Pic of the day: You don't want to hurt the babies, do you? Then stay off the alcohol, you and your car both. Or that's one possible way of seeing it:
Biofuel kills babies!
Or at least ethanol made from corn does, in a roundabout way. Due to the rapidly growing demand for industrial ethanol, and subsidies to the corn-based ethanol industry, the market for corn has been swept. That is not literally true, but the effect is dramatic, because people have filled in what lacked by rushing to the shops to secure some grain before the shelves were empty. The effect, of course, was to empty the shelves that much faster, causing some degree of panic and even higher prices. In parts of Latin America, the prices are said to have doubled. That doesn't matter much for the upper class, even there. But for the poor, it is dramatic. It will probably not cause anyone to starve to death, or very few. But malnourished, undernourished children are likely to suffer from a host of other illnesses, some of them fatal. Others will survive but be permanently brain damaged. The brain is built mostly from fat and water, and it is hard to squirrel away enough fat when you are starving.
Is this any of our concern? After all, children have been dying here and there since the dawn of time. In fact, the most amazing fact about nutrition and our time is how few people are starving. Last year was supposedly the first where there were more obese than starving people in the world. Not that this is a very great comfort, since both of the conditions are unhealthy. We humans really have trouble with staying on the narrow road, don't we? In any case, you could argue that ethanol for cars is no different from our other activities that simply ignore the poor and let them starve as long as we don't have to actually watch them die. If I am so concerned about the poor, why don't I feed them with my own money instead of whining on a brand new computer about how others should change THEIR lives?
The difference, as I see it, is in the degree of activity. Sins of omission versus sins of commission. Obviously, if we were to go out in the third world and club the children's head in with a sharp-pointed club (the way we do with seal pups, it is supposedly painless because it kills the brain instantly) then it would be painfully obvious that we were killing them. On the other end of the commission / omission scale we leave a small number of stone-age tribes alone as best we can (though missionaries tend to sneak through eventually). The natural order of things in stone-age tribes is that life is nasty, brutish and short. In the name of multiculturalism, taken to its highest degree, it is often argued that people should have the right to remain ignorant about civilization because anything less would cause their culture to pop out of existence forever. Never mind that their mythology now probably includes jet planes, if not empty cola cans.
Somewhere in between these is the practice of running our cars on food. Is it right to take the bread from the children and give it to the cars? Again, this is not exactly new: Two centuries ago, the noblemen would give oats to their horses while the nearby serfs could have used some for their empty bellies. Then again, two centuries ago gentlemen would earnestly try to kill each other in a ritualized fashion to decide who would marry a woman they both desired. In other words, people were idiots then. Do we need to be that now? "Duel" is now generally only used about peaceful competition. Women (and men for that matter) are allowed to vote. Black people are no longer literally kept as slaves. (OK, that may be 300 years, but you get the point.) Shouldn't we show more compassion today when we have both the wits and the economic means to do so?
By now, the answer may seem simple. But of course it is not, or not quite that simple. For instance, the world is feeding several times as many people as it did a couple hundred years ago. It is in fact feeding more people than we thought was possible when I was a kid. Back then, in the 1960es, it was fashionable to talk about the population explosion and how the poor countries such as India would suffer widespread famine and collapse. That did not happen. Wherever there is not war or civil war or at least a government waging a silent war on its people, starvation is unknown (or at least voluntary). In particular, any capitalist society will be awash in food, because the market mechanisms will induce people to produce more food when the prices go up. Arable land is not really a limitation: There are plants that can be grown in sand or even in water, given a little synthetic fertilizer and plenty of bright light. If we were to run out of soil, we would still be able to grow food in such factories, if the price was right.
Of course, that is the rub. The price may be perfectly acceptable to us rich people, but beyond the reach of the poor. But in that case, we could argue that the problem is not expensive food, but poverty. The solution might be more economic growth in the third world (which, incidentally, is overall growing at a brisk clip indeed, far more so than the developed countries. There are exceptions though.) Fair trade, at the very least, would help some.
But on the gripping hand (a science fiction concept for the non-existent third hand) there is the question of why we would make biofuel out of corn in the first place. Growing the corn and then processing it to ethanol takes roughly as much energy as the finished product provides. Some say more, some say less, but it is definitely in the same order of magnitude. There is no convincing reason to use maize for this, except to kick into existence a biofuel market. It is thought that once this is in place, the suppliers will use human ingenuity to lower the production costs, as competition sets in. Brazil is already able to make cheaper ethanol using sugar cane. But thanks to dubious deals of subsidy by the governments, maize is still preferred in the USA. Thus comes a new meaning to an old fact: Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but even more so does alcohol. (Ethanol is in fact nothing else than hard liquor in its purest form.) Doesn't this stuff take enough lives in this world as is?
Well, now you have a bunch of viewpoints. Think it over well before you tank up your car. Or come back another day for a fluffier entry.
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.