Saturday, April 23, 2022

GeoDestinies 2022


Walter Youngquist (1921-2018) was a petroleum geologist, a University of Oregon professor, and my friend.  His life’s masterpiece is a 600 page book that’s now available to everyone as a free PDF download [HERE].  

Geologists study Earth resources, many of which are being degraded and depleted — aquifers, topsoil, hydrocarbons, minerals, etc.  These resources have limits.  Every drinker learns that the glass starts full, ends empty, and the faster you drink it, the quicker it’s gone.  Consumers pay little attention to resource limits, but they’re beginning to comprehend the impact of carbon emissions on the climate.  Mainstream experts repeatedly tell us not to worry.  They preach a fervent blind faith in miracles — a smooth and easy transition to a clean, green, renewable utopia.  Geologists wince. 

Youngquist didn’t believe in miracles or techno utopias.  Today, we’re living dangerously fast by destroying astonishing amounts of nonrenewable resources — a onetime binge that can never again be repeated.  Nonrenewable energy is finite.  We have been soaring in a beautiful dream world, where the air is perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of a nonrenewable prosperity.  The era of cheap energy is fading away in the rear view mirror. 

In 1973, the Eugene newspaper wrote a story about one of his lectures, “Dark Picture Painted by Youngquist.”  He gave many talks to Chamber of Commerce groups, trying to introduce them to the concept of limits.  He was almost never invited back.  America worships perpetual growth at any cost.  Growth is our god word.

In the mid-1990s, a number of the world’s petroleum geologists became alarmed that the volume of new oil discovered was declining, while the volume of consumption continued soaring.  This inspired the dawn of the Peak Oil movement, a wakeup call.  In 1997, Youngquist published GeoDestinies, which quickly sold out.  Folks begged him to print more, but Walt was reluctant.  He wanted to update the info first, but the story was moving faster than he could type. 

Finally, in 2012, he finished the update.  Unfortunately, the process hit some curves.  The book did not get to a printer, Walt died, the publisher went extinct, and the manuscript gathered dust.  In 2022, a small group of fans was able to get a digital copy, and make it available to the world.  Most of the content is still timely and very important.  For most readers, this book is largely going to be a banquet of new information, important stuff that’s rarely taught in school, if ever.

Today, many snicker at the Peak Oil dimwits.  Dudes, we didn’t run out!  We’ll always find more!  In the ’90s, the industry was primarily producing cheap and easy conventional oil (insert a straw and suck).  It appears that the global production of this oil peaked around 2005.  Unfortunately, mad scientists developed new technology for extracting oil, like hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling.  This enabled a sharp increase in the production of unconventional oil from sources including tar sands, heavy oil, shale oil (tight oil), and deep water wells.  This oil was far more challenging and expensive to extract (and the mother of many bankruptcies).

In addition to declining discoveries, a new boogeyman is EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).  It takes energy to extract fossil energy.  For example, a hundred years ago, the EROEI for conventional oil was very high.  Ram a drill into a huge pool of Texas oil, and a geyser of black gold often shot high in the sky.  Today, with the shift toward unconventional oil, the EROEI is far lower and declining.  As the energy needed for extraction approaches the energy content of the output, the industry moves closer to its expiration date.  A lot of fossil energy will be left in the ground forever. 

It took more than 500 million years for geologic forces to transform plant and animal residue into fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas.  It will take less than 500 years for humans to extract it and burn it.  We live during a brief blip in Earth history, an ecological hurricane.  Walt’s core message was a blunt warning.  “The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable.  Large problems lie not very far ahead.  …In some respects, the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth century in reverse.”

The public believes that adequate “renewable” substitutes will be available when needed.  Alternative energy is not clean, green, and free.  The hardware components have limited working lifespans.  Scaling up to replace nonrenewable energy would require vast land area, roads, power lines, and backup for when adequate wind or sunbeams are unavailable.  Manufacturing solar panels requires critical minerals like cobalt, gallium, germanium, indium, manganese, tellu­rium, titanium, and zinc.  Each wind turbine requires tons of concrete, steel, and other resources.

Walt described the alternative energy options, and their many limitations.  He concluded that renewable energy will not come close to replacing fossil energy.  In 2021, Alice Friedemann presented a far more thorough discussion in her book Life After Fossil Fuels.  A renewable utopia seems impossible. 

