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Why we might not go extinct PDF Print E-mail
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by Alice Friedemann   
07 May 2013
The case against extinction
Image I think the end of fossil fuels and all that they enable us to do, e.g., microchips, global supply chains, etc., has a 95-98% chance of saving us from extinction because:
1. Carbon dioxide and methane will start to go down due to peak oil and coal (Hart, Heinberg, Höök, Nel, Patzek) and natural gas: Shale Oil and Gas Will Not Save Us.
2. Our ability to do any kind of harm to any resource will diminish drastically once oil and oil equivalent fuels diminish because so many large vehicles and any other equipment with combustion engines won’t operate anymore:
• farm tractors will no longer compress and erode topsoil (or grow enough food to feed 7+ billion people)
• earth moving machines will no longer harvest coal and other minerals and metals
our roads, bridges, airports, and docks will last less than 100 years because we didn’t build anything with cement to last over a century (unlike Roman cement, which is still going strong). We won’t have the energy to rebuild or maintain most of our infrastructure
• It will be much harder to chop down (rain)forests with roads crumbling and large trucks gone
• There won’t be ships that can go to the ends of the earth to harvest the last schools of fish. Marine reserves have often restored fish populations faster than anyone expected.
• due to lack of fuel, future world wars or world war on the scale of WWI & II will not be possible. Wars will be far more local, more like pre-WWI.
• Although biodiversity loss will probably increase initially as anyone with a gun goes out hunting, that’s likely to change because the people who live where hunters can get to on foot or bicycle will defend their territory. The same goes for fishing and foraging.
3. The book “The Earth Without Us” gives me great hope that the earth will recover rather rapidly.
4. In 2075 when sea levels start to rise, so many people will have already died off from the decline in fossil fuels that there will be plenty of room for coastal dwellers to move to
5. The loss of our ability to make microchips and breakdown in supply chains will be nearly as important as the loss of oil in rapidly changing civilization back to wood-based energy, and also increase the rate and numbers of people dying.

I don’t want to diminish the suffering and tragedy of between 3 and 7 billion people dying, of climate change wreaking harm for thousands of years, and the loss of much of the amazing scientific understanding we have of the world since so much of it is being preserved digitally instead of on a more permanent physical substance (i.e. imprinted on thin metal sheets, etc.).

Even though even a small nuclear war would kill over 1 billion people, and a nuclear EMP even more, the ozone would recover after 5 years, many people around the equator will be fine, others will have stockpiled enough food to get by.

All of the 9 planetary boundaries will diminish as human population declines from lack of fossil fuels. Peak phosphorous will come even sooner without fossil-fuel driven vehicles and equipment to harvest and transport it.

This is too big a topic to list every factor and how it might turn out as you can see from the menu items in Decline and Collapse at energyskeptic.com. Yes, extinction is a possibility if too many of these happen at once over just a few centuries.

But since both human population and energy resources are likely to decline exponentially rather quickly, we won’t be able to do the harm we are now, to the planet or ourselves, and that has a good chance of saving us from extinction.

* * * * *

References

Hart, Phil. 15 Nov 2010. Oil Demand to Decline in the West, according to International Energy Agency, on The Oil Drum

Heinberg, R., Fridley, D. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Nature 468, 367-369 (18 November 2010) doi:10.1038/468367a

Höök, M., Sivertsson, A. & Aleklett, K. “Validity of the fossil fuel production outlooks in the IPCC Emission Scenarios” Natural Resources Research, 2010, Vol. 19, Issue 2: 63-81

Nel and Cooper (2009) Implications of fossil fuel constraints on economic growth and global warming, Energy Policy 37: 166-180.

Patzek, T, Croft, G. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35 (2010) 3109e3122

New York Times: "shale gas drilling is a Ponzi scheme" Leaked Industry E-Mails and Reports on natural gas supply.

Alice Friedmann published the above article on her website Energy Skeptic on May 3, 2013. She has had several articles on Culture Change and the Sail Transport Network websites.

Comments (16)Add Comment
That's an optimistic assessment! However, a decline in fossil fuels is just that, a decline, not a falling off a cliff. Though very rapid decline may happen, if global societies collapse quickly, it is at least as likely that the decline will be slow enough that considerable damage will continue to be made to our environment for decades (if we have that long). Regarding global warming, some think that we will need emissions to drop of a cliff after 2020 if nothing significant is done to limit emissions by then, to avoid climate catastrophe.

