Fried Birds or Fried Planet? The Calculus of Extinction


 

A northern rough-winged swallow with scorched wings found near the site of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert. Credit BrightSource Energy

A northern rough-winged swallow with scorched wings found near the site of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert. Credit BrightSource Energy, via N.Y. Times

Each day, eagles and hawks are chopped to hamburger by wind turbines. Migrating swallows are fried – cooked in mid-flight – by solar arrays. Isn’t this proof that so-called “green energy” is worse than fossil fuels?

Nope.

It’s not so easy. The toxic ponds in the Alberta tar sand surface mines kills hundreds, maybe thousands of waterfowl in spring and fall migration. The warming climate alters the timing of bug hatches on the North Slope, changing the availability of food for migratory birds, and the hatchlings starve. The absence of near shore sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas means the polar bear sow’s milk dries up before she can get to the seals that feed her, and an entire generation of polar bear cubs is lost. The 2010 BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has killed more than 600,000 birds. It is still killing sea turtles and dolphins. It is still contaminating the seafood humans eat.

Perhaps, in comparison, a hundred Cliff Swallows incinerated feeding on insects on a solar farm are a trifle.

The Audubon Society has attempted to predict the impact of climate change on North American avifauna:

Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. Of the 314 species at risk from global warming, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered. These birds are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050.

In the calculus of the Anthropocene, in the mathematics of extinction, a hundred dead swallows hardly matter.

We can hold a dead swallow in our hands, see the frizzled, burnt feathers, smell the unpleasant aroma. It’s immediate, tangible, visceral. A missing species, extirpated, is abstract, difficult to envision by very definition.

Unarguably, neither should happen. Humans shouldn’t have extinguished the Pleistocene megafauna, the Moas of New Zealand, the Passenger Pigeons of North America, or dozens – hundreds – of other species.

But the cost of energy created by the petroleum economy is a far greater threat than over-hunting, threatening to alter the very biosphere is unforeseeable ways.

And we’re not going to be ending our dependence on energy, specifically, electricity, any time soon.

So, no, green – or at least less black – energy isn’t evil. It may even save thousands of species. It may even save much of humankind and its standard of living. At the cost of a dead bird in the hand. In the mess of bad solutions to our hacking the biosphere, green energy is the least evil option at hand.

More reading: Are We Missing the Big Picture on Climate Change? – NYTimes.com.

 

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