Talkin' Biofuel Business Blues

Politico-celebrity Al Gore was here in Buenos Aires last week, cashing in on a speaking engagement at the First Interamerican Biofuels Congress in the swanky Hotel Presidente Alvear. Apparently 'biofuels' are becoming the latest trend in 'sustainable development' since the major economies of the US and Japan are starting to take a considerable interest in supplementing petroleum-based liquid fuels with alternate liquid fuels like biodiesel and ethanol. Interestingly, as the subject of biofuels comes to the forefront of public consciousness so do all of the corresponding criticisms that have been developed over the years. Indeed, it seems the critics are actually getting more coverage than the proponents. It hasn't just been icons of Capital's 'faithful opposition', like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, who have recently voiced criticisms of biofuels; multiple warnings about the economic and ecological dangers of attempting to increase production of biofuels were issued by various United Nations agencies this month. In another telling example, as Al Gore was speaking about how the issue of biofuels must be approached very carefully (so as not to inflate the price of our most basic food crops and increase starvation and poverty for the majority of Earth's inhabitants) he was simultaneously being denounced at a raucous street demonstration outside of the conference venue... denounced for even daring to come here to promote the issue at all.

That criticisms of the new technology were being included and displayed prominently among the speeches heralding the widespread adoption of this new technology is certainly brilliant political strategy for the greenwashed oligarchs (like Gore) who are pushing biofuels. It makes opponents of these globalist agribusiness schemes seem irrational and reactionary... like they're intentionally marginalizing themselves when they could choose to be included in the discussion of how corporations and states will implement this technology.

Yet the 'environmental militants' who took to the streets against Al Gore can certainly be understood in their distrust... Considering who usually benefits from international trade; and who tends to suffer. As usual, as these schemes move forward, it is all too likely that Capital will win and 'the people' will lose. Since, of course, even the gains perceived by Capital will be short-lived -- essentially a loan from the Earth, to be repaid with interest by 'the people' (as well as by all other beings). It's rightly seen by some as a final and most outrageous affront; after depleting the mineral wealth of the 'developing world' to fuel the hydrocarbon-based economies in the 'developed world' now the industrialized countries actually want to burn up the fertility of the soil itself.

The simple fact is that biofuels are not a panacea for 'peak oil'... they're not a hot-swappable solution for energy decline or greenhouse emissions or whatever... we can't just plug this technology into the existing structure of our society and expect everything to continue as usual. Certainly all the politicians aren't so naive as to not recognize that simple fact, but apparently none wants to be the one to tell you. It's a lot easier to get speaking engagements and media attention as a 'greenwashed oil oligarch' than as a 'doomsayer'. Gore earned a cool $170,000 for coming to Buenos Aires and promising the local oligarchy a future of guilt-free sustainable wealth, while I get $28 per month in the form of food stamps for saying that his future vision is a bullshit cornucopian fantasy, a marketing ploy... the kind of hype that Enron executives spewed while they were cashing out their own stock in the company. The writing is on the wall and if you can read between the lines it's clear that even the biofuels proponents realize it's impossible to ever hope of replacing petroleum-based fuels with biofuels. The most optimistic prognostications at the moment are only for being able to replace 10-40% of our current energy usage with biofuels in the next 10-20 years (and there's no reason we couldn't be at peak production by then). The energy we're getting from oil right now is more than we could ever get from biofuels (and we're consuming more each day). This isn't hard to understand if you remember that 'rock oil' (a.k.a. 'petroleum') is really a biofuel too... as is coal... as are all of the 'fossil fuels'. These are just highly concentrated forms of biofuel... they're the accumulated wealth of eons of biological processes, like photosynthesis. Millions of years worth of stored sunlight. So, once you understand that, it's easy to see that there's no-fucking-way we could ever replace millions of years worth of solar energy with whatever amount of solar energy our biofuel crops can capture next year. Even if we planted the whole earth in corn and oil palm and sugar cane and rape. Even if we terraform Mars.

We can not build a better machine than the ecosphere... we should stop taking it apart so callously to reassemble by our own flawed design. If there is a place for this technology -- and I think there is -- it's clearly not in the realm of industrial capitalism.

further reading: -- Biofuels: A Danger for Latin America -- Our Opposition to the Visit of Al Gore to Buenos Aires, Argentina (Grupo Reflexión Rural) -- Argentina confronts Latin American biofuels craze -- Biofuel Prodution to Trigger Corn Shortage in Guatemala -- Slaves to Luxury -- Biofuels Are an Environmental Dead End -- Biofuels Could Do More Harm Than Good, UN Report Warns -- UN panel: Biofuel crop expansion displaces indigenous people