Saturday, May 10, 2008


I've read a couple of different articles recently on the subject of biofuels, but I was particularly struck by this one in today's San Francisco Chronicle; Arrol Gellner regularly comments on the relationship between humans and their environment. I'm glad to see that some people are beginning to agree with me, and to speak out, on the stupidity of the whole biofuels business. It doesn't help that Congress has just passed a draft farm bill that continues to subsidize the corn farmers of the midwest beyond their wildest dreams of avarice.

We have to quit messing with biofuels. Yes, and the Europeans and everyone else have to quit it too. Our insistence that we can turn corn into fuel for cars is causing a worldwide famine, by driving up the price of food in general. I'm not sure we shouldn't just Give Up On The Whole Idea, even eliminate switchgrass as a source - because land planted for switchgrass is not land planted for edible crops.

Which is more important - driving to work, or eating? Is it more important for you to drive to work than it is for an Indian subsistance farmer's family to eat one meal?

We're killing people here, or we will be shortly. People who live on a dollar a day (or even two dollars a day) will be dying of starvation.

And it's all because we're hooked on automobiles. Nobody wants to hear this - especially nobody who commutes 60 miles a day to work because that was the closest house he could afford to buy - but we are all of us going to have to rethink how we live, and how we get places. We'll have to break our addiction to the automobile, and the ease in traveling that it gives us. It'll be really expensive; it'll be really hard, and we'll have to rebuild stuff; but the alternative will be to continue to drive cars, using increasingly expensive fuel, until we can't afford any more fuel at all; by which time we'll have overloaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Then we'll have to abandon the cars because we can't move them without fuel.

And then we really will have to do the hard stuff: walk. Take transit (if it exists). Move to some place where you CAN walk or take transit. Maybe we'll go back to horses; treat horses reasonably, and they'll produce new little horses for you every year, for free. Of course, you have to feed horses; and we're back to cropland again. Plant it in edibles, or biofuel sources??

And yes, we're driving to Wyoming and Montana on vacation this summer. I'm addicted to cars too. We've built a world where cars are how you get around, and there really aren't alternatives in a lot of places. But we have to start thinking about alternatives.


  1. I am developing a business plan where the US can utilize over 2.4 million acres of land to grow switchgrass without using 1 acre of farm land, and not using any federally protected land.

    According to my estimates, this available land could yield up to 2.7 billion gallons of ethanol per year with no farmland being used at all.

  2. Anonymous2:11 PM

    I've been reading what I could get my eyes on about this increasing lack of food. I've noted that more and more blame is being lumped on bio fuels. I understand that there are some farmers who are switching to corn instead of wheat. That drives up the price of wheat, which is largely consumed by developed nations. The lengthy drought in Aussie has contributed to this lack of crop yields in a big way, and the drought shows no sign of ending.

    What I don't understand is how all of the above contributes to the scarcity of rice, which is a basic food source for a great many underdeveloped nations. I've come up with two possible answers, interlinked, that have little to do with the corn farmers raking in high profits for corn and government subsidies at the same time.

    Answer one is the global climate change. Places that used to have enough water to grow crops are either drying up or inundated with floods. Water to grow crops is becoming a major problem.

    Answer number two is over population. The world has more and more people but limited increase in farm land. These people are also using more and more water. (See answer #1)This is a problem right here in River City as well as Aussie and Africa.

    I'll even throw in Answer #3. The current cost of raising food is going up, Up, UP, due to the coast of fuel. Fuel to get the seeds to the farmers. Fuel to run the farm machinery, even the limited machinery used in developing nations. Fuel to make fertilizers and get that to the farmers. Fuel to get the crops to market. You see where this is going, and this has little to do with the bio-fuel folks. more bio-fuel is used, the oil producers are going to have to raise prices to maintain their profits. So often it all boils down to greed.

    Anyway, dealing with climate change and population growth would help the food crisis a great deal. The answer I don't have is how to do it, but I don't believe the bio-fuel folks are the base cause. In fact, I have a thought I toss out at you.

