Second Edition, March 2008
What do George Bush, the conservative congress, most liberals, and quite a few radical environmentalists share in common? Enthusiastic support for biofuels. How could such diverse interests all support the same cause? Because they are all sold on the myth of progress, which holds out the illusion that some “new” technology can save us from our environmental woes. The proponents of biofuels promise an age of clean and renewable fuel. The reality is that biofuels are likely to accelerate a market-based genocide of the poor and an ecocide of what is left of wild nature.
When I first started publishing a pamphlet entitled Biodiesel and Other Biofuels in Ecological Perspective a few years ago, I was concerned about the impacts of biofuels based on their history and based on the limitations already seen and predicted in the global food system. If one extrapolates current trends of population and economic growth in the coming decades, it is not clear how we will feed 9 billion people (which is the predicted population of Earth by 2050), even without reductions in the food supply resulting from biofuel conversion.
The history of biofuel is cause for concern as well. The early industrial economy deforested Europe and the U.S. because it was based on biofuels. And now that population has grown many times, and energy use per-capita has grown even faster, we think we can go back to an economy based on biofuels?
When the modern biofuel craze was first getting started, propelled by a few rugged individuals grabbing used cooking oil from behind restaurants, I started to caution my fellow activists that they might not realize the destructive power of the beast they were unleashing. The world food system has become globalized, part of a market that has no conscience beyond profit. The drivers on the beltways of America are disconnected from the environmental and social impacts of their actions. The basic math tells the story. It takes 10 acres or thereabout to feed a car on ethanol for a year.1 The world supply of grainland is about three-tenths of an acre per person, and is expected to shrink to less than a quarter acre by 2020.2 Clearly direct market competition between rich and poor for land to feed cars or people could be disastrous. Small amounts of used cooking grease matter little, but what happens when the powerful consumers of the West are put in direct market competition with the stomachs of the poor all over the world? In a word, genocide. Only a few people were willing to question the biofuel mania. (The only other person I have heard use the term “genocide” in relation to biofuel is Fidel Castro.)
Notwithstanding the critics, the growth of the biofuel craze has been very rapid. For those that would argue that biofuel does not compete with food supplies, the actual behavior of the market, even at this early stage, belies such contentions. Radical increases in food prices caused by biofuel expansion have triggered food riots in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Mexico. (That list is likely to be longer by the time you read this.) Even in Italy consumers have caused public disturbances over the rising price of food. Biodiesel plants built in Malaysia now lie idle, never having been put into production, because those odd Malaysian peasants are demanding the right to eat their palm oil. Meanwhile, in Swaziland, a small impoverished nation in South Africa where forty percent of its people are facing food shortages, the government decided last year to start exporting biofuel.3
When I first started writing about this issue several years ago, global grain stocks were at their lowest point in 34 years. Grain stocks have continued to fall. We are perched on a precipice where a widespread drought in grain-producing regions could cause severe instability in both food and energy prices. Such instability could trigger widespread famine. Such concerns are not restricted to fringe critics. Goldman Sachs is predicting that “vulnerable regions of the world face the risk of famine over the next three years as rising energy costs spill over into a food crunch...”4 The number of people in the world suffering severe undernourishment was declining until the late 1990s. Now it is rising.
