Thursday, May 31, 2007

Peak birding

Another Peak Oil blog:

Clusterf**k Nation

Note that the actual site (and the URL for the site) are spelled out in full without any asterisks; if this might constitute a problem for you, you have been warned.

So what does all this have to do with birding? Well, first, this isn't and never has been exclusively a birding blog. But second, and more importantly, it has EVERYTHING to do with birding, birds, and whether either of them will continue to exist in future centuries.

Cyberthrush posted his very pessimistic outlook for the prospects of our avifauna heading into these coming centuries. Like many, his view of the long future is based on extrapolating the last century or two of exponential growth and mass extinction; if you do that, you do indeed tend to lose hope for anything. But the thing is, this can't happen. Whether the oil peak comes in 2007 or 2057, it will come. Whatever replacement energy sources are worked out, they will be more expensive -- ultimately much more expensive. The prices we see today for such things as biofuels, PV, wind, nuclear, etc. are all subsidized by the cheap oil that still fuels the manufacuring of their components and the building and maintenance of their infrastructure. And even with this subsidy, they are already more expensive than the fossil carbon sources. So when cheap oil goes away, alternative energy will become prohibitively expensive for many (most?) of the things we use fossil fuel for today. Economic growth will cease and then reverse, population won't just stabilize, it will contract. If you don't buy the economic arguments, try the biological one: We are at our core still biological entities with biological needs and vulnerabilities, even if we are surrounded by technology (a coccoon of our own making with petroleum as its first ingredient). Biological systems presented with a cheap, abundant resource boom -- and then they bust. Whether you believe the transformation will happen via utopian social reforms in an age of enlightenment, or by plague, famine, and war in an age of collapse doesn't matter; the end result is the same. Fewer people, less economic activity.

So what does this mean for the rest of Life? Well, the vast majority of extinctions that have happened since the loss of the early holocene megafauna have happened in the last two centuries: i.e. during the boom. The sprawl of humanity across greater and greater acreages has accelerated this pace. It seems to follow, regardless of the utopian or apocalyptic nature of the post-boom world, that when the boom ends, the mass extinction event will end, too. The era of monoculture and suburb will be over; any anthropogenic climate changes will at least stabilize even if they will take a few millenia to actually reverse. The upshot is this: I believe that if we can get a species through the next 100 years or so, the tide will have turned and there's a decent shot that it will be able to continue from then on until it evolves into something else. The resources for conservation will be evaporating; but so will the resources for destruction, as well as the fundamental motivating force behind the destruction.

As for birding, forget the Big Day and the chase; it'll be back to the days of paying intimate attention to the ever-changing avifauna of the place you live. Expeditions to far away places to see new and exotic birds will become the experience of a lifetime, not something you do on a whim with your income tax refund. I don't really see that this is a bad thing, on balance.


At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as mass transportation is concerned: bring back sailing ships and horse wagons!


At 1:19 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

You see a lot more birds from horseback and sailboats than from motor vehicles and diesel-powered boats, that's for sure! If you ever get the chance to be out on the high seas on a sailboat, you discover that some of those seabirds are calling back and forth to each other in ways you never imagined. Plus you don't have to scream your head off to be heard by your fellow passengers.

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MMinNy. . .

Man, I hope you are right. I think the impact of global warming will be like a comet hitting earth in slow motion. . .life won't end, but the changes are going to be huge.

Even if there were some event or epidemic that caused a drastic decline in human population over the next 20 years, there's a whole process in motion that's going to have an impact for millenia (a brief period in absolute terms).

I don't think there's any way to predict what's going to happen, even over the next decade, except to say, it ain't gonna be good.

Still, I hope your more optimistic scenario proves out.

At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think running out of fossil fuels might be for the best. It will force us to use alternative energy sources. I think it's likely that at some point they could be as cheap or even cheaper than oil and coal. There's unlimited potential for energy all around us, it's just a matter of releasing it safely.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would you argue the fact that everyone who has tried to predict peak oil has failed? So far.

Won't the enormous amounts of money in the hands of drillers and exploration companies ultimated produce yet another surplus?

Or are you only predicting some nebulous time in the future?

Honest question. Just curious.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

The fact that petroleum is a finite resource is self-evident. The fact that the rate of new discoveries has been on an overall downward trend for decades is not disputed. The fact that demand is increasing rapidly with no sign of abatement is also not disputed. The conclusion from these facts that petroleum will reach a time of increasing scarcity followed by eventual effective exhaustion is difficult to escape. It's only a matter of timing, of when not if, just like the next big earthquake. The peak in US domestic production was in fact predicted fairly accurately many years in advance. You can argue til the cows come home about a global peak in 2007 or 2017 or 2027, but few analysts seem to be seriously pushing it a whole lot farther in the future than that.

Environmentalists really ought to be hoping that the peak oil predictions are true, not false. It's one of very few things that could put the brakes on global environmental degradation. The other alternatives that might stop this juggernaut (e.g. depopulating global pandemic and other apocalyptic scenarios that I think are not all that likely) are far worse. Given population pressures and political fickleness, it's not gonna happen by voluntary reform.

This is a case where I'm sure both cyberthrush and I hope that he is dead wrong.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So that's what I was trying to get at. You aren't saying that we are at peak oil yet. You even say it might be 2027.

I bring this up because I think you may be very very disappointed if you want peak oil to be now or soon.

