Beware the biofuel hype – more tech alone won't build a sustainable world

Humans are at a crucial turning point. Will we choose to live sustainably on this planet or will we pursue the false dream that Americans can continue to drive SUVs if we just apply new technologies? The possibility of “green” technology is seductive. Increasingly, the propaganda machine is pushing biofuels — ethanol and biodiesel — as a magic way to allow everyone to keep driving their Hummers. Yet on deeper examination, if biofuels continue to be developed to the scale necessary to replace even part of the fossil fuels currently used every year, biofuels could end up being far more destructive to the planet than fossil fuels have already been.

Our extremely wasteful lifestyle is based on stored energy from generations of ancient plants which have decayed into coal and oil deposits. If we switch our society’s fuel source over to the living plants of the present, our planet will be rapidly stripped of its ability to support diverse life.

Miguel Altieri observes that “Dedicating all present U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12 percent of our gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand.” According to a European Union sponsored study, meeting the EU’s target of replacing 5.75% of fossil fuels with biofuels would consume 14-27% of EU agricultural land. This means that to meet the developed world’s voracious appetite for fuel, biofuels will largely be grown in the third world and exported so rich people can drive.

In a world where rich people’s fuel needs compete with poor people’s food needs, starvation caused by fuel-greed is a huge danger. Already, the expanding cropland planted to yellow corn for ethanol has reduced the supply of white corn for tortillas in Mexico, sending prices up 400 percent. This led to food riots in Mexico and peasant leaders at the recent World Social Forum in Nairobi to demand, “No full tanks when there are still empty bellies!” The average fill up of a 25 gallon SUV tank with ethanol will require the same amount of grain as it takes to feed a person for a year. For the US to continue its current rate of consumption, it would take the yearly equivalent of the grain needed to feed 6 billion people, or the entire 1999 world population! (And that’s just for the USA.) Billions of people could starve if we merely switch to biofuels and refuse to change our lifestyle.

Biofuels will also not lesson the total carbon dioxide released into the earth’s environment associated with fuel use. The same amount of CO2 is released by the burning of biofuels as petroleum diesel. The argument that the CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by the growing of biofuel crops will make this carbon “neutral,” ignores the fact that greater amounts of CO2 were removed by the rain forests and peat bogs destroyed by the crop production. According to Biofuel Watch in the UK, “A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or 19 times as much as petroleum produces. I need to say that again. Bio-diesel from palm oil causes 10 times as much climate change as ordinary diesel.”

The rapid transformation of Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaysia’s rain forests into palm plantations, to provide fuel for first world nations to continue driving our SUV’s, has other great costs. The destruction of this habitat will mean the world’s loss of many beautiful and unique life forms. It could likely mean the extinction of the Orangutan, Sumatran Tigers and Rhinos, Gibbons, Tapirs and Proboscis Monkeys. As the demand for oil crops pushes agriculture into virgin habitat, other natural areas in the world are threatened as well. Rare scrub land habitats and rain-forests in Brazil and Colombia and natural lands in Asia and Africa will survive or fall based on the decisions of first worlders. The effects could also be devastating for the natives peoples around the world who live on and preserve these precious habitats.

The glorified hailing of biofuel crops saving the environment is cynical and dangerous. As giant petroleum companies and Republican leaders get excited about it, our red flags should go up. The proposed deal between British Petroleum and the University of California, at the cost of academic independence, is a frightening turning point. It would divert precious academic resources away from conservation and into a nightmare of genetically engineered crops, human and animal suffering and a public university being used to make profits for a corporation. It replaces the goal of public benefit with private profit.

According to Miguel A. Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez, “The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny towards.”

Hoping that growing our energy needs can solve our problems completely ignores the immense environmental and social toll that industrial agriculture has already had upon the world and the U.S. The “Green Revolution” and the exporting of industrial agriculture to third world nations has turned out to be disastrous. Loss of topsoil, contamination of water and soil and human bodies, loss of successful local crop varieties and destruction of local economies have been the legacy of this “gift.” The initial increases in production quickly faded and the countries were left in debt and committed to agriculture requiring large petroleum using machinery and massive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The same happened in this country with the loss of family farms and large swaths of land being destroyed by petroleum intensive farming. “We’ve already destroyed the prairie, and the topsoil in the Midwest is going, going gone” noted Tad Patzek, UCB professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Add to this the dangerously unpredictable consequences of new genetically engineered crops, and one could argue that modern agriculture is the most destructive environmental force on earth.

Industrial Agriculture uses large-scale monocultures and high levels of chemical nitrogen fertilizer, largely responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Herbicides and pesticides end up in ground and surface water and contain toxic endocrine disrupters. It takes three to four gallons of precious fresh water to create a gallon of ethanol, threatening already strained water supplies. In addition, the creation and use of genetically engineered corn, specially designed for fuel production would surely contaminate corn grown for food. It has been shown clearly, in the brief time GMO corn has been grown, that it cannot be contained.

There are many changes people can make that really will help the world. We must stop relying on personal vehicles and only drive when a car is full of riders. Divert money from roads, parking, and medical expenses from air pollution into public transit systems. Create local economies where jobs, food sources and community are all localized, minimizing commutes and goods transport. Create community and rooftop gardens. Tear up half of the unused streets and plant fruit orchards. Simplify our life styles. Consume less. Travel locally by foot or bike. Vacation in your own home or neighborhood. Find joy in free time and community rather than things.

The solution is not a technological fix. We should know that from living in the age of cancer from the chemical revolution. Think beyond the destructive norms of the TV lifestyle. STOP DRIVING! It is the single most effective way you can personally change the world. The writing is on the wall. You are responsible for suffering every time you choose to get in your car instead of taking the bus or walking or biking.

And once we have quit cars, if we can, our lives will actually beco
me more peaceful, healthful and enjoyable.

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