Currently, 5% of the global food supply is going into biofuels, and that fraction is growing very rapidly – some would say virally.5 If the current rate of expansion of biofuel continues, ethanol plants will be using almost all of the U.S. corn crop within 5-7 years. In response to this growth rate and the dangerous potential outcomes it implies, the United Nations Rapporteur on Food has called for a moratorium on biofuels expansion. The European Union is drafting legislation so that they will only import biofuels that are produced “sustainably,” but the definition of that term is still up for debate. Even the supposed carbon-saving aspect of biofuels has been debunked. Millions of acres of forest, including enormous areas of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Brazil, are being destroyed to produce biofuels. On average, biofuels add more carbon to the atmosphere than fossil fuels.6
And how is the U.S. responding? In the fall of 2004, congress passed a tax relief bill supporting biodiesel, and the new energy bill passed by Congress in 2007 supports a rapid expansion of ethanol production.7 President Bush has spoken openly in favor of biodiesel, and has visited biodiesel plants to show his support.8 Liberal campaigner, musician and activist Willie Nelson has been advocating the use of biofuel. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been promoting biofuel hummers in California. At the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors released their new ethanol Hummer. Virgin Atlantic, one of the world's major airlines, announced in January 2008 that it is going to conduct the first commercial flight using biofuels on board a Boeing 747 (one of the world's largest airliners).9
The long-term trajectory of direct market competition between the cars of the wealthy and the stomachs of the poor is so terribly obvious, how could so many intelligent people fail to see it? For the same reason they do not see the causes of poverty, and the relationship of the poverty of others to their own wealth. Because they don't want to.
Biofuels represent the maturing of the global market economy Perhaps they accelerate its natural tendencies, but biofuels fit well within the economic and mental frameworks that have created and allowed the great disparity of wealth and power in the modern world. The western world is no more compelled to address the looming biofuel genocide than it has been to address any of the other inequities created by our empire. The impacts of biofuels are obvious. We are choosing. It is not an accident.
We tend to think of Third World starvation as the result of natural disasters, poor local governance, and a history of underdevelopment. While there is not a single cause for modern inequality, we in the global North tend to remain blissfully ignorant of the extent to which we benefit from the systems that perpetuate global poverty, or even national poverty.
There are a number of layers in the process by which the rich get rich. The first is the direct suppression of productive capacity in the global South. It profits industrialized countries to suppress industrial development in the poorer nations while maximizing the output of raw commodities (mineral ore, bulk agricultural goods, timber) that are shipped to the global North. Although industry has moved into some less-developed countries to take advantage of cheap labor, they have also violently resisted any infringement on their “intellectual property,” or direct competition with their manufactured items.
The commercial interests of the industrialized world have also used the global financial system to encourage the dependency of less developed nations. By encouraging these less industrialized nations to take loans, the northern countries insure that they will remain dependent in the future for further infusions of cash.10 Even those countries that maintain a positive balance of trade, who sell more than they buy, are forced to take on a certain amount of debt simply to be able to move goods. To move a ship full of goods requires that those good be purchased with credit, thus requiring the purchaser to take on short-term debt to pay for the goods. This financial leverage is then used for the profit of the global North.
Even the money that is loaned to less industrialized countries finds its way back to northern banks. Sometimes corrupt officials in less developed countries simply embezzle the money and then reinvest it in northern banks. Often northern loans are contingent on northern companies being hired to undertake development work. Then the debt repayments themselves, squeezed out of poorer nations, come back to northern banks. Even if the debt has been paid off several times over in interest, still Third World peoples are expected to continuing paying for loans from which they received no benefit.11
While less developed nations are cut off from global trade because of their supposed fiscal irresponsibility, the U.S. continues to spend money we don't have. How do we do that? Oil money from the Middle East, and investor's money from China, Japan, and elsewhere pours into the U.S. to finance public debt through the purchase of treasury bonds.12
And last but not least, there is a consistent flow of educated people who, after being educated at considerable expense in other nations, choose to migrate to the industrial countries where they are given preferential immigration status. The net result of all of these factors is an enormous transfer of wealth from poor to rich. Not only do raw materials flow from the less industrialized nations to the wealthy nations, but the net flow of money is from South to North as well.13
What does all of this have to do with biofuels? Biofuel are ultimately commodities produced from the land and sea. As much as we might like to believe that global hunger is the result of natural disaster, it is rather the result of inequality. The U.S. thinks of itself as the breadbasket of the world. The reality is that the U.S. imports almost as much food as we export.14 In Latin America, where poverty is endemic, domestic meat consumption went down for many years while exports to the U.S. increased.15 Across Africa, much of the best land is taken up by transnational corporations and other entities exporting luxury crops to Europe while local people starve.16 In our modern world, people starve because of poverty, not natural disaster, and poverty is inextricably linked to the extreme accumulation of wealth in the global north.
