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Collapse | by Claude Downunder
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Collapse, or what happens when a modern university campus loses power

 

On Tuesday March 20, at approximately 8:00am, the lights went out at the university campus where I work. A capacitor in the switch room blew, setting fire to the components and shutting power to the campus. When I arrived at the campus at 8:45am the firemen were done and the fire was out, but so was the power. So what do you do in a modern university when the power is gone and you can’t use your computers, projectors, the Internet, the air conditioning, and a whole host of other mod-cons that we take for granted?

 

Many lecturers gallantly carried on with their classes, using the tried and true method of actually lecturing to their students. With the air conditioner off and the lights out, most of the classes that soldiered on spilled outside. It was a beautiful sight, lecturers lecturing and students listening in the open air. I almost imagined that we were back in Ancient Greece at Plato’s academy.

 

There was also a lot of light-hearted banter and socialisation with students and other staff members. It was good for the soul and, I think, it was good for collegiality across the campus. I believe that sharing downtime helps to build a sense of community, as do shared hardships. Going back to basics is not so bad, for a little while at least.

 

For the most part, we librarians had little to do, but even so, we did still field several questions from students, mostly about referencing, and we even had some students who wanted to borrow books (imagine that, students who actually wanted to read something!). In order to answer some of these questions we had to get creative in finding answers. In some cases we were even able to locate books solely through our knowledge of Dewey Decimal subject areas (I know, embarrassing right?). We consulted printed copies of text books (heaven forbid) and used a handheld copy of the APA referencing manual instead of an online tool. We even lent books out using paper and pen (we had to actually write some numbers down, the horror!!!) to jot down the student and book details.

 

In the quiet times we did what librarians are prone to do; we read. My colleague read the paper and I decided to pick up a book that I have at home but never got around to reading (I really only have it on my bookshelf to make myself look smart and knowledgeable), ‘Collapse: How societies chose to fail or survive’, by Jared Diamond. I was struck by the simplicity and common sense of his analysis. Basically, societies consume, destroy, abuse, overuse or degrade their environment to the extent that it no longer provides them with enough energy to sustain whatever technological level they have attained, at which point things really go pear-shaped.

 

The power failure on campus made me pick up that book. Although we managed to soldier on and teach and help students in many cases, this was not sustainable for a modern university. It certainly highlighted our reliance on energy, cheap reliable energy, to do even the simplest of things, like finding a book. Fossil fuels are wonderful and have driven our explosive technological evolution, but they are finite by nature. The power failure highlighted the need to transition to a new world where energy is gathered directly from the sun, rather than using the solar energy that is stored in long-dead microorganisms. We have an abundance of sun here in Australia, there really is no excuse. If we are not prepared, then collapse, as Jared Diamond warns, will be rapid and painful. Most of us like to avoid pain, so we need to do what we can now to make sure that our children, grandchildren, etc. don’t feel that pain. We owe them that much at least.

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Taken on March 20, 2018