Chapel Hill: Opinion

Of oysters, energy and doomsday – Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross
Kirk Ross

Once I had an anthropology class at Carolina on human systems. In it, we learned about positive feedback loops, which is what happens when things feed on themselves and, if unchecked, go horribly out of control. Why, you might ask, would I ever think to bring up such a thing now?

Well, it’s spring after all.

A few days ago I was on the fourth floor of the science museum at an oyster summit. The room was packed with scientists, environmental advocates and economic development types interested in rebuilding the state’s oyster beds, which peaked in the 1890s. The late 19th century and early 20th century were the era of the oyster wars in which big mechanical harvesters came down from the Chesapeake, tore everything up and hauled away ton after ton of North Carolina oyster meat. The devastation was relentless, and the oyster industry never fully recovered.

The idea now is to rebuild the beds, but not just to boost the annual harvest and the economic fortunes of struggling coastal fishing communities. Each oyster filters roughly 50 gallons of water per day and the oyster beds themselves are also important structures because they reduce the impact of wave energy. In recent years, work led by the N.C. Coastal Federation has shown that the “living shorelines” of oyster beds offer significant and adaptable protections from erosion, the kind of added resiliency that could help to protect and preserve North Carolinas extensive system of sounds and estuaries in the face of rising seas.

At one point during the summit a presenter put up a map of the state’s oyster sanctuaries, no-take areas that help seed the working beds nearby.

It reminded me of the last time I was in that meeting room on the fourth floor of the museum looking at a map of the coast. It was just a few years prior, and instead of oyster sanctuaries the map had color-coded areas showing possible deposits of oil and gas. The room was packed with energy industry types, federal officials and some very-stressed environmentalists.

The two men leading the discussion were then Gov. Pat McCrory and then Assistant Secretary of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Don van der Vaart.

The governor and the assistant secretary were excited about the idea of drilling for oil and gas off our coast. So excited in fact that at a subsequent press briefing the governor was all but counting the number of schools and hospitals the oil money would buy.

That plan did not play out the way the two men hoped. The U.S. is managing to pump record amounts of oil and gas without the supposed vast reserves off our coast. Last year, the Obama administration took offshore drilling in the Atlantic off the table entirely and did so in a way that makes it difficult for his successor to revive the idea any time soon.

North Carolina moved on as well. Former secretary van der Vaart is in a lower-level position and as of this writing the former governor is still looking for a regular gig.

The once staunchly pro oil and gas legislature is starting to come around to the idea that the market is much more interested in the state’s potential for solar and wind energy. This session it even appears that the ideological impasse over renewable energy might break in favor of a greener future.

Things change. Circuits can be broken.

Toward the end of the semester, that anthropology professor delivered what he called his “doomsday” lecture, outlining various scenarios under which Earth, caught up in one or another positive feedback loops, would become all but inhabitable.

It was a lecture to give us all pause and a sense of responsibility. Afterward, he told us he only taught the class in the spring because when he laid it all out, he wanted us to walk out of the lecture of utterly dismal conclusions to the beauty of the Chapel Hill campus in full bloom.

I still think about that when the dogwoods and azaleas around here bust out in color. I guess that was the point.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at