Nearly half of the U.S. population is overweight while hundreds of millions of humanity go hungry.17 Already, the best agricultural land around the world is dedicated to producing excessive amounts of meat for northern markets. How could we think biofuels would somehow magically fly above current conditions rather than exacerbating them?
To put biofuels in global context, one has to understand that the global north is using energy at a rate that cannot possibly be obtained from the “surplus,” or even the total of, our current food production system. The U.S. is particularly profligate. According to David Pimentel, the U.S. population consumes 40% more fossil energy than all the solar energy captured by harvested U.S. crops, forest products, and other vegetation each year.18 Any use of biofuels has to be added to our current demands on the Earth's biota that we already claim to produce food and fuel. For food, building materials, and firewood, we already harvest about 25% of the entire photosynthetic product of planet earth. If one looks at only the land area, we already harvest about 40% of the entire photosynthetic product of the land mass of the planet earth.19 The energy used by modern industrial society, if harvested from biological sources, would represent an additional 25% of the Earth's entire photosynthetic product.20 Or, another way to say that, to match our current consumption of energy from biofuel sources would require all of the food, paper, and wood currently harvested from the world's forests and fields. To produce biofuel on a scale to support even a fraction of current industrial output without reducing food production would require harvesting the planet's biological output at a rate that may not even be possible. If it could be done, it would come at extraordinary cost to every other living thing on the Earth. Inextricably embedded in the biofuels paradigm is the cold fact that it can only be done with land expropriated from the global poor. That process is under way.
Given that our human world is very polarized along lines of wealth and power, those who hold such wealth are likely to take every measure to hold on to their power, and make every justification for doing so. The high-tech dreams of a consumptive but sustainable society, suburbia powered by solar, wind, or nuclear, are illusions that will bear the brunt of simple physical impossibility. All of these technologies are very expensive to build, and thus provide small returns on the money and energy invested. Many alternative technologies are simply too dispersed to produce energy on the scale demanded by the consumptive economy. (For an excellent analysis of the potentials and limits of alternative energies, see Ted Trainer's Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.)21 As far as the physics of the real world are concerned, large-scale biofuel production is at least physically possible, if we set aside some of the land currently used for food.
As the constraints on other alternative fuels become more apparent, pressure will grow to power the consumptive economy with biofuels produced on a very large scale at the expense of global food production. The wealthier nations will, in the coming decades, through a policy of neglect and quiet interference, attempt to destroy populations in Africa and elsewhere in order to take their land for the sake of biofuel production. On our long list of technological illusions, biofuels are the only means of supporting the consumptive economy that could, from the standpoint of physics, actually work.
If you think that such a dire scenario is inappropriately alarmist, consider what has happened already. Anyone familiar with epidemiology can tell you that epidemic disease is inextricably linked to hunger. The Black Death of Europe, in which a third of the continental population died in the 1300s, was the result of widespread malnutrition that weakened the population.22 Europe recovered in time, and populations grew. Our forebearers were once again approaching the tipping point to disaster a couple hundred years later. How did they save themselves? Colonialism. They conquered lands across the New World and Asia, at great expense to the native peoples, and established colonies that shipped food back to the homeland. That forestalled another Plague in Europe, but at the expense of tens of millions of human lives around the world.23
In more modern times, we are all familiar with the genocide attempted by Hitler. But how many Americans are aware that the number of people who have died in sub-Saharan Africa from HIV/AIDS exceeds the number who died in Hitler's camps?24 The population growth of some African nations has been brought to a halt by HIV/AIDS. Why are we so aware of one holocaust and so ignorant of another? If and when transnational agribusiness moves into sub-Saharan African to produce biofuel on land vacated by convenient epidemics, will we in the global north not applaud them for bringing economic development to the poor?
