The Ergosphere
Sunday, February 22, 2004

The lynx and the hare

One of the most well-known phenomena in ecology is the population cycle of the arctic lynx and the snowshoe hare.  About every ten years the number of hares reaches a peak and then declines sharply; the population of the lynx, which is one of the hare's chief predators, falls precipitously shortly thereafter.

The once-obvious driver of the cycle was lynx/hare relationship.  Lynx reproduce much more slowly than hares, so the prey get a running start from the low point of the cycle.  But once the lynx build up their numbers and the hares run into the limits of their food supply, the density of predators reduces the number of prey very quickly.  The predators, now past the limits of their own food supply, quickly follow and the cycle repeats.

This connection is no longer quite so obvious.  More recent research indicates that the connection between plant and herbivore is much more important than the connection between predator and prey; hares have been observed to kill brush by overbrowsing, and compete with animals as large as moose.  But regardless of the exact details, the numbers of both lynx and hares are driven by the energy supply available to them.

It is worth remembering that the fates of human societies depend on energy just as much as those of species.  In the 1960's the USA had its first national love affair with massive vehicles and "muscle cars", and cars grew as quickly as their fuel consumption.  The OPEC embargo and oil-price shocks of 1973 and 1977 ended that era, did a huge amount of damage to Detroit, and created a great deal of interest in economical vehicles.  This in turn created demand for cars built in Japan; this demand has changed in character, but it has not fallen.  Detroit's share of the market has fallen greatly and looks to continue to fall.

American manufacturers have ceded the economy segment of the market.  Small cars now come from Korea and Brazil; if they have American names, they usually have Japanese drivetrains. The segment still dominated by Detroit is the large truck.  Boosted by the rising economy of the 90's and cheap fuel prices (especially following the Asian economic crisis of 1997), the new "sport-ute" category boomed.  The pickup truck shed its hick image to become Ford Motor's hottest-selling product, and the market for Excursions, Suburbans, Durangos and H2 Hummers has grown to the point where vehicles in this class, almost non-existent ten years ago, are a large and very visible fraction of what's on the road.

As a part of this phenomenon, the average fuel economy of the US vehicle fleet has fallen to lows not seen in decades.  Meanwhile the asian economies have recovered and world oil prices have crept up to levels unseen since the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  Prices close to USD 30/bbl were doubtless one of the drags on the economy throughout 2003.  They now stand at over USD 34 per barrel.

Add to this two factors:

  1. US dependency on oil continues to rise, reaching 38 quadrillion BTU in 2002.
  2. OPEC has just agreed to cut production by some 1.5 million barrels per day.
This situation has been created by the public policy of the last two decades plus.  Through our unwillingness to make the hard decisions we have re-created the conditions which led to recession and stagflation a mere thirty years ago.  Our 6% unemployment might soon be but a fond memory, while our need to spend money on the military to control nuclear-capable rogue states and terrorist groups may soon outstrip our finances.

Right now the US looks an awful lot like the snowshoe hare, wounded by the very groups we've been feeding and running out of food.  Contrary to Wretchard's implicit claim (see the bottom) we don't have to play this role.  Like our first moves against Japan in 1940-41, we have to begin to confront the Islamic imperialist monster starting with its lifesblood, oil money.  The question of this post-9/11 world is, do we have the vision to see our way to a different future and the will to put ourselves there?

(Coming soon:  a vision of a way to de-fund OPEC and the Wahhabist entity.) 

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