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The Coming Biofuels Disaster

Joe Brewer

Have you ever tried to solve a problem only to discover that you made things worse in the process? This is happening right now with biofuels. We are on the road to disaster because the problem we are trying to solve has been framed inadequately. Harmful impacts from large-scale biofuel production are largely overlooked. And we aren't even addressing the right problem! The truth can be seen when we frame issues in the context of livability.

Solving the Wrong Problem

Policy makers have been grappling with the fact that an excessive amount of carbon dioxide is polluting our atmosphere, disrupting global weather patterns and shifting the world's climate beyond safe boundaries. The solution required by this problem is that we stop increasing greenhouse pollution levels. This can be accomplished by shifting our energy sector in a direction that ultimately reduces the amount of heat-trapping gases that have accumulated since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

On the surface, biofuels present the ideal solution to this problem. We can grow them in large amounts and the carbon that is released by burning them is equal to the amount they breathe in as they grow. This simple mental accounting is very appealing, but woefully inaccurate for describing what is really going on.

The real problem is that the way we use energy is out of balance with natural processes, driving us away from the equilibrium necessary for our communities to survive. This is evident in the planet's atmosphere where global warming is running rampant, our cities are submerged in toxic gases, and the protective ozone shield is tattered. It is also evident in the biosphere, where we are in the midst of the Earth's sixth mass extinction (the first in the planet's four and a half billion year history caused by a single species - humans). Soils in our agricultural plains are lost to wind and water, reducing the land's capacity to produce food. And our water supplies are being diverted, drained, and contaminated by toxic run-off. We need to find livable solutions to this problem.

A glance at biofuels in the context of livability shows how woefully inadequate they are for solving it. In truth, they will make things worse. The biofuels hoax, as ecologist Eric Holt-Giménez calls it, is based on several misunderstandings that arise in the language of the energy debate.

The Biofuel Myth of Renewal

Biofuels are not the clear solution they seem to be. For starters, the word biofuel is problematic. The augmentation of the word fuel with the prefix bio- creates a meaning that uses our experience with biological organisms (namely that they are able to reproduce themselves). This meaning implies that biofuels are renewable because the crops used to create them can also be reproduced. But biofuels are not renewable without dramatically changing the ways we grow crops and manufacture/distribute products.

Large-scale agricultural practices deplete soils, contaminate water supplies, and are vulnerable to pests and disease when single crops (monocultures) are grown in large fields. The widespread use of pesticides - manufactured using fossil fuels - is also contributing to the cancer epidemic wreaking havoc on our communities. Current agricultural practices also require non-renewable resources and utilize vast distribution networks that are very high in resource demand - including the need for lots of energy.

In some areas, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, entire forests are decimated to grow biofuel crops. The plant life destroyed in this process releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide as the dead trees and undergrowth decompose, exacerbating the problem they are meant to address.

Biofuels are not renewable! Soils are depleted. Water supplies are depleted. Highways and factories deplete mineral resources. Entire forests are depleted.

This truth is hidden by the blending of the concepts for living organism and fuel in the word biofuel.

Frankenfuel Monster

The word biofuel tells us that the fuel is natural. Things that are natural are considered to be safer than things that are manufactured. This understanding of natural tells us that biofuels are better than manufactured fuels.

The natural frame leads to two false impressions:

1. Biofuels are presumed to be good for the environment 2. Biofuels are presumed to be better for us than manufactured fuels

The first impression is false because of the agricultural production systems we currently use. The second impression is false because biofuels are manufactured in two ways. First, the fuel is produced through an industrial refinement process where ethanol is extracted from plant materials. And second, there is considerable emphasis on genetically engineering plants to be grown as fuel sources. These plants - including corn, palm trees, switch grass, and algae - are not natural if they are the product of intentional design by genetic engineering.

One area of genetic research that isn't talked about nearly enough is devoted to increasing plant resistance to pests. With something like switch grass that grows quickly, the prospect of making it resistant to pests is a recipe for a super weed. The last thing we want is an aggressive weed that is immune to natural predators.

We shouldn't call genetically engineered plants biofuels. They are frankenfuels. By tampering with plant DNA, we run the risk of getting further out of balance, possibly introducing new and unexpected harms like invasive species that take over croplands and natural ecosystems.

The precautionary principle, which tells us that possible threats with dire consequences should be avoided, automatically applies when the discussion is about finding livable solutions.

Myth of Transition

The energy debate has explored biofuels as a "transition" to renewable energy. The livability lens already shows us that they are not renewable, but supporters often reply to such critiques by stating that biofuels are a step in the right direction. They claim that biofuels are better than oil (in the context of the carbon emissions problem) and are a significant step toward a society based entirely on renewable energy.

This is simply not true. We are dependent on oil because the massive infrastructure of our societies is based on the use of fossil fuels. Changing over to a biofuel society involves building a similarly massive infrastructure. An honest account of this option includes this truth.

In order to meet current energy demands, we must grow crops over huge areas, build factories and storage facilities, redesign automobiles to run on biodiesel, and more. We would be entrenched in a biofuel society as much as we are now in a fossil fuel society. Either way, we are still dependent on some kind of fuel.

Feeding Cars or People?

Another kind of transition will happen if we invest significantly in biofuels. We will shift crop yields away from food production. Basic economics tells us that the cost of goods go up when supply decreases. The growing demand for grains to produce fuel has increased the cost of food.

The economic incentive to grow crops for fuels instead of food will drive down food production in the long run, permanently inflating the cost of food. At the same time, less food will be produced. This combination creates a situation where landowners are motivated by profits to grow fuel crops, which will lead to an increase in the number of hungry people in poor countries.

We are starving poor people to feed our cars!

This economic truth does not emerge in the context of carbon dioxide levels. Only by framing the problem in the context of livability does the impact on poor people become apparent.

Bypassing Disaster with Livability

The biofuels debate has been centered on the wrong question. The problem is not simply the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we address the "carbon problem" without recognizing the "livability problem" our solutions will fail. This is the challenge. We have to look at these problems holistically to see the impacts of our choices.

Addressing the climate crisis requires us to do a lot more than change from fossil fuels to plant-based fuels. Global warming is a problem because the way we live is out of sync with nature. The solution is to rethink how we relate to our natural environment. This is where livability is paramount. We need to be thinking about family farms, not factory farms. In the family farm frame, people are interacting with the earth to produce food. The factory farm frame has people interacting with the earth to produce money.

All of the problems with biofuels have been largely overlooked because of the way the situation has been framed. Experts have known about these problems for a long time, but public discourse has been too narrow to recognize them.

When thinking about the essential features of a livable community, we can see that biofuels will not work in their current incarnation. A livable community:

* Provides essential resources like potable water and breathable air * Preserves these essential resources for future generations * Provides food security (now and into the future) * Promotes the flourishing of life (including the millions of species we co-exist with - and cannot exist without!)

A livable community promotes life. This means it is not destructive. Current emphasis on pesticides and herbicides, for example, are chemical killers that destroy life. By growing diverse crops locally, we don't need nitrogen fertilizer that runs off into rivers and kills life in lakes and oceans. Instead, a livable community's central activities involve growing food in a way that supports many different kinds of plants and animals. This diversity provides a buffer for the community to protect it against changes in climate (where some plants may no longer grow, but others will). In a livable community, energy is generated to serve the needs of people. A variety of ways to generate energy provides another kind of buffer against change. Some sources - such as coal and oil - will be phased out when they threaten the security of people in the community.

It is not even clear whether biofuels can be part of the solution at all. The family farm that supports life is inherently local and small. Introduction of an economic incentive to grow fuel crops will drive local farmers to grow ever larger biofuel crops, resulting in the pattern that is occurring now.

We can solve the "livability problem" by looking for ways to promote life. The carbon dioxide problem will get fixed along the way.

Joe Brewer of The Rockridge Institute.

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