The modern commercial economy absolves all guilt. Everyone is supposed to produce, buy, and sell in the global market. And if there is a holocaust in that marketplace, there is no specific political leader or party to blame. That is how genocide will grow, unrecognized by most, while the global north is greatly saddened by natural disasters. The global agribusiness corporations will move onto the land where the skeletons lie quietly, and the corporate media will applaud the corporate biofuel producers who are at last bringing economic development to impoverished nations. It is a bitter irony that this global genocide has its roots among those who consider themselves the most enlightened and progressive.
The biofuel genocide is being prepared by a gross misunderstanding of the history of our industrial society -- and by the desire to do something when we don't know what to do. We first have to correctly diagnose the problem. Modern society is not only ecologically unsustainable, it is politically polarized. In our time various groups have struggled, and won, civil rights for their own race, gender, or ethnic group. While these movements are laudable, they leave the basic structures of society unchanged. In as much as the energy issue reaches to the heart of industrialism, we need a different kind of movement.
Current levels of consumption serve to keep the industrial machines running. We overproduce and over-consume at great expense to future generations. In the immediate sense, that overconsumption is driven by the desire for status, the need to be respected by our fellow humans. Thus our houses continue to grow larger even as the number of people living in them declines. Our cars get larger even as the environmental costs of them become more apparent every day. We tend to think of the desire to "keep up with the Joneses" as an innate human trait. That is not true. The desire for respect is natural, but idealizing overconsumption is not. We could construct a society in which status is not linked to the wasteful use of resources. We do not overconsume because we are greedy. We are consumptive because it provides such a powerful national and international economic stimulus. That stimulus keeps the industrial powers in charge. The U.S. has long been in control of the global trade currency, the U.S. dollar. A great portion of the world's resources and money has to pass through our economy, which gives us enormous power, unchallenged dominion. That is why we consume so much. And that is why even liberals are so supportive of biofuels in spite of the obvious genocidal potential. They are as bought into the system of privilege as are conservatives.
While it is noble to march in the street against the latest war, the U.S. could not maintain its position of privilege in relation to the rest of the world without a very aggressive foreign policy. The cycle of war and empire cannot be broken until we westerners recognize our economic privilege, or until the global poor rise up against us. Biofuels are, for better or worse, greatly accelerating the end game of global industrial capitalism. As global energy supplies begin to shrink (which will probably occur in the next few years, if it is not happening already), a great clash between the wealthy and the poor is likely. The global market economy appears benign in the context of growth. In a context of severe contraction, the normal operation of a market economy is wholesale genocide.
Real answers involve changing how we live, as well as addressing economic and political inequality. Biofuels have become the cutting edge of the global battle to control the world's resources. Given that the supply of energy is not growing, and will probably start shrinking soon, the only way that the wealthy classes of the world can sustain their consumer lifestyle is by claiming an ever greater portion of the limited global supply of agricultural products for fuel. For millions, or even billions of people, the resulting increases in food prices are devastating. The acuity of this situation will only increase in the coming years.
We need to conserve resources, and we also need to organize. While it is beneficial to conserve energy on a personal level, we have to realize we will only have a real impact when we organize our conservation efforts on a political scale. Many environmentalists have been taking the easy path, telling people what they want to hear instead of the truth. They have been telling American consumers that we can continue the current consumer society, and simply power it with alternative energy. That is simply not true, not without resorting to genocide. Such destruction is, implicitly, part of the plan, the natural course of the market economy, and we should say so outright.
If individuals conserve small amounts of energy, that is fine. That can bring about a small percentage reduction in our resource use. But because of falling energy supplies, global warming, and the combination of other challenges we face, we will need to do more than that. We will need to bring about an order of magnitude of reduction in consumption, and we will need to do it in the context of an organized global movement to devolve power to the local level.
