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Peak oil and wildlife

By T. Vjayendra and Shashank Srinivasan


Wildlife across the world is endangered due to habitat loss caused as a by-product of modern human society in the past 200 years. Most attempts at conservation have been unsuccessful in the face of the consumerist juggernaut because they are being carried out without questioning industrial society or its attitude towards nature, which is to conquer and exploit it. Peak Oil implies that the production of petroleum products has reached a peak and will decline in the immediate future. It endangers the very material basis of industrial societies – that of concentrated energy – and heralds the end of industrial society. While this creates the possibility of saving wildlife by reducing habitat loss, it will depend on how societies respond to peak oil. In societies which do not wish to reduce energy consumption or ensure equitable distribution of energy, wildlife may become further endangered. In societies where a modern socialist agenda (i.e. to reduce consumption with equitable distribution) exists, such as in Cuba, wildlife may gain by default. However wildlife will flourish only in those societies where there is an inner change, a change in attitude towards nature itself. Transition towns, ecological villages and small groups of people practising organic farming hold this promise.

Wildlife Conservation is failing

As we all know the main issue in conservation is habitat loss. What is habitat loss? It is the huge land cover change (LCC) – the substitution of natural habitats such as forests, swamps or wetlands, and grasslands by crop land, pasture, roads and urban areas. About 75% of the Earth’s ice-free surface shows some evidence of human alteration.

LCC causes many environmental problems. It is the principal cause of species extinction. Nowadays, 25 percent of all mammal species, 13 percent of all bird species and 41 percent of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction. Agriculture alone represents about 38 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface. The expansion of agriculture in the last few decades has occurred mainly in the tropics. The tropical forests sustain about half of the planets’ species although they occupy only 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface. (1).

The main reason for this LCC or habitat loss is our industrial civilization. The mantra of industrial society is development and growth at all costs. Its attitude towards nature is to conquer and exploit it.

Our conservation efforts are not succeeding and the tribe of conservationists is not increasing, because most of us are obliged to work within the system. Most registered NGOs get government aid and most governments, at least for the past 20 years or so, are dedicated to the growth paradigm.

We can do little about it. In fact barring a few notable exceptions none of us are able to do much about it. Three things need to happen to enable us to do anything worthwhile at a significant scale. The first is the end of industrial society, the second is a transition to a society based on lower energy and equity and the third is to change humanity’s attitude towards nature.

Peak Oil A Silver Lining

The material basis for industrial society is a concentrated source of energy or fossil fuels. The industrial revolution began with coal in the 19th century, and in the 20th century has moved on to oil or to be more precise, petroleum products as its energy source. Fossil fuels are non-renewable finite resources and are thus exhaustible. Unless another energy source is found, this heralds the end of industrial society.

So what exactly is ‘Peak Oil’- which is likely to lead to the end of the industrial era? At the present rate of consumption, all available oil will be used up within this century. But peak oil is not about when we run out of oil, but rather, when the production of oil starts to decline, and this peak has already been reached.

The Peak Oil crisis began with the rise in petroleum prices. For some time the figure of USD 100/- per barrel of crude has been considered to be the turning point. On November 21, 2007 oil price hit USD 99. In 2008 it reached USD 147, ushering in an economic crisis – a recession in North America, Europe and Japan. This economic crisis, as we know, is leading to a worldwide collapse of the financial system. After the housing crisis, there was the financial meltdown, then the debt crisis in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal. More recently the mass movements in West Asia have once again sent oil prices soaring upwards. Today with the prospect of Greece leaving the EU, Europe is heading towards a deeper crisis. Due to global recession, the demand for oil and therefore its price tends to fall. Still it will never go back to old prices. It is currently hovering around USD 100.

The empire is imploding and collapsing. Whether the collapse comes in a couple years or a decade is not predictable. There are too many fast changing variables, the most important being the people’s struggle against it and the vision of an alternative society. But irrespective of the date, the world has to face either chaos or prepare for a transition to a society based on lower energy and equity. Such a society will have different forms in different parts of the world depending upon their history. What does it hold for wildlife?

Can Peak Oil Help Conservation?

If the industrial collapse occurs, it is tempting to speculate that many ills of such a society will go away. For example with the fall of industrial activity, carbon dioxide emission will fall and global warming will get restricted. The ill effects of the past few decades cannot be wiped out but the future will be safer for all life on earth. Similarly further habitat loss may not occur and indeed wildlife habitat can even increase.

