the past and maybe we can keep going onward and upward for ever.  I'm not betting on it, though, while the myth of infinite progress may be one of the most prevalent beliefs today, we should remember that the citizens of Rome never believed Rome would fall anytime before the second coming.

So what would local search look like after a century of techological progress?  Perhaps we'll all have our own personal Jeannie who knows our tastes and will select the vendors, products and services for us.  Perhaps she will also handle introductions and take care of the mundane details.

On the other hand, if society declines and the cost of energy increases to the point where people are choosing carefully what they use it for, systems will revert to lower energy models.  In such a scenario, the printed book could once again become a dominant player in the marketplace.  Local search will really become local if the cost to ship goods from across the continent becomes excessive. People will be buying local not out of loyalty to the community they live and work in, but out of practicality.

Which way will society go?  As much as I'd like to believe that it is up to us, we may well have passed the threshold beyond which all we can do is hope we have a relatively soft landing.  We've climbed a long way in a short number of centuries; I hope we have a long descent rather than a fast crash so that we have time to adjust to a world that would be familiar to our great, great grandparents.

1 comment:

  1. I have always been dismayed by idea that many people have about saving a tree by using less paper. In the process they use electric equipment that is powered by and created using non-renewable oil products, where a tree is a renewable resource. You can plant another tree, you can’t replace the oil.

    The other miss conception is that a tree has to be cut down to make paper. Most paper comes from lumber waste and byproducts. And yellow pages are printed on mostly recycled paper.

    So in reality, the phone book has a much lesser impact on the environment that the cell phones we love so much and the infrastructure needed to have that convenience.


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