The answers are both impossibly difficult and terribly simple. We wait for great movements and charismatic leaders to organize people. The truth is that we don't need to wait for anyone, or any new technology. We think that people are unwilling to endure enormous changes to their lifestyles, whereas in reality our lifestyles are going to change enormously in the coming decades whether we like it or not. We get to choose only whether we push history or get pushed by it.
We do not have the choice to remain in place. Great change is upon us. We can lead the curve or follow the curve. If the global supply of energy begins to decline at 3% per year, we can create an era of prosperity and an expansion of democracy even under conditions of contraction by reducing our energy consumption faster than 3% per year. This is important because ecology and democracy are much more closely linked that we have ever been taught to believe.
Every leader of every stripe tries to tell us of the importance of ideas. As a result, we have become convinced that the ideas and policies of preachers, politicians, and other leaders are more important than the supply of oil, the topsoil, or the health of the forest. The opposite is true. Ecology directly influences politics and our civil liberty. History shows that when material resources are abundant, societies are more open. In times of scarcity, individual freedoms are abridged for the sake of collective survival. Since the U.S. was founded, its general trajectory has been one of economic growth, which has favored an expansion of civil liberty. Economic contraction will favor those who would put us under authoritarian rule. Not only is leading the curve an ecological imperative, it will determine whether our children live in a democratic society or in a dictatorship.
In order to lead the curve and reduce our resource consumption to a meaningful extent, we will need to unravel the economy of compulsive consumption and replace it with one of cooperative use. If an individual reduces his or her energy use by a small percentage, that's good. But when we work together, much greater potentials can be realized.
Alternative energy is not well suited to the individualized, consumer society. Fossil fuel machines -- be they cars, water heaters, furnaces, or any of the myriad other machines we use -- have the advantage that they are cheap to purchase up front, even if they have higher running costs in the long run. That's why we use them. Without exception, alternative energy systems have higher up-front costs and lower running costs. To heat water or wash clothes using cheap fossil-fueled machinery fits in our individualized society. But if each block in a town had a community laundry, for instance, then it would be both economically viable and ecologically beneficial for that community laundry to have a solar water heating system and other durable, high-quality machines. You might save 10% of your energy bill by getting the most efficient machines in your house. But if people use machines and buildings cooperatively, then it is relatively simple, and cheap, to save 90% or more over current energy use.25 That is an order of magnitude of reduction in energy use.
If not with biofuels, then how will we power our cars in the future? By not having them, not building them, not driving them. Local communities who value their own cultural resources rather than teaching their children to travel will not need private cars. Transit systems that actually work could be powered by any number of fuels. We do not need new technologies. All we need to do is to use the information we already have.
We cannot solarize American suburbia. It is too expensive, and it will not work. It is even less viable to imagine we are going to export expensive alternative energy technologies all over the world. We are unwilling to provide even the most basic needs of food and shelter to hundreds of millions of humanity. Many environmentalists speak as if someday we will provide the people of Darfur and Sub-Saharan Africa with hybrid cars and organic cotton linens. The truth is we have put in place an economic and political system whose purpose is to destroy them and take their land. We must expose the lie. We must organize from the ground up, cooperatively, in a coordinated global movement that reduces energy consumption among the wealthy classes as we devolve power to the local level.
Biofuels have become the cutting edge of an epic global battle. We cannot biofuel our cars and solarize our houses and export that model around the world. There never has been any real intent to do so. The great majority of environmental organizing in America is nationalistic in nature. As is the case with all nationalism, its purpose is to maximize our power and wealth in the coming age at the expense of other peoples and nations. We can drive biofueled cars and live in spacious solarized private homes only if we are willing to fight a global war against the poor. We have better options.