For example Detroit, the auto industry capital in USA had a population of two million four years ago. With the US crisis, the auto industry in Detroit collapsed and the population got reduced to a mere 90,000. Today in large areas of Detroit wildlife has come back and people are hunting there. Several small films about wildlife in Detroit can be seen on the Internet.

But as we said, whether there will be chaos or a smooth transition depends a lot upon human society. We will consider three different possibilities and try to visualize where and how it will happen with reference to wildlife:

  1. Where it will worsen conservation efforts
  2. Where conservation will occur by default
  3. Where wildlife will  flourish

Where it will Worsen Conservation Efforts

Many scientists believe that the time for action is over and we are facing ‘Apocalypse Soon!’ A recent article in Scientific American outlines the possibility of such a scenario.

‘Four decades ago, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer model called World3 warned of such a possible course for human civilization in the 21st century. In Limits to Growth, a bitterly disputed 1972 book that explicated these findings, researchers argued that the global industrial system has so much inertia that it cannot readily correct course in response to signals of planetary stress. But unless economic growth skidded to a halt before reaching the edge, they warned, society was headed for overshoot-and a fall that could kill billions. Dennis Meadows, professor emeritus of systems policy at the University of New Hampshire who headed the original M.I.T. team and revisited World3 in 1994 and 2004, has an even darker view. The 1970s program had yielded a variety of scenarios, in some of which humanity manages to control production and population to live within planetary limits (described as Limits to Growth). Meadows contends that the model’s sustainable pathways are no longer within reach because humanity has failed to act accordingly.’

“We’re in for a period of sustained chaos whose magnitude we are unable to foresee,” Meadows warns. He no longer spends time trying to persuade humanity of the limits to growth. Instead, he says, “I’m trying to understand how communities and cities can buffer themselves” against the inevitable hard landing. (2)

What does this imply for human society and for wildlife? For human society there will be chaos and a scramble for remaining resources – the best high density fuel remaining is charcoal. Whole forests will be burnt to make charcoal to serve the ruling class. Evidently the poor will resist and while they are trying to survive, a period of lawlessness can occur.

There will be no funds for conservation efforts and wildlife habitats will be plundered even more at a faster rate. It will be a grim period lasting maybe several decades and once humanity will exhaust itself, a recovery may occur.

It is difficult to say how this scenario will unfold, but it will definitely take place in some parts of the world and unfortunately it might happen in large parts of our country too.  However as humans, we are optimistic and so let us look at some more optimistic scenarios:

Conservation can occur by Default

It is possible that in some countries social revolution can occur with an explicit aim of reducing energy consumption and equality. It is not an impossible dream. There is already a living example of it: Cuba.

Cuba is a small country in the Caribbean, with a population of about 11 million. In 1959 they had a revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The original revolutionary agenda, like that of most socialist revolutions – like that in Soviet Union, China, Vietnam etc. was industrialisation with equity. But in 1989 something happened!

Because of the US embargo, the Soviet Union was the only source of oil for Cuba. In 1989, the Soviet system had begun to collapse, and Cuba stopped receiving petroleum from the Soviets. Cuba is where “Peak Oil” hit in 1989 – in an artificial manner – because in the world as a whole, there was no shortage of oil.  The year 1989 ushered in the ‘Special Period’ in Cuba, a scenario that has hit the rest of the world now. In the case of Cuba we can see the whole experience of Peak oil, economic crisis and recovery. Even with regards to global warming, which has become a major crisis now, Cuba has achieved all the goals of reducing its carbon emissions. Thus Cuba has lessons for all on how to meet the present challenge.

The special period in Cuba is like a real time model; large enough to prove its viability (3). How did wildlife fare in Cuba? Since consumption declined sharply and Cuba has taken the path of scaling down with equity, our contention is that wildlife has flourished by default.

Wildlife in Cuba

Below we give an excerpt from an article in the National Geographic Magazine to give an idea of the status of wildlife in Cuba.

‘A horizon of pink pulled us forward until our quarry came clearly into view: some 70,000 nesting Caribbean flamingos and countless chicks, the largest colony of these magnificent birds in the Western Hemisphere. That moment redeemed the day for me and for my friend Juan Soy, who called our visit to the breeding ground spectacular. A biologist at the University of Havana, Soy works with Cuba’s flora and fauna division to help oversee 48 of the country’s 263 protected natural areas, which cover nearly 22 percent of Cuba’s territory.

