Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dear Hippies: Your cool car is starving poor people

I've always thought that biodiesel was a dumb idea. Maybe it's because I grew up on a farm in Ohio, where a yield of 180 bushels of corn to an acre of land is considered outstanding, on some of the richest farm land in the world, where water falls from the sky. 180 bushels of corn may sound like a lot (a bushel is about 9 gallons for you city types) but this site says you get a grand total of 2.7 gallons of ethanol from a bushel. At 25 miles per gallon, that will drive one car about 12,000 miles -- the average distance that most people drive in a year.

This other site (thanks, Google!) says that you get 134,000 food calories from that same bushel - which is enough to feed a person for 61 days.

So that's your tradeoff -- from a single acre of good farm land, enough food to feed 30 people for a year, or enough ethanol to support one single car, driven as we do today, for a year. 30 people vs. one car. Huh.

It is just about now, dear reader, that it should be dawning on you that the oil economy only works because the entire biomass of millions of years worth of extremely energy-rich plants and animals were compressed into this super-handy stuff we called oil. We have busily extracted this incredibly concentrated goodness from every convenient and many inconvenient places on earth, to the point where its future supply grows uncertain; and we frac it down into the gasoline we put into our cars, and kid ourselves that cleverness and progress is the root cause of our luxurious lifestyles, rather than the tapping of this one-time bonus from the geophysical history of the earth.

From Flickr: Originally uploaded by Michiel2005

And now, as the remaining loose change from that historic bonus starts to rattle around in our pocket, we're desperately casting around for alternatives - and wondering if the globe's yearly spread-out dose of agricultural sunshine can somehow support a lifestyle grown large and fat on the hyper-concentrated fossil extract, without negative consequence.

Um, no.

But don't just take my word for it. Bitter economic truth is exerting itself as we speak, as demand for biofuels grows due to a combination of dopey hippies, foolish politicians, and farmers who never saw a subsidy they didn't like -- I'm looking at you, Iowa-caucus-goers and your bizarre cartel to mis-direct the agenda of U.S. presidential politics. Here's a great article in the New York Times that lays out how globally,poor people are either paying more money for oils or eating less calories because of this trend.

I am a big fan of environmentalism, but at its core enviromentalism means that we must do more with less. Many big green trends today - can you say "carbon credits" for your sports car -- are attempts to deny reality and kid ourselves about the innovation or sacrifices that are yet required of us. Biodiesel is yet another of those false, self-indulgent dead ends.

But there's hope. "The do more" part of the honest environmental equations fires me up. One reason I love the business of computers and communication is that it drives incredible efficiencies in the physical world. I am wildly excited about the many opportunities for innovation - which is what drives TRUE progress - but in order to concentrate on what matters, we have to stop pretending that dumb farm subsidies can save us, and get to work.

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