Monday, June 16, 2008

When to Stop

Remember the spotted owl? I was just a kid when the fight heated up over this little, old-growth-loving bird but I still remember the choice put forth by the logging companies: Owls or jobs. Protecting the owl's habitat, we were told, would cost thousands of loggers their jobs. The thing about this argument is that, even if it was technically true, it was total crap. It wasn't the owl that eliminated those jobs, it was logging. The owls habitat was being protected because most of the old growth-timber in its native range had already been logged.

Old growth is not a very renewable resource. Old-growth trees are typically centuries old and they acquire their sought-after close grain and high density from growing slowly in the shadow of pre-existing, centuries-old trees. Thus, the question is, if the Pacific Northwest had been logged down to a few owl-islands in a little over a century, what were they planning on doing once they'd logged the rest of a resource that takes a good chunk of a millennium to replace? The issue wasn't whether or not to stop logging. It had to stop. The issue was whether to stop before or after destroying an entire ecosystem.

A similar issue stands before us today. Oil prices are rising, apparently as a result of tight-supply in the face of rising world demand. This puts stress on the economy, most directly manifested here in the closing of the GM SUV plant in Janesville. To combat rising oil prices, many would have us drill in areas currently closed to resource exploitation due to environmental sensitivity. We need that oil.

The issue here, again, is that, even if drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve and elsewhere could provide immediate relief (it can't), we'd only slightly postpone the inevitable. We're going to run out of oil and, as production declines and demand continues to rise, it's going to get more expensive. Until SUVs run on something other than gasoline, they're just not going to be that practical. GM would've done well to realize that earlier and re purpose that plant before things got this bad. They didn't.

We will find a way to meet our energy needs without fossil fuels. The choice before us is how much of our world we'll irrevocably destroy before we do.

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