I'm not sure why the author refers to "The Earth Without Us" in an article about why humans may not go extinct. To humans, it doesn't really matter if the earth will recover (which presumably means that life on earth will recover, since the earth doesn't "care" whether it hosts life or not), since there would be no humans for it to matter to.

Sea levels are already rising (and accelerating) so I'm not sure what the reference to 2075 seeing the start of sea level rise is about.
Tony
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Sorry, but near-term human extinction still looks likely to me, unless we take some drastic actions that don't look likely yet.

Global warming may have been triggered by human-generated carbon emissions, but it now has several other causes as well, which will continue long after human emissions cease. All the carbon that's already in the atmosphere is going to stay there a long time before it breaks down. And some of the consequences of warming are themselves causes -- i.e., we're in a feedback loop: The polar ice is melting, and thus lowering earth's albedo. The trees and phytoplankton (our sources of oxygen) are dying, and thus changing from carbon sinks to sources. The oceans and permafrost are warming, and releasing their methane. Feedback loops cause not only self-perpetuating warming, but accelerating warming, faster than the plants and animals can adapt. They're dying off. Soon we'll starve, or perhaps asphyxiate.

The only hope I see for our survival is if we implement new technologies to take large amounts of carbon OUT of the atmosphere. But I believe that can only happen BEFORE we lose all our technology, and AFTER we end the rule of short-term private profit. Thus, we need a revolution. I prefer the Lennonist (not Leninist) variety.
Eric Schechter
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I'm no fan of near-term human extinction, but the evidence is quite overwhelming. From Nature Bats Last (http://guymcpherson.com/2013/0...nd-update/): "On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell's 2008 synthesis in the Guardian). According to an informed assessment of BP's Energy Outlook 2030, published in January 2013, global average temperature of Earth will hit the 4 C mark in 2030."
Guy McPherson
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I guess this article is a good news-bad news proposition. Depends on to what degree of misanthropism one follows. It is my hope that if nothing else, if the predictions of the author is correct, all these damn ubiquitous, annoying, alienating, isolating, mind-numbing, soul-deadening, zombie behavior-inducing electronic devices will be gone and people will have no choice but to return to real face-to-face communication, and once again live with peace and quiet. That alone can be the salvation of our species's sanity...or what's left of it. I realize this is a minority opinion, based on my observations of the pervasive obsession with/addiction to these distracting toys. I continually shake my head in disbelief and incredulity at what I see in every direction, feeling very much like I've been abducted and transported to an alien planet. A reasonably sane person held captive in an assylum. The world increasingly resembles a Twilight Zone episode. Is anyone else out there who feels similarly or am I nothing but a curmudgeon alter cocker stuck in the past yearning for simplicity? My two cents.

Ron Landskroner - Oakland, CA
Ron Landskronre
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Alice, I appreciate your website and have been subscribed for a while, but honestly I think this post is wishful thinking because it just isn't based on science. For instance, right at the top you write this:

"Carbon dioxide and methane will start to go down due to peak oil and coal".

That simply isn't accurate. The initial forcing of climate change in the modern era is the burning of fossil fuels releasing CO2. Unfortunately this has already released a monster, and that monster is the amplifying feedback of melting Arctic ice and permafrost, to say nothing of the ultimate warming of the methane clathrates in the ocean floors. If we voluntarily stopped burning fossil fuels today, it would not halt or even slow this inexorable process which is no longer in our control. This is already releasing methane, the heat-trapping properties of which dwarfs CO2, and it is an exponentially increasing trend. Thus no, peak oil will not cause methane emissions to go down, they are going to increase no matter what.

So without going down the entire list, this one aspect of climate change alone is sufficient to demonstrate that peak oil is not going to save us (to say nothing of what will happen when people can't afford to extract oil, which is that they will burn every remaining tree). Total climate chaos is already a done deal, the ultimate virulence of which is being masked by inertia in the system (deep oceans absorbing heat and CO2) and sulphate pollution that reflect UV radiation. When we stop burning fuel, the sulphates will disappear as well, and the average temperature will rachet up dramatically. If you haven't seen the documentary Global Dimming, it will put the situation in a stark perspective. If you google witsendnj insidious soup it should come up, the link triggers your spam filter.

