Peak Oil Could Be Good News for Conservationists

Can we set aside enough wild area for the future?

I just got back from visiting Corcovado, a famous national park in Costa Rica. One could call this “the last great park” in Costa Rica—the rest are getting divided up or chewed around the edges, going so far as to threaten genetic diversity of the animals. Most of Corcovado is off limits to tourists, in order to allow the plants and animals to thrive. However there is constant pressure, especially from foreign-owned businesses operating here, to expand access, to build more, to make more money. It is an ongoing battle.

But it occurred to me, as we were bouncing through the surf on the one hour boat ride to the park entrance, after a 100 minute river boat ride, from a town which is a 20 minute taxi from the main road, how much energy it takes to get here. If we were coming here on foot, bike, or horse, it would have been quite a journey. And so it’s really because of oil that we can hop on a plane in San Francisco, fly to Atlanta (for mysterious airlines reasons) and then catch a flight to San José Costa Rica, followed by another flight to Osa province, followed by a series of taxi and boat rides.

As oil becomes more precious, it’s going to become more and more expensive to get over here. Now arguably that might mean that people who’d otherwise go to African safaris will instead come to Costa Rica, when today’s Safari dollar would only buy tomorrow’s Rainforest tour. So we could see an ongoing readjustment, whereby the travel to the most remote areas falls off first, as transportation fuels continue to go up in price, and as well as the pool of middle class jobs—and the dollars that come with them—shrink.

Down the line, this would mean that the market of people who can afford a trip to Costa Rica to the rainforest would shrink, and eventually be limited to the super rich. In one scenario, less traffic would mean less investment in development, and thus less environmental impact. In another scenario, though, it could mean further strain on this area as ever higher end facilities are created to win over the business of the few who can afford it.

Hang in there big guy

Thus far, the Drake Bay area appears to be well protected from development, in part because of the lack of a reliable road to get here, and also because there appears to be recognition from the local powers that be that conservation is good policy for tourist dollars. But these things can change, and if they do then habitats and nature can be hurt in a way that takes a long time to bounce back from.

In the long run, this area will likely revert back to the farming and fishing that was here previously. What I don’t know is how much environmental damage a local population could do; in part this depends on how many people are trying to live off of the land, and what tools they have at their disposal to speed up cultivation of the land. There is a certain carrying capacity here, as everywhere, and population growth is a critical input to it.

As things stand now, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to get people like me from the rich countries over here to more remote corners of Costa Rica to see nature. As the fossil fuels become less available, one pressure on the land here may reduce; whether that slack is taken up by local populations.

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