    If the ordinary person can be convinced the bio-fuel folks are at the bottom of this boondoggle, the bio-fuel folks will lose their support. Then the powersthatbe don't have to encourage, subsidies or even use bio-fuels in city or county or government vehicles. We can simply say it was an idea that looked good but didn't work. It had too many unfortunate side effects. So, who benefits? Do you think the price of flour and rice will go down? Hmmmm, follow the money, people. Would the oil folks continue to benefit? Are they the ones who are worried that alternate sources of energy / fuel might cut off the flow of money into their coffers? Remember, the oil companies are making record profits at present.

    To return to the question that has bothered me for weeks. What in world does a corn farmer in the mid-west have to do with the increase in the price of rice?

  3. Actually, there was an interview in the Business section of today's Sunday S.F. Chronicle (5/11) with Vinod Khosla, who is presently engaged in a startup that will make biofuel from wood chips and other cellulosic waste. Khosla's take on the rise in food prices is that it's primarily driven by the price of oil (for transport and fertilizer). He also predicts that if biofuel can be generated cheaply enough (remember, he plans to make his from waste), oil will be $35 a barrel again by 2030. Extremely interesting take on the subject, with a link to a podcast if you prefer listening to reading.

    I'm curious about Jim's business plan. Where are these 2.4 million acres of non-farm, not federally protected land? In window boxes? Back yards? Or is that a trade secret?

  4. Priorities, people!

    What are the major problems facing humanity today?

    As stewards of the earth, a mantle which we assumed simply through successful breeding (with technology), we are at a crossroads. Malthus told us in no uncertain terms just how populations quickly get out of control.

    If you look dispassionately at the relationship between mammalian populations, and the resources which support them (or are exploited), you see that we're far beyond the holding capacity in most places where people live, or have lived over time. Put aside gasoline and timber and natural gas and aluminum and coal and iron. Each year we keep adding untold numbers of new bodies; but even with "scientific" agriculture, we aren't going to be able to keep up with the need for food. Heck, even without global warming! If the science is correct, and global warming causes as much havoc as they now predict it will, there's going to be unlimited misery around the world. Not chicken little, but simple fact.

    The American cultural paradigm, since the end of WWII, has been the abandonment of the cities, the "flight to the suburbs" based on portability and cheap, reliable transportation. Here in the Bay Area, the so-called "nine county" area has been allowed to expand and expand--new communities, like Brentwood--popping up like mushrooms on your lawn overnight. Then we hear complaints about how crowded our highways and bridges have become, how there's inadequate police and fire protection, crowding, inconvenience, etc. Duhh!! Residual tax projections are always floated by ambitious real estate developers paying off city councilpersons. Regionally, this is suicidal.

    And the Democrats don't have any answers that address these basic follies. During the Clinton Administration, someone in Interior said "we wouldn't mind if California's population doubled in size." That's the kind of thinking I'm talking about.

    Take the American Southwest. There's no godly reason there should be a Los Angeles, a San Diego,
    a Bakersfield, a Phoenix, a Tucson, a Las Vegas. These are desert communities. Take an area roughly bounded by the line that borders San Luis Obispo/Kern/San Bernardino Counties of Southern California, crosses the southern tip of Nevada, and runs along the northern borders of Arizona, New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle, and on the south by the Mexican border: This enormous land area does not have the resources to support 1/20th of the population which presently occupies it. Without the rapid overuse of precious resources, this whole area turns mostly to dust. In a hundred years, it could become a huge abandoned no-man's land, without water, and too far from the sustenance of life to pull it in. Sounds extreme, right?

    But that's what all the science is telling us.

    Anselm Hollo has a little poem that jokes that the petroleum era lasts about 150 years. Then, figuratively speaking, we're back with animals and proximity to food. Then, owning and working a plot of land begins to become viable again, as it was 100 years ago.

    Every slaughtered a pig? Ever driven a plow horse over a hilly field?

  5. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Personally, I have helped slaughter and dress a pig. It wasn't fun. The pig was tasty.

    About water and the desert that is the southwest. Before the US of A took over the Colorado, Mexico had a very nice delta area. They also used canals, simple canals, to irrigate farmland. Now they depend on seepage from water that we control, and we are in the process of cement lining the channels the water travels in = no more seepage.

    Water has been a potential problem for decades. There was a woman, Barbara somebody or other, may have been a Canadian, who wrote a few books way back in the '60's or 70's about the problems with lack of access to clean water. She basically said it was going to bite us all where we sit.