The oil industry is not so sure, despite what you think, that the end is near. Russia is fast becoming bigger than Saudi Arabia in oil reserves. With much more land to explore. They are salivating over much of China, offshore Indonesia, Siberia, the arctic ocean as global warming melts it. In fact all of the artic north is now becoming feasible with indications of much reserves.

I fear you may be very wrong. What would happen to the environment if you are wrong? Any predictions?

At 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Won't the use of coal just go up tremendously? We have almost limitless coal reserves all over the world. Wouldn't this be even worse?

What do you think of nukes? (The peaceful kind, not the bombs!)

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Well the ultimate end of the fossil fuel era is an inevitability, of course. Timing is all a matter of estimation. All these new oil sources are not the easy ones; therefore they will be more expensive. Since this is all about rates of production and rates of demand, not absolute stockpiles, new reserves in expensive situations will not have as much impact as the easy and cheap oil reserves of the early 20th Century. There's also the question of alternative energy sources. To the extent that they work out, I also expect them to be more expensive because they require more technology to manifest. The only one that is similar to petroleum in infrastructure required is biofuel. But that is also limited by the amount of land that can feasibly be dedicated to it. The upshot of all this is a future with much less total power available to drive technology. That means fewer environmental consequences, in a global sense. But how fast?

If nothing happens within a century or two to put the brakes on, and we have a few hundred years more of explosive growth... there's likely to be no "conservation" left.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well the ultimate end of the fossil fuel era is an inevitability

If it wasn't for coal, I'd agree with you. But what scares me is a new over reliance on coal. Which is essentially unlimited for the purposes you are talking about. A few hundred years, certainly.

More oil might actually be better for the world. If you call this better.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I've wondered about the coal thing too, and why neither the peak oil pundits nor anyone else seems to be playing it up much right now. It is a less versatile fuel, being solid; and its extraction is more energy-intensive too. Liquifaction and gassification are yet more energy-intensive processes. These might be the reasons it is not expected to substitute 1-for-1 for oil, but instead be another of the more expensive, less versatile options. Currently, via manufacturing and transporation, cheap petroleum is subsidizing all the other energy sources, including solar, wind, and biofuels. It is also subsidizing coal and nuclear.

I suspect that no one reading this blog is likely to be around long enough to see how this all really shakes out.

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps coal doesn't have to be a 1 for 1 substitute for oil that is turned into gasoline or diesal. But it is a substitute for power plants. A cheap competitor at that.

The only reason it's not used more is because it is dirtier. But as nat gas and fuel oil is saved more for plastics and cars/trucks, we are liable to have coal powerplants.

Peak oil doesn't mean cleaner air. It just might mean much much dirtier air.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I am not at all well versed in macreconomics. But I just have this suspicion that coal is at present cheap only because of the vast quantities of cheap diesel fuel that support its extraction, processing, and distribution. And if that suspicion is correct, the loss of that unlimited cheap diesel will mean the end of cheap coal as well (in much the same way as it will mean the end of cheap industrial-scale conventional agriculture). Sure, coal can be used to support its own extraction, by converting it to electricity, then powering the infrastructure from the electricity. But that involves additional transformations of the form of energy before you get from coal to car (or fertilizer or plastic or etc.). So I still see a large reduction in available energy. Dirtier power per joule, but fewer joules... which way does the balance go?

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, think of it this way. Oil doesn't just end. It doesn't even suddenly become very very costly. Even if peak oil is already here.

Instead, there is a long ramp down. Meanwhile, coal is used more and more for power. Powerplants used to be sited near coal fields until after WWII. All you have to do is go back to the old paradigm. The transmission lines get longer but not much, because coal is so widely distributed.

Coal-fired trains efficiently transport coal. And there will still be lots of oil available during the ramp down.

I fear that the only thing that keeps the environment on the present decline rate and not on a faster one is finding more oil.

I think the alternatives will be terrible. And if your vision comes true quickly, then all the worlds forests will be used for subsistence cooking and heating.

Bill, the world is doomed. Either way.

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

You're assuming no reduction in either per capita energy consumption or in rates of population growth. I think both will be forced downward; indeed I won't be surprised to see the beginning of global population decline by the middle of this century (about as far as I realistically could hope to live). Sharp declines in US energy consumption associated with declines in standards of living might be forthcoming much sooner than this.

You know, every stage of history for many centuries has seen either utopia or the end of the world just around the corner. And so far, they have all been wrong. In fact, nearly all visions of the future have been phenomenally wrong. When I was born(1961), by the dawn of the 21st Century we were supposed to be either all dead from the global thermonuclear holocaust, or living on the moon and driving flying cars. The world I see around me now doesn't look much like either of these. Our prognostications now will probably prove to be just as far from the mark.

At 7:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, every stage of history for many centuries has seen either utopia or the end of the world just around the corner. And so far, they have all been wrong.

Yes, exactly right. That's why peak oil may not be here yet. Peak birding may still have a ways to go.

The population of agricultural times can be very very large. Look at Bangledesh. Population may instead continue to soar or at least maintain 6 to 10 billion.

Sex is fun and a subsistence food supply is not that hard to come by.

I've almost convinced myself that the end of oil will be the end of the environment. Not it's savior.

We are doomed, Bill.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Bangladesh is fueled by the "Green Revolution," I believe, which is 110% dependent on petroleum derivatives,

Whoever you are (I think I'm going to just disallow anonymous comments from now on; it's too frustrating and annoying not being able to keep track of who is who), you and I are just going back and forth making different variants of the same arguments in alternation. I think we've run the course on this one.


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