As We Stand on the Brink of Catastrophe, Bio-Fuels are no Magic Bullet


The burgeoning reality of global climate change, rooted in a century of over-consumption of fossil fuels, is merging with another crisis with the same basic root cause--the looming depletion of inexpensive oil and gas supplies ("peak oil"). Combined, they bring the world to an unprecedented and profoundly dangerous moment that threatens global environmental and social crises on an epic scale.

These crises potentially include a breakdown of the most basic operating structures of our society, even industrialism itself, at least at its present scale. Long distance transportation, industrial food systems, complex urban and suburban systems, and many commodities basic to our present way of life--autos, plastics, chemicals, pesticides, refrigeration, et al.--are all rooted in the basic assumption of ever-increasing inexpensive energy supplies.

One would think that such threatening circumstances would bring clear and effective movement from the leaders of national governments, acting on behalf of present and future generations. So far, however, with a few exceptions, the response of most governments has been inadequate to address the scale of the problem. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where government, politicians, and most corporations are still hoping to somehow convert the climate and peak oil crises into a new business opportunity.

We are seeing a lot of scurrying and postulating, as each sector, government, business, and that odd new third sector--presidential candidates--are engaged in a mad rush to identify magic elixirs to solve the energy problem while pushing corporate growth and unabated consumerism. By avoiding reality, they make the problems worse, and real solutions more difficult to achieve. Solutions so far include, for example, desperate grabs for the last remnants of oil and gas supplies, thus the war in Iraq.

An increasingly popular solution is that of biofuels, purported as the renewable energy that will definitively shift our dependency away from fossil fuels. But corn-produced ethanol and many of the other biofuel varieties are leading us down a path of unsustainability as they continue to impact fragile ecosystems, threaten biodiversity, concentrate corporate power and increase inequities in rural communities. These surely offer no magic bullets to solve our problems, and may, in the end, bring more harm than good, as compared with likely alternatives such as wind, solar, small scale hydro, and wave.

Ethanol, the most popular of biofuels, is creating a new competition between land needed to grow fuel for cars versus food for humans. Add to that the fact that generating ethanol costs more energy than it produces and it contributes to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the entire myth of biofuels as the catch-all solution to global warming is debunked.

Having made ethanol into this magic elixir, politicians, financial investors, and the occasional environmental organization are masking the need for far deeper investigation and solutions. They are pushing us toward practices that actually may be less sustainable and socially just than what preceded them. We are merely trading one set of problems for another.

There is a strong case that no combination of renewables will be sufficient to sustain the industrial system at its present bloated, wasteful scale. Ultimately, the answer must involve renewables plus significant efforts toward all-out conservation, efficiency, reduced consumption and "powering down" of energy use. It is crucial that these latter elements always be included in discussions of sustainable futures.

But there is some good news. A new process and set of evaluative tools is now gaining favor among scientists, which they are calling "Life Cycle Analysis." This basically means that new technologies, and specifically energy technologies, are evaluated in a far more comprehensive way, including all inputs and materials used at every stage of their extraction through mining, assembly, transport and performance from "dust to dust." They offer full ecological footprints from the ground-up, from birth to death. This process has the potential to dissuade us from making glib assumptions about which energy alternative actually contributes more, and harms less, than the others.

The basic goal must be to move toward creating an economy that operates first of all in the interests of ecological sustainability, within the ecological limits of the planet, and which includes social and economic equity, without which no long term solution is possible. The lives of our children and the planet literally depend on our doing the right thing, not the most convenient thing. That's the impetus for a Washington teach-in later this week that seeks to confront the global triple crisis of our time: climate change, peak oil, and global resource depletion. Sixty speakers from all continents will offer their ideas. Visit and join the discussion.

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