October 23, 2013

How Europe almost ran out of timber and how it relates to peak oil

One of the best performing stocks this year is Tesla Motors - the stock has rushed from $35 to $164. The company was founded in 2003 and the main investor behind the company is Elon Musk, who is also the CEO. The main reason to why Elon Musk became interested in electric cars is because of the fact that the world is running out of oil. This is also known as peak oil. He argued how the problem that the world is running out of oil is one of the largest problems we as humans have to solve:
If we don't solve that in this century, we're in deep trouble. It's not like there's some infinite oil supply. We are going to run out of it [oil]. We will run out of even the fracking resources.  

Those who don't believe in peak oil are comparing oil with other commodities to prove that the world will never run of of oil. It is true that the Earth hasn't been depleted of any commodities. But the main difference between oil and other resources is that we can't grow oil in the same way as we can grow trees. Oil can't neither be recycled in the same way as we recycle metals, because we burn up the oil in our vehicles.

The Earth hasn't been depleted of any resources, but individual regions have been depleted of resources. You can also compare peak oil with the extinction of a number of animals, like the Dodo bird, which has been extinct since 1662. Despite the fact that the Dodo reproduced itself, the number of Dodos peaked, and then they disappeared forever.

Maybe the best resource comparable to oil is timber. One of many good examples of peak timber is what happened on the Easter Island in the South Pacific. As shown in the drawing below, the island was covered in dense forests.

Easter Island before peak timber. Source: Science

And this is an image of the island today:

Easter Island after peak timber. Source: Wikipedia

Around 1400, the Easter Island palm became extinct due to deforestation by the island's growing population. The inhabitants could no longer build canoes to find food outside of the island, so they began to consume land birds, migratory birds, and mollusks. They could do this until peak bird happened. As the forests lost their animal pollinators and seed dispersers, the number of trees decreased even more. 

Peak timber did not only happen on the Easter Island, it also happened in Europe and in the Middle East. Thousands of years ago, the mountain slopes in the Middle East were covered with massive cedar forests. These forests disappeared about two thousand years ago as the timber was needed for the construction of ships and buildings.

The Europeans used trees as fuel and as building material. It was also common to cut down trees to have somewhere to grow food. The Vikings deforested Iceland, and the Romans deforested Sicily and other parts of their empire. When the forests were depleted in already occupied regions of the Roman Empire, they ordered the military to occupy areas with a plentiful supply of timber.

Maybe the main reason to why the Europeans in the western part of Europe became the great explorers was because of the availability of timber. Without its forests, Europe would never have been able to undertake the exploration of the world. The countries in the Middle East and the southern parts of Europe didn't have the same possibilities because of peak timber. Venice used to be a country of great explorers until they ran out of timber. Spain took over as a country of great explorers until they also ran out of timber. This allowed England, France, and Holland to build large fleets of ships so they could take over Spain as the masters of the sea.

But neither the forests in western Europe were endless. The first signs of peak timber in England were noticed during the wars against France in the 1620's. But the shortage was saved by imports of timber from the Baltic region, Scandinavia, and the colonies in North America. As the industrial revolution increased the demand for timber, England couldn't import enough timber, so in the middle of the 18th century, the deforestation of Europe led to an energy crisis.

To replace timber, the Europeans began to use coal. But neither coal was an endless resource. In the middle of the 19th century, England began to run out of coal, and the English coal production peaked in 1913. To replace coal, England began to use oil. As both timber and coal peaked, so will oil, and the question is when it will happen? Elon Musk expects that peak oil will happen around year 2020 and the world will finally run out of oil in 2050. The current amount of oil available was estimated to 1 258 billion barrels. As the world consumed 87 million barrels per day in 2010, the remaining oil will last for about 40 years.

Source: Consequences of Deforestation on Easter Island, Deforestation by regionDeforestation during the Roman periodThe Role of Wood in World History, The Engineer, Peak coal

1 comment:

  1. Great story, thank you for taking the time to write it :)

    ReplyDelete