Ethanol and Immorality

Editor’s Note:  This is classified as a rant for a reason.  Proceed with caution.  

Politics is a dirty business, just ask Judi Dutcher. The DFL candidate for Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor admitted she didn’t know a whole lot about E-85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline motor fuel) to a reporter at the end of a long day dealing with another set of issues entirely. Immediately, the GOP and ethanol-related special interest groups savaged Dutcher, stressing that her fanning on a question about E-85 somehow made her dangerously unfit for the more-or-less unseen job of being the governor’s assistant. For what it’s worth, Governor Pawlenty’s lieutenant, Carol Molnau, makes the headlines about as often as the Minnesota Golden Gopher football team wins a match against a Big Ten opponent, which isn’t very often at all.

In all fairness, considering alternative energy’s focus in the gubernatorial race, Dutcher deserves the criticism she’s receiving for not picking up on the reporter’s question. If you willingly enter politics, you must be prepared to spend your days under a microscope, where any little slip-up can and will be exploited for political gain if at all possible. I personally find the story very interesting for what it does and does not say about ethanol, and how its false perception as the magical elixir that will wean us off of petroleum continues untarnished while the media ignores its dark side.

Ethanol is huge in Minnesota, which is no surprise considering all of the corn that’s being grown here. Corn growers are seeing dollar signs in their heads due to increasing demand for their product. Local politicians love it due to its political expediency: it’s supposedly a ‘green’ renewable fuel source and it plays very well in the rural parts of Minnesota, especially in the South. Finally, business loves it because it means growth. More flex-fuel cars can be built, more ethanol plants can be built, and the ethanol distribution system can be expanded, among other things. So, what’s not to like about it? Plenty, as it turns out…

We modern, industrial humans worship efficiency like a religion. Our population has grown to cover the earth, and pretty much all of the arable land around the world has already been put into production of one foodstuff or another. Turning a foodstuff like corn into a renewable source of motor fuel sounds great until you consider the fact that we are intensively farming most of the usable land around the world, and we’re not really keeping everyone fed right now as it is. Environmentalists decry the amount of grain spent annually to satiate the world’s demand for meat and dairy products, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much corn we’d need to produce to satisfy our need for fuel.

Consider this: if we put the entire United States grain harvest into making ethanol, we’d only produce about one sixth of the USA’s fuel demand, and we’d all be starving to boot.

Then, throw in the fact that worldwide drought conditions are slashing the world’s grain reserves. Australia, for example, is forecasting a grain harvest that’s 63% lower than average due to lack of water. The entire world only has around 57 days’ worth of grain reserves; the lowest amount in decades.

China, with its burgeoning population and steady loss of farmland, is importing more and more agricultural products every year. Between rising temperatures, dropping water tables and loss of agricultural land for one reason or another, China’s current annual grain shortfall is larger than the entire output of the nation of Canada. In 2003, its number one and number two trade partners for importing food were the USA and Australia, respectively. Considering the number of dollars China is holding in its FOREX reserves currently, I don’t think they would react well to the USA telling them that we cannot ship them food due to our increasing need to fuel our SUV’s. Like it or not, we are beholden to them for our short-term financial well-being, and if they demand the grain, I do not think we’re in much of a position to deny them.

Ignoring those issues for a second, we also need to consider the moral issues at stake when we are talking about diverting a large percentage of the world’s food supply in order to generate motor fuel.

Lester Brown of the WorldWatch Institute has stated that the amount of corn needed to generate one tank of ethanol for an 25-gallon SUV gas tank would feed one person for a whole year. Let’s use that figure to illustrate a very important point about the ethanol debate that isn’t getting much attention in the media: Just in Minnesota, let’s assume that there are around 1 million active cars, trucks, and other vehicles, with an average tank size of 25 gallons. At one fill-up per week, Minnesotans’ appetite for ethanol would mean around 52 million people would have to scramble to find something else to eat. There are around 150 million cars in the United States. If we were able to get 50% of those vehicles using ethanol that would mean almost 4 billion people would need to find other sources of food.

In a world where many people don’t have enough to eat, it is unconscionable to propose diverting large blocks of valuable farmland to produce fuel so we Americans can continue our suburban, automobile-dependent lifestyles. If we were to embrace biomass/ethanol fueling of our vehicles, we would basically be choosing to kill off some of the world’s population every year so that we can continue to live a life of ease. That is about as immoral a stand as a so-called “Christian Nation” could make.

We don’t have the land to grow enough biomass to even come close to making the US petroleum-independent. That doesn’t stop the promoters of ethanol from using every trick in the book to try and convince us to switch, though. We have been programmed well enough to understand that “freeing us from dependence on foreign oil” is really code for “we can stop dealing with Islamic extremists, despots and terrorists.” That sounds appealing to many Americans. We are being sold the dream of being able to continue our current way of life even though the statisticians on both sides of the debate know that it’s only a partial solution at best. And, it’s not even a solution to the main problem.

The real question isn’t whether ethanol can replace gasoline; it’s whether our current investment in suburban automobile culture has a future. The correct answer (to me, at least) is “no,” but that would require all of us to radically change how we live, and many of today’s “winners” would become tomorrow’s “losers” simply by virtue of where they live. Why would a politician tackle that thorny subject when it’s much easier to pimp a popular fix like ethanol? Most Americans have so much time, money and psychological happiness invested in our lifestyle that we’ll overlook small details like food shortages and misery in faraway places if it will allow us to continue driving care-free.

Big business likes it as well, for it’s definitely a ‘market solution.’ Never mind that the markets, like most of the corporations that are its major players, pay no attention to the morality of various proposals. If it makes money and keeps the current game going, it’s good, otherwise, it’s bad. Corporations are nothing more than big piles of money that their stockholders and workers pay allegiance to. To paraphrase the Bible, you cannot serve both money and the greater good.

All of the talk about ethanol is just that, talk. It may keep some people driving for longer than they otherwise would, but it will be on the backs of the poor people of the world. I personally could not fathom doing that, and therefore will never buy a ‘flex-fuel’ vehicle. Hopefully a political candidate will someday have the fortitude to tell this truth to everyone. Until then, the new aqua vitae that is ethanol continues to grow in popularity while we all try and ignore the messy details lurking in it’s shadow.

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