The critical nesting ground recently became one of six places in Cuba added to Ramsar Convention’s list of Wetlands of International Importance. The site’s daunting inaccessibility may be its salvation. The same could be said of Cuba’s vast-and largely unknown-natural riches.

Cuba is a place of unimagined biodiversity. Cuba is another Galapagos, preserved by its lack of development and by the will of a people committed to conservation. Stretching for 750 miles (1,200 kilometres), Cuba embraces the greatest diversity of landscapes and life in the West Indies.

At 1.5 million acre (15,000 hectares) the Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve is Cuba’s largest protected area, designated as a Wetland of International Importance, mainly for aquatic birds. One remote and still unprotected corner of the Zapata swamp is home to more than 3,000 Cuban crocodiles, the largest remaining population of this endangered-and fierce-species.’(4)

Where Wildlife Will Flourish: Transition Towns

In Cuba wildlife flourished by default. For wildlife to flourish as we said in the beginning: Three things are needed to happen to enable us to do anything worthwhile at a significant scale. The first is the end of industrial society, the second is a transition to a society based on lower energy and equity and the third is to change humanity’s attitude towards nature.

In Cuba only two conditions were fulfilled, those of end of industrial society, and transition to a society based on lower energy. For fulfilling the third conditions we have to look at the work done by the Transition Town movement.

Transition Towns is a more recent phenomenon. It is a grassroots network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability. Transition Towns is a brand for these environmental and social movements founded upon the principles of permaculture. The Transition Towns brand of permaculture uses David Holmgren’s 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. These techniques were included in a student project overseen by permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins at the Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland. Two of his students, Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne, set about developing the transition towns concept and took the far-reaching step of presenting it to Kinsale Town Council, resulting in the historic decision by councillors to adopt the plan and work towards energy independence. The Transition Towns movement is an example of socio-economic localisation.

The idea was adapted and expanded through 2005, 2006 and beyond in Hopkins’ home town of Totnes where he is now based. The initiative spread quickly, and as of May 2010, there are over 400 communities recognized as official Transition Towns in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Italy, and Chile. The term transition towns has morphed into transition initiatives to reflect the range and type of communities involved – e.g. villages (Kinsale), neighbourhoods of cities (Portobello, Edinburgh), through council districts (Penwich) to cities and city boroughs (Brixton).

Central to the transition town movement is the idea that a life without oil could in fact be far more enjoyable and fulfilling than the present: “by shifting our mindset we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant-somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth.”

An essential aspect of transition in many places is that the outer work of transition needs to be matched by inner transition.  In order to reduce our dependence on energy we need to rebuild our relations with ourselves, with each other and with the natural world. That requires focusing on the heart and soul of transition. (5).

Transition Town and Wildlife

By their very nature, transition towns tend to be more wildlife-friendly than traditional towns. Transport in transition towns tends towards cycling or walking, both of which are non-polluting, slow-moving and relatively quiet; by reducing road kill, pollution and noise, birds and other forms of small wildlife will have a larger presence within such communities. With increased composting, reduced plastic and processed food usage and thus reduced waste, the population of common scavengers (such as feral dogs, crows and other human co-dependent species) is lowered, allowing for a larger diversity of actual wildlife. In community gardens and farms, organic farming practices permit a diversity of insect life, which in turn supports a larger diversity of their natural predators. These are all passive benefits that arise from the nature of transition communities; by consciously choosing a sustainable low-impact lifestyle, there are obvious benefits to the surrounding environment. In addition to this peaceful coexistence with wildlife, adoption of measures by transition towns to actively create wildlife habitat within their communities and to create a true forest-town community will go a long way towards helping wildlife flourish once the age of oil is over.

The Indian Scene

As we said above, our Government, in the past 20 years or so, is dedicated to the growth paradigm. This has resulted in large scale infrastructure development (road widening, building new airports etc.), growth of steel, coal, power sector and automobiles. There is also a huge opposition to many of these projects all over India because they take away agricultural land and livelihood of the poor besides causing huge environmental damage. A large number of groups and individuals who are concerned on both the issues are involved in it.

India also has a very large number of nature societies including the century-old prestigious Bombay Natural History Society. These organisations have included some of the most dedicated, talented and lovely men and women who have a very positive attitude towards nature.

With some notable exceptions the two trends have not come together. In fact there was a bitter debate on the forest bill between the two groups. Apart from the merits of the issue the naturalists groups tend to depend upon the government to deliver whereas the other group are by and large opposed to the government.

