Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

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Inevitability and oil, Pt. 2: the “end of oil” and human empathy

Never thought I’d actually get around to a Pt. 2, eh?  Well, I’ve shown you!  Here’s the first part: Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology

For decades now economists and scientists have predicted the “end of oil:” the day when we use up our oil reserves, potentially resulting in economic collapse, starvation, chaos, you know, the apocalypse, whatever.  It’s a strange science – part speculative geology (if you can imagine such a thing!), part economic theory, and at least 2 parts anxiety.

Why is the “end of oil” such a problem?  It is well summarized in Wolfgang Haber’s 2007 leading article in Environmental Science and Pollution Research: our dependence on fossil fuels is an “ecological trap.”  While it is easy to consider our species as above competition, as we now dominate the planet, we have reached this state as simple organisms trying to out-compete others and maintain (and expand) our own population.

How did we do this so successfully?  First of all, we are the only organism (as far as I know) that obtains energy from an external source: that is, through fire.  Our ability to burn various substrates (initially wood, moving onto fossil fuels such as coal and oil later) allowed us to expand our range and create accessibility to new food sources through cooking.  Thus the first ecological trap: to maintain our current population, we need to have something to burn.  Forests and wood are sustainable to a point, but with our current population, we’d go through our reserves pretty quickly.

According to Haber, the second major “ecological trap” is farming.  The switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture created a human dependence on soil (easily nutrient-depleted by farming itself) as well as space devoted to farming.  Once again, the advent of large-scale agriculture allowed our population to boom, and created a niche for people who don’t need to work – such as scholars – but now we are wholly dependent upon outside food.  Could you forage for yourself if needed?

And thus, while our species has outcompeted all others, we are trapped in a sense: bound to fuel for fire, and bound to soil which is not easily replenished at the rate of its use.

Traditionally, drilling for oil and mining have not held too many moral questions.  The main question has been, “what are we going to do when we run out?”  After all, these fossil fuels are not being used by other species, and their removal doesn’t seem to have any effects on ecosystems.  But after the BP oil spill (as with the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and suggestions of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge), there has been an outcry to reduce our dependence on oil not for our species’s own survival, but rather because of the damage we do to other species.  That while drilling in and of itself may not be harmful, its effects can be.

From here I will overview some of the typical outlooks on what will happen at the end of oil, and then provide some reflection on conservation as an argument for reducing drilling.

Anthropocentrism: the viewpoints on the end of oil (briefly)

In his 2007 article in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Imre Szeman asks whether or not the “end of oil” is truly a disaster – a disaster for humankind, or just the status quo of our society.  He outlines the 3 central ways that people think about the end of oil.

  1. Strategic Realism.  This viewpoint is held by those deeply invested in maintaining the current economic and political spheres of our species.  The questions asked are more about how the political structure of the world will change with the “end of oil,” and finding solutions to keep the current powers and countries of the world in balance.  To quote Szeman, “Those who employ [this viewpoint] – and it is a discourse employed widely by government and the media alike – suspend or minimize concerns about the cumulative environmental disaster of oil or the fact that oil is disappearing altogether, and focus instead on the potential political and economic tensions that will inevitably arise as countries pursue their individual energy security in an era of scarcity.”
  2. Techno-utopianism. Techno-utopianism and strategic realism often go hand in hand: it is the discourse of dreamers who believe that science and technology will provide new access to oil and new technologies, which will enable us to maintain the capitalist economy.  Our lifestyles will not change, but rather we will simply replace oil with a new form of energy, such as nuclear or hydrogen.  It relies heavily on the idea that scientific innovation is just around the corner – that our solutions will arrive in time.
  3. Apocalyptic environmentalism.  The apocalyptic environmentalists follow a different train of thought: that the “end of oil” will change everything.  That social and political change will not only come, but will be necessary – that the carrying capacity of the planet will fall, standard of living will fall, and there is nothing to be done about it.  The difference between this viewpoint and the others is that it serves a pedagogical purpose, as Szeman explains: that we need to change our actions now, moving towards a “simpler, non-affluent way of life.”

The role of Homo sapiens in conservation

These viewpoints, all of which you’ve probably witnessed, are all anthropocentric in nature.  And this makes sense – we are a species trying to compete, and right now a resource we’re dependent upon is threatened.  We need to think about how we, Homo sapiens, are going to survive this.

While economists often like to talk about the “end of oil,” I don’t have a good feel for the public mindset on the topic.  While the “sustainability movement” is picking up speed, it often feels to be, frankly, bullshit sold at Whole Foods wrapped in 10 layers of plastic packaging to make people feel better about themselves.  I can tell you this: I hadn’t noticed so much attention aimed toward ending our oil dependence until we saw pictures of pelicans covered in oil right in our own backyard, our own fishing grounds, affecting our own people in the BP oil spill.

While a competitive species should be concerned about this for their own sake, this recent rise in “oil awareness” is instead due to the harm we’re causing other species.

I’ve had many discussions lately about the anthropocentrism of our species, and how that affects the ways we view our environment.  Some argue that conservation, while seeming altruistic, is actually the wrong way to think about the environment.  That species have gone extinct for millennia; that invasive species do not exist; that the preservation of our environment is based on how we view “nature” and not how it functions itself.  (See this comic for a simple representation.)  That our care for nature or animals is selfish in itself, as they are symbols for how we view nature and places that we value aesthetically.  Some even suggest that we give up on conservation efforts altogether and let evolution and nature take their course, even if it means our own extinction.

The response to the oil spill has shown that this empathy for other organisms (a sense which we evolved, I might add) may have more motivating power than our own survival.  That our desire to assist those in struggle – whether they be oiled birds or starving people – creates a greater response than the thought that, sometime in the future, we may have to drastically change our lifestyles.  This may be due to its immediacy, as we can save a bird RIGHT NOW but adjusting our carbon footprint or energy use will not have effects in the short-term.  After all, as I said earlier, we are a competitive species: while ideally we all agree that preserving the status quo for our children is a good idea, we still are selfish and need to succeed the best we can now, so those good intentions are often left to the wayside.

While I do agree that we cannot save every species and that natural selection must take its course, I also consider that we evolved empathy.  Homo sapiens have an instinct to try and help each other, other organisms, and “nature” generally, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense competitively.  I, however, think it makes perfect sense: we need these resources in order to survive.  We need a sense of the importance of “nature” and a drive to conserve it for our own good.  The fact that we can “feel their pain” gives us an incentive to save them, and thus preserve our own resources.

So to those who look down on empathizing with nature?  I say: haters gonna hate.  We need a reason to reduce oil dependency, encourage technological innovation, rethink our society in order to continue to compete as a species.  Clearly the thought of the “environmental apocalypse” isn’t a good enough motivator.  If our empathy with hurt animals or disgust at our own species for ruining “perfect nature” is the cause, so be it.  We need a reason, any reason.  I say let’s follow our instincts and try to make change, if not for ourselves, then for the pelicans. Haber, W. (2007). Energy, food, and land — The ecological traps of humankind Environmental Science and Pollution Research – International, 14 (6), 359-365 DOI: 10.1065/espr2007.09.449

Kerr, R. (1998). GEOLOGY:The Next Oil Crisis Looms Large–and Perhaps Close Science, 281 (5380), 1128-1131 DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5380.1128

Szeman, I. (2007). System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster South Atlantic Quarterly, 106 (4), 805-823 DOI: 10.1215/00382876-2007-047

Written by Hanner

August 5, 2010 at 10:21 am