  6. Big capital now recognizes the value of potable water.

    In India, private corporations are buying up water rights and then selling water to the highest bidder(s).

    Someone remarked that we pay more for the water sold in bottles than gasoline. And yet, most municipal water is as good as, or better, than bottled.

    Water is a defining limit of civilisation. Without clean water, habitation (and culture) dry up.

    If you build and populate beyond the capacity of your fresh water resource, nature will indeed bite you in the ass. The same is true for sewage, waste, air pollution, etc.

    The earth isn't limitless. There are boundaries, and we've crossed most of them already.

    Good luck, people of earth.

  7. Anonymous6:14 PM

    We most definitely knew better 40 years ago, so what did we do? Deny reality. We are really, really good at that. And when reality slaps the living shit out of us, we are really, really good at tokenism. A shift in consciousness is coming, but a very real question is whether or not it will be in time, and whether or not the interests that made jokes out of the people who got it can once again prevent the essential changes required to insure sustainability.

    Meanwhile, I just discovered a nascent website that is a response to James Hansen's most recent remarks regarding CO2 and catastrophic climate change. Giving up is not an option, of course, and these people seem like the pilot of that Chinese 747 who refused to give up:

    Anonymous David

  8. Anonymous7:32 AM

    Finally, I found the real answer to the rising food prices. Well, it isn't a one liner, but it does make sense. First is climate change. Some traditional farm areas such as Aussie's wheat and rice growing region, (I hadn't realized Aussie exported rice.), are and have been under severe drought conditions. Other of the world's farming areas have been flooded. Second is, of course, the rise in the price of oil products which affects everything from the tractor in the field, in developed nations, to the truck carrying the harvest to wherever it goes next and after that, in all nations. Number two we had all figured out on our own. The final kicker is those developing nations who are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Their citizens have more money and are buying more food meaning they are eating better than they were. This is good, but it also means more customers for a limited supply. Well, it wasn't a limited supply when a goodly part of the world was on starvation rations. China and India are two examples. Those are the major causes for the rise in food prices.

    The side effects is countries like India noting the rise in food costs and stopping exports of rice, so their home market doesn't develop a shortage. The cyclone in Myanmar is going to affect rice availability, and the quake in China may have an effect as well. Wheat wise, interestingly enough, there is a bumper crop expected here in the US. When all the noise was made about the farmers in the mid west planting corn instead of wheat, I think by the oil interests who would like to side track biofuels, other farmers either put in wheat for the first time or expanded their wheat production. Down here in the Imperial Valley there are wheat fields almost everywhere there is a farm. I guess that means alfalfa or hay will soon be in short supply.

    None of this means a decrease in the cost of food because of the oil price part of the equation. Wheat may soon be readily available, but the cost of growing it, and turning it into food items such as bread and cereal, is still higher than it was. Go bio-fuel farmers and producers! Here in the Valley consideration is being given to growing sugar cane for biofuel. The catch is luring the industry into the area. Hmmm, is that one of those provide it (the raw product, ie. sugar cane), and they come, (the bio-fuel industry)? Makes a nice movie, but I bet it isn't that easy.

    The other thing the world is going to have to look at is increasing farm production to meet the increased number of customers with rupees and yuan in their pockets. Unfortunately farms in India and China are not mechanized the way farming is in the developed nations. A farmer pushing a plow behind his water buffalo is quaint and makes for a great snapshot. That farm, small as it may be, doesn't produce what it could with the mechanization that same farmer can't afford. Heck, he and his farming neighbors forming a co-op probably still couldn't afford the simple mechanization that would increase their production. Increasing bio-fuel production will help, but there are obviously other factors to consider as well.

    All this makes going to the grocery store interesting.

  9. Don't be too snide about biofuel out of sugarcane. Brazil has a roaring biofuel industry going, based on making ethanol out of sugarcane. Of course, Brazil has a better climate for growing sugarcane than we do...

  10. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Brazil did it intelligently (for ethanol) back when it was a step in the right direction away from Middle East oil. But they are also decimating the Amazon Rainforest, and ethanol is still a carbon-based fuel that adds to CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Based on current models, Brazil is a raging success story. Problem is, current models are doomed. We will either transform how we do things, or things will transform us in ways we won't like. That is James Hansen's point, and the window for transfomation is not a large or forgiving one.

    Anonymous David