With the best of intentions,

Gail
Gail
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Here's why the author refers to "The Earth Without Us," Tony: If regeneration and renewal are still with us, that healthy state bodes well for humans. In any case, we care about other species and not just the human story. - Jan Lundberg
janLundberg
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The effects of economic collapse will be felt before peak oil, limiting our activities far sooner than most anticipate. I largely agree with Alice, other than to suggest the time primacy of financial crisis (which actually strengthens Alice's point). I disagree with the extinction scenario, particularly with regard to the timescale for profound change of large scale systems. Only virtual systems change so quickly, which is why finance is such a major threat.

My concern over the increasing fear-mongering around this issue is that one of four responses are most likely if climate apocalypse becomes out primary focus - a financialized carbon trading ponzi scheme, massive hubristic geo-engineering, eco-fascism or an orgy of destruction of industrial infrastructure. In my opinion, all of these would achieve maximum harm while achieving no good at all. This kind of fearful stance is also quite likely to disempower the very people who's small-scale constructive actions might actually make a difference in the aggregate, by telling them they can't make a difference anyway. Why should they bother then?

Fear hits the zeitgeist in times of contraction, and therefore gets a lot of traction, but fear takes collective action in harmful directions rather than positive ones. Fear is highly contagious. We need to fight it, to keep the focus on the constructive actions which are possible. In doing so, we may be able keep people from wallowing in depression and despair, and keep them from granting political mandates to fascists of all kinds. Feeding fear is profoundly unhelpful. Informing, along with providing a road map for constructive action at a local scale, is all we can really do that has a chance of achieving something other than a ghastly future. Even if the odds are rather low, it's better to do something potentially useful than nothing, and far better to do that than to make everything worse than it need have been by taking destructive action.

I'll be writing a full essay on this topic at The Automatic Earth once my current lecture tour is over.
Nicole Foss
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I recently saw the Guy McPherson video and McPherson himself answered questions afterwards.
The professor emeritus was quite calm and lucid when he describes complete human extinction within our lifetimes and that it was impossible to stop it. Most of the audience was already familiar with his story and apparently accepting of their fate. Nobody cried or screamed; it was a quiet wake for humanity.

His main advice was to hurt the earth as little as possible and be kind to all life. Now that is good advice for any occasion. But it bothered me a great deal. This is dismissing humans as weak, ineffectual and incapable of intelligent survival. Humans in war torn third world countries with disease, little food or clean water have survived. These survivors were already impoverished with scant resources. How? The instinct of self preservation, that's how. We were built to survive. There is an old quote, " A hanging in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully!" We are not being hanged tomorrow, we will survive.
Gene Kimzey
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My apologies for coarse english language of mine, it's not native. And for typos, i typed in a hurry. Hopefully it won't obstacle proper understanding.

