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Synthesis/Regeneration 43   (Spring 2007)

Responding to Climate Change and Peak Oil

Biofuels in Ecological Perspective

by Alexis Ziegler

What do George Bush, the conservative congress, most liberals, and quite a few radical environmentalists share in common? Enthusiastic support for biofuels. How could such diverse interests all support the same cause? Because they are all sold on the myth of progress. The proponents of biofuels promise an age of clean and renewable fuel. In its current form, the biofuels movement will only serve to shorten the time to our day of reckoning.

If we are going to feed human food to cars, we first need to ask how much surplus food production capacity we have. We get our food from a number of sources. Do you know when the world fish catch peaked? In the early 1980s.What about grain? Per capita production peaked in 1980s. Irrigated farmland produces a lion’s share of human food. How is the supply of irrigated land holding up? Because of salinization, erosion, and other management issues, the global supply of irrigated farm land per capita has shrunk precipitously in the last several decades. Protecting the soil has been a long-term issue for humans. According to an estimate generated by the UN Environment Program, over the past 1000 years humans have permanently degraded more farmland than the sum total of that currently being farmed.

The final humbling fact is that, even though the US has the most productive agricultural system in the world, we are now a nation that teeters on the brink of agricultural debtorship. Our current agricultural balance of trade between imports and exports is nearly equal, and if current trends continue, the US will be a net importer of food within the next couple of years.

If the amount of irrigated farmland per person has actually shrunk, how is it that we continue to feed growing populations? The amount of energy we invest in each calorie of food produced has climbed steadily, and continues to climb. We have been replacing soil with oil. We now invest about 10 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food we get in return. That is long before anyone considers putting those food calories into a gas tank.

The impacts of broad-scale biofuel conversion are beginning to appear. Cars are now consuming most of the annual global increase in grain production that up until now has been feeding our growing population. Prices do not respond in an orderly fashion to reductions in supply. Brazil, being a major producer of ethanol, is a case in point. Some writers claim that food prices escalated in the 1980s in Brazil as a direct result of ethanol production, feeding rich people’s cars at the expense of poor people’s stomachs. The current price impacts of sugar-based ethanol are clear. According to Lester Brown, “With just 10% of the world’s sugar harvest going into ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled.” In 2006, global grain stocks reached their lowest point in 34 years. The point is not that the world food system is on the verge of collapse. It is not. But biofuels are very likely to contribute to price instability in grain markets very soon.

… the grain needed to fuel one SUV for a year would feed 26 people.

The amount of human food needed to fuel a car is staggering. Concerning ethanol, even if we disregard the energy used to distill ethanol, about 4.2 hectares (10.4 acres) of corn must be used to fuel one car for one year. The global supply of grainland per person was .23 hectare in 1950. Now it it’s .12, and is projected to be .09 hectare per person in 2020. To say that a different way, the grain needed to fuel one SUV for a year would feed 26 people.

Biodiesel’s proponents claim that they are recycling discarded cooking oil. But is that oil really waste? The rendering business is a major national industry that collects “waste” vegetable oil and reprocesses it. According to literature from the rendering industry, their “finished products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities.” Used cooking oil is not a discarded product. It is reprocessed and put on the market to vie with “substitute commodities.” If Americans are convinced that biodiesel is a “green” fuel, and we drive up the consumption of vegetable oil, we simply shift the weight of demand onto the virgin vegetable oil market.

Americans use nearly a billion gallons of petroleum a day. The entire output of all of the rendering companies in the US is about a billion and a half gallons per year. If the entire annual output of used vegetable oil products presently used for all other purposes were diverted into the fossil fuel market, it would last us 36 hours. If you look solely at the consumption of diesel, the entire output of the rendering industry represents about 3% of how much diesel we use.

Are biofuels renewable? Any resource is renewable only if it is extracted at a rate no greater than it is replenished. Overcutting a forest or overfishing a fishery renders a renewable resource non-renewable. Regardless of switchgrass, algae, or any other scheme that biofuel inventors might come up with, it is simply not possible to produce biofuel on a scale to keep up with current demand, short of a genocide that destroys most of humanity so the wealthy can take their farmland, or an ecocide that eliminates all wild lands on the Earth. There are some who, once we really feel the crunch of oil depletion, might advocate just such a sinister course.

The biofuels delusion is an outgrowth of the myth of progress that is deeply rooted in the western psyche. The reality of industrial development is that we have always used the most accessible fuels first, and then moved on to less accessible fuels. Biofuels are more accessible than fossil fuel, but we reached the limit of the biofuel economy a long, long time ago.

