Could the end of fossil fuels bring back wilderness?

by Milan on September 9, 2011

in Transportation

At the beginning of the superb BBC television series Planet Earth, the narrator explains that the show is dedicated to showing people “the last wildernesses”. In a sense, this is too generous. There is no truly wild land left in the world. At the very least, every square metre of the planet’s surface has been affected by the global changes humanity has induced. These include the introduction of invasive species, depletion of stratospheric ozone, the alteration of the nitrogen cycle through chemical fertilizers, and – of course – climate change.

Beyond those global changes, most of what was once wilderness has been altered by more specific human impacts. Dams have been built and rivers redirected. The world’s great forests have almost all been cut down, with both direct and indirect effects. All through the countryside now there are engineering schemes, mines, transmission lines, and vacation houses.

It is very hard to know what the long-term decline of oil as a transportation fuel will mean for humanity. It is likely that as oil reserves are exhausted the price will rise. That trend may be accompanied by the development of more efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, and other ways to travel as much or more with less oil. Alternatively, Jeff Rubin could be right and growing fossil fuel scarcity could be accompanied by a permanent decrease in human mobility.

If so, one upshot could be the return of wilderness of a kind. If it wasn’t so cheap to trek out beyond the normal bounds of human civilization in four-wheel-drive vehicles and helicopters, those places might feel less of an impact from human activity. At the same time, people could find themselves more densely packed into areas with comparatively affordable public transit systems.

All this is speculation, of course. Understanding how climate change and fossil fuel depletion will interact with other known and unanticipated global trends is impossible to do in advance. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens.

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