1. Both CO2 and methane are likely to go up, not down, once most of global industrial civilization of ours shuts down, because:
- it is well known fact that historically (last couple hundred thousands years), CO2 levels correlated precisely with temperature. Temperature is expected to rise much higher after industrial civilization collapse (realization of thermal inertia of (mainly) oceans, rapid reduction and disappearance of presently obvious "global" dimming in a few years by settling down of large amount of man-made athmospheric aerosols such as soot). Known estimates tell that temperature will go up roughly 2...5 degrees celcius if mankind would magically disappear tonight. This will most likely be even higher at the time of shutting down of global industrial civilization. So, if correlation between temperature and CO2 will remain the same (and it likely will), then with further increasing temperatures, CO2 athmospheric content will also increase on its own;
- it is well known that one of most important natural CO2 "sinks" - is Life. Both in ocean and on land, living things such as green plants and some microorganisms "breathe" CO2 just like we humans breath oxygen. Given expeceted amplitude and, most importantly, unprecedented for existing life speed of temperature increase around the globe - this CO2 sink, i mean Life, will most likely have its efficiency (in this regard) reduced dramatically. Oh, and most of it will die, too - just a sidenote;
- clathrate gun hypothesis - which in my opinion is not a hypothesis, but a sad reality once most of June-July ice cover above vast, shallow Arctic ocean shelves will disappear (i expect is to happen in some 8...12 years). Estimated amount of methane hydrates (clathrates) not deep under sea bed of those shallow Arctic ocean shelves is above 1100 gigatons. This much was accumulated in sediments there during last few (3...4) millions years, during that time the long trend was very gradual cooling (something about 0.8 degrees C per 1 million years average), and glaciation cycles had those shallow shelves turning from sea to land back and forth. Much of that methane will end up in the athmosphere during next few centuries, and significant portion - during initial few decades couple years after said shallow Arctic ocean shelves will start to be hit by massive directly absorbed by water insolation during June and July - without reflective ice cover (which until now was always there at this time of the year - when insolation in Arctic, due to Polar day, is higher than anywhere else on the planet).
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F.Tnioli
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2. I agree that our ability to do harm would be greatly diminished without motor fuel. However,
- it is unclear how far mankind would go in its desire to get more motor fuel, and
- it is unclear wrether there would be anything remaining to do any big harm to once mankind finally runs out of fuel.
First half of my doubts is based on:
- during WW2, when Hitler needed much fuel for his tank armies but did not have sufficient oil suply, much fuel (we are talking powering whole tank armies of his) was made out of coal. The technology since then was improved, but remained relatively expensive due to obvious chemical costs of turning "dirty carbon" (coal) into hydrocarbons on a massive scale. However, just like nazi war machine, modern industrial civilization will resort to making fuel out of coal instead of just giving up, i have no doubt about it. Why this important is simple: economically extractable coal reserves are vastly larger than economically extractable oil reserves;
- today, more than 1 billion people are starving - yet in the same time, significant percent of world's cultivated lands are used to grow crops which then turned into biofuel. So in some sense, mankind is willing to make more fuel out of lives of those who starve to death. This is present day truth. How worse it'll get once oil and coal - anything even remotely extractable - would dry up?
Second half of my doubts here is based on:
- i have some basic idea about remaining reserves of oil, gas and coal. Very roughly speaking, there are enough of those to have all the exhaust pipes, jet turbines, tractors and diesels etc to work for at least 50 more years, possibly 80. I also have some basic idea of how much harm ~40 years of present-day burning (say roughly 35Gt CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels) is - because since the beginning of industrial revolution, mankind burned roughly that much, ~40 years worth of fuels at current rate. So we talk some doubling...tripling of harmful effects from fossil fuel burning before fossils run out. It might well be completely enough to launch Earth climate to some +10...+12 degrees celcius state by 2100, destroy some 95%...99.7% of existing species, and render most of land surface uninhabitable for human sapiens in particular. And i quite expect that to happen, to be honest. After it happens, i doubt any remaining humans would be any glad they can't harm the world anymore; because the world would be in ruin already. Indeed, how happy you can be that your kid ran out of matches, if before he did, your house burned down nearly completely - except, say, your basement, which is still in relatively good shape?

3. I definitely agree that Earth will recover. Thing is, it'll take some millions of years for her to do so. For Earth, few millions years is nothing; it exists for 4+ billions of years already, and is expected to exist for even more than that into the future. But for us, even few thousands years is a long, long time. And from where we stand today, next few thousands years look quite very grim. Like one well known scientist said (sorry i forgot who it was) - "future generations will be saying: "dark ages started in 21st century"".
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F.Tnioli
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4. Sea level rise is accelerating already, but so far by relatively modest amounts. Once clathrate gun goes off, though, it won't take many years for sea level rise to jump up from a few millimeters a year to above 1 centimeter a year and further accelerating. Still, masses of ice to melt which would add many meters to sea level - are very extremely huge, and amount of energy to melt 1kg of ice is relatively very large - as it takes same amount of energy to heat 1kg of water from 0 degrees celcius to 83 degrees celcius. Thus, even in a world where polar areas are becoming subtropically warm at 2nd half of the summer - it'll take many decades at very least, more likely a few centuries to melt most of Greenland ice cap and much of Antarctic ice, and thus raise sea level by dozens meters (eventually 70+ meters once both Greenland and Antarctic continent would become nearly ice-free during summers). In late parts of this process, large water discharges and/or huge "regions" of ice sliding down into the ocean is possible, thus creating a wave of biblical proportions (great flood legend is likely to originate from massie melt water and ice discharge during last deglaciation). But early on, we most likely will see a few centimeters sea level rise every year during 2040s...2080s, and this is not a thing which could make us extinct at all. Too slow, humans react much faster than this rise. Many will die, losing their land and food growth etc, true, but mankind won't extinct to this indeed. Though those who would try to move from the ocean inland may well find even more hostile environment by the time sea level would become a big threat - in a rapidly warming world, desertification is projected to become a major killer and much more spred land type. Professor Dai's PDSI research, for example, indicates that when the world will go about +4 degrees celcius average, most of western Europe, nearly all of southern Europe, much of Asia, North America, Australia, and even large areas in South America would become deserts. Ocean, with all its acidification we did and do, will still remain very efficient thermal modulator, provider of at least minor food and tools' source, and noticeable amount of power if some communities would manage to remain civilized enough to harness it (at least tidal power in its most primitive forms).