At the very beginning of this article we have said that by and large our conservation efforts have failed. Here let us look at the successes and spaces where we can go forward. In our opinion the most promising area for future is conservation education of the young and community based conservation projects. This is not to belittle the research work done by BNHS and other zoological and botanical societies. Combining community-based conservation and conservation education could be our best bet. A dialogue with organisations working with poor should lead us to collaboration involving wider sections of the people.

 Bird Conservation in Kokkare Bellur Karnataka, India

Kokkare Bellur village is situated about 80 km from Bangalore, in Mandya District, in the State of Karnataka in Southern India. Kokkare Bellur is a typical dry land village of Southern India and has cultivated fields, fallow fields, cactus hedges and trees-old and new-in the fields and the village. These include Tamarindus indica, Ficus bengalensis, Ficus religiosa, and others.

For six months of the year, from December until June, Kokkare Bellur is inhabited by spot billed pelicans ( Pelecanus philippensis ) and painted storks ( Mycteria leucocephala ) which have migrated in their hundreds, from the lakes of South Karnataka. They nest in breeding colonies on the tall trees in the very heart of the village. It is not understood why the storks and pelicans, both exclusively fish-eaters, persist in breeding in Kokkare Bellur, which is several kilometres from any substantial water body. However, they have been coming here to breed for many generations-according to village legend, for hundreds of years.

The people of Kokkare Bellur do not attribute any ‘godly’ status to the birds, but have always offered them protection, believing that they bring them good fortune with the rains and the crops. They are proud of their long association with the birds, which they nickname ‘daughters of the village ’. At its most basic, the villagers’ protection of the birds takes the form of a benevolent tolerance of these noisy and smelly annual visitors. Once the season starts, there is a ceaseless cacophony from the young birds, and an all-pervading fishy stench of droppings right in the villagers’ backyards. In the past, if the pelicans chose to nest in a tamarind tree, some villagers were even prepared to sacrifice their crop rather than scare off the nesting birds. In addition the birds provided a kind of cash resource in the form of guano. People scooped out deep pits under the trees and allowed the droppings to accumulate. When mixed with silt from nearby lakes this provided ready-mixed compost, and had the beneficial side-effect of preventing the ponds around the village from silting up.

However, during the past two decades the growing pressure of population has led to increased demand on the trees as a resource for cooking, animal fodder, and fruits for sale and the villagers inevitably have become less hospitable to the storks and pelicans. About two tons of foliage is used by the villagers every day for fuel and fodder, and a new-found preference for brick houses instead of the traditional mud buildings means large-scale use of wood for kilns. Humans are now in direct competition with the birds for resources, and this has caused a decline in the number of birds nesting at Kokkare Bellur.

The lakes and tanks where the pelicans forage are also undergoing constant, if gradual, changes induced by fertiliser and pesticide inflow, and the conversion of traditional fisheries to commercial ones. Pelicans are at the top of the aquatic food chain and are thus extremely susceptible to pesticide loading. Yet another danger is that of poaching, as some communities like to eat pelican flesh. Thirty years ago, according to the villagers’ estimates, there were more than 1000 pairs of pelicans; today, the number is about 160.

Bird Conservation Efforts

During the early 1980s, the Forest Department put a protection order on the nesting trees, under the Karnataka Tree Protection Act. The owner of such a tree could only fell it if it was diseased or dead. However, when a powerful local farmer felled a tree no punishment ensued. The Forest Department later proposed to make a compulsory purchase of every tree used for nesting, but the villagers refused. A compromise was eventually reached, whereby villagers were offered annual compensation for trees used for nesting, thus providing an incentive to not chop down the trees. However, the value of the compensation is meagre, and in the case of the more valuable trees, only a fraction of the value of the crop or lopping returns.

Since 1994, a local environmental group, Mysore Amateur Naturalists (MAN), has been actively involved in the conservation of pelicans and their habitat in Kokkare Bellur. One member of MAN  (Manu K.) has been involved in the village, promoting the re-establishment of harmony between birds  and humans. A grass-roots action group, Hejjarle Balaga (Pelican Clan), consisting largely of young people from the village and led by members of MAN, runs a conservation pen for ‘orphan’ chicks which fall from their nests and would otherwise perish on the ground. The chicks are eventually returned to the wild where they join their naturally raised siblings without any problem of re-adaptation. The approach of Hejjarle Balaga is to combine and link care for the human community with conservation and protection of the birds and so tree planting, (including a nursery to grow saplings), educational activities and a weekly health clinic for the people of Kokkare Bellur have also been introduced. In this way it is hoped that the villagers’ traditional pride in the birds may be revived and the dwindling numbers at Kokkare Bellur reversed.