Oil is just one of many Earth resource topics in Walt’s book.  Plants and animals don’t need it.  Less than 200 years ago, oil was of no great importance to anyone anywhere.  For many thousands of years, nomads wandered across the Arabian Peninsula, under which laid oceans of ancient oil.  It never occurred to them to extract it, burn it, blindside the climate, and race down crowded highways in powerful motorized wheelchairs.  Naturally, in those days, the planet was in far healthier condition.  Then, in the twentieth century, Arabia became very rich, very fast.

Other resources are genuinely essential for the survival of the family of life — soil, water, air, and sunlight.  Of all minerals, soil is the most precious by far.  Fertile soil is created so slowly that, from a human perspective, it’s essentially nonrenewable.  In his book Dirt, geologist David Montgomery wrote, “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East.  With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.”  Peter Salonius studied soil for 44 years.  He concluded that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, was unsustainable. 

The problems associated with soil destruction are widely understood, and widely disregarded.  Nobody became a billionaire by promoting soil conservation.  Globally, billions of tons are lost every year.  Overall, one-third of the soil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.  Half of the excellent topsoil of Iowa is already gone.  The highest quality soil is close to the surface, and the first to erode.  Walt wrote, “Worldwide, the con­tinuing loss of soil and depletion of groundwater is leading humanity directly over the cliff.”   

All life needs water.  Water allows mineral nutrients in the soil to be absorbed by plants.  Your body is about 60 percent water.  In some regions, farms receive adequate water from precipitation.  Other regions require irrigation.  About 17 percent of cropland is irrigated, but it produces 40 percent of the world’s crops. 

Some underground aquifers are unable to recharge as fast as pumps are extracting the water — like the vast Ogallala aquifer in the U.S. midlands.  They are unsustainable water mines.  Several communities in Colorado are (temporarily) drinking from reservoirs of 10,000 year old water.  Forty percent of humankind now lives in regions with chronic water shortages, especially Africans, with their rapidly growing populations. 

When ancient aquifers are depleted, subsidence can occur — the ground sinks, filling the empty space where the water once was.  This makes it impossible for the aquifer to ever refill again.  In some portions of Mexico City, subsidence has lowered the ground surface up to 28 feet (8.5 m), causing much damage.  Irrigation can also lead to the accumulation of salt in the soil, which eventually creates a permanent wasteland.  In the cradle of civilization, the once thriving Tigris Euphrates floodplain is now “a glistening desert of salt.”

Earth resources have played a starring role in world history.  They enable the rise of civilizations, and their limited eras of prosperity.  It’s no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, because they had abundant deposits of coal, iron, and limestone in convenient locations.  The U.S. skyrocketed into a global superpower by exploiting huge deposits of a wide variety of Earth resources.  In World War II, Japan was short on iron, coal, and oil.  Hitler invaded southern Russia in an effort to seize the huge Baku oilfields.

In coming years, as fossil fuel fades out, agriculture will once again be muscle powered and low tech (if the climate crisis allows crop production to continue).  Industrial scale food processing and distribution will fizzle.  Potent synthetic fertilizers and other agrichemicals will no longer be available.  As harvests decline, population growth will shift into reverse. 

Finally, a few footnotes.  GeoDestinies was written on a tiny digital typewriter that allowed files to be saved on a floppy disk.  As Walt typed, the display presented a single line of text.  He never owned a computer, and never had direct access to the internet or email.  He had no spare time.  Finishing this manuscript was job one.

I gave him prints of interesting online stuff, and copies of my book reviews, including Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, and The Little Ice Age.  The Fagan reviews reinforced his belief that climate always changed.  Back in 2012, the notion that human-caused emissions were disrupting the climate was still controversial in the mainstream mindset.

In his 96 years, Walt witnessed remarkable changes in the American standard of living.  These were only possible because of our maniacal binge of energy guzzling.  Modernity’s high standard of living, and fabulous healthcare was awesome.  But the long term environmental impact of these short term benefits was huge.

He lacked some sympathy for environmentalists who opposed energy development projects in America, whilst they were enjoying a comfortable consumer lifestyle.  High impact projects were often diverted to poor nations that had few regulations, if any.  In 2012, Walt was not fully aware of the serious long term hazards of nuclear energy, and the lack of permanent storage for high level radioactive wastes.

