Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Biofuels: Recipe for Artificially-Induced Overshoot of Earth's Carrying Capacity

There has been much discussion among peak-oilers, most notably on the various Peak Oil Yahoo groups like Energy Resources, Running on Empty 2 and Energy Roundtable, and on sites such as ASPO, Energy Bulletin, Life After the Oil Crash and Wolf At The Door about the link between Peak Oil, global agriculture and the overshoot of earth's fossil-fuel-facilitated, artificial carrying capacity as we pass peak oil and start on the downslope of terminal decline. Much of this discussion is under the controversial and uncomfortable title of Die-Off, an extreme title that causes many observers and pundits to actively avoid consideration and discussion of carrying capacity when talking about post-peak societal changes and impacts. But it is time to push the discussion of peak oil and the carrying capacity relationship to the forefront.

Of late a new wild card has been inserted into the discussion, bio-fuels. There is lately so much mania and hype about bio-fuels. Every morning my e-mail in-basket contains at least one fully-packed Google Alert on "world hunger and bio-fuels". So many governments see them as the answer to both oil depletion and global warming. Much of this seems to be a means of avoiding upsetting or confronting the wealthy and strong (their own voters) in the increasingly traditional way by pushing the problem on the poor and weak of the under-developed world. The bi-product is that far too many people in responsible positions are failing to grasp the obvious.

The glaringly obvious point is, we can't feed the world's population today even with the artificial carrying capacity afforded by fossil fuels. The more energetically we pursue bio-fuels and take food-producing land out of the world food pool and shift it over to the world energy pool the more we reduce that artificial carrying capacity. As a result, the closer we move to the world's natural carrying capacity and the fewer people we can feed. In these early months of 2008 the world loses up to 40,000 people per day to starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. It is estimated that the amount of bio-fuel required to fill the tank of one SUV is enough to feed one person for one full year. How many more lives will it cost for every 1000 bio-fuel fill-ups? For every million gallons of bio-fuel production?

Over the past several years an ever-increasing proportion of new vehicle sales has been in the light truck category which is dominated by SUVs and vans, not to mention the loathsome Hummer. I am not a fan of SUVs and vans as personal vehicles and regularly flip the bird to Hummers as they rumble past like Bradley armored personnel carriers. These vehicles are not subject to the same fuel efficiency standards imposed on regular automobiles. They also require the consumption of far greater energy in their production. They are throw-backs to the big gas-guzzling eight-cylinder monster cars (the old behemoths with the massive tail-fins) of the fifties and sixties that, in my humble opinion, appeal to those that rely on their vehicle as a status symbol and a manifestation and extension of their assumed strength and prowess.

The almost global mania for bio-fuels pushes the envelope of carrying capacity in two ways. It takes land that should be producing food and diverts it to the production of crops to produce those bio-fuels, thereby reducing the amount of food that can be produced and badly reducing the amount of organic matter being returned to increasingly deficient soil. Billions of tons of top-soil deprived of organic matter are disappearing every year. The global emergency food grain reserves have now shrunk to the lowest level since those reserves were established as a buffer against poor harvests and crop loss. They are now less than a sixty days supply, far too low to accommodate any broad crop failures or losses in the primary northern hemisphere food grain producing nations. The food inventories of the worlds Aid agencies are shrinking while contributions and government support are inadequate to keep up with rising prices in these critical food grains. This is a particularly worrisome reality as the incidence of extreme weather events increases due to global warming and climate change.

But the push for bio-fuels also increases the cost of food in general pushing additional millions of people each year out of the breadline because they simply cannot afford the increasing cost of food. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry every day because they could not afford to buy it. In other words, even the food that is being produced is not available for economic reasons, to either the poor and hungry needing the food the most or to the food aid agencies who supply emergency food support to the world's malnourished as a last resort.

The world's major developed nations, particularly those in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have announced targets of satisfying from five to as much as fifteen percent of their liquid fuel needs through bio-fuels over this next one to two decades. This could represent global bio-fuel production of up to five hundred million gallons of bio-fuels per day just to satisfy today's consumption, not to mention the 4-5% increase in demand each year. This would divert food grains and other food crops like Casava and Palm Oil to the production of bio-fuels every day sufficient to feed as many as twenty to twenty-five million people for a year. If these targets are ever met or even approached, and I do not believe it is possible, the long-held economists' dream of a world full of people living an American standard of life will be met because everyone lower on the economic food chain will have died of starvation. As George Monbiot suggests in his Guardian article, The western appetite for bio-fuels is causing starvation in the poor world, it would be better and more humane to just refine those millions of people directly into fuel for our vehicles than let them starve to death by converting their food into fuel.

The decline of the artificial global carrying on the downslope is the most important issue in the peak oil debate. It is the truth that cannot be spoken. The harder we work to avoid discussing it coupled with this manic global push for bio-fuels the faster we push ourselves into an artificially-induced overshoot and die-off. It is time to stop avoiding this discussion of the uncomfortable and throw the idiocy of bio-fuels into sharp perspective. At the heart of the issue is the question that must be asked and answered. How many lives is our happy motoring worth? That little sticker on the fuel pump at the local gas station that shows the breakdown of each dollar spent on gasoline should be upgraded to show the cost in human lives.

1 comment:

Dorothea said...

Good post.

You write "So many governments see them as the answer to both oil depletion and global warming."

No, more likely they see it, cynically, as one way of greenwashing greed, to keep drivers happy and carry on with business as usual.

They know it'll all go pear-shaped, but by that time they'll have made a tidy profit and staved off the inevitable for a while longer.