This “lateral” approach to conservation-winning trust through a health clinic, as has been done by

MAN- appears to have been reasonably successful in this case. In the 1998 season Hejjarle Balaga successfully intervened to protect the pelican colony nesting on a tamarind tree belonging to a farmer who had wanted to harvest the tamarinds during the nesting season. There is also obviously a critical role for a catalyst, in this case a dedicated worker from an outside NGO who has chosen to more or less take up residence in the village, and has, through sheer hard work and patience, won the trust of many of the villagers. The formation of Hejjarle Balaga has focused villagers’ attention on the plight of the pelicans, and helped generate some employment opportunities  – which could be increased further for example by developing ecotourism (many ornithologists visit the village), selling local produce, acting as guides, reviving cultural occasions associated with the birds, and so on. (6)

Concluding Remarks

The collapse of capitalism or industrial society is given. This will happen any time from a few years to a couple of decades because peak oil is already behind us. What is in store for the future? It is practically impossible to predict the future. The worst-case scenario is that rich countries refuse to reduce their consumption, continue to try to get hold of remaining resources through wars and a worldwide collapse occurs resulting in misery to all. The optimistic scenario can be a mixed bag with different things happening in different countries. It can be a transition to a ‘socialist’ kind society based on equality, scaling down of energy use and eco restoration. In a such a society wild life will be saved. If it is further accompanied by an ‘inner transition’ resulting in a change of attitude towards nature then wild life will flourish.

India is a subcontinent and has different levels of development and political experience in different parts of the country. So all the three types of scenario can take place, that is, there may be chaos and lawlessness, socialist revolution with or without newer kinds of agenda, and small groups, even communities, experimenting local level ‘transition town’ kind of activities. There is evidence of all these around us and it can move towards better or worse as the events unfold. To a small extent it also depends what we, as naturalists, and nature clubs do.

References and Notes

  1. Ricardo Dobrovolski, Marx’s Ecology and the Understanding of Land Cover Change, Analytical Monthly Review, May 2012
  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=apocalypse-soon-has-civilization-passed-the-environmental-point-of-no-return&page=2
  1. Regaining Paradise: towards a fossil fuel free society by T. Vijayendra. See the chapter on ‘Cuba without Isms’.
  2. Steve Winter, National Geographic Magazine, November 2003
  3. Transition Towns ‘From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.’
  1. Manu, K. and Jolly, S. (1999) Pelicans and People: The Two-Tier Village of Kokkare Bellur, Karnataka, India. Kalpavriksh, New Delhi/Pune and IIED, London

Words: 4582

July 16, 2012

About The Authors

T. Vijayendra (1943 – ) is a B. Tech. (Electronics) from I.I.T., Kharagpur (1966). Over the past four decades, his work with the trade union movements, alternative journalism, libraries, bookshops, publishing, socio – political research, health, education, and environment have given him unique insights into India’s people and problems. He lives on an organic farm in the foothills of the Western Ghats, watching birds and writing occasionally, directed towards activist education, which are published regularly in the weekly journal Frontier.

 Books by the Author

The Teacher and Child Labour, 2009, Telugu and English

Regaining Paradise: Towards a fossil fuel free society, 2009

Losers Shall Inherit the World, 2009 and 2010

Email: [email protected]

Blog: t-vijayendra.blogspot.com

Mobile: +91 94907 05634

Shashank Srinivasan (1985 – ) has an MRes in Ecology and Environmental Management from the University of York, UK (2008) and has worked extensively in the Indian Himalayas on high – altitude wetland research and conservation. For the past year, he has been living and working in Delhi as a freelance spatial ecologist with NGOs, think-tanks and government agencies.


“Mapping in the Tso Kar Basin”. (Author) Journal of Community Informatics. Vol. 8 No. 2 (2012)

“Put green cover under digital scanner”. (Author) The Hindu Business Line, 06/12/2011

“The Conservation Action Plan for the Ganges River Dolphin”. (Editor) IUCN-CSG, 01/11/2010

Email: [email protected]>

Mobile: +91 98998 30954

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