The better option is to lead the curve, to live cooperatively, to forgo the ownership and use of private cars. As radical as that sounds, one has to keep in mind that it is going to happen whether we like it or not. If we wait until we are forced to undergo such contraction, it will be in the context of an eco-fascist state. If we make such changes faster than we are compelled in the context of a global movement, we can sustain and expand our civil liberty while we move toward a truly sustainable society.
We do not need any new technologies. The changes we need to undertake are in themselves simple. We only need the courage to embrace them. We must tell the truth. Biofuels and other “sustainable” technologies seek only to put a thin layer of green paint over a consumer society that is by the day growing more economically polarized. That polarized society will not ever be sustainable. A polarized society actively seeks to repress the social awareness of its citizens, to engage in endless witch hunts against communists, drug dealers, and terrorists of all sorts. It is a blind social system that cannot wisely adapt to the future.
We must organize locally and globally. We cannot wait for a movement to find us. We must create it. We must seek to truly understand what is happening in our world, to propagate that information, and to act on it. A conscious society would seek to understand the many ways that the powerful classes maintain their power, the systematic means by which society at large suppresses social awareness and turns people against each other. We must propagate that understanding. We will not achieve sustainability by electing the right politicians. We must re-create the basic economic institutions of our society. We must have a plan for the future that is at once strategic, multi-level, and informed by history. A true understanding of history teaches us that ecology and economy have an enormous influence over the political and even spiritual organization of society. We will have more influence over the ethics and behavior of our grandchildren by putting in place a cooperative, truly sustainable society based on localized power than we would by endless instruction in lofty moralisms.
Both Heaven and Hell lie at our doorstep, not in the afterlife, but here and now. If we lead the curve, reducing our consumption through the cooperative use of resources even as we coordinate a bottom-up movement toward true sustainability and localized power, then the tools and technologies we have will be well suited to provide at least minimum comfort for all of humanity. If we continue on the current path of nationalistic environmentalism, biofueled cars and solarized suburbia, we will in time be delivered to a humbler lifestyle that on the surface looks very similar to what we could have earlier chosen, except it will be under the boot of enduring slavery. Heaven and Hell. The choice is yours.
Alexis Zeigler is the author of a recently released book, Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire. The book and other articles by the author are available at conev.org The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Pimentel, David, Energy and Dollar Costs of Ethanol Production With Corn, M. King Hubbert Center, Petroleum Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines, Golden CO 80401-1887 at hubbert.mines.edu/news/Pimentel_98-2.pdf
2 Gardner, Gary, Shrinking Fields, Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion, Worldwatch Paper 131, Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., 1996, and Brown, Lester, World Watch Institute, The State of the World 1997, A Worldwatch Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, W.W. Norton, New York, 1997
6 Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change, Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu, Science 29 February 2008: 1238-1240. See also Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne, Science 29 February 2008: 1235-1238. Published online 7 February 2008 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747] (in Science Express Reports)
10 Perkins, John, Confessions of an Economic Hitma, Berrett-Koehler, 2004
11 George, Susan, A Fate Worse Than Debt, Grove Weidenfeld, NY, 1990
13 Odious lending, Debt Relief as if Morals Mattered, The New Economics Foundation, 3 Jonathan Street, London, SE11 5NH,
14 Grist Magazine, February 10, 2006, also see US Department of Agriculture Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FATUS/monthlysummary.htm
16 George, Susan, How The Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons For World Hunger, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1977
18 Pimentel, David, Food, Energy, And Society, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 1996, also at Pimentel, David and Marcia Pimentel, Land, Energy and Water, The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size, NPG forum series published at NPG.org
19 Vitousek, P.M. et al, Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis, Bioscience, 36, 1986
20 Jeffrey S. Dukes, Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption Of Ancient Solar Energy, Climatic Change, 2003, 61: 31-44.
21 Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2007
22 Harris, Marvin, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, The Riddles of Culture, Vintage Books, New York, 1978
23 Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso, London, NY, 2001
25 These calculations based on actual personal experience and measured energy use.