5. Microchips is not the only alternative to paper. There are other forms of information technologies - those were once tried but today are much forgotten. But do not worry. Once microchips go away, there will be large number of "very poor IT man substitute" for chips. Mechanical gadgets, things powered by steam (wood fired), or good old windmills, or water flows, or simple electric designs. See, the beauty and power of basic physics ain't to be underestimated. Millions of people worldwide are now familiar with basic laws, formulated by Ohm, Faradei, Maxwell, Amper etc etc - and there are still remaining, and will remain long enough, millions of school books about such stuff (well may be in most "digitized" countries it'll be some dozens thousands books surviving till when global civilization starts to shut down - but in many poor countries, it'll be millions alright). I dare to think that microchips' importance is definitely overestimated. Just one single example: man went to space in 1961, which means that rockets and space ships able to reach more than 6km/s speed were built (that's more than 21000 KMH!). And it was done WITHOUT microchips, - Jack Kilby, who got Nobel prize for invention of microchips, was demonstrating 1st working prototype of a microchip to Texas Instruments company 12 september 1958 - after 1st man-made Earth satellite was launched, and after most of design works for manned space flight rocket and ship was made. Cool, eh?

Bottom line. I wish the author of the article very best, it seems to me you are going right direction, Alice. But there is so much to learn to udnerstand the world properly. See, world and biosphere and Life is so big, so complex, that it takes very much effort and knowledge to even hope to grasp at least macro-level tendencies and attempt to compile very basic, yet hopefully indeed correct, conclusions. I don't pretend being able to do so myself, it's just some few things i already learned that i felt i can share here.

Best of luck to us all indeed, we'll very much need it.
F.Tnioli
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Even under the "best-case" scenario survival will be tricky and often unpleasant. Humanity is resilient and resourceful, but it will take a lot of thoughtful effort to keep ourselves going. One benefit of the crash of high technology will be less opportunity to fritter away our time in these sorts of disembodied debates.
izzy
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I doubt it would be a "benefit" if we will have less opportunity to "fritter away our time in these sorts of disembodied debates", Izzy. Because the crash of high technology inevitably brings in massive reduction in carrying capacity. This is true for both global and regional catastrophies, and for both "quick" and "slow" kinds, too (except ones which are extremely very slow - happening in entirety over a span of many human generations, i.e. centuries).

And when carrying capacity drops, then it always ends up talking to each other at a gun point - and in case of gib collapses, "guns" get correspondedly big, too (missiles, bombs, tanks - all the toys of war).

It may seem right now that modern, civilized, 1st-world people are WELL beyond such barbarian things; however, this is only an illusion, apparently: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09...html?_r=2&

Granted, most likely (99.9999%), this here discussion won't result in any noticeable global change for the good; although some few particular persons might end up substantially better exactly because they have been reading this "disembodied debate" - i mean, who knows, it's possible, isn't it? Still, even 0.00001% is better than 0.0% - and when it'll be crowds fleeing and people talking at a gun point (if at all), then it definitely will be 0.0%.

Think about it.
F.Tnioli
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Civilization has left deserts in its footsteps for 10,000 years without fossil fuels. The writer should go on a trip to the middle east, Mediterranean or north Africa. The old growth forests of the eastern United States and pacific northwest were gone before Henry Ford rolled the model A off the assembly line. Civilization if unstopped will leave this planet a desert.
Chuck Burr
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I guess one down side to running out of oil is that humans may once again slaughter every living thing on the planet to try and replace what they lost with oil. If not for the use of oil whales would probably be extinct today. The treachery that humans can inflict on the planet and everything on it knows no limits!
Charlie Bucket
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Did you consider the genetical human manipulation to adapt part of the rich (?) humans to new climate and special habilities?
Silvio Matos
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