What we normally call progress is often a response to depletion.

Digging coal is a lot more expensive than cutting firewood. The transition to coal started in earnest in Europe in the 1600s, after the continent had been deforested and easily accessible wind and water energy sources were fully exploited. The same was true in the US, though at a later date. The continental US was heavily deforested by the mid 1800s. Then and only then did coal become a dominant fuel. Would it make any sense to mine deep, low grade ore before mining shallow, high grade ore? Does it make any sense to mine at all if you can find what you need at the surface? What we normally call progress is often a response to depletion.

Our forebears turned to fossil fuel only because they had reached and exceeded the capacity of energy sources available on the surface. In the 150 years since the biofuel economy reached its limit in the US, not only has population increased several fold, but also energy use per capita has grown much faster than population itself. Biofuel, being on the surface, easily accessible, and easily processed, represents a high-grade “ore” relative to fossil fuel. The fact that we have considerable forests today in the US is the result of the fact that we are not using them for biofuel.

If finding new energy sources would only drive consumption further, why are we looking for new energy sources?

Let’s just bag all the environmental science for a moment and ask a common-sense question. What if the most optimistic predictions about energy supplies are true? What if gas prices fall back to a dollar a gallon? We will go back to buying larger and larger SUVs. We will use that new energy to fuel automobiles, bulldozers, housing construction, and the manufacture of consumables. All of that consumption will simply tip the balance between humans and ecosystems and natural resources that support us further out of scale. Decades from now, there would be less topsoil, fewer forests, and more people. If finding new energy sources would only drive consumption further, why are we looking for new energy sources? We have a cultural problem, not an energy problem.

The biodiesel Hummer is now a reality. We currently have access to more energy than any of our forebears. The problem is not energy supplies, but poor choices about how we use them. Adding new energy supplies, without addressing the root of that poor decision making, will only expand the scale and impact of those bad decisions.

We all use energy, and it has to come from somewhere. Finding a sustainable source of “alternative energy” has been a prime motivation behind the biofuels movement. Surely, so the logic goes, there must be some set of alternative energies that could supply our needs. The problem is that you can’t get the right answers by asking the wrong questions. Trying to address the problem from the supply side is asking the wrong question.

Technological fixes are more appealing than telling other people how to live, or challenging current political power. But a real understanding of technology and our current ecological situation displays the weaknesses of purely technological approaches. In looking at solar energy, the average home uses so much electricity that powering it with photovoltaic panels is extremely expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars. Not only is that financially unfeasible, that money also represents a huge environmental price in the energy embedded in the manufacture of those solar panels. The same analysis holds for solar hot water. Solar hot water is more economically viable than solar electric, but the cost per person is still high if you try to solarize American suburbia.

The primary purpose of the entire alternative energy movement is palliative, not ecological.

The issue is whether you work on the problem from the demand side or the supply side. If you take any modern energy system and try to address it from the supply side, you will invariably fail. Biofuels are being sold on the notion that because they come from a biological source, that automatically makes them renewable and benign. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is, for instance, a movement to use biofuel to generate the nation’s electricity. What does that mean? That means massive tree chipping operations have started descending on our national forests, thus converting lush green forest into moonscape and chips. The chips are then burned instead of coal to generate steam that turns the electric turbines, thus keeping the lights, computers, air conditioners and tumble driers of America in operation. Careful what you wish for. If you try to meet America’s energy demands from the supply side, you are simply going to throw unsustainable weight onto already overstressed biological systems.

The primary purpose of the entire alternative energy movement in its current form is palliative, not ecological. The problem is the lifestyle, not the technology. Sustainable technologies are mostly ancient, and yet the American lifestyle pays no attention to even the simplest ancient technologies such as solar orientation.

Is changing lifestyles impossibly difficult? The solution to changing the Western lifestyle is the simple impossible act of creating social networks that build social support outside of the mainstream in the context of a truly sustainable society. American individualism causes many modern ecologists to seek efficiency improvements to single family homes and commuter cars, but that model is not really ecologically viable. Single-family housing, as well as individual automobiles, are simply unsustainable, regardless of our energy source.

Single-family housing, as well as individual automobiles, are simply unsustainable …

So what are the solutions? Live close enough to where you work and play so you don’t have to drive. Refuse to own a car. Live cooperatively. For mainstream liberals, that may sound absurd. But that is precisely why the entire discussion about biofuels is misguided, because real solutions demand a more radical perspective. Real answers are social and political, not technological. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.

Alexis Zeigler is an environmental activist and communitarian in central Virginia. He has started numerous non-profit groups and built alternative energy systems.

[2 apr 07]

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