Walt was especially horrified by exponential population growth.  In his lifetime, the human mob skyrocketed from 1.9 billion to 7.6 billion.  He was deeply disappointed that overpopulation was a taboo subject for secular and spiritual leaders.  Large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. came from cultures where large families are the norm.  Their dream was to live a maximum impact consumer lifestyle.

Youngquist’s book pulls away cultural blindfolds, and provides a mind-expanding full immersion baptism in the actual facts of life.  “The confluence of factors soon at hand may make this century the most turbulent in human history.  There will be adjustment of population size.  There will be a new energy paradigm.  There will be lifestyle change.  There will be great economic change.  There will be environmental change.  Although change has always been the order of life, the particular confluence of major factors in each of these areas will make the twenty-first century a fundamental turning point for mankind.”

Walt completed the manuscript of the second edition in 2012.  Since then, he wrote four papers for the Negative Population Growth Forum.  Our Plundered Planet (2014), A Geomoment of Affluence (2015), The Scale of Things (2016), Framework of the Future (2016). 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Passenger Pigeon


Once upon a time, North America was home to an estimated five to eight billion passenger pigeons.  They may have been the most numerous bird species in the world.  My father was in diapers when the last one died in 1914.  I was born in Michigan, where immense flocks had once thrived, prior to the invasion of farmers and loggers in the early 1800s.  Today, our culture has largely forgotten the saga of the passenger pigeons.  We still remember the war on bison, which is somehow seen as more heroic and dignified.

Lately, some genetic engineers have been talking about resurrecting the extinct birds.  Huh?  Would that make any sense?  Their natural habitat is long gone, and their return would not be appreciated by farmers, airline pilots, and many others.  Curiosity forced me to read two pigeon books.  It was an illuminating and disturbing experience. 

A. W. Schorger (1884-1972) wrote The Passenger Pigeon, which especially impressed me, because he was totally obsessed with this subject.  He devoted 15 years to research, exploring over ten thousand sources — books, journal articles, newspaper clippings.  He actively sought informants, and corresponded with many old-timers who had been near the front lines in the war on birds.  Passenger pigeons inhabited the eastern U.S., and southeastern Canada.  Wikipedia provides a good overview, and a map of their habitat [HERE]. 

Their primary source of food was mast — nuts, seeds, berries, and fruit produced by trees and woody brush.  The two most important foods were acorns and beechnuts.  Acorns were swallowed whole, and up to 17 could be stored in the bird’s crop.  By morning, they would be digested.  When winter grew old and tired, flocks migrated northward, as the retreating snow exposed a buried treasure of yummy nuts.

Pigeons also raided farms.  In the early days, at planting time, seeds were broadcast by hand (tossed on the ground surface).  Then, hungry flocks would zoom in and eagerly devour them all.  They loved corn and wheat, but buckwheat was their favorite.  Farmers sometimes burned thousands of acres of trees to discourage flocks from roosting close to their fields.  Later, they switched to sowing devices that covered the seeds with soil.

Flocks did not visit the same areas annually, because oak and beech forests did not reliably produce nuts year after year.  Birds might not return to the same place for 11 years.  Nut trees were smart.  By being unpredictable, hungry flocks could not become permanent parasites.  This enabled enough nuts to germinate, sprout, and maintain the survival of the species.  For pigeon flocks, life was a never ending search for free lunches.  They followed their stomachs to delicious locations. 

Observers calculated that enormous flocks zoomed across the sky at about 60 miles per hour (96 km/h).  They constantly scanned the land they flew over, in search of nourishing treasures.  Flocks were most vulnerable when on the ground, where they were prey for predators like wolves, foxes, lynxes, cougars, raccoons, and humans. 

They were far safer when perched in trees, or flying.  Airborne predators included eagles, hawks, and vultures.  A solitary pigeon would have been an easy lunch.  It was much safer to fly within a fast moving mob of a million friends.  Large flocks were not one solid mass, they separated into multiple tiers of birds, layers maybe spaced a foot apart (30 cm).  At high speed, these densely packed clusters moved fluidly in unison — swerving, diving, soaring, and bending.  This made predation difficult.

Large flocks of birds required large amounts of food, so they had to keep moving.  Nights were spent safely roosting in trees.  In the morning, smaller groups scattered across the land to forage.  They might travel 100 miles (160 km) before returning to roost for the night.  If one group discovered a location that contained abundant food, the larger flock would somehow learn this, and join the feast.  When a banquet concluded, the flock took wing and searched for a new place to roost for a while.  Passenger pigeons were nomads, no permanent address.

In Kentucky, observers described a huge roosting site 40 miles (64 km) long, and 3 miles wide.  When large flocks roosted, birds covered every limb, sometimes several layers deep, standing on the backs of others.  Their weight snapped off large limbs.  Sometimes entire trees fell over.  Some forests looked like a tornado had passed through — thousands of acres of dead trees.

Descriptions of migrating flocks, in unbelievable numbers, strain the imagination.  But millions of people saw them.  Flocks often stretched as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon.  They might block out the sun for several days.  People could hear the approach of flock that was still 4 miles (6.4 km) away.  The sound of a million wings was deafening, “like the roar of distant thunder.”  John James Audubon, naturalist and artist, calculated that one flock had more than a billion birds.  Someone else watched a flock in Kentucky that sped across the sky for 14 hours.  It was a mile wide and more than 300 miles (483 km) long.  The flock continued on the following day. 

Roosting sites were inhabited until food in an area became scarce, then the flock moved on.  Nesting sites required a longer stay, so they were located where food resources were especially abundant.  They were close to water, sheltered from the wind, and often on islands.  A vital process was performed at nesting sites, reproduction.  Nests were built in trees, eggs laid, and squabs (chicks) hatched.  Flocks nested at least once a year, and most observers reported that just one egg was laid per nest. 

Nesting sites varied in size, but large colonies were typical.  There was safety in numbers.  Pigeon cities could have a hundred million birds or more.  They might inhabit an area ten miles long and three miles wide (16 by 4.8 km).  Tree limbs were crowded with nests.  If a winter storm blew in, or if hunters began shooting, the entire colony might suddenly abandon their nests and squabs.

Nesting was synchronized.  Colonies gathered and nests were built.  Almost all of the eggs were laid on about the same day.  Parents took turns keeping the squabs warm under wing, while the other parent brought back food.  Squabs grew rapidly, remaining in the nest for 13 to 15 days.  At this point, parents brought squabs their last meal, and then departed from the nesting area in a great mass.  It was up to the squabs to learn how to fly.  They were fairly helpless, and predators were happy to eat them.  Their bodies were loaded with fat. 

Native Americans were grateful for the pigeons.  They caught birds with nets.  Nesting sites were primary locations for getting birds.  They used poles to knock squabs from their nests.  Nesting trees were sometimes cut down to access the numerous squabs.  Tribes collected the fat from squabs, stored it, and used it like butter.  Pigeons played starring roles in tribal myths and legends.  There were taboos against prematurely disturbing nesting sites, and scaring away the adults before the young had hatched. 

Early explorers (1534) reported large passenger pigeon populations.  They were the most common birds on Manhattan Island in the 1620s.  In the 1800s, the tide changed.  Settlers were encouraged to conquer and demolish the wild frontier.  In 1849, free land was given to folks who drained wetlands (prime nesting habitat).  New telegraph systems enabled social networking, announcing the location of nesting sites.  New railroads enabled industrial scale pigeon hunting.  Millions of birds could be quickly shipped from rural areas to big cities.  Sometimes tons of squabs were dumped in the river due to spoilage.  Unsold birds were fed to pigs.

Hunters used ducking guns with six foot barrels, double barrel shotguns, and large blunderbusses.  A single shot might kill 132.  A Wisconsin hunter shot 1,458 birds in one day.  Lads skilled with nets could capture up to 6,000 birds per day.  Many birds were killed for their feathers alone, which were used for bedding.

By the 1870s, bird numbers were obviously declining.  Some folks suggested conservation efforts, but few really gave a <bleep>.  Money makes civilized people crazy, and an ambitious lad could make big money selling squabs for 30¢ a dozen.  The last wild flocks were gone by 1889.  They had been massacred far faster than they could reproduce.  Schorger sighed, “Persecution was unremitting until the last wild bird disappeared.” 

Over and over again, natural history teaches us that genetic evolution works slowly and beautifully.  When the species in an ecosystem coevolve over the course of thousands of years, the journey is far more likely to develop a sense of balance and harmony.  Over and over again, reality teaches us that a society obsessed with wealth and status is a fast path to a dead end.  Why don’t schools teach this?  How can we see where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Schorger, Arlie William, The Passenger Pigeon, 1955, Reprint, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1973.

Greenberg, Joel, A Feathered River Across the Sky, Bloomsbury, New York, 2014.