Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ethanol and the End of Civilization!

No Kidding.

Ethanol is not the answer to the world's energy woes. Not only will the increasing use of ethanol to power our lifestyle not save us from the whims of OPEC it very well could lead to the destruction of civilization itself.

Wow, that's a pretty strong assertion. The beginning of the end is already upon us. The price of corn in the global market continues to rise despite increasing yields. Why? Because demand is up, of course. Ethanol production is in part driving much of the demand. The dilemma comes as the more 2 billion people on this planet who rely on affordable corn just to survive can't afford to feed their families. If the world has to decide between "cheap" fuel for our cars and SUV's or feeding 2 billion people there is only one moral choice.

The tortilla riots have already started.

While it is not possible to distill something as complex as the global food system down to one culprit the rise in ethanol production certainly plays a big part. Corrupt governments in Mexico, Africa and South America along with multinational agri-business manipulating supply and price along with the rising fuel and production costs are driving prices for basic food staples higher. Rich counties can absorb the costs but the third world can not.

If current trends continue and the fuel vs food aspect is not dealt with we could see civilization collapse all around us.

Ethanol is not the answer for many reasons. The move toward ethanol as a primary fuel is a reaction. It literally makes no sense when oil is so abundant. The problems with oil are more political than they are technical. Cars and trucks that burn gasoline are getting cleaner and more efficient (and bigger, seriously does anyone really need a Humvee to get to work?) every year. The environmental claims for the use of ethanol are a bit specious since it takes incredible amounts of traditionally generated energy to produce ethanol. The continued mantra we hear American politicians spew "we have to wean ourselves from being dependent on foreign oil" is ill informed rhetoric. Oil is a global market - it doesn't matter where it comes from. What matters is that a huge percentage of global oil operations are nationalized. When oil extraction and production is nationalized the efficiency of the marketplace goes out the window. The only thing keeping the current situation somewhat in balance is that the oil producing nations are as dependent on the West and China buying their oil as the West and China is on them to supply it.

Ethanol is not the answer.

Ethanol has it's place. MTBE, ethanol's major competitor, is being phased out due to environmental concerns. Ethanol is currently blended in about 30% of America's fuel supply-helping reduce toxic exhaust emissions and providing higher octane without the trouble MTBE causes. In 2004 there were 84 ethanol plants are in operation in the U.S. alone -with another fourteen under construction.

Nations like Brazil have nearly replaced traditional gasoline with ethanol. But it comes at a price. Again there is the cost of food and in Brazil the rain forests are coming down to grow grain crops. Since the soil there is perfect for jungles but not so good for grain crops more and more land is needed to grow the grain needed to feed and fuel the Brazilian economy. In 2004, Amazon tree-cutting reached its highest level in a decade: More than 10,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, were cut down, according to government statistics. Currently trade barriers in the U.S. (to protect American farm business) prevent Brazil form exporting ethanol to the U.S. While being very anti free trade it may indeed save more of the Amazon jungle from being plowed under...

The situation in the Amazon basin only illustrates even more that ethanol production is not the panacea for the "global" environment we are led to believe. Only a long term high tech solution to energy is going to save us.

The plight of the third world is going to rely on food and fuel. Energy use is what pulls a backward pre-modern country into the global market. However food is equally important. This is what has been at the core of the success of America, Europe, Japan and the emerging Asian nations. Keeping the population fed while building dynamic economies with the use of ever increasing amounts of energy. If the West continues on the path of using our food for fuel we are only going to "drive" our civilization to its destruction.



al fin said...

You may be pleased to know that enzymologists, by using multiple approaches, are closing in on the creation of high efficiency "cellulases." These are enzymes that break down the cellulose in wood and plant matter, into simple sugars that can be fermented to ethanol, or--my favourite--butanol. There will be no need to use food at all, since plant waste will do the job.

In the longer term, nanotechnology solutions for producing energy hold out the most promise. Three dimensional nano-photovoltaics and nano-piezoelectrics will harvest huge amounts of energy from the sun and wind. Nano-enabled geothermal energy will provide more energy than humans can use.

Here's the thing--with the demographic and political clashes certain to rock our world in the near future, people had best prepare themselves and their families for some rocky times.

For those who make it to the other side, things will be very nice.

StaticNoise said...

I was being a bit apocalyptic with this post just to drive home a point that we as a civilization need to pursue long term real solutions like what you described instead of creating a solution that pits food against fuel while big agri-business companies reap huge profits and people starve. Not that it's that bad right now but trends are trends.

Just like with the "Global Warming" problem I like you think technology will be the answer. I think its clear that humanity, rich or poor, only moves up when he uses more and more energy